At the entrance to the womb-like valley of Oak Flat, near the deeply rooted ancient oaks, Wendsler Nosie, San Carlos Apache leader, spoke with me about some questions raised by an official of the U.S. Forestry. The official had asked why the Apache included non-Apache/settler voices regarding the sacredness of Oak Flat in their response to the Environmental Impact Statement. The Forestry official’s perspective seemed to be that only spiritualities indigenous to this land can hold this land as sacred. Wendsler challenged me to think about how this government position colonizes and limits the faiths of people, like me, whose ancestors are from other places.
My Christian faith understands the whole earth and all living beings as holy. My European ancestors also passed down the spiritual understanding that there are “thin places” on earth where humans can connect more easily with that holiness. Those places are often chosen as places of worship, prayer, pilgrimage, and service to others. The faith-filled responses within the holy “thin places” serve to deepen, strengthen and tend to the connection with God and with all that is holy in those places.
The physical places are actually holy. We encounter God in those places, and more spiritual power becomes accessible over time through the spiritual work of God’s people in those places. Existing in these spaces is one way we partner with the Creator.
When I hear that the San Carlos Apache (or any other Nation or people) understand that a place is sacred, I believe them. I have no reason to question their spiritual discernment. When I hear that they have held ceremony in a place since time immemorial, I understand that the holiness of the place itself has been deepened over time by their spiritual practice.
Ideally, I am invited before coming to another people’s sacred place. I prepare and prayerfully show up in a way that honours the land and the people who have spiritually tended that place. Wendsler suggested that, when heading towards a sacred place, we do well to stop each time the land changes and ask permission to enter that different space, ask each ecosystem to bless us as we travel with good intention.
Unfortunately, many people arrive in sacred places like Oak Flat without any reverence or care and therefore miss protocols and opportunities for deep connection.
But the land is still sacred. Whether I arrive well or poorly, I may experience the holiness of a place, even though it is far from where my ancestors lived. God has nurtured my spirit in and through Oak Flat. I experience Oak Flat as sacred for me because, existentially, it is sacred.
I recently talked on Zoom with a powerfully spiritual friend about Oak Flat and asked her to pray. She was willing. I showed her a picture of Oak Flat, and she gasped. I heard her connect with the holiness of Oak Flat over great distances in space and spiritual tradition. She prayed, binding the spirit of greed that is attacking Oak Flat. She continues to pray with us.
Oak Flat is holy. I thank God that the San Carlos Apache tend it and have a profound relationship with Oak Flat. And, the holiness of Oak Flat is not a thing that is true only for one people.
Holiness cannot be limited by government policy. But it should be respected, even by governments. Colonial perspectives cannot capture or control what is sacred. They continue to commit genocide against the people who are connected to land, and to distance and deaden the other’s faith, lest we stand for and with the land and the people of the land.
Let us pray and act together to protect Oak Flat.