The growing indigenous spiritual movement that could save the planet
North Dakota is just the beginning.
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.”
“Standing Rock is a prayer camp. It is where prayers are done.”
Case’s experience is shockingly common—both as a protester visiting a far-flung land to support a Native cause, and as a witness to an emerging indigenous spiritual movement that is sweeping North America.
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.
And this year, after centuries of struggle, their prayers are starting to be answered.
The size and intensity of the Standing Rock protest caught many observers off guard — the media included. Beginning with just a few tents sprinkled across a barren field earlier this year, protesters now say nearly 10,000 people have visited the thriving camps, with guests hailing from as many as 300 different indigenous tribes.
“Seeing all the tribes come out was just incredible,” Caro “Guarding Red Tarantula Woman” Gonzales, a 26-year-old Standing Rock protester and founding member of the International Indigenous Youth Council, told ThinkProgress. “We can do that for every single indigenous fight.”
“Seeing all the tribes come out was just incredible.”
Expressions of solidarity between indigenous groups may sound predictable, but the history of Native American activism is pockmarked with internal squabbles. Early attempts to unify indigenous causes in the United States, such as the creation of the American Indian Movement in the 1960s, have since been marred by controversy and factionalism. Native Hawaiians once avoided connections between their cause and that of Native Americans, lest they suffer the same humiliating defeats as those in the continental United States. And while flashes of unified activism persisted throughout the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, indigenous communities in North America often struggled to win major victories — legal, cultural, or otherwise.
But all that changed in December 2012, when four women in Western Canada — three First Nations women and one non-Native ally — held a teach-in to protest legislation they said would weaken environmental laws that protect lands Natives hold sacred.
The activists entitled their demonstration “Idle No More,” and the movement exploded on social media; within days, flash mobs performing traditional spiritual dances sprung up in city centers and shopping malls across the country. Taking cues from Occupy Wall Street’s organic structure, a series of marches, rallies, and direct-action peaceful protests that blocked highways and railways quickly followed, making headlines in Canada and abroad.
Idle No More’s success set off a firestorm of solidarity protests among indigenous groups in the United States, who in turn used the energy to draw attention to their own local fights — virtually all which involved some sort of spiritual claim. In Hawaii, protesters inculcated the same tactics — and sometimes even the same slogans — into an ongoing effort to halt the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) atop Mauna Kea, a volcano Native Hawaiians consider sacred. In Arizona, members of the Apache nation began occupying an area known as Oak Flat, vowing to fend off the proposed development of a copper mine on land they call holy. And when environmentalists pushed back against the creation of the Keystone XL pipeline, organizations such as the Cowboy and Indian Alliance bolstered the existing climate change movement with Native activists in both Canada and the United States.
“Idle No More raised our consciousness,” Gonzales, who is of the Chemehievi nation, said. “When people are chaining themselves to bulldozers, that is prayer.”
Meanwhile, something new happened: social media allowed indigenous people across the country to show support for their fellow activists with a few simple clicks, adding hashtags and memes to their own Facebook and Twitter profiles. The digital connections helped elevate their respective causes, but also forged real-world relationships between activists in different tribes.
“When people are chaining themselves to bulldozers, that is prayer.”
By the time Standing Rock rolled around, a spiritual network of indigenous people was already in full effect.
“Many of the people I met at Standing Rock I’ve been friends with on Facebook for years,” said Case, who has been a key organizer in Native Hawaiian activist circles.
Case noted that she and several of the Standing Rock protesters had been “sending prayers” back and forth over social media for some time. These connections inspired Native Americans such as Caleen Sisk of California’s Winnemem Wintu nation to join her in an occupation of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Years later, Case returned the favor by assisting Sisk in her effort to restore California waterways once frequented by millions of local salmon.
“We prayed on each others’ mountains and made commitments to one another,” Case said, speaking over the phone just minutes after finishing a ceremonial raft ride down the river. “They have prayed for us — they’ve come out physically to Mauna Kea. So now it’s our turn.”
“The most important word here is alliances,” she said.
Asked about the movement’s religious elements, Gonzales insisted spirituality isn’t a cursory side-effect but a crucial, driving force behind the recent surge of Native environmental activism. Virtually all of the protests she has attended, she said, featured some form of prayer or sacred ritual.
“All of us are protesting because we are part of this sacred [connection] to the earth,” Gonzales said. “We are all the mountains, we are all the birds — it sounds corny, but it’s true.”
It would be a mistake to characterize the new wave of indigenous activism as emanating from a uniform, codified theology. All of the activists ThinkProgress interviewed insisted they spoke only for themselves when discussing faith, explaining that each tribe harbors its own unique spiritual traditions, practices, and customs forged over the course of centuries, if not millennia.
