I have long wondered why a country founded on the value of religious freedom would deny religious freedom to its native people. The irony and tragedy deepens when we recognize that we have simultaneously trashed the very land the native religions seek to balance and renew.
From 1979 to 1983, I produced a film called The Four Corners: A National Sacrifice Area? It documented the cultural and ecological impacts of coal and uranium mining in Hopi and Navajo country. I spent hours listening to Indian elders reflect on the land — telling stories, singing songs, explaining petroglyphs and, occasionally, taking me to ceremonies. Though I had been to Yale, majored in American history, pursued great teachers, I had never encountered anything like the wisdom I felt pouring from the indigenous people I met. One weekend I went from a Hopi kachina dance in the village of Walpi to the Peabody Coal Company’s stripmine on Black Mesa — from a community song for rain to the industrial destruction of the earth. The clash of worldviews was stark, and very upsetting. The realization that my education had left out an entire way of seeing and knowing the natural world was a shock. That shock has been the motivating factor in my work ever since and the collision of worldviews has been the story I have tried to capture and articulate.
While touring with the Four Corners film and listening to the dialogue it sparked, it struck me that the environmental crisis is a spiritual crisis — that disconnection from the land leads to destruction of the land. Relationship requires care. The land is alive and what is alive is sacred. Over and over my Indian friends spoke of sacred places being destroyed. Twenty-five years of education in a Judeo-Christian value system provided me with no idea what they were talking about, but I could tell from the depth of feeling I sensed in their words that there was something profoundly important in their communion with the earth. They did not speak of abstract landscapes, but specific places of prayer, offering and ritual.
Having spent the last ten years making In the Light of Reverence and trying to translate the meaning of sacred places, I am now interested in exploring how we can heal our relationship to the land through the healing of the land itself. Restoration. Renewal. Reconciliation. A vision of what the earth might be like if we acknowledge our past mistakes and begin to put things back together, not just physically but spiritually, not in isolation, but with native people collaborating and leading the way.
Toby McLeod’s website is The Sacred Land Film Project at www.sacredland.org.