Blackfoot Sacred Places

By the time fur traders from the Hudson’s Bay Company first made contact with the Blackfoot tribes in 1735, their territory included much of the Northern Plains of present-day Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Montana. There are three Blackfoot tribes: Pikuni (also called Piegan), Kainah (also called Blood), Siksika (also called Northern Blackfoot). The Piegan are currently divided into South Piegan (located in Montana) and North Peigan (located in Alberta). These tribes, while politically independent, shared the same language and many of the same ceremonies.

One of the common accounts of Blackfoot origins often given by non-Indians is that they had been woodland dwellers who entered the Plains and adopted a Plains buffalo-hunting lifestyle just prior to European contact in the eighteenth century. On the other hand, anthropologist Hugh Dempsey, in his chapter on the Blackfoot in the Handbook of North American Indians, writes:  “The belief that they were woodland dwellers who drifted onto the plains from the region of the Eagle Hills in Saskatchewan in the immediate precontact period has been rejected by Indians and some anthropologists.”

Since Blackfoot culture shows almost no influence from the woodland cultures to the northeast, it is generally felt today that the Blackfoot had lived on the Northern Plains for a very long time prior to their contact with the fur traders.

For the Blackfoot, as well as other Plains Indian tribes, there were places which were regarded as particularly sacred. These sacred places were not marked with structures or shrines, but were usually places on the landscape which served as portals to the spiritual world. Some of these sacred places were used for ceremonies, such as the Medicine Lodge (Sun Dance), vision quest, and sweat lodge. Others were places where sacred plants could be gathered. Many of the sites are mentioned in the tribal oral traditions and therefore tend to be invisible for those unfamiliar with these traditions.

A few of the places which are sacred to the Blackfoot are described below.

Chief Mountain:

Chief Mountain is located to the east of Glacier National Park, Montana. It is used as a vision quest and prayer site. The Blackfoot name for the mountain is Niinastoko which means “Father Mountain.” According to Blackfoot elder Long Standing Bear Chief, writing in Spirit Talk News:   “On Chief Mountain, or rather Father Mountain, the Great Holy Being called upon the spirits of the universe to meet and decide what they were to offer in order to make life meaningful to the newest form of life: mankind.”  He goes on to say:  “When you go to the base of Chief Mountain today, you will find cloth of many different colors tied to the trees as offerings to the Source of Life and to the Spirits who continue to contribute to the wellness of mankind.”

Badger-Two Medicine:

 Another area sacred to the Blackfoot is Badger-Two Medicine, an area near the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. It is an area which contains hundreds of features which are associated with Blackfoot oral tradition and creation. According to Arlene Hirschfelder and Paulette Molin, in The Encyclopedia of Native American Religions:  “For centuries, the Blackfeet have carried out practices in this sacred region that are vital to the Blackfeet culture and people.”

In an article in The Journal of Law and Religion, Jay Vest writes:  “Spiritually, the Badger-Two Medicine is a source for the gathering of traditional Blackfeet ‘medicine power’ and this quality has a significant role in restoring the moral fabric of the Blackfeet Nation.”

The area is endangered by oil and gas exploration which the elders feel will destroy the region’s spirituality.

Sweetgrass Hills:

 The Sweetgrass Hills is an area in Montana which is sacred to the Blackfoot, Gros Ventre, Chippewa-Cree, Kootenai, and Assiniboine. The area is used as a fasting area and ceremonial area. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has placed the Sweetgrass Hills on its list of ten most endangered places. The area is managed by the Bureau of Land Management and there have been attempts to explore the area for gold, oil, and gas.

Writing-on-Stone:

Writing-on-Stone is now a provincial park in Alberta, Canada which is well-known for its large collection of traditional rock art. Along a seven kilometer stretch of the Milk River, sandstone outcrops have been used for petroglyphs (rock carvings). Among the Blackfoot, this place is known as the “place of mystery” and the place “where the ghosts live”. According to Blackfoot elders Bird Rattle and Split Ears, the writings are messages from the spirit world which can be read by medicine men. According to these elders, the messages “which frequently changed overnight, warned of enemies in the area, told them the location of the buffalo herds or strayed horses, and foretold future events.”

