Drama at Standing Rock: The conflict intensifies but the sacred goes unexplained

Now that the Army Corps of Engineers have ordered the protestors at Standing Rock to leave by Dec. 5, expect to see a lot of people - including posses of veterans -- pour into this desolate area in central North Dakota in the next week. These protestors aren’t going to go quietly into the night. 

So this could get real interesting news-wise. On Black Friday, the Washington Post came out with a short history of why the Sioux and other tribes are so upset. However, the writer, who is a revered reporter well known for his work, did not mention a huge factor in this struggle.

See if you can guess what it is.

In the Dakota language, the word “oahe” signifies “a place to stand on.”
And that’s what the Standing Rock Sioux and its allies in the environmental and activist movements say they are doing: using Lake Oahe in North Dakota as a place to take a stand by setting up camps and obstructing roads to block the controversial $3.7 billion Dakota Access pipeline.
Their confrontations with police — who have responded with water cannons, pepper spray and rubber bullets — have steered attention to the 1,170-mile-long oil pipeline project and its owner, Energy Transfer Partners. But the real source of Native Americans’ grievance stretches back more than a century, to the original government incursions on their tribal lands. And those earlier disputes over their rights to the land, like the one over the Dakota Access pipeline, pitted the tribes against a persistent force, the Army Corps of Engineers.
The federal government has been taking land from Lakota and Dakota people for 150 years, tribal leaders say, from the seizure of land in the Black Hills of South Dakota after the discovery of gold in the 1870s to the construction of dams in the Missouri River that flooded villages, timberland and farmland in the Dakotas in the 1950s.

The reporter goes into that history for quite a few paragraphs, to which I want to add a bit of historical context. The Sioux did not take the arrival of the European immigrants lying down. During the Sioux uprising of 1862, they killed (and sometimes raped) between 500-800 settlers in southern Minnesota where my great-great grandparents lived. The way some of the settlers died was beyond grisly. (Because my great-great grandmother Maria Engelbart had always fed the hungry Indians who came to her door, they were kind of enough to warn her family to leave town before the uprising reached their farm).

So I have some personal ties to this story. I’m not saying the seizure of the Black Hills about a decade later was right, but there was a lot of bitterness among the settlers toward the Sioux that lasted for generations. Back to the article:

“This government honors international treaties like they are the Holy Grail, but within our own homeland, they find ways to break them,” said Standing Rock Sioux Chairman David Archambault, who, under the treaties and U.S. law, is the head of a domestic sovereign nation.
The tribe had passed a resolution in 2012 opposing new pipelines and declared a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” within its borders “because we see the destruction done to Mother Earth,” Archambault added. Shale oil produced by fracking in western North Dakota is the main source of crude for the Dakota Access pipeline project.

Throughout the article, all the sources quoted are those favorable to the Native Americans with the exception of a quote borrowed from PBS. Is the reporter doing some modified Kellerism here, in that there’s only one side of the story worth telling? It's always important when journalists talk to people on one side and turn to lifeless paper -- digital or dead-tree pulp -- sources -- for views on the other side.

Also, there’s nothing pertaining to the spiritual claims that the land has for the Sioux. The writer didn’t mention that Nov. 26, the day after the story was released, was the Pray With Standing Rock event, a synchronized global 30 minutes of prayer or meditation.

Fortunately,  the photos told another story. There was a photo of Sioux Chief Arvol Looking Horse leading a prayer rally; another photo of a protester praying next to a charred vehicle, yet another photo of protesters marching to a sacred burial ground disturbed by the bulldozers and a photo from the Bismarck Tribune of clergy leading a procession at the camp.

Remember, the Sioux objections to the pipeline involve water claims and sacred sites. One hears about the former constantly but never the latter.

I’ve written before about spirituality and Standing Rock, so figured there must be more out there since that October post. Sure enough, I found a list of Jewish practices in solidarity with the Indians in the Forward and a piece in Religion Dispatches. And the Economist just posted a piece lauding the demonstrations as being "a landmark in relations between organized religion, Christianity in particular, and indigenous people."  

As I look at photos of the demonstrators, some of whom have been there since April, they’re holding signs saying things like “Defend the Sacred.”

So what does that mean? Is it like the Four Corners area in Navajo country between New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Arizona that includes sacred mountains? Again, it’s not just the environmental concerns that have people riled up. There are spiritual concerns here. NPR described Thanksgiving Day at Standing Rock as a time when people formed a prayer circle and tried crossing a creek to an island deemed sacred ground. 

What was all that about? Some of us would like to know. Call up almost any of the Standing Rock Facebook groups and there’s constant reminders to pray. A group called EarthJustice says the media are missing “90 percent” of the Dakota story by emphasizing politics over the sacred. Maybe these folks are onto something. But does the media covering them get it? 

Things may get more intense this coming week, so now's the time to bone up, folks. If people up there are praying, to whom or what do they pray? What ceremonies are some engaging in? Why are they bothering to pray? A lot of us would like to know.

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