Skip to content

2010 Theatre Conference Paper on Indigenous Landscape Veneration

The idea for this paper came to me long before I decided to go back to school eight years ago and attempt to become an academic; as an activist on social justice and environmental issues in the 1980s and 90s, I frequently encountered people who spoke of “native spirituality,” and the timeless connection of indigenous people to the natural world. In the land use conflicts in which I was a participant, the figure of the native elder who pronounced a particular valley, forest or waterway as sacred to his or her people was a basic staple of public discourse over contested uses of land. This was one of the most powerful rhetorical moves our side could make in these debates – even when the majority of indigenous people in a particular area supported the developers, in the court of public opinion, the native opponents of the project were consistently received as the more authentic representatives of their community. This rhetorical advantage was one whose ambivalence ambushed me one day at a Green Party conference when a man who would soon become a political opponent suggested that we adopt a position of ceding all decision-making regarding land use in British Columbia to indigenous peoples. “I realize we’re on unceded territory Michael, but what about all the native groups that want to proceed with mining and logging projects we oppose?” His answer came immediately, “Oh – we wouldn’t give those people control. If they support those things, they’re not really Indians.”

That conversation awakened in me a suspicion that perhaps landscape veneration was neither a universal nor a time honoured practice of Native Americans. A compelling case for the recent and historically contingent nature of present-day indigenous veneration of the natural world was made a few years later in Sam Gill’s Mother Earth, which traces present-day conceptions and practices to a fraught period between 1810 and 1824.[1] But of course, Gill’s work leaves many questions unanswered, two of which I take up in this paper: (1) although ideas of nature worship or “Mother Earth” may have been modern innovations in indigenous religiosity, how prevalent was pre-modern ritual veneration of prominent landscape features; (2) if not veneration and sacrality, how else can we account for the prominence of landscape features in myths and legends of indigenous peoples? I will begin with the second question.

When we encounter landscape in indigenous folklore, it is not, generally, as an object of awe or adoration but instead as a mnemonic or inscription of human activity on physical space. As Christopher Tilley points out, “Human activities become inscribed within a landscape… daily passage through the landscape become biographic encounters for individuals, recalling traces of past activities and previous events.” Placing Tilley’s insight in dialogue with the work of Paul Connerton and others who theorize social memory and the inclusion, therein, of indirectly recalled events, yields rich insights.[2] Tilley suggests that movement through landscape is, in fact, a form a narrative understanding through the creation of “spatial stories.”[3] If places and locales are, in part, constituted through their narratization, what we see in indigenous narratives is not so much a description of landscape but the lamination of two means of producing narrative: verbal and spatial.

In oral cultures, mnemonic strategies are crucially important in the storage and, more significantly, the retrieval of data about the world, something which can be accomplished by narratives that function orally and those that function spatially. Indeed, I want to suggest, that both mnemonic strategies’ efficacy is magnified when fused into a single process of mutual constitution. If knowing the relative geographic positions of places and the routes between them is important, and if knowing the stories of past deeds of important beings is important, both mnemonics will be enhanced by their conflation. If the story of muskrat cues a particular lake and the lake cues the story of muskrat, narratizing landscape through myth produces not two entangled memory processes but a single process of mutual constitution.

For Australian aborigines, this kind of indexical narratization of landscape does not simply enable transit between places and the location of key resources such as water in an arid environment;[4] it is also linked to a titular function of establishing a lineage’s stewardship of a bounded territory.[5] Lists of names achieve the functional equivalent of the two most important kinds of lines on contemporary maps: the description of optimal routes through territory (navigational) and the description of the bounds of claimed territory (titular).[6] For aborigines, concentrations of narratives along particular routes function to indicate camp sites, most dramatically exemplified in the Anagu territory of Ayers Rock.[7] In this way, “the landscape is thus represented in myth and represents myth.”[8]