Mount Taylor and the Pueblos

The Pueblo Indians, who have lived in the American Southwest for thousands of years, do not draw a distinction between the secular and the sacred: everything is spiritual. This spirituality permeates all aspects of their lives, including their interaction with the land, with other peoples, and with the supernaturals. All life is interrelated, balanced, and interdependent. Human beings, therefore, must maintain harmony with the rest of the universe. One of the places that is important for the maintenance of harmony and the spiritual health of the people is the mountain which the Americans call Mount Taylor.

Mt taylor

In 1849, shortly after the United States acquired New Mexico from Mexico the Americans, ignoring any possible Native American names for the mountain, renamed it after President Zachary Taylor. The mountain is called Dwankwi Kyabachu Yalanne by the Zuni; Kaweshtima by the Acoma; Tsibina by the Laguna; and Tsiipiya by the Hopi.

Zachery Taylor

Zachery Taylor, shown above, gained fame as a military officer in his campaigns in the Black Hawk War and the Seminole Wars.

With regard to the Zuni and Mount Taylor, Zuni Governor Cooeyate has said:

“The Zuni relationship to Mount Taylor, as an important place on the landscape and as a marker of the extent of the Zuni homelands, has been documented through historic records for more than 300 years. First by the early Spanish representatives in the eighteenth century, later by American military personnel and early anthropologists throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and more recently in land claims cases in the latter half of the twentieth century. While the importance of Zuni’s relationship to Mount Taylor can be found in writings that are very old, our relationship to the mountain exceeds the historic record by many centuries.”

In addition to being a sacred area for these Pueblos, the mountain is also a sacred area for a number of non-Pueblo tribes including the Navajo. The Navajo name for the mountain is Sootdzit. From this mountain, the people gather soil, tobacco, minerals, medicines, and other resources which are used to create the Mountain Soil Bundle which is used in the Blessing Way Ceremony.

With regard to its physical geography, Mount Taylor is a stratovolcano located midway between Albuquerque and Gallup in the southwestern corner of the San Mateo Mountains. It rises to an elevation of 12,000 feet and is the highest point in the Cibola National Forest. The mountain is largely forested and rises like a blue cone above the desert. The forest on its slopes was an important source of timber for the Pueblos.

In 1905, without consulting the tribes or taking into consideration the sacred nature of Mount Taylor, the United States incorporated the land into a national forest to be administered by the Secretary of Agriculture. Since the primary focus of the Forest Service is on resource development, over the past century the cultural resources on Mount Taylor including pilgrimage trails, shrines, and archeological sites have been threatened by increased development.

In 1978, Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) which was designed to pro¬tect and preserve traditional religious practices, including access to sacred sites, the use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through traditional ceremonies. The Act directed federal agencies to survey their rules and regulations and to try to accommodate the practice of Indian religions. The Act directs federal agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service, to adopt land management policies which will be sensitive toward tribal religious needs concerning federal public lands. As a result of this Act, federal agencies began to formally consult with American Indian tribes about how proposed federal developments might harm sacred places. The law, however, did notinclude an administrative mechanism for Indian tribes to contest agency decisions.  

In 2009, Mount Taylor was designated as a Traditional Cultural Property. According to Acoma Pueblo Governor Sanchez:

“This designation highlights the rich historic and cultural connections that each tribe maintains with the mountain, especially for the Pueblo of Acoma.”

The designation serves as guidance for any future development of the area and calls for tribal consultation on any proposed development.

Acoma

Acoma Pueblo is shown above.

Sacred Places in New England

The cultural landscape of American Indians is filled with sacred sites which are described in their oral traditions. There are two basic kinds of sacred sites: (1) those which are sacred because of human acts of consecration, dedication, and ritual practice, and (2) those which are intrinsically holy, places which are endowed with great spiritual power. Very little is known about places which were sacred to the native people of the New England tribes prior to the arrival of the Europeans. What is known comes in part from the fragments of oral tradition which have been recorded, from the early European journals, and from the archaeological record.  

Sacrifice Rocks:

The European journals talk about “sacrifice rocks” which held spiritual importance for the Indians. Two of these were on the side of the road between Plymouth and Sandwich in Massachusetts. One of them is described as being six feet high while the other is about four feet high and both are ten to twelve feet in length. The stones were traditionally covered with offerings of wood and stone.

