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Sacred Geography in Northwestern North America



The passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 and the impending passage of the Native American Free Exercise of Religion Act have made the American People increasingly aware of the importance of sacred geography in Native American religions.1 This paper assumes safeguarding Native American religious practice is that which makes protection of sacred sites necessary under the First Amendment of the Constitution and related laws and not necessarily their archaeological or historical nature. In my earlier paper (Walker 1991), I have employed the concept of "portals to the sacred" in an attempt to convey a sense of the ritual functions of sacred sites in Native North America. Such "portals" should not be viewed as limited in size or scale. Some may be miles in their geographical extent while others are quite limited in size or scale. Likewise, use of the portals concept must include the understanding that they are not only positioned in geography but also positioned in time, such that they become sacred "time/spaces."

Although the concept of the "sacred" is employed widely in recent discussions of geography, no satisfactory definition of this fundamental idea has been offered. Until agreement is reached on a definition of the sacred, effective enforcement of the foregoing laws will be difficult. Likewise, enforcement will also be difficult until agreement is reached on the broad range of different types of sacred geography. This paper offers a definition of the sacred and a taxonomy of sacred geography as contribution toward resolution of these problems.

Basic ethnographic research concerning Native American concepts of sacred geography is sparse. The recent collection of papers edited by Christopher Vecsey (1991), stemmed from this absence of research but must be regarded as only a beginning. Research on this topic is about Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Meso-America, e.g., Townsend (1982) and Vogt (1965, 1969), but with few exception, e.g., Harrington's 1908 The Ethnogeography of the Tewa Indians (Harrington 1908), is a subject largely undeveloped for most regions in North American North of Mexico.

In addition to being vital to ritual practice, sacred geography in Northwestern North American is a source of religious meaning group identity and group cohesion. Sacred sites in Northwestern North America are invested through ritual with complex layers of religious meaning. Tribal religions in Native America differ from most other world religions in their conceptions of sacred geography. In the following, I shall attempt to account for their distinctive features, focusing especially on the concept of the sacred and on a tentative taxonomy of types of sacred geography typically encountered in Native American religions of Northwestern North America. Field data for this study is drawn from ethnographic research among Salishan, Shaptian, Ute-Aztecan,, Western Algonkian, and Lakota groups.

II. Sacred Geography in Northwestern North America: General Features

Traditional Native American spiritual leaders generally assert that the timing and geographical location of rituals are vital to their efficacy. They affirm that unless such rituals are performed at proper times and in proper locations, they will have little or no efficacy. It is the rule rather than the exception that Native American ritual life is inextricably linked with access to and ritual use of sacred geography. Although there are significant differences among Native American religions, they are generally similar in some respects. For example, they tend to have the following characteristics in common:

1. A body of mythic accounts explaining cultural origins and cultural history. These describe a prehuman or precultural time dominated by animals, heroes, tricksters, and other mythical figures.

2. A special sense of the sacred that is centered in natural time and natural geography.

3. A set of critical and calendrical rituals that have social form and expression to religious belief and permit the groups and their members to experience the events of their mythology in various ritual settings.

4. A group of individuals normally described as shamans or priests who teach and lead the group in the conduct of their ritual life.

5. A set of ethical guidelines establishing appropriate behavior associated with ritual and extensions or ritual into ordinary life.

6. Reliance on dreams and visions as the primary means of communicating directly with spirits and the sacred. These and oral tradition are the primary sources of sacred knowledge.

7. For individuals, the major goal of ritual is gaining the spiritual power and understanding necessary for a successful life by engaging the sacred at certain special times and in certain special places.

8. For groups, a belief that harmony must be maintained with the sacred through satisfactory performance of rituals and adherence to sacred prescription and proscriptions.

9. For groups, a belief that while all aspects of nature and culture are potentially sacred, there are specific times and places that possess great sacredness which I term "portals to the sacred" in this paper and elsewhere.

10. In their religious life, Northwestern American groups are not very hierarchically organized; nor do they favor the tightly constructed hierarchical mythologies or philosophies developed by priestly elites of with the Old or New World agricultural societies; calendrical reckoning of ritual life is somewhat less important among hunting groups of North America.

11. The sacred sites of Northwestern North America are more numerous, more diverse, and less geometrically patterned than is seen among religion of Meso-America and the Old World.

12. Mountains and other points of geographical sacredness are not so often at the center of religious life in Northwestern North Americas in the Old World or in Meso-America. Nor are mountains identified as frequently with the state, with society, or with the group as in Meso-America and the Old World.

13. Generally, hunting groups in Northwestern North America seek the intrinsic or embedded sacredness of nature and do not often force their notions of sacredness onto the land in the manner of the pyramid builders and earth sculptors we see in both the Old World and Meso-America.

