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26.1.03

Vandals Destroy, Deface Badlands Pictographs

Using charcoal, someone drew over several pictographs in Dry Canyon in the Badlands east of Bend, defacing about five and destroying at least one of the irreplaceable images.

"Within the canyon, the vandal or vandals built a fire pit that stretches about 4 feet across. The fire charred the sides and top of a hollowed rock that is about 6 feet tall.

"Someone used charcoal to write "truth," "light," and "healing" on the walls. The Taoist yin-yang symbol representing balance was also drawn. A vandal also used the charcoal to trace the outline of one pictograph.

- via WitchVox


This article focuses on the archaeological value of the pictographs, which is the value felt by both the government and the local Native American organization, which claims no cultural or spiritual connection to the art (political connection -- the use of the pictographs as an arena for contesting Native rights issues -- is not addressed and cannot be ruled out, though the apparent confluence of interests between the Natives and the government suggests that such conflict is not great at present). But Wren Walker, in her latest WitchVox column, takes a different approach -- the issue of damaging the sacred.

The question that immediately arises is, how do we know what is sacred and what is not? And how do we know what conduct is appropriate for a sacred place? As a cautionary tale, consider the role of rock art in Aboriginal Australian religion. For Aborigines it was often "painting" the verb, not "painting" the noun, that was sacred -- the significance was in the act of creating the picture, applying the paint to the rock, not in the finished form of the art. So in a sense the vandals here could have been more in the spirit of the original painters of the Dry Canyon pictographs than the government officials, stuck in their view of archaeological preservation value and "sacred means do not touch" concepts, are.

Wren's religion gives her an easy answer -- getting in touch with the spiritual power of the place. But for those of us who are not pagan, the issue is more difficult. I can't access the truth on a spiritual level, and secular methods like history and ethnography are often inconclusive, especially for older sites. More problematic, the long history of migration and cultural change experienced by humans calls into question the appropriateness of imagining that there is one eternal indigenous claim to defining a place, one culture able to define the sacredness of a place forever. (Though many native people have adopted this claim of ultimate indigenousness as a cultural and political strategy. This takes us into another discussion of situated truth-claims and feminist standpoint epistemology, which I'll leave for another day)

Finally, there is the question of where sacredness comes from. Wren treats it as an inherent property of a place or object, but my own more skeptical and existential view would say that sacredness is a quality attributed to a site. Just as archaeological value is based on what a site can do for people in teaching them about history, so sacredness is based on what a site can do for people religiously.

So does that mean that people like Wren are misguided in wanting to respect the sacred values of religions whose practicioners are long gone, and hence unable to derive benefit from their form of sacred value? Not precisely. Because Wren's belief in the importance of respecting indigenous sacrality makes her a valuer of those sacred values. This seems to be a quintessential postmodern issue, incorporating incommensurable paradigms that can be contested in the arena of power but never resolved by any objective standard.

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