We perhaps see this most thoroughly exemplified in native myths of Maine and Nova Scotia; in the Micmac/Abenaki version of an apocryphal encounter with Christopher Columbus, no fewer than ten present-day locations are indexed, noting their relative position, pre-Columbian name and present-day name, even though events in the story take place in only three of the named locales.[9] The maritime nature of transportation appears to magnify the indexical possibilities of, especially, Micmac narratives – the Northwest Coast has a geography that might be described as more coercive in that the archipelago-mountain-valley-fjord pattern radically circumscribes the number of possible routes between points. In the legend of the first meeting between the Iroquois and Micmac, the short narrative seems almost structured to incorporate Kahnawake at the periphery of Atlantic Canadian geography, indexing it relative to Cape Breton, Sheet Harbour and Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.[10]

Like many other narratives of indexicality, the Micmac narratives do not actually describe the places they index; terrain features and other descriptive language are consistently absent. In place of description, we see claims of relevance or specialness grounded in what can only be terms “explanations” of the features such as in the story of the death of the god Glooscap’s younger, dog-headed brother, Malsum:

  • “Faithless creature!” Glooscap thundered, knowing full well who had betrayed him… And he hurled stone after stone at the fleeing Lox. Where the stones fell – in Minas Basin – they turned into islands and are there still… Glooscap set off for the mainland. Rounding the southern tip of what is now Nova Scotia, [he] paddled up the Bay of Fundy… where the bay narrows and the great tides of Fundy rush into Minas Basin…[11]

Of the various indigenous myth traditions of the Americas, the Northwest Coast tales collected in the late nineteenth century by Pauline Johnson and Franz Boas are the most striking examples of what we see in the Glooscap narrative quoted above. There is an element of self-consciousness of this narrative trope on the part of some of Boas’ informants that attests to the ubiquity of a certain class of landscape feature explanation:

  • The dog ran back to the village, where he jumped all over the people, who also broke into pieces. Then he jumped over the corpse of his brothers, thus calling them back to life. Then the three brothers were transformed into stone… Almost every rock in the Fraser River Canyon bears a legend connecting it with Qoé’qtlk-otl. They are all transformed humans, animals or canoes.[12]

The understanding that every large, striking-looking stone relates to a mutually-entailing narrative, makes petrification a favoured fate for characters in many narratives and often serves as a punch line – narratives largely uninterested in and non-specific about geographic and topographic detail suddenly, sometimes jarringly culminate in explanations of the origin of local landscape features as in Pauline Johnson’s retelling of the local legend of Vancouver’s Siwash Rock.[13] It even created a class of characters proficient in the art of petrifying others, “they had received [in the land of the sunrise] the name Qäls and transformed everyone they met into stones…”[14] But more often, we see a more intensely indexical form: in the course of an unfolding dramatic narrative, the characters move through a series of named places that are not physically described but whose significance is illustrated by reference to important events or persons; the narrative then culminates in an episode of petrification, anchoring the sequences of places visited to a terminus marked by a striking-looking stone. In this way, the legend of Vancouver’s distinctive two-peaked mountain, the Lions, mentions the prior significance and colonial renaming of the towns of Prince Rupert and 100 Miles House, five and two degrees north, respectively.[15] This is best articulated in the story “Tlé’esa,” collected by Boas in 1889:

Presently the young men set out and wandered from Shuswap Lake down the South Thompson River. Soon they reached the home of Woodchuck, which stood between two rocks… the brothers continued downriver. When they reached a spot just above Kamloops, they saw an underground house, with a tall pole beside it. Here lived Grizzly Bear and Coyote… the brothers wandered on and arrived at Cherry Creek. There they saw an underground house in which Rabbit lived… The brothers continued and arrived at [Savona]. There a huge elk straddled the river and killed anyone who tried to cross… The brothers then walked up along Bonaparte Creek. Here there is a steep rock where Mountain Goat lived. He killed all who tried to catch him… The brothers continued and arrived at Johnny Wilson’s Place… Soon they arrived at Hat Creek. Here there is a steep rock wall… they should try to run their heads into the rock. The three brothers tried it first. They made slight dents in the rock. Then Tlé’esa tried and his head went into the stone right past his ears… Then they continued and came to Fountain trail. Here Eagle had her nest on a steep rock… The brothers wandered on and arrived at the Fraser River. There they saw a young girl dancing on the opposite bank. They sat down in a row on the shore and watched here. There they remained sitting until they were changed to stone.[16]

In each of the locations an important narrative episode or encounter took place but none appear in any way contingent on the (generally omitted) landscape features of the places mentioned. Instead, the narrative simply serves to laminate episodes to known places and then indexically sequence the places in question.

