On hallowed ground: Massive human tragedy has an almost unearthly attraction that, beyond normal human curiosity, draws people to bear witness to the place where it occurs, as though its psychological gravity were as real and physically measurable as the gravitational pull of the heavenly bodies. And so it’s been at Ground Zero in New York City, where the sudden collapse of the Twin Towers on that Tuesday morning in September not only created a physical vacuum of wind and dust and debris in the canyons of lower Manhattan, but also a spiritual vacuum that still draws scores of religious and spiritual leaders from around the world to this site of wholesale death and destruction.
Such was the case recently when Montana State University Professor Henrietta Mann and her daughter Montoya Whiteman of Arvada, Colo., both prayer women of the Cheyenne tribe, were among the first American Indian spiritual leaders to conduct sacred prayer ceremonies at Ground Zero. The women were taken to the site by the Red Cross Spiritual Care Center, which ministers to workers of the World Trade Center cleanup as well as to the families of the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. Mann was in New York City in November to deliver the invocation at a fundraising dinner for the American Indian College Fund, as well as to give a panel presentation at the New York facility of the National Museum of the American Indian, just four blocks from Ground Zero. Ironically, the topic of that panel was Indian sacred sites.
Once inside the security perimeter, Mann and her daughter, along with their friend, actor Richard Masur, a chaplain, and a Red Cross representative, were taken via golf cart to the center of the site beneath the largest of several construction cranes. As Mann and Whiteman began their ceremony, lighting a smudge pot and saying a prayer to each of the four directions, workers at the site stopped what they were doing for about a half an hour to observe.
“My prayers were for the healing of earth, and for the people working in the pit,” says Mann, who adds that she felt a definite spiritual presence at the site and cried during the entire ceremony. “And I prayed that the great-grandchildren of our great-grandchildren will never have to experience a tragedy of this kind.”