Including Religion in the Standing Rock Syllabus

(Erika Larsen/ National Geographic)

By Sarah Dees

My previous essay for The Revealer, Resisting the “Inevitable” Narrative: Standing Rock’s Anti-Colonial Eventualities,” examined the relationship between historical forms of violence against Native Americans and current issues—ethical, environmental, and economic—surrounding the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. I discussed the ways that racialized narratives, cultivated during earlier eras, persist in contemporary discussions, and described the work of members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their allies to resist these destructive legacies and move forward on their own terms. Much has changed in the two months since the article was published, from questions about the direction of the camps to new concerns that have materialized as Trump has taken office.

On  January 20th, members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribal council voted to order an evacuation of the three protest camps, citing concerns over violent encounters with police, the lack of spiritual direction shown by some of those present at the camps, obstruction of a key bridge that allows access to business and services on the reservation, and the anticipation of severe weather and flooding that could threaten those still at the camp. Shortly thereafter, on January 24th, the newly inaugurated President Trump signed executive actions that indicated his intention to allow the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline as well as the Keystone XL Pipeline. Mainstream interest in the pipeline, which had somewhat abated, has once again been renewed, and many activists, politicians, and supporters have strengthened their resolve to block the pipelines. Nevertheless, Trump seems unconcerned with the many ways that the Dakota Access Pipeline threatens the Standing Rock Community. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers granted permission for the completion of the pipeline on February 7th. Meanwhile the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has expressed concern that federal agents may start forcibly removing the remaining water protectors, and leaders vow to continue fighting the pipeline.

In light of this escalation at Standing Rock, I would like to turn again to discussions about the ways that the pipeline is also a threat to the religion and spirituality of the Standing Rock Sioux community—and emblematic of wider ongoing threats to Native American lands and religious traditions. The Dakota Access Pipeline plans require workers to lay pipeline through sites of historical and sacred significance to the community. A few authors have noted the importance of religion in the resistance at Standing Rock. Two pieces, both written for The Washington Post, offer an overview of the intersections of religion with the #noDAPL movement. Sarah Pullam Bailey provided an overview of the many ways that the DAPL struggle has religious overtones and undertones. In her piece, she examines the ways in which members of numerous religious communities—from Protestants and Catholics to members of the Nation of Islam—have recognized these concerns and spoken out in support of the Standing Rock Sioux. In her article for the Post, Rosalyn R. LaPier, a member of the Blackfeet nation and a scholar of religion and environmentalism, describes the ways that different Indigenous communities consider the land to be sacred. Focusing on the ways that her family taught her the significance of religion, LaPier discusses two forms of sacred spaces: those that are set apart for significant spiritual beings and those that are significant for specific communities. The river that flows near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation can be interpreted as “sacred” in both of these ways.

Alongside this work, it is worth mentioning, again, the excellent Standing Rock Syllabus, which was created by the NYC Stands for Standing Rock committee. This guide includes an overview, timeline, maps, an important collection of readings, and key terms that are essential for understanding the struggle at Standing Rock. In this second installment of my writing for The Revealer about Standing Rock, I will add to efforts of the creators of the #StandingRockSyllabus to contextualize the #noDAPL movement by drawing together key themes and resources from the academic study of religion that speak to this issue.

Scholarship within the discipline of Religious Studies, and conversations focusing on religion in related disciplines, can help to broaden and deepen understandings of the #noDAPL movement. Although methods and approaches to the academic study of religion differ, discussions in this field are concerned with the natures, functions, and definitions of religion: what “religion” means to religious practitioners; how “religion” intersects with other markers of identity—culture, ethnicity, race, nationality, gender—on individual and communal levels; and the ways that the “religious” realm is tied to political and societal structures, including the ways that ideas about and deployments of religion have contributed to unequal power structures, as well as the ways that people have drawn on religion to make sense of and resist these power structures.

