Sounds of Ceremony: The Future of Sacred Landscapes

Posted on: September 23, 2021


[The following essay is one of 18 published in Alpinist 75 (Autumn 2021) under the title, "The Cresset and the Light: The Many Futures of Alpinism." We are publishing just eight online, including this one. For a complete overview of the wide-ranging essay topics and contributors in the feature, see the list at the end of the introduction by Editor-in-Chief Katie Ives here. Pick up Alpinist 75 from newsstands or our online store for all the goodness!—Ed.]

Aaron Mike before the couloir he skied on Dibee Nitsaa, Dinetah, with fellow Dine/Navajo mountaineer Len Necefer. [Photo] Isaiah Branch-BoyleAaron Mike before the couloir he skied on Dibee Nitsaa, Dinetah, with fellow Dine/Navajo mountaineer Len Necefer. [Photo] Isaiah Branch-Boyle

IN THE SUNLIGHT, the dark shale of Dibe Nitsaa glistened with water as the spring snow began its long journey to the ocean many hundreds of miles away. Before we'd embarked on skis to make a spiritual journey to this place, we'd sequestered ourselves as if preparing for one of our Navajo ceremonies. This time, however, our isolation was for another reason: to protect each other from the virus in the midst of the pandemic. The mountain of Dibe Nitsaa was created by the Diyin Dine'e (Holy People) to safeguard the world from danger and evil. They fastened the massif to the earth with a rainbow to instill peace and harmony. For now, the late spring snowpack still follows a predictable rhythm of freezing and thawing each night and day, making our travel more secure. The snow and the peak before us felt like a reprieve from the dangers of the world outside this basin.

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As I grow into older age, my relationship with mountain landscapes vacillates between a sanguine disposition that our collective advocacy might help keep their environments intact for our grandchildren—and a melancholic frustration that the impacts of climate change will undo our efforts. The exact future remains uncertain, yet the effects of rising global temperatures trend toward exacerbating struggles over resources. A significant number of the world's armed conflicts already occur in mountainous regions, related to disputes over ownership and control of water, minerals or simply geography. Nonviolent tensions exist elsewhere as well. On one of the Navajo sacred mountains, Dook'o'oosliid, which lies outside of the boundaries of tribal jurisdiction, a ski resort creates artificial snow from wastewater in response to shorter, warmer winters. This practice goes against the wishes of local tribes, and it has led to significant protest.

In many places, the devastations of climate change, if left unabated, will mean a secondary dispossession of Indigenous people from our connections to the mountains—after the first genocidal dispossession that defined much of the colonial history of what is now the United States. Rising sea levels will submerge the evidence of civilizations of Indigenous people who have long dwelled by the coasts. As annual temperatures increase in alpine ecosystems, species of plants and animals—which animated the creation stories, languages and cultures that tie Indigenous people to these places—will go locally extinct or entirely vanish. Soils burnt by proliferating forest fires will blow or wash away over time, disturbing archeological artifacts once held in the snow and earth. Stricken with bark beetle or burned in recent fires, the ponderosa pines that we used for ceremonial structures no longer surround my grandparents' sheepherding cabin in the Chuska mountains. The medicinal plants that once flourished there have all but disappeared—the remaining ones can only be found athigher altitudes.

These impacts aren't just limited to communities with direct ties to mountain landscapes but also for those in other connected eco regions and climactic zones. Many of the Navajo sacred peaks in the southwestern United States are the headwaters for tributaries of larger rivers that are central to the identities of Indigenous peoples who live along them. The political marginalization of these communities further magnifies these strains. Their stewardship of these landscapes occurred successfully for millennia prior to colonization and its introduction of economic systems that drive large-scale resource extraction. An increase in Indigenous authority over land management could help restore the rights of nature and all the entities within it.

Necefer dips his fingers into white corn meal to give an offering to the mountain before ascending the couloir. [Photo] Len NeceferNecefer dips his fingers into white corn meal to give an offering to the mountain before ascending the couloir. [Photo] Len Necefer

Alpinism has provided me with a means to grow deeper roots into my own personal identity and the long-standing bonds with mountains of my Navajo heritage. Each time I have ventured up any of the four Navajo sacred mountains, the sharp sounds of snow mimic the rattles of gourds used in ceremonial prayers, a reminder of how our practices mimic the environments from which they come. The four mountains serve as critical mnemonic devices, providing the basis for our educational philosophy in which each of these peaks represents a different stage in the learning process. They are the settings of our creation stories, and for now, their snows still breathe life into rivers and ecosystems across the arid regions which we call home.

Within cultures around the world, the existence of mountain landscapes serves as an intergenerational reminder of the sacred. In our shared future of climate change, we must all ensure that we steward mountain landscapes for the generations ahead—to keep intact the many ways they nourish ecosystems and societies, but also to preserve the varied connections that we each maintain with them. When the places that reflect our deeply held dreams change, we too will transform, becoming severed from crumbling rock walls, vanishing ice streaks and diminishing summit snows, from moments of beauty and joy, that once felt like parts of our selves.

Those sounds of ceremony, of the ceremonial rattle created by the snow, echoing from the couloir walls on Dibe Nitsaa, still fill my ears many years later. The top of the couloir appeared more quickly than I had expected. The rhythmic compression of my ski boots into the snow, the strain of every step, the labor of every breath—these sensations mirrored earlier experiences created in sweat lodges. This mountain, just like those ceremonies, taught me that relegating the pain and tiredness to the background and focusing on the small victories of each movement upward would get me through any obstacle. Our time atop this ridge was short. The corn snow began to soften, and the precarity of the small ledge we stood upon reminded me of my own mortality on this planet. Our descent would be short, but its impact on us as people would last a lifetime. The stories that we carry from the mountains are ones that will inspire care and love for them as our relatives—by those who listen to these tales and by the generations of people who follow us.

—Dr. Len Necefer, a scholar, advocate and mountaineer, is the founder of NativesOutdoors.

[This essay is one of 18 published in Alpinist 75 (Autumn 2021) under the title, "The Cresset and the Light: The Many Futures of Alpinism." We are publishing just eight online, including this one. For a complete overview of the wide-ranging essay topics and contributors in the feature, see the list at the end of the introduction by Editor-in-Chief Katie Ives here. Pick up Alpinist 75 from newsstands or our online store for all the goodness!—Ed.]

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