Chimney Rock- A Loss of the Holy

In his essay Giving Voice to Place: Three Models for Understanding Sacred Space, Belden C. Lane writes, “The sacred place… is wholly infused with a sense of extranormal power” (60).  Indeed, certain cultures view this metaphysical idea of space with reverent awareness and respect.  Historically, the indigenous tribes of Native America have grounded their ways of life around a spiritual bond with the earth.  However, the Euro-American culture prevalent in the United States today does not share such a strongly religious regard for nature.  This contrasting view of the divine found on earth has given rise to countless instances of American disruption of sacred lands, as well as disregard for the indigenous cultures of the surrounding areas.  In the Six Rivers National Forest of Northern California, one such event concluded the period of legal and religious struggle between 1977 and 1988; this time span showcases the United States District Court’s forcible construction of a road through the sacred Chimney Rock area of the Karok, Tolowa, and Yurok Indians.

Contextually, this government project was a part of larger-scale blueprint of roadway construction connecting the two California towns Gasquet and Orleans.  To complete this venture, the United States District Court felt it necessary to pave a six-mile stretch of road through the area known as Chimney Rock (Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association).  This highway would both spur efficiency in transportation and link the two somewhat remote communities.  In addition, in 1982, the Forest Service proposed a new policy that would allow substantial timber harvesting in the areas along the new road (Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association).  While the government viewed this massive project as beneficial to California citizens and economically justifiable, the indigenous tribes of the area were not so enthused.  In fact, following the proposal of these ventures, the Karok, Tolowa, and Yurok tribes living in the surrounding areas actively protested the plans, and, eventually, brought their case to court.

                                Beginning with the arrival of European settlers in America, there has been much debate as to who “owns” the land of indigenous America; many have posed the idea that land belongs to whoever first inhabits it.  However, this seemingly acceptable view has not been very effective in legal arguments.  Oftentimes, lack of evidence showing concrete inhabitation of a certain area has weakened the argument.  Personally, I feel that the issue cannot be so easily and concretely resolved with this one position in mind.  However, the fact that indigenous peoples historically built lives around certain areas, whether small or wide spread, deserves respect and heavy consideration in dealing with questions concerning the rights to land.

In his book The Indian Tribes of North America, John R. Swanton reveals that these three tribes lived in the areas surrounding the Chimney Rock region far before white settlers colonized the west coast.  Swanton writes that the Karok people lived “…on the middle course of the Klamath River, between the Yurok and Shasta, and all of the branches of the Klamath, except the upper course of the Salmon River” (494).  In addition, the Tolowa tribe inhabited the areas around “…Crescent Bay, Lake Earl, and Smith River” (515). Swanson progresses to say that the Yurok people spanned from the lower Klamath River outward to the north and south along the coast (528).  Clearly, these three tribes found a home in a large portion of Northern California before the settlers arrived.  However, the Euro-American idea of owning land is non-existent in traditional native culture; in the eyes of the indigenous people, living in harmony with the earth allows for a connection to a divine force beyond human notions of ownership.

The Karok, Tolowa, and Yurok tribes utilized the Chimney Rock region as a sacred area for religious ceremony and worship.  In his essay A Karok Orpheous Myth, A.L. Kroeber describes a mythical tribal narrative that showcases the Karok idea of spiritual bonds with sacred places (13).  This native account, revealing an integral component of the indigenous religion, helps to explain why the Karok people attempted to preserve the sacred Chimney Rock area.  Not only did the land serve as a binding foundation for their culture, but its role as the setting of certain religious ceremonies heightened its spiritual worth.

In addition, the anthropologist Cora A. DuBois highlights the fact that Tolowa people heavily incorporate plants, roots, and herbs into their medicine (253); often performing ceremonies to express gratitude for this healing component of nature, the Tolowa tribe embodies a religious connection with the earth.  Thus, it comes as no surprise that the native people strongly spoke out against the United State District Court’s proposition for the construction project.

Lastly, the Yurok native culture also revolves around a spiritual bond with the land.  In their book Native Americans in the Twentieth Century, James S. Olsen and Raymond Wilson write, “The Yuroks of Northern California [have] ‘World Renewal’ [ceremonies] each year involving the Jumping Dance and the Deerskin Dance, both designed to preserve harmony in nature” (12).  In this case, the native custom fostering spiritual balance with the earth harmoniously connects participants to the cosmos.  Indeed, such a profound attachment to nature does not mesh well with construction and deforestation through the California wilderness.

Interestingly, the state of California and several organizations advocating the preservation of nature supported these three tribes in protesting the federal project (Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association).  Attempting to protect the Chimney Rock region, they argued that the Supreme Court and Forest Service were violating the Free Exercise Clause of the United States Constitution by interfering with the indigenous religious traditions of the people surrounding that area (Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association).  However, this portion of the first amendment is subject to very loose interpretation; thus, the court’s response craftily bypassed the seemingly legitimate claim, and its ultimate decision was to approve the project.  The final position of Justice O’Connor and the Federal Court reads as follows: “‘The Free Exercise Clause’…is written in terms of what the government cannot do to the individual, not in terms of what the individual can exact from the government” (Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association).  The court held that the project would not technically affect the native people themselves.  In addition, it claimed that the prosecutors were asking for personally beneficial treatment from the government by requesting that it not go through with the construction on “federal property” (Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association).  Thus, in 1988, the Chimney Rock area of the Six Rivers National Forest permanently lost its natural purity.

In reality, the construction directly harmed the religious foundation of these three tribes; it challenged their spiritual bond with the earth, as the workers polluted and cut through the sacred terrain.  In addition, the project forced native people to cling to other sacred lands not yet affected by the government.  The loss of the Chimney Rock area showcases an event in which economic opportunity held more value than spiritual tradition.  Fortunately, many college institutions and environmental organizations aim to educate people about legal positions, indigenous spirituality, and native arguments concerning rights to sacred lands.  Hopefully, their efforts will eventually strike enough people to remedy the rather apathetic federal regard toward indigenous religion.


The road from Gasquet to Orleans.


By Kyle Lutz



Works Cited

Dubois, Cora A.  “Tolowa Notes.”  American Anthropologist, Vol. 34, No. 2. (1932): 248-62.  Jstor.  Web.   3 Nov. 2011.

Gooding, Susan Staiger.  “At the Boundaries of Religious Identity: Native American Religions and the American Legal Culture.”  Numen, Vol. 43, No. 2 (1996): 157-83.  Jstor.  Web.  3 Nov. 2011.

Kroeber, A.L.  “A Karok Orpheus Myth.”  A Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 59, No. 231 (1946): 13-9.  Jstor. Web.  3 Nov. 2011.

Lane, Belden C.  “Giving Voice to Place:  Three Models for Understanding American Sacred Space.”  Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, Vol. 11, No. 1 (2001): 53-75.

Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association, 795 F. 2d 688 (1988).

Olson, James S. and Raymond Wilson.  Native Americans in the Twentieth Century.  Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1984.  Print.

Swanton, John R.  The Indian Tribes of North America.  Washington D.C.: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1952.  Print.



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