Sacred Land News & Reports From the Field
For two weeks in November, I journeyed to Australia and Papua New Guinea for film screenings at the IUCN World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia and in rural Papua New Guinea. The journey began at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, where Altaian leader Danil Mamyev (at left) and I explored how sacred sites are co-managed by Aboriginal Traditional Owners working with government park professionals. At the World Parks Congress we hosted two sessions on Sacred Natural Sites along with two film screenings and there were many spirited debates about the best ways forward to protect sacred lands. A congress highlight was a new campaign to declare sacred places as “No Go Areas for Mining.” My journey came to a wonderful conclusion in Papua New Guinea with a visit to Mindere village and a screening of Profit and Loss in Madang. A dozen Bosmun men traveled eight long hours to attend the screening and were full of stories about how the filming process helped them revive their traditions of chanting and transcendental flute playing. Very nice to know that the films are having a positive impact.
Please check out my slideshow report.
Thanks to Gleb Raygorodetsky for tireless translation for Danil—and for the photo!
Please check out our new film clip “Sacred Sites and Biodiversity,” which contains three scenes from Standing on Sacred Ground—from Australia, Papua New Guinea and Ethiopia. Over the years we’ve frequently been asked the challenging question, “What is the tangible value of sacred places?” Our scientific, materialistic culture demands proof. These three film scenes answer the question. Then there’s this fact to ponder: according to the World Bank, indigenous people make up 4% of the world’s population, control 12% of the Earth’s land surface, and on that land is 80% of the remaining biodiversity on the planet. Indigenous people are obviously doing a remarkable job respecting and conserving the diversity of life around them. Where do sacred sites fit in? Within indigenous territories—universally and crucially—are sacred places that provide the anchor, the center, the cultural values and customary laws that connect communities to wise ancestors and future generations. These are the reasons that sacred places and indigenous land rights are so important and need to be better respected and protected.
More proof: This satellite image shows Kayapó lands in the Amazon Basin of Brazil. The green area comprises the Xingu Indigenous Park with smoke plumes rising from burning primary forest remnants outside the indigenous territory. Dark green areas are indigenous lands and surrounding brown areas are agricultural ranch lands.
Photo courtesy of International Conservation Fund of Canada
When we filmed the canoe ceremony in Bosmun village on the Ramu River in Papua New Guinea, there was an all night debate about whether we would be allowed to film the transcendental flute players who started playing at midnight heading into the final day of the four-day ceremony. They play inside a thatched hut, hidden from sight. As the sun came up, the eerie harmonic melodies of two flutes—one male, one female—echoed through the village, and we were told: the elders’ decision was no. No filming. “Someone might die,” was the convincing reason we were given.
The Bosmun leaders admitted at the time that the flute players had to come in from a village upriver because the tradition had died out in Bosmun. Well that has now changed. We received word from PNG last week that the good feeling generated by our 2010 filming expedition led the villagers to decide the transcendental flute ceremony must not be lost, and in fact should be revived.
The Little Green Palai blog reports that elder Anthony Tibong, 73, the local transcendental flute master (pictured at right), taught 13 young men “in the art of making mystical music” and after two years of training Mr. Tibong graduated his students in an emotional ceremony on July 30.
“As tears rolled down his face Master Artist Anthony Tibong is happy the flutes have been given life again after nearly 60 years. He is now at peace,” reports the blog.
We are very pleased that our film Profit and Loss has been well-received in PNG and that the village of Bosmun has such a tangible—and audible—result from participating in the film.
Here is the text of the email we received this week from Rosa Koian, of Bismark Ramu Group:
Last night I returned from Bosmun with my BRG colleagues feeling more uplifted. After the canoe making rituals in 2010 for the film production some of the young men wanted to continue with these trainings and so after two years, since mid-2011, 13 men graduated on Wednesday as transcendent flutists in their community. This was their cultural practice some 60 years ago and was kept by Mr. Tibong until 3 years ago. Recognizing that the last practicing artist is now 73, they made sure he left the skills behind. In yet another moving and tearful ceremony Mr. Tibong completed his rituals from 60 years ago and graduated 13 of his students.
As you saw when you filmed it was not just the students and elders ceremony. The whole village took part with young people performing various dances.
Bosmun people once again convey their thanks to you and the film crew for realizing the richness in Papua New Guinea.
