Vine Deloria, Jr.

historic map by Albert Gallatin, of the western north america in 1836 with indian tribes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Selection of Sacred Sites

Many state and Federal agencies are bound by government-to-government agreements with Indian tribes to respect the confidentiality of sacred site information about public lands in their care. The spiritual hunger of the “New Age” religious groups and the natural curiosity of informed people may at some point in the future require that lists of sacred sites be surrendered under the Freedom of Information Act. Sacred site information should be restricted to Native people, and to guard Native American sacred sites against curious outsiders, tribes and state/Federal governments should develop Memoranda of Agreement or Memoranda of Understanding which specify the restriction of such information.

In doing this survey the obvious sacred sites which have come under popular scrutiny or which are so well-known that information is easily obtained are not listed. Also deleted are locations which are not well known, whose chief characteristic is that they do not now and cannot in the foreseeable future become involved in a conflict between traditional practitioners and military installations because there is no adjacent military activity that might conflict with the practice of traditional ceremonies. The sole exception to this rule is the listing of sacred mountains which would fall within the path of military fly-overs by the Air Force and Navy training programs.

Burials and Ruins


State archaeological agencies and historic preservation efforts have produced massive inventories of locations which primarily involve burials and sites of former human habitation. Since state agencies are already working with Indian tribes to compile inventories and since much of this information is already under a seal of confidentiality, military installation commanders can call upon state agencies for extensive background information on sites and be directed to the proper tribal authorities. In the very near future almost all known locations in the western United States will be listed in one of these state inventories. However, most lands in the west, including most of the lands held by the military, have not be surveyed at all and few surveys have involved Native peoples (see Chapter Six). Future discoveries of human burials, sites of former human habitation, and other sacred sites will certainly call forth the cooperative efforts of Indian tribes, state agencies, and military authorities. Later chapters in this report suggest ways of formulating working agreements with tribal governments and traditional religious leaders when these events occur.

Mourning and Condolence Ceremonies

Mourning and condolence rituals are typically a continuing part of traditional religions and today with the admixture of tribal and Christian practices. These activities vary radically across Indian cultures. Mourning and condolence activities may well take place at both isolated locations and military post cemeteries. Since the ritual has a memorial aspect as well as being a means of keeping the deceased within the extended family circle, the occasions when these rituals are held will generally coincide with national days of memorial held by the non-Indian population. An exception to this rule might be conducting ceremonies at the site of battlefields of the last century. Again, these rituals would probably be part of the ongoing military activities of the base or installation. The working relationship a Fort Hood, Texas, described elsewhere in this report, is an example of the positive development of Indian-military cooperative efforts in this respect.


No sacred site stands alone. It is always within a set of religious relationships best described as “linkage” in which traditions about a particular location do not make sense unless information about the other locations and their part in a larger religious or historical sequence is known. A good example of linkage is the existence of “boundary” mountains which mark out sacred areas of tribes. Within the area described vaguely by a number of mountains and rivers, the lands may be described as “sacred” in the sense that ceremonies are held there. The mountains themselves may not be used for ritual or ceremonial purposes. Part of the ceremony, however, would be simply to have the mountains in view, their permanence in effect guaranteeing the integrity of the ceremony.

Linkage can also be seen in tracing the paths of activity of culture heros, ancient migrations, or the progress of the Creator as the world in which we live was made. Pilgrimages are sometimes required of the people in which they re-enact the events of ancient times. A pilgrimage may move from one sacred location to another, the path which is used then becoming part of the sacredness of the two locations for the duration of the pilgrimage. For DoD purposes of understanding, two or more sacred sites may exist outside of a military installation and only the path of pilgrimage may cross military lands or activity areas. Yet the path becomes, for the purpose of fulfilling the ceremony, a part of the sacred nature of both the sacred site and the sacred activities which celebrate it. At the present this possibility exists primarily in two sites: Arizona and California. Consultation with the Pueblos of the Rio Grande may result in identifying more of these linkage situations.

The occupation of the North American continent for tens, and perhaps hundreds of thousands of years, has created a unique and complex religious landscape. Sacred sites are not unusual in the world religious traditions. Even before Mount Sinai’s revelations Abraham coming into the Holy Land discovers that Jerusalem had been a sacred location since before the memory of the most ancient of peoples. The difference between the western hemisphere and the rest of the world is that for the most part sacred sites on other continents have been set aside by organized societies and covered with temples and shrines, opening them to a larger audience of devotees but also closing them off as locations for future religious experiences of a revelatory nature. Written scriptures and religious canons seem able to preserve sacred sites but at the cost of reducing them to sites of historical religious significance.

