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Monday Photo Meditation: Greater Sacred Spaces

It’s a flawless October day: a bit cool with a well-honed edge on the slight breeze, skies blue, leaves gold, air clearer than crystal.

This is the best of what autumn has to offer here, and it’s perfect for this particular day . . . an extra gift on a day that is hard at the best of times. It’s a day the world uses to celebrate colonialism and all of its evils as though they are some objective good, and that is hard enough. As a direct response, parts of the larger society have recast this as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which is a good thing . . . and yet, it’s done in reaction to the larger evil. Even on this day, we are not permitted honor or pride that are organic.

On a personal level, it’s a good day, because it is the day of the birth of one of our dearest friends.

And then there is the loss associated with it, a deeply personal grief: for this is the day, now twenty-seven years past, that my sister was taken from this world in a particularly violent murder. Back then, we had none of language of #MMIW; hashtags were as unknown as the Internet itself was new to the general public. But it’s why I can never celebrate this day, a date chosen arbitrarily for colonial ends and now marked in direct response. Others will dance on this day, but I cannot.

But it reminds me of the need for balance, for finding the good to respond to the evil, or failing that, to create it. And it reminds me, too, of the deeply complex solutions our ancestors were forced to create. For it is by their ingenuity and courage and strength that we are here today, and it is up to us to do likewise for the generations yet to come.

Yesterday I saw a young person assert that nothing but land can be decolonized. That’s the sort of wrong whose correction can only be learned through hard experience, and thus is neither my job or my place. But it reminded me of the extent to which our entire lives must be decolonized daily, and every aspect of our environments, from the work we do to the places we go to the things we consume to the very thoughts we think, the songs we sing, the dances we dance, the prayers we offer. More, we must do so with a fair degree of humility. It’s easy to criticize the choices our ancestors made, despite the fact that choices were, in fact, often nonexistent. It would be better to refer to those actions as a mix of resistance and persistence, of an entirely human mix of spiritual bravery and mortal fear, of wisdom and its opposite, of the dangers of apathy overcome by a fundamental commitment to the work, to the people, to the spirits and the ancestors and the infinite generations of Indigenous children yet unborn.

We see evidence of it daily. Wings honors it, and reinforces his own commitment to it, in his work.

And I suspect it was what inspired today’s photo, one of a small series he shot from differing perspectives of an afternoon some years ago. All of them were taken from the same spot, but from varying distances, so that the focus ranged from the mission church as a whole to the combined crenellated roofline to a single bell tower. This was the shot taken from an intermediate perspective, one that illustrates today’s less obvious themes particularly well.

This is, of course, the third iteration of the Church of San Geronimo here; it’s been burned to the ground twice in the last half-millennium in what were themselves decolonizing acts by warriors whose courage we can only imagine today. But it’s still possible to see the hand of the ancestors in its outlines, its form and shape and mass and substance, in the ancient clay and the stepped patterns that belong to far older sacred spaces, in the crosses atop the roofline that stretch their spokes not to evoke an image of cruciform pain but rather to the medicine of earth and sky, of the greater sacred spaces of the mountains and the winds and the cardinal directions.

And every time I see this image, I marvel anew at the wisdom of our ancestors, all across this continent: at their ability to find the indigenous wisdom and medicine that lies within every icon and image coopted and turned to colonial purposes . . . and to turn it yet again, directly to our survival.

It’s a reminder that there are greater sacred spaces than those we think we see. We find them by reaching out, to the mountains and the sacred directions, and by looking deep within, to the ancestral memory and wisdom that guides and protects us still.

~ Aji








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