The climactic scene of the first film in Toby McLeod and Jessica Abbe’s “Standing on Sacred Ground” film series—"Pilgrims and Tourists"—is of the Winnemem Wintu coming of age ceremony on the McCloud River.
“We’ve filmed three of these puberty ceremonies and we have watched the tribe battle the Forest Service for privacy and respect every year as they try to honor young girls becoming women in a sacred place,” says McLeod of the tribe’s annual battle to preserve their tradition. “It’s been sad and incredibly uplifting at the same time.”
In the four-part Sacred Ground documentary series, native people share ecological wisdom and spiritual reverence while battling a utilitarian view of land, government megaprojects, consumer culture, competing religions, resource extraction, and climate change.
In the first film, "Pilgrims and Tourists", premiering this month at Redding’s Casdcade Theatre, McLeod and Abbe tell the story of Winnemen efforts to protest U.S. government plans to enlarge Shasta Dam, which would forever submerge this touchstone of the tribe. The film also gives us a glimpse of the Altaians, indigenous people of a pristine mountain region in southern Siberia who are creating their own mountain parks to rein in tourism, and resist state-run energy giant Gazprom’s plans to run a pipeline to China through a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I asked McLeod and Abbe about their cinematic adventure and their part in building what McLeod calls a “global network of sacred site guardians:”
First, tell us about you.
JA: Growing up in Redding in the '60s and '70s, I was fortunate to live close to the land. My mother taught me about native plants, my father was a birdwatcher, and we grew our own fruit and vegetables. Family time was spent bike riding, hiking and skiing at Mt. Lassen. I loved the beautiful rivers and mountains, but I was unaware of Native American spiritual views of the region. I think this was a common blindspot, even in a family devoted to justice and equality. Until the 1978 passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA), Florence Jones and other elders of the Winnemem Wintu tribe kept their culture alive in secret. Native American ceremonies were illegal.
Now, people in the dominant culture have greater access to worldviews that include landscapes of spiritual significance—the traditional heart of a rich thousand-year history of our region, and a stark contrast to the utilitarian view of land as property and a source of wealth that blasted in during the Gold Rush.
Indigenous worldviews, with respect for land and reverence for nature, have enriched my own children’s upbringing. The Standing on Sacred Ground series is a way for traditional cultures to share wisdom with a wider world that is hungry for meaning and pathways to sustainable living. I’m really proud that the first film in the series, Pilgrims and Tourists, features my home region, and a tribe that Toby and I have worked with for twenty years.
Tell us a bit about your work as filmmakers.
TM: I’ve been making environmental documentaries since the 1970s. When I first saw the massive coal stripmines on Hopi and Navajo land in the Southwest, I focused on the physical destruction—air pollution, birth defects, the depletion of desert springs. The Hopi and Navajo elders emphasized an unseen dimension, the spiritual effects, and they complained about western blindness to what they described as the sacredness of their homeland. This intrigued me. How would they describe that dimension? How do you film the sacred? What does it mean that “the Earth is alive?” Every film I have made since explores this conflict: an indigenous view of spiritually alive land, versus the exploitive, extractive, materialistic ways of industrial culture, the culture I come from. I believe this contrast of worldviews is at the heart of the environmental crisis, so my films explore these values and ideas by telling stories about indigenous people fighting to protect sacred places against a variety of threats. The local story that drew us this time is the proposal to raise the height of Shasta Dam.
JA: This isn't the first time I’ve come back north to work on a documentary. I wrote "In the Light of Reverence" for Toby, and wrote and co-produced "Angle of Inspiration", about Santiago Calatrava and the Sundial Bridge. For KRON-TV I produced "Bay Area Backroads", and documentaries including San Francisco in the 1970s. Senator Dianne Feinstein gave me a lovely interview for that film. She’s a prominent supporter of the enlargement of Shasta Dam, and refused to be interviewed for our new film. We were also turned down by Tom Birmingham, head of the Westlands Water District, an extraordinarily successful group of southern California farmers. It’s ironic, as the hard part used to be getting indigenous people to tell us their stories. This time we couldn't get our own senator or primary beneficiaries of government-subsidized Shasta Lake water.
What led you to this project?
