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

On 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.

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 religious traditions

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.

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.

Just as the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers is a holy place in Minnesota, the confluence of the Cannon Ball and Missouri rivers at Turtle Island is sacred, but it has an added significance. “At the confluence of where those two rivers met was a great whirlpool that created perfectly round stones that were considered to be sacred,” Jon Eagle Sr. explained in an interview to Indian Country Magazine. The Sioux call the river Inyan Wakan Kagapi Wakpa, or River Where the Sacred Stone Are Made- wakan translating as sacred or holy. Religious ceremonies have been performed at this location for centuries. Both the river and the local town of Cannon Ball take their names from the round stones that formed in the river. The area and stones are sacred, a “historic place of commerce where enemy tribes camped peacefully within sight of each other because of the reverence they had for this place. In the area are sacred stones where our ancestors went to pray for good direction, strength and protection for the coming year. Those stones are still there, and our people still go there today,” explains Eagle. The Water Protectors’ camp is named Sacred Stone Camp for this location.

Meeting places where conflict was forbidden were rare. These sacred sites are only found next to the most important natural formations, often centered around watery places like springs or rivers. Examples include Wakan Tibi/Carver’s Cave, Waconda Spring, and Standing Rock’s whirlpool. Unfortunately, the entrance to Wakan Tibi was destroyed to create a rail system and the Army Corps destroyed both Waconda Spring and the Cannon Ball River whirlpool through dam construction.

The Army Corps and Energy Transfer Partners have argued that the land that the pipeline crosses is not sacred since there is no evidence of buildings or burials. An archaeological assessment confirmed that no burials were present, but it did not include analysis of the landscape from the perspective cosmology and oral traditions. Not only did the decision to move forward with the pipeline ignore the fact that most indigenous sacred places do not have built structures, but it also demonstrates a lack of understanding of Sioux burial practices. The Sioux place the dead on scaffolds 6-12 feet high or in trees so they are open to the sky. The idea that the area around Turtle Island should contain built structures or bodies interred in the ground in order for it to be considered a holy site is a European perspective on religious places. Though Standing Rock citizens explained this to the government and showed evidence from oral histories and ethnographies since the 18th century, the pipeline continues to move forward.

The desire to protect Standing Rock has mobilised indigenous communities as never before. “This is the first time the seven bands of the Sioux have come together since Little Bighorn [in 1876],” Hawste Wakiyan Wicasa told BBC in an interview. “Now, we have no weapons, only prayers.” To categorise Standing Rock as anti-industry or solely an environmental protest is to misunderstand the context.

The first Sioux treaty in 1851 provided 12,500,000 acres to indigenous peoples, but it was reduced to 640,000 acres by 1910 as the US government successively broke four treaties. From the 1940-1970s, dam construction disproportionately submerged indigenous property, often targeting communities and sacred places. The two largest reservations in North Dakota were chosen as locations for reservoirs with Garrison Dam flooding 153,00 acres of indigenous property and Oahe Dam flooding 200,000 acres of Standing Rock Reservation. Losing homes, schools, and infrastructure, the dislocated families were left without roads, running water, or basic living conditions and they continue to await proper compensation. The famous scholar Vine Deloria, Jr., who was from Standing Rock, said the dam program was, “the single most destructive act ever perpetuated on any tribe by the United States.”

Sacred places have been purposefully targeted; the Mount Rushmore monument in South Dakota was built over the Black Hills (Ȟe Sápa), the holiest site in Sioux religion, and Waconda Spring, Kansas, was submerged under the Glen Elder Dam. A unique geological formation, the decision to submerge Waconda Spring (indigenous name: Ne-Wakan Tonka) was widely protested by indigenous peoples, white residents, and the scientific community. For no practical purpose, buildings were bulldozed into the spring before it was submerged. The nationwide targeting of religious places, along with massacres (the Whitestone Hill Massacre, which killed more civilians than Wounded Knee, occurred to the east of Standing Rock), and the removal and forced re-education of indigenous children has left indigenous communities mistrustful of the government. When the pipeline was diverted from Bismarck, followed by the waiving of the mandated environmental and historical preservation assessments, indigenous communities felt the Army Corps was repeating the actions of the dam projects.

The public may not be aware of the destruction of indigenous religious sites, but to Native Americans the attacks are equivalent to the loss of sites like the Vatican, Notre Dame, the Ka’ba, or Temple Mount. “Those are our synagogues. Those are our Eiffel Towers, our pyramids. When you look out at the land, you don’t see anything like [Turtle Island]; how it comes out of the ground. Everything about us is with the Earth, including our [sacred] sites,” explained Floris White Bull when describing Turtle Island’s significance. Indigenous religious places have centuries of oral traditions demonstrating their importance and early Europeans recorded their place-names so that derivations of wakan/wicon/wakhon are found on maps across the country. The Standing Rock protest is the most recent product of a lengthy history of government and state policies that disregard native spokespersons and misunderstand what constitutes a sacred place.

The need for indigenous spokespersons in the media

There is a Sioux oral tradition of a “black snake” that would one day come to their homeland, which many in the community interpret as the pipeline. The artwork around Sacred Stone Camp depicts Upper World imagery, which reflects action to balance the cosmos against a Lower World spirit like the “black snake.” In every regard the Sioux have been consistent in their religious practice, but government and state officials do not listen to the indigenous spokespersons.

While the public was shocked to see force used against protestors at the behest of a corporation, the response was muted to some degree because the media has failed to address the religious aspects of the Water Protectors. Cast as an environmental protest, the media coverage gives the impression of hippies and anti-establishment types rather than one of the oldest religions under attack. The actions failed to garner the same phrasing or passions as the coverage of the attacks on Christian communities in the Middle East. There is a broad public failure to understand indigenous issues and religion, which is why indigenous voices are needed on the major media networks. The most significant concern should be that the United States government still does not listen or believe indigenous communities when they speak about their religion. The Standing Rock Sioux have been unequivocal about the sacred nature of Turtle Island and the path of the pipeline, yet the Army Corps, courts, and the State of North Dakota sought evidence and conducted studies to prove whether or not these statements are valid.

These policies are not confined to the Dakota Access Pipeline. At the request of 30 Native American tribes, the Obama Administration protected the sacred Bears Ears by creating a national monument. President Obama described the landscape in terms that readers should now find familiar, “Rising from the center of the southeastern Utah landscape and visible from every direction are twin buttes so distinctive that in each of the native languages of the region their name is the same: Hoon’Naqvut, Shash Jáa, Kwiyagatu Nukavachi, Ansh An Lashokdiwe, or ‘Bears Ears.’ For hundreds of generations, native peoples lived in the surrounding deep sandstone canyons, desert mesas…one of the densest and most significant cultural landscapes in the United States.” However, the Trump Administration announced a review of 24 monuments, including Bears Ears, and will potentially reverse the protection. Four of the reviewed monuments are submerged marine monuments, but 19 of the remaining 20 contain Native American sacred places or archaeological sites. Newly appointed Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch built his reputation protecting Christian religious freedom and expression, including monuments. It would be interesting to see how he would rule on an indigenous religious place.

Oral traditions and archaeological evidence demonstrate continuity from the early cultures on the continent through present day, a religious tradition that may predate most of the world’s major religions. If members of the Cult of the River Keepers from 5,000 years ago awoke today, there is little they would recognize. However, they might identify elements of their religion in the Standing Rock Water Protectors. As the pipeline opens on May 15, it is worth having a public discussion about the religious context of Standing Rock in the hope that the surviving sacred sites will not suffer the same fate. That discussion begins by listening to indigenous spokespersons when they speak about their religion and experiences.