What Standing Rock Has to Do with Religious Freedom

On Sunday, December 4, Native American tribes and supporters celebrated as the Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would not grant an easement to allow the Dakota Access Pipeline to cross under Lake Oahe. The Standing Rock Sioux and other Native Americans had, for months, camped out in protest of the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline that would jeopardize the tribe’s water supply. Representatives from 280 Native American nations came together to protest the pipeline as a spiritual action, ensuring the protection of what they believe to be sacred land and sacred water.   Regardless of opinions about outcomes, religious freedom advocates should carefully consider the recent protests by the Standing Rock Sioux and other Native American Communities to the Dakota Access Pipeline as an exercise of religious freedom.

Religious freedom is often framed in terms of the capacity of individuals to worship, pray, or engage in explicitly religious acts in the privacy of their homes or traditional houses of worship. If one imagined religious freedom visually, one might conjure images of someone singing a hymn in a church pew, someone praying in a mosque, or someone studying sacred texts in a synagogue. These images carry much truth about how adherents of Abrahamic religions typically practice their faith. Yet these images alone do not encapsulate the expansive diversity and creativity of what a person or a group's exercise of religious freedom looks like.

An exercise of religion for many Native Americans looks starkly different. Water is sacred to the tribes in North Dakota. The Lakota prayer mni wiconi mni wicosini means "water of life, water of health." Protecting their people's water is not merely a politically motivated action reflecting modern environmental values as conceived of by Western society. For Native American "water protectors", advocating against a pipeline which could harm their water supply is a deeply spiritual act, motivated by a sacrosanct duty to protect the earth and the interconnectedness of everything. The Lakota ending of prayers, "Mitakuye Oyasin", encapsulates this notion. Translated "all my relations," this simple prayer is a deep and abiding recognition that we are all connected to one another, and to the natural world. The Lakota conception of relations includes not just relationships between people, but our interdependent relationship with creation and natural resources. For Native Americans, protecting water is protecting a blessed friend and upholds the constancy, non-severability and holiness of their relationship with one of their vital life sources. Protesting the pipeline, something that could hinder that relationship between the Native peoples and their water, is an embodied expression of protecting that fundamental essence of "all my relations."

Religious communities and organizations of vastly different spiritual paradigms often have challenges explaining why something that does not look like an obvious violation of their religious freedom to an outsider actually is. Distinctive religious groups or spiritual communities often have practices and precepts that appear strange or even non-religious to non-adherents.  Lack of understanding of religious beliefs and practices of groups different from one’s own often makes it challenging for disparate groups in a plural society to understand what is needed for different religious communities to exercise their religious freedom.

For Native American “water protectors”, advocating against a pipeline which could harm their water supply is a deeply spiritual act

Religious groups and communities should consider the claims of religious “others” regarding what is needed to freely exercise their religion. Considering the inherently religious nature of Native American protests to the Dakota access pipeline in this context is important for advocates of religious freedom. Native Americans themselves do not always even use the language of religious freedom to describe the spiritual motivation behind their actions. 

This is because, for many Native Americans, there is no separation between the sacred and the secular: everything has religious significance. In the Lakota language, for example, there is no word for religion because the sacredness (wakan) of everything is so integrated into every aspect of their lives. Thus, religious freedom advocates would do well to consider that even using the language of “exercising our religious freedom,” is not how all groups of disparate faith and spiritual animating belief systems would describe it, although that is precisely what they are doing.  Native Americans who are coming together to participate in prayers and sacred ceremonies to protect their holy land and water are engaging in actions, the source of which is their spirituality.  They are practicing their faith. They are embodying their religious freedom. 

People of good will can come to different conclusions about the right political outcome: whether the pipeline should be rerouted or not. But people of all faiths and none should still recognize that there is a spiritual element - a religious freedom framework - through which to view this issue. There is something especially resonant with people across varying religious backgrounds with the notion of preserving and advancing religious freedom for Native Americans. Native Americans have faced systemic oppression of their freedom to live out and express their spiritual beliefs since before the inception of the American constitutional democracy. Traditional Native American sacred ceremonies, such as sun dances, ghost dances and pipe ceremonies, were illegal and even treated as terrorist acts until the passage of the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

The protests by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other Native Americans can help us to reimagine what religious freedom means for diverse groups. As many discuss the possible actions of a Trump administration, Democrats and Republicans alike have cited infrastructure projects as one area where bipartisan progress and action may be possible. While infrastructure projects have the potential to bring many positive social goods, infrastructure projects would include, in addition to roads and bridges, pipelines like the Dakota Access Pipeline. Any such infrastructure advancements must be done with the underpinning of consciousness that they do not trample the religious freedom of Native American communities to continue to be in relation with their sacred land and water.

 -Chelsea Langston Bombino is the Director of Equipping and Membership at the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, a division of the Center for Public Justice. She holds a JD from the University of Michigan and is a licensed attorney by the State Bar of Michigan. Photo courtesy of Fibonacci Blue.