Unless we deal with a modern consensus of Indian opinion in regard to certain locations, such as Bear Butte and the Powell, Wyoming medicine wheel, which many tribes agree is sacred our information about sacred sites must remain as a list of locations important to specific tribes and dependent upon their apprehension of the sacred nature of the location. For much of the continental United States, particularly the lands east of the Mississippi, much knowledge about sacred locations has been irretrievably lost except for such groups as Iroquois, Muskogee and Eastern Cherokee. History plays a part here since the tribes who inhabited this region experienced several centuries of contact with Europeans prior to their decline. Some tribal groups simply vanished or were absorbed into larger Indian nations within historic times, some as late as the 1790s. Most of the larger Indian nations were removed, either as a whole or as smaller groups in a series of forced negotiations, from the eastern United States to Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri with a good many eventually being removed to Oklahoma. These centuries of contact substantially eroded traditional use of the land as the Indian nations were forced into a highly competitive fur trade and became entangled in colonial wars as allies of the respective European governments.

With the introduction of European manufactured goods and the inter-marriage with fur traders and early settlers, and most particularly with the overtures of missionaries, Native American tribes were often split between those people who adhered to traditional ways and those who adopted the new economics, social organization, and religious views of the Europeans. This kind of change must be emphasized as an important factor because it stands in direct contrast with the experiences of Indians who have always lived west of the Mississippi. An Indian born west of the Mississippi at the beginning of the 1800s might not have even seen a European or Euroamerican until his or her adulthood and might still have lived to see automobiles. Thus the experiences of western tribes were those of complete loss of a way of life coupled with the necessity of adjusting to an industrial society which they had few ways of understanding.

In conducting a national survey of sacred sites, we encounter a tremendous bifurcation of data. Some locations in the east can be identified only by a lucky encounter in a pioneer journal, whereas some locations in the west have been known intimately by several generations of Indians, all of whom were and are capable of recounting different versions of the story identifying the location. Due to the immense turmoil and disorientation experienced by many Native Americans tribes as waves of Euroamerican settlements engulfed them, some sacred sites became shared by more than one group of Native Americans. Creation and migration traditions that once appeared to be isolated are now recognized as having overlapping boundaries. This is so because Native American tribes were forced to identify sites across large expanses of land and now seek to protect them from intrusion and confiscation.

The western United States, consequently, is a very complex landscape that must be approached with care. Several types of sacred sites can be established and these types can be supplemented with different kinds of subgroupings with the hope that many of the suggested activities of traditional Native American practitioners will be encompassed within a framework of understanding. Of importance in understanding the distinctiveness of the western Indian tribes is the rather loose confederations which seem to have constituted the respective Indian nations of that region.

The eastern Indian nations had created reasonably formal, permanent, institutionalized regional alliances for matters of war and foreign policy. Most prominent among these are the Muskogee Confederacy, the three divisions of the Cherokees, the Six Nations Confederacy (Iroquois), the Powhatan Confederacy, and the Three Fires of the Ottawa, Potawatomi and Chippewa.

In contrast to the eastern Indian nations, the development of a complex political organization of the western Indian nations was not yet fully developed when they came into contact with Europeans. We know that the Comanches had occasional gatherings of their bands to deal with Spanish and later Mexican diplomatic overtures. The Sioux began to gather together in the 1840’s north of Bear Butte to appoint four “Shirt Wearers” who would be primary leaders of the western Teton branch of the tribe. There is no evidence of similar national kinds of gatherings for the Shoshones, Apaches, and Paiutes. The Pueblo Revolt showed that these Indian settlements could act in concert but no profound sense of a national government emerged from this experience.

Scholars arrange maps of the western United States according to language groups or subsistence patterns, according to whether Native Americans were farmers, buffalo hunters, or fishermen. The Indian Claims Commission has drawn its map of this region according to territories claimed or allegedly claimed by attorneys for the respective Native American tribes during the life of that tribunal. The requirement under the law authorizing the Indian Claims Commission implied that tribes would not be granted a basis for recovery unless their attorneys alleged that they had complete control and exclusive use of the area. Depending on the sophistication of the attorneys and scholars who handled the case, and their aggressiveness in pursuing their clients’ interests, occupancy areas in the Indians Claims Commission can vary considerably from the actual facts of the situation.

