Several hundred people took part in a prayer walk on Sept. 14, 2016, from the Oceti Sakowin camp near Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota to the site up the road where Dakota Access began digging over Labor Day weekend for construction on a nearly 1,200-mile pipeline project. Construction temporarily has been halted. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

Why understanding Native American religion is key to resolving Dakota Access Pipeline crisis

In recent weeks, protests against the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline across North Dakota have escalated. Native American elders, families and children have set up tipis and tents on a campsite near the pipeline’s path in the hope of stopping the pipeline’s construction.

Dave Archambault Jr., the leader of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe that is leading the efforts to stop the pipeline, summed up what is at the heart of the issue. In a brief two-minute statement before the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, he said,

“Oil companies are causing deliberate destruction of our sacred places.”

As a Native American scholar of environmental history and religious studies, I am often asked what Native American leaders mean when they say that certain landscapes are “sacred places” or “sacred sites.”

What makes a mountain, hill or prairie a “sacred” place?

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Meaning of sacred spaces

I learned from my grandparents about the sacred areas within Blackfeet tribal territory in Montana and Alberta, which is not far from Lakota tribal territory in the Dakotas.

My grandparents said sacred areas are places set aside from human presence. They identified two overarching types of sacred place: those set aside for the divine, such as a dwelling place, and those set aside for human remembrance, such as a burial or battle site.

RELATED: The ‘Splainer: The ‘spiritual battle’ over the Dakota Access pipeline

In my forthcoming book “Invisible Reality,” I contemplate those stories that my grandparents shared about Blackfeet religious concepts and the interconnectedness of the supernatural and natural realms.

My grandparents’ stories revealed that the Blackfeet believe in a universe where supernatural beings exist within the same time and space as humans and our natural world. The deities could simultaneously exist in both as visible and invisible reality. That is, they could live unseen, but known, within a physical place visible to humans.

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One such place for the Blackfeet is Nínaiistáko or Chief Mountain in Glacier National Park. This mountain is the home of Ksiistsikomm or Thunder, a primordial deity. My grandparents spoke of how this mountain is a liminal space, a place between two realms.

Blackfeet tribal citizens can go near this sacred place to perceive the divine, but they cannot go onto the mountain because it is the home of a deity. Elders of the Blackfeet tribe believe that human activity, or changing the physical landscape in these places, disrupts the lives of deities. They view this as sacrilegious and a desecration.

A living text

Sacred places, however, are not always set aside from humanity’s use. Some sacred places are meant for constant human interaction.

Anthropologist Keith Basso argued in his seminal work “Wisdom Sits in Places” that one purpose of sacred places was to perfect the human mind. The Western Apache elders with whom Basso worked told him that when someone repeated the names and stories of their sacred places, they were understood as “repeating the speech of our ancestors.”

For these Apache elders, places were not just names and stories – their landscape itself was a living sacred text. As these elders traveled from place to place speaking the names and stories of their sacred text, they told Basso that their minds became more “resilient,” more “smooth” and able to withstand adversity.

The sacredness of the pipeline site

At different national and international venues, Lakota leader Dave Archambault Jr. has stated that the Lakota view the area near the potential construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline as both a “sacred place” and a “burial site,” or as both a place set aside from human presence and a place of human reverence.

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Lakota scholar Vine Deloria Jr. described the “sacred stones” in North Dakota in his book “The World We Used to Live In” as having the ability of “forewarning of events to come.”

Deloria described how Lakota religious leaders went to these stones in the early morning to read their messages. Deloria shared the experiences of an Episcopal minister from 1919.

“A rock of this kind was formerly on Medicine Hill near Cannon Ball Sub-station…. Old Indians came to me… and said that the lightning would strike someone in camp that day, for a picture (wowapi) on this holy rock indicated such an event…. And the lightning did strike a tent in camp and nearly killed a woman…. I have known several similar things, equally foretelling events to come, I can not account for it.”

Deloria explained that it was “birds, directed by the spirit of the place, [that] do the actual sketching of the pictures.” The Lakota named this area Ínyanwakagapi for the large stones that served as oracles for their people. The Americans renamed it Cannonball.

