Defining Religion in The Tragedies of War

Maddie Downs (Williams College ’18) examines the implications of defining religion in the debate between the U.S. government and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. She is a student of Sowing the Seed contributor, Dr. Lloyd Barba. On this topic, see also Twila McAdams work on “soft territorialism” at Standing Rock.

“The tragedies of the wars [with Native Americans] are our national joint property, and how we handle that property is one test of our unity or disunity, maturity or immaturity, as a people wearing the label ‘American.’”[1]


In her landmark text, Something in the Soil, Patricia Nelson Limerick weighs in on the wars between European settlers of the American West and Native Americans during the 19th century. Presuming that Americans would have handled the tragedies of war with “unity” and “maturity,” it would be a simple and logical assumption that these aforementioned wars would have ceased and that peace could have been made between Anglo Americans and Native Americans; however, years later, another war is being waged between Native Americans and the United States Government largely centered on “religion,” a contested an often unreconciled term across cultures.

Patricia Wilson Limerick, Something in the Soil: Legacies and Reckonings in the New West (W. W. Norton, 2001).

For Native Americans, religion has long been the seamless blending of the ordinary and extraordinary. It is simultaneously their culture, tradition, and religion, yet the U.S. Government choses to disregard such standards.[2] In eastern North Dakota, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has called for the prevention of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Citing health and religious reasons, the Sioux Tribe claims that the DAPL could contaminate water supplies and would cross over and destroy Sioux Tribe ancient burial sites. Contemporary arguments have been made both in favor and against the legitimacy of religious claims surrounding the DAPL, and whether or not these claims justify inaction. Those arguing in favor of the Sioux Tribe’s argument claim that it is the Tribe’s legal right to issue protests regarding religious practices. The opposing argument asserts that the Sioux Tribe did not express religious protests early enough to be considered by the court. As Native American lawyer and theologian Vine Deloria Jr. wrote, “western political ideas came to depend on spatial restrictions of what were essentially non-spatial ideas.”[3] Drawing on this theory, as well as from contemporary literature regarding Native American religion, reveals how the DAPL debate merely represents a continuation of the misunderstanding of and disregard for Native American religious traditions.

“Dakota Access Pipeline route (Standing Rock Indian Reservation is shown in orange),” Courtesy NittyG, CC-BY-SA4.0.

In order to understand the religious debate behind DAPL, we must first understand general arguments surrounding the pipeline. Many economic arguments have been made in favor of DAPL, claiming that the pipeline would significantly decrease U.S. reliance on foreign oil, and that the pipeline would provide thousands of jobs for American workers. Furthermore, the Energy Transfer Partners estimate that the pipeline would bring in an estimated $156 million in sales and income taxes to state and local governments. Therefore, economics play a viable argument in favor of building the pipeline. On the other hand, critics claim that building a pipeline would increase the U.S.’s already huge impact on global warming and climate change. Not only would the oil burned produce greenhouse gasses, but also any oil spilled from the pipeline could cause serious environmental problems, such as water and land pollution. Finally, the argument has been made that construction of the pipeline would disturb and destroy environmental habitats.[4] Understanding the non-religious arguments surrounding DAPL gives us background to better comprehend religious arguments made around DAPL, and whether or not these religious arguments are sufficiently taken into consideration.

Robinson Meyer of The Atlantic supports and promotes the Sioux Tribe religious protests that argue against the construction of the pipeline. According to Meyer, the government has treated the Sioux Tribe unfairly, as Dakota Access continued to build the pipeline despite evidence of religious artifacts. Furthermore, Meyer reports evidence that the government has completely disregarded and disrespected the religious protests of the Sioux Tribe, as the Chamber of Commerce has referred to them as “anti-energy protestors,” rather than recognizing protesters as Native communities. Finally, Meyer argues that the government has violated the “regulations that require Federal agencies to consult with Indian tribes when they attach religious and cultural significance to a historic property regardless of the location of that property,” due to the fact that the Sioux Tribe was never consulted in the historical surveying process before the Construction of the pipeline.[5] The significance of this intentional exclusion lies in the fact that geographical location remains very important in understanding Native American religious behaviors and beliefs.[6] The law cited in Meyer’s work states that the government must take into account all religious and cultural practices, no matter where these practices take place. Thus, this law requires that the government understand the relationship between Native Americans, religion and place, as Native American religion stems directly from the world and their experiences in the world.[7] According to Meyer, if the government strictly adhered to this regulation, it should categorize the burial grounds that the pipeline crossed as sacred religious practices and halt construction of the pipeline.