There are, then, two general types of landscape indexing in the indigenous literary forms considered above: navigational and titular. Although there is clearly considerable overlap between these two, we can still find two broad categories of indexical landscape narration: those that engage in indexing in order to facilitate movement through territory and those that assert ownership or jurisdiction over territory. Obviously, there are narratives that alternate between these functions and narratives that fuse these functions but we can nevertheless see two distinct, though related functions in indexical landscape narration.

Curiously, the best work in theorizing and exemplifying both of these discourses has appeared in studies of what we might term “aboriginal” peoples in white settler states. Perhaps this reappraisal of mythological and legendary narratives is effected more easily when considering peoples whose otherness is already intellectually established. “Maybe the myths and legends of the Micmac, Kwakuitl and Anangu peoples are as much maps as anything else,” is a low-stakes statement people in the subject position and identity group common to professional and semi-professional scholarship.

But what if we consider the possibility that landscape indexicality is a property of other mythological traditions more familiar to the putative heirs of the Latin West? There is not the space or time in this project for me to make a complete anthropological argument in favour of landscape indexing as a practice in narrative composition in more familiar cultures. But, in the space that remains, it is possible to consider more familiar texts to see if they might exhibit recognizable landscape indexing practices that we see in aboriginal myths. At present, I do not have sufficient evidence to declare landscape indexing to be some kind of universal property of pre-modern narrative but, more conservatively, we can at least consider what new possibilities emerge when we read more familiar texts for the possibility of indexical practice.

Narratized landscape indexing based on phenomenology can be found in European tradition. Literary scholar Nicholas Howe identifies it in a practice from Anglo-Saxon England called “beating the bounds.” Land charters establishing title to a piece of land in sixth- through tenth-century England were bilingual documents that recorded boundaries not through geometric or legalistic language but instead, by describing the experience of a local person circumnavigating the space to which the owner sought, through the document, to assert title. The charter is a compilation of “a sequences of signs to be walked,”[17] for example,

  • First, from the mill ford, along the Arrow, then to Washford; from Washford along the arrow round the top of Holaneig; from the top of Holaneig to the top of the oak edge, then along the top of the oak edge, then to the front of the snæd way round Hanley to æcna-bridge, up along the brook, then to the dyke, along the dyke to Tanesbæc, from Tanæsbec along the boundary-fence, then to the boundary of the community to Lene, along the boundary of the community of Lene, then to Æthelwold’s hedge, from Æthelwold’s hedge to Heanoldan to the boundary thorn, from the boundary thorn along the fence to the swing-gate, from the swing-gate along the paved road to the dyke-gate, from the dyke-gate to the third gate and then along the paved road, back to Milford.[18]

Howe engages in a specific comparison in examining these charters between Apache and Anglo-Saxon landscape discourses in that both groups “shape memory through the agency of landscape.”[19] And if we can see in the charter genre, indexical practice executed through narrative, concurrently exemplary of navigational and titular ends, might we find similar practices in other medieval European genres?

The most common literary genre of the early medieval period in Europe was, by far, the hagiography, a formulaic literary form for describing the life of a saint; originally based on Athanasius’ biography of St. Antony, the genre was imported to the Latin West in the late fourth and early fifth centuries with the Life of Martin of Tours. Hagiography is a highly formal genre, imposing a pre-ordained, although intensely gendered life narrative on its subject, culminating in a series of episodes of miraculous or otherwise extraordinary and exemplary manifestations of piety.[20] Hagiographies were at once morality tales, biographies, histories and literature and, in the environment of the Early Middle Ages, other narrative forms moved to the extreme margins. Most medieval hagiographies, even those highlighting what might be termed “nature miracles,” lack any of the kind of prose one might associate with landscape indexicality, often eliding specific geographic features and locations or focusing on non-fixed portions of the landscape.[21]  But consider what we find in the Life of St. Patrick:

