When media attention finally found itself on the protests taking place in North Dakota over the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline, its focus was mainly on the most negative aspects of the situation, such as the vicious dog attacks, and the back and forth confrontation. The word sacred grounds may have been thrown around, but little attention was paid to the exact nature of the situation which was actually inherently a spiritual one.
The massive construction, which would span over 1,172 miles carrying half a million barrels of crude oil each day, would have carried this oil right through an area of land that local native groups have thought of as sacred spiritual grounds for quite some time.
While the media continued their focus on the aspects of the protest that would drive the world into a frenzy they completely overlooked the overall change in climate surrounding the movement. Many people, including Pua Case, traveled quite a distance to stand with the local natives. Case, a native of Hawaii, not North Dakota, says that she didn’t travel all that way just to protest either. She was there to PRAY.
“Standing Rock is a prayer camp,” she said. “It is where prayers are done.”
And Case isn’t the only one who experienced something much bigger than protesting the Pipeline during her time in North Dakota.
Something on a much larger scale has developed, and in many ways, it holds a sense of irony, when you think of how Christians of the 18th and 19th centuries used the concept of “manifest destiny” to justify the overtaking of the Native American’s and their territories. Many puzzle pieces have come together to build a movement of Native theology that champions the opposite: preserving and protecting the land and water, along with the other naturally procured resources from further degradation caused by industrial developments, due to their sacred standing with the indigenous peoples of those particular areas.
And it seems as though those prayers are beginning to work.
The outpouring of support in the protest against the pipeline created an awe-struck population and media across the country. In the beginning, a few sparse tents could be seen around the area, and within weeks, there are around 10,000 people including guests from as many as 300 different indigenous tribes who have protested, visited, and brought support to the Natives who are fighting for what they believe in.
“Seeing all the tribes come out was just incredible,” Caro “Guarding Red Tarantula Woman” Gonzales, a 26-year-old Standing Rock protester and founding member of the International Indigenous Youth Council, told ThinkProgress. “We can do that for every single indigenous fight.”
While it may seem as though something like this would actually be typical, the history of Native American activism has typically surrounded their inability to come together as one.
However, in December 2012 a change began, when four women in Western Canada- three First Nations women and one non-Native ally- held a conference to protest against legislation that would weaken environmental laws that had been created to preserve and protect lands that Natives held sacred.
The demonstration was referred to as “Idle No More”, and the protest took over social media within days, and soon flash mobs were performing traditional spiritual dances and events that began happening in shopping centers and malls across the nation. A series of marches, rallies, and peaceful protests blocking major highways and railways soon followed, and they were making headlines across the globe.
“Idle No More raised our consciousness,” Gonzales, who is of the Chemehievi nation, said. “When people are chaining themselves to bulldozers, that is prayer.”
And to further this new age of a Native movement, social media was brought into the mix allowing the indigenous people across the country to show solidarity with their fellow activists with only a few clicks, hashtags, and memes.
Then came the pipeline protests, and by then, well, the bigger picture containing a spiritual network of the indigenous had already sprung into being.
“Many of the people I met at Standing Rock I’ve been friends with on Facebook for years,” said Case, who has been a key organizer in Native Hawaiian activist circles.
Case stated also that she along with many of the Standing Rock protesters had been sending prayers over social media for quite some time.
“We prayed on each others’ mountains and made commitments to one another,” Case said, speaking over the phone just minutes after finishing a ceremonial raft ride down the river. “They have prayed for us — they’ve come out physically to Mauna Kea. So now it’s our turn.”
“The most important word here is alliances,” she said.
“All of us are protesting because we are part of this sacred [connection] to the earth,” Gonzales said. “We are all the mountains, we are all the birds — it sounds corny, but it’s true.”
“Earth-based cultures are tied to places,” Mangauil, whose current Facebook profile picture reads “Solidarity with Standing Rock,” said.
“There is no separation from our spirituality and our environment — they
are one and the same.”
“Other [religious groups] have these debates over whether or not God exists — but I know my god exists,” he added, referencing Mauna Kea, which towers above his island home. “It’s the mountain — I can see it.”
As religion is tied to nature within the Native cultures, it seems only normal that their protest movements usually involve both. What is interesting about this particular movement is that even religious experts are seeing something new and unusual in this movement, and that is that protesters are actively creating new religious expressions. Greg Johnson, a Hawaiian religion expert and an associate professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said these indigenous protests are increasingly led by young, creative organizers who are “generating” religion through their activism.
“The kids of today’s generation know a new set of chants, a new set of prayers because of those who came before them,” Johnson said. He noted that Native Hawaiian schoolchildren are already singing songs written in the protest camps of Mauna Kea just a year before. “In this moment of crisis, the religious tradition is catalyzed, activated, but most of all articulated — this is when it happens.”
Even in light of this beautiful and magnificent movement, and even when you take into consideration the victories that have been won by it, the fight itself is far from over. Many of the disputes, including the Dakota Access Pipeline, have yet to be resolved. Thankfully, with the use of new technology and access to social media, along with a network of new support, these activists have the ability to work together to collaborate on revised methods to thwart the attempts that further industrialization are making against all that these people hold sacred.
In September, dozens of tribes in Canada and the U.S signed a treaty pledging to combat any further development of Canadian “tar sands”, which could put their sacred waterways in harm’s way of oil spills.
“If one of us loses, then we all have to work harder,” Case said. “We need to be stronger every day, and I believe the creator believes that’s what we need as well.”
Case says the members of this new movement will continue to hold onto one another for the support and strength necessary to move forward on the path to protect what they hold sacred. “We could use some prayer,” she stated. These people will continue to fight until the environment is held as sacred as they have upheld it for centuries.
“There comes a time when people have a right to say no — and now is that time,” she added. “So we’re saying no, resoundingly, like the thundering sky.”