‘Those are our Eiffel Towers, our pyramids’: Why Standing Rock is about much more than oil

n May 15, the Dakota Access Pipeline is scheduled to start delivering oil. The indigenous community of Standing Rock, North Dakota, has protested the pipeline for two years since its re-routing. Media coverage has largely portrayed the protest as an environmental movement and discussion of indigenous religion is rare. However, while environmental protection is a central and connected issue, discussions of Standing Rock that do not include an understanding of Native American religious traditions are missing important context.

Over 5,000 years ago, the inhabitants of a village along the Green River, Kentucky, practiced the Cult of the River Keepers. Skeletons show evidence of auditory exostoses, a growth of cartilaginous tissue on ear bones that is found in humans who are repeatedly exposed to cold water – suggesting they frequently performed religious ceremonies in the river. Today, Native American cultures in the midwest and south regard rivers are sacred entities, known as the Long Man or Long Snake, and continue to perform religious ceremonies in them. In the Missouri River, indigenous Water Protectors have tried to prevent the Dakota Access Pipeline from passing through a sacred landscape. Understood in its religious context, the Standing Rock Sioux are not anti-industry protestors, but practitioners of religious elements that may predate Judaism, Christianity, and Islam by centuries.

In 2014, the citizens of Bismarck raised concerns about environmental hazards associated Energy Transfer Partners’ 1,172-mile pipeline. It was reroute from Bismarck to near the Standing Rock Reservation and the Sioux government immediately voiced opposition to its path. The standard environmental and archaeological impact assessments were waived, an omission objected to by three federal agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Interior, and Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. The pipeline does not cross the Standing Rock Reservation’s territory, but it runs along government land a few hundred feet from the reservation. It is land that historically belonged to the indigenous community and is part of their sacred landscape.

A protester holds a sign during a demonstration against the Dakota Access Pipeline on February 8, 2016.
 A protester holds a sign with Upper World and This World imagery during a demonstration against the Dakota Access Pipeline on February 8, 2016. Photograph: UPI / Barcroft Images

The indigenous community has been outspoken about the sacred landscape, yet Standing Rock continues to be cast by the media as an environmental protest or an alternative to Occupy Wall Street. In order to be heard, Native American communities have launched media platforms such as Indian Country Media Network, created YouTube videos and full length documentary films, and used social media platforms to reach the public. Nevertheless, due to the international media’s lack of discussion of indigenous religion, the public lacks an understanding of it and how the pipeline impacts their sacred places.

Native American participants of Standing Rock identify as Water Protectors rather than protestors and this identification is part of a religious tradition deeply ingrained in their worldview. The camp near the pipeline is named Sacred Stone Camp after a religious tradition relating to the confluence of the Missouri and Cannonball rivers. The camp’s motto is “Defend the Sacred” and much of their activity is singing and praying.

Native Americans have an ancient and rich worldview. Analysis of ancient DNA from the Pacific Northwest to Mexico connects modern indigenous peoples to the earliest humans in the Americas. There is no written record from these ancient cultures; however, oral traditions have been passed down for generations. A recent archaeological discovery in the Pacific Northwest suggests that an oral tradition has survived over 14,000 years.

Indigenous cultures have a worldview fundamentally different to the West: the animate earth. North America is composed of countless nations that have different languages, economies, and social structures including matrilineal and patrilineal traditions. It is a constellation of cultures that is often grouped into the single category “Native American,” a term that poorly expresses the multitude of peoples present. However, within the many nations of the midwest and south are shared religious elements; an “analogous history of shared cultural themes, transmitted and adopted from Archaic times through the Woodland period and into the Mississippian centuries, continuing in modified form into the Colonial period and even lasting substantially in a few tribes down to the present time” writes Richard Townsend. He explains that archaeology and oral traditions “form an extraordinary record of cultural continuity.” Just as Western religions are shared across many nations and cultures, these religious elements are found among the diverse indigenous nations of North America, including the Lakota Sioux at Standing Rock.