As the flutes play on, hidden inside the thatched hut, may the Ramu River continue to feed the village and run free of toxic waste from the new Ramu Nico Mine.
And once again we send our thanks to the villagers of Bosmun for entrusting us with their beautiful story, and to everyone at Bismark Ramu Group for your invaluable assistance during production and beyond. Onward!
On Wednesday, August 20 at 6pm, I Ola Kanaloa will be screening our film segment on Kanaloa Kaho`olawe at the Hawai`i State Capitol, to launch the presentation and discussion of a new draft Strategic Plan for Kanaloa Kaho`olawe. The 15-year plan focuses on ecological and spiritual healing of the sacred island after 50 years of military test bombing. The strategic plan was developed after discussion at 15 community meetings on all eight Hawaiian islands in 2013. We are honored to be part of this process.
Other screenings are planned on Oahu and Kaua`i on Aug 20-21. Check out the I Ola Kanaloa website to find out more about the strategic plan and upcoming screenings. We hope our many friends in Hawai`i can attend a screening and contribute to this visionary, collaborative plan.
Awakening one night in the middle of editing the Standing on Sacred Ground series, I tossed and turned and worried about the challenges of telling eight, long, complex stories in a society with an ever-shrinking attention span. I asked myself, “Who is going to watch four hours of documentary film?” The answer came within seconds: “Indigenous people, that’s who.” So, when my friend Cynthia Ong, Executive Director of LEAP—Land/Empowerment/Animals/People—offered to take a set of four DVDs to Malaysia to screen the films for leaders from Malaysia, Indonesia and Borneo, I was more than happy to deliver four DVDs.
I just got this email from Cynthia, along with some photos:
Hi Toby, Sharing pics of the first screening on May 27 @ the opening of Harvest Festival celebrations, at the heart of indigenous leadership in Sabah. About 50 leaders and community organizers, including elders and shamans. There was deep appreciation and emotion as we moved through all eight stories (in one sitting, with short pee breaks between episodes!). There will be more screenings tomorrow and the day after at another location – CREATE: Centre of Renewable and Appropriate Technology – hosted by the indigenous renewable energy movement with support from JOAS (Jaringan Orang Asal Se-Malaysia or the Indigenous Peoples Network of Malaysia). This is also part of the Harvest Festival celebration. Thank you for your beautiful and powerful story-telling, already deeply appreciated and felt here, Cynthia
A few days later we received an e-mail from our friend, Rosa Koian, at Bismark Ramu Group in Papua New Guinea:
Hi Toby, Can’t wait to share the experience of screening Profit and Loss this afternoon. People were emotional, screaming and shouting—and a lot of tears. The Al Jazeera section was the highlight as people screamed angrily at our former prime minister. Talked with some people in the group about a film festival in PNG. Reps from France are interested as well. UNESCO people were so happy (Smile). Anyway I am so over the moon this evening. Best regards, Rosa
Hearing this news from PNG and seeing Danil Mamyev’s image up on a screen in Malaysia, a wintry Altaian pilgrimage shared with rainforest dwellers fighting dams and palm oil plantations, was literally a dream come true. As we await the judgement of PBS, and a decision about whether, when and how the series will be broadcast, it is deeply satisfying to know that, like my kids, the films now have a life of their own.
We’ve created a new web page offering short sample scenes from each of the eight amazing stories featured in our new Standing on Sacred Ground series. Now you can get a taste of each story and decide which film you want to watch first. Please check it out!
We are pleased to announce a new partnership with
The Cultural Conservancy and the joint creation of the Sacred Land Media Collaborative. Together we will produce and highlight short videos that further the protection of sacred lands and indigenous cultural traditions.
Big thanks to the Tamalpais Trust for both the inspiration and the funding to launch this new initiative!
It was a cold afternoon in DC, gray skies but no rain, perfect weather to drive a crowd into an auditorium to watch four hours of films. The Capitol dome sat quiet and irrelevant off to the northeast, spitting distance from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. For me, NMAI is the crucible we needed to enter. When Melissa Bisagni, the film curator, agreed to host the entire Standing on Sacred Ground series as part of the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital, it was a very sweet moment for the Sacred Land Film Project. I think the fortress door swung open because my old friend Winona LaDuke offered to appear with the films, and boy did she show up.
