Horses graze early on the morning of Sept. 14, 2016, at the Oceti Sakowin camp near the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, where thousands of people are camped in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline project. It's reportedly the largest gathering of Native Americans in more than a century. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

The 'Splainer: The 'spiritual battle' over the Dakota Access pipeline

The ’Splainer (as in, “You’ve got some ’splaining to do”) is an occasional feature in which RNS gives you everything you need to know about current events to help you hold your own at the water cooler.

NEAR THE STANDING ROCK SIOUX RESERVATION, N.D. (RNS) It's being called “the largest, most diverse tribal action in at least a century”: scores of Native American tribes camped among the hills along the Cannonball River.

They’ve gathered in tents and teepees, and in prayer and protest, to oppose the construction of an oil pipeline, engaged in what both activists and religious leaders are calling a spiritual battle.

And they won a partial victory on Sept. 9, when the federal government ordered a provisional halt on construction near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

What’s behind the opposition to the pipeline, and what makes it spiritual? Let us ‘Splain …

What’s the backstory?

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has filed a lawsuit over a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit for the construction of a $3.8 billion underground pipeline that would run nearly 1,200 miles from the Bakken and Three Forks oil fields in North Dakota to an existing pipeline in Illinois.

The Dakota Access pipeline would transport 470,000 barrels of crude oil per day, according to Dallas-based Energy Transfer, the parent company of Dakota Access. It would reduce the amount of oil shipped by truck and train, providing safer transport of oil, the company argues.

But it also would snake through sacred sites on lands where the Sioux once lived and, according to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, a spill would "present an existential threat" since the pipeline would come within a half-mile of their reservation.

Who’s protesting?

An estimated 8,000 people were camped along the Cannonball River this past week.

Camp coordinator Phyllis Young says members of 280 Native American tribes have come to express their support -- from as far away as Hawaii and Ecuador, according to the Sacred Stone Camp Facebook page. Many non-Native people also have joined.

So what does opposition to the pipeline have to do with religion and spirituality?

“You can’t separate spirituality from our everyday life," said Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Councilman Dana Yellow Fat. "We do everything with prayer.”

The demonstration began in April with a 26-mile prayer ride on horseback from Sitting Bull’s burial site in Fort Yates. Prayer continues at the camps throughout the day: in the morning and evening and at mealtimes, in vigils, in songs, in prayer ties knotted to fences along construction sites, in the sage and cedar and tobacco that is burned.

Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II has mentioned visions and dreams by several Lakota and Dakota Sioux about “a black poisonous snake trying to come among us.” He has also cited instructions the Sioux believe the Creator has given them to care for the land, including the water and all creation.

“Mni wiconi” -- “Water is life” -- has become one of the rallying cries of those opposing the pipeline.

Mark Charles, a Navajo Christian and Washington correspondent for Native News Online, puts it this way: “The way most Natives feel about the land where they’re living is the way most European Christians (American Christians of European origin) feel about Israel. Why? Because that’s where their creation story takes place.”

Why are Christians getting involved?

Bruce Ough, bishop of the United Methodist Church’s Dakotas-Minnesota Area and president of the United Methodist Church’s Council of Bishops, calls it "a spiritual battle."

“Ultimately, this is a protest about the stewardship of God’s creation and justice for the indigenous peoples of the Great Plains,” Ough said.

It's also about reconciliation, said Shantha Ready Alonso, executive director of Creation Justice Ministries. Many non-Native Americans participating in the demonstration want to acknowledge the injustices done to indigenous peoples by European Christians who took their lands and played a role in massacres of Native Americans.

“There’s a lot to confess, there’s a lot to repent and, in this case, this is an opportunity to stand with the tribe and affirm and follow their leadership in taking one more step toward reconciliation,” Alonso said.

Representatives from several Protestant Christian denominations, including the United Methodist Church, United Church of Christ, Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (USA) and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America -- as well as the Nation of Islam -- have visited the camps or spoken out against the pipeline project.


  1. The Sioux have a lot of hard work ahead of them. Although they recently had a victory against Transcanada’s XL Pipeline, companies are constructing additional pipelines throughout the midwest and the south. Transcanada is suing the US government and taxpayers are going to have to pay the bill. Even a year ago, President Obama, who vetoed the XL Pipeline, decided to approve Resolution Copper’s mile-deep mining pit in Arizona.The Sioux may have won the battle, but not the war.

    But about the sacred land argument. The XL was suppose to cross Sioux land under the former 1868 treaty that the government did not enforce (so the Sioux lost much of that land over the decades). But the land near the Dakota Access protestors is private and whether Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act is applicable is a point of debate. Archeologists are now weighing in and saying the land has remains and artifacts. The Army Corp of Engineers says they followed all the necessary regulations for proper permits, but activists disagree. The fact that the Obama administration placed a temporary halt on the pipeline’s construction may be a partial victory but I doubt the energy companies will simply cave. Like the railroads of the nineteenth century, the pipelines will eventually erode Indian land.

  2. We ought to be creative enough as a nation to accommodate the needs and requirements of the Sioux while still proceeding with the project, even at the increased cost to the pipeline’s owner’s.