Not just Dakota

Historians, anthropologists and religious thinkers continue to learn and write about Native American religious ideas of place. In so doing, they seek to analyze complex religious concepts of transformation and transcendence that these places evoke.

However, despite their contributions to the academic interpretation of religion, these understandings do not often translate into protection of Native American places for their religious significance. As legal scholar Stephen Pevar tells us,

“there is no federal statue that expressly protects Indian sacred sites…. in fact, the federal government knowingly desecrates sites.”

In the past year we have seen protests over the potential desecration of sacred places at Mauna Kea in Hawaii (over the construction of another telescope on a sacred volcano), Oak Flats in Arizona (over a potential copper mine on sacred land) and now at Standing Rock in North Dakota.

Lack of understanding of sacredness

William Graham, a former dean of the Harvard Divinity School, wrote that,

“Religion… will long continue to be a critical factor in individual, social, and political life around the world, and we need to understand it.”

The intimate connection between landscape and religion is at the center of Native American societies. It is the reason that thousands of Native Americans from across the United States and Indigenous peoples from around the world have traveled to the windswept prairies of North Dakota.

But, despite our 200-plus years of contact, the United States has yet to begin to understand the uniqueness of Native American religions and ties to the land. And until this happens, there will continue to be conflicts over religious ideas of land and landscape, and what makes a place sacred.

(Rosalyn R. LaPier is Visiting Assistant Professor of Women's Studies, Environmental Studies and Native American Religion, Harvard University. She wrote this article for The Conversation, where it was first published)


  1. I don’t know what the cost in dollars will be, but before this situation gets any uglier than it is now, accommodating the concerns and wishes of the Lakota will probably be cheaper in the long run than the costs associated with potential violence, legal delay, etc. The re-routing costs will probably prove minimal against the future profits the oil companies will attain.

  2. Well, we certainly have been gotten again! The Indians aren’t satisfied to have full autonomy over the reservation land upon which most to them dwell, while receiving fat checks from that alien nation surrounding them called the United States of America. They don’t even have to exchange their greenback for beads to buy and sell on their sacred land! Now they want to claim more land as “sacred sites” in the name of their dirt-worshipping religion! And they’ll get away with it.

    We should counter that this is OUR sacred ground, since It transports oil, which in the past century has saved thousands of lives through medicines and fertilizers, which has also benefitted Indians. There was a 100+ year contest between these so-called natives and the settlers who came. The less-advanced, lesser-evolved side lost, so get over it and enjoy those fat checks that American oil helps to back, that affords you the fantasy of living in the past!

  3. So, like the Gaelic concept of Thin Places.

  4. So, like, did you also support ISIS blowing up Jonah’s tomb to make more real estate space??

  5. Speaking of less-advanced and lesser-evolved, you just won the prize Sabelotodo2! Congratulations!

  6. are you Sabelotodo2’s neighbor? How do you know he is ‘less advanced and lesser evolved’?
    btw……..I neither support or oppose his comment. I’m just wondering how you know so much about him.

  7. A little education for Sabletodo2 and other ignorant types:

    Treaties are legal documents with force in courts. Throughout American history the U.S. government has foisted a variety of treaties on the Native people. The U.S. government has also broken those legal, contractual documents at will, usually with no repercussions. The government frequently lied abut the contents of the treaties and willfully failed to fulfill their part of the bargain.

    Those treaties included government responsibility for food, clothing, housing, health and education. The terms of the contracts were usually in effect “as long as the grass shall grow and the rivers flow.” The U.S. negotiators held all the cards and felt they had sufficiently ripped off the Native people so that Congress would approve and the President sign the treaties. So it was.

    Initially the government provided a few rations and sent the children to horribly abusive “Christian” boarding schools. Eventually the method of fulfilling the contracts changed to money. Due to the duration of the government written treaty, money that is legally obligated continues to be paid. Maybe the U.S. government’s sleazy negotiators weren’t quite as slick as they thought and the Native people were smarter.

    White people have nothing to complain about regarding treaties with American Indians. The courts continue to force the deal makers to uphold the bargain they made.

    So Sable, you can stop making such stupid accusations about the American Indian people because you know better now. If your angry about the terms of the treaties, take it up with the Interior Department, Bureau of Indian Affairs.

