Desecrating the Sacred

words by ruth h. hokpins

photograph by Kiliii Yüyan

Irreparable damage has been done to countless Indigenous burial sites, landmarks and artworks. If we truly showed respect for the sacred, Ruth H. Hopkins writes, we would cease such acts of violence.

One sunny Saturday on Labor Day weekend in 2016, a distraught, exasperated contingent of men, women and children worked their way through a fence, determined to stop massive bulldozers from destroying ancestral burial sites. In other words, these unarmed civilians were desperate to prevent intruders from destroying their cemetery. It meant so much to them that they were ready to put their bodies in front of the machines and risk their lives to protect what they deemed sacred. Their bravery was met with savagery, as company henchmen set vicious attack dogs on them. The place was Standing Rock. What would later be called The Day of the Dogs was just one brutal chapter in our fight to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline from being driven through our homelands against our will. It would eventually come to pass, under the point of a gun.


I begin with this instance because it is perhaps a more relatable example of desecrating the sacred to the western, colonial, Christianized, non-Indigenous world than others. The settler mindset associates sacred with religion. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, sacred is defined as, “dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity,” “worthy of religious veneration,” and “of or relating to religion: not secular or profane.” Cemeteries, where the dead are buried, are on consecrated ground—like churches. They are holy places that hold the remains of our loved ones. Since ancestral burial sites are essentially cemeteries, there can be no doubt that the destruction of these places would strike a chord with anyone who has a basic understanding of what sacred means, even if they are non-Native.


Moreover, the sites that were destroyed by Dakota Access were not unmarked graves. It would later be revealed that burial sites were marked with cairns, tombstones if you will, and the pipeline corporation failed to report them to the Public Utilities Commission.

For Indigenous peoples generally, sacred extends to that which should be protected, including cultural landmarks.

Ruth H. Hopkins

To my People, the Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation), the umbrella of what we consider sacred is much broader than just this one example, however. If one contemplates that sacred also means veneration, then our protestations against the desecration of the sacred warbonnet should also make sense. In our culture, warbonnets were only to be worn by those who had earned them. They were comprised of eagle feathers, a creature of particular spiritual significance to us. Each feather within was bestowed to its wearer for great deeds he or she had accomplished as a warrior and a leader. If anything, the warbonnet is comparable to Medals of Honor awarded to soldiers for extraordinary acts of valor.


For Indigenous peoples generally, sacred extends to that which should be protected, including cultural landmarks. The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition was formed to defend a landscape of distinct importance to several Tribes. Apache Stronghold has been fighting to save Oak Flat from Rio Tinto, a foreign mining corporation seeking to plunder the ancient sacred site’s copper ore.


A few weeks ago, a panel of prehistoric artwork was defaced by vandals in Big Bend National Park. Trespassers scratched their names into rare petroglyphs believed to be created by Indigenous ancestors between 4,000 to 8,500 years ago. The damage is irreparable. This sacred ancient site was thoughtlessly defiled, and it wasn’t the first time. It’s happened more than 50 times across the park since 2015.


Many forms of life, including certain plants, are also sacred and can thus be desecrated. The Joshua Tree is a type of yucca plant and member of the Agave family. To the Cahuilla people, it was humwichawa. The Southern Paiute called it sovarampi, and the Western Shoshone termed it umpu. The Joshua Tree held spiritual significance for Native Nations for thousands of years. It is extremely rare because it grows very slowly, taking hundreds of years to reach maturity. It’s also the only Native plant still growing across thousands of miles of California desert. Even western scientists value them. Yet in 2019, during a government shutdown, the park that protects them was under siege and a number of the trees were chopped down, run over, and littered with garbage. Totally destroyed. It will take 200 to 300 years to grow new ones.

One may ask, is everything sacred? Yes and no. The problem here is there is a fundamental misinterpretation of what sacred truly means.

Ruth H. Hopkins

Human beings may also be sacred. For the Oceti Sakowin, we are taught that women and children are especially sacred in nature. They are to be respected, cared for, and safeguarded. Without them, we would no longer exist. This is why we see the epidemic of violence Native women and girls face as a form of genocide that is being perpetuated against us. We know that the conquest of their bodies is part and parcel to the conquest of the land and is just one aspect of the terror and death being inflicted upon us through the scourge of colonialism, often under the guise of extractive industry and the fetishization and exploitation of their sexuality.


One may ask, is everything sacred? Is there anything that is not sacred? Yes and no. The problem here is there is a fundamental misinterpretation of what sacred truly means. The clumsy, bulky, inferior, mishmash English language, composed of words stolen from other tongues, lacks an accurate, complete translation of the Oceti Sakowin word wakan. The only syntax the colonists had in their arsenal that came close was, “sacred.” Wakan actually has many meanings and while some of those meanings may fall under the auspices of what a colonist would define as sacred, it may also be something that is not considered godly to the westerner. To the Lakota/Dakota people, sacred doesn’t necessarily equate to purity. Rather, something may be wakan because it is deadly, strange, or supernatural. Wakan connotes awe. Reverence. That which we experience but remains mysterious and powerful, like creation itself. The dark and the light are both necessary for our existence.


Wakan derives from our spiritual belief system, one that is based upon relatedness. We are all connected. The Universe, the Sun, our Mother Earth, Takuskanskan, the very motion of all things, are wakan. But since life is derived from these entities, all life is in some respects, also wakan. We carry that essence. Nothing wakan ever really dies.


Perhaps what is missing from the interpretation of wakan most is putting respect into practice. Wa o’ hola, respect for self, the powers of the Universe, others, and all that which moves, is a core value of the Oceti Sakowin. If we truly showed respect for the sacred, we would cease in its destruction and abuse. We would seek consent, rather than taking what does not belong to us. We would value sites of prayer and antiquity and protect the innocent. We would not work to destroy that which we don’t understand. We would protect the land and water that nourishes us. Without the sacred, humanity perishes.

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