Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Musings: Saving the Sacred

Koko and I were both moving a little slow this morning, and so the sun was rising just as we walked out the door. I was still yawning and sleepy, but as soon as I reached the end of the driveway and saw Waialeale, I was startled into wakefulness.

There’s something about seeing her in all her full, unclouded, dawn-drenched glory that stimulates my senses, opens my heart and puts a lift in my step, and that got us walking briskly down the road, where we were kissed by mist and treated to a joyful chorus of singing birds.

It’s easy for me to consider Waialeale sacred — entitled to reverence and respect. For starters, it’s the primary source of water on this island, without which there would be no life.

The sacredness inherent in land and nature always made more sense to me than the Catholicism I was raised with. I just couldn’t understand why God would choose to live in a small tabernacle on an altar in a church, tended by celibate men, when there was that whole great big beautiful world outside.

But Western minds have a very difficult time, for some reason, grasping the concept of sacred land. Most likely, it’s because if they did, they might have to stop and think for a minute, or at least come up with some sort of rationalization, before they proceeded to recklessly exploit and destroy it.

You know, like blow the tops off mountains in West Virginia so they can get at the coal. Construct yet another observatory atop Mauna Kea so they can look more closely at the stars that have steadily dwindled in brilliancy, due in large part to the light and air pollution caused by burning coal and other fossil fuels. Or expand a ski resort, replete with fake snow produced from recycled sewer water, on Arizona’s San Francisco Peaks so folks can be entertained.

Never mind that the three 12,000-foot peaks are sacred to 13 tribes:

For the Navajo, the Peaks are the sacred mountain of the west, Doko’oo’sliid, “Shining On Top,” a key boundary marker and a place where medicine men collect herbs for healing ceremonies. To the Hopi, the Peaks are Nuvatukaovi, “The Place of Snow on the Very Top,” home for half of the year to the ancestral kachina spirits who live among the clouds around the summit. When properly honored through song and ceremony, the kachinas bring gentle rains to thirsty corn plants. The peaks are one of the “sacred places where the Earth brushes up against the unseen world,” in the words of Yavapai-Apache Chairman Vincent Randall.

Native Americans and environmentalists have been fighting the U.S. Forest Service over this project for a decade, and on Monday the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear their petition to stop it.

And so goes yet another sacred place, unless Congress, another Western institution, moves to save it.

It’s a culture clash we’ve seen play out repeatedly in America and Hawaii, where the military and developers of all stripes have ravaged Kahoolawe, Makua and many other places that have a sacred role in the indigenous culture.

These ongoing acts of desecration are an extremely effective form of colonial imperialism and cultural genocide, because when spiritual icons are destroyed or degraded, it serves to deeply undermine the very foundation of a spiritually-based culture.

As Klee Benally, a spokesman in one of the earlier unfavorable court decisions in the San Francisco Peaks dispute, noted:

”This decision in many ways is not only a disgrace, but it is something that violates the core of who we are," Benally said. "It just shows there is not a lot of recognition for Native rights. Here, as Native people, we're still being denied our civil rights," he said.

And that, really, is the crux of any sacred lands issue.

On another note, of far less consequence, there’s been quite a bit of back and forth in the comment section regarding deletions. I have an extremely liberal comment policy, and of the thousands of comments that have been left, very few have been deleted.

Not one was removed because it disagreed with my political views. Instead, they were deleted because I didn’t like the attitude or the tone or the personal attack.

Some people appreciate this blog and its comment section, and to those I say, mahalo. Others don’t like me and/or what I say, and seek only to denigrate and disrupt. I refer them to a sign seen in many an establishment: “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.”

And if you don’t like it, I suggest you take your business elsewhere. In fact, I’ll even provide you with a link to a blog where you’ll feel more at home.


Anonymous said...

"But Western minds have a very difficult time, for some reason, grasping the concept of sacred land."

-- not really

"before they proceeded to recklessly exploit and destroy it."

