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Sanctity and Desecration

Sometime in 1858, Father Joseph Gallagher, a Catholic priest headquartered in San Francisco, traveled to Carson City for the purpose of establishing a church, the first such in what was soon to become the Territory of Nevada. Gallagher purchased a suitable site. Within two years, the Catholic church of Saint Teresa of Avila stood at the intersection of King and Minnesota streets.

The church’s early years were rocky. Carson City was a two-bit mining town, many of whose citizens were disinclined to behave in a spiritual manner. Worse, according to a contemporary account, the new church “blowed down” in 1862.

Now, getting blowed down in Carson City, one of the windiest cities in the country, isn’t all that unusual. For a closer look at this urban peril, and some great laughs, read Mark Twain’s account of life in Carson City during the several years that he lived there while working as a reporter for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. In his first book, Roughing It, Twain presaged the style that he would become famous for—wildly descriptive, unashamedly exaggerated, yet somehow bearing a concentrated quotient of truth between the lines.

This was all we saw that day, for it was two o'clock, now, and according to custom the daily "Washoe Zephyr" set in; a soaring dust-drift about the size of the United States set up edgewise came with it, and the capital of Nevada Territory disappeared from view. Still, there were sights to be seen which were not wholly uninteresting to newcomers; for the vast dust-cloud was thickly freckled with things strange to the upper air—things living and dead, that flitted hither and thither, going and coming, appearing and disappearing among the rolling billows of dust—hats, chickens, and parasols sailing in the remote heavens; blankets, tin signs, sage-brush, and shingles a shade lower; door-mats and buffalo-robes lower still; shovels and coal-scuttles on the next grade; glass doors, cats, and little children on the next; disrupted lumber yards, light buggies, and wheelbarrows on the next; and down only thirty or forty feet above ground was a scurrying storm of emigrating roofs and vacant lots.

It was something to see that much. I could have seen more, if I could have kept the dust out of my eyes.[i]

Saint Teresa’s was rebuilt by 1865, then again, after another catastrophe whose details I’ve been unable to pin down, in 1870. The third building lasted 131 years. In 2001, six years after I moved to Carson City, a new church twice the size of the original was constructed several miles away. The 1870 church, meanwhile, was deconsecrated—that is, all sacred items such as prayer books, medals, crucifixes, sacred images, consecrated hosts, and other devotional objects were removed from the church and taken to the new location. Phillip Francis Strahling, Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Reno, then issued a formal declaration stating that the building had been demoted to “profane use,” a term referring not to blasphemy or obscenity but to a nonreligious function. Saint Teresa’s was sold to Carson City’s Brewery Arts Center and converted to a 300-seat theater. Today it is a site that is central to the life of the city, hosting scores of theatrical performances, concerts, lectures, and the like every year.

The church building once was sacred. That designation was removed. After that, the building was no longer sacred.

* * *

Cliff Formations, Bears Ears National Monument

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about a huge swath of southeastern Utah called Bears Ears National Monument. President Obama conveyed national monument status on the area

during the final days of his administration. I was proud to be one of several hundred artists and writers who signed a petition urging the President to act before his successor took office. The integrity of the place is now threatened by the new President, who has proposed rescinding national monument classification and opening the area to mining, logging, and drilling.[ii]

Bears Ears has long been home to great numbers of Native Americans. They include Navajo, Hopi, Ute, Apache, Paiute, and Puebloans. It is a place of untamed, aching, hundred-mile beauty. Ancient roads, hogans, pit houses, sweat lodges, great houses, kivas, and cliff dwellings scatter the landscape. Rock paintings and petroglyphs adorn cliffs and boulders, some dating as far back as 12,000 B.C.E.

More important for my purpose: Much of Bears Ears is sacred to Native Americans. On the website, the writer Ojibwa outlines an important distinction between Native American sacred places and those of European peoples, such as the church of Saint Teresa of Avila in Carson City.

Europeans came to the Americas as immigrants bringing with them their religions. As newcomers, their religions did not have historic ties to the land, and sacred space was the area which they enclosed in their churches. When these churches were abandoned—no longer used for worship by their congregations—the space they enclosed was no longer sacred and churches, therefore, could be converted to secular uses. As a result, today there are former churches which are now stores, houses, medical offices, bars, and so on.

Ojibwa goes on to describe a different kind of sacred place.

Indian people have often enclosed their sacred spaces in a different manner: natural features, such as rivers, islands, cliffs, and mountains, are used to enclose these places. Unlike the European churches, these Native American sacred places are still sacred when the people themselves have been moved to another location and are unable to regularly perform ceremonies at these places.... Once a place has become a part of the sacred landscape, it is always sacred. [iii]

The crucial distinction is this: When a church moves to a new location, the sacred moves with it. When Native Americans move to a new location, the sacred, or those aspects of the sacred enclosed by rivers and mountains—by features of landscape—remain behind, and remain sacred.

There, sometimes, to fall prey to the sorriest kinds of villainy. Failing to understand that petroglyphs are not simply crude pictures etched into rock walls but are, rather, powerful religious symbols located where sacred ceremonies take place or took place centuries ago, vandals who would never think of robbing a church of its religious images routinely destroy petroglyphs, sometimes merely spray-painting them, sometimes removing them with rock saws and chisels for sale in the thriving underground antiquities market. Failing to grasp the universal sanctity of the dead, looters who would never think of desecrating a Christian cemetery ravage Native American burial grounds, sometimes merely for the pleasure it provides, sometimes to purloin relics for sale.

Perpetrators are occasionally apprehended. In 2009, in the largest such roundup, twenty-five people were indicted for violating the Archaeological Resources Protection Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. More than 40,000 artifacts were seized. All of the accused made plea deals with the government, and none served jail time. Bears Ears National Monument has tens of thousands of religious, cultural, and archaeological sites that need protection from such atrocities, but only four federal law enforcement rangers to provide that protection. Given that each ranger is charged with patrolling nearly half a million acres of rugged terrain, the chances that he or she will apprehend a determined vandal are remote. [iv]

I do not for a moment mean to suggest that Christian churches, Jewish synagogues, Muslim mosques, and other houses of worship are not sometimes set upon, shot at, vandalized, burned to the ground; they are, in shocking numbers. [v]

There is a difference, however: in any such calamity, the desecration is known at once. The people who care come together to comfort one another, to pray together, to make plans to restore or rebuild.

In Bears Ears and Native American lands everywhere, the people who care will not be there. The desecration will occur in great silence, unremarked and unknown, amid untamed, aching, hundred-mile beauty. It’s haunting to think that at this very moment, someone may be uprooting a 500-year-old grave, or spray-painting a cliff etched in images of one’s ancestors, or destroying a centuries-old hogan for firewood. A secret desecration carried out without fear of detection or punishment, one known only to the perpetrator.

Native Americans know this and live with it, uneasily, perhaps taking solace from their belief that mountains have memories and rocks have eyes. And that, in the words of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, “We were taught to believe that the Great Spirit sees and hears everything.” [vi]

* * *

Photo credit: United States Forest Service

[i] Roughing It by Mark Twain, Penguin Classics, 1995, p.179






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