Resistance over the Dakota Access Pipeline is about to start again, thanks to the recent actions of Donald Trump. University of Auckland historian Dr Hirini Kaa looks at the protests and their grounding in the religious histories of indigenous peoples.

The Dakota Access Pipeline is a $US3.8b project taking oil from fields in North Dakota through to Illinois, 2000kms away. Native Americans have resisted from the outset, fearing pollution of their drinking water and disturbance of sacred lands and burial sites.

In December 2016 (at the last minute), the Obama administration effectively blocked the current route. However in January this year Donald Trump signed an executive order to recommence construction. This also effectively signalled the resistance to recommence.

So far this probably sounds like a standard environmental protest, although the resistance so far has been met with overwhelming state violence and intimidation. Where the Standing Rock #NoDAPL movement diverges from other western environmental causes though, is in the powerful blend of histories, of cultures and of religions.

Of course “religion” brings all sorts of problematic thoughts to mind. Certainly the history of the Christian religion is extremely problematic for indigenous peoples all around the world. The ravages of colonisation were often supported and routinely exacerbated by Christian churches.

However religion, along with culture, is a complicated thing. It never belonged to one side of the colonisation ledger. It was also never static – both religion and culture constantly evolved in unanticipated ways.

One of the noted features of the Standing Rock movement for example has been the refocusing of spirituality. In the context of crisis, prayer, ritual and theology can take on new meanings.

Standing Rock protestors came from around the world – many were indigenous peoples from outside the USA. Photo: Rick Danielson 

This is nothing new to us here in Aotearoa. The nineteenth century saw many types of resistance arise based on both mātauranga-a-iwi (iwi knowledge and worldviews) and new ideas, particularly those derived from the Bible.

So we had the Māori prophetic movements of Te Ua Haumene, Te Kooti Arikirangi, Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi, among others, adapting iwi spirituality to meet the new context. The Lakota Ghost Dance movement of the late 1880s, brought into Western historical consciousness through the terrible massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, had strong parallels to many of the Māori prophetic moments.

The histories of indigenous resistance to colonisation have recently been written using some powerful new techniques of critical analysis, “writing back” against decades – even centuries – of the dominant voice of the colonial victors.

In this process though, the place of religion has not only been necessarily questioned, but often removed. Prophetic movements are often reduced to political, military and social motives, and “culture” is often secular.

One of the standout features of the #NoDAPL movement has been the spirituality that has not only been on display, but has been the driving force for this movement.

At its heart this is a protection of the spiritual values and practices of the Standing Rock Lakota, of Native Americans and of indigenous peoples across the planet.

These are not only political protestors, nor solely civil-rights activists. They are Water Protectors, upholding the principle of Mni Wiconi (‘water is life’). They are more than environmental heroes: they are the latest in a long line of prophets.

The religion in #NoDAPL is diverse, adaptive and fluid. It is “traditional”: communal prayers in the morning and evening and at mealtimes; prayers in vigils and in songs; prayers while sage, cedar and tobacco are burned.

It also has a strong flavour of Biblical resistance, both First and New Testament. Some of the strongest support for the movements (alongside the kind-of-amazing Hollywood crowd) has come from the churches. Yes, this is partly a necessary atonement for their collective sins. But it also reflects the strong role of the native leadership of the churches. These native Christians have helped to build these communities and to maintain the inherent spirituality of the people in the face of the overwhelming tsunami of consumerism and individualism that underpins the American Dream.

The challenge is to remember and to recognise that beyond the slogans and the chants, beyond the snarling dogs and the state violence, lies indigenous spirituality.

It is ready as ever to uplift and empower for the next struggle and for the just peace indigenous people seek.

Dr Hirini Kaa lecturers in history in the School of Humanities at the University of Auckland. His new paper “Religious Resistance to Empire: Native and Indigenous Movements, 1800-1945” is being offered in Semester One 2017.

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