The actual realities of the nineteenth century in the trans-Mississippi west suggest that while certain Indian nations controlled large areas of land, each individual hunting band was relatively autonomous politically. While sharing certain overall religious traditions, the specific ceremonial life of the respective bands or subdivisions of the larger tribes varied considerably in the manner in which each practiced rituals or understood sacred places. The Apaches, for example, roamed freely in western Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and southern Colorado. A location sacred to the Lipans of Texas would not necessarily be known or revered by the Apache groups living in Arizona on the Gila River. Many of the specific rituals varied also; the famous Crown Dancers of the White Mountain Apaches were not found in some of the other Apache groups or traditions. The Shoshones ranged from eastern Oregon and desert California to areas east of the Wind River mountains in Wyoming and into southern Montana, encompassing an incredible area of land in which sacred sites most probably were band-specific. Shoshone sacred places in Oregon could not have been known by Wyoming people and rituals they relied upon were unknown in Eastern Oregon. In California and the Pacific Northwest sacred sites were often specific to one valley or coastal plain and one or two related villages in that particular area.

Professor Deward Walker (1991) has, among others, drawn up a useful list of major characteristics of Native American sacred sites that enables one to grasp the cultural and historical context in which Indian people themselves view these locations. The following hold true for many Native American traditions:

1. a body of mythic accounts explain cultural origins; these are often linked to particular places and features in natural landscapes;
2. calendrical rituals give social form and express religious beliefs that permit members to experience the events of their mythology in various ritual and geographic settings;
3. a reliance of dreams and visions as access to spiritual power and as the primary source of sacred knowledge, with dreaming often tied to particular sites;
4. belief that while all aspects of nature and culture are potentially sacred, there are specific times and places that possess special sacredness; such “portals” may include rock markings.

These characteristics hold for the vast majority of Native American tribes with whom the DoD would have a relationship. A major theme of traditional people is that nothing stands alone and this idea can be used to make the characteristics outlined more applicable to the immediate situation. American Indians are much more interested in the total geographical context of the lands on which they live than upon identifying a “center” for religious purposes. The Sioux, for example, designate Pike’s Peak as the center of the world, Harney Peak at the center of their country (at least in recent times when the Teton has become the most numerous branch), but they hold their ceremonies today at Bear Butte and other locations in the Black Hills and Nebraska Sand Hills. In former years the ceremonial centers were farther east in the Dakotas and long ago lakes in the Minnesota and Wisconsin region were the major ceremonial locations. It is said that as the people change, so does their sacred geography. Even the sacred sites need respite from human intrusions and often the site will avoid human contact until it is necessary that it become active again.

The following kinds of sacred sites are suggested by the research materials. The following categories have been devised to present the material in an orderly manner and the probable parameters of each kind of site is discussed below. The final body of specific information which is necessary to provide confirmation of the religious status of or not of significance of the location should be reserved for actual field investigation or the initiation of a working relationship with a DoD militarily installation. The following kinds of sacred sites are:
A Creation Story Locations and Boundaries
B Sacred Portals Recounting Star Migrations
C Universal Center Locations
D Historical Migration Destiny Locations
E Places of Prehistoric Revelations
F Traditional Vision Quest Sites
G Plant-Animal Relationship Locations
H Mourning and Condolence Sites
I Historical Past Occupancy Sites
J Spirit Sites
K Recent Historical Event Locations
L Plant, Animal and Mineral Gathering Sites
M Sanctified Ground

Each of these kinds of sacred sites is a distinct category and is discussed below to provide an understanding of the complexity of the American Indian religious experiences and traditions even though some of these kinds of locations are no longer important for many tribes and the intensity of the religious experience may vary substantially at different locations.

The various kinds of sacred sites may appear to suggest an intense ceremonial life and in pre-contact North America there was undoubtedly considerably more attention paid to the maintenance of relationships with spirits through ceremonial activity. Today we can anticipate the variety of religious activities but we need not worry about the frequency of any particular activity except the Vision Quest and the Gathering sites. Even considering the small number of traditional people today in each tribe, the expanding interest in restoring rituals may necessitate the use of sites on military lands. The listing of kinds of sacred sites is, therefore, essential knowledge since it illustrates eloquently the fact that no central ceremony has precedence over the other forms of religious activity. Within the spectrum of religious rituals, every possible expression of devotion should be included.

We will review the variety of sacred sites that can be seen as representing specific kinds of religious belief and activity in the western states, omitting some locations that have never to the best of our knowledge been associated with military lands.

TYPE A: Creation Story Locations and Boundaries

Some tribes have a memory of the creation itself (Clark 1966).1 These traditions suggest a time when people and animals could communicate complex thoughts clearly between themselves, adopt the body form of the other, hence encouraging blood ties through marriage, and speak a common language. Tribes often identify a specific location where the people became conscious of having been created and this site is related to a number of other landmarks in the region which mark the locations where creative acts which form our world today were performed. For many tribes the proper explanation should be that of a sacred complex of interlocking sites rather than a simple location.

