‘Shock and dismay’ for Notre Dame (so should it be for Chaco Canyon)

Indian Country’s reaction is sharp when it comes to the destruction of sacred sites; all sacred sites

While Indigenous sacred sites are being exploited, another place of prayer that is sacred to Western culture just burnt down across the Atlantic Ocean.

The world was devastated and watched the live flames at the Notre Dame Cathedral during the Catholic Church’s Holy Week. Flames engulfed the 800-year-old structure for approximately 12 hours.

Mainstream news tweaked their headlines along the feelings of grief, disbelief, sadness, and “decades of history.” NPR’s Andrew Lapin wrote, “This felt like watching a symphony burn down.”

The Associated Press headlined one story as “Notre Dame hailed as a monument to the ‘best of civilization.’”

Art expert Barbara Drake Boehm told the AP that “civilization is just so fragile.”

“It’s not just one relic, not one piece of glass -- it’s the totality,” she said. “It’s the very soul of Paris, but it’s not just for French people. For all humanity, it’s one of the great monuments to the best of civilization.”

The Notre Dame Cathedral took 182 years to build, started in 1163 and finished in 1345. King Louis VII sat on the throne.

The landmark is listed as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. A fact also noted by CBS News.

But that’s not the only World Heritage Site. So is Chaco Canyon. And unlike Notre Dame the unfolding environmental disaster is a designed, planned, and willful exploitation of a sacred site.

The Washington Post talked to computational archaeologist Stefani Crabtree last year who described New Mexico’s canyon as “a great civilization” that faced “political problems and environmental disaster.”

Chaco Canyon, formerly known as Chaco Culture National Historical Park, was the hub for many Indigenous cultures in the modern-day Americas.

From archaeological evidence, this civilization was built in 850 and completed in 1150. However, the people who lived here suddenly left sometime around 1100, archaeologists and scholars figure.

But instead of universal support for this heritage site, the Trump administration is looking for oil and gas development near the national park. The Bureau of Land Management intends to move forward with oil leases within a buffer zone that was established by former President Barack Obama. That buffer zone held off any leasing to oil and gas companies.

(Previous story: Congress explores legislation to protect Chaco Canyon from oil and gas development)

Local tribes, tribal citizens and allies have been fighting against the oil and gas companies and those that want to extract resources near the national monument. 

Tribal leaders, local residents, government officials and local organizations testified at an oversight hearing Monday in Santa Fe, New Mexico, titled “Oil and Gas Development: Impacts on Air Pollution and Sacred Sites.” This hearing focused on public health impacts of gas and oil drilling.

Last week, Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, reintroduced a bill that would protect the lands around Chaco Canyon permanently.

Navajo citizen Kendra Pinto was not informed of the potential hazards of oil and gas development, especially when she lives on one of the parcels that was put up to lease. She wasn’t notified of this.

“We can smell the pollution, see the flares, and hear the methane being released every day. We cannot continue to adopt a ‘wait and see’ approach to methane regulations,” she said. 

Craig O’Neill, senior business development manager of Optical Gas Imaging, said they are “advancing the technology to reduce methane emissions to new levels” so they can save lives.

Not long after the hearing word spread that the Notre Dame Cathedral was caught in flames.

The cathedral was being renovated when the flames caught. The world watched the roof collapse, including the iconic spiral. The two rectangular towers and main structure of the building were preserved.

Local officials are investigating the cause of the fire. They suspect the renovations are linked to it. 

The world quickly turned to social media to mourn the loss of the historical landmark. Some even posting images from the Disney film “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

However, Indian Country immediately drew parallels because many sacred sites to Indigenous peoples were destroyed.

Indigenous Goddess Gang posted a quote by Casey Douma on Instagram.

“The concern and dismay is being felt by many around the world. Now imagine that the damage to this historic and religious site was caused by a pipeline running through it, by fracking, or due to development,” wrote Douma. “This shock and dismay is the type of feeling Indigenous people feel when our lands and sacred sites are damaged and threatened.”

The Instagram account captioned the photo with:

“The mountain is a church.

The canyon is a church.

The ocean is a church.

The river is a church.

Mother Earth is a church.” 

A follower of the account agreed and said, “The visceral reaction to seeing Mother Earth gutted to lay pipeline was real pain. I feel nothing when I see this church burning.”