  • …the saint’s ship, laden with wonderful religious treasures… was brought, as to a suitable harbour, to the country of Cualann, to a harbour in fact of some repute called Inverdee… from there he set out to the north to that… household he had once been in captivity… He headed the ship’s bow towards the eastern island which is named after him to this day and from there sailed on, leaving Brega and the Conaille country and also the country of Ulaid to his left and finally put into the sound called Brene. And he and those on board with him landed at the mouth of the Slane, hide the ship and went a little inland to rest there… He left the ship there… and proceeded to make his way on land to the country of the Cruithne until he reached Mount Slemish. It was from this mountain that long before when he had been in slavery, he saw the angel Victorius before his very eyes ascend… into heaven and leave the imprint of his step on the rock of the other mountain.[22]

This kind of prose is not unique to this particular hagiography; a number of others, especially those produced in recently-Christianized areas like sixth-century Ireland or tenth-century Saxony, exhibit many of the characteristics that mark this piece as indexical.

First, they name, in ways that might seem gratuitous from a narrative standpoint, a number of places. Second, they configure these places in relative position by describing a journey, complete with turns and changing travel modes; yet these places, unlike demon-possessed forests or sacred sites, are minimally described, if described at all. Third, in place of description, past events or persons giving rise to the name are offered to indicate the significance of the place. Fourth, the specific practical utility of a place such as its suitability for moorage is communicated. We see these same characteristics in, for instance, the narratives of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim,[23] Saint Columba[24] and others. More than moorage or soil fertility, a significant utilitarian concern in a number of these narratives is water potability.[25] Curiously, unlike the footprints of the archangel Michael on Monte Gargano in Italy,[26] none of the sites indexed in the hagiographies appear to have had any sacral function, again consistent with what we see in places indexed in indigenous American mythology. Although landscape indexing is by no means a universal attribute of medieval hagiography, it appears that of the two types of indexing, titular indexicality appears minimally in the large number of hagiographies I have surveyed.[27]  Yet, as evidenced by Howe’s discussion, this may be linked to the existence of a literary genre specifically tailored to this purpose, in contradistinction to the indigenous peoples previously examined. Furthermore, when territorial claims are made in hagiographies, they are often not narratized but instead presented in a more modern-sounding legalistic or geometric discourse.[28]

Practices of landscape indexing in hagiographies and charters, concentrated, as they are, in recently-converted regions, populated by newly-literate populations, might tempt one to see evidence of landscape indexing simply as some kind of pagan survival. But this is complicated by the ways in which generic considerations appear to render certain kinds of landscape features more worthy of description than would seem strictly useful for Northern Europeans. Locating potable water has been a concern for pre-modern peoples in a variety of ecosystems but the importance thereof, in environments with high precipitation levels and abundant streams seems somewhat incongruous; certainly, water gods were important in the Irish, Saxon and English mythologies that preceded and inform hagiographies but not so much the specific locations of water sources.

Obviously, the presence of spring miracles in the original Life of St. Antony, the Egyptian hagiography upon which all Latin saints’ lives were modeled, accounts for some of this.[29] But other, more specific references, such as in the Life of St. Cuthbert, flag another obvious source:

  • “God has the power to call up water from stony rock for him who asks. Once indeed he provided water from a rock for the thirsting people when Moses struck it with a twig. And when Samson thirsted He gave him to drink from the jawbone of an ass.” So while Cuthbert prayed, the brethren dug into the ground as he had directed and suddenly they saw a stream of “living water.”[30]

Although I would never go as far as to suggest that landscape indexing is a property of the mythology of all or even most pre-modern peoples, it seems difficult to argue that this is not an important function of the Exodus narrative.