14. Ritualists in Northwestern North America are generally shamanic, unlike the priestly figures encountered in the more complex religious systems of Meso-America and the Old World.

15. Sacred sites are numerous and include the following types (see Walker 1991):

a) Shrines, vision quest sites, altars, and sweat bath sites that serve as ritual settings.

b) Monumental geographical features that have mythic significance in a group's origins or history. Included are mountains, waterfalls, and unusual geographical formations such as Pilot Knob, Kootenai Falls, Celilo Falls, and Mount Adams.

c) Rock art sites such as pictograph and petroglyph panels.

d) Burial sites and cemeteries.

e) Areas where plants, stones, earth, animals, and other sacred objects are gathered for ritual purposes or where sacred vegetation such as medicine trees serve as objects or center of ritual.

f) Sites of major historical events such as battlefields where group members died.

g) Sites where groups are thought to have originated, emerged, or been created.

h) Pilgrimage or mythic pathways where groups or individuals retrace the journeys and reenact events described in myths and in the lives of mythic and other figures.

i) Lakes, rivers, springs, and water associated with life and the vital forces that sustain it.

j) Areas or sites associated with prophets and teachers such as Smohalla, Handsome Lake, Sweet Medicine, and others.

Ethnographic investigation of several hundred sacred sites suggest strongly that they are an essential feature of Native American ritual practice. With access to them, practice would be infringed or prevented altogether in certain cases. Like wise all known groups possess a body of beliefs concerning appropriate times and rituals that must be performed at such sites. The more important a sacred site is in the ritual like of a group, the more numerous symbolic representations it will have in hart, music, and myth. It has also become clear in this review that sacred sites also have very diverse functions in that they serve to objectify key cultural symbols, illustrate dominant religious metaphors, and sustain patterns of social, economic, and political organization. Sacred sites can also serve as indicators of cultural unity as seen among the various medicine wheels described by the Arapaho and their neighbors of the neighboring Northern and Central High Plains. In general sacred sites lend concreteness to the less visible systems of linkages within and among different cultural groups. Sacred symbol systems, when superimposed on geography, give to geography a significance and intelligibility similar to relatives such as father, mother, or simply kinsmen. Through ritual, sacred sites function to create a conceptual and emotional parallelism between the objective order of the universe, the realm of the spirits, and the intellectual constructs of Native American cultures. They are portals between the world of humans and the world of spirits through which sacred power can be attained and spirits contacted. Such sites give order to both geographic and social space, and by thus ordering natural space and time they give order to all that exists (Walker 1991).

This review of sacred sites suggests that the conjunction of geographical, social, seasonal, and other transitions enhance opportunities to access the sacred. In observing these conjunctions of multiple transitions, I have been struck by the parallelism of these ideas with those of Arnold Van Gennep concerning rites of passage (1960) and others who have demonstrated that the rites of passage in the human life cycle are ritually celebrated as times of great sacredness in the life of the individual. From this perspective, the sacred may be more easily experienced as individuals go through life cycle transitions, especially when such transitions are conjoined with other transitions such as "first game" or "first fruits" rituals that may coincide with additional transitions such as equinoxes and solstices. Similar transitions in the lunar cycle in which the first quarter, second quarter, third quarter, and full moon are seen as paralleling the human life cycle in birth, adolescence, marriage, and death are further transitions in nature that my coincide with transition in the lives of individuals and communities. It is a conclusion of this study that Northwestern North American the conjunction of multiple transition provides heightened opportunities for accessing the sacred, especially at points of geographical and environmental transition such as mountain tops, waterfalls, cliffs, and other breaks in the landscape.

III. Definitions of the Sacred

Without an alternative definition and understanding of the sacred, we might be forced to rely on such conventional definitions in our study of Native American sacred geography as that advanced by Durkheim. In his Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Durkheim defines the sacred as follows: "A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden-beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them" (Durkheim 1947:47) Fundamental to this definition is the distinction Durkheim draws between the sacred and the profane:

"The opposition of these two classes {the sacred and the profane} manifests itself outwardly with a visible sign by which we can easily recognize this very special classification, wherever it exists. Since the idea of the sacred is always and everywhere separated from the idea of the profane in the thought of men, and since we picture a sort of logical chasm between the two, the mind irresistibly refuses to allow the two corresponding things to be a promiscuity, or even to direct a contiguity, would contradict too violently the dissociation of these ideas in the mind. The sacred thing is par excellence that which the profane should not tough, and cannot touch with impunity. To be sure, this interdiction cannot go so far as to make all communication between the two worlds impossible; for if the profane could in no way enter into relations with the sacred, this latter could be good for nothing. But, in addition to the fact that this establishment of relations is always a delicate operation in itself, demanding great precautions and a more or less complicated initiation, it is quite impossible, unless the profane is to lose its specific characteristics and become sacred after a fashion and to a certain degree itself. The two classes cannot even approach each other and keep their own nature at the same time". (Durkheim 1947:40)

