The legitimacy of Native American sacred sites has been federally and locally established in the past with such legislation as the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA 1979), the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA 1990), Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA 2004), and California Senate Bill 18 (SB 18 2004). Despite these laws, non-native governmental and private agents, who generally lack appreciation for Native American sacred sites, continue to appropriate, exploit, and destroy them by extensive development in both urban and exurban areas. In fact, studies have shown that belief in the sanctity of the land is linked to greater environmental awareness and concern, leading us to propose improved communication between natives and nonnatives in the hope of encouraging new ways of looking at the environment. The possible forms that such exchanges might take are discussed herein. However, due to some hitches in these laws and rampant urban growth and development, Native American sacred sites are being increasingly threatened with appropriation, exploitation, and destruction by non-native agents, both governmental and private, who do not in general appreciate the significance of sacred sites to traditional cultures. Because belief in sacred places has been linked to greater environmental awareness and concern, we suggest that conveyance of the inherent sanctity of the land to those who do not share it might encourage a new way of looking at the environment—one that respects it and cares for it because [End Page 30] of its innate, multicultural meaning. The question becomes: what form should this conveyance of belief take?
Living in oral cultures, Native Americans1 embed their knowledge, wisdom, and worldview in their narratives. We argue that analyzing the mythic2 traditions of three California Indian groups—the Chumash, the Kumeyaay, and the Mojave—will confirm that they, like the stories of many indigenous groups, cohere with traditional ecocultural knowledge and articulate belief in a sanctified environment that inspires its ethical care. Seen this way, Native American narratives have potential as ecoethical discourse that ostensibly might be used during land-use consultations with agencies as mandated in SB 18 (PRC § 5097.9 and § 5097.993) and Section 106 (36 CFR 800).
Belief in sacred places has been linked to greater ecoethicality by social science researchers Nalini Tarakeshwar and colleagues, who collaborated on a study identifying “specific religious and/or spiritual beliefs (i.e., beliefs that nature is sacred) that were predictive of pro-environmental beliefs and behaviors.”3 Although this study used a subject group of nonnative Presbyterians, the implications of its results seem clear: “Sanctifying nature could lead to greater care and investment in its protection.”4 Thus, it makes sense that Native American mythic narratives like those of the Chumash, Kumeyaay, and Mojave might provide an expression of the sacredness of places with the goal of protecting them. Because of these attributes, indigenous narratives hold promise for conveying the ecocultural value of places to the mostly nonindigenous urban planning and land development fields.
Mythic narratives additionally offer a template for community action on the part of tribal members when they perceive their sacred sites to be threatened. This activism was observed when the Kumeyaay of California’s San Diego County succeeded in protecting their most sacred site, Kuuchamaa Mountain (Tecate Peak), from the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) proposal of a power line over it during the 1980s. However, tribal members managed to communicate their belief about the mountain only after they led a group of BLM officials up it, pointing out along the way each specific sacred site and the story behind it. In this way, the story of Kuuchamaa was not only heard: it was experienced-in-place5 by the officials, much as pilgrims recreate their religious myths.
The intercultural communication problems encountered during negotiations in the Kuuchamaa and other cases have highlighted the need for a mode of discourse that might better facilitate transmission of the indigenous sense of connection to the land and its sacredness. Current sacred sites legislation strives to address this quandary by mandating consultations between tribal...