-- plenty of examples of self-induced population collapses in the pre-european contact americas

"Congress, another Western institution"

-- ya those founding documents and institutions have been a real failure...and not like they reflect in significant part some of the best thinking and proven societal organizational systems going back to classical antiquity or anything..

i have a suggestion for a blog topic: why is it that asians and muslims (to pick an general ethnic group and one religious group) assimilate well and so prosper in the US more so than in most any other country? im all for citing real problems (people feeling their identity is being chipped away, etc). and of course in reviewing successes one can sometimes find answers/solutions to other problems...and that suggested topic is an example of this

oh, also, the hippies here would prob love this guy:


John Henrik Clarke

an intellectual force to be sure. he is not perfect, but his commentary is undeniably powerful

diff subject matter, but on the same quality level as bouganville i promise

Anonymous said...

"Living With A Psychopath - When The Mask Slips."

Hahaha. Good one Joan. If I remove your comment perhaps you are a psychopath.

Andrew Cooper said...

I have to agree with the first commenter a bit. The landscape is littered with the evidence of many non-western cultures wreaking ecological disasters. Mankind is mankind, we are all capable of exploiting or preserving.

There is nothing inherently wrong with Western culture, at least it is a system that allows each individual to participate. The system can be derailed and controlled, any culture can be abused, but the system also contains methods for countering this, you have to use them.

No particular development should be blocked simply because one group objects, somebody will always object for many reasons.

Each project should be considered for costs and benefits, with real community input and a proper process. We have all seen the results when the process is corrupted, but this should not be used against those that attempt to do it right.

But keep in mind that there are many communities, from the local to mankind as a whole.

Anonymous said...

"The landscape is littered with the evidence of many non-western cultures wreaking ecological disasters. "

Yah, but no culture has caused as much death and destruction as Western culture. Just look at nukes.

Anonymous said...

"Yah, but no culture has caused as much death and destruction as Western culture. Just look at nukes."

-- what..."western culture" ='s the continuum starting with ~ plato / aristotle teachings / concepts / approaches...adding to this whatever the romans contributed...then to the muslims keeping this alive while europe was in the dark ages and offering their own advances in math and science...up to the renaissance...as well as up to the early industrial revolution along with the industrialized large democracy's of the modern world? you mean that "western culture"...?

ok fine. "genghis khan." a guy completely outside that continuum (unless, by some stretch, you count his troops stopping the turks from invading europe). all things relative, think 2 small nukes (which were completely justified, by the way) created more "death and destruction" than khan's movement?

basic 8th grade world history beats KKCR-think every time

otherwise, there is an opening there for you to note khan's policies being able to eventually unite and integrate various peoples and cultures, if you want to give it a shot (but of course western culture USA, the nuke dropper, is pretty good about such integration as well)

if you want to keep the "death and destruction" scorecard to the last 100-200 years, that is pretty easy too (or are ya gonna blame the US/EU for the cultural revolution as well?)


June 9, 2009 9:32 AM

Anonymous said...

"all things relative, think 2 small nukes (which were completely justified, by the way)"

Innocent civilians vaporized "completely justified" Sir I reject your 9-11 mentality.

Andrew Cooper said...

No culture is free of problems, consider the ancient Hawaiian's...

- The first wave of ecological disruption in the islands, introductions of many destructive alien species, dozens of extinctions, slash and burn agriculture, etc...

- Human sacrifice, a Kapu system that made immediate capital punishment common.

- Constant warfare and a warrior culture.

- Essential slavery of the lower classes enforced by the priests and the Ali'i

Every culture we have ever created is has a negative side, every human culture is possible of great harm, but also capable of great beauty. Do not denigrate or idolize any culture without understanding the reality.

Anonymous said...

"basic 8th grade world history beats KKCR-think every time"

Mahalo for your kind words for describing what one hears on KKCR as "thought", and affirming the excellence of our public educational system.

