Sacred site runners roam the roads of Indian Country 8-07

by Christine Graef
Reserve, Wisconsin (NFIC) - Where the Chippewa River flows beneath a bridge spanned by County Route S in Sawyer County, Wisconsin, Ben Yahola, Muscogee, stood talking to a group of youth and adults about a plaque that marks the site as a battle scene that took place in 1790.

“Your ancestors were here,” he said.

He tells the story of Ojibwe warriors crouched in ambush, waiting for 700 Dakota warriors that were paddling upstream in 200 canoes to fight for the territory. When they reached the place where the bridge spans the river, the Ojibwe swarmed their enemy. Fewer than half the Dakota escaped. Those killed on both sides were buried nearby.

Yahola says a prayer and instructs the youth to leave tobacco by the water, ask for a safe run and for ancestors to be with them to give strength. Yahola, president of the Earth Keepers Voices of Native America Inc. based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, came to the LCO Ojibwe Reservation as part of a five-year plan to bring acknowledgement to sacred sites around the country.

In its second year, the visit was part of the Mississippi River Sacred Sites Run 2007 that began on Spring Equinox, March 21. EKVNA mapped out sites from Louisiana and Tennessee through Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Yahola called for the youngest child to begin the run. The eight-year-old boy took an eagle staff Yahola placed in his hands and began to run. The eagle feathers flapped in rhythm with his sneakered feet as he crossed the distance, passing in and out of shade offered by the roadside trees.

Ammon Bailey, Ute/Paiute/Comanche and vice president of the Sacred Site Run, and board member Jeanie Dean snapped photographs and video from the vehicle following him. In one, a half dozen youth from the Boys and Girls Club followed along with the runner, stopping in half-mile increments as the eagle staff was passed to the next runner.

They stopped at the site where the Dakota had been buried.

“These are reminders of who we are today and the history of our people,” said Yahola. “It’s our way of keeping the history so our young ones will know.”

Hot sun poured from a blue sky, casting the timeless shadow of each runner onto 22 miles of concrete road that brought them back to the reservation’s Trading Post.

A handful of soil from the site was tied in a red cloth and added to bundles saved from at least 200 other sites collected over the years. Among the bundles are soils from sites in Ireland, Auschitz in Germany, Wales, Mexico, Peru and Brazil that were given to Yahola by people sharing their own places of sacredness. Earth from Iran and Iraq sites is expected also to be added for an exhibit that often travels with them.

“We set up at pow-wows to educate people about this work,” said Kathy Lichterman, Ojibwe and board member of the Run. “People share their stories and become aware of the commonality we all have in this effort.”

Yahola began his work to bring acknowledgement to sites after working as a tour guide in the early 1970s in Georgia talking to people about the Ocmulgee National Monument, an ancient preservation of mounds, village sites and a circular earth lodge that houses a room with clay chairs inside.

“I became closely connected with the sites and wanted to learn more,” he said.

sacred-sites-road-web-8_07.jpg He’s been visiting sites around the country since 1973. In the 1990s, when the Georgia Department of Transportation initiated plans to run the Eisenhower highway between the two sections of mounds at the Ocmulgee site, Yohala experienced the relationship with federal government and the subjugation of his people as the process of debate unfolded.

“Information was getting lost,” he said. “A few people carried knowledge. I realized the sites and symbols deserved critical thought to decipher their true meaning.”

They also needed to be respected, he said. Reservations that have the funds and could protect sites but don’t are often under the decision-making of a sparse staff that doesn’t have time or resources to learn about the places. The public often doesn’t know the significance of the site, he said.

“My task became to just talk about the work we’re doing,” he said.

In 2003, Yohala moved from Oklahoma to Milwaukee. Exploring the few hundred sites that have survived of the 10s of thousands of mounds in the Great Lakes region and witnessing the continued destruction, he began efforts to form a group to work toward education and preservation.

“Again, the colonization process kept people from working together,” he said. “I talked about having a walk in the city. Nothing happened. So I let it go and did my own offerings.”

Gradually a network developed as dialogue began with others who saw the sites as important. The Sacred Run was launched.

“In each community we go to, we try to pass the eagle staff,” said Lichterman.

Yahola’s eagle staff has traveled from Oklahoma to the United Nations building in New York City, to Alaska and South America, Washington, D.C., in protest marches to ceremonies and other events, in cars, on foot and on horseback, once disappearing from Yahola’s possession for 20 years as it traveled before returning to him in Oklahoma in 2000.

“Some sites are under threat,” said Bailey. “Some are on private property. Some of the owners are very nice and some don’t want us on their land at all because they’re protective of the sites, until they understand why we’ve come.”

The group’s experiences have ranged from threats of imprisonment if they took soil from a state park and apathetic tribal governments to impassioned activists and organizations passing resolutions to preserve sites.

A goal of EKVNA’s Seventh Generation Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states, “The rights of the people to use and enjoy air, water, sunlight and other renewable resources determined by Congress to be common property, shall not be impaired, nor shall such use impair their availability for the future generations.” They hope to renew the national debate every Earth Day and eventually present a bill to Congress.

This year’s run will conclude on Equinox, September 23, at the Platteville Mound site and pow-wow in Platteville, Wisconsin

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