producer/director Christopher McLeod. Photo: Cordy Fergus


At the center of the collision between European and indigenous cultures are attitudes about the uses of nature and the Earth. Is there room for the spiritual beliefs of indigenous people, who hold nature as sacred, in a society that views land as property? Can the U.S. Constitution ensure both religious freedom and the pursuit of property? Toby McLeod’s passionate yet carefully constructed film offers both sides of the conflicts in three native communities. The Lakota are fighting to restrict the use of Devils Tower, essential to their spiritual practices but popular with rock climbers. The Hopi have found their land and water degraded by ongoing industrial concerns. And the Wintu are struggling to keep Mount Shasta pristine against an influx of New Age practitioners and skiers. If some of these cases seem unresolvable, others are inching toward compromise. While many sacred sites have been destroyed, some have been protected. One thing is clear: the land-rights struggles being fought by indigenous communities worldwide will only become more important in the years to come.

Lightning over Devils Tower, Wyoming, Mato Tipila (Bears Lodge) to the Lakota people. Photo: Christopher McLeod

Across the USA, Native Americans are struggling to protect their sacred places. Religious freedom, so valued in America, is not guaranteed to those who practice land-based religion. Every year, more sacred sites—the land-based equivalent of the world’s great cathedrals—are being destroyed. Strip mining and development cause much of the destruction. But rock climbers, tourists and New Age religious practitioners are part of the problem, too. The biggest problem is ignorance. In the Light of Reverence tells the story of three indigenous communities and the land they struggle to protect: the Lakota of the Great Plains, the Hopi of the Four Corners area, and the Wintu of northern California.

During a break from filming at the Hopi reservation in Black Mesa, Arizona, from left, co-producer Malinda Maynor(Lumbee), producer / director Christopher McLeod, and Vernon Masayesva (Hopi). Photo: John Schaeffer

Native Americans are struggling to protect sacred sites around the Grand Canyon, Devils Tower and Mount Shasta from desecration by industry, rock climbers and New Agers. Ten years in the making, In the Light of Reverence juxtaposes reflections on the spiritual meaning of place by Hopi, Lakota and Wintu elders with interviews of non-Indians who have their own ideas about how best to use the land. This film captures the spiritual yearning and materialistic frenzy of our time.

At the White Vulcan Mine in Arizona, Hopi elder Dalton Taylor points out a pilgrimage trail to U.S. Forest Service archeologist Linda Farnsworth. Photo: John Schaeffer

The battle between Native Americans and Anglos has never been put to rest. For 500 years native people have struggled to sustain use of their sacred places: burial grounds, landscapes of unusual natural power, sources of prophecy, homes of ancestors and natural healing plants. This penetrating 10-year study of the fight for acknowledgment and use of sacred lands is focused on three tribes: the Lakota, Hopi and Wintu, who along with their native brethren, find themselves still waging war with both public and private interests in their effort to sustain traditional spiritual practices. Fought simultaneously on private and public lands, the issue has become a labyrinth of philosophical, theological and legal issues, where mining, logging and ranching are now joined by climbers, skiers and new agers in a protracted and increasingly poignant fight for rights.

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