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The Mountain Song: A Narrative About Sacred Places

This award winning piece was written by Joseph Austin in 2016 for the UofA College of Law Richard Grand Writing Competition. The competition prompt was to write about a place that is special to the author. At a time when places sacred to indigenous peoples were being vandalized, robbed, and losing protection, Austin took the opportunity to remind people why places are more than just that, especially for Native Nations. His piece won first place and earned Austin his own place in the law school history books among the most talented writers.

For the girl who sat with me on the mountain and heard its song, the One Who Stands Within.

Native people are not too fond of anthropologists. I guess you can say we have our reservations about them, no pun intended. Our contention with the profession is not so much that they study our customs, language, culture, and make us the subject of their research. It has to do more with the fact that after they study us and publish a few articles, they somehow become experts on our beliefs and way of life. I think one anthropologist named Keith H. Basso recognized this irony. So instead of trying to speak for the people he studied, he let them speak for themselves. In one of his books, he recounts his conversations with individuals from the Apache Nation who talk about why certain places are so significant to the Apache. The book is called Wisdom Sits in Places.

That title—Wisdom Sits in Places—is the perfect way to describe why places are so important to indigenous people. We believe places have a voice, and if you listen closely, you can hear them tell stories of the past. The past is important because it shows where we came from and how we came to be where we are now. That is why in Navajo, we say part of our identity is our footprints. They show where we came from and the direction we are headed.

We know places have knowledge and a spirit, places like the Black Hills in South Dakota where the faces of dead presidents were carved into the side of the mountain, or Devils Tower in Wyoming where thousands of people go each year to climb the tower’s walls. These places and many others have been around since the world was created. They know us by name and know our story. When we visit, we say prayers, sing songs, give offerings, and conduct ceremonies. In exchange, these places give us medicine and connect us to the universe and the Great Spirit.

The thing about places is there is only one, so what we do there cannot be done anywhere else. Destroying them forever destroys our ability to pray, sing songs, and conduct ceremonies. For native people, that is a fate equal to death. Without sacred places, we do not know who we are or where we came from. Without them, we have no place in this world.

We tried explaining this to the courts and politicians in order to protect certain sacred sites. See e.g. Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Ass’n, 485 U.S. 439 (1988); Navajo Nation v. U.S. Forest Serv., 535 F.3d 1058 (9th Cir. 2008). We tried to tell them that if you allow companies to blast through mountains, or ski resorts to spray the San Francisco Peaks with reclaimed sewage water, you are not only killing the place but also us. Nevertheless, our pleas fell on deaf ears.

According to the courts, the First Amendment and relevant federal legislation did not afford the type of protection we sought. The courts and groups opposing our efforts seemed to have misunderstood what we were trying to protect. As Vine Deloria, Jr., a great native leader, put it: “I think a lot of people don’t understand that it’s not that Indians should have exclusive rights there. It’s that the location is sacred enough that it should have time of its own. And once it has time of its own, then the people who know how to do ceremonies should come and minister to it. . . . and that’s so hard to get across to people.”

Even when a place is not associated with any religious practices, it can still be sacred. As previously stated, all places have a spirit, a voice, and a story to tell. For my special place, the story is quite unique.

To get there, you take Highway 77 north out of Tucson. You will wind your way through the saguaros, down into Salt River Canyon, and up into the White Mountains. You will go through small, quaint towns and across long stretches of desert landscapes. Keep following Highway 77 and you will eventually cross into Navajo Country near the town of Holbrook. The road from there takes you around the Hopi mesas, to the edge of a plateau, down into a desert valley surrounded by red cliffs, and back up into the mountains. If you know the correct mile marker, you will see the place I call home.

My home sits at the base of Black Mesa, surrounded by cedar trees, yucca plants, and a beautiful view of the mesa. The only way to get there is to drive a mile on a dirt road from the highway. There is no cell phone service, TV, or internet, and the nearest town is about 40 miles away. My family lived in that area for generations. In fact, if you walk around our land, you can still see the old hogans and livestock fences dating back to the 19th century.

From my house, there is an old foot trail that leads through the cedar trees toward the mesa. It goes past the tree line, between sandstone rocks, and eventually starts ascending up the mountain side. If you stand at the base of the mountain, where the trail begins to ascend, you can see an amazing view of the mesa. The view itself should be enough to encourage you to keep going and make the climb. If not, then surely the curiosity of what lies at the top will.

The climb is difficult. Each step gets steeper and the purple-colored sand gets softer as you climb higher. Stay persistent and the trail eventually becomes more forgiving. It begins to level out near the top and the trees come back into view. From there, the trail opens up to a small, flat plateau littered with sandstone rocks. Walk to the right, toward the edge of the cliff and there is a lonely rock overlooking the land. That is my special place.