TM: For a long time filming sacred places was taboo, forbidden. These are secret, sensitive issues. But in the last two decades the threats to indigenous peoples’ sacred places have become so severe that many native communities, in this country and abroad, simultaneously decided to risk telling their stories to educate people. The wider public wants to do the right thing but if they don’t know a place is sacred, and why, and what the history is, then they just go on blindly. So, we made "In the Light of Reverence", which aired on PBS, and developed a good reputation in native communities. This opened the door for us to launch the project I envisioned 20 years ago, a global series on indigenous peoples’ sacred places all around the world. Each culture is unique, but they all have sacred sites and share common values, and when they get together to talk about these places of power and insight they find common ground. So "Standing on Sacred Ground" is the fulfillment of a 20-year dream to link these global stories.
JA: Toby's vision has been a gift generously shared with me. Twenty years ago we got married, and a week later we attended Winnemem ceremonies for the first time. I began to see that this marriage would change my understanding of the world, and even of the people, history and meaning of the region I came from. We each married a filmmaker, so we were bound to work together. It has been a blast, and by that I mean thrilling, and at times mildly explosive.
TM: If I could return to my comment on indigenous cultures having common values even though their sacred places and culture are unique: Most native people deal with the surrounding natural world as part of their family, part of their community, directly linked to and the source of their physical body. So relationship and connectedness is the most common shared value, and the one western culture seems to have abandoned. This familial relationship leads to shared responsibilty, humility, respect, as deep cultural values that really contrast with the idea of taking all you can, profiting as much as possible, consuming loudly and conspicuously—the less attractive cultural norms described in the great 1960s novel “The Ugly American.”
What are the greatest threats to indigenous communities? What are some of the core issues for the global indigenous human rights and environmental movement?
TM: I’d say that effective collaboration is the greatest challenge. Environmentalists often have a different agenda than indigenous communities, and building trust and keeping the movements together has been tough. Protecting acreage and biodiversity can be purely physical with little regard to indigenous history and the spiritual dimension of human/nature relations. Many national parks are created by well-meaning scientists and government bureacrats, but the indigenous people might be moved out, denied access, and ignored when they tell the experts that their sacred mountain is at the heart of the new park. A whole process of dialogue and reconciliation is required around the world to heal deep wounds. On the positive side, I believe, as Paul Hawken has argued, that the human rights and social justice movement, the environmental movement, and the indigenous rights movement are really one movement that is merging slowly over time, and when that power has matured it will sweep in the the changes we need to get our culture and our planet back on a sustainable course.
In terms of the greatest threats to indigenous communities you can see them all here in terms of what the Winnemem Wintu are up against. They were flooded out of their traditional homeland when Shasta Dam was built. The Forest Service controls their old village sites and burial grounds, their ceremonial sites, their sacred places from Mt. Shasta to the McCloud River. Without federal recognition they are denied basic health and housing benefits. They don’t have a seat at the table regarding the decisions on Shasta Dam, or salmon restoration, or management of Panther Meadows with regard to tourists and New Age pilgrims. Chief Caleen Sisk has to spend her life fighting these battles and she is typical of so many indigenous leaders around the world whose time and energy could be better spent.
What were your favorite locations to film "Standing on Sacred Ground"?
TM: That’s a tough question because in every case we were surrounded by stunning landscapes and exotic cultures. The Altai Republic of Russia was our first film location, and the deep, ancient respect for sacred mountains and springs in the birthplace of shamanism was deeply moving. In the Gamo Highlands of Ethiopia, I could not shake the sense that I was in a place where people have lived forever—you can feel that we evolved there—and the self-confidence and rootedness of those people, and the trust they showed us as outsider filmmakers, was profound. Papua New Guinea was scary because after we filmed a confrontation between a local clan leader and the Chinese mining company that had bulldozed his clan cemetery we were detained by the police for two hours in a shipping container. It turned out the local policemen were all clan relatives of the elder we were filming with, so after a while they ignored their Chinese benefactors and let us go.
JA: I’m a mountain person. The Andes of Peru, the Golden Mountains of Altai, and Mt. Shasta and the McCloud River watershed are all places where I have been privileged to bask in wonder at the beauty of the land and its people.
What sites did you experience in Northern CA when working with the Winnemem Wintu?
