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Red Willow Spirit: Where the Earth Is Sacred

Before the Snow

It’s popular, over the last two or three generations or so, for the dominant culture to talk about the sacredness of Mother Earth. There have, of course, been outliers over the course of that culture’s history: The Romanticism and Transcendentalism Movements of the first half of the Nineteenth Century come to mind, with influences from across the pond shaping the work of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Dickinson . . . and, of course, that early appropriator of indigeneity, Cooper. It was, in many ways, a shallow movement in that regard, much like what would follow it a century and a half later, with a “back to the land” mindset that elevated a “noble savage” identity extant only in their minds as racist stereotypes. The same was true of the art of the times, and nowhere more evident than in the paintings of Thomas Cole, who actually had the temerity to title the first in one series of works The Savage State. Then, as now, much of the “movement” was grounded in racism, both a conferring upon (of labels and stereotypes) and a taking from (of culture and identity) the continent’s indigenous peoples.

By the hippie movements of the ’60s and beyond, it was all about the appropriation. We Natives weren’t “hippies”; the hippies were trying, in their uninformed way, to be us. But that era saw the birth of another movement of sorts, one that would eventually become classified as “New Age” or sometimes “holistic,” one that explicitly adopted and reduced to slogans and tropes what it saw as the language and frameworks of Nativeness. And a favorite set of tropes was the collection formed around the label “Mother Earth.” And with such frameworks as “honor” and “respect” come that other word that is a favorite for appropriation: “sacred.”

In truth, the notion of honoring the earth as one would a mother is a good thing; indeed, collectively we are only just now beginning to realize, too late, just how good, the contrast made all the more apparent by such honor’s long absence. But our peoples’ relationships with the earth is deep and complex, formed over time on an epochal scale. For us, it has never been about pronouncements that “we are stewards of the earth” or that “water is life”; it has always been about the recognition that our connection is deeply symbiotic, one not unlike mother and child, and one that runs in both directions. It’s not simply a way of life, as it may be for others. For us, it’s the essence of being.

It’s easy to see how many of our peoples could envision the earth as sacred. What’s less clear to the outside world is what that means.

I’m going to speak plainly now. Which is to say, bluntly. There is, in the dominant culture, a tendency to fetishize Nativeness in all its forms and aspects. The reasons for this are myriad, and some are pathological; much of it is rooted in notions of guilt, or at least conviction, and a way to deflect blame from that culture’s (and its members’) direct and continuing profit from genocide. It’s also an exercise in white supremacy, another taking, one rationalized in part by mischaracterizing our peoples in ways far different from who and how we actually are. If it’s possible to “ennoble” the “noble savage” to such an extent that s/he is placed on a pedestal, “honored” as someone above petty human desires and emotions and responses, one who “has no conception of land ownership” and who believes in “harmony and balance” and “love and light” (yeah, that last, particularly, does not belong to any of us, and I gagged a little just typing it) . . . if white supremacy can successfully cast us in such a role, then all the takings suddenly become justified, or at least no longer problematic. In other words, if those in power can transform, as if by magic, those they oppress into something nebulously defined as “the sacred,” then it becomes akin to religious practice, and no enforcement of norms of equality, access, or rights are required. More, they convince themselves that “the sacred” is by definition all-forgiving and, in fact, unable to defend or resist or fight back, and so any transgression becomes allowable, any violation normalized and justified.

This is why neither Wings nor I tolerate fetishization. It’s not honor; it’s not respect; it’s a trick and a trap and a snare, a colonial behavior as old as oppression itself.

And so we come back to how we envision the earth. In fact, we come back to how we envision much more than that. I know this is true of certain other cultures around the world as well, but in the outer society here, the distinction seems to be largely lost: Not all that is sacred is ceremonial, and not all that is ceremonial is sacred.

Now, it is possible for something to be both simultaneously. It is also possible for it to be both in some contexts, only one or the other in other contexts, and neither in still others.

The earth is an example.

You’ll notice that in the foregoing sentence I elected not to capitalize “earth.” That  was by design, because here, I want to talk about small-e earth, the dust and dirt and soul beneath our feet, the mud and clay that is so wholly a part of this place as it is in so many others. I’ll also point out now that if you are expected to learn secrets of the sacred, you will be profoundly disappointed, because those are not ours to give; they belong to the sacred itself, as it exists and manifests within our respective cultures. But if you’re interested in learning how and why what most people dismiss as dirt can come to assume the qualities of mystery and medicine, can carry the weight of entire cultures and peoples in more than just the physical sense, read on.

The Old Man - Close-Up Resized

That rocky outcropping in the image at the outset of this post? I call it The Old Man, “old” used in our way, as a term of respect. It has other names, and it truth, it’s not an “it,” it’s a “they” — several layered outcroppings separated by sheer cliff faces that, from our perspective down here at its feet, seem to be one organic whole, one that looks, from the right vantage point, like the face of one of the Ancient Ones reclining against the mountain, staring up at the sky. But the several remain one, too, and they are indeed ancient, and they hold the wisdom of millions of years of existence. My reference to The Old Man is one of honor and respect, for the wisdom of our own elders, and for the wisdom of the earth accumulated over eons. For a people for whom survival still holds no guarantees, we co do far worse than to look to the earth for guidance. Up close, his face is lined by weather, water, and time, but he is solidity and substance itself — in a world now mostly ephemeral, he is as close to eternal as it gets.

