Martin Marty is an eminent religious scholar at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. He also issues a weekly newsletter, called Sightings because it “sights” public reports with religious or spiritual dimensions. His most recent reflection was thought-provoking, to say the least:
What if the Sioux Nation decided to build a pipeline through Arlington Cemetery? This question from Faith Spotted Eagle—who lacks a Ph.D. in comparative religion and who would never be employed to teach the phenomenology of burial ritual—got at the heart of at least one of the three main issues in the prolonged debate over the Dakota Access Pipeline project.
The other two issues, of course, were environmental degradation and the behavior of Big Oil, and those issues certainly generate a significant percentage of the opposition to the pipeline. Marty’s focus, however, was on the religious importance of the site to the Sioux–and the lack of appreciation of its sanctity by Americans who would have been horrified by a similar proposed desecration of their holy sites.
Why the comparison to a sacred place like Arlington Cemetery? Or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, or key monuments at Gettysburg? What makes this Sioux site sacred, inviolable in the eyes of those for whom this place in North Dakota has drawn so much national attention? The environmental concerns alone would have been ominous enough to agitate the Native Americans on the scene. But the Cannonball River, which flows nearby, and the complex of tributaries connected to the Missouri River, are not merely sources of water. No, Spotted Eagle has said, water is “the best medicine,” the sustainer of life from a mother’s womb until its issue, years later, breathes no longer. Water is necessary for the sweat lodge, so important in Sioux worship, and it serves as a purifier and calmer in sacred ceremonies. And much more.
What motivates her and her fellow worshippers, above all, is concern that the pipeline will profane the burial sites over and around and through which it will flow. All of the governmental action is thus, in the eyes of the Native Americans, a profanation.
Sightings spends so many lines on this one out of many contested revered sites in the “flyover country” of the Great Plains—my homeland—in the interest of giving attention to the rites of some of the peoples who have been plundered, exploited, silenced, and murdered for more than 500 years by us newcomers, who now make the rules, establish the rituals, and bring the edicts and the guns to enforce them. Weekly, if not daily, we hear and read of the ins and outs, the ups and downs, of this most recent conflict. We observe how readily disdained the protesters are. But we are moved by the fact that leaders and sympathizers of many religious bodies, including Jews and Muslims, Catholics at the highest level, mainline Protestants, and some Evangelicals, have publicly sided with the Sioux.
There may be perfectly valid, even persuasive arguments for building the pipeline and for its chosen route. I don’t know enough to evaluate those arguments. Ultimately, however, those arguments are irrelevant to the injustice being perpetrated here.
The undeniable fact is that a pipeline routed through a site designated as holy by a more privileged, more powerful, more “established” religious constituency would have received far different–and far less dismissive– treatment. At the very least, the claims of such a constituency would have met with more official respect.
It has been–and remains– difficult to ensure the constitutionally-required equal protection and application of the laws. I wonder if we will ever achieve–or even approach– equal civic respect for the rights of people who don’t look or worship like us.