Sacred Sites: The Secret History of Southern California

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University of Nebraska Press, 2010, Updated paperback 2020

Sacred Sites: The Secret History of Southern California

A history that is equal parts science and mythology, Sacred Sites offers a rare and poetic vision of a world composed of dynamic natural forces and mythic characters. The result is a singular and memorable account of the evolution of the Southern California landscape, reflecting the riches of both Native knowledge and Western scientific thought.

Beginning with Western science, poet Susan Suntree carries readers from the Big Bang to the present as she describes the origins of the universe, the shifting of tectonic plates, and an evolving array of plants and animals that give Southern California its unique features today. She tells of the migration of humans into the region, where they settled, and how they lived. Complementing this narrative and reflecting the Native people’s view of their own history and way of life, Suntree recounts the creation myths and songs that tell the story of the First People, of unforgettable shamans and heroes, and of the origins and migrations of the human beings.

Featuring contemporary photographs of rarely seen landmarks along with meticulous research, Sacred Sites provides unusual insight into how natural history and mythology, and scientific and intuitive thinking combine to create an ever-deepening sense of a place and its people.

Included are a preface by Gary Snyder, an informative introduction by Lowell Bean, a map, and twenty-nine photographs of sites noted in the book by internationally renowned photographer Juergen Nogai. There are extensive end notes and a bibliography.

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Southern California Independent Booksellers award in Nonfiction, 2011

PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award in Poetic Narrative, 2011.

Pomona College Interdisciplinary Award for Visiting Artist

Best-Seller List

Los Angeles Times, October 2010

Print Reviews

Tribal College Journal: Jurgita Antoine, May 15, 2013

In her book Sacred Sites, writer and performer Susan Suntree masterfully weaves science and Native American oral tradition into an epic poem. Suntree presents the history of California from the beginnings of time to modern day. With a foreword by Beat poet Gary Snyder, the narrative is divided into two parts, “Western Science” and “Indigenous Myths and Songs.” Black-and-white photographs of culturally and historically significant places in California complement the narrative.

In the first part, the author recounts the formation of the universe, geological processes, and the development of flora and fauna from the western scientific perspective. Human history is presented from the Native perspective in the second part, using oral histories of various California indigenous groups.

In this book, meticulously researched geology, geography, history, and oral traditions are put in motion by a performer’s touch. Complex geological processes, to the detail of molecules, come alive in Suntree’s text, as do the characters of Native American creation stories. Sacred Sites is an outstanding literary work, combining science with the spirituality of Native oral traditions.

Jurgita Antoine, Ph.D. is a project director at Lakota Documentaries at Sinte Gleska University. She coordinates translations of Lakota oral narratives and production of educational materials.

Parabola: Miriam Faugano, Winter 2012

Western American Literature: Brett Garcia Myhren, Fall 2011

Bloomsbury Review: Thomas Crowe, Summer 2011

Los Angeles Times: David Ulin, October 2010


“I have nothing but respect and awe for this absolutely unique work of art.” —Carolyn See

“A work of great spirit accomplished with patience and vision. Susan Suntree’s epic poem is a lovely weaving of science and myth. It is a work that sings.” —Gary Snyder

“‘Human beings are the ones who have the power, through their songs, to affect the balance of the world.’ What an immensely beautiful book!”—Stephen Greenblatt, Cogan University Professor of the Humanities, Harvard University and author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award

“Two titles make a case for the book as an instrument of communion, even grace. Reza Aslan’s anthology Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes From the Modern Middle East operates under the principle that the best way to know other cultures is by experiencing their stories, while Susan Suntree’s mythopoetic Sacred Sites: The Secret History of Southern California weaves science, native legend and natural history into a 200-plus page poem. Both come rooted in diversity and complexity, what many of the best books are about.” —David Ulin, the Los Angeles Times

“Susan Suntree presents a readable and broadly accessible account of the history of the universe, Earth, and Southern California in this scholarly and creative blend of ancient myth and modern science.” —Raymond V. Ingersoll, UCLA professor of geology

