The United States has long purported to put a lot of weight behind the freedom of religion, and a respect for religions. But that respect has never been extended to Native Americans and other indigenous peoples in any real way, least of all when respecting those religions would stand in the way of making money.
The Dakota Access pipeline project threatens 1,172 miles of land ecologically and spiritually. Large portions of the land through which it is planned to run are sacred to several Native American tribes. These tribes are protesting those intrusions into sacred land, as well as other such projects around the country, as part of a spiritual movement with deep ties to environmentalism.
This isn’t a coincidence or simply a matter of expediency: Native American religions have always had strong ties to the environment, well beyond specific sacred sites.
“Earth-based cultures are tied to places,” says Native Hawaiian activist Joshua Lanakila Mangauil. “There is no separation from our spirituality and the environment—they are one and the same.”
The spiritual nature of these protests, seen by many as acts of prayer in and of themselves, have helped to rejuvenate the environmental movement and the discussion of climate change more broadly.
These beliefs and practices give some people a deep connection to issues of ecology that others don’t have, and likely don’t understand.
For many non-Native people, the land is simply there to be used, not something that needs to be protected. And while modern people may have a more ecologically sound view of the world, it certainly wasn’t always that way. The United States has a long history of aggression towards Native Americans and their beliefs. It was only in 1978 that the federal government even officially recognized the rights of Native Americans to follow their traditional religions.
The American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 compels the federal government to protect and preserve Native Americans’ right of freedom to believe, express and exercise their traditional religion—including but not limited to access to sacred sites. But that may not be enough to stop the pipeline or other intrusions on Native land, says Greg Johnson, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
“There is very little track record of sacred land victories,” says Johnson. “More likely what they will generate is allegiances, attention—the secondary effects of having made the case for their tradition.”
Watching tribes from all across the U.S. and Canada come together to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline shows that these allegiances are growing. Even representatives from several Christian churches have been at the protests in solidarity.
“If one of us loses, then we all have to work harder,” says Native Hawaiian protestor Pua Case. “We need to be stronger every day, and I believe the creator believes that’s what we need as well.”
“There comes a time when people have a right to say no—and now is that time. So we’re saying no, resoundingly, like the thundering sky,” Case adds.