Notre Dame and the Fight for Sacred Lands

An Indigenous journalist reflects on the 800-year-old cathedral and what “sacred” means to her.
notre dame.jpg

A firefighter pours water from the tower north of Notre Dame in the aftermath of the fire that devastated the cathedral in Paris on April 15, 2019.

Photo by Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images

“Part of our slogan has been ‘what part of sacred don’t you understand?’ Essentially we’re saying, why isn’t it enough for us to say a site is sacred and should be set aside and protected and respected because it’s integral for our spiritual practice to be continued.”

Klee Benally, Navajo activist, in an interview for NPR

In Chiapas, Mexico, I first considered the difference between the kind of society that builds monumental architecture in stone and the kind that nurtures great people in buffalo-hide tipis.

I had arrived at Palenque on a chartered bus after spending a week in this place so far from the Great Plains and the Southwest, the homelands of my father’s people the Dakota and my mother’s people the Diné (also known as Navajo). I was with a busload of Indigenous representatives from Native nations across the Western hemisphere. Tall Lakota men from Alberta and South Dakota, sticking out among their much-shorter brethren, Maya from Guatemala and Mapuche from Chile and Kuna from Panama. We ventured down the trails of the National Park filled with towering temples. The Kuna and Inca come (from Peru) dressed in colorful dresses, speaking quietly but authoritatively in their languages as we set out.

I stumbled upon two Puerto Rican women, one White and the other Black, leaning with their backs pressed upon the wall of the temple, eyes closed to the sun and hands pressed palms down to the stone. I watched them as they began to chant in Spanish, apparently trying to absorb some of the energy from the building.

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No other members of the Indigenous delegation did this. The women in the colorful dresses continued to meander through the accumulation of buildings and trees, stopping lightly like birds, pausing from time to time.

Traveling south, my thoughts were continually drawn back to the north. As I walked the jungle paths and looked at the buildings above me, a pain made its way up my throat from my heart. I felt grief for the prairie, its serene emptiness, where my heart and my mind could wander at the center of the world, as central as every bit of grass that blew all around me. Here, in this jungle, I felt extra—one of many things.

As Native people, we were told that we lacked civilization. That we needed the “progress" of Western Expansionism.

In our defense, we often point to the accomplishments of the Aztec, the Mayas, and the Incas—their empires and towering edifices. All this to show we are civilized, we are human, we are your equals.

But as I stared at these temples now before me, I could only think of the ruler who commanded them to be built, and the sort of society that organized itself in such a way to subject some to the needs of others.

My people, the Dakota and the Diné, did not build these things and were without kings or nobles or peasants. What we created instead were the kinship relationships with land and people that organized our societies. These made life worth living for everyone—not just the mighty.

My people built tipis and hogans, where relationships were nourished and stories were told around a fire. As I stared at the temples, I imagined a lodge—a tipi—translucent and glowing from the fire inside it, like a heart.

The name many Indigenous people call themselves is often some derivation of “the people” or even, “the real people.” This is what Diné means. My father’s people call themselves Dakota or Lakota (depending on the dialect), which means “allies” and “friends,” emphasizing the connections and relationships that make them a people. Those relationships include the land and all its people. Lakota people are the Buffalo Nation because our story begins with transformative contact with a spiritual being who is a manifestation of the land itself and transmits instructions on how to live on the Earth.

Contrast this to a colonial society whose origin story is rooted in financial incentives and power derived from occupation and exploitation of other peoples’ lands.


So, for me, the question monumental buildings like the temples in Palenque—or the Cathedral of Notre Dame—pose is: What kind of relationships do they represent? Are they equitable? Or are they an expression of power over other people and nature? These are questions about French society that Victor Hugo asked in his writing.

In the past few days, much has been made of how The Hunchback of Notre Dame saved the cathedral by making it a character in the novel, a sanctuary for the innocent Esmeralda, wrongly convicted of murder by a cruel and inept system of justice.

In Hugo’s time, the cathedral was in disrepair. A symbol of a corrupt power structure, it had been vandalized and defaced during the French Revolution. Stories matter, and the story of Notre Dame at the time was that it was a monument to oppression. The novel changed that, and the narrative of the cathedral as a sanctuary has lived on worldwide through countless translations and a Disney film. This humanization of a building through storytelling makes readers feel an investment in it, even if we are not French. And Les Miserables (a new adaption is now on Masterpiece Theater) humanized the victims of a criminal system and society that brutalized the poor and women, especially.

But when I watched the roof burn and steeple fall and heard the commentator say that it burned so fast and so hot because the wood was more than 800 years old—harvested from oak trees from France’s ancient forests that are no more. I thought of that forest as it once was and wondered who lived there. Did they have any say about it? Did the creatures who lived there? Did the trees? What does it say about the nature of the agreements between a people and the land, itself? Or was the felling of that forest merely an expression of the power of an autocratic ruler?

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A post shared by Klee Benally (@kleebenally) on Apr 16, 2019 at 2:06am PDT

With nearly a billion dollars raised in a few days to rebuild the cathedral, critics on social media contrasted that with the minuscule amounts raised to rebuild black churches burned by arson. This quickly garnered more than a million dollars of donations for those churches. Does one wonder what would happen if people donated to help restore the lands and homes of tribal nations affected by the recent "Bomb Cyclone" in the Great Plains of the U.S.? And what would happen if the French government, French citizens (including the billionaires who donated hundreds of millions of Euros), and the Roman Catholic Church urged more of the donations to go to other overlooked catastrophes like the victims of Cyclone Idai in Africa? 

Those donations would be especially apt given France’s history of colonization in Africa. Even Victor Hugo, an ardent opponent to American slavery, stumbled when it came to France’s colonization of Africa. “God offers Africa to Europe,” he said in a speech in 1879 as France brutally conquered Algeria in the name of civilizing it. “Take it.”

In 2014, the “Conseil des Ventes,” which regulates auction sales in France, refused to suspend the auctioning of masks sacred to Hopi and Navajo people. The French agency denied the Hopi tribe possessed any legal standing to pursue a cultural claim in France. This ruling not only denigrated an Indigenous nation’s political existence (the Hopi is a federally recognized tribe which enjoys a nation-to-nation relationship with the U.S. government) but declared Paris a haven for the trafficking of the sacred items of Indigenous people. This, despite France being a signee of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Klee Benally, a Navajo sacred sites activist, told me how he traveled to Paris to get the San Francisco Peaks, which we call Doko’oosliid and which is one of our sacred mountains, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. While there, he visited Notre Dame. He went in with the throngs of tourists and purchased a votive candle. Taking it back to Doko’oosliid, he lit it there. His prayer was that someday they could see our sacred sites in the same way they view Notre Dame. UNESCO refused to consider our sacred mountain for consideration as a World Heritage site, but maybe someday, if we had a Navajo Victor Hugo write a novel telling the story of our relationship to this sacred being—the Earth and its people—the world would come to understand.