When the films started at noon there was quite a buzz in the air. By the time the fourth film began at 4:30 the room was packed, with people standing in the doorways. Quite a few brave souls watched the entire series. It was very exciting to screen at the Smithsonian, with PBS considering our series for broadcast this very week, and the slow-building momentum of independent film distribution starting to build—slowly, slowly…
After watching the tar sands story in Profit and Loss, Winona and I shared the ironic reflection that 35 years ago we started working to stop national sacrifice areas and now we are fighting international sacrifice areas. Winona commented, “We want to move gracefully out of the fossil fuel economy. We don’t want to crash our way out of this. And remember, only 3% of the tar sands have been mined. We can stop it now—and we have to.” Winona poignantly joked that she would rather be growing wild rice and corn at home in Minnesota but this phase of her life has been taken over fighting tar sands pipelines proposed in the Midwest.
After watching the melting glaciers of Peru in Fire and Ice, a young native Yup’ik woman from Alaska described the imminent flooding of her home village of Newtok, from rising sea levels. Her village is being evacuated as climate change continues unabated.
The high point of the afternoon came for me at the start of the fourth and final film, Islands of Sanctuary. A big cheer went up after Hawaii’s Derek Mar said, “If we can take on the most powerful military force in the world, and win, there is hope for indigenous people all over the world.” The room just erupted. It was one of those moments filmmakers dream about.
After Islands of Sanctuary, Native Hawaiian Leimomi Apoliona-Brown told some great stories about the original occupation of Kaho`olawe and how the strategic Protect Kaho`olawe `Ohana activist movement sparked a renaissance of Hawaiian language and culture. Leimomi focused on the deep and complex meaning of Hawaiian words, `aina, kuleana, `ohana, malama — the love, responsibility for, familial relationship with and caretaking of the land that gives us life. Kaho`olawe is truly an inspiring, modern-day success story, and we are honored to be able to help tell it to the world.
Big thanks to Katsi Cook, Akwesasne Mohawk midwife and community health and environmental justice activist, and José Barriero, Director of the Office of Latin American Research at NMAI for excellent commentary after the films, and to Brad Forster of the Environmental Film Festival, for filling my memory card with great photos.
We are honored to have been invited to show all four Standing on Sacred Ground films at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian on Sunday, March 23, as part of the U.S Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital. Anishinaabe author and activist Winona LaDuke will join director Toby McLeod for Q&A and discussion after each film.
The screening schedule for NMAI’s Rasmuson Theater is:
12 noon – Pilgrims and Tourists
1:30 – Profit and Loss
3:00 – Fire and Ice
4:30 – Islands of Sanctuary
We’re in the process of inviting other speakers to comment and participate in discussion after the films. Please join us if you are Washington, D.C. on March 23, and please tell your friends!
On March 27, we will show Pilgrims and Tourists at the David Brower Center in Berkeley with a VIP reception for special guests Winnemem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk and Danil Mamyev, Founder of Uch Enmek Nature Park, Altai Republic, Russia. Last summer, Caleen visited Danil in Altai to gather water to bring home to her sacred spring on Mt. Shasta in California. Our March meeting will strengthen the global alliance of sacred land guardians that we are nurturing with our Standing on Sacred Ground distribution campaign.
This upcoming event is a benefit being organized with our longtime partners, The Altai Project and Snow Leopard Conservancy to support Danil and Caleen’s work protecting sacred sites in Altai and Winnemem country. Our thanks to Don Weeden and the Weeden Foundation for supporting this work for many years.
Please join us for the special reception prior to the film screening.
March 7 is the last day the State Department will accept comments on the final Environmental Impact Statement on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. This is the last step before President Obama makes his decision in the next few months.
The pipeline would be a body blow to the U.S. effort to curb global climate change, is destroying First Nations’ sacred sites in Canada and endangering human health.
Tar sands mining in Alberta to feed the proposed Keystone Pipeline clears boreal forest and then produces lakes of toxic sludge, deformed fish and health problems, including unusual cancers.
All four films of the Standing on Sacred Ground series will screen at the 12th annual Wild & Scenic Film Festival from January 10-12, 2014 in Nevada City, California. Ticket sales open to the public today.
The screening schedule details:
Friday, January 10 — Standing on Sacred Ground: Fire and Ice and Islands of Sanctuary, at 7 p.m. at the Stonehouse in Nevada City, followed by discussion with filmmaker Christopher (Toby) McLeod, and Native Hawaiian activists Craig Neff and Luana Busby Neff of the Protect Kaho`olawe Ohana.