Thinking about what kind of narrative Exodus is, we should not be completely surprised by what appear to be prominent pieces of apparently indexical prose in this. Like the tenth-century Saxons, nineteenth-century Australian aborigines, sixth-century Irish, seventh-century English and nineteenth-century coastal native Americans, the authors and subjects of the mythology of the early parts of the Hebrew Bible appear to have been a newly-literate society. These societies produced literary forms that changed considerably in the ensuing centuries as written literary forms became increasingly independent of spoken literary forms that engendered early hybrid literatures. It is in his context that I suggest we consider the following sections of the Exodus narrative:

  • So they went up and spied out the land from the wilderness of Zin to Rehob, near Lebo-hamath. They went up into the Negeb, and came to Hebron; and Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai, the Anakites, were there. (Hebron was built seven years before Zoan in Egypt.) And they came to the Wadi Eshcol, and cut down from there a branch with a single cluster of grapes, and they carried it on a pole between two of them. They also brought some pomegranates and figs. That place was called the Wadi Eshcol, because of the cluster that the Israelites cut down from there.[31]

This inventory of place names without either described characteristics or specific relevance to the narrative seems suggestive of an indexical approach to landscape within the text. This type of writing occurs a number of times in Deuteronomy and Exodus but is otherwise absent in the Hebrew Bible. The search for potable water, of course, looms large in Exodus, as exemplified in the following passage:

Then Moses ordered Israel to set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went for three days in the wilderness and found no water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter. That is why it was called Marah. And the people complained against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’ He cried out to the Lord; and the Lord showed him a piece of wood; he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet… Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees; and they camped there by the water.[32]

Again, short on description but specific in explanation this section is reminiscent of the large rocks we find in Micmac and Northwest Coast tales. Although more materially useful than imposing rocks, what the narration records is not the description of the water but instead, its origin. It is important to know that the water is sweet for good and special reasons. The need to “explain,” by means of the specific actions of gods or heroes, useful or imposing landscape features is an element that we again see throughout these narratives. Of course, as the numerous petrification episodes in indigenous mythology show, these features need not stem from episodes of positive interaction:

  • Now when the people complained in the hearing of the Lord about their misfortunes, the Lord heard it and his anger was kindled. Then the fire of the Lord burned against them, and consumed some outlying parts of the camp. But the people cried out to Moses; and Moses prayed to the Lord, and the fire abated. So that place was called Taberah, because the fire of the Lord burned against them.[33]

Later in the same chapter, another place is named, this time “Kibroth-hattaavah,” after a plague the Lord has visited on the Israelites.[34] Not only do Exodus and Numbers contain ample navigational narratization of space, Numbers offers a strong titular discourse as well. Following the first biblical passage I referenced, it is explained that:

  • …none of the people who have seen my glory and the signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tested me these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors; none of those who despised me shall see it. But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me wholeheartedly, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it… not one of you shall come into the land in which I swore to settle you except Caleb, son of Jephunneh and Joshua, son of Nun.[35]

In other words, possession of the land is directly contingent upon participation in the original scouting expedition, whose index of place names immediately precedes their grant to the lineages of Caleb and Joshua.

It is, given the preliminary nature of this investigation, not possible to argue, solely based on apparent generic patterning of language, especially in translated texts, that either early medieval hagiographies or the Pentateuch constitute evidence of indexical landscape narration by pre-modern Germanic, Celtic or Semitic peoples. What this analysis can do is begin to open the possibility that the kind of interaction between the social experiences of landscape and of myth-making, repetition and re-enactment may be applicable to a wider range of peoples and texts that previously considered. And it is in this light that I want to return to the question that has gone unaddressed since my introduction: landscape veneration.

Contemporary discourses of indigenous landscape veneration arise from a complex interaction among oral transmission of pre-contact aboriginal beliefs, anthropologists’ records of these beliefs, nineteenth century indigenous millenarian and renewal movements and their twentieth-century descendants, the exigencies of land use conflict both past and present and contemporary religious movements such as New Age spirituality and neo-paganism. Modern discourses of an earth-centred timelessness in North American aboriginal religiosity, it has been convincingly argued, arose in the nineteenth century out of specific historical processes that made it advantageous for indigenous peoples to dramatize their claims to specific territories as based in religiosity that was resonant with Victorian romanticism.[36] Ideas of an earth-centred indigenous “spirituality” strongly informed late-century anthropological scholarship and indigenous renewal movements like the Ghost Dance.[37]  Collectively, these influences can be seen in what might be termed, aboriginal neo-traditionalism, a religious movement characterized by beliefs in and practices of nature veneration through ritual performance, a mode of religiosity that developed between approximately 1910 and 1970.[38] This type of religious adaptation has been most intensely-felt given the simultaneity of European creole settlement, contact and conflict with anthropological investigation and Victorian romanticism, on the Northwest Coast.[39]

