Despite each individual Native American Nation being very different in terms of beliefs, language and culture, there is one thing at the center of most American Indian spiritual belief systems and that is the basic principle that spirituality draws heavily upon the lands and beings of our sacred grandmother earth. The idea of individual land ownership was never a passing thought to Indigenous people prior to colonization because it was a central belief that everyone belongs to the earth – not the opposite. Within many Indigenous communities, their ancestral homelands are deemed a very spiritual and sacred space because it’s the center of their being and origin of their people. It is believed that the particular place one comes from on turtle island is directly linked to identity, culture, spirituality, tradition, food, medicine and history. The ecosystem of land, water, plants and animals as well as the sky, thunder, lightning, rain, wind and fire are all believed to be individual and powerful spirit beings that walk alongside all of us; there is no distinct difference between the physical and spiritual worlds.
Native Americans know more about the environment than many because we don’t just live here and struggle to survive, we participate with the earth, with the animals and the plants, we are not separate from them, they are our relatives: they take care of us and we take care of them.
– Linda Black Elk, Ethnobotanist, Catawba Tribe
Today, Native Americans face different challenges than did their ancestors, and many of those challenges affect how they can now relate to the land. With forced removal through the Relocation Act or brutal marches like The Long Walk and Trail of Tears, today’s Indigenous people question how intact the traditional teachings and spirituality translate into their modern world and what connections and history have been lost through these acts of forced removal from their ancestral lands. The conflicts of land ownership and land use are not new concepts among Indigenous people and have been at the center of almost every interaction between Native Americans and euro-Americans since the earliest days of European contact.
Today we continue to see a strong fight over control of Native land, particularly sacred sites, between corporations, government and Native peoples. American Indians are lucky if their sacred spaces are located within the reservation boundaries but if they are not, tribes have a challenging time gaining access and protecting them. Today, most of the sacred sites being fought for are not located on reservation land, therefore aren’t always easily protected. Places like Oak Flat in Arizona, Mauna Kea in Hawai’i, Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana, and Mahto Paha (Bear Butte) in South Dakota are just a few examples of places that hold significant sacred meaning, yet the original people of those lands have a difficult time protecting and accessing them. For most of American society, land equals money and land ownership means power. Selling, leasing, or extracting resources from land seems to be an easy and natural path for personal success and riches, but for Native people, this is exploitation and abuse to our earth. Even as they continued to be separated from their ancestral lands, sometimes by thousands of miles and hundreds of years, Native people have not forgotten where they come from and continue to honor those points of origin. Generation after generation, the grandmothers and the grandfathers continue to pass down this knowledge and teach the importance and attachments to these lands.