Anonymous said...

"Do not denigrate or idolize any culture without understanding the reality."

My understanding of western culture is consumption and the replacement of needs with wants is defined as the highest cultural good.Absence of the sacred! Unfortunately the bases are loaded, it is the bottom of the 9th, and mother nature is up a bat. One law that cannot be broken is the law of nature.

Anonymous said...

"Constant warfare and a warrior culture."

Lucky we live in the USA where "constant warfare" is unknown to our people.

Anonymous said...

"Innocent civilians vaporized "completely justified" Sir I reject your 9-11 mentality."

--- no "sir" stuff needed, you are prob older than i am anyways. otherwise i guess we'll just disagree on it. i could point to what japan did in china, but i dont want to dodge the "justified" question. feel free to note how you would have ended it so quick sans nukes

"Mahalo for your kind words for describing what one hears on KKCR as "thought", and affirming the excellence of our public educational system."

-- there is room for improvement at kkcr, to say the least. and HI public ed is not great from what i hear / see

"Lucky we live in the USA where "constant warfare" is unknown to our people."

-- ya, kinda, but the poor form the bulk of the troops. 1 yr mandatory military service would generate far more good US diplomacy and smart preventive policies

Anonymous said...

"i could point to what japan did in china, but i dont want to dodge the "justified" question."

IMHO any slaughter of innocents is unjustified. Not really a proud part of any culture but indicative that we are all part of one big (murderous) ohana.

I apologize for the "Sir" Ma`am.

Anonymous said...

"feel free to note how you would have ended it so quick sans nukes"

I did not realize "quick" was the mission but rather thought victory with minimal loss of life was.

All this was way before my time but it is my understanding that before we dropped Little Man and Fat Boy on civilian populations (making Yoko Ono an orphan) the US dominated the Pacific, their supply lines were cut, their Navy was destroyed. Kamikaze desperation was destroying what was left of their Air Force. Japan was as finished as the retreating out-of-combat Iraq soldiers (and civilians) slaughtered while stuck in a traffic jam on the "highway of death." Former Sec of State Colin Powell said, "the television coverage was starting to make it look as if we were engaged in slaughter for slaughter's sake."

Darn that TV!

Andrew Cooper said...

Would you "anonymous" commenters please log in and use consistent names? They do not have to be real name if you do not want. Even pseudonyms would help to keep to conversation straight.

Miliaulani said...

Hey Joan,
Right on again...especially regarding deleted comments. As a Kanaka Maoli, I have come to realize that the only hope for our people is independence. Like the Native American tribes, us kanaka find very little justice in the U.S. court system as in Naue and many other places across Ko Pae Aina Hawaii. Our victories are too few and far between. Simple reality....western ideology will always clash with ours. Mahalo ke akua for those who understand...such as you.

Katy said...

I have begun to question the idea that what we're up against can adequately be termed "Western culture." It seems to me that every people on earth have some kind of cooperative tradition to draw upon - even if it has been displaced by certain modern ideologies, like capitalism and Christianity. In other words, I don't think it's so much about where your ancestors come from, but the extent to which ideologies of greed and competition for resources have supplanted systems based on cooperation, generosity and connection to the natural world.
Centuries ago in northern and western Europe, for example, the imposition of early capitalist systems ("the enclosure of the commons") succeeded only after hundreds of years of repression of the resistance to the shift by the indigenous people of Europe, who struggled mightily - and with arms like torches and pitchforks - to defend their communal way of life, which I imagine was every bit as connected to the earth as anyone's. In the end, their system was supplanted by a system based on property ownership and hoarding of resources by the elite. When elites in Europe succeeded in "colonizing" their own peoples, they expanded elsewhere. It's not just that they came from Europe (or the US, for that matter)- it's that they exported a particular ideology and economic system to other parts of the world, where people have been rising up in resistance ever since.