It should be noted that, while discussions engaging the category of religion are often minimal when writing about these struggles, Indigenous religions still occupy a fairly marginalized position within the field of Religious Studies itself. There are two reasons that can explain this. First, as the academic study of religion developed in the late-nineteenth century, the beliefs and practices of Indigenous communities were not always considered “religious.” Theories of “world religions” omitted a wide range of practices that would now be considered “Indigenous religions.” Scholars sometimes seem to sidestep discussions of Indigenous religions due to a caution born out of a desire to avoid the ways in which earlier research efforts among Indigenous communities were extractive, demeaning, and diminishing to the beliefs and experiences of Native American and Indigenous Communities. Indeed, early efforts to gather data did not necessarily promote broader understanding of Native perspectives but were used against the communities that researchers studied, and approaching the topic of religion requires sensitivity to these historical issues. But entirely avoiding conversations about Indigenous religions is no solution, in part because, as much of my research seeks to demonstrate, ideas about religion have long played a role in the federal government’s efforts to manage Native American populations. Furthermore, Indigenous experiences and voices have contributed in important ways to theorizing religion and the role it plays in culture and society.

Below, I have compiled a list of terms and sources that offer insight into aspects of Native American ritual, ceremony, and tradition. These sources offer broad insight that can be applied, not only to the struggle at Standing Rock, but to other legal battles seeking to preserve Native lands and traditions. They are intended as a supplement to the Standing Rock Syllabus for those who would like to think about some of the ways that religion fits in with settler colonialism and environmental racism, as well as the role of religion in efforts to resist these structures and forces.

The following are some of the keywords in the study of Native American religious traditions that could be included in a curriculum about Standing Rock:

1. Appropriation. A huge issue today is the question about the appropriation of features of Native American spirituality. At first, this issue may seem to be unrelated to the efforts at Standing Rock. But the proliferation of pseudo-Native practices, books, and objects raises concern for Native American religious practitioners and spiritual leaders. Commodified versions of Indigenous spirituality often promote compartmentalized, individualized ideas of “religion” that are oriented inward and focus on individual well-being. These practices ignore the concerns of wider communities, and can lead to the unintelligibility of communal political activism as religion among mainstream, non-Native audiences who think about “spirituality” as a private, individualized practice—something you can engage in by purchasing a “smudge kit” from Urban Outfitters, for example. Essays in Lee Irwin’s edited volume Native American Spirituality: A Critical Reader address this issue.

2. Doctrine of Discovery. The “Doctrine of Discovery” is a Christian, Euro-American ideology offering theological justifications for non-Native seizure of Native lands. In Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, Steven Newcomb discusses the ways in which Christian ideas about theological and cultural superiority were woven into the legal framework governing U.S. land rights beginning with the 1824 Johnson V. M’Intosh case.

3. Healing. Healing and medicine are significant aspects of many Native American traditions. Healing practices are more than physical cures—communities draw on religion in response to the centuries of violence. The Dakota Access Pipeline constitutes a continuation of long histories of violence. Suzanne J. Crawford-O’Brien’s edited volume Religion and Healing in Native America: Pathways for Renewal draws on numerous authors exploring the relationship between religion and healing among Indigenous communities. Authors discuss the violence caused by colonialism and the ways in which communities draw on aspects of religion and spirituality to respond to and heal from these forms of violence—combining mainstream therapies with traditional practices such as storytelling.

4. Loca sacra and loca religiosa. The struggle at Standing Rock highlights the significance of land and place for practitioners of Native American religions. In Where the Lightning Strikes: The Lives of American Indian Sacred Places, Peter Nabokov discusses sacred places throughout the present-day United States. He draws on two ancient roman terms to describe different ways places can be considered sacred: loca sacra, places that are sacred due to human practices (such as historic meeting places), and loca religiosa, places that have some sort of intrinsic sacred quality (such as unique natural sites). The confluence of waterways near Cannonball, North Dakota represents each.