This classic distinction does not fit Native American conceptions of the sacred in Northwestern North American, because the sacred is not viewed as a domain set aside, distinct, and forbidden as Durkheim suggests. Instead, the sacred is an embedded, intrinsic attribute lying behind the external, empirical aspect of all things, but not a domain set aside or forbidden. The situation is both more complex and more subtle. Fox example, among the Lakota this embedded, intrinsic attribute is wakan: among the Algonkians it is manitou; among Ute-Aztecans it is puha; among the Sahptians it is weyekin; and among the Salishans sumesh. In this large region, accessing the sacred is a primary goal of ritual and entails actually entering into sacredness rather than merely propitiating it. Whereas certain cultures tend to create their own sacred space and sacred time somewhat arbitrarily by special rituals of sacralization, Native Americans of Northwestern North America more often attempt through ritual, visions, and dreams to discover embedded sacredness in nature and to locate geographical points that permit direct access to it in order to experience it on a personal level. Unlike Durkheim, Eliade's view of hierophanies is somewhat more compatible with Native American views of sacred geography. Citing Eliade, Carrasco says,

"In Elaide's view, all religion are based on hierophanies or dramatic encounters which human beings have with what they consider to be supernatural forces manifesting themselves in natural objects. These supernatural forces manifesting themselves in natural objects. These manifestations transform those objects into power spots, power objects, wonderful trees, terrifying bends in the river, sacred animals. The stones, tree, animals, or humans through which a hierophany takes place are considered valuable, full of mana, things to be respected and revered. Human beings who feel these transformation in their landscape believe that a power from another plane of reality has interrupted in their lives. Usually, they respond with a combinations of great attractions and great fear. Their lives are deeply changed as a result of this encounter with numinous places ( Carrasco 1979:203).

IV. Conclusion

From this view, therefore, sacred sites and sacred geography among cultures of Northwestern North American functions as fundamental ingredients of ritual. Points of geographical transition are joined with multiple transition in the seasons, the sun, the moon, the life cycle of the individual, and the rhythm of community life to form conjunctions of multiple transitions that become especially powerful access points to the sacred or hierophanies. This view of sacredness and sacred geography stresses the embeddedness of the sacred in all phenomena, distinguishes between the general sacredness of all things and the specific sacredness of access points or portals to the sacred, notes the importance of conjunctions of multiple transition in the individual life cycle, in nature, in community, and in tribal life, and how such multiple transitions help establish the times of greatest sacredness and ritual efficancy of sacred sites. It rejects the Durkheimian view that the sacred is a domain set aside or forbidden,, and adopts the view of Eliade (1964, 1968, 1972) that the sacred can be accessed and experienced directly through ritual practice at appropriate times and geographical locations. It is clear that Eliade's paradigm is the one to be employed in future research on this topic and that a proper understanding of this topic must be from the point of view of religious practice. Likewise, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the Native American Freedom of Religion Act, and related legislation are designed to protect First Amendment guarantees of practice rather than associated archaeological or ethnographic values.


Carrasco, David

1979 "A Perspective for a Study of Religious Dimension in Chicano Experience: Bless Me, Ultima as a Religious Text." Paper presented to the Chicano Studies Colloquium at the University of California, Santa Barbara, April 12, 1979

Durkheim, Emile

1947 The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Glencoe, Ill., The Free Press.

Eliade, Mircea

1964 Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. New York, Bollingen Foundation.

1969 The Quest. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

1972 Patterns in Comparative Religion. New York, Meridian Books.

Harrington, John Peabody

1908 "The Ethnogeography of the Tewa Indian>" Twenty-ninth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1907-1908. Washington, DC., US. Government Printing Office.

Townsend, Richard F.

1982 "Pyramid and Sacred Mountain." in Ethnoastronomy and Archaeoastronomy in the American Tropics, edited by Anthony F. Aveni and Gary Urton. New York, New York, Academy of Sciences.

VanGennep, Arnold,

1960 The Rites of Passage, London, Routledge and Kega Paul.

Vogt, Evon Z.

1965 "Structural and Conceptual Replication in Zinacantan Culture," American Anthropologist, LXVII:342-353.

1969 Zinacantan: A Maya Community in the Highlands of Chiapas. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press

Walker, Deward E., Jr.

1991 "Protection of American Indian Sacred Geography." In Handbook of American Indian Religious Freedom. Edited by Christopher Vecsey. New York, The Crossroads Publishing Co.

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