  3. This pipeline has been hijacked as a protest against fossil fuels and as a forum for Lakota grievances. The germaine issue appears to be that the pipeline was moved close to tribal lands because white localities were worried about their water sources. Historically polluting and unsightly projects have been placed in poor and/or minority neighborhoods because they have little chance to fight it. This is valid and the route can be changed. The other claim about sacred sites not on Lakota lands is more troublesome as these sites may be individual burials and diffusely spread over much of the Dakotas.

    Focus on changing the route so the Lakota water sources won’t be too close to the pipeline and their concerns about sacred sites be evaluated. The pipeline would be useful but can be delayed. I am curious as to whether the EPA and other agencies conformed to regulations requiring public involvement during the planning stage or whether it was fastracked.

  4. I have friends and relatives there. In addition, I am very familiar with the land.

    The initial archeologists DAP (Dakota Access Pipeline) sent out were unfamiliar with Plains Indian cultural practices and artifacts, probably, but unprovable deliberate. They declared the area free of any impediments. The Standing Rock Tribe sent their own archeologists out on September 2. Those experts saw clear evidence of encampments, burial sites, and religious ceremonial sites. Late that Friday they notified the presiding judge of their intention to seek a temporary injunction while they collaborated with the company’s people.

    DAP had not been working weekends, but the next day, a Saturday, September 3, the people discovered DAP had sent bulldozers ahead and they were quickly plowing up the land, destroying the significant sites before they could be properly marked and an injunction obtained.

    The people ran into the paths of those enormous machines, forcing them to stop the destruction. DAP called their private security company, which had worked in Iraq and Afghanistan, like Eric Prince’s Blackwater mercenaries. The security personnel brought dogs and sicced them on the protestors like Sheriff Bull Connor sicced dogs on freedom marchers in 1960s Alabama. One of the dogs got loose and bit several protestors before the handler could regain control. Soon after that the security troop left.

    That’s where the pipeline sits now. Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! was there videoing DAP’s violent attack. Whether you agree with Ms. Goodman’s politics or not, you can watch the video and read more about the attack on the protestors here:

    Actually video of the DAP attack on the American Indian people and allies begins at 1:30.

  5. It’s another example of a vanqished group throwing a monkey wrench in the machinery of the very source of wealth creation for that whole otherwise-barren area. Ignorance reins supreme. If we’re gonna claim all lands that these nomadic tribes have ever traversed as somehow “sacred” then all of the Western states will be off limits to the white man’s enterprises. Let’s hope they can bring back the buffalo, or expand their gambling establishments!

    They’re gonna need bigger government checks to survive, but Hilliary has likely already given them that promise!.

  6. They have what they asked for–lots of worthless land! Energy held forth bright hope, but perhaps they can now make up the difference with tourism dollars! I can see it now, bumper to bumper traffic rushing out there to view the sagebrush blowing on the lone prairie, with the occasional scrawny coyote howling at night!

    The smart Indians have already left the reservation to get an education and pursue careers in the population centers of their respective states. They’re smart enough to know that the buffalo ain’t comin’ back!

  7. You’ve done an excellent job of insulting the original Americans. I don’t know if you have the decency to apologize, but you should.

    It’s clear that you have no sense of connection to the land. In addition to American Indians, farmers, ranchers, loggers, and others who work the land, see it as something to treasure and use, rather than exploit and destroy. Thank god for them. Food, timber, fabrics and such come in real handy.

    BTW, Indian folks aren’t clamoring for a rush of people overwhelming their homes. Keep in mind that the money they get from the government is money they are owed for rights to most of this land mass and its resources. The US government held all the power when it coerced and lied the tribes into signing various treaties, most of which the government broke. In those treaties the government promised to pay for the land, water rights, education, housing, food, and other items in perpetuity. Indians are doing their best to hold the US government, us, to our word. Mostly our word has been worthless. No integrity there.

    One more thing – American Indians don’t give a damn what you think they should do, want, think or believe.

  8. Read my response to your ignorance above. And show me where the Indians said they want to “claim all lands that these nomadic tribes have ever traversed as somehow ‘sacred.'”

    You and your stupidity stink. Shame on you.

  9. Your name says it all! Why you lefties call yourselves “progressives” is beyond me. You wish to keep these people tied to a failed past civilization that didn’t hold forth the promise of very much progress. It’s probably a blessing that their wars against each other with crude weapons kept their population down. These people were not gods–they were very human, so quit worshipping them!

    The needs of this modern era are much more influential, in terms of bringing forth value from “this land mass and it’s resources.” The resources buried beneath the surface that Indians chased the buffalo across, hold the value and possibility for real progress, and movement into a future–not worship of the past. The development of these resources is the best hope of economic activity keeping pace with growing population.

    No apology needed or offered!

  10. Have you ever lived in a rural area? Have you ever experienced any kind of relationship with the land? Ever? The value of land is not limited to what you can rip out of it for financial benefit. Don’t you know there is a reason Jesus went out to the desert to think and feel and recharge? Don’t you know that some of the greatest thinkers of humanity have used the solitude of quiet places to bring about some of the greatest gifts for the human race?

