Sacred Land Film Project

Notes from Hallowed Ground

Earth Island Reports

Over the last four years, the Sacred Land Film Project has been traveling around the world filming a new documentary series on the struggles of Indigenous communities to protect sacred places and biodiversity. Aimed for broadcast on PBS in 2012, Losing Sacred Ground visits Australia, Ethiopia, Peru, Canada, Papua New Guinea, Russia’s Altai Republic, Hawai‘i, and California. Some of the stories are discouraging. Some are inspiring. Here are a few highlights.

Winnemem Ceremony at Puberty Rock

photo of people outdoors on a rock by a large lake in the mountains. they are making teaphotos courtesy Sacred Land Film Project

Last July, for the first time in 80 years, Winnemem Wintu tribe members revived a long-banned ritual of their four-day coming-of-age ceremony. In 100 degree heat, Jessica Perez and Winona Steele first cleaned a boulder with river water, then used rocks to grind plants in the indentations where medicine was made for centuries. This important tribal landmark, Puberty Rock, emerges from the receding waters of California’s largest reservoir only in years when sufficient water is released from Shasta Dam. When winter rains come, the rock is submerged again. If the US government succeeds in enlarging the dam, the rock will disappear permanently. The Winnemem are determined not to let their traditions and their dream of restoring of a healthy river be inundated by a huge government project which many see as outmoded and destructive.

The Sacred Land film crew was honored to witness and film this ritual, and taste the sweet, rejuvenating tea the girls made and served to their aunts and to us. An hour later, Jessica and Winona swam across the river and joined their tribe as women.

Signs from Nature

The eighth story in our film series tells of the ecological and spiritual restoration of Kaho‘olawe. A walk on this Hawai‘ian island is a perilous adventure, and access is carefully managed. Visible to tourists from the beaches and resorts of Maui, the red dirt of Kaho‘olawe hides unexploded ordnance left after 50 years of bombing by the US Navy, which began after Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and continued until 1990.

photo of a man on a volcanic soil, taking a photo close-up of an unexploded weapon

Named after the Polynesian ocean god Kanaloa, Kaho‘olawe is of historic significance to Native Hawai‘ians as the launching place for journeys to Tahiti. It was used as a place to teach navigation, to observe the sun, moon, wind, and tides in solitude, and to watch for ho‘ai lona, signs from nature.

When we filmed at Kealaikahiki, a double rainbow arched across the sky. A light rain fell on the thirsty island, where erosion is a constant threat. Later, as we filmed a group of young men and women arriving by canoe from Maui, a school of spinner dolphins surfaced and swam alongside the canoe.

The battered island was the victim of wartime fear that could not distinguish between a military target and wahi pana, a storied, revered place. The slow, painstaking efforts at restoration – replanting native species, reviving ancient ceremonies, and continuing to clean up the military debris – are the centerpiece of a revival of traditional Hawai‘ian culture by elders and youth together.

We’ll return to Kaho‘olawe to complete filming in early 2011.

The Price Is Wrong

Late summer is sublime in Canada’s boreal forest, giving cool and rainy hints of the severe winter weather to follow. For three weeks managing producer Jennifer Huang, cameraman Andy Black, sound recordist Dave Wendlinger, and I went exploring in the forest to capture images of the devastating industrial process of separating oil from earth. The second largest oil deposit on the planet lies beneath the forest home of the Dene, Cree, and Métis nations, and their cultures are losing ground to a nightmare – the relentless global demand for petroleum. Hunting-people of the Athabasca River Basin have already had to give up traditional foods, and can no longer drink from the polluted river, or eat fish they believe to be deformed by absorption of heavy metals. The people endure high cancer rates and government-sponsored pollution of their air and water. Even as they pray for the land being destroyed, many Native people take jobs in the booming oil sands operations.

photo of a set of tracks coming from a distance

Jim Boucher, chief of the Fort McKay Cree First Nation, decided 15 years ago that if he couldn’t beat the industry, he might as well join them. The Ft. McKay community now has $130 million in oil services contracts every year, but Chief Boucher admitted he has second thoughts. “Money, it’s useless,” he told us. “Land – it’s priceless.”

First by boat, then on 4x4s, we journeyed to the remote sand dunes at the heart of the traditional Dene homeland. Early one morning, we emerged from our tents to find that our camp had been visited in the night. The nightmare receded and we were in a fantastic dream, awestruck by the bittersweet beauty of a bear’s paw prints in the sand. The photographer is the witness. The artist is the bear.

In the months since we returned from Alberta, we’ve been counting small blessings. Working at the Brower Center in Berkeley, we’re all able to commute by public transportation or hybrid car. Solar panels on the roof capture energy for our editing room equipment. Instead of cement, the concrete walls were constructed of blast furnace slag.

After immersion in Alberta’s nightmare, even small efforts toward sustainability take on greater significance and healing power. We hope our film’s audience will be equally inspired and encouraged to protect the people, lands, cultures, and unseen bears of our fragile and beautiful world.

—Christopher (Toby) McLeod, director of Earth Island’s Sacred Land Film Project, with Jessica Abbe.

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