Usually a particular area of land is given to a tribe by a higher spiritual power. This gift brings with it a set of specific responsibilities and ceremonies which enable these duties to be performed. Beyond the boundaries of the creation locale the land is generally regarded as having secular significance. For example, the Navajos have four sacred mountains which mark their boundaries. Beyond the area enclosed within these four mountains there may be an occasional sacred site or shrine of historical significance. The Tohono O’odham of Arizona have sacred sites distributed between desert and mountains because they had two villages – summer and winter – to accommodate themselves to the climate.2 The mountainous area just north of Albuquerque represents another aspect of this problem. Here we have overlapping creation areas which represent the various Pueblos. Overlapping significance means sometimes directly conflicting traditions and only consultation with the Pueblos involved can possibly make sense of the situation. Overflights by the Air Force and Air Force National Guard cannot help but intrude when an area is so large.

TYPE B: Sacred Portals Recounting Star Migrations

Several tribes have traditions which recount their passage from another star system to this one and their emergence on our planet at a particular location. These sites may be understood as “Portals”3 where it is possible to pass from one universe to another. With the advent of chaos theory and the elaboration of knowledge of the potential of black holes in the space-time fabric of the universe, these traditions now take on added significance. The Sioux suggest that there are several portals in the Black Hills area and some of the emergence traditions of the Navajo and Mandan suggest that we may be dealing with similar experiences. In general these locations are held in utmost secrecy and outsiders will only find out about the location if there is the threat of physical destruction of the site. Ceremonies are performed at these locations on rare occasions and then under the most secure conditions. Obviously we have not become privy to information regarding the locations of these sites but have received more general information to the effect that they are a distinguishable type of sacred site.

TYPE C: Universal Center Locations

For purposes of orientation, among Native American tribal people there is a tendency to identify one location as the center of the world with related identifications of other sites as the center of a specific tribal world. The world center site is revered because it provides a constant against which people can measure their relationship with the landscape. The location is most generally not a place where ceremonies must be conducted, although that possibility cannot be ruled out. More often the identity of the site is used as a teaching device. Pike’s Peak, for example, is regarded by the Sioux as the center of the world while Harney Peak in the Black Hills also is seen as the center of the Sioux world.4 The tribes who do not presently live in and on lands they occupied when first encountered by the Europeans, have universal centers also. It should be obvious that in a limited curved universe, any location can be the center. New locations can have equal standing to former locations. Frequently the fulfilling of ancient prophecies means that centers must be transferred as events have unfolded. Changing of centers is, therefore, comparable to migration locations where the passage of time moves the understanding of the people to a new level and more or less negates the central emotional importance of particular locations. Some scholars have been upset that traditional people of the Five Civilized Tribes have “moved” their sacred centers to locations in Oklahoma after having been removed there. If we understand this transfer as indicating that a portion of the prophecy has been fulfilled and the center must be relocated, the identification of hills and mountains in eastern Oklahoma makes sense.

TYPE D: Historical Migration Destiny Locations

The religious duty placed on some Native American groups as their means of accommodating themselves to this continent often involved spirit-guided migrations around the continent, usually as a test of faith and commitment. Faithful completion of the migration meant the eventual location of the tribe in a specific area. Sources as diverse as the Book of the Hopi (Waters 1963), Whitely (1988), and James (1974) describe the Hopi migrations and identify a number of sites as evidence of the migrations. Mesa Verde and the Great Serpent Mound in Ohio are the locations most familiar to non-Indians. Recent revival of traditional ways has brought out very ancient information on these prehistorical destiny migrations. Thus the Cheyenne speak more freely about their life in the far north around Hudson’s Bay, the Sioux and Arapaho talk about when they were one people and were living in the Gulf of Mexico (Stands in Timber and Liberty 1967, Neihardt 1991).5 There is also discussion of the Sioux living on the shores of the “western sea” although it is not clear whether this location is the Pacific Ocean or the Pleistocene lakes of the Great Basin.

The only land and resource management problems which might be anticipated with respect to these very old sacred sites would be if it were revealed in a ceremony that a certain location was the precise site where a tribe received a particularly sacred object, such as the Cheyenne Sacred Arrows or the Sioux Sacred Pipe. Some tribes have medicine bundles which are associated with the creation story. We cannot anticipate some of these events. The recent birth of a white buffalo calf in Wisconsin is an example of the unanticipated event in tribal religious traditions. Thousands of Indians have now visited this white buffalo but now most people are returning to their reservations and seeking guidance in ceremonies, defusing the situation. These matters must be handled with respect considering all of the circumstances.

