Spider Rock Canyon de Chelly
Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly. The canyon is in the Navajo Nation and contains several sacred sites.

Sacred Blindness II: The Indigenous Eight

Steve Russell

After my anger cooled from reading about the “Top Eight Religious Destinations in the World,” I got to thinking of the places I have seen in my own country that I am willing to claim in public are “religious destinations” worthy of traveling to see.

The futility of naming just eight is obvious, but in naming eight I hope to show that it made no sense to ignore half of the world in making the original list. In no particular order, here are my nominations from the United States:

Pahá Sápa, also known as The Black Hills, located in South Dakota and Wyoming, but the Great Sioux Nation disputes the land title. Actually, the Great Sioux Nation won the dispute in court but was offered only money in exchange. Since the hills are sacred, they are not for sale. A visit will show you why.

The Pahá Sápa contain, on the Wyoming side, a feature the Lakota call Matȟó Thípila, the Arapaho call Wox Niiinon, the Crow call Daxpitcheeaasáao, and non-Natives call Devil’s Tower. Native people still conduct ceremonies on the mountain and climbers are requested not to scale it in June, when most of the ceremonies are held.

 Pahá Sápa is an important indigenous sacred site.

Some non-Natives desecrate the place during ceremonies just to prove they can. Others don’t come to climb at all, but just to see the formation immortalized in a plate of mashed potatoes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Canyon de Chelly, in the Navajo Nation but also in Arizona, contains several sacred sites, some known to the general public and some not. A particularly interesting rocky spire is reputed to be the place where Spider Woman brought the skill of weaving to the Navajo people. Tourists are not allowed in Canyon de Chelly without a Navajo guide, both because of the sacred sites and because people sill live there who don’t want tourists peering in their windows. It’s safer if you have a four-wheel drive vehicle or you hire a guide who does. The paved road around the canyon rim is also worth a drive.

Enchanted Rock was within my lifetime designated a Texas State Natural Area, but traditional Comanche people still consider it sacred, a place to seek visions on the largest pink granite batholith in North America. Stone Mountain, in the Cherokee homelands now called Georgia, is a larger batholith of a different color and once a sacred site of the Ku Klux Klan.

Enchanted Rock is considered sacred by the Comanche. It is seen here from the trail leading to the summit. People climbing on the summit (visible as dots) give an idea of the scale of the granite rock. (Wikipedia)

There is a historical marker on top of Enchanted Rock that has shortened a story that used to be more overtly cock-and-bull. It told of Texas Ranger Jack Hays escaping from a Comanche war party when he retreated to the summit. They used to claim the spirits of the Rock scared off the superstitious savages.

When I related that story to a Comanche medicine man, he chuckled and asked me whether white people customarily fought in church?

The Zuni Salt Lake has been central to spiritual practices of pueblo peoples for some 1500 years. Salt is of course necessary to human health and it’s no surprise that a place where salt can be gathered would become a ceremonial center. It is mentioned here as an important religious destination not because this little salt lake in what is now New Mexico is more impressive than the Great Salt Lake taken over by the Mormons, but because of the radiating trails to Zuni, Laguna, and Acoma Pueblos.

Zuni Salt Lake has been central to spiritual practices of pueblo peoples for some 1500 years. (ColoradoCollege.edu)

They call the lake Zuni because the Zuni people have taken the lead in protecting a fragile ecosystem from mining operations. For a tourist, the lake becomes a gateway to the cultural richness of the pueblos along the Rio Grande. You can come away able to recognize distinct differences between Acoma and Santa Clara pots, and you might discover what sheep manure can do to a glaze. Zuni inlay jewelry is legendary around the world. All the pueblos are home to outstanding artists.


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hillssnyder's picture
Submitted by hillssnyder on
Thanks for this. I've only been to two of the places you mention, both of them multiple times, but I love knowing of the others and want to visit them. Here are a couple more I love, one in Arkansas and one in Peru. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/06/21/arkansas-thorncrown-chapel_n_5515375.html http://www.globalheritagefund.org/chavin_de_huantar_peru

talyn's picture
Submitted by talyn on
Thank-you for this. Can anyone suggest other publicly accessible sites? I have just received three foster children who have been in homes that did not even tell them they were Native! I am working with their tribe to reintroduce them to their own culture, but this list has given me a great idea what to do for their summer vacation.

WhiteManWanting's picture
Submitted by WhiteManWanting on
While I appreciate some of the elegant man-made structures that represent the "original" eight, I would far rather visit your eight and ask a local tribal member to escort and explain to me the significance he or she attaches to these beautiful places. I don't think I would even want a "tourist guide" because I would not just want the "commercial version" of what tourists would typically hear, and largely forget three weeks later (or less). This ICTMN reader says thank you for starting the discussion. Even if it never goes any further, I'd still feel far more enriched by visiting (and spending time at) these eight over the "original" eight. I have inadequate words to describe why, but it has something to do with such things as the magnificence of the original creations, not a man-made structure that leads the eye (and mind) to an artificial structure rather than to an original creation, just for starters. Again, thank you.

hammertime's picture
Submitted by hammertime on
that list of 8 religious places is a joke....they are all basically tourist attractions for the christians . Man made structures are not actual holy places, they are just places that believers come to congregate and worship at the feet of their preists... Your list is much better... I could add to the list some canyons around Sedona Arizona.. and some beaches along the oregon coast... also thank you for the music...I have never heard of kate wolf before today