Updated: May 17
America was a sacred paradise, a Garden of Eden, a real live Heaven on Earth. Even Christopher Columbus thought so when he sailed into the Caribbean in 1492, 1493, 1498, and then again in 1502. "There is not in the world a better nation," he wrote to the King and Queen of Spain. The indigenous people of the Americas "love their neighbors as themselves," he continued, and they are "ever sweet and gentle . . . and so peaceable."
Columbus had come from a failing backwater where the Black Death had -- and was still -- ravaging the people of Europe. Between 1346 and 1353, the Black Death pandemic killed an estimated 75-200 million people in Europe, Western Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. Europe was hit the hardest, no doubt, and it stayed in circulation in places like Spain, Italy, Portugal, and other European hot spots. Other major waves of the pandemic came later, including 1438-1439, 1456-1457, 1464-1466, 1481-1485, and 1500-1503. It's no wonder that Europeans were looking elsewhere for paradise. They were in the prime of destroying their own, and the pandemic had sprouted amid that destructive time.
So they went looking for El Dorado, "The Land of Gold." To them, that meant "paradise." And while they indeed found it in the Americas, what is not talked about was their readiness to unleash their devilry upon that Heaven on Earth. Columbus brought along men who carried diseases that would spread like fire. He brought greed, lust, and a desire to kill. He transplanted the problems of his backwards country to the American paradise.
(Photo credit: Pedro Szekely via Flickr. Wikipedia Creative Commons)
Columbus ignited the largest known holocaust in human history. He intentionally spread diseases like Small Pox and the Measles. He and his crew massacred entire cities and nations of people. They burned homes and temples and libraries. The nailed or hung people to wood beams before they set them on fire. They raped women and killed children. They forced people into slavery and servitude. Then, they stole everything that could make them some money, as they raided temples and homes for priceless goods. In the snap of a few years, the ancient American paradise had become a place of holocaust survivors.
Over time, the holocaust expanded from Atlantic to the Pacific. It's the American story that most schools and book publishers disallow. Most people in America would say Columbus is America's foremost hero, having "discovered" America and paving the way for the Land of the Free. America touts itself as the Land of the Free, but do not for one second forget that it is land of the longest running genocide in human history. It is the land where Columbus ignited a genocide that endured for over 500 years. The blatant erasure of indigenous people, their cultures and histories, and their religious practices also endured for over 500 years, until it became beneficial to be less blatant about it. White people had killed off Native American food supplies like salmon and buffalo. Their motto was:"Kill every buffalo you can! Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone." Other mottos emerged as white people planned out large-scale massacres of Native Americans, saying things like, "and leave their bodies thus exposed." In this new paradise, dripping with Native American blood, nothing was sacred unless it was built by the white man.
Built churches and cathedrals are protected under law in the US. Native American sacred sites and ceremonial grounds are not; in fact, they are open for development.
While the outright killings of Native Americans slowed after the Wounded Knee Massacre, the erasure of their sacred places did not. In fact, it sped up. Sacred places could be destroyed almost with impunity up until the 1960's and 70's when federal laws were finally enacted to reroute that destruction -- in fact, the destruction of paradise for profit. To destroy sacred places, you had to go through a permitting process. To remove indigenous cultural items and erase that history and memory from the land, you had to go through a permitting process. To pollute the water and kill habitat for salmon and other Native foods, you had to go through a permitting process. The permitting process was rather simple, and the federal agencies were always there to guide the way -- it's their directive. But if you wanted to protect an indigenous sacred site and ceremonial area, well then . . . things are different. The directives are different. The system is not so simple. In fact, it can be almost impossible because there is no federal law that requires the protection of Native American sacred sites; there is largely only the process by which they can be destroyed.
And in fact, it seems so very difficult for a lot of people to understand how on earth some beautiful place like a sacred grove of trees, a mountain, or waterfall could be anything other than empty space in need of development. It's unlawful to destroy a church, but apparently it's not illegal to destroy an indigenous sacred site, so long as you get federal agencies to help guide you through the process when there is a federal nexus.
Don't get me wrong, there are some sacred places that are protected as National Monuments, National Parks, or within federal agency land management plans which are subject to change and the whims of their leadership. But the US has no system of laws to specifically protect Native American sacred sites. So, while the task to protect sacred places can be attempted indirectly (and sometimes successfully) in the judicial system, it is really rather sad that for the 574 federally recognized Indian Tribes in the US, the federal government has yet to enact a law that would actually provide a way for Tribes to protect their sacred places. I hate to say it, but I think money has a lot to do with it.
We've had 500 years of erasing paradise because so many people can't see the profit in protecting sacred places. If one needs to see profit to do so, then just look around the world to see how the preservation of sacred places actually benefits the economy. Look at India, China, Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia. How many people visit the sacred places that those nations have chosen to protect? How much profit have they seen from this? I don't know the exact dollar amounts, but it is huge. You have millions of people every year going to these places and paying admission fees. In fact, there are so many people that want to visit these places that some countries have placed limits on the number of visitors. Peru, for example, limits the number of visitors to Machu Picchu to about a million per year. How many people visit Buddha's birthplace every year? How many people visit the tomb of the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang Di? 35,000 during just one Lunar New Year's weekend. What about to Yellowstone National Park? Over 4 million people, half of whom are traveling abroad from Asia, missing out on Native culture, missing out on Native American history, and just missing out on meeting the people who are tied to that place.
I'm not advocating for turning sacred places into tourist destinations. But absent laws that will actually provide for real protections, I do think it would be better than having sacred places continually scraped away by bulldozers.