Sacred sites violated

Tepees and tents line the North Dakota plains on Sept. 13, 2016, at the Oceti Sakowin camp near the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. An estimated 7,000 people gathered there in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline project, reportedly the largest gathering of Native Americans in more than a century. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

Tepees and tents line the North Dakota plains on Sept. 13, 2016, at the Oceti Sakowin camp near the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. An estimated 7,000 people gathered there in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline project, reportedly the largest gathering of Native Americans in more than a century. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller


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What if the Sioux Nation decided to build a pipeline through Arlington Cemetery? This question from Faith Spotted Eagle — who lacks a Ph.D. in comparative religion and who would never be employed to teach the phenomenology of burial ritual — got at the heart of at least one of the three main issues in the prolonged debate over the Dakota Access Pipeline project. Opposition to wealthy oil companies and their potential profits if and after the pipeline is completed would have been sufficient to attract the thousands who came to support Sioux protestors at Standing Rock. Meanwhile, environmentalists, who care and worry about what such a pipeline under the plains and river might do, have raised appropriate questions. But “grandmother” — a technical title among the Sioux for women like Spotted Eagle — really got at the heart of what animates the protesters and their sympathizers.

Why the comparison to a sacred place like Arlington Cemetery? Or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, or key monuments at Gettysburg? What makes this Sioux site sacred, inviolable in the eyes of those for whom this place in North Dakota has drawn so much national attention? The environmental concerns alone would have been ominous enough to agitate the Native Americans on the scene. But the Cannonball River, which flows nearby, and the complex of tributaries connected to the Missouri River, are not merely sources of water. No, Spotted Eagle has said, water is “the best medicine,” the sustainer of life from a mother’s womb until its issue, years later, breathes no longer. Water is necessary for the sweat lodge, so important in Sioux worship, and it serves as a purifier and calmer in sacred ceremonies. And much more.

Spotted Eagle spoke to interviewers about women gathered on the river’s bank to sing stories: “One hundred years from now, somebody’s going to go down along the Cannonball River and they’re going to hear those stories.” What motivates her and her fellow worshippers, above all, is concern that the pipeline will profane the burial sites over and around and through which it will flow. All of the governmental action is thus, in the eyes of the Native Americans, a profanation.

Sightings spends so many lines on this one out of many contested revered sites in the “flyover country” of the Great Plains — my homeland — in the interest of giving attention to the rites of some of the peoples who have been plundered, exploited, silenced and murdered for more than 500 years by us newcomers, who now make the rules, establish the rituals and bring the edicts and the guns to enforce them. Weekly, if not daily, we hear and read of the ins and outs, the ups and downs, of this most recent conflict. We observe how readily disdained the protesters are. But we are moved by the fact that leaders and sympathizers of many religious bodies, including Jews and Muslims, Catholics at the highest level, mainline Protestants and some Evangelicals, have publicly sided with the Sioux.

Many of them know that there are other sides (and undersides) to conflicts like this one. They know how complex are the valid economic issues on the opposing sides of such ventures. Even some close-to-the-scene Native Americans are concerned about the potential economic loss, should the Native Americans win. (They won’t.) Sympathetic religious leaders are urging that the spiritual concerns and the human rights of the protesters be respected in the face of often brutal economic and political forces and realities. And the Standing Rock Sioux, by their witness, are teaching the nation that “the sacred” takes many forms and deserves to be handled with care and with awe, even in our profane days and ways.

Sightings is a publication of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Subscribe to receive Sightings in your inbox twice a week. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Comments

  1. What cemetery? I understood there was no formal cemetery but instead scattered sites on what is no longer Lakota land. Apparently there were experts looking out for such unidentified or informal sites. Much of the route frequently parallels other pipelines and power lines to take advantage of issues already addressed. I read an article stating that the input site for the Standing Rock water supply was scheduled to be moved away from its current location to a safer place. It’s difficult to find unbiased information. The Leftist sites talk about corporate greed which is nonsense. The oil from the Bakken fields has to be transported to refineries and a pipeline is the most efficient way. The Sioux and environmentalists have distorted things to advance their agendas and I don’t trust energy companies much. It’s been difficult getting to the truth.

