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Losing Sacred Ground

A new PBS documentary shines light down the chasm that gapes between Native Americans and the folks who came later


Its well-intentioned but airy title is the only misguided thing about In the Light of Reverence, a hard-hitting, open-eyed documentary about the desecration of sacred American Indian sites that airs Aug. 24 on local PBS affiliate KETC-TV (Channel 9). Though he deals reverently with his subjects, filmmaker Christopher McLeod does not have his head in the clouds, as such a title might suggest. His feet are planted solidly on the ground, and he has eyes and ears for every side of the three struggles over land use that he documents in this film.

Yet McLeod's sympathies are clear. The film takes its focus from the spiritual leaders of the Indian groups (Lakota, Hopi and Wintu) struggling to preserve their sacred sites. The individuals infringing on native land -- a motley crew including miners, rock climbers, Realtors and New Agers -- get plenty of camera time, with no voice-overs to belittle them. As a result, the film genuinely dramatizes the fault lines of the struggles.

Fundamental issues underlie all three stories. As the Lakota strive to keep rock climbers from scaling a sacred site (Devil's Tower in Wyoming) during a sacred time (June), as the Hopi try to keep construction interests from bulldozing shrines (in the form of buttes) to gather gravel for highways and as the Wintu try to keep developers from building a ski resort that would foul their ceremonial spring, two cultures clash.

Vine Deloria Jr., a noted Lakota author and lawyer, describes it as a culture of rights (the American way) clashing with a culture of responsibilities (the Indian way). This puts the non-Indians' disregard of native religion into useful perspective. The real-estate agent who wants to develop Mount Shasta says that "the pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of private property" and that property owners have the right to develop their property. On the other hand, the Wintu healer whose holy site would be ruined by that development stresses "the value of what looks like nothing" -- undeveloped nature.

And consider the man who owns a butte -- in his words, "a barren piece of rock sticking up in a barren piece of land" -- which he bulldozes for highway gravel after the Hopi fail to show him the butte's sacred sites. "I didn't know what to work around," he says. The Hopi readily admit that they "are not allowed to tell the outside world everything," including the locations of their sacred sites. A culture of rights has clashed with a culture of responsibility, and one's sense of justice in the case depends entirely on the culture to which one swears allegiance.

McLeod has sided with the culture of responsibility in choosing to make this film and by including the Indian communities in the review and editing process -- a responsible approach that earned him an unprecedented degree of trust and access from Indian religious leaders and made this film a 10-year undertaking.

"It's an ongoing project," he said. "I just showed it to 50 Hopis in this tribal-council-type room. Now I am working with the communities to distribute the film. They have figured out that it's worth taking risks with trustworthy allies to educate the public."

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