All places and all beings of the earth are sacred. It is dangerous to designate some places sacred when all are sacred. Such compromises imply that there is a hierarchy of value, with some places and some living beings not as important as others. No part of the earth is expendable; the earth is a whole that cannot be fragmented…
Leslie Marmon Silko
When I was in theological school, we spoke of the sacred texts in which people find revelation of divinity. To be open to the sacredness of earth, is to let the earth be our text: let the earth be the revelation for the presence of divinity. The earth can be teacher, the earth can be sacrament, the earth can be worship, the earth can be Goddess.
But if we wake up to the earth, we must listen to all her stories. If we live in the Americas, we must pay attention to a story of brokenness in each place because of the theft of the land from the Indigenous peoples who belong here. If we are seeking to restore our connection to the land, we must reckon with that brokenness. All of us are a part of the brokenness.
Lakota writer Luther Standing Bear said, “Men must be born and reborn to belong. Their bodies must be formed of the dust of their forefathers’ bones.” To be indigenous is to belong to a particular place, through that interweaving of dust and food and knowledge which accumulates over centuries. When I lived in Jamaica Plain, I used to walk in Forest Hills Cemetery. None of my ancestors were buried there. No familiar ghosts recognized me or called my name. I was not indigenous to that place, nor to any of the places I have lived.
I learned more about what it might mean to be indigenous to a place through the marvelous novel, Solar Storms, by Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan. Her main character, Angel, is a young woman who had been separated from the Native community of her birth, and raised in foster care after being abused by her mentally ill mother. When Angel returns with her relatives to their ancestral lands, something happens for her.
A part of me remembered this world… it seemed to embody us. We were shaped out of this land by the hands of gods. Or maybe it was that we embodied the land. And in some way I could not yet comprehend, it also embodied my mother, both of them stripped and torn…. My heart and the beat of the land, the land I should have come from, were becoming the same thing.
In the novel, Angel’s family has returned to their homeland in the north of Canada because it is being threatened with hydro-electric development. This is no pristine wilderness or unspoiled scenery to which she is responding. The land is under assault, and they feel a responsibility to fight for its protection. She speaks of how the bonds between the land and the people had been broken by the developments of many years. The elder Tulik tells Angel, “Here a person is only strong when they feel the land. Until then a person is not a human being.”
Another member of her family was a woman named Bush who was Chickasaw from Oklahoma and had become part of the family through marriage. She had also come to help in the struggle. Angel talks about how it was different for Bush. The land in the far north loved Bush, “but it did not tell her the things it told the rest of us. It kept secrets from her.” Here was another Native American, yet she was not indigenous to that particular land. Through this story I began to better understand how loving the earth was not just about loving the planet, but about loving a particular river, a particular valley or hill or peninsula.