Writing in 1762, Ezra Stiles reports:

“The Indians being asked the reason of their Custom & Practice, say they know nothing about it, only that their Fathers & their Grandfathers & their Great Grandfathers did so, and charged all their Children to do so; and that if they did not cast a Stone or piece of Wood on that Stone as often as they passed by it, they would not prosper, & particularly should not be lucky in hunting deer.”

Mounds of brush and stone were built to mark scenes of tragedy and/or places where warriors were killed. As people passed by these mounds they would add stones and branches to them. There are several thousand of these mounds in New England.

An arrangement of rocks, called hobbomak, was done in an area which was felt to have particularly strong spiritual power. These were places where seekers could obtain spiritual power directly from the spirit world. These appear to have been similar to the vision quest sites in other areas. The hobbomaks, many of which are still known in the area, were considered so powerful that the oral traditions cautioned seekers to use them only under certain ceremonial conditions.

Stone Circles and Chambers:

Part of the sacred Native American landscape in New England is formed with stones: single standing stones, rows of stones, stone circles, and stone chambers. These are often invisible to non-Indians as many are convinced that Indians were not advanced enough to work with stone. With a stereotype of Indians as nomads firmly implanted in their minds by education and the mass media, many non-Indians do not realize that Indians in New England lived in permanent villages and often built their sacred landscape out of stone.

Gungywump

A stone circle at Gungywump in Connecticut is shown above.

We know relatively little today about the use and meaning of specific sites, and we are just beginning to understand that there may be a connection between the various sites. Some of the sites appear to have been observatories, oriented toward solar events (such as the solstices), lunar events (full moons and lunar maximums), and stellar events.

Of particular interest are the Native American chambers in New England. These chambers were built from stone using a corbelling system for the roof. They were often covered with earth and thus, several centuries later, appear to be natural caves. We don’t know what kinds of ceremonies were performed in these, but several have an orientation toward the summer solstice and thus may have had an astronomical function. More than 300 stone chambers have been identified in New England and of these 105 have been determined to have astronomical orientations.

The chamber at Upton, Massachusetts has a passageway about twenty feet long which leads into a circular chamber which is about twelve feet in diameter. Recent renovations at the chamber have shown that no metal tools were used in working the stones. The lintel stone over the entrance was very carefully fitted to the stones on either side.

Another feature in the sacred landscape of New England are the standing stones which often have a shape resembling the upper human torso and head. Some of the standing stones are tall obelisks, others slabs in stone rows that are wider than high.  Some of the stones are anthropomorphized stones called god or manitou stones. The standing stones are set upright in the ground or they are supported by other stones. These standing stones are often found near other features, such as stone rows, mounds, and chambers.  

Rock Art:

The powwows (spiritual leaders) would often record their visions in pictographic form on rocks. The sites chosen for these pictographs-rocky cliffs, boulders, outcroppings-were places which had sacred significance. These were often places associated with specific spiritual beings and their emergence from either the sky world or the underworld.

Many of the rock art images at Solon, Maine have sexual connotations, including ithyphallic males, sexually receptive females, and images of both male and female genitalia. One of the phalli has wings. Native Americans tended to view sex, sexuality, and nudity as natural and therefore these were not excluded from their spirituality. There are also many non-sexual images, including 15 birds.

Sacred Places in Northern California

Throughout North America there are two basic kinds of sacred American Indian sites: (1) those which are sacred because of human acts of consecration, dedication, and ritual practice, and (2) those which are intrinsically holy, places which are endowed with great spiritual power. Religious traditions which are based on animism-the view that all things are alive and have souls-tend to have sacred places that are natural rather than being made by human beings. Instead of building churches, animists tend to use special places in the natural landscape as portals to the spiritual world.  

The Indian nations of Northern California had many different areas which they considered to be sacred. Some of these were places in which creation had occurred; some are places where healing powers can be obtained; and some are places where it is easier to make contact with the spirit world. A few of these are described below.  

Mount Diablo, located east of San Francisco Bay, is a sacred place to many of the tribes of Central California. For the Miwok, for example, this is the place where creation took place and where human beings acquired fire.

Mount Shasta is a key figure in the stories and ceremonies of several Indian cultures, including the Karuk, Yurok, Shasta, Hupa, Yana, Pit River, Wiyot, and Wintu. It is one of the main sacred mountains to the Wintu. The souls of the dead go first to Mount Shasta and then to the Milky Way.