The key elements of the religious themes are found in the creation story. According to a version told by the medicine man Swimmer, in the beginning there was no land, only endless primordial waters. A creature (a turtle to the Lakota, but a duck, muskrat, or other creature in different traditions) dove deep into the waters and brought mud to the surface. The mud was spread over the waters to create the Earth Island, or Turtle Island in the Lakota tradition. The cosmos is therefore composed of three levels: the Upper World (sky), This World (land), and the Lower World (waters). The Upper World is composed the sky, which is highly ordered as seen by the predicable passing of the sun, moon, and stars. The Lower World is the opposite; it is a cold, watery place that is chaotic. Evidence can be seen in springs, whose water is always cold in summer’s heat, yet never freezes in the cold of winter, and activity can always be seen below the surface. Spirits inhabit each of these levels, such as the Thunder Bird in the Upper World and the uktena, a snake with horns, in the Lower World. However, spirits are neither good or evil. Each pursues its own interests and can either help or harm a person. Humans, on Earth in between the ordered Upper World and the chaotic Lower World, must use these two extremes against each other. While the particulars of the oral traditions differ between nations, these themes of the religion reappear. Religion and medicine are about correcting imbalances, using spirits from either side to maintain balance. For this reason, both Upper and Lower world spirits are sacred, especially locations that are interfaces between levels of the cosmos.

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The microcosm-macrocosm principle is an important component of the animate earth. Each place – caves, cliffs, springs, etc. – has a spirit and can influence the cosmos, which is where the term animate earth originates. Landscape, built structures, and artwork recreate the cosmos through the microcosm-macrocosm principle. The mounds that indigenous peoples built all over the continent are thought to be reconstructions of the Earth Island and many have sand or mud as their first layer to represent the sediment that was spread over the primordial sea. Since affecting the microcosm has influence over the macrocosm, sites like Turtle Island at Standing Rock, Camp Coldwater Spring, or Waconda Spring are not only microcosms of the Earth, but are regarded as the same as the actual place of creation. Spiritual leader Gary Cavender described, “The Camp Coldwater spring is a sacred spring… The Spring is the dwelling place of the undergods and is near the center of the Earth… The spring is the site of our creation myth (or ‘Garden of Eden’) and the beginning of Indian existence on Earth.”

There are commonalities found among Native Americans cultures in the past and present relating to these religious traditions. Motifs such as the Thunder Bird and underwater spirits like the uktena are found in every period. Certain materials associated with the three-leveled cosmos such as mica, copper, quartz, and meteorites have been used in religious contexts for centuries. These symbols provide evidence of the continuity of these religious themes across ever-changing cultures, economies, and languages. It is a religious tradition dating to the Archaic Period and may originate earlier in the Paleoindian period.

European versus indigenous perception of religious places

Western religions use built structures to distinguish sacred places from the natural world. It is a ‘flag mentality’ where ownership is identified through imposing a material object on a landscape, such as the planting of a flag or building a church. In contrast, native traditions conduct religious ceremonies at notable landscape features such as high cliffs, buttes, caves, springs, and the confluence of rivers, often without structures or objects. The dissonance between these two worldviews results in misunderstanding by non-native peoples as to what constitutes a sacred place.

An example is Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, which is built on an indigenous sacred landscape. Many of the holy locations are watery places: St. Anthony Falls, Camp Coldwater Spring, and the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers. The holy of holies is Wakan Tibi, or Sacred House, whose European name is Carver’s Cave. The cave contained a lake where the Great Spirit lived. Every year, leaders from every Sioux nation would set aside differences and meet in front of the cave to discuss alliances and grievances. Despite evidence from oral histories, archaeologists in the 1970s argued that the cave was not culturally important because there were no “things” found in it. Dialogue has changed this erroneous perception and Wakan Tibi/Carver’s Cave is now understood to have great cultural significance. However, this error persists at Standing Rock.

This is not to say that Native peoples did not build structures, simply that not every religious place contains structures or objects. Cahokia, near present day St. Louis, had a population at its peak that rivaled medieval Paris and London. The city was composed of massive mounds that are still standing today, as well as wooden construction that has since disappeared. Nevertheless, even the Mississippians of Cahokia revered the sacred places of the earlier Hopewell, as did the later Siouan cultures. Rather than built structures as found at European religious sites, these animate earth religious sites can be identified as natural formations: springs, rocky outcrops, and caves. Especially dramatic or unique formations are revered as the most sacred places such as Wakan Tibi/Carver’s Cave, Waconda Spring, and Bears Ears.

Standing Rock in religious context

These religious traditions provide the context for Standing Rock’s opposition to the pipeline. Even if indigenous spokespersons were not telling the public that the area where the pipeline passes is a sacred location, the landscape itself is clearly identifiable as fitting these religious elements. The pipeline’s route crosses a high rock promontory at the confluence of two rivers, a landscape that is an interface between the levels of the cosmos. The island where the Water Protectors attempt to gather is named Turtle Island and it is a microcosm of the Earth Island upon the waters. An island that rises high above the surrounding landscape, visible from far away, and the confluence of two rivers are immediately identifiable elements of a Native American sacred location.