Exposed by wind, an arrowhead made of red chert juts from pale sand at the edge of the driveway. Another day, a basalt mano — worn smooth on two sides from grinding corn — turns up in the field. Potsherds and stone projectile points show themselves now and then, along vanished tracks of the old ones. The ancestral pueblo people who left these tools are thought to have abandoned their village — whose ruins lie a few miles from my house — before 1200 CE, for unknown reasons. Whomever walked this land then might be ancestors to modern-day Hopi, Zuni, Paiute, Ute or Acoma people. Although people certainly passed through, this land was apparently unoccupied until the Mormon settlers arrived hundreds of years later and claimed homesteads. Most of the surrounding land is now “owned” by the American public in the form of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, whose boundaries — like those of Bears Ears — were theatrically reduced by the Trump administration nearly three years ago, in favor of extractive industry. (The original protective boundaries are expected to be restored by President-elect Biden.) Who knows if the land ever ceded itself one way or the other.
The arrowheads, points, potsherds and grinding stone tell stories of rabbits, deer, bighorn sheep, corn, pinyon nuts, acorns and more. They tell stories of intimate relationships between the ancestral human people and the Others. I sometimes encounter these ancient tools exposed on acreage that was chained by settlers to remove pinyon, juniper, and sage; plowed to grow alfalfa for cattle; and then abandoned to tumbleweeds. This land is now under my care. I thought regeneration mostly meant leaving it alone to heal itself, but it turns out that trying to restore native grasses in hopes that pinyon and juniper will follow in the foreseeable future is a monumental task. But sometimes I find treasures in the sand.
Among social justice advocates and allies, acknowledging that we (descendants of immigrants and settlers) stand on ground that was first inhabited by indigenous people is a practice that has migrated from in-person events to virtual communities, turning up in email signatures and social media. It is an honorable act toward reconciliation and recognition that the lands where we now live, work, study, plant potatoes or native grasses, dream, walk our dogs, travel, celebrate, and die were occupied before us, by people who may have vanished like the ancestral puebloans, or who may have been — and are still being — violently displaced by government, miners, ranchers, settlers, warring tribes, industrialists, missionaries, loggers and other consequences of imperialism and the Western worldview. To recognize those who came before us is a necessary and heartbreaking enactment, but I wonder if it’s enough to acknowledge traditional human territories or unceded land without also acknowledging the ancestral homes of the wilder Others — including rivers and forests — Others whose lives were and are deeply entwined with first nations people.
The wilder Others never signed any treaties. Bison and redwood never said yes to eradication. The rivers never said yes to dams, nor did the salmon leaping to return home. The forest-topped mountain never agreed to be split open and hauled away. Grassland did not freely offer itself to Monsanto’s alfalfa, corn or soy. It’s all unceded land. All uncede-able.
Especially for those of us who inhabit cities that are largely separated from wild nature, or for those of us who have simply forgotten the beings with whom we share the world, learning to acknowledge the ancestral homes of the wilder Others who preceded us, and whose places we now occupy, is one way of enlarging our everyday awareness to include — in addition to the first people – the other-than-human members of the Earth community who are absent or invisible to us. The river confined to concrete; vanished bighorn sheep; grizzlies; passenger pigeons.
I don’t know what specific places on this land were “sacred” to the ancestral puebloans who once lived so near to where I live now — or even if they regarded some places as sacred and others not. I don’t know what practices of reciprocity they might have had — although it’s easy to imagine in this arid land that they offered gratitude for rain. Neither do I know much about the sacred practices of my own Sami ancestors, the indigenous people of the European Arctic whose homeland was colonized — and whose spiritual practices were demonized by Christians, eradicated or disappeared underground — before my great-grandparents immigrated to far northern Michigan.
Poet Wendell Berry’s sense that “There are no unsacred places; / there are only sacred places / and desecrated places” resonates deeply for me. And, I also recognize that there are particular places where I feel imaginatively expansive, emotionally un-lidded, and bodily electrified. I don’t know if others would experience those places similarly. I don’t know if the ancestral people of this land or any other would regard such a place as holy. But I wonder if deeply noticing our complex response to particular places might help us recognize where the veil between worlds seems thin for us, where we might be more receptive to the guiding voices of ancestors, water, stone — or to the beings yet to come.
Holy lands or sacred wild places are unacknowledged by the Western worldview which commodifies land as something to be bought, sold, ceded. Even the legal status of “unceded land” requires a worldview that regards land as property — something that belongs to us, rather than places to which we belong.
Exploring the consciousness-shifting possibilities of particular places in which we experience imaginative, emotional, embodied resonance — as if the place is saturated in mystery, intelligence, genius loci, or invites communion — is a way to begin eroding the Western worldview. Such an exploration might even become a seed, a whisper, a hint of a reciprocal offering to those who came before us.
 So spoke the Muse, or the wild Earth, or who knows whose voice I heard so clearly that I had to begin writing, not knowing where the words would go.
 Thus spoke the Muse, or the wild Earth, or whomever breathed those words as if longing for acknowledgement
Geneen Marie Haugen grew up as a free-range wildish kid with a run amok imagination. She is a guide to the experiential, intertwined mysteries of nature and psyche with the Animas Valley Institute, and is on the faculty of the Esalen Institute, Schumacher College, and the Fox Institute for Creation Spirituality. Her writing has appeared many journals and books, including Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth; Thomas Berry: Dreamer of the Earth; Parabola; Ecopsychology Journal; DailyGood.org; Kosmos Journal; High Country News, and others.