In 1988, the Forest Service issued permits for a ski resort on Mount Shasta. Prior to issuing the permits the Forest Service talked with groups who consider Mount Shasta to be sacred — Wintu, Pit River, Shasta, and Karuk. Florence Jones, who is considered the “top doctor” by the Wintu, told them:

“The mountain is where I get my information to treat people. If you ruin my spiritual place, how will I take care of my people as a doctor?”

Hupa Shaman

A photograph of a Hupa shaman by Edward Curtis is shown above.

However, the Forest Service archaeologists found no cultural resources on Mount Shasta which would interfere with the development of a ski resort.

Mount Shasta

Mount Shasta is shown above.

Patrick’s Point is celebrated in Yurok stories and songs as the last abode of the immortals. These immortal beings left the other parts of Yurok territory when the Yurok people were created. However, they still continue to linger at Patrick’s Point. Among the important spiritual people who are found here are the Porpoise People (the porpoises are considered to be a people.)

In 1992, the Yurok people working with the California Department of Parks and Recreation constructed the Yurok village of Sumeg at this site. The village includes three living houses, two sweat houses, and a Brush Dance pit. A ceremonial Brush Dance is held at the site.

Medicine Lake in the Modoc National Forest in northeastern California was formed 100,000 years ago with a volcanic eruption which left a caldera or basin in which the lake formed. This is an area which is of spiritual importance to the Pit River, Modoc, Klamath, Shasta, Karuk, and Wintu. According to the Pit River Tribal Council:

“The area of the Medicine Lake Highlands is important to the culture, religious practices of the Ajumawai and Atwamsini Bands of the Pit River Nation, and to the Pit River Tribe as a whole”

The Medicine Lake area is still used for vision quests, for gathering healing herbs, and for other ceremonies.

Medicine Lake Highlands

A photograph of the Medicine Lake Highlands by the U.S. Forest Service is shown above.

In 1998, the federal government granted leases which allow for the development of geothermal energy sources around the volcanic Medicine Lake Highlands. The following year, the Medicine Lake caldera was found eligible to be added to the National Register of Historic Places as a Traditional Cultural District because of its long use by Northern California tribes.

Klamath Curtis

A photograph of the Klamath by Edward Curtis is shown above.

Cave of Hands is located in Pico Blanco in Monterey County. The Cave of Hands, sacred to the Costanoan, contains more than 250 hands made by tracing and filling in. Archaeologists estimate that these painting were done more than 3,190 years ago.

Mount Offield is considered the most sacred mountain in Karuk territory. The Karuk call this place Ikxaréeyav Túuyship which means “mountain of the immortals.” During the World Renewal Ceremony, the Karuk would burn the brush on the slope of the mountain (a practice which was stopped by the Americans).

Crater Lake in southern Oregon is sacred to the Klamath. The lake was formed 7,700 years ago when a volcano – Mount Mazama – erupted and collapsed. The caldera then filled with water making it the deepest lake in North America (1,943 feet). Oral history tells of the volcanic eruption and the formation of the lake. The eruption reflected the battle between Llao, a mountain spirit, and Skell. After the lake was formed, the Klamath used the area as a vision quest site. They call the lake Giwas and it is here that the vision seekers can become one with all creation and obtain their spiritual power.

Crater Lake

Crater Lake is shown above.

This list is meant to be illustrative, not exhaustive. I realize that I have not provided a great deal of detail about the nature of these sites, but since I am not affiliated with any of the Northern California tribes, it would be inappropriate for me to provide greater detail.

Sacred American Indian Places in Northern California

( – promoted by navajo)

Religious traditions which are based on animism-the view that all things are alive and have souls-tend to have sacred places that are natural rather than being made by human beings. Instead of building churches, animists tend to use special places in the natural landscape as portals to the spiritual world.

The Indian nations of Northern California had many different areas which they considered to be sacred. Some of these were places in which creation had occurred; some are places where healing powers can be obtained; and some are places where it is easier to make contact with the spirit world. The diary below describes a few of these places.  

Mount Diablo, located east of San Francisco Bay, is a sacred place to many of the tribes of Central California. For the Miwok, for example, this is the place where creation took place and where human beings acquired fire.

