Charles Trimble: Preserving tribal heritage for future generations
However the Wounded Knee Survivors Association and others put a stop to the legislation. Their reason, I am told, was that they did not want anyone exploiting their honored dead by making money from the sacred site.
Whenever I return to the reservation I usually visit the Wounded Knee massacre site. On my last visit a few years back I was disturbed at the condition of the area, including the cemetery and the mass grave containing the remains of those massacred by the 7th Cavalry on December 29th, 1890. The outer fence of the cemetery was torn away in places, leaving it open to livestock, and the roads to the cemetery were deeply rutted and impassable when it would rain or snow. In the ravine where many of the men, women and children sought refuge from Hotchkiss cannon fire, and where the most wanton slaughter took place, bed springs, old tires and other debris were strewn.
My thoughts were probably typical of many visitors’ impression: “If this site is so sacred to the people, why do they allow it to be trashed so sacrilegiously?”
As we see all across the country, anything that is declared sacred will stifle development, even though the development might help some of the tribe’s own people out of wretched poverty. In such instances, there is usually no room for discourse or negotiation as to how development might take place without offending the spirits of the dead or, more importantly, their advocates among the living. The conclusion is invariably “No; it is sacred: period.”
I'm sure many things are genuinely sacred. But I get the impression people declare things sacred whether they are or not. Non-Natives are doing it with Ground Zero, which is too sacred to have an interfaith center two blocks away, and Gettysburg, which is too sacred to have a casino half a mile away. It wouldn't surprise me if Natives did it too.
Here's a key test: How often does someone in a dispute say, "Well, this thing is important to me. I really want to preserve it. But no, it isn't sacred"? That we never hear about near misses on the sacred scale is a clear sign. It tells me things are getting promoted to the sacred level whenever sacredness is needed.
Of course, Trimble offers a more obvious test. If something is sacred, treat it that way. Don't throw trash onto a "sacred" site if you expect people to believe it's sacred. Similarly, don't allow tawdry businesses to operate near Ground Zero if you expect people to believe it's sacred.
"Sacred" changes with times
Trimble goes on to make another good point:
Even if the Europeans had never come across the Atlantic to our shores or Asians from the Pacific, we would not be the same today as our tribes were back in pre-Columbian times. We would be different because we are intelligent and we adopt new ways and technologies to meet our changing needs. When Columbus stumbled onto the continent, advances in science, architecture, agriculture, astronomy, and metallurgy were far along among the native peoples of South and Central America, as well as in the American Southwest. And this science and technology would have worked their way up the trade routes to the Plains and farther north.
And even without the relentless pressure of Christianity, our tribes would have abandoned certain traditional beliefs and rituals that were no longer relevant or credible. Our Supreme Being, Wakan Tanka, was not held out as an arbitrary or unbending master. There was no dogma, and no single religious authority, no papal holy man or Ayatollah. We were a spiritual people, not a religious society.
Accordingly, as intelligent people, we should be able to discuss what a merciful Great Spirit would condone for the good of the people. There must be a way to reconcile the human needs of our people with the spiritual beliefs of some. And if it was shown that it could be done with due respect to the spirits of those Dakotas martyred there in 1890, the Wounded Knee Survivors Association should have been willing to remove their objection to plans for a Wounded Knee Tribal Memorial Park. But no civil discourse or debate took place.
Every society has outdated religious dogma, scientific theories, and cultural beliefs. Nobody should worship the past as if it's engraved in stone. The operating principle should be: Keep what works and discard the rest. I suspect even God would approve of that.
For more on Wounded Knee, see Iron Pony Inter-Tribal Honor Run and Lakota Oppose Copters at Wounded Knee.