But for all their differences, the various indigenous populations share a common theological belief typical of what Joshua Lanakila Mangauil, a Native Hawaiian activist, called “earth-based” cultures: that the environment, at least in parts, is sacred in and of itself.
“Earth-based cultures are tied to places,” Mangauil, whose current Facebook profile picture reads “Solidarity with Standing Rock,” said. “There is no separation from our spirituality and our environment — they are one and the same.”
“Other [religious groups] have these debates over whether or not God exists — but I know my god exists,” he added, referencing Mauna Kea, which towers above his island home. “It’s the mountain — I can see it.”
“Other [religious groups] have these debates over whether or not god exists — but I know my god exists. It’s the mountain — I can see it.”
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 are already singing songs 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.”
While this groundswell of religious generation is rooted in old traditions, it sometimes reawakens ancient elements that can challenge elders.
“My sacredness as a human is part of my tradition — myself as a protector, as a sacred protector.”
“To introduce another spiritual element — I am a two spirit,” Gonzales said, referencing a Native American term used to describe gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in their communities. Although traditionally celebrated in many tribes, two-spirit people have not always been welcomed by modern indigenous people. Yet when Gonzales and others formed the International Indigenous Youth Council at Standing Rock, the majority of the leadership identified as two-spirit — a designation they link to their faith.
“My sacredness as a human is part of my tradition — myself as a protector, as a sacred protector,” she said. “There are a lot of two-sprits at [the Standing Rock] camp, and that is sacred too… We see that as integral to our activism.”
Faith is a core mobilizing and stabilizing force for the movement, but it’s also central to the legal arguments used by Native groups to defend their land. In addition to other claims, both the Oak Flat and Standing Rock lawsuits contend that the federal government — or the companies it employs — violated the National Historic Preservation Act, which requires agencies to “consult with any Indian tribe… that attaches religious and cultural significance to properties with the area of potential effects.” The Hawaii case is similarly rooted in disputes over sacred land, although the lawsuit currently focuses on state laws, not the federal statutes.
Native groups can also lean on the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, which compels the federal government to “protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise [their] traditional religions…including but not limited to access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.”
But according to Johnson, an expert on sacred land disputes, the law is often not enough to guarantee indigenous groups a win.
“There is very little track record of sacred land victories,” he said. “More likely what they will generate is allegiances, attention — the secondary effects of having made the case for their tradition.”
“There is very little track record of sacred land victories.”
Indeed, the movement thus far has largely been sustained through protest and agitation. The legal case to protect Standing Rock ultimately fell flat in early September, for instance, when a U.S. District Court judge denied the nation’s request to halt pipeline construction. But the movement proved more powerful than one judge: shortly after the ruling, the Obama administration — under pressure from scores of Native groups and their allies — called on the Dakota Access to stop construction voluntarily, and the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals temporarily halted work on the pipeline shortly thereafter.
Such is the recurring — and increasingly successful — strategy of these protests. Slowly accruing support and attention over time, and leaning on sacred claims, activists whittle away the patience of corporations and government officials until they (ideally) give up.
In Hawaii, construction of the TMT is currently stalled while lawyers debate aspects of the construction process, prompting The Hawaii Island New Knowledge fund to begin investigating alternative sites. In March, the Obama administration moved to place Oak Flat on the National Register of Historic Places, adding another bureaucratic hoop preventing the Resolution Copper company from installing a mine on site. The Lummi Nation in Washington State successfully defeated an effort to build the largest coal port ever in North America near their land earlier this year, and Native groups are also credited with helping stop the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline in 2015.
And in addition to their secular allies in the climate movement, indigenous groups are also attracting partners in non-Native faith traditions. Representatives from the Presbyterian Church (USA), United Church of Christ, Episcopal Church, and the United Methodist Church have all visited the Standing Rock camp or expressed solidarity with the protesters, as has the Nation of Islam, according to the Religion News Service.
But the fight is far from over. Many of these disputes—including the Dakota Access Pipeline—are not yet resolved, and Native activists are already gearing up for new campaigns. In late September, dozens of tribes in Canada and the United States signed a treaty pledging to combat any further development of Canadian “tar sands,” which they say put their reservations and “sacred waterways” at risk of oil spills.
“If one of us loses, then we all have to work harder,” Case said. “We need to be stronger every day, and I believe the creator believes that’s what we need as well.”
Case said movement members will continue to lean on each other for strength moving forward (“We could use some prayer,” she joked) and that they won’t rest until they make it clear that the environment — earth, sky, and water — is, in a very literal sense, sacred.
“There comes a time when people have a right to say no — and now is that time,” she added. “So we’re saying no, resoundingly, like the thundering sky.”