Discourses of landscape veneration and nature worship, furthermore, continue to be instantiated in the present day by ongoing conflicts over land and political authority both among indigenous peoples and between aboriginal groups and creoles. We find this exemplified in conflicts such as the 1995 Gustafsen Lake siege in British Columbia in which both intra-aboriginal conflicts and native-settler conflicts were dramatized through a small group of Sundancers who refused to vacate a piece of private property because of the putative spiritual significance of its landscape features. The Sundance movement, it should be noted, is a descendant of the nineteenth-century millenarian Ghost Dance movement led by the Lakota prophet Wovoka that was banned by the US government until 1967 when it became part of the cultural zeitgeist that produced the Wounded Knee siege, transforming along the way from a specifically Lakota ritual practice to a pan-Indian, neo-traditionalist one.[40] This continued instantiation, coupled as it is, with a rhetoric of the timelessness and universality of indigenous landscape veneration, causes us, I suggest, to read a sacrality into the places and landscape features we see referenced in aboriginal mythology. And the vicissitudes of oral testimony combine with a minimal archaeological record to allow this perception to remain largely unchecked.

But, if we consider the possibility that the Near Eastern and European sources I have examined also contain indexical landscape narratives, we have some, albeit tenuous evidence with which to check these assumptions. The Hebrew Bible and medieval hagiographies are specific, in ways that indigenous landscape narratives are not, about what constitutes sacred space and where that sacred space is located. The Israelites bring sacred space with them; it is within the Tabernacle, their de facto temple, mobile sacred space; it inheres in the pillar of cloud/fire in which God resides as he travels with his people. On only one occasion does it inhere in landscape, that of Mount Sinai/Horeb:

  • Israel camped there in front of the mountain. Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain… the Lord said to Moses: “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow… because on the third day the Lord will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. You shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Be careful not to go up the mountain or to touch the edge of it. Any who touch the mountain shall be put to death…’” Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God. They took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently… [41]

Then he said to Moses, “Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and worship at a distance. Moses alone shall come near the Lord; but the others shall not come near, and the people shall not come up with him.”[42]

What we see here is an explicit call to worship in a particular physical space and clear declarations of its sacred character in contradistinction to the ways in which landscape is treated elsewhere in the narrative. And we see similar paucity of non-anthropogenic sacred space in hagiographic literature and, in the rare instances that it appears, a radically different textual treatment:

  • the place where [Oswald] was killed fighting for his country against the heathen, sick men and beasts are healed to this day. Many people took away the very dust from this place where his body fell and put it in water and, from which the sick folk who drank it received great benefit.[43]

As on Sinai, the discourse is not of an indwelling holiness in the land but of a property conferred upon the land exogenously; more importantly, the procedure for engaging in veneration is tied to the single site and specifically described.

But we find no such traces in either the Micmac or Northwest Coast myths I have surveyed – whereas indexicality is pronounced and frequent, there is no evidence of demands for ritual practice associated with these landscape features. Titular claims, navigational indices, inventories of relevant places are common but explicit demands for or description of ritual practice related to place is conspicuously absent. When there is discussion of ritual performance we see it tied to something very different:

  • …he was going to show his great dance, the property of his family… It was to be the great dance from above, that would give his child supernatural power… Then the Awilela surrounded him; and the great supernatural one, the great dance from above, came stepping like wolves. That was the great dance from above of the ancient tribe at Having-Humpback-Salmon. Then the great dance from above came down to the beach from the woods and the dancers entered the house. Many of the ancestors of the people… the ancestors of the Thunder-Birds, danced the great supernatural dance. They brought it into the house and the great dance from above was just the great supernatural power of Hamalakauae…[44]

The dance, which arrives – and let us as people participating in a theatre conference, for a moment, marvel at the magnificence of Kwatiutl thought that understands dances as having independent ontology, as being summoned rather than performed – is summoned by its owner, who has inherited it by way of his lineage. The dance comes from the heavens and lands on the beach but it keeps moving until it is in his house. Sacred space, sacred acts exist in the very same narrative I used earlier in this paper to offer examples of narratizing landscape; yet as in the Eastern Hemisphere examples of indexicality, this narratization occurs in episodes discrete and separate from descriptions of enacted ritual practice and engagement with the sacred.