Sacred Sites honors the power and beauty of our indigenous heritage and homeland. By knowing our history we better understand the present and our journey into the future.” —Anthony Morales, tribal chair, Gabrielino/Tongva Council of San Gabriel

“This symphonic epic in verse repatriates the four-billion-year history of Southern California to its native heart and soul. Scrupulously researched from hard-to-find sources of California Indian myth, song, legend, and tale, and completely committed to its diverse Native perspectives on human-land-animal relations, the work is funny, sad, mysterious, and wise. Here is an ambitious master myth of the grand vintage we thought went out with Charles Olson and Walt Whitman.” —Peter Nabokov, UCLA professor of Native American Studies

“Susan Suntree demonstrates her love for the natural world along with her deep respect for the First Peoples of Southern California. The cultures of the Tongva and the Acjachemem are rich beyond measure and well documented in stories and traditions. We are not gone. We still exist.” —Rhonda Robles, member of the Acjachemem Nation

“This book is a wonderful tribute to our city’s multi-layered history and to devoted, intensive research, as well as a testimony to the art of writing. It’s a work that will illuminate our understanding of Los Angeles for years and years to come.”

—Holly Prado, author of These Mirrors Prove It: Selected Poems and Prose 1970-2003


“Gary Snyder refers to Sacred Sites as an ‘epic’ in his Foreword; he might have compared it to religious and philosophical texts whose narratives are not of heroic feats of arms but are philosophical accounts of natural evolution, as in Lucretius’s investigation into the nature of things, or another long chronicle of elder time that, like Suntree’s, opens with the resonant phrase, ‘In the beginning.’

“Written in the free-verse style of field composition, this text offers itself as both an archaic and modernist scripture for a scientific era, in which “dark energy” shapes the ephemeral and permanent natural entities—the oceans, fields, mountains, and rivers—that flash across the reader’s eyes in dissociated leaps. The virtual absence of a self-referential speaker, even one as modest as Sikelianos, makes this bardic chronicle sound more postmodern—informational, data-rich, a better fit for a generation seeking alternatives to the poetics of personal reference.” —Laurence Goldstein, from Poetry Los Angeles: Reading the Essential Poems of the City  (University of Michigan Press, 2014)

Excerpt from “Songs to Affect and Balance the World”: Poetry, Place, Home

From: The Arithmetic of Compassion Blog

Literature provides us with opportunities for redrawing those boundaries. In the book-length poem Sacred Sites: The Secret History of Southern California (2010), Susan Suntree explores the astronomical, geological, and cultural coming-into-being of the place that has long been her “homeland.” Her poem challenges our prevailing notions of home by expanding our sense of history and deepening our sense of place. Imaginatively “remembering” the beginning of time itself and the unfolding processes involved in the shaping of the cosmos, Sacred Sites effectively revises “home” according to a different scale, taking us into the process of the creation of the home-of-all-of-our-homes, a process that began long, long ago and continues today. As the poem travels through layers of time and space to the more recent and more specific—that is, as we reduce in orders of magnitude from the universal to the terrestrial—the Los Angeles River comes more sharply into focus, running through the poet’s homeland. We are reminded that the flow of those waters began ages before humans did; but we are also reminded that the river’s meaning didn’t begin until humans sang about it.

A long and ambitious poem written to tell the history of the creation of the L.A. Basin, Sacred Sites recounts the making of the universe and this planet, the coming of life to the basin, and the thriving of the first peoples to call it home. Suntree’s project consists of two Books contained within a single volume. Book One covers “The Origins of Southern California: Western Science,” and is further divided into six parts that follow a chronological and cosmological course, from the beginnings of “Light, Space, Matter” and “Galaxy, Planet, Moon, Rain” in the first parts to “Southern California Coming” and the appearance of a “Bountiful Homeland” in the last. Book One renders the most recent findings and widely accepted theories of astronomy, chemistry, geology, meteorology, biology into poetic language under a procession of all-cap time signatures, from the “no space” and “no time” before the Big Bang then suddenly, “14 BILLION YEARS AGO,” a “Colossal balloom!” and subsequent “seething radiation” of the “roiling gaseous universe soup.”