Saturday, January 11 — Standing on Sacred Ground: Profit and Loss and Pilgrims and Tourists, at 1:30 p.m. at the Nevada Theatre in Nevada City, followed by discussion with Toby McLeod and Winnemem Chief Caleen Sisk.
Sunday, January 12 — Standing on Sacred Ground: Pilgrims and Tourists and Islands of Sanctuary, at 2 p.m. at the Vets Hall in San Rafael, plus Q&A with Toby McLeod and co-producer Jessica Abbe along with special guests Winnemem Chief Caleen Sisk and Native Hawaiian activists Craig Neff and Luana Busby Neff of the Protect Kano`olawe Ohana.
The prestigious Wild & Scenic Film Festival, with its unique mix of home-grown and international offerings on environmental subjects, is a terrific venue to continue the roll-out of our new series. Please join us!
Tickets for the festival or for three screenings can be purchased by clicking here.
As indigenous leaders from around the world head to the Bay Area this week to celebrate the premiere screenings of Standing on Sacred Ground, the excitement heightens my awareness of both the honor and humbling responsibility of directing this project. Bill McKibben has said, “Some of the finest minds on the planet are featured in this documentary,” and I hope you can join me for discussions with Onondaga Chief Oren Lyons, Winnemem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk, author Barry Lopez, Altaian leader Danil Mamyev, Native Hawaiian activists Emmett Aluli and Davianna McGregor, tar sands activist Mike Mercredi, actresses Tantoo Cardinal and Q’orianka Kilcher and other remarkable activists and indigenous leaders.
Discussions will take place after screenings on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at the Mill Valley Film Festival, and in Berkeley and San Francisco next week. Please check out our new website—StandingOnSacredGround.org—for a complete schedule and ticket details.
Over the past seven years, I have been privileged to visit and film eight astonishing cultures. Whether I came back awed by a Winnemem Wintu ceremony on the McCloud River in California or shocked by the open pit wounds of the tar sands in Alberta, our fantastic writer/editor teams of Jessica Abbe/Quinn Costello and Jennifer Huang/Marta Wohl tackled the sifting and sorting, the weighing and discarding, the crafting and polishing of four unique but interconnected films with skill and patience.
From the Altai Republic of Russia to the Northern Territory of Australia, my dear friend and cameraman extraordinaire Will Parrinello endured frostbite and flat tires, mid-summer blizzards and crocodile-infested waters to go the extra mile and get the story. Master cinematographer Andy Black and sound recordist Dave Wendlinger had my back when we were detained by gun-toting policemen in Papua New Guinea for filming in a mine site, and also when we were challenged by Native Hawaiians on Kaho`olawe to learn Hawaiian, make offerings to Lono, and experience the four-day Makahiki ceremony with our cameras and microphones stashed away in our tents. Vicente Franco delighted our Q’eros hosts in Peru every time he proclaimed from his horse, “Let’s get organized!” It has been a beautiful ride and a great blessing.
As we made pilgrimage to Uch Enmek Mountain in Altai, returned over and over to Panther Meadows on Mt. Shasta, and struggled to capture the feeling and power of sacred places, I worried: would the controversial stories we were taking years to film be timely when the films came out? Amazingly, the answer is yes. From the Keystone XL pipeline to the U.S. government’s crazy plan to raise the height of Shasta Dam, from the disappearing glaciers in the Andes of Peru and Gazprom’s pipeline across the sacred Ukok Plateau in Russia to the Chinese-government-owned mining company dumping tailings into the sea in Papua New Guinea, the hot stories are boiling over.
The toughest shoot by far was the tar sands. Plumes of toxic carbon clouds going up, oily waste ponds seeping poisons down into the Athabasca River, moose and eagle and bear grieving for their shrinking, shattered boreal forest. I’d never been to a petro-state before, and the deformed fish and heart-breaking cancer cases in the native community of Fort Chipewyan took a toll on every member of our crew. Each of our spouses saw the sadness we carried home, and it lingered for months after we returned from Alberta.