Some prominent locations appear to mark out the historical journey as well as providing a checkpoint where Native people can return to renew the original revelation and sacred instructions. Today these locations would be rarely used for ceremonial purposes but would probably be familiar locations to a significant number of people in the tribe. Mount Graham in southern Arizona has an aspect of this characteristic. It has ancient stories attached to it and it is also a location where some particular ceremonies can be held. Desecration of the mountain by construction erodes the orientation of the traditional Apaches in the same manner that the disappearance of a major city would disorient the people who live in its suburbs. These locations must be distinguished from more recent sites where historical migrations took place.

TYPE E: Places of Prehistoric Revelations

The majority of Native American tribes have traditions which suggest that a basic outline of their nation’s destiny was foretold in very ancient times. As centuries passed a number of the prophecies were fulfilled and there are remaining incidents or events in the story line which must be treated with reverence. These story lines link together locations which are geographically distant from each other but indispensably connected. Bear Butte in the Black Hills is such a place to the Cheyennes and the Medicine Wheel in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming may well be another such location for several tribes. Some central peaks in Nevada and several of the volcanos in the Cascade Mountains may also have this characteristic. Mount Shasta in California certainly has this feature for some of the northern California tribes. The Six Nations people in New York State have kept the knowledge of these sites reasonably well intact although they do not talk with outsiders about them.

TYPE F: Traditional Vision Quest Sites

Intimately tied with the idea of Native American personal identity is the ritual popularly described as the “Vision Quest” in which a young person would fast and pray at a remote location to obtain a vision that would forecast in many respects the future course of their life. In the Pacific Northwest this ritual was often associated with canoe ownership and longhouse leadership. Expertise in fishing and hunting was often bestowed in visions. In the Great Plains the Vision Quest candidate would receive special powers and gain friendly birds and animals that would help him or her later in life. In the Great Lakes area, Vision Quests would prepare young people to enter adult tribal life by providing information on their real names and future careers. These Vision Quest sites are generally kept quite secret because of their continuing use. Unless and until a young person receives a Vision, they cannot have an adult career of any significance. Many Vision Quest sites are deliberately misidentified in order to keep people away from the actual sites. Whatever powers are bestowed on the successful seeker are generally exercised away from the sacred site. Identification of these locations to prevent conflicts on military lands will have to be done through mutual agreements with the traditional people of the tribe since, as a rule, these sites are not made known to outsiders.

Vision quest sites are generally family-specific. That is to say, a young person will try to perform this ritual at the location where some member of their family once fasted. At other times, the spiritual leaders of the tribe will designate a general region within which the young people, and indeed they themselves on occasion, will do their Vision Quest. Isolation is the primary requirement for this ceremony and yet it often takes a group of supportive people nearby to perform the ceremony adequately. Where military installations have extremely rugged landscapes and a large Indian reservation is in the vicinity, agreements should be worked out to ensure the success of this traditional ritual. The most likely problem areas in this respect would be in eastern Washington and Oregon and in the Las Vegas, Nevada area.

TYPE G: Plant-Animal Relationship Locations

Religious traditions of many Indian tribes identify locations which are reserved for birds, animals, and plants. Humans can use these locations only at designated times. These traditions are to ensure that other species have the right to enjoy a full life cycle prior to being used by humans for particular purposes. Consequently, while a sacred site may not be sacred to a tribe for its own purposes, for the purpose of relating to the rest of the universe, humans become caretakers of particular locations. Spirit Mound near Vermillion, South Dakota was once set aside for birds, and the Black Hills at different times during the year must remain inviolate so the animals can hold their meetings.6 Some desert locations are forbidden to humans by the Tohono O’odham until a particular time so that plants can mature and animals can feed off them.

Demonstrating respect for the other forms of life has great meaning and complexity for many traditional Native American people. Members of societies, for example, are required to use the skins of animals after whom the society is named (i.e. Fox Society), but they are not allowed to kill the animal since it is a brother or sister. Therefore other members of the tribe, not themselves members of the society, must obtain the skins or feathers as needed and trade or sell them to society members. Military base commanders may face the situation where traditional people have declared a bird or animal to be sacred and also have tribal members hunting the bird or animal. A good practice would be to have the traditional spiritual leaders explain some of the permissions and prohibitions which apply to tribal members with respect to birds and animals and get a clear definition of the scope of activities which can be expected from tribal members.

Densmore also quotes from The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, volume1, pp. 121-123 (Lewis et al. 1983):

Capt Lewis and Myself concluded to go and See the Mound… which the Indians Call Mountain of little people or spirits.. The Surrounding Plain is open Void of Timber and leave to a great extent, hence the wind from whatever quarter it may blow, drives them with unusual force over the naked Plains and against this hill; the insects of various kinds are thus involuntarily driven to the Mound by the force of wind, of fly to its Leeward Side for Shelter the Small Birds whose food they are, Consequently resort in great numbers to this place in Search of them; (p.319).

