I have trespassed in order to film mining sites several times, but I’ve only ended up detained by the police once, in Papua New Guinea, while we were filming the “Profit and Loss” segment of our Standing on Sacred Ground series. The Ramu Nico mine is owned by the Chinese government, and I must say that during our hour-long interrogation I felt like I was in a cell in Tibet. Only the five PNG cops with rifles standing behind the Chinese security guard reminded me I was indeed in Papua New Guinea.
We had surreptitiously filmed the desecration of an ancestral burial ground. The Chinese wanted our tapes and accused us of being industrial spies. Our film subject and host, Sama Mellombo, the guardian of the destroyed cemetery, turned out to be the clan uncle of all of the policemen, so after some intense drama we were released, along with our tapes.
More and more, the rights of Indigenous people to defend their historic, cultural, and sacred sites and to resist invasion of their traditional lands are being asserted all around the world.
When we started filming these stories in the 1990s, sacred land was an obscure concept. While Indigenous peoples’ cultures are centered on sacred places and no definition is required, the dominant culture has long demanded: So what? Why are sacred places important? Why should we care?
First, because of the intangible values nurtured by sacred sites – respect, humility, reciprocity, generosity – that play a fundamental role in maintaining the vitality of ecosystems. The spiritual power of prayer, song, and dance bring a community into balance and engender a deep connection with all life forms, visible and invisible.
Then there are facts: Indigenous people today make up 4 percent of the world’s human population and inhabit 20 percent of the earth’s surface, according to World Bank figures. That 20 percent of Earth holds 80 percent of this planet’s biodiversity. All Indigenous communities have sacred places at the heart of their lands.
Yet to truly understand these connections – and to get the story out – we still have a long way to go.
Our PBS broadcasts of Standing on Sacred Ground in May and June were the culmination of two decades of work during which our amazing filmmaking team often felt like salmon swimming upstream against a raging current. Institutional racism, apathy toward ecological pain, the colonizers’ myopic view of history, America’s inward-looking materialism, and PR assaults from destructive mining companies still form a surging torrent.
But we got the films on PBS stations all across the United States. The series will be broadcast in Australia soon. We are making great progress.
We are finally seeing respectful, thoughtful coverage of sacred-site battles in the mainstream media. When the San Carlos Apache’s sacred initiation site at Oak Flat in Arizona was secretly traded by the US Congress to a global mining company for a copper mine, the injustice was widely covered and justifiable public outrage followed. Native Hawaiians’ opposition to the construction of the massive Thirty Meter Telescope on sacred Mauna Kea also has been the subject of sympathetic reporting.
When the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals supported the Indigenous guardians of Medicine Lake in California and affirmed that the Pit River Tribe has standing to oppose 26 geothermal leases granted to Calpine Energy by the Bureau of Land Management, The Sacramento Bee reported:
“For at least 10,000 years, members of the Pit River Tribe have used Medicine Lake and the surrounding highlands for religious activities such as vision quests, prayers, traditional shaman practices, life cycle ceremonies, the collection of traditional foods and medicine, and spiritual renewal, according to a lawsuit in which the tribe was joined by four other groups to challenge BLM’s continuation of 26 geothermal leases for up to 40 years.”
These steps forward in changing the narrative – from the colonialist perspective to one in which Indigenous people tell their own stories, stand up for their sacred lands, and offer sustainable alternatives – represent signs of hope.
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