Prayer or protest: Spirituality in events unfolding at Standing Rock 'prayer camp'

I’ve been semi-following the Standing Rock protests in North Dakota this past month, but as far as I knew, it had little to do with religion.

Until now, as I just discovered a piece by a DC-based writer about “the growing indigenous spiritual movement that could save the planet.”

Well, I figured I had to read that. It’s from ThinkProgress, a 11-year-old “news site dedicated to providing our readers with rigorous reporting and analysis from a progressive perspective” (their words). It’s funded by the Center for American Progress, an advocacy group founded by John Podesta, chief of staff for former President Bill Clinton.

I don’t usually critique pieces produced by advocacy organizations on either side of the aisle, but, other than a commendable Sept. 16 RNS piece, I’ve seen very little on the spirituality aspect of these North Dakota protests. So let's look at this. ThinkProgress reports:

When Pua Case landed in North Dakota to join the ongoing Standing Rock protests in September, she, like thousands of other participants, had come to defend the land.
Masses of indigenous people and their allies descended on camps along Cannonball River this year to decry the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline, a series of 30-inch diameter underground pipes that, if built, would stretch 1,172 miles and carry half a million barrels of crude oil per day  --  right through lands Native groups call sacred.
“We are not here to be anything but peaceful, but we are here,” Case told ThinkProgress, describing the moment she linked arms with fellow demonstrators and stared down rows of police in Bismarck. “We will stand here in our tribal names in respect and honor.”
But while media attention has focused on the massive, sometimes heated demonstrations -- which include several alleged instances of brutality and dog attacks -- there has been less attention paid to how the protest is recharging the lager climate movement, not to mention the peculiar nature of the participants. Case, for instance, traveled quite a long way to the Peace Garden State: she is from the sunny shores of Hawaii, not rugged North Dakota, and she claims a Native Hawaiian identity, not a Native American one. And she wasn’t there just to protest; the sacredness of the land is especially important to her, so she was also there to pray.
“Standing Rock is a prayer camp,” she said. “It is where prayers are done.”

Then the piece does an abrupt turn, claiming that what’s going on in North Dakota is a harbinger of a spiritual change.

She’s part of something bigger that is, by all accounts, the theological opposite of the aggressively Christian “awakenings” that once dominated American life in the 18th and 19th centuries, when primarily white, firebrand ministers preached a gospel of “manifest destiny” -- the religious framework later used to justify the subjugation of Native Americans and their territories. The diverse constellation of Native theologies articulated at Standing Rock and other indigenous protest camps champions the reverse: they seek to protect land, water, and other natural resources from further human development, precisely because they are deemed sacred by indigenous people.

I’m not sure why “awakenings” deserves scare quotes because the events of the 1730s and early 1800s were major revivals.

The piece goes on to summarize several indigenous protest movements in the USA and Canada starting four years ago, then ties them all to a spiritual network. There is a lot of talk about prayer but it’s not clear Whom they are praying to. Is there one deity, a pantheon of gods, a Great Spirit or what?

The writer does say these are Earth-based cultures, all tied to a specific place, such as Hawaiians worshiping Mauna Kea.

I was intrigued by his assertion that protestors are creating new religious doctrine, as it were:

Religion has long been a part of Native American protest movements, as has its connection to the environmentalist struggle. But religious scholars say they’re also seeing something unusual this year: demonstrators are actively creating new religious expressions. Greg Johnson, a Hawaiian religion expert and an associate professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said these indigenous protests are increasingly led by young, creative organizers who are “generating” religion through their activism.
“The kids of today’s generation know a new set of chants, a new set of prayers because of those who came before them,” Johnson said. He noted that Native Hawaiian schoolchildren who are already singing songs that were written in the protest camps of Mauna Kea just a year before. “In this moment of crisis, the religious tradition is catalyzed, activated, but most of all articulated  -- this is when it happens.”

The piece does say the North Dakota protests got support from “non-Native faith traditions,” including some mainline Protestant groups and the Nation of Islam.  

Well now, Catholics have been working among Native Americans since the 17th century if not before. Just after this Los Angeles Times article was written about how 20 percent of the Navajos identify as Christian, I moved to New Mexico for a year and saw plenty of evidences of Christianity (ie the reservation fairly blossomed with revival tents during the summers) among them. As my colleague Bobby Ross has pointed out, Christian ministry among the Navajos (which is the nation’s largest tribe) hasn’t been smooth sailing, but it’s there and the same holds true with other tribes.

For instance, last year, while finishing up a stint teaching at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, I met with a Native Studies professor to ask about their faith practices. I assumed I’d be hearing about sweat lodges, peyote or something similar. I’ll not forget the absolutely withering look I got from her. Native Alaskans, she informed me, are members of churches and have been so for generations. A few months later, I attended a July 6, 2015, ceremony on the UAF campus at an Athabascan park. Although there were many Natives present, it was an Episcopal priest who gave the blessing, not a shaman.

Which all goes to say that to assume that spiritual practices among the gathered tribes in North Dakota are closer to paganism than, say Protestantism, is ignoring a sizeable swatch of people.

Since ThinkProgess has a stated POV, I assume that means that opposing viewpoints aren’t recorded or welcomed, which may be why the author doesn’t include any in his story. Are there academics or observers who disagree with his narrative of Natives staging a reverse Great Awakening, as it were?

And, as always, it’s enlightening to read the comments. As one person suggested, land is always sacred when someone else is making the decisions. I’ve seen enough casinos on tribal lands to get that point.

No matter how personally wedded the reporter is to a cause, he or she needs to step back and ask the uncomfortable questions. This story would have benefited from a few of those.

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