Mount Shasta is a key figure in the stories and ceremonies of several Indian cultures, including the Karuk, Yurok, Shasta, Hupa, Yana, Pit River, Wiyot, and Wintu. It is one of the main sacred mountains to the Wintu. The souls of the dead go first to Mount Shasta and then to the Milky Way.

In 1988, the Forest Service issued permits for a ski resort on Mount Shasta. Prior to issuing the permits the Forest Service talked with groups who consider Mount Shasta to be sacred — Wintu, Pit River, Shasta, and Karuk. Florence Jones, who is considered the “top doctor” by the Wintu, tells them:

“The mountain is where I get my information to treat people. If you ruin my spiritual place, how will I take care of my people as a doctor?”

However, the Forest Service archaeologists found no cultural resources on Mount Shasta which would interfere with the development of a ski resort.

Patrick’s Point is celebrated in Yurok stories and songs as the last abode of the immortals. These immortal beings left the other parts of Yurok territory when the Yurok people were created. However, they still continue to linger at Patrick’s Point. Among the important spiritual people who are found here are the Porpoise People (the porpoises are considered to be a people.)

Medicine Lake in the Modoc National Forest in northeastern California was formed 100,000 years ago with a volcanic eruption which left a caldera or basin in which the lake formed. This is an area which is of spiritual importance to the Pit River, Modoc, Klamath, Shasta, Karuk, and Wintu. According to the Pit River Tribal Council:

“The area of the Medicine Lake Highlands is important to the culture, religious practices of the Ajumawai and Atwamsini Bands of the Pit River Nation, and to the Pit River Tribe as a whole”

The Medicine Lake area is still used for vision quests, for gathering healing herbs, and for other ceremonies.

In 1998, the federal government granted leases which allow for the development of geothermal energy sources around the volcanic Medicine Lake Highlands. The following year, the Medicine Lake caldera was found eligible to be added to the National Register of Historic Places as a Traditional Cultural District because of its long use by Northern California tribes.

Cave of Hands is located in Pico Blanco in Monterey County. The Cave of Hands, sacred to the Costanoan, contains more than 250 hands made by tracing and filling in. Archaeologists estimate that these painting were done more than 3,190 years ago.

Mount Offield is considered the most sacred mountain in Karuk territory. The Karuk call this place Ikxaréeyav Túuyship which means “mountain of the immortals.” During the World Renewal Ceremony, the Karuk would burn the brush on the slope of the mountain (a practice which was stopped by the Americans).

Crater Lake in southern Oregon is sacred to the Klamath. The lake was formed 7,700 years ago when a volcano – Mount Mazama – erupted and collapsed. The caldera then filled with water making it the deepest lake in North America (1,943 feet). Oral history tells of the volcanic eruption and the formation of the lake. The eruption reflected the battle between Llao, a mountain spirit, and Skell. After the lake was formed, the Klamath used the area as a vision quest site.

This list is meant to be illustrative, not exhaustive. I realize that I have not provided a great deal of detail about the nature of these sites, but since I am not affiliated with any of the Northern California tribes, it would be inappropriate for me to provide greater detail.

Mount Shasta

American Indian Sacred Places

( – promoted by navajo)

Indian people have a great variety of different places which are considered to be sacred. Some of these are structures which Indian people have constructed; some of them are places associated with origin stories and oral traditions; some of them are places which have been used for ceremonies and other spiritual activities.

Non-Indians sometimes have difficulty in understanding and “seeing” the sacredness that Indian people attach to certain places. Often this is due to a difference in the spiritual experiences of Indians and non-Indians.  

Europeans came to the Americas as immigrants bringing with them their religions. As newcomers their religions did not have historic ties to the land and sacred space was the area which they enclosed in their churches. When these churches were abandoned – no longer used for worship by their congregations – the space they enclosed was no longer sacred and churches, therefore, could be converted to secular uses. As a result, today there are former churches which are now stores, houses, medical offices, bars, and so on.

Indian people have often enclosed their sacred spaces in a different manner: natural features, such as rivers, islands, cliffs, and mountains, are used to enclose these places. Unlike the European churches, these Native American sacred places are still sacred even when the people themselves have been moved to another location and are unable to regularly perform ceremonies at these places.  

