Soft Territorialism in the Sioux and DAPL Conflict

Twila McAdams explores the sides, scripts, and stakes to the protest at Standing Rock. Israel Dominguez offers a response. This is the first post in our series on indigeneity and part of a conversation on “The Bible and Race in the USA.

In a recent Huffington Post article, Georgianne Nienaber records that Native Americans from the Sioux Nation have been confronting what they perceive as a serious social injustice. In North Dakota, the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is proceeding with its potentially environmentally devastating plans to run an oil pipeline through Sioux Nation lands and under the Missouri River, the Sioux Nation’s main water source.  Locals have heavily resisted the plans for the pipeline.  In laying the groundwork for the pipeline, DAPL bulldozed portions of Sioux land and destroyed many culturally significant artifacts and locations. When the Sioux attempted to stop the destruction of their cultural heritage, they encountered a violent response from DAPL that included the use of attack dogs and pepper spray.  The conflict between the Sioux Nation and DAPL has stalled in the U.S. court system; meanwhile, the demolition of Sioux lands continues.[1]

Wilfred Cantwell Smith would call the Sioux’s battle for justice a form of “scripturalizing”; he claims that people use and interpret their sacred texts or scriptures to transcend their worldly problems.[2] This paper will look at how Native Americans use this skill today in the DAPL conflict. The Sioux Nation’s fight for their land is an attempt towards divine transcendence, which is stimulated through their unique perspective on space, their history of oppression, and their tradition of prayer circles. All three of these strengthen the Sioux in their protest to keep the oil pipelines out of their land.

Native Americans have a very distinct focus on space and how spatial dimensions from their perspective affect the meaning. Their spatial focus helps them transcend their problems. As George E. Tinker describes, their viewpoint is primarily from a spatial perspective that is different from the classic western’s primary focus on time.[3] This gives us a better understanding of how both the Sioux and DAPL perceive the issue. DAPL is coming from a time perspective, trying to install these pipelines as quick and efficiently as possible to make and save money, but the Sioux see this as yet again another invasion of their space, their land. This spatial viewpoint creates a soft territorialism that is also noticeable with their resistance towards the DAPL going through their land and water source.[4] By concentrating on space, they naturally give attention to their land and the importance of taking care of it. Genesis chapter 1, the creation story, shows the land and all of creation as God’s perfect gift to humanity, to be subdued. The Sioux Nation would see this story differently than DAPL. Divine sanctioning to make money off of the land no matter the damage or change necessary is how DAPL would see it, while Native Americans see it as taking care of God’s perfect creation. Seeing their land and water source as a divine gift and natural right assists them in deciding to stick out the fight for protecting and keeping it. For the Sioux Nation, protecting their land from the possibility of oil spills is essential.

The history of persistent oppression of Native Americans in the United States of America is a huge motivator for the Sioux Nation to transcend this new problem with DAPL. Stuart James, in his Youtube video, passionately points out that the U.S. has never dealt with Native Americans in a decent way. He mentions that there have been many historic moments where they were forced to assimilate or perish.[5] Having such a dark history in your own country, being forced to change to fit into American society is degrading once, yet it repeats over and over; this serves as a motivator to social change, even more reason to attempt to transcend the reoccurring problem. Robert Warrior also comments on Native American oppression and relates them to the Canaanites of the Bible, those people who get conquered by God’s “chosen people.”[6] This is a very relevant comparison, Native Americans had their lands taken from them and were forced to assimilate into a new society just like the Canaanites. Being taken advantage of and having their lands stolen, serves as a strong stimulus for change.

Another important aspect that Native Americans use in their transcendence is their tradition of prayer circles. According to Tinker, “prayers are most often said with the community assembled into some form of circle—the circle being a key symbol for self-understanding in these tribes, representing as it does the whole of the universe and our part in it.”[7] Prayer in this case is definitely part of the Native Americans tradition and experience; it can be seen as an oral representation of what scripture is for them. It is sacred and a human activity, so according to Smith, is one of their scriptures.[8] By using this sacred oral tradition, Native Americans can be strengthened and feel renewed to take action towards transcending their problems. Stuart James writes powerfully to the Sioux’s perseverance through prayer and positivity:

People have little knowledge on what the lands mean to our people and through music it is more effective to convey a story so I chose to use Kendrick Lamar’s beat ‘Alright’ to encourage the message that even though we are facing a threat we will stand strong and be alright in the end. Our people have strong belief through prayer and spirituality so I wanted to encourage the water and land protectors to keep pushing and stay positive.[9]

The strength required to stay resilient, keeping firm to prayer and their spatial value, is extraordinary and helps them in their journey towards transcendence. Praying for a renewed sense of balance in the world motivates the Sioux Nation in their fight for their land. Balance and harmony are key values that are often focused on during their prayer circles.[10] Community prayer around these values is a great focus when it comes to the DAPL conflict. Native Americans would see that balance without the oil pipelines invading their land and water.