TYPE H: Mourning and Condolence Sites

These locations can be divided into two basic categories: pre-European contact and recent historical sites. Within the occupancy area of each Native American tribal group are specific locations where people would go to mourn the loss of a loved one. While the person might have died in another location, the mourning location has sufficient spiritual power to comfort the bereaved and, consequently, ceremonies would be performed at the traditional location. Use of the site is heavily dependent upon the degree of pain suffered in the loss of the deceased and consequently use of an area would reflect the immediate concerns of the tribe or band.

Recent historical sites include a direct relationship between contemporary Native people and the deceased of previous generations. Battlefields or sites of massacres (Sand Creek, Wounded Knee, Palo Duro Canyon, Bear River, Massacre Cave) constitute the primary locations where ceremonies would be performed. The timing of ceremonies would reflect the immediate needs of the tribal community. In those areas where, in this century, military lands have been extended to include lands on which Indians had formerly lived would be prime candidates for investigation and/or possible use by tribal communities. Fort Lewis in Washington State (formerly the Nisqually Reservation) and Fort Sill, Oklahoma would be examples of these kinds of sacred site locations.

Very recently there has been interest shown in graves of Indians buried at military posts and former military posts that became Indian schools. This interest is not yet a national concern and only those tribes who have moved ahead with cultural projects have been discussing this topic. Burials of interest would include Indian scouts, Indians employed as laborers, interpreters, teamsters, and other supportive occupations that were necessary around a frontier military post. The emphasis that can be expected would not stress traditional religion as much as it would focus on the ancestry of present day people. The memorial ceremonies at these grave sites would generally be some form of Christian expression rather than a traditional ritual. Should this interest increase it could be handled in conjunction with a military installation’s ordinary Memorial Day activities.

TYPE I: Historical Past Occupancy Sites

Memories of pre-reservation days have been largely carried on by Native American people over the generations since the tribes were free to travel over the lands they once occupied. In a radius sometimes as much as 500 miles in every direction, the old locations for hunting, fishing, gathering of wood and minerals, healing springs, summer encampments and celebrations of the Sun Dance or Bear Dance, are still known. Some ceremonies may be required at these old locations in order to receive sacred instructions on how to continue the rituals which used to be performed at these sites. Some Sun Dance and Bear Dance locations are still capable of being identified a century and a half after they were used by the sparseness of vegetation or traces of use. Traditional Sioux people in Canada have recently revealed photos of Sitting Bull’s old Sun Dance site which show very clearly the various parts of the ceremonial circle.

Contemporary traditional people may need to have access to these locations as part of ceremonies now being conducted at other locations not geographically close to a historic site. Use would depend on instructions received from spirits in a modern ceremony and would reflect a spiritual need to gain religious balance once again. The Medicine Wheel site at Fort Hood seems to be an ideal example of a past historical location having present day relevance. Locations which have religious significance because of past occupancy may still need to be used for ceremonial activities. Most traditional people feel that performance of ceremonies at these locations would enhance the ability of military personnel to perform their duties.

TYPE J: Spirit Sites

The spiritual landscape of the western United States is covered with locations at which spirits were once and perhaps still are apprehended. In the vocabulary most familiar to non-Indian peoples, these locations might be described as “haunted” and left to the fringe groups in science and religion to describe or visit. Within the Indian context, spirit locations can be powerful indicators of future events or warnings of future events through a variety of ceremonies which are performed to communicate with the resident spirit. Interpretation of the religious significance of the location to the Native Americans is hazardous because the messages which may come in spirit sites may be directed toward only one individual or family.

In general the Apaches are not enthusiastic about dealing with the deceased and hold locations where a significant number of people died or were killed in some reverence. Consequently locations at which battles were fought, typically Apache Leap in Pinal County and Massacre Canyon in Graham County are sites which would be fiercely protected by traditional Apache people from excavation or exploitation although it is uncertain whether these locations would be used extensively for ceremonies.

A number of Native American tribes have a tradition of the “picture rocks” in which the spirits use certain locations for inscribing drawings of future events on the face of rocks (for an ethnographic approach to this, see Zedeño and Stoffle 1997; Stoffle, Loendorf, Austin, Halmo, Bulletts, and Fulfrost 1995). Spiritual leaders refuse to give a precise description of these kinds of rocks for fear that the spirit will abandon them. Apparently the rocks have some marks on them. When a message is sent additional markings appear which use the permanent markings as a framework for different kinds of symbolism. The ordinary lay person would not know the proper time of day to look at these marks nor would they know how to read them. Most traditional people prefer not to provide any more information. These markings exist for a short period of time and they can be read by spiritual leaders possessing the proper spiritual experience. Among the many petroglyph and pictograph sites in the western United States are locations of extreme religious importance. This phenomenon is well documented. It is said that Crazy Horse saw the entire fight at the Little Big Horn a few weeks prior to the actual conflict in the picture of rocks on the Rosebud river in Montana. “Spirit sites” is the best generic description of these locations without getting too specific. Some of these locations are the subject of intense interest today as traditional spiritual leaders attempt to discern the future.