Gigaannum follows gigaannum: Ten pages later and “10 BILLION YEARS AGO,” stars begin to form in “a spiral galaxy, by mammals named: The Milky Way.” 5.5 billion years and one page later, the Sun “is born and set in orbit around the galaxy.” The years roll by, from billions to millions to thousands of years ago. “Gravity spins / elemental gas and rocky minerals into planets” and other heavenly bodies. Earth’s tectonic plates shift, cells divide, faults materialize, seas rise and disappear. The first Book ends around 3000 years ago, with waves of humans arriving and mixing in the Southern California sunshine: “From the western Santa Monica Mountains to the Santa Susanas to the Salton Sea / the immigrants mingle with those already here / to become the people of this place.” The concluding pages of “Western Science” emphasize the act of naming. The new peoples name themselves “according to where they live,” and name the villages where they live according to rock formations, tree communities, mountains, or the sound of surf. The land, the people, and their languages combine, producing a song. After a litany of village-names and explanations of their origins, the last line of Book One summarizes the poem’s action thus far and the overall project: “Named, it is home. / Singing its story, the land abides.”

Home is associated with naming, the abiding of place with singing. Throughout Book One, Suntree uses line-breaks, spacing, illustrations, parenthetical comments, elisions, metaphors and other poetic devices to “sing” the land’s “story.” As she explains at the outset in her Author’s Note, the text of both Books is laid out so as to “encourage readers to hear them as though they are listening to a storyteller or singer.” The song as a whole is about the deep past but also the deep present. Home is home because it is named as such; unnamed, it is not yet home. Similarly, through the singing of its story, the land abides. It is less clear who or what sings this story—possibly the same people who named Siutcanga, Tujunga, Hahamonga, and Yanga (all of which sites are identified through reference to the Los Angeles River). But by omitting direct reference to the beings who sang, the sentence leaves open the nature of the singer, suggesting that the land itself might sing its story, or that the people who sing are inseparable from the land that sings. Unsung, the land has no meaning, and cannot endure as “home.” Through singing, home begins, and lasts.

Suntree’s epic poem and other poetry of the L.A. River offer different ways of reacting to the concept of “home,” which might affect reactions to both at-home-ness and homelessness. A recent Los Angeles Daily News article by Ariella Plachta notes that a 2018 count by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority found a 6 percent increase in the transient population of San Fernando Valley. Displaced, momentarily abiding, and usually unnamed, homeless such as Mark Kline (63) and Sharon Rice (60), who have set up a tent in an area known as “The Bamboos” near the river in Sepulveda Basin, essentially occupy “an out-of-sight-out-of-mind-type of environment,” as an LAHSA supervisor put it. Un-homed, people such as Kline and Rice often elude the empathy of their more permanently sheltered counterparts. Psychic numbness casts shadows on the world we occupy, causing us to react in certain ways; homeless people live in some of those shadows. Poetry, however, can shed some light on the situation, on the making and maintaining of home, and in that light, we can perhaps begin to see connections that we otherwise miss, and thus learn to react differently. Suntree’s Sacred Sites complicates our versions of home and those who belong here.

Works Cited

Allen, John S. Home: How Habitat Made Us Human. NY, NY: Basic Books, 2015.

James, William. Talks to Teachers on Psychology, and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983 (1899).

Plachta, Ariella. “Homeless live in the Sepulveda Flood Basin for seclusion, but winter rains are a crude reminder that ‘The Bamboosʼ is no resort.” Los Angeles Daily News. 4 March 2019.

Suntree, Susan. Sacred Sites: The Secret History of Southern California. University of Nebraska Press, 2010.

Environmental Humanities, Psychic Numbing Arithmetic of Compassion Team April 25, 2019

—by T.S. McMillian, Prof of English, Oberlin College and Conservatory