TM: We’ve spent a lot of time in Panther Meadows and around Mt. Shasta, and in the area around the McCloud River. This is the Winnemem tradional territory and it forms a network of sacred places that are critical to the health of the Winnemem, individually and as a culture with a long deep history in this area.
What is the connection between the Winnemem Wintu and Russian Altaians?
TM: There might be an ancient connection either by way of physical migration from Central Asia to the Americas, or spiritually, through the sacred mountains they protect. Their modern connection is because we linked their stories in our film. The Altaians wanted to come to see Mt. Shasta, the Winnemem hosted them, and they shared a profound experience that we filmed on Mt. Shasta. This past June, we traveled to Altai with Winnemem Chief Caleen Sisk to show the film to the Altaians, and to make a pilgrimage together to their sacred peak. Altaians and Winnemem are now working to build a global network of sacred site guardians.
How does the raising of Shasta Dam affect the Winnemem Wintu?
TM: It will flood their homeland, villages sites, sacred ceremonial places, and burial grounds—for a second time. The Winnemem have been reviving their culture for the last 40 years despite the losses of land and sacred sites. They should be given land on the McCloud River to practice their culture, not flooded out again.
JA: We should thank them for their work on behalf of all of us. The tribe is one of the cultural treasures of California—and constantly under attack. It’s amazing to travel with Caleen Sisk and see the respect she is given in other countries, and then witness disrespectful treatment by representatives of my own government. My father was in law enforcement, a Shasta County Superior Court judge. I hated seeing U.S. Forest Service agents handing Caleen tickets at the puberty ceremony in 2012 for allegedly violating the terms of a river closure that was put in place for her own tribe’s benefit. It happened on the 4th of July, as my teenaged son watched, deeply upset. I cried tears of anger and shame. It was bogus and meant to be insulting, and I was glad to see the charges thrown out. It would be nice if there was an apology.
What can the average person do to be more aware, or better yet, help?
JA: Most of all, allow yourself to be touched by the concern of indigenous people on their sacred lands, where they pray for all of us.
We are entering a time when society will move quickly toward sustainable choices...or else. I don’t see this societal change as happening slowly or incrementally. It is slow now, but like a river it will pick up speed as people rush to embrace a new, positive, sustainable direction. The widespread acceptance of marriage equality is an example of this kind of process. Just 10 years ago it was unimaginable. It feels good to be on the side of love and respect.
TM: I think we all have to realize that the consumer choices and tourism choices we make have consequences. Being more aware of the history of native people, the ways they have been colonized and oppressed, is enlightening. And it’s necessary. History has been written by the conqueror, allied with churches and corporations, and the indigenous version of local history is stunningly different. De-colonization of the mind is important in native communities, and we can all work on questioning our values, becoming more respectful and responsible, nurturing our direct connections with the natural world, by listening and breathing and asking: how can I help?
JA: I think we all share a responsibility to support cultures so their wisdom will not be lost. This includes standing up when sacred sites are under attack by corporations, governments, competing religions and insensitive recreation. These places are precious and to be respected. The traditional knowledge they represent is essential to our common future. We must walk hand in hand.
I also think people are tired of living in fear of the future, and want so much to feel positive about their actions. To do that we have to subvert dominant trends in ways both large and small.
As travelers we have a particular responsibilty to practice respect, minimize impact, and seek education from the local guardians of sacred places. Get out on the land and listen to it, but make sure you aren’t behaving intrusively or breaking cultural taboos.
For me, it feels good to act to help habitat generally. I show local pride by using Chico Bags instead of plastic grocery bags made from tar sands oil—the bags were a big hit as a gift to hosts in Peru and Siberia, along with wind-up flashlights. I never buy water sold in plastic bottles, which end up in a Texas-sized garbage patch on the surface of the Pacific Ocean. I enjoy exploring close to home in one of the most spectacular regions on the planet. I ride the bus or drive a hybrid. We found the cost of installing solar panels too high, so we leased them from Sungevity and lowered our energy bills. It always feels good to get my hands dirty and grow some vegetables. I believe these little actions contribute to changing myself in a good way, and may quietly influence others.
Pilgrims and Tourists will premiere at Redding’s Cascade Theatre, Saturday, September 14 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets ($12 or $35 for film and reception) are available at the Cascade box office or at cascadetheatre.org. For more information about the Standing on Sacred Ground series, vistsacredland.org.