Another commented, “We are more concerned about structures than our burial grounds! #whataboutusindigenous”

Fashion designer Sho Sho Esquiro posted a photo of her and model in front of the cathedral in February. One model wore a jacket that stated “No Apology Necessary.” The designer was part of the Indigenous Fashion Week on the Eiffel Tower. 

A few were sympathetic. 

Business owner Arianna Lauren of Quwutsunmade posted her “unsolicited opinion” about the cathedral burning down.

“I think it’s super wack Natives are taking this as a time to jab at the church. Yes it burnt down. Yes it is Catholic. But to gloat in the face of something tragic is very low. It’s also sad to watch something of such beauty (aesthetically) perish. Idk ya’ll, maybe let’s not make this a Native issue today,” she wrote. “I mean, racist Catholics suck but this building doesn’t represent all racists. Let’s just put this energy into uplifting our communities, bridging gaps, and teaching those willing to learn.”

Deb Haaland visiting Chaco Canyon - April 2019
Rep. Deb Haaland visited Chaco Canyon the day before the oversight hearing. (Instagram)

Indigenous sites aren’t the only ones wondering why this received so much attention. Ahmed Ben Hriz recognized that the “loss of history is always very tragic.” But the world didn’t care as much when “one of the most ancient cities in the world” in Syria was destroyed by war.

“Notre Dame is such an iconic building known around the world and it’s very saddening to see part of it go up in flames. But the thing that bothers me the most, is the selective way in which we decide what’s worth our anger and sadness and what isn’t,” he said. “I hope someday our love, thoughts, prayers, support and facebook profile picture change becomes equal for everything that matters.”

Around the world there are many places considered sacred to Indigenous people that are being developed, including Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, Arizona’s San Francisco Peaks, and lakes where wild rice grows in Minnesota.

(Read opinion: President Trump: Make Bears your legacy)

Several on social media said unlike buildings that can be rebuilt, ancestral and sacred sites on land cannot.

Rep. Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico, said in the hearing that destroying structures is easier than trying to preserve them. 

French billionaire François-Henri Pinault already pledged approximately $113 million to rebuilding the cathedral.

More pledge to donate to the reconstruction of the Catholic Church, including Apple. 

French President Emmannuel Macron told the world that this fire was “probably part of the French destiny.”

"Notre Dame is our history, it's our literature, it's our imagery. It's the place where we live our greatest moments, from wars to pandemics to liberations ... I'm telling you all tonight -- we will rebuild this cathedral together. This is probably part of the French destiny. And we will do it in the next years. Starting tomorrow, a national donation scheme will be started that will extend beyond our borders.”

James Shepard, director of preservation and facilities at the Washington National Cathedral, told CBSN about the cathedral’s history.

“That’s 800 years of history, of people pilgrimaging there and worshipping there, and the accumulation of culture,” he said. "All of that will have to be taken into consideration as they try to repair this church and save it after this devastating fire."

René Breuel’s perspective piece in The Washington Post reminded readers that a cultural landmark wasn’t just burned. A church was burned.

“More than a national icon or a touristic spot, cathedrals such as Notre Dame reveal their soul when they house singing and baptisms, confession and pardon, preaching and prayer,” Breul wrote. “It is appropriate for politicians to mourn the damage done to a world-famous icon. It is more appropriate still for people of faith to pray that churches may again be regarded as living sanctuaries more than as civic landmarks.”

Chaco Canyon is a place of prayer to Native people. Notre Dame is a place of prayer to Catholics and other Christians.

Many Native people like Rep. Haaland hope Chaco Canyon can be valued like other sacred sites.

“It’s important that we protect Chaco Canyon, both because it is a sacred place that should be valued the same way we value other sacred places, but also because public lands must be protected,” she said last week in a phone conference. “This place is the ancestral homeland of my people and is a living landscape. It’s a place where New Mexico families and people from all over the world come to make memories.”

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Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @jourdanbb. Email: jbennett-begaye@indiancountrytoday.com

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Comments (1)
No. 1-1
MarkGH
MarkGH

Excuse me for asking, but after spending too long as a proofreader, this caught my eye .. are the dates correct? Just curious: "From archaeological evidence, this civilization was built in 850 and completed in 1150. However, the people who lived here suddenly left sometime around 1100, archaeologists and scholars figure."