Sacred Ground Bosmun Canoe Warriors
Jennifer Huang
The Bosmun ceremonial canoe launch. The village is concerned that a new nickel mine upstream will pollute the Ramu River, their main source for food, water and bathing. Bosmun, Papua New Guinea.

Defenders of Sacred Sites Around the Globe Featured in PBS Series

Marc Dadigan

In an opening scene of the documentary Profit and Loss, Mike Mercredi, Athabasca Chipewyan, describes how thrilling it was for his teenage self to get a job driving one of the biggest rigs in the world at a massive oil sands extraction area in Alberta, Canada.

Yet the allure slowly transformed to horror, as he began to understand the extreme effects of the oil sands industry, which uses heated water from Lake Athabasca to extract oil from the sand, on his homelands. The films shows nightmarish visuals of a landscape that has seen the oil sands industry denude the boreal forests, poison culturally vital fisheries and, many believe, infect astoundingly high numbers of local indigenous people with deadly cancers.

“I had this overwhelming anxiety. I walked into the office and put my badge down and I quit,” Mercredi says in the film.

Plumes from a distant oil sands refinery reflected in a tailings pond taken in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. This image is from Episode 2, “Profit and Loss.” (Christopher McLeod)

Mercredi’s Fort Chipewyan band eventually hired him to create maps of sacred sites, and the film chronicles his work and those of other First Nations allies to save what they can from the oil sands development even as the Alberta government spends millions of dollars in advertising campaigns to promote the industry.

The stories of Mecredi and other sacred site guardians from eight indigenous communities across the globe will be broadcast to an audience of millions of Americans as Profit and Loss and the other three 60-minute episodes of the Standing on Sacred Ground film series air nationally on the PBS World Channel on consecutive Sundays beginning May 17 at 9 p.m. ET. The episode aired May 17 will also be aired May 20. Check for a full schedule of air times.

The indigenous subjects and producers of the films say the broadcasts are an unparalleled breakthrough for the depiction of indigenous stories on national television: An opportunity for the public to view indigenous people sharing their stories of resistance from their perspectives, learn how corporations and government often collude to circumvent indigenous rights and to gain an appreciation of how, contrary to stereotypes, indigenous knowledge and philosophy have never been more relevant in an era of climate change and mass extinctions.

“Watching the films, I was struck that even though we’re diverse culturally we all view the natural world in the same way,” Mercredi said. “If they had listened to the indigenous people from the beginning, we wouldn’t be in such a mess. Now, it’s a race against time to start ingraining our indigenous knowledge into the younger generations.”

From Papua New Guinea and Ethiopia to California and Russia, the indigenous people in the documentary series represent almost all the continents, but they face many of the same threats to their sacred sites and ancestral lands: government megaprojects, consumer culture, competing religions, resource extraction and climate change. But, producer Christopher McLeod said, the films show far more is at stake than indigenous religion.

“The sacred places are the heart where the indigenous worldview, the values and languages are anchored,” he said. “They’re a source of information and insight about adapting to climate change. It’s no coincidence the planet is dying and the sacred places are being destroyed.”

The film series is the culmination of nearly 10 years of work for McLeod and the Standing on Sacred Ground team, and he said it truly began almost 30 years ago when he was working on a film about uranium and coal mining in Hopi and Navajo territories and elders told him his work was missing an entire dimension: the sacredness of certain places and the obligation of indigenous people to care for them.

Around the same time indigenous leaders started warming to the idea of educating the public about sacred places, McLeod said, and he eventually produced In the Light of Reverence in 2001, which included Winnemem Wintu Chief and Spiritual Leader Caleen Sisk, who was among the leaders seen in the film ultimately successfully stopping the construction of a skiing resort on Mt. Shasta in Northern California. The Winnemem Wintu are also paired with the Altai people from Russia in the Standing on Sacred Ground film Pilgrims and Tourists as they continue a David and Goliath fight against a proposed raise of the Shasta Dam, which would inundate more than 40 sacred sites, including the site of their Coming of Age ceremony for young women.

“I hope people see these films and realize this is not a site specific issue, but a global effort to protect the future,” Sisk said. “The corporations say it’s about jobs, but once the jobs are over there is no replacing what’s been destroyed.”

Jacky Green (Gudanji) protesting the Xstrata mining company diversion of the sacred McArthur River to make way for an open-pit zinc mine. (Christopher McLeod)

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In the form of oil sands and the Shasta Dam raise, the indigenous people are facing struggles against incredibly powerful governments and corporations (often working together), but the film series does include success stories, such as the saga of Native Hawaiians reclaiming the island of Kanaloa Kaho’olawe after 50 years of exclusive military use as a weapons testing range. It was won back after decades of occupation, organizing, education, and lawsuits. The island is now a Hawaiian cultural preserve.

“It’s rare we have films on national television that seek to enlighten the greater population about our customs and stewardship responsibilities,” said Davianna McGregor, a professor in Ethnic Studies at the University of Hawaii and a member of Protect Kaho`olawe ‘Ohana. “I hope the films will encourage people to learn about the sacred places in their areas and respect the indigenous people and their role of keeping that connection.”

She also noted that the films are being released at an auspicious time as Native Hawaiians are demonstrating and organizing to protect the sacred Mauna Kea from an international consortium’s plan to build a $1.4 billion 30-meter telescope. The conflict has drawn national media attention that often depict the Native demonstrators as anti-science, and McGregor said the films counter these misconceptions, giving Native people a venue to explain the value of indigenous knowledge and how indigenous spirituality can augment scientific endeavors.

Leaving Kaho`olawe at sunrise, Hawai`i. This image is from Episode 4, “Islands of Sanctuary.” (Christopher McLeod)

According to McLeod, a World Bank study found that indigenous people own 22 percent of the land in the world, but the ecosystems under their stewardship account for 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity.

“The early environmentalists were from the school of the earth being the dominion of humans, but Native people are saying that idea is arrogant,” McLeod said. “The hope is the films help open the environmental movement to the indigenous values of being part of nature and subservient to its power.”

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