The Sioux are currently facing a serious injustice with the DAPL. One way for the Sioux Nation to overcome this challenge is through an empowerment standpoint that utilizes several of their strengths as a united people. Recognizing their distinct value of space and land, seeing a repetition of past oppression styles as a stimulus towards social change, and using their traditional prayer in a community formed circle will lead to effective scripturalizing and an attempt at divine transcendence of their current dilemma.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How might the Sioux Nation’s scripturalizing technique affect the protest against DAPL?
  2. Why is land and water so precious to Native Americans, on a spiritual standpoint?
  3. How did hearing Stuart James’ song and commentary (along with the powerful images) affect your views of the Sioux Nation’s DAPL issue?

[1] Georgianne Nienaber, “North Dakota’s Violent Saturday, Prayer and Judicial Relief for the Sioux Nation,” The Huffington Post, Sept. 12, 2016, accessed Sept. 17, 2016,

[2] Wilfred Cantwell Smith, “Introduction: Presenting the Issues,” pages 1-20 in What is Scripture?: A Comparative Approach (Fortress Press, 1993).

[3] George E. Tinker, “Reading the Bible as Native Americans,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, ed. Leander E. Keck, 1: 178.

[4] Nienaber, “North Dakota’s Violent Saturday.”

[5] “Exclusive: “No DAPL (Dakota Access Pipeline)” Stuart James Native American Rapper,” YouTube video, 4:35, posted by “AllHipHopTV,” Sept. 20, 2016,

[6] Robert Warrior, “Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians: Deliverance, Conquest, and Liberation Theology Today,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 59 (2005): 8.

[7] George E. Tinker, “Reading the Bible as Native Americans,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, ed. Leander E. Keck, 1: 176.

[8] Smith, “Introduction: Presenting the Issues,” 18.

[9] James “Exclusive: “No DAPL (Dakota Access Pipeline),” Video commentary/description section.

[10] Tinker, “Reading the Bible as Native Americans,” 176.

rsz_newto-twila-editTwila McAdams is a Social Work major and Religious Studies minor at Elizabethtown College ’18.


I thought this was a fantastic topic for you to write about given how active and nuanced the subject matter currently is. Your comparison of a prayer circle to a form of oral scripture was especially interesting, and stylistically, your paper flowed fairly well. My biggest bit of feedback, however, would be to caution you about word choice when exploring and writing on topics of Indigeneity. While it is admirable to draw attention to current (and past) plights of Native tribes, it is a disservice to use “Native Americans” as a sort of catch-all phrase. You go from writing about the Sioux Nation specifically to saying “Native Americans have a very distinct focus on space…” as if the hundreds of tribes across the United States all happen to believe the same things in the same way.

With that said, one of your biggest strengths is your extensive and varied use of source material. Gathering information from secondary sources, mainstream media, video commentary, etc. shows that you’re putting a concerted effort into your writing; it also adds strong evidentiary support to your argument that the Sioux Nation is rising up against perceived injustice through various manifestations of cultural unity. I also felt that including a few discussion questions at the end was a good way to engage the reader with the material you just presented.

There are many other avenues you could navigate, should you wish to revisit this particular topic further. For example, it would be interesting if you expanded on your research to explore support the Sioux Nation is receiving from other Native American tribes—how different groups are interacting, how they may agree or disagree on approaches to protesting. Perhaps you could also examine how activists are spreading the word about their efforts despite a severe lack of coverage by mainstream news outlets.

dominguezIsrael Dominguez is a second-year M.A. student in the Department of Religious Studies and Chancellor Fellow at the University of Colorado, Boulder. His primary research interest focuses on decolonization within the context of U.S.-Mexico borderland religious traditions.

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