    I grew up on a farm. We tilled fields, raised livestock, drilled water wells. I know a great deal more about land than you ever will. Using the resources of the land is a good thing. Exploiting it, irregardless of the damage left behind, is a bad thing.

    The Indian people are not saying the land should never be used. They’re saying to DPA, don’t bulldoze through our cemetery. Don’t smash our sacred church. That’s what the tribes are saying. That particular area contains ancient graves and specific sacred artifacts. As soon as DPA learned that in court, they took their bulldozers out and destroyed that particular area.

    Read my first comment explaining what happened. I’m talking about a specific place and specific actions. You’re generalizing to American Indians everywhere, babbling about history from a couple centuries ago, glad they killed one another, and generally speaking about things that have nothing to do with this time and this place.

    So you don’t approve of how they live. So what? You sound like trump, thinking that everyone of a particular group is the same, living in abject poverty – “What have you got to lose?” That’s as stupid a comment as it was when trump said it. You’ve no idea of the many Indian professionals, artists, white collar workers, skilled blue collar. You really should drop this because you are so clueless it’s shocking. And you still need to apologize, rather than digging yourself in deeper. How very trumpian of you. You can do better.

  11. There’s nothing “trumpian” about anything I’ve said here.You’ve been out in the desert heat a little too long. I’m merely stating facts that you can’t counder. That comment about not worshipping Indians musta got to ya! It’s sad that they went about killing each other, but they were people who occupied their own space and time on this earth and they were as prone to killing as the Europeans who came along and replaced them. Not everyone was a warrior; some of them saw the writing on the wall and became white collar professionals, artisans, blue collar technicians, etc. because they figured the warrior class was headed for extinction.

    Now to your basic premise: Yes, I grew up on the land. Both my parents died on the land. The land was sold for real estate development–y’know, Whitewater type, to appease your Clintonian sensabilities. People made money on the deal, including my family. This happens all the time, in fast-growing desirable areas. It’s called the creative distruction of capitalsim. The march of time and the most profitable use of capital is unstoppable. People like you are dependent on those funds withheld from your salary and invested on your behalf by your pension fund. If those funds don’t grow you don’t get to retire. We’re all connected, see?

    You’re giving “clueless” a really bad name!

  12. You’ve set up so many false claims about things I have not said, made so many assumptions about things you’ve decided I’ve think. But you Have Not Responded to the heart of my comments. Instead, you continue to attack a specific ethic group while being largely ignorant of them. You make arguments about their history. So? This is not about who had a violent history. Every human demographic has that. So? It’s not at all germane to this pipeline issue.

    That’s the trumpian thing: You’re going off on all those irrelevant comments about who’s violent, then saying not all Indians were warriors. So? Then my political leanings, then the Clintons, then capitalism. Can you really not see how trumpian that is?

    Here is the issue: DPA tore up specific graves of American Indians after they learned the graves were there. DPA destroyed specific religious sites after they learned the sites were there, but before the judge could issue a temporary injunction. American Indian protestors stopped them.

    Read my first comment. It’s all there in detail, plus a link to a video. Then try not to be trumpian. Instead, respond to the real issue.

  13. Have you noticed that when someone runs out of reasonable argumentation they resort to name calling?!

  14. I served my country honorably during the Viet Nam War, and the government paid for the last 2 years of my education. My income taxes have repaid several times over. Thank you for asking.

  15. My tax dollars keep feeding them and buying their new pickup trucks, on into perpetuity. Isn’t that enough?!

  16. Give it a rest Jerry. You’re making a complete fool of yourself. Go out and breather some fresh air!

  17. Spiritual vision and social change activism has propelled me for two decades to help where I can Native American tribes without successful casinos establish economic engines that can be used to acquire or protect NA ancestral lands. I was working with the Oglala just recently but I think they and all the Lakota nations got distracted by the Standing Rock protest so our project is just sitting someplace in a tribal office drawer. It’s frustrating trying to organize economic help for tribes but some things are worth the effort.

  18. Don’t complain to the Indians. Complain to Presidents Lincoln, Grant, etc, and the Congresses of that time. They’re the ones who forced the land grabs on the Indians and made the terms into perpetuity. They figured they could weasel out of those agreements. Law can be an awfully inconvenient thing to those who would renege.

    BTW, have you ever been on an American Indian reservation? If you ever see a new pickup, it will be rare enough to make the news. The Indians with nice, new stuff made their money from good old fashioned American enterprise – casinos mostly. The Shakopee Mdwekanton tribe in Minnesota is one of the wealthiest. They donate millions of dollars, including to white dominant issues, causes and foundations.

  19. Good work on your part Steve.

    You were on the Pine Ridge? It’s beautifully stark country there. Aren’t the Badlands wonderful? Red Shirt Table is among the best. Is Pinky Plume still running the store in Manderson? She is an incredible force for good and I have great admiration for her. She’s the Maya Angelou of the res. Too bad Zona Fills the Pipe has died. She was incredible too. If you can learn at the feet of the wise old women you’ll be blessed.

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