Defending Sacred Places

Author: Carol Schaal

Imagine if Notre Dame lost legal ownership of its campus, and the Main Building with its Golden Dome was bulldozed to make way for the golden arches of McDonald’s. Or maybe things aren’t quite that bad. Nothing on campus is destroyed, but the basilica is turned into a youth hostel. Catholics can still come worship but have to contend with sleeping bags scattered across the pews, picnickers camped around the altar, and a string of discos and strip clubs outside the front door. That’s how many Lakota and Cheyenne Indians feel about Bear Butte, a sacred site in South Dakota that became a state park.

Bear Butte is embroiled in almost constant controversy concerning numerous development plans near the park — including a massive rifle range, noisy helicopter tours, liquor sales at a neighboring campground and a proposal for “the world’s biggest biker bar,” all of which Indians and many others believe undermine its spiritual character. At one point, South Dakota’s governor proposed creating a buffer zone to protect the sacred site, but the plan was voted down in the state legislature.

Indigenous people around the world face an uphill battle in protecting their holy places. These cultures traditionally have not sanctioned private ownership of land or kept written documentation of spiritual practices, which makes it difficult to legally prove the religious significance of their places of worship. These troubles are compounded by the fact that their sacred sites are often entire landscapes, such as the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona or vast tracts of rainforest in the Amazon.

Scientific research showing unique geophysical properties at certain sites may be valuable in helping native peoples establish these places as worthy of preservation, notes James A. Swan, a former professor of psychology and environmental studies who became an authority in the field of sacred places. But he cautions that measurable factors such as electromagnetic fields and negatively charged ions cannot be found at many locations traditional cultures deem holy.

Based on my own experiences visiting Bear Butte, Viking burial grounds, Christian shrines and other places holy to diverse cultures, I feel strongly that saving these places (both natural and man-made) is important to people of all beliefs because they are part of the richness of creation with which we have been blessed and which we have a moral and spiritual duty to preserve for future generations. Even holy places outside of our own particular religious traditions can inspire devotion and awe — and sometimes, as in my case, set in motion a return to Catholic roots.

We should do all we can to amend laws and shift policies so that these unique and powerful places are not lost. That’s the reason two Seattle archbishops joined with Lutheran, Episcopal, United Church of Christ, American Baptist, Presbyterian and Methodist leaders in the Pacific Northwest a number of years ago to apologize for the historical destruction of Native American spiritual practices and to pledge support for preserving traditional holy places. Their statement read, in part: “We call upon our people for recognition of and respect for your traditional ways of life and for protection of your sacred places and ceremonial objects.”

Jay Walljasper, senior fellow at Project for Public Spaces and co-editor of, writes regularly about travel for National Geographic Traveler and other publications. His website is