  2. If there was pre-existing underground and overhead infrastructure already carrying other utilities through those places then there might be an equivalency.

  3. One contractor has estimated that, measured in terms of 30-foot dumpsters, there are at least 250, (maybe 300) such dumpster loads of trash and garbage, that were left on a flood plain by the Standing Rock “Water Protectors.”

    And all their trash and garbage has nowhere to go, except to slide into the sacred waters.

    “Thousands of activists traveled to Standing Rock to protest about an oil pipeline they claimed would contaminate the Missouri River, then left a garbage wasteland behind, which, if not cleaned up in time, will contaminate Cannonball River and Lake Oahe.” — Frank Camp, The Daily Wire

    This is the same Cannonball River (plus tributaries that feed the Missouri River) that Marty mentioned in his article. “Water is the best medicine; water is needed for the sweat lodge,” Spotted Eagle said.

    Hmm. I can accept that, sort of. But apparently the water ain’t quite as sacred as was advertised.

  4. “What motivates her and her fellow worshippers, above all, is concern that the pipeline will profane the burial sites over and around and through which it will flow.”
    None of the burial sites of which she speaks are outside the boundaries of Sioux land. The Sioux don’t own the river either. There are other sources of water for their sweat lodges. Claiming “sacred lands” and “burial sites” is a phony position designed to sway the sympathies of those who are predisposed to supporting everything Indian out of guilt for the way Indians they were treated when the white man came here.
    Economic losses? Some of these Indians will have jobs because of the pipeline (admittedly, an uncertain number for an uncertain duration). The rest will fill up the gas tanks of their pickups with cheap gas and enjoy their mobility to as many sacred sites and burial grounds they wish, along with liquor stores off the reservation. What are they griping about?

  5. Jim, I know exactly where that is because it’s near where I grew up and spent most of my life. In the American West (west side of the Dakotas and Nebraska, all of Montana and Wyoming) scattered graves, both American Indian and white, are not unusual. Whites were traveling farther west and when someone died, they buried them in that place. Even today there are sites where one grave lies and the local rancher surrounded it with a fence. I guess you could call it a 4×8 foot cemetery.

    Calvary soldiers were buried similarly so there are more random burial sites or “cemeteries” of a few graves from 100+ years ago. Again, local folks are good at marking those sites, especially military sites, and reporting them to the VA. Sometimes they get official VA markers like you see in VA cemeteries. Most times they don’t.

    Indian burials are similar in regard to scattered sites. However, they didn’t use markers like white people so graves are more difficult to find. Indians know where most are based on historical tribal lore and because they know what to look for. Most ranchers who are aware of an Indian burial site treat it the same respectful way as any other.

    White people surveyed the pipeline route for sacred sites. They don’t have the intimate knowledge of the land that the people who live there have. When the Indians sent their own experts to search for sacred sites, they found some. They noted the location and requested a court order to halt construction until those sites could be verified. That was late on a Friday so the judge wasn’t going to get to it till Monday.

    That Saturday and Sunday the pipeline company went to work with bulldozers, front end loaders, etc, and tore up the section of land the Indians had examined. That was the first time they’d worked on a weekend, and they knew about the legal request the Indians had made. Not a coincidence.

    That’s a part of what’s been going on there Jim. And I agree, it’s hard to get straight information. I’m lucky to have friends there, some for the pipeline, others not. They help me get a clearer picture.

  6. The pipeline does parallel existing lines over part of its route. One is a natural gas line built in the 1980s and the other is a power transmission line. This is done because right-of-way and environmental issues have already been handled. This pipeline has become a focal point for many movements.

  7. The one gripe they may have is the tendency to route or locate unpopular or hazardous projects through or near groups with little or no power to resist.

  8. Looks to me like those Indians are putting up a darn good resistance! They’ve been at it what–almost a year now!

  9. When you explore how Martin Marty interprets Scripture, one will find he has first hand knowledge of violating that which is sacred.

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