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  • Indigenous Studies and “the Sacred”
  • Mary L. Keller (bio)

I don't want to call it a sacred site because your idea of something sacred and my idea of something sacred are a little bit different.

Grant Bulltail, 2003

This study of the sacred as a categorical tripping point at the intersection of Indigenous studies and the history of religions begins with the words of Grant Bulltail, an Apsáalooke (Crow) elder, recorded on video when he traveled from his home on the Crow Reservation in Montana to speak to schoolchildren in Cody, Wyoming, about an extraordinary landmark, Heart Mountain. In the quotation above, Mr. Bulltail was addressing the categorical problem that exists when he discusses the sacred with people from the dominant Anglo-Christian culture. He has to set the stage that there are two different worlds of meaning with regard to "the sacred" before he can discuss what Heart Mountain means to him. His words and that mountain are the ground upon which the following questions stand: Is sacred a category that merits continued development in the service of Indigenous studies? Is it best avoided as the appendix on a body of passé, Eurocentric, dualistic thought? Will Indigenous studies methodology be served best to move away from this category as quickly as possible, as it appears that even the un is doing in its recent embrace of the phrase "intangible cultural heritage"? Or does the category work, formally and pragmatically, in situations of cross-cultural dialogue, serving the interest of Indigenous people in their struggles for justice in the face of global economic and ecological [End Page 82] forces that impact their homelands disproportionately? Indigenous studies and the history of religions rub shoulders on the methodological challenges raised by the sacred as a category in the twenty-first century, and this article examines the fertile ground of their respective concerns toward the goal of clarifying what is at stake in understanding this problem well for those who seek alliances in struggles over the meaning of mountains and other powerful places.

On the larger field of work in Indigenous studies and the history of religions it is fair to say that we have reached a fork in the road, with some people eschewing the sacred because of its freighted Eurocentrism, while, on the other hand, a significant bibliography of serious uses of the word sacred exists, from Vine Deloria Jr.'s "Sacred Places and Moral Responsibility" in God Is Red to Joe Edward Watkins's series Contemporary Native American Issues, in which he published Sacred Sites and Repatriation, Andrew Gulliford's Sacred Objects, Sacred Places, Deward Walker's work to articulate an anthropological sense of sacred geography, and Violet F. Cordova's discussion of the sacred in her Native American philosophy How It Is.1 From Winona LaDuke's Recovering the Sacred: The Power of Naming and Claiming to the documentary film activists of the Sacred Lands Film Project, to the new wave of ecologists working in coalition with Indigenous experts to develop what Fi-kret Berkes calls Sacred Ecology, the sacred is at play.2 Yogi Berra would advise, when you come to a fork in the road, take it.

Faced with the fork in methodological theory, to sacred or not to sacred, this article brings Charles Long's work as a historian of religions to the table of Indigenous studies to think about the sacred, and particularly to think about Grant Bulltail's articulation of an American landscape where his Apsáalooke notion of the sacred is a little bit different from the notions of settlers.3 That is, Long's emphasis on the heterogeneous nature of American religious history works as an excellent theoretical partner to Bulltail's articulation of difference itself as central to the problem of speaking about the sacred. However, in order to get to the categorical issue, I've got to walk through a big, American, historical mess that can be metaphorically equated to the distance between reservation and off-reservation realities. That mess explains why I view Heart Mountain daily from my home and office, while Grant Bulltail lives three hours away from the mountain on the Crow Reservation. He may...


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pp. 82-109
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