Among Indian people, with their long association with the land, there are locations – such as geographical features – which have a prominent place in their oral tradition and in their origin stories. Some of these are places where acts of creation occurred prior to the existence of human beings and others are places where the activities of ancient ancestors took place. Once a place has become a part of the sacred landscape, it is always sacred. Unlike the European churches, which can lose their holiness when their congregations abandon them, Native American sacred places continue to be sacred even after the people no longer live in the area.  

The oral tradition of the Shoshone tells of a time when a young hunter chased a white buffalo into a lake. Since that time the spirit of the white buffalo has lived in the bottom of Bull Lake. For this reason, Bull Lake is a sacred place and Shoshone people who seek to make a spiritual connection with the spirit world will spend the night on the banks of the lake.

Bear Butte in South Dakota is sacred to the Cheyenne because of its association with the great prophet Sweet Medicine. The Cheyenne call this place Noahavose. On their historic migration to the Plains under the leadership of Sweet Medicine, a great door opened in Noahavose. Sweet Medicine was called inside by Maheo (the All Being, the Creator). For four years Sweet Medicine remained in this lodge within the mountain and was instructed in the codes of law and behavior. Before returning to his people, Sweet Medicine was then given four sacred arrows. These four sacred arrows form the core of the sacred Cheyenne medicine bundle. Thus, Bear Butte is the holiest site in the Cheyenne world.

In Nebraska there are five sacred hills which are called pahuk by the Pawnee. It is in these hills that the nahu-rac or animal spirits live. It was the nahu-rac who taught the Pawnee to build their earthlodges. The nahu-rac have continued to help the Pawnee and provide medicine people with knowledge and power. The fifth, and most holy of the pahuk lies just north of Cedar Bluffs.

It was at this fifth pahuk that a Pawnee father once sacrificed the life of his son. The animal spirits, however, brought the boy back to life so that he could deliver messages from Tirawa (the Creator) to the Pawnee elders.

Among the Hidatsa in North Dakota, the spirits destined to become human beings inhabit certain hills which are known as sacred hills. Each of these hills is an earthlodge in which babies live and are cared for by an old man. One of these hills is near the mouth of the Knife River, one is on the Heart River, and one is east of the Little Missouri River. As with other sacred sites, Indian people often leave small offerings at the sacred hills.  Women who want to bear children put toys at the foot of these hills.

Some Hidatsa remember things from the time when they were living in the baby hill before they were born. Sometimes they remember the other babies who were there with them.

In Arizona, the San Francisco Peaks rise high above the western edge of the Colorado Plateau. It is within these peaks that the katsinas – spiritual beings important to the Hopi and the Zuni – live. In the Hopi villages, some 80 miles away, the peaks stand out as a symbol of Hopi spirituality. For many centuries, the Hopi have made pilgrimages to the San Francisco Peaks, leaving offerings for the katsinas who live there. For the Hopi, San Francisco Peaks are a shrine. For many non-Indians, the San Francisco peaks are a place for skiing and mining, activities which the Hopi do not view as compatible with the sacred nature of the place.

The Sweetgrass Hills in Montana rise more than 3,000 feet above the surrounding plains. For many tribes, this area is important in their origin stories and for more than 10,000 years, Indian people have been conducting ceremonies in this area. The Sweetgrass Hills – the name comes from a mistranslation of the Blackfoot name for the area: Sweetpine Mountains – are sacred to many tribes including the Blackfoot, Kootenai, Gros Ventre, Assiniboine, Salish, and Cree. This is an area which is used for many different ceremonies, including the vision quest and the sun dance. In addition, many of the plants which are important in tribal spirituality grow in the area. There is no single place in the Sweetgrass Hills which is sacred: the whole area is sacred.

Indian people, like the Europeans, also build structures to enclose sacred places. Perhaps the most common of these is the sweat lodge. The sweat lodge is not a structure which soars into the heavens nor is it a structure which is intended to impress people with its size. Instead, it is a simple structure, usually small, which allows the participants to make contact with Mother Earth. The area enclosed by the sweat lodge and the area between the sweat lodge and the fire pit is sacred space. It has been made sacred by its use. Like the sacred area enclosed by a Christian church, this is an area which remains sacred even when no ceremonies are being conducted.

An Indian sacred place may be enclosed very differently than that of a Christian church. One example of this is the Bighorn Medicine Wheel in Wyoming. The medicine wheel was originally constructed about 1500 years ago. The wheel is constructed of limestone rocks and is about 80 feet in diameter. It has 28 spokes radiating out from a central cairn. In addition to the wheel, there are a number of vision quest sites incorporated into it. Unlike a church, it has no roof, but still the stones enclose a sacred place.

