How Standing Rock Challenges Us to Expand Our Conceptions of Religious Freedom

How Standing Rock Challenges Us to Expand Our Conceptions of Religious Freedom

Chelsea Langston Bombino, Dec. 19, 2016

On Sunday, December 4, Native American tribes and supporters celebrated as the Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would not grant an easement to allow the Dakota Access Pipeline to cross under Lake Oahe. The Standing Rock Sioux and other Native Americans had, for months, camped out in protest of the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline that would jeopardize the tribe’s water supply. Representatives from 280 Native American nations had come together in a protest that was a spiritual action, acting to protect what they believe to be sacred land and sacred water. There were also many other protesters with other aims and motivations.   Regardless of one’s opinion about the legitimacy of the pipeline, religious freedom advocates should explore how the Native American protests are an exercise of religious freedom.

Religious freedom is often framed in terms of the capacity of individuals to worship, pray, or engage in explicitly religious acts in the privacy of their homes or traditional houses of worship. If one imagined religious freedom visually, one might conjure images of someone singing a hymn in a church pew, someone praying in a mosque, or someone studying sacred texts in a synagogue. These images carry much truth about how adherents of many religions typically practice their faith. Yet these images alone do not encapsulate the expansive diversity and creativity of what a person or a group’s exercise of religious freedom looks like.

An exercise of religion for many Native Americans looks starkly different. Water is sacred to the tribes in North Dakota. The Lakota prayer “mni wiconi mni wicosini” means “water of life, water of health.” Protecting their people’s water is not merely a politically motivated action reflecting modern environmental values as conceived of by Western society. For Native American “water protectors”, advocating against a pipeline which could harm their water supply is a deeply spiritual act, motivated by a sacrosanct duty to protect the earth and the interconnectedness of everything. The Lakota ending of prayers, “Mitakuye Oyasin”, encapsulates this notion. Translated “all my relations,” this simple prayer is a deep and abiding recognition that we are all connected to one another, and to the natural world.

The Lakota conception of relations includes not just relationships between people, but our interdependent relationship with creation and natural resources. For Native Americans, protecting water is protecting a blessed friend and upholds the constancy, non-severability and holiness of their relationship with one of their vital life sources. Protesting the pipeline, something that could hinder that relationship between the Native peoples and their water, is an embodied expression of protecting that fundamental essence of “all my relations.”

Religious communities and organizations of vastly different spiritual paradigms often have challenges explaining why something that does not look to an outsider like an obvious violation of their religious freedom to an actually is a violation. Distinctive religious groups or spiritual communities often have practices and precepts that appear strange or even non-religious to non-adherents.  Lack of understanding of religious beliefs and practices of groups different from one’s own often makes it challenging for disparate groups in a plural society to understand what is needed for different religious communities to exercise their religious freedom.

Many evangelical organizations, for example, are compelled by their faith to only employ individuals who embody the particular religious beliefs and practices of the organization. To someone who does not understand the religious rationale for this practice, such religiously-based employment practices could appear to be unnecessary or arbitrary. Religious organizations which engage in religious employment practices must then ask other individuals and organizations who do not engage in these practices to consider how religious freedom takes on different forms with groups with different religiously-based practices. In this example, different groups must recognize that just because one religious organization does not engage in religious staffing does not mean that it is not a sacred or essential practice of faith for another organization.

Religious organizations also often are called because of their faith to serve those unlike themselves, but to serve in a way still aligned with their fundamental faith precepts. This means that a Catholic organization’s faith may limit its capacity to provide referrals for contraceptives to the young women for whom it provides other social services. Individuals or organizations of other faiths whose religion does not call them to take these three steps may find it difficult to accept or understand that a Catholic organization’s religious objections to contraception is an essential exercise of its religious freedom. Similarly, to many Jewish communities, circumcision is part of the sacred covenant that Jewish people have with God. But to those who do not understand the religious significance of circumcision for Jewish people, it may look like a damaging practice..

Religious groups and communities should consider the claims of religious “others” regarding what is needed to freely exercise their religion. Considering the inherently religious nature of Native American protests to the Dakota access pipeline in this context is important for advocates of religious freedom. Native Americans themselves do not always even use the language of religious freedom to describe the spiritual motivation behind their actions.

This is because, for many Native Americans, there is no separation between the sacred and the secular: everything has religious significance. In the Lakota language, for example, there is no word for religion because the sacredness (wakan) of everything is so integrated into every aspect of their lives. Thus, religious freedom advocates would do well to consider that even using the language of “exercising our religious freedom,” is not how all groups of disparate faith and spiritual animating belief systems would describe it, although that is precisely what they are doing.  Native Americans who are coming together to participate in prayers and sacred ceremonies to protect their holy land and water are engaging in actions, the source of which is their spirituality.  They are practicing their faith. They are embodying their religious freedom.

People of good will can come to different conclusions about whether the Dakota Access pipeline must be rerouted or closed down.. But people of all faiths and none should still recognize that there is a spiritual element – a religious freedom framework – through which to view this issue. There is something especially resonant with people across varying religious backgrounds with the notion of preserving and advancing religious freedom for Native Americans. Native Americans have faced systemic oppression of their freedom to live out and express their spiritual beliefs since before the inception of the American constitutional democracy. Traditional Native American sacred ceremonies, such as sun dances, ghost dances and pipe ceremonies, were illegal and even treated as terrorist acts until the passage of the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

Religious individuals and organizations want others unlike themselves to consider with goodwill and an open mind the freedom they need to live out what their faith calls them to do or not do. With respect to certain individuals and institutions, the precepts and practices of their faith may be perceived as increasingly unpopular and out of step with much of society.  With this context in mind, these counter cultural religious practices can on many levels be compared to the Native American protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Sometimes, engagement in sacred activities may not look like a traditional or legitimate exercise of one’s religious freedom.  But things are not always what they seem on the surface.  Seemingly secular acts, from speech to service to petitioning the government, can actually be examples of spiritual communities fully participating in essential expressions of their faith.

The protests by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other Native Americans can help us to reimagine what religious freedom means for diverse groups. As many discuss the possible actions of a Trump administration, Democrats and Republicans alike have cited infrastructure projects as one area where bipartisan progress and action may be possible. While infrastructure projects have the potential to bring many positive social goods, infrastructure projects would include, in addition to roads and bridges, pipelines like the Dakota Access Pipeline. Any such infrastructure advancements must be done with the underpinning of consciousness that they do not trample the religious freedom of Native American communities to continue to be in relation with their sacred land and water.