Since there is such particularity to be found at these sites, the number of these locations on military lands today is probably minimal. There would have needed to have been a continuing use of these locations by people since the establishment of the reservations for them to retain their sacred character today. The possibility remains that a contemporary revelation of the location has or can occur today because of the urgency of the spirit to establish communications with someone who is alive today. We cannot overlook the fact that some traditional people may have been using certain locations without being detected. Since experiences at these locations are extremely rare, and very personal, we only mention this possibility in order to be inclusive.

TYPE K: Recent Historical Event Locations

Native Americans receive continuing messages from the spirits and often from the recently departed. These messages can come in ceremonies, in dreams, in unexpected conversations with people that coincide with perceived disorientation or uneasiness. Often the message concerns the unfulfilled responsibilities which people have for the departed. The wars of the last century have not been put to rest for many families, condolence ceremonies have not been held or departed spirits are uneasy about the treatment of their remains. This general uneasiness was the motivation for the NAGPRA legislation. It can best be understood by reference to The Return of Chief Blackfoot (Mauricio 1981) where an incident on the Crow Reservation in the 1980s occurred. A Crow chief from the previous century returned to a psychic and insisted that she assist in the recovery of his burial site and his reburial at the Crow Agency.

Some of the tribes repatriating skeletal remains from museums have reported that as they began their journey home the spirits of the people represented by the skeletal remains visited them and were concerned about the manner in which they had died and had subsequently been treated. Special ceremonies had to be conducted en route to the new interment site and the re-burial ceremonies had to be undertaken with special emphasis on healing the injuries suffered while in the museums.

This kind of religious experience is wholly unpredictable but is nevertheless of impressing importance when it occurs. It combines recent historical experience with the continuing ceremonial life of the people. Military base commanders should be aware that incidents such as the ones described can occur, although they are a rarity. The uniqueness of the situation and the specific nature of the religious requirements are such that these things will be easily identifiable.

TYPE L: Plant, Animal and Mineral Gathering Sites

While traditional locations for plant, animal and mineral life have already been discussed, the history of most Native American tribal religions suggests that the use of the plants and animals is continuously revealed in ceremonies. Birds, plants and animals form a complex web of life by themselves. Consequently there must be both physical and spiritual compatibility among the species that inhabit an area. While non-Indians understand that birds and animals can move into new territories they do not yet accept that plants can also make a deliberate decision to move themselves. American Indian experience knows that the migration of plants is a common thing and that areas of plant gathering must shift accordingly. An ongoing agreement between a military installation and traditional people must take into account the migration of species and as changes occur, access to places where medicinal or religious plants are to be found must also change.

Traditional people usually have strict requirements as to the taking of birds for ceremonial purposes. Birds sometimes shift their nesting sites and Indians must accommodate themselves to this change. The eagle, for example, is a primary sacred bird for the Apache people and consequently there are ceremonies to protect the bird, to gain access to the bird’s knowledge and wisdom, and for catching the eagles. Many other tribes have a similar relationship with this bird, with hawks, and flickers, and sometimes with smaller birds such as the blue jay. Some bands have a prohibition on taking birds restricted to certain ordained traditional spiritual leaders; other bands say that no bird can be taken until it has lived a full life cycle of youth, parenting and adulthood. Depending on the ceremonial life of the traditional group, military installations could be faced with requests by traditional leaders for access to remote mountain areas where the birds are or which have ceremonial significance involving this bird.

In 1994 the White House issued a directive on Eagle feathers as a means of assisting in expanding American Indian religious freedom in lieu of a legislative solution. The law protecting bald and golden eagles (16 U.S.C. 668-668c; revised Nov. 8, 1978) was originally passed in 1940. A Presidential memorandum to Federal agencies (Clinton 1994b) provided for the distribution of eagle feathers to Native Americans for religious purposes (for background on this important aspect of cultural resource management, see Williams [1986] and Brooke [1996]). Procedures for obtaining feathers were made more efficient and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was directed to assist tribes in establishing orderly procedures for obtaining and distributing feathers. Should the Eagle feather problem arise on a military installation, procedures can be developed in cooperation with the local tribes affected.