Willows Reaching Resized

But it’s more basic than that, too. One of the common threads woven through and across all our many cultures and tribal nations is our relationship to our homelands: We are not merely of them; we are them, and they are us. And this is one fundamental reason why the colonial reservation and resettlement systems are so damaging: It’s the equivalent of ripping a child from its mother’s womb, or at least from her arms in the moments after birth (and much of both was done to our women over the last half-millennium, too, and in gruesomely literal terms). If you pull a tree up by its roots, carry it to a new location with different soil and different light, and then set it down on top of the ground, it will die. We are the trees, rooted firmly in our lands, and too many of our number were (and still are) forcibly uprooted and sent where there is neither water nor light, where the nutrients we need are permanently absent, where we are separated from each other and cannot entwine root and branch for support and survival.

Indian Paintbrush In Bloom Resized

And in our various homelands, the earth itself, small-e, dirt and soil and mud and clay, all these, too, are life to us. We use some forms of dirt, that with specific minerals and nutrients, as sustenance, as medicine. We use other forms of earth, that with specific pigments or other properties, as paint: for our faces, for ceremony and dance, for medicine and war; for our textiles, clothing and blankets and weavings; for our art, as brush paint and for pottery; for medicine itself, to offer to the spirits, to heal the sick, to paint upon the earth, to honor the sacred. The earth nurtures the plants that form such pigments, too.

And here at Red Willow, they use the earth for one more elemental purpose: for shelter.


Some years ago, my sister-in-law once said, dismissively, of an outsider who felt too entitled to too much: He doesn’t know the earth of this place. This dirt  — she made a sifting motion with her fingertips — it means nothing to him. 

An outsider would perhaps have focused on the word “dirt”; it does not, after all, carry quite the same cachet as “earth” in the modern mindset.

I understood instantly what she meant.

Ingress Egress Cropped

Here, the earth is everything: the dust of the plaza, where the people gather and dance; the rocky ground high up in the mountains, where only the people themselves may go; the riverbeds and silt deposits and other clay and mineral sources where they gather pigment for many purposes; the pit where the micaceous clay is found, whence the earth used in making the potters’ traditional vessels comes. And there is the earth, much of it, too, shot through with mica, mixed with water and straw and used in making the adobe mud of which their thousand-year-old traditional homes are constructed. They are patched and repaired and resurfaced, sometimes annually, of the same mix their ancestors used, brick and mortar all built by hand. There is a way in which an unbroken line of tradition, especially for a people still standing in the face of genocide, becomes sacred by its very survival, and so it is with the ancestral homes of the old village. The mud and straw, at bottom, earth and water, are stand-ins for the blood and bone, the very DNA of the people themselves. Yes, there are chips and cracks, just as an elder’s face is lined with the furrows of hard experience. But there is wisdom to be found in the bricks and the mortar and the spaces between, and medicine, too. That they still stand is ceremony itself, an offering to and a gift of the spirits.

Large Fluted Pot Resized

And then there is the art. Some of it is sculpture, yes, but most iconic is Taos Pueblo’s traditional mica pottery. It’s made of the same earth, the same clay, a light brown that manages to be both red and gold at the same time, seemingly lit from within by sherds of sunlight. The local indigenous clay traditionally used is full of mica, and it catches, holds, reflects and refracts the light in truly magical ways.

But the making of traditional pottery here is a truly elemental proposition: earth combined with water, molded and heated by fire, cooled and dried in the air. And it has traditionally been used for equally elemental purposes: cooking, serving, eating; the fetching and carrying and holding and drinking of water. It’s used to create wedding vases, a part of traditional marriage ceremonies here; and it assumes the form and shape of figurative works, too, including the storytellers so wholly a part of the culture.

And then, of course, the earth sustains us in more literal ways, too.


We plant corn, and beans, and squash, and other crops, too. We plant flowers and herbs and medicinal plants. And in a good year, we will get many monsoonal rains during this season, enough to turn the land to mud and allow the soil to luxuriate in the water.

As of this moment, the rains yet elude us; climate change is altering the earth here on many fronts. But I wrote yesterday of the fact that our largest garden plot seemed bare and barren both: dry brown furrows hoed by hand into the soil, seeds planted ut as yet unable to birth themselves.

At the moment I wrote it, it was still true.

And an hour or two later, I went outside to find that birth had occurred, even in te hottest part of the day:


The first corn shoots have emerged, only an inch or two, but it is enough. They will take, and hold, and be harvested when it is time.

They are life itself; they are our peoples’ survival.

And they grow in a place where the earth is sacred.

~ Aji






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