5. Ancestral Remains and Sacred Objects. One concern at Standing Rock has been over the disruption of burial grounds. In itself, this is a horrifying occurrence. But what compounds the outrage over the destruction of ancestral remains has been the way that this is another instance in a long history of lack of concern for ancestral remains and cultural patrimony, or objects that are significant. In 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed to facilitate the return of sacred objects housed in university and public museums—but it does not offer federal protection for objects that are still in the ground, as those protections are determined on a state-by-state basis. Greg Johnson examines contemporary disputes over repatriation in Sacred Claims: Repatriation and Living Tradition.

6. Other-than-human persons. Historically, anthropologists studying Native American religions frequently used the term “animism” to refer to the beliefs about spiritual entities that reside in features of the natural world. The use of this term was often derogatory, meant to contrast features of Indigenous religions with features of Christianity and other religions assumed to be more “civilized.” Yet scholars have recently begun to re-consider the concept. In Animism: Respecting the Living World, Graham Harvey seeks to re-claim the term while challenging previous racialized connotations. Another way to understand the significance of animals and natural elements is by thinking about them as “other-than-human persons,” members of an extended kinship network. This helps to explain how some leaders and activists maintain that people are of rather than above the natural world.

7. Postapocalypse Stress Syndrome. In Anishinaabe Ways of Knowing and Being, Lawrence Gross seeks to account for the lingering effects of the historical devastation that many Native American communities faced, which manifests in what he calls “postapocalypse stress syndrome.” In addition to describing this concept, he offers insight into the tools that local communities can draw on to heal from the cultural upheaval that take places after major, devastating acts and events. He focuses on ways of knowing within his own community, yet his discussions of how communities can grapple with and recover from these forms of trauma is broadly relevant.

8. Reprise. In his book Tradition, Performance, and Religion in Native America: Ancestral Ways, Modern Selves, Dennis Kelley studies communities that draw on historical ways to envision and enact new forms of tradition in the present era. Kelley offers a new term, “reprise,” that he argues is more useful than terms such as “revitalization” to describe efforts to renew features of traditional culture that have been under attack. “Reprise,” according to Kelley, better captures the ways in which historical ideas, which may be quiet for a time, can once again emerge in a new form—like the new form of a melody that returns at the end of a musical piece. This concept helps to explain how new forms of spirituality and ceremony—including the forms of ceremony present at the camps—have drawn on longstanding traditions and forms of resistance.

In the wake of racialized violence and threats to social justice, educators and activists have translated calls for consciousness-raising and resistance into numerous educational resources. Taking the form of collections of readings, these resources provide historical context and commentaries useful for students, teachers, and the general public to make sense of and respond to political violence and human rights abuses. In addition to the #StandingRockSyllabus, these include the #FergusonSyllabus, #CharlestonSyllabus, #BlackLivesMatterSyllabus, #TrumpSyllabus, and #ImmigrationSyllabus. Scholars and students of religion can contribute a unique perspective to understandings of pressing social and human rights conversations through a focus on the interactions between religion and culture and between immaterial and material spheres. Mixing “religion” into the conversation enables us to better understand how things unseen—spirits, thoughts, habits, urges, orientations, processes, prejudices—inspire the most tangible of outcomes: possibilities or constraints that create or preclude different courses of action. Adding religion can help us better understand both the sacred significance of water and land for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, their course of action and resistance to #DAPL, and our broader social and political climate.


Sarah Dees is a scholar of American and Indigenous religions. Her work examines scientific, political, and popular ideas about religion, race, and culture. She received her PhD from Indiana University in 2015 and is currently the Luce Postdoctoral Fellow in Religion, Politics, and Global Affairs at Northwestern University. She is at work on her first book manuscript, which is tentatively titled The Materialization of Native American Religions: Cultural Science in an Era of Assimilation. You can follow her on Twitter or visit her online:


Published with support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs.

One Reply to “Including Religion in the Standing Rock Syllabus”

  1. Antler

    Thanks for sharing this thoughtful and informative post. I really appreciate if religion based information included in standing rock syllabus.


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