Plants and animals are integral parts of rituals and ceremonies and must be physically present in them. Quite often the plants that are used in ceremonies grow a considerable distance from the site at which the ceremony takes place. Military lands which are very extensive in acreage will almost certainly have specific locations where these plants grow. Access to military lands are needed by traditional people to harvest some plants for ceremonial purposes. Again, this area can be easily handled by consultation and agreement with the elders of the tribes concerned. Locations can sometime provide plants for more than one tribal community. The same plant can be harvested at two different times by two different tribal groups for two unrelated purposes.

The complexities in this area occur because of the different uses that people make of plants depending on their religious knowledge. The ceremony determines the time of harvesting and manner of use (see Stoffle et al., 1990, 1994). Plant knowledge is held very closely by specific individuals within a tribal community and most tribes would consider it sacrilege to publish lists of plants or locations unless the information was cleared by all the elders who possessed the knowledge. Presently published lists do not exhaust the traditional knowledge but merely release the information that can be known by outsiders. As traditional people feel more comfortable discussing their knowledge of plants, additional information will become available and relationships with land managers will change.

TYPE M: Sanctified Ground

Sacred sites in the Hawaiian Islands present a unique situation in the idea of the holy. Traditional Hawaiians believe that after the person has died the body must be buried so that spiritual and physical growth can occur for those still living. The Hawaiian word for burial and planting is the same, kanu. The mana from the ancestors then permeates the land and plants and animals flourish. Some mainland Indian tribes have similar beliefs. The Cheyenne and Sioux tell about the Great Race around the Black Hills at the beginning of this world to determine whether the four-leggeds would feed on the two leggeds or vice versa. The two leggeds, having won the race, agreed that they would let their bodies decay and become soil on which plants and animals could thrive.

This concept is best described as “sanctified ground” and might be compared to Abraham Lincoln’s perception of the battlefield at Gettysburg, where human actions have taken formerly secularized land and made it a sacred location. The Hawaiian belief is somewhat broader since there is no need for a noble purpose in the death of those who are interred. Rather the integrity of personal energy of the deceased ensures that the ground becomes more powerful, almost humanized.


The foreseeable kinds of sacred sites or locations that are likely to become the subject of controversy, negotiation and agreement between military installations and the practitioners of traditional American Indian tribal religions have been described. In most instances the chances of conflict are small because of the relatively small number of people seriously practicing these traditions and because of the precise nature of Indian ceremonial life. In a sense, the military will have a much easier time dealing with traditional Indian religious practitioners than with practitioners of traditionally established religions of western culture because there is no need, in most instances, to establish a permanent shrine, building, or improved location that will be constantly visited by a large number of Native people.

Instead, the Indian use of lands and sites will generally be secret or at least obscure, limited to a few occasions during the year, and can be managed through clear communications between the appropriate military authorities and Native American spiritual leaders and representatives.

In the next chapter, a survey the western states will discuss some of the more prominent and commonly known sacred sites which may have some impact on military installations. Many sites will require only identification as probable locations until permission is sought to use them for religious purposes. More important is the illustration of the complexity of the American Indian traditional religious practices and understanding the requirements that must be handled from time to time in a ceremonial manner.


  1. Clark Provides several examples of Indian traditions regarding a creation.
  2. The Tohono O’odham presently have a number of ceremonies that involve Baboquivari Peak which they claim go back to the days when monsters roamed the earth. Robert K. Thomas (Cherokee) was the last non-Tohono O’odham with whom the spiritual leaders would discuss these ceremonies.
  3. The admission that space-time “portals” exist and that spiritual people Can use them to move from one physical universe to another has been a very recent development, preceding this study by only a few years. Conversations with people from the Sioux, Gros Ventre, Cheyenne and Cherokee within the past several years, now held in strict confidence as to particularities, seem to suggest that these sites will be very important in the future.
  4. In Black Elk Speaks, by John Neihardt, there is an indication that Black Elk had shared this knowledge with Neihardt but that Neihardt had not properly understood it. Conversations with spiritual leaders at Pine Ridge suggest that, while this knowledge is held by only a few people, it is permissible to mention it in print.
  5. In general, the Cheyenne materials are contained in Cheyenne Memories, by John Stands in Timber and Margot Liberty. The Sioux materials are rewritten by John Neihardt and printed as story sketches in When the Tree Flowered.
  6. Densmore(1918) contains the following information on these locations:
    The crow is always the first to arrive at the gathering of animals in the Black Hills. The reason why the Black Hills were so long unknown to the white man was that Wakantanka created them as a meeting place for the animals. The Indians had always known this and regarded the law of Wakantanka concerning it. By this law they were forbidden to kill any of the animals during their great gatherings.
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