It is special to me, not just because you can sit on the rock and see for miles into every direction, but also because of the story it tells. Since I was a kid, I made many journeys to this place. I sat on the rock when I was thirteen thinking about what life would be like when my family moved off the reservation to Tucson. I returned later and sat nervously wondering what high school would be like. Other future trips entailed me sitting and wondering about what college to attend, what car to buy, and how to deal with the loss of someone I loved. I would return again to wonder if I made the right decision to go to law school, only to come back three years later and think about whether I studied enough to pass the state bar exam. Each time I returned a little older, a little wiser, and stayed a little longer.

My recent journeys have become more sentimental. So many years ago, I experienced issues with my heart that required surgery. Post-surgery treatment included frequent visits with medical specialists, testing, and medications. My health went into rapid decline and I ended up in the hospital more times than I can remember. On a particular occasion I was hospitalized for low blood sugar. During that hospital stay, I found out my liver was damaged and my kidney function was low. I remember lying in the hospital room late at night, alone, sick and in pain, with only the beeping sounds of the heart monitor to keep me company.

I knew I was in bad shape and a lot went through my mind during that time, like what if I closed my eyes and never woke up? My thoughts ran wild, but for some reason, in the midst of the mental chaos I wondered if I would ever see my place on the mountain again. Would I ever sit on that rock again and look out into the vastness of the great Navajo Nation, the home of my people? I closed my eyes and envisioned myself sitting on the rock. It was a comforting image: me sitting under the silent night sky, every star shining bright and a gentle, cool breeze sweeping across my face.

Fortunately, I recovered and a couple months thereafter I was traveling back home to the mountains. I arrived during the afternoon and decided to make the hike up the mountain. It was difficult because I did not have the stamina that I used to, but I made it to the top nonetheless. I sat in my usual seat on the rock and took in a very familiar view. Things seemed different this time, or maybe I was different. I saw my footprints in the sand around me and traced them as far as I could down the mountain. I thought to myself, “Wow… I came a long way to get here.” I gazed out into the distance and wondered what my ancestors thought about when they visited this same place. If this place knows my story then it must know theirs as well.

In 1864, the United States launched a military campaign against the Navajo people. The U.S. Calvary, led by Colonel Kit Carson, came into Navajo Country and destroyed crops, burned homes, killed livestock, and massacred innocent families. Those who surrendered were rounded up and marched 300 miles to a place in New Mexico called Fort Sumner. The march took place during the winter months. Some did not have winter clothing and died of exposure. Elderly and young children were shot because they were unable to keep up. Women were raped. Many became ill. This tragic time in our history was known as the Long Walk.

At Fort Sumner, the Navajo people were held captive and placed under military control for four years. In 1868, they signed a treaty with the U.S., allowing them to return home under certain conditions. On the journey back, they stopped at a sacred mountain which marked the eastern boundary of our traditional lands. It was the doorway to the Navajo homeland.

Our ancestors knew that they were about to return to a place that had been ravaged by war and genocide, and it would take many years to rebuild what was lost. So before they went back to their homes, they conducted a ceremony. During the ceremony, they envisioned a great future for our people, and using their songs and prayers, they blessed the unborn generations so that one day they would see it and live it.

For our ancestors, they knew they would not live to see the day when their vision would become a reality. But to them, that did not matter because the survival of our nation would depend on us, their grandchildren. So they gave us the following message that resonated throughout the generations: “Our grandchildren, don’t ever forget our suffering and the things we endured to protect our land and people. Go out beyond the four sacred mountains and learn the American way. Bring that knowledge back to our people, but never forget that which makes us Navajo—our land, language, and culture. A nation without those is no nation at all. Education is the ladder; tell our people to take it.”

Almost 150 years later, I sit here at the top of the mesa, overlooking the land of my people, realizing that my story thus far is only a small part of the history that this place knows. Basso’s book title was right, Wisdom Sits in Places. With the sun setting behind me, I stood up and walked to the edge of the cliff. I looked up to the sky and began to pray much like my ancestors did so many years ago. I prayed that our story would continue and that this place would continue to tell our story even after our chapter ends:

From where I stand and into every direction, the holy power comes into existence. It’s in front of me, behind me, underneath me, above me, all around me. The winds speak to me and guide me. Whichever path I choose to take, it will be blessed with the corn pollen and every one of my steps will be laid down in beauty. My mother earth upon which I walk and my father sky under which I travel, you see me and I see you. You will protect me. Now, I send my voice out to the four directions so that all the nations of the world and universe may hear what I’m about to say...


…there’s a better life than this one. It’s over there, up in the sky and beyond the clouds. One day you’ll call me home and I’ll see it. Until then, beauty and harmony is restored.

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