Protecting Sacred Land

For over a year, national media sources have covered the controversial Dakota Pipeline project, representing perspectives ranging from concerned environmental activists to corporate capitalists. Despite this buzz, media sources have failed to give sufficient attention to the Sioux Tribe’s perspective on the Pipeline, which, if acknowledged, poses a significant challenge to the pipeline. The Sioux’s perspective can be understood through the concept of lived religion which explains that the sacred is intertwined with everyday life (Orsi, 2003). If this concept were applied to the Sioux, people would understand and appreciate that the land the pipeline crosses is sacred and intertwined with the Sioux’s everyday life. As such, building on that land threatens the Sioux’s way of life.

Why does the Sioux regard this land as sacred?

Monuments on this land hold religious and historical value to the Sioux. For example, a stone statue that stands in the area that the pipeline is set to destroy represents an area visited by members of the tribe during spiritual prayer (Bailey, 2016). Canon Ball River Drainage holds sacred status as well. As Peter Nabokov, a UCLA professor of American Indian Students, has  noted, “warring bands of enemies never created conflict with each other as a spiritual presence was there (Bailey, 2016).” The land, itself, is also viewed as intrinsically sacred. Stephen Pevar, an attorney with the ACLU, has explained that land is “critical…to Native spirituality” and that Native Americans cultivate a sacred bond with the land.

The sacred value that Sioux subscribe to the land is not a distant and obscure concept. In addition to valuing the land for being sacred, the Sioux value the land for its everyday uses. The Sioux use the land for hunting and fishing and as a burial ground and water supply (Healy, 2016). This use and value of the land reflects the concept of lived religion which suggests religion and the sacred are part of, “the way human do other necessary and important things (Orsi, 2003).” Lived religion reveals that this land simultaneously has sacred qualities and is crucial to the Sioux’s everyday life.

The Sioux’s claim to the land

The Sioux place importance on this land because they believe that the land belongs to the tribe. In 1868, the Fort Laramie Treaty established the Great Sioux Reservation. In 1877, Congress removed major areas of land from the reservation without the required consent of three fourths of the tribe. By removing this land, Congress separated Standing Rock Reservation from the Great Sioux Reservation. The proposed pipeline would cross this same area of land that Congress removed from the reservation.

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Map of the land that the Dakota Pipeline is proposed to cross.

The Proposed Dakota Pipeline

Once it’s completed, the Dakota Pipeline will cross 1,172 miles, cost 3.7 billion dollars to build, and transport 570,000 barrels of crude oil each day (Monet, 2016). Energy Transfer Partners LLC owns the pipeline, and on March 11, 2016, the Iowa Utilities board unanimously approved the plans to build it (Miller, 2016). Pipeline supporters — who include corporate capitalists— see the pipeline as profitable. They argue that the pipeline will aid in transportation of crude oil, create thousands of construction jobs, and boost the American steel industry (Bailey, 2016).

Pipeline opponents – who include vocal and well-publicized environmental activists — counter these claims with arguments that the pipeline will contaminate drinking water, promote fossil fuels, and infringe on Native American sacred land (Bailey, 2016). Environmental activists have gathered in camps surrounding the pipeline since April 1, 2016 (Bailey, 2016). Protestors, chant, “Mni Wiconi”– Water is Life – claiming that the pipeline has detrimental consequences to the clean water in the area (Monet, 2016).

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Environmental activists and Sioux protesting to “protect” water.

The Sioux’s perspective of the pipeline, seen through the context of lived religion, is woefully under-appreciated. The arguments of the corporate capitalists and environmental activists have overshadowed the Sioux perspective. The pipeline would cause harm to the Sioux – by disturbing land that is sacred and critical to their everyday life.  No one would think about building a pipeline through the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. or St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. This pipeline, through lived religion, is just as sacred and should be just as untouchable.