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Sioux anti-pipeline action sustained by Native American spirituality

Protesters participate in a prayer circle on Turtle Island on Thanksgiving day during a protest against plans to pass the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, U.S. November 24, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Stephanie Keith *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-DAKOTA-SPIRITUALITY, transmitted on Nov. 23, 2016.

STANDING ROCK SIOUX RESERVATION, N.D. (RNS) In the Sioux creation narrative, water was one of the first beings the Creator made, and it became a major part of the people’s religious ceremonies.


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


Dana Yellow Fat, pictured on Sept. 14, 2016, says all the decisions he makes as a Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Councilman must be made with the next seven generations in mind. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

Dana Yellow Fat, pictured on Sept. 14, 2016, says all the decisions he makes as a Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Councilman must be made with the next seven generations in mind. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

Now the Lakota prayer over water has become a rallying cry in the mass action to prevent the construction of a crude oil pipeline near this reservation.

“‘Mni wiconi’ – we see that as a cry to rally people, and it’s not just here anymore, it’s worldwide. You see the hashtag, #MniWiconi. That means ‘water is life,’” Standing Rock Sioux tribal councilman Dana Yellow Fat said.

For the better part of a year, the hills along the Cannonball River near Cannon Ball, N.D., have been transformed into a small city, the epicenter of what is in essence a spiritual movement to protect that water from the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The largest encampment is called Oceti Sakowin, which means “Seven Council Fires,” the name of the Great Sioux Nation.

Phyllis Young, camp coordinator, speaks to those gathered at the Oceti Sakowin camp near Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota after a prayer walk on Sept. 14, 2016, 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

Phyllis Young, camp coordinator, speaks to those gathered at the Oceti Sakowin camp near Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota after a prayer walk on Sept. 14, 2016, 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

As many as 8,000 people have camped there under the flags of 280 Native American nations. They include representatives of all seven bands of the Sioux Nation, reportedly gathered for the first time since defeating Lt. Col. George A. Custer 140 years ago at Little Bighorn.

As the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe waits for a final court decision, expected in January, on its challenge to the Dakota Access pipeline project — which it fears will endanger the tribe’s water supply and sacred grounds — many at the camps say they feel called to be there.

Camp coordinator Phyllis Young said the movement has been sustained to a large extent by the tribe’s spiritual beliefs, which had been banned for more than a half-century until the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

“Now we’re adults in our spirituality,” Young said. “We took back, and we evolved, so now we exercise our freedom of religion in our way, which is peaceful in prayer.”

Everything with prayer

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

Several hundred people take 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

The $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline would run nearly 1,200 miles from North Dakota to Illinois.

Statistically, pipelines are the safest way to transport oil, according to Dakota Access. But the pipeline also would snake through Sioux sacred sites and run beneath the Missouri River upstream from the reservation and its water supply.

All but the river crossing now is complete in North Dakota, according to Dakota Access.

But the project has been in limbo since President Obama’s administration put a temporary hold on it in September, and, earlier this month, Obama told Now This News, “Right now, the Army Corps is examining whether there are ways to reroute this pipeline.”

The movement started April 1 with a nearly 30-mile prayer ride on horseback from Sitting Bull’s burial site in Fort Yates, N.D., to the Sacred Stone Camp site.

That prayer has continued in the camps since then: communal prayers in the morning and evening and at mealtimes; prayers in vigils and in songs; prayers while sage, cedar and tobacco are burned. And the Standing Rock Sioux have invited all people to join.

“As long as there’s prayer, we don’t judge. … Our belief is there’s one Creator, and he taught all the nations of this world a way to pray in their own way,” Yellow Fat said.