On this basis, I want to suggest that we should no more accept claims of unchanging timelessness of religious practice made by aboriginal neo-traditionalists than we should such claims when made by Shintos, Jews, Roman Catholics or anyone else. Adaptation, typically paired with a traditionalist discourse of unchanging conservatism, is a mark of successful religious traditions. To accept claims of timeless indigenous veneration of nature may feel respectful to us but I would suggest that it actually is the opposite. As Rachel Gostenhofer suggests in her submission, romanticism is a feature of marginalization and necessarily asserts the obsolescence and irrelevance of the object of romanticization. In this case, it perniciously reinscribes the discourse of the “vanishing Indian” of the nineteenth century[45] that continues to justify uncompensated expropriation and political oppression. Contemporary “nature worship” in the form of the indigenous neo-traditionalism and creole neo-paganism is a product of the modern era; as such, it meets the needs of contemporary people grappling with the experience of late consumer capitalism. It is a powerful generative, adaptive, creative force that bridges creole-aboriginal, rural-urban and other significant divides in our society and delivers psycho-social integration to its practitioners. As such, it merits celebration but for its originality not its alleged fidelity to or recovery of pre-modern practice.



[1] Sam D. Gill, Mother Earth: An American Story (University of Chicago Press, 1987) 31.

[2] Christopher Tilly, A Phenomenology of Landscape: Paths, Places and Monuments (Providence: Berg, 1994) 27-28; Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989) 51.

[3] Tilly, A Phenomenology of Landscape, 28.

[4] Ibid., 40.

[5] Ibid., 43.

[6] Ibid.,  41.

[7] Ibid., 43, 47.

[8] Ibid., 47.

[9] Anonymous, “Nestuwita:Sultimk – Remembering” in Micmac Texts Tr. Albert D. De Blois (Hull, Quebec: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1990) 6-8, 19, 33.

[10] Anonymous, “Kewtejk – The Iroquois” in Micmac Texts Tr. Albert D. De Blois (Hull, Quebec: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1990) 59-62.

[11] Kay Hill, Glooscap and His Magic: Legends of the Wabanaki Indians (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1973)  24-25.

[12] Anonymous, “Qoé’qtlk-otl” Tr. Franz Boas in Indian Myths and Legends from the Pacific Coast of North America Tr. Dietrich Bertz Ed.  Randy Bouchard and Dorothy Kennedy (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2002) 86.

[13] Pauline Johnson, Legends of Vancouver (Vancouver: Thomson Stationery Company, 1912) 10-15.

[14] Anonymous, “Qäls” Tr. Franz Boas in Indian Myths and Legends from the Pacific Coast of North America Tr. Dietrich Bertz Ed.  Randy Bouchard and Dorothy Kennedy (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2002) 92.

[15] Johnson, Legends of Vancouver, 4-5.

[16] Anonymous, “Tlé’esa” Tr. Franz Boas in Indian Myths and Legends from the Pacific Coast of North America Tr. Dietrich Bertz Ed.  Randy Bouchard and Dorothy Kennedy (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2002) 61-67.

[17] Nicholas Howe, “The Landscape of Anglo-Saxon England: Inherited, Invented, Imagined” in Inventing Medieval Landscapes: Senses of Place in Western Europe Eds. John Howe and Michael Wolfe (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002) 91-112, 102.

[18] Howe, “Landscape of Anglo-Saxon England ,” 99.

[19] Ibid., 95.

[20] Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988) 25, 282-90.