And as much as we may have intended to help the indigenous communities that put their faith and trust in us, there have been unintended consequences. One memorable shoot involved a long trek to a sacred forest on Milo Mountain in Ethiopia. When a still camera was stolen from our baggage during the shoot, our host Makko Wareo, “the father of Milo Mountain,” insisted that he had to confront the local village leader whose wife had started bragging about her husband’s new camera. Everyone in the small village knew (but we didn’t) as we said our good-byes and left. It turned out that the government leader was a Christian fundamentalist with a grudge against the traditional spiritual leader we were filming. Shortly after we left, Makko Wareo’s son was badly beaten by a band of thugs and ended up in the hospital. We learned about it weeks later. Though Wareo’s son has healed, the incident reminds me of the delicacy of the situations in every community we enter briefly and then leave.
All of this strengthens my resolve to honor the commitments we have made to each of the eight communities in our new film series. We are well on our way to forming an international Sacred Land Alliance to support local struggles and encourage action on national and international levels.
We have begun to build and support a Council of Guardians of sacred sites from around the world, and have worked together to pass international resolutions calling for protection of sacred natural sites. Our friends and colleagues are publishing books on sacred places, fighting dams, mines and pipelines, challenging insensitive eco-tourism, telling stories of indigenous communities affected by climate change. We hope Standing on Sacred Ground will make a powerul contribution to these important struggles. We still have teacher’s guides to publish, DVDs and foreign language versions of the films to produce, screenings to plan and promote. Hopefully, we will get a broadcast slot on PBS in the coming months. There is still so much to do!
Please join us in the coming days to celebrate the completion of Standing on Sacred Ground after seven years of work by a dedicated team of talented filmmakers who have persevered only because of the invaluable friendship and partnership of eight inspiring and enduring cultures.
We encourage your activism to help protect sacred places from Mt. Shasta to Lake Athabasca, and we challenge you to take a deep breath, reconnect with the mystery of your own homeland and embrace the loved ones who surround you.
In addition to the colleagues mentioned above, my heartfelt thanks go to Ken Wilson, Bob Friede, Barbara and Tom Sargent, Jaune Evans, Patty Quillin, Reed Hastings, Polly and Bill McLeod, Cordy Fergus, Erin Lee, Vicki Engel, Marlo McKenzie, Todd Miro, Audrey Jardin, Anna Heath, Jennifer Castner, Gleb Raygorodetsky, Peter Coyote, Winona LaDuke, Susan Alexander, Pat Koren, Dianne Brennan, Allison Torres, Indra Mungal, Callie Shanafelt, Leroy Clark, John Knox, Kevin Connelley, Dave Phillips, John Antonelli, Chagat Almashev, Maria Amanchina, Luana Busby-Neff, Matt Yamashita, Donne Dawson, Kaliko Baker, Mike Preston, Kayla Carpenter, Rick Wilson, R.T., Nathaniel Wolde, Rosa Koian, Fredy Flores Machacca, Charles Roche, Cara Mertes, Don Weeden, Hadley Grousbeck, Susan O’Connor, Jim Crown, Susan Newman, George Appell, Jenny Abbe, and to friends and family too numerous to name, but in particular Miles and Fiona McLeod, and my ever-patient and profoundly creative partner Jessica Abbe.
All four films of the Standing on Sacred Ground series will premiere at the 36th annual Mill Valley Film Festival next month. Ticket sales open to the public today.
Thursday, October 10: Standing on Sacred Ground 1: Pilgrims and Tourists (Episode 1), 8PM at the Sequoia Theater in Mill Valley, followed by discussion with filmmaker Christopher (Toby) McLeod, actress Tantoo Cardinal, Winnemem Chief Caleen Sisk, and park visionary Danil Mamyev from the Altai Republic of Russia.
Saturday, October 12: Standing on Sacred Ground 2: Profit and Loss (Episode 2), 3 PM at the Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley, followed by discussion with Toby McLeod, Tantoo Cardinal and First Nations tar sands activist Mike Mercredi.
Sunday, October 13: Standing on Sacred Ground 3: Fire and Ice and Islands of Sanctuary (Episodes 3 and 4), 2:15 PM at the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, plus Q&A with Toby McLeod and co-producers Jessica Abbe and Jennifer Huang.
The prestigious Mill Valley Film Festival, with its reputation as a filmmakers’ festival and unique mix of home-grown and international offerings, is a great base to introduce our series. Mill Valley was our first choice for a premiere festival and we’re honored to be a part of it. Please join us for an Active Cinema hike on Saturday, October 5 at 10:30 AM!
Tickets for the three screenings: www.mvff.com
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