‘It doesn’t matter how you pray’

Morgan MacIver is pictured Sept. 15, 2016, at the Oceti Sakowin Camp near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. MacIver, who is not Native American, came to the camp with a group of women from Vermont after hearing about the gathering on Facebook. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

Morgan MacIver is pictured Sept. 15, 2016, at the Oceti Sakowin Camp near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. MacIver, who is not Native American, came to the camp with a group of women from Vermont after hearing about the gathering on Facebook. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

On a rainy Thursday morning in mid-September, Morgan MacIver stood circled in prayer with a half-dozen other women around a fire in the Oceti Sakowin Camp, mud splashed up to her knees and pressed into a dot on her forehead.

MacIver, who is not Native American, had come three weeks earlier after hearing about the gathering on Facebook. And while she said she doesn’t find her spirituality “from any other place than within myself,” she said she could feel the power of prayer in the camp.

“It doesn’t matter how you pray or who you pray to, all of that love in our hearts is the same, and the power of prayer is really the most powerful thing,” she said.

On Nov. 3, more than 500 clergy joined in those prayers, singing hymns while marching to a bridge that has been the site of clashes between demonstrators — who prefer to be called “water protectors” — and police, according to reports.

For the Rev. David Wilson — the Choctaw superintendent of the United Methodist Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, who had visited the camps early on – Christian Scripture is filled not just with commands to “act justly,” but also with water imagery: Moses striking a rock to bring forth water for his people; Jesus’ words about “rivers of living water”; the waters of baptism.

“I think about those images,” Wilson said. “We can’t live without water, and for Christian people, the image of water in relation to Jesus is very important. It’s in our hymnody, Scriptures, liturgy – everything we do.”

A delegation from the American Humanists Association also visited the camp this month.

Prayer walk

A teenager on horseback checks Facebook on his phone on Sept. 13, 2016, just outside the Sacred Stone Camp on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

A teenager on horseback checks Facebook on his phone on Sept. 13, 2016, just outside the Sacred Stone Camp on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

In the days before construction came to a stop in early September, Dakota Access crews had removed topsoil across two miles of land, which several campers likened to desecrating and destroying a church.

For four days, until medicine men had held a ceremony and declared it finished, hundreds of demonstrators had marched in a prayer walk from Oceti Sakowin to the site of the digging. They sang and carried the flags of the nations they represented, stopping to knot prayer ties to fences along the site and leave tobacco offerings.

Tensions have escalated in the past few weeks, most notably Sunday (Nov. 20) when the Morton County Sheriff’s Department turned fire hoses, tear gas and rubber bullets on a group of about 400 demonstrators reportedly trying to remove a police blockade cutting off the camp from a nearby highway in freezing temperatures.

And a final decision on the Dakota Access pipeline isn’t likely to come until after a hearing in early 2017. But tribal councilman Yellow Fat said the Standing Rock Sioux’s action will end in the same way it began.

“We began this with prayer, and we look at this whole movement as a ceremony. It began with prayers before we left, and in the end, it will close with prayers,” he said.

“We’re fighting the pipeline with prayer.”

An estimated 7,000 people are gathered in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline project at the Oceti Sakowin camp near the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, pictured on Sept. 14, 2016. It's reportedly the largest gathering of Native Americans in more than a century. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

An estimated 7,000 people are gathered in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline project at the Oceti Sakowin camp near the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, pictured on Sept. 14, 2016. It’s reportedly the largest gathering of Native Americans in more than a century. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

12 Comments

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  • The Federal Government hasn’t represented her people since almost the beginning. This story should awake every American to the evil of this government. Throw it all out and start over. When it takes a billion dollars to run for President……………….you know something is terribly wrong.

  • Morgan McIver is wrong. It DOES matter who you pray to, and it does matter how you pray. (See the Lord’s Prayer for a quickie example.) “Praying” is always better than “Not-Praying”, so never be afraid to call out in prayer no matter what, especially if you’re in a tight spot or feeling alone.

    However, the question of the “Who” and the “How”, really doesn’t get blown off so easily. In fact, they never get blown off at all, so it’s better to go line up with the Bible right now. Don’t be trying to lazy-chat with Buddha and Krishna, when your fanny really needs JESUS on Speed-Dial !!

