Protecting Sacred Land

Storytelling about cultural landscapes can change personal behavior and public policy.

In 1984, as I was wrapping up my first documentary, The Four Corners: A National Sacrifice Area? I asked Dave Brower if my new film project could be part of Friends of the Earth. Dave, who headed the nonprofit at the time, replied, “Friends of the Earth is about to throw me out, just like the Sierra Club did. So I’m starting a new organization, Earth Island Institute. You can be part of something new as we build it from the ground up.”

Of course, I leapt at the opportunity, and I’ve never looked back.

The Sacred Land Film Project turns 40 this year. Our premise, reduced to one tweet, is: Industrial society is the sickness, and Indigenous wisdom is the cure.

a person standing in a rock formation

Hopi elder Thomas Banyacya at a sacred spring in what is now Avi Kwa Ame National Monument, while filming In the Light of Reverence in 1997. Photo by Christopher McLeod.

A donor asked me recently: What is your strategy for making a difference?

My answer is now a long blog, but in short, our strategy can be summed up as: We produce collaborative, disruptive storytelling featuring the voices of Indigenous people from around the world who offer an alternative value system as they fight to protect sacred cultural landscapes.

After four decades of making films that tell stories of the spiritual dimension of nature and culture, we’d like to think our educational work has paid off. Our film In the Light of Reverence (2001) is now in 1,000 schools and libraries. Standing on Sacred Ground (2014) is still being broadcast on PBS and streaming on Amazon Prime.

Public awareness and public policy have changed over time. In 2016, we saw the gathering of water protectors at Standing Rock to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline, a civil disobedience action that made headlines around the world. In 2021, the Biden administration appointed the country’s first Native American secretary of the interior, Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo). While restoring Bears Ears National Monument in Utah in 2021 (after Trump eviscerated it), our secular bureaucracy proclaimed, “Bears Ears is sacred land of spiritual significance, a historic homeland, and a place of belonging for indigenous people from the Southwest. Bears Ears is a living, breathing landscape…” And just last year, we witnessed the president of the United States acknowledge Avi Kwa Ame (Spirit Rock) in Nevada as sacred land.

Learn more about this Earth Island project at

This evolution in thinking and policy extends beyond the federal government. The proposed raising of Shasta Dam in Northern California has not happened, and the Winnemem Wintu Tribe has a co-management agreement to restore salmon to the McCloud River. Climbers refrain from climbing Devils Tower, sacred ground to several Indigenous peoples, in Wyoming. Peabody Coal Company has left Black Mesa, its slurry line shut down, and the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station, located on Diné land in Arizona, has been demolished. Ceremony flourishes on Kahoʻolawe in Hawaiʻi. The West Berkeley Shellmound site, sacred to the Ohlone, has not been desecrated.

The Covid-19 pandemic was tough on filmmaking — it kept us out of the field. But there was a blessing in disguise. The quarantine forced us to look in our editing room cabinet and think about the fact that two-hour interviews with extraordinary Indigenous elders and activists were often reduced to several 30-second sound bites in the films. So we are producing a new audio archive featuring extended interviews with some of our world’s most insightful thinkers: Anishinaabe activist Winona LaDuke, Onondaga Chief Oren Lyons, Winnemem Wintu healer Florence Jones, and the late authors Vine Deloria, Jr. and Barry Lopez.

We are also turning our attention to archiving the historic footage we have gathered over 40 years, some of it sensitive ceremonial footage that needs to be preserved and used with care. It has been an honor to collaborate with Indigenous leaders to tell disruptive stories, but the job is not done, responsibility remains.

Dave Brower told me many times that he never would have climbed Shiprock in New Mexico if he’d known it was sacred to the Diné people. Education about sacred places works. Good storytelling can change personal behavior, public policy, and cultural values.

Sacred sites are still threatened. As we continue the fight, let’s celebrate the victories.

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