The Medicine Wheel is a sacred site to many tribes, including the Cheyenne, the Crow, and the Shoshone. According to Crow oral tradition, the early 19th century leader Red Crow did his vision quest at the Medicine Wheel. He was visited by the little people who took him into the earth and gave him his medicine. Later in life, as he lay dying, he told his people that his soul would return to the Medicine Wheel after his death and that the people could talk to him there.  

For many Indian people there are places which are sacred because they are resource areas. It is in these areas that people come to gather the medicine plants which are important to their ceremonies and to their daily ceremonial lives. In some resource areas, people mine the minerals from Mother Earth which are used in making spiritual face paint.

One of the important resource areas for many Indian people is the area in Minnesota in which catlinite for pipes is mined. This red stone – considered by many to be formed from the blood of an ancient people – has been mined for thousands of years by many different tribes. This area has long been considered a sacred area, and as such, it was not uncommon for people who were at war with one another to be peacefully mining the stone side-by-side. As a sacred area, tribal differences were put aside. Today a part of this area is enclosed in Pipestone National Monument.

Throughout North America there are places which are felt to be sacred because of rock art or rock writing. These are areas which have pictographs (images painted on the rock) or petroglyphs (images which are carved into the rock).

In order to understand rock art, it is important to realize that from an Indian perspective the rock is a living thing. It has a soul and therefore it has the ability to talk to those who are willing to hear it. Rock art is not graffiti left by Indian explorers: it is a spiritual union with the rock. While many non-Indian “art” collectors have removed rock slabs containing petroglyphs and pictographs so that they can be displayed in galleries, museums, and homes, in so doing they have destroyed the sacred nature of this work. Pictographs and petroglyphs are more than markings on the rock: they are spiritual symbols which are associated with the rock and with the place where the rock is located.

One well-known petroglygh is Writing-on-Stone, a provincial park in Alberta, Canada. Along a seven kilometer stretch of the Milk River, sandstone outcrops have been used for petroglyphs. Among the Blackfoot, this place is known as the “place of mystery” and the place “where the ghosts live”. According to Blackfoot elders Bird Rattle and Split Ears, the writings are messages from the spirit world which can be read by medicine men. According to these elders, the messages frequently changed overnight to warn them of enemies in the area, to tell them the location of the buffalo herds or strayed horses, and to foretell future events.

Among the Anishinabe people (also called Ojibwa or Chippewa), elders would take young people to the pictograph and petroglyph sites. There the elders would read the meaning of the symbols to the young people just prior to their vision quest.

In the Southwest, Hopi oral tradition tells of wandering clans who left a record of their journeys carved in stone. As a consequence, there are many rock art sites in the Southwest which are sacred to the Hopi.

Another kind of sacred place is the trail or pilgrimage route. America was never a wilderness: it was a land which was crisscrossed by many different kinds of Indian trails. Many of these trails were – and some continue to be – important in Indian spirituality.

The Lolo Trail in Montana and Idaho was marked with rock cairns. Nez Perce travelers following the trail would pause to speak to the spirits and to add stones. On their return from the Pacific Ocean in 1806, Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery was led through the Bitterroot Mountains via the Lolo Trail by three Nez Perce guides. At one point, the guides stopped the group at a large cairn of rocks on a ridgetop. In spite of the pleas of Lewis and Clark to continue the journey, the Nez Perce insisted that they must stop here for a pipe ceremony to offer their gratitude to the spirit world and to give thanks for their safe passage. Captain Clark noted that the conical mound of stones was six to eight feet in height. The Nez Perce refer to this area as the Smoking Place.

Indian people have always been keen observers of the heavens and have used the progression of the sun, the moon, and the stars to mark their ceremonial calendars. In observing the heavens, Indian astronomers build observatories which are another form of sacred place. In the Southwest, the Puebloan ancestors (often called Anasazi by the archaeologists) built an observatory with massive stones on top of Fajada Butte in Chaco Canyon. In Illinois, the Indian people of Cahokia constructed their observatory with wooden poles. In Tennessee, Indian people built an earthen enclosure with its entrance marking the summer solstice.