    ***

    Meanwhile, things are about to change. The Oceti Sakowin Camp (but not the others) is going to get shut down, by order of the Army Corps of Engineers. Take a look:

    http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/dakota-pipeline-protests/army-corps-engineers-orders-dakota-pipeline-protesters-abandon-camp-n688476

  • We need clean drinking water and we also need oil. If they continue to deliver the oil from the Bakken fields via tanker or rail, there is also danger from accidents. We have thousands of miles of underground oil, gasoline, and gas lines, some already running the Missouri River. Leaks happen. From what I’ve read they didn’t act earlier to move the route farther away from the reservation. Maybe it’s not too late to get the crossing point moved but it will go under the Missouri.

  • How do you know it matters to whom you pray and how? I mean how many gods are there hearing prayers? Can you site any studies or references?

  • “How do you know it matters to whom you pray and how?”
    Actually it’s pretty self-evident on that one, since the only way it would NOT matter is if theism itself has been rationally ruled out, which every single atheist from Hume on down, have utterly FAILED to execute despite their most desperate efforts.

    (Again, I already provided an example of the Lord’s Prayer, in which Jesus explains both the “Who” and the “How” issues, just read Matt. 6:5-13.) The Scriptures, even Jesus’s own words, are clear that both the Who and How is important.

    Meanwhile, in April of 2015, “Cedar Rapids Cabot witch Deborah Maynard, prayed from the speaker’s podium (at the Iowa Legislature) to ‘god, goddess, universe, that which is greater than ourselves’.” (Source: The GlobeGazette, Apr. 4.)

    Just from that tiny snip, you can figure out that if the God of the Bible exists at all (which atheists have totally failed to rationally rule out), then Maynard’s prayer ain’t connecting with God. Not with all that mess. God still loves her and cares for her, for sure, but biblically He don’t play with her witchcraft, nor tolerate prayer to idol “goddesses”, nor “the universe”, etc. This lady is in trouble. It DOES matter Who you talkin’ to.

  • “This lady is in trouble. It DOES matter Who you talkin’ to.”
    But you’ve provided no proof, merely selections from an ancient manuscript. Isn’t it rather presumptuous of you to deem her to be in trouble when you have no proof of it. The fact that she prays differently from you is a right she has as a US citizen.

    “… so it’s better to go line up with the Bible right now.”
    Could you specify WHICH bible? I mean there are many, many Modern English translations, three of which are still in progress: Open English, Transparent English, and Conservative Bible Project.

  • These Indians are sore winners. They need to smoke the peace pipe and go home where it’s warm, and make love to their squaw. Perhaps their government check has come in the mail, so they can go spend it! Those planning and promoting the pipeline have relented. Everyone else with any brains has left the scene. These folks have a need to stay in the spotlight and pretend that they have a vital role to play here. They don’t. They’re trespassers.

    The Indians wrap the prospect of an oil leak around their “spirituality” but several other pipelines criss-cross this river and there have been no oil leaks. Conclusion: they need to stay in the spotlight, to keep from losing out to African Americans and Mideastern refugees in that big competition to be the conscience of white America!

  • The Indians tried this in court to stop the snowbowl ski resort. It costs them millions in attorneys fees, years of hearings and they lost because the religion off a few does not control the control the success of a whole city (Flagstaff, AZ). This project has gone though the proper challenges, the indians did not participate so they have no option now but to ‘pray’. Because we all now that prayer works everytime LOL.

  • Sable, if you don’t know what the “s” word you used to refer to an Indian woman means, I’ll tell you. It’s the same as the “c” word, used as a slur to refer to a part of a woman’s anatomy. Please never use that word again. It’s vile.

  • The Lakota religious practices are very holistic and wholistic. The reverential tone of their references to god’s creation ought to be emulated by every religion. It feels very peaceful and satisfying.

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