  8. This is much more than the pipeline. Public hearings were held for 13 months with little or no input from Native Americans. In 1982 a gas line was run along parts of the same proposed route without any opposition from Native Americans. Let’s modify the route to accommodate their concerns.

    But now it’s about climate change, the environment, white privelege, the oil companies and Native American rights and grievances. I think it follows BLM just as the American Indian Movement (AIM) followed the 1960s civil rights movement. Likely this might turn into another Wounded Knee.

    We screwed the Native American big time. We made treaties that we broke and stole lands. We can’t turn the clock back. The Lakota lost their holy site, the Black Hills. What isn’t government land has been privately held for over 130 years. We destroyed their culture, identity and religion. What can be done now?

  9. I tend to agree with you on many things, but not so much here, the question of historical betrayals of the Native Peoples is without question, especially with respect to treaty making. The reservations are hardly paradise, and US policy using the same bankrupt welfare methodologies that have harmed countless other citizens by robbing them of initiative and encouraging dependency come into play here. I hold no brief with nativist religious practices which are frankly pagan in nature, but the violation of sites that are viewed as sacred by Native Americans will not draw them into any closer concord with the Gospel. Re-routing the pipeline is a small price to pay to assuage the feelings of this distinct people and culture.

  10. He doesn’t know diddly about me! He just has lots of time on his hands in which to make a brilliant show of his ignorance, which is really transparent to most readers.

  11. Speaking of ignorance, allow me to update you by a few decades! In giving full sovereignty over Indian lands to the Indians, we’ve more than makes up for whatever treaties we’ve broken in the past. Accompanying that came the right to sell us their coal and oil, “for as long as grass grows, the river flows, and your out-of-date understanding of this complex issue, shows,”

    These “native Americans” also rake in plenty of money from their “sovereign reservations” which in some cases are no more that just a building they’ve bought that’s nearby to a large city. The building gets turned into a “reservation” and they plant a prosperous casino there, regardless of what the laws are governing that civil jurisdiction. The Indians pay for power and lights and presumably police protection while getting rich off the tax-free income from the casinos. I don’t see any US political entity having the courage to interfere with this sweetheart, perpetual gift.

    Now you’re all caught up! I’m happy to oblige.

  12. That’s funny. In exchange for “giving them full sovereignty over their lands”? Seriously, that’s funny, though you may not see the irony in your statement.

    Another funny: “sweetheart, perpetual gift.” And whose idea was this? I already explained that. The casinos? Again, your anger at the Indian people is misplaced. Your anger at these indigenous people for being better business people than more than a century of US Congresses is funny.

    Do you get mad at Walmart, Monsanto, ExxonMobil others who have taken advantage of similar laws? Their “sweetheart deals” far surpass anything the American Indian people ever took advantage of.

    You should stop now Sable. ?

  13. I get the feeling that you’ll always have to have the last word! I’ve dealth with lots of those in my lifetime. I bet you’re divorced!

    Nothing I’ve said here is untrue, and the people here with average intelligence who choose to live in the presen, can easily follow my simple, affirmative narrative: We have done the Indian people grave wrongs in the past. 2.); we’ve looked for a way to atone for that by allowing them to have their own country within the boundaries of ours while still receiving US Government checks, and this arrangement is likely to endure in perpetuitity because it does such a good job of assuaging white guilt. The native peoples in Canada and Mexico would love to have such a sweetheart deal! Take the Mayans: they may populate the Yucatan of Mexico and most of Guatemala (where I’ve done some economic mission work, BTW. I don’t HATE any of these people,) But they don’t own or govern themselves in any of that land.

    I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of you! You’ll be back showering us with your superior pseudo-intellectual views and trademark hate-America attitude. Why do you even live here, anyway? You’re a perfect fit for a place like Cuba, where they’re openly Marxist and blame the US for everything! I don’t thnk there’s any record of any Indians ever migrating to Cuba . . .

  14. Who is this “We” you continue to refer to? “I” had no part in any of it. So….lose the “we”. The Federal Government is an equal opportunity “screwer” of all people. If you still believe “we” have control of ‘who’ the Federal Government is…………………………….well that is just sad.
    The US has been taken over from within. “We the People” lost control probably shortly following 1776. There is a fifth column that has taken over this Country. Henry Ford was on to it.

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