"Colonized" commoner of European ancestry can and should reach back to some of the useful pre-capitalist organizational concepts that are part of our lost heritage, and through that find a way to "decolonize" ourselves. We can find common ground with other cooperative societies. If we just adopt an idea that everything "Western" is inherently bad, we lose the link to that past.

And its precisely that loss that leads to many well-intentioned people of European descent appropriating other Native cultures, which isn't very helpful, and does nothing to heal and restore our own.

Anonymous said...

"I apologize for the "Sir" Ma`am."

-- guess i set myself up for that one :)

to June 9, 2009 4:08 PM, understood, prior to my time too. im gonna take a pass on the ww2 nuke discussion tho, but i can see how others at the time thought they were still in for a heck of a fight on mainland japan (and nice summary, btw)

"When elites in Europe succeeded in "colonizing" their own peoples, they expanded elsewhere."

-- i dont know that history that well, but that seems about right - once the city-state system got settled in europe after the middle ages, and as ship technology got good enough, so to did intl trade and colonial / military / trade outposts and settlements start to expand

Andrew Cooper said...

Hard to demonize the capitalist system, while it exploited resources and peoples, it also created enough wealth that societies were able to break out of a coercive agrarian model with a serf/peon class. This created a freedom for most of its citizens on a scale unprecedented in human history.

One problem is that as soon as the society grows enough to begin straining available resources it must institute strong controls to allocate and conserve those resources. Consider the Kapu system of the Hawaiian culture.

Western culture avoided this for so long by bringing in resources from the rest of the globe. But that can only go on for so long...

SMelman said...


Thanks for your comments! I, too, disagree with the overbroad condemnation of "Western culture" as the problem. Not only were pre-Christian and pre-industrial Europeans "in touch with Nature," but rural folks often still have a connectedness with nature more authentic than the idealist romanticism of college-educated "city folk."

And, as pointed out, Genghis Khan, the Japanese imperialists (and current zaibatsu) the Chinese economic strategy, all have been extremely destructive of human beings and "Nature."

I also support the notion that with each culture there is an ongoing struggle between those who are more cooperative and those who are more self-centered. There are "Christians" who embrace and nurture "Nature" as being God's sacred Creation, just as others believe God gave "Man" total dominion over the Earth and cannot see the sacredness of the land.

Among "Europeans," there has been a strong "Social Democratic" tradition which stresses cooperation and social welfare over unrestrained personal gain. Even though these societies remain, at their core, "capitalist" and (mostly) "Christian" (though of a "soft" kind).

There is SOME value in having haole newcomers, alienated from some of the more destructive features of modern American "civilization" to embrace "Hawaiian culture," if only to deepen their insights into the problems of coexisting with, and in, nature. But it sometimes becomes a rather ridiculous affectation, especially for those of us who grew up here and may know a bit more about Hawaiian culture than the romantic arrivistes.

We needn't deny our own cultural roots. It may be that INTEGRITY means we have to recognize and come to terms with all the aspects of who we are. "America is not just George Custer and George Bush--it is also Martin Luther King, Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs and Gary Snyder, to name a few.

Even in Hawaii, kanaka maoli are not the only legitimate "actors" or "subjects" of history. We ALL have a say, depending upon the moral force of our arguments and ability to forge alliances with our multi-ethnic neighbors, in helping determine Hawaii's future. We need to build a strong coalition to restrain the more rapacious impulses of developers and their lackey politicians.

Katy said...

Something occurred to me yesterday. The word "commoner" is sometimes considered derogatory. I wonder if that started during the fight between commoners and elites during the forced enclosure of the commons.

KPFA ran a very interesting interview about this period of time in Europe. It can be heard here:

Here is a description of the program:

"According to Sylvia Federici, the European witch hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, rather than being products of medieval superstition, constituted an effort to impose an emerging capitalist logic on unruly populations. Federici contends, among other things, that women's power had to be destroyed in order for capitalism to develop."