Jessica Pieklo of Rewire makes a different argument, suggesting that governmental and pipeline institutions do not find legitimacy in Native American religious freedom claims and thus disregard these protests so that the DAPL project is not delayed. As mentioned before, the pipeline crosses through Sioux Tribe sacred burial grounds, which tribe members claim violates the Religion Freedom Restoration Act; however, a federal court disagreed, claiming that the tribe could not demonstrate any immediate risk of harm to religious practices and ordered the construction of the pipeline to continue. Then, after making the argument that polluted waters could make it impossible for the Lakota people to use the water in a religious ceremony, the federal government still did not stop construction, not because of lack of evidence, but rather because the tribe had waited too long to raise religious objections. The federal government claimed that had they known earlier, “they could have considered whether and how to accommodate this concern.”[8] Because Native American religion differs greatly from Christianity in that it represents non-spatial ideas, lawmakers find it increasingly difficult to understand and sympathize with the Sioux Tribe.[9] In other words, because Native American religion is not measured or defined in the same way as Christianity, U.S. lawmakers fail to understand the significance of nature within Native American religion.[10] In this way, Pieklo argues that the timing of Native American pleas were not early enough to stop the pipeline, but in reality, this explanation illustrates and exposes the misunderstanding between the U.S. federal government and the significance of place and nature in Native American religion.

After weeks of protests, some of which turned violent on both sides, it seems as though the Sioux Tribe has lost the battle. President Donald Trump signed executive actions to advance the approval of DAPL, claiming that he will “renegotiate some of the terms” of the pipeline contracts.[11] Furthermore, a U.S. Court of Appeals has rejected the latest religious appeal by both the Standing Rock Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribes, which means that the DAPL could be functional and carrying oil very soon.[12] Unfortunately, the battle between DAPL and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe represents another instance of Anglo misunderstanding and dismissal of Native American Religion. According to lawmakers, whatever energy or economic gains made from DAPL significantly outweigh the religious damage and infringement that the pipe will cause. By simply disregarding religious arguments and lawsuits, the U.S. government reveals that it does not take Native American religion seriously. Thus, the continuation of DAPL will result in the destruction of religious sites and indicates that Americans have not handled the “tragedies of war” with unity or maturity, but rather have ignored the past in favor of the present.


[1] Patricia Nelson Limerick, Something in the Soil: Legacies and Reckonings in the New West (New York: W.W. Norton & Company Ltd., 2000), 73.

[2] Catherine L. Albanese, America: Religions and Religion (Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1999), 26.

[3] Vine Deloria Jr., “Thinking in Time and Space” in God is Red: A Native View of Religion, 63.

[4] Holly Yan, “Dakota Access Pipeline: What’s at Stake?” CNN, October 28, 2016,

[5] Robinson Meyer, ““The Legal Case for Blocking the Dakota Access Pipeline,” The Atlantic, September 9, 2016,

[6] Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp, “Eastward Ho!: American Religion from the Perspective of the Pacific Rim” in Retelling U.S. Religious History, 132.

[7] Deloria Jr., “Thinking in Time and Space” in God is Red: A Native View of Religion, 67.

[8] Jessica Mason Pieklo, “Federal Court Rules Tribe Waited Too Long to Raise Religious Objections to DAPL,” Rewire, March 8, 2017,

[9] Deloria Jr., “Thinking in Time and Space” in God is Red: A Native View of Religion, 63.

[10] Ibid., 75.

[11] Anthea Jones, Jeremy Diamond, Gregory Kreig. “Trump advances controversial oil pipelines with executive action.” CNN, January 24, 2017,

[12] David Blackmon, “A New Controversy Rises As Oil Begins To Flow Through Dakota Access Pipeline.” Forbes, March 20, 2017,
resized_5914c4a29ceeeMaddie Downs is a member of the Class of 2018 at Williams College in Massachusetts and lives in Atlanta, Georgia. She intends to major in political science and concentrate in environmental studies. Maddie is a member of the varsity swim team and enjoys spending most of her time outdoors.


Join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s