[21] Anonymous, “The Life of Saint Cuthbert” Tr. Clinton Albertson in Anglo-Saxon Saints and Heroes (Fordham: Fordham University Press, 1967) 31-86, 44, 47, 58; Gregory of Tours, Life of the Fathers Tr. Edward James (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1985) 86; Adomnan of Iona, The Life of Saint Columba Tr. Richard Sharpe (London: Penguin Books, 1995) 155; Anonymous, “The Life of the Holy Virgin Samthann” Tr. Dorothy Africa in Medieval Hagiography Ed. Thomas Head (London: Routledge, 2001) 111-136, 106

[22] Muirchu, “The Life of Saint Patrick” Tr. A. B. E. Hood in Saint Patrick: His Writings and Muirchu’s Life (London: Phillimore and Company, 1978) 61-98, 86-87.

[23] Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, “The Establishment of the Monastery of Gandersheim” Tr. Mary Bernadine Bregman in Medieval Hagiography Ed. Thomas Head (London: Routledge, 2001) 244-47.

[24] Adomnan of Iona, The Life of Saint Columba , 131, 134-35, 143-44.

[25] Ibid., 151; Muirchu, “The Life of Saint Patrick,” 96. This is also a common theme even in non-indexical narratives e.g. Gregory of Tours, Glory of the Martyrs Tr. Raymond Van Dam (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1988) 57; Gregory of Tours, Life of the Fathers, 90; Willibald, “The Life of Saint Boniface” Tr. Clinton Albertson in Anglo-Saxon Saints and Heroes (Fordham: Fordham University Press, 1967) 178; Anonymous, “The Life of Saint Cuthbert,” 57; Bede, “The Life of Saint Cuthbert” Tr. J. F. Webb in Lives of the Saints (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965) 95; Willibald, “The Life of Saint Boniface” Tr. Clinton Albertson in Anglo-Saxon Saints and Heroes (Fordham: Fordham University Press, 1967) 314.

[26] John Charles Arnold, “Arcadia Becomes Jerusalem: Angelic Caverns and Shrine Conversion at Monte Gargano” in Speculum vol. 75, 2000, 567-588, 569-77.

[27] A notable exception is Hrotsvit’s story.

[28] E.g. Rimbert, “The Life of Saint Anskar” Tr. C. H. Robinson in Additional Carolingian Materials Ed. Paul Edward Dutton (Burnaby: Simon Fraser University Bookstore, 2003) 38-39; Eddius Stephanus, “The Life of Saint Wilfrid” Tr. Clinton Albertson in Anglo-Saxon Saints and Heroes (Fordham: Fordham University Press, 1967) 137; Bede. A History of the English Church and People Trans. Leo Sherley-Price. (London: Penguin Books, 1968.) 104.

[29] E.g. Athanasius of Alexandria, “The Life of Saint Antony” Tr. David Brakke in Medieval Hagiography Ed. Thomas Head (London: Routledge, 2001) 19.

[30] Anonymous, “The Life of Saint Cuthbert,” 57.

[31] Numbers 13:21-24

[32] Exodus 15:22-25

[33] Numbers 11:1-3

[34] Numbers 11:32-35

[35] Numbers 14:22-24, 30.

[36] Gill, Mother Earth, 51-53.

[37] Ibid., 55-57.

[38] Ibid., 115, 137.

[39] Ibid., 65.

[40] Gill, Sam D. and Irene F. Sullivan. Dictionary of Native American Mythology. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.) 291; Lewis, Thomas H. “The Ogala (Teton Dakota) Sun Dance: Vicissitudes of its Structures and Function” in Plains Anthropologist vol. 17 no. 55, 1972. 44-49. 44 Lincoln, Bruce. “A Lakota Sun Dance and the Problematics of Sociocosmic Reunion” in History of Religions, 1994. 1-14. 12.

[41] Exodus 19:2-3, 10-12, 17-18,

[42] Exodus 24:1-2

[43] Bede, A History of the English Church and People, 156.

[44] Hai’alkîngam­é, “Hamalakauae” in Kwakiutl Tales (New York: Columbia University Press, 1910) 26-27.

[45] Gill, Mother Earth, 63, 145.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.