The American West has many extraordinary and religiously significant locations, ranging from man-made structures to the natural wonders of the West.  Richard White describes the West in It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own as “a set of relationships” and those relationships are constantly evolving (538).  One of the most important relationships seen in the West is the conflicting interpretations of religious locations.  Another important relationship involves the federal government and U.S. citizens.  Many of the religiously significant locations are National Parks, governed and maintained by the National Park Service.  When we look at each location, it is vital to keep these previous relationships in mind.

Sacred spaces frequently have a mythic quality about them; they somehow transcend their physical locations and become an idea as much as a place. A phrase like “Remember the Alamo” occupies the same thought space as the Marine Corps War Memorial, depicting six marines raising the US flag over Iwo Jima. While radically different symbols, the Alamo and the memorial didn’t achieve their mythic status just because they were there. By looking at the work of David Chidester and Edward Linenthal, we gain insight into how sacred space becomes sacred. They suggest that sacred space is created by “ritualization, reinterpretation, and [contestation]” (Chidester and Linenthal 1). These categories can be combined into the idea that the sacrality of the space is created by human use of the site. Sacred space is, therefore, an entirely human creation and, thusly, an entirely subjective concept. One person’s forest can be another’s cathedral, and it is this conflict, this “arena of signs and symbols” that transforms a space into something more than just a physical location (Chidester and Linenthal 18). As a human creation, human manipulation of a sacred space can greatly affect how one experiences the site.

The management of sacred spaces is crucial to maintaining the spirituality assigned to the space. By providing several methods of how the NPS structures their parks, Kerry Mitchell demonstrates in “Managing Spirituality” how the NPS influences the significance of the sacred space to park visitors. According to Mitchell, two of the most important factors in enhancing sacrality involve communication of religious meaning and the experience of the sublime (Mitchell 439). The NPS achieves both of these goals in several of their parks. For example, the 1995 Final Climbing Management Plan, instituted at Devils Tower, banned placement of footholds and other equipment in order to preserve the monument. By preserving the physical structure of Devils Tower, the NPS incorporates both of Mitchell’s categories of sacrality: religious meaning and the sublime. This management was important to Native Americans, who saw climbing as a desecration to their sacred space. Further, this regulation protects the sublime appearance of the tower itself by preventing further damage to the rock. In summary, the management of each location fosters a strong relationship between the park visitors and the sacred space.

-Ryan Wall, Mike Grassey, Kate Houghtaling, 2016


Suggestions for Further Reading:

  • Ball, Martin W. “‘People Speaking Silently to Themselves’: An Examination of Keith Basso’s Philosophical Speculations on ‘Sense of Place’ in Apache Cultures.” American Indian Quarterly 26, no. 3 (2002): 460-478.
  • Kelley, Klara B., and Harris Francis. Navajo Sacred Places. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
  • Lane, Belden C. “Giving Voice to Place: Three Models for Understanding American Sacred Space.” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 11, no. 1 (2001): 53-81.