Walking in that Other Guy’s Shoes

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.


  1. Accepted doctrine is “wealthy old white men know what’s best for everyone”. Hope there is a project in the near future that requires the demolition of a Trump hotel.

  2. Two Native American quotes come to mind here:

    “White man speaks with forked tongue.”

    “When man has destroyed all of the waterways, all of the earth and all of the air; then he will learn he cannot eat money.”

  3. SK Said:
    “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.”
    Unfortunately, I must bet NO.

  4. Interestingly, this was not the original route for the pipeline. It was supposed to cut just south of Bismark, but the people of Bismark were upset that it might endanger their water supply, so it was changed. White privilege? You bet!

  5. Respect for the rights of all requires a willingness to listen, negotiate and compromise. Sadly, some view this as weakness rather than a sign of maturity

  6. In view of the reacting to the desecration of Jewish cemeteries in recent days it makes me wonder about the view that building this pipeline is acceptable.

  7. Eleanor; if I remember correctly, during the census in the southern states in the mid-1800’s, districting (gerrymandering) allowed plantation owners to count each slave as 3/5’s of a person which has something to do with creation of the Electoral College. I don’t believe Native Americans were ever counted as being citizens of this country; their citizenship is evidently still in question as they have no rights to this day.

  8. The oil cartel in this country is disgusting and what they have done to those protestors is disgraceful. I can’t even talk about that issue without it raising my blood pressure.

  9. Sheila, this is only a slight variation on the old maxim that “them what’s got the gold makes the rules.” Thus Buddhists have their shrines, Jews their wailing walls and ancient claims to land in and near present-day Israel, Mulims their Mecca etc., and apparently we have American Indian tribes who have whole swaths of territory here and there which they regard as sacred ground.

    Our problem is that such “sacredness” is not universally shared and/or respected in a world where the population is increasing but the land area suitable for living and commerce is not, a supply and demand problem not likely to be helped as encroaching sea waters will in time reduce the supply side of this troubling equation. Moralists like Marty (whom I have long admired and happen to share his denominational views) who wrote a thick book entitled “God” are right in calling for fair play for all of the diverse actors, but don’t hold your breath. Capitalism and profit and pipelines and a Supreme Court holding from Connecticut not so long ago that private property can be condemned for a private (as opposed to public) use are all harbingers of corporate takeover of America which, unfortunately, is proceeding at an accelerating pace.

    It’s hard to get into the other guy’s shoes. For a variety of reasons, good or bad, fair or unfair, they don’t fit. We tout our diversity in this country as an affirmation of democratic principles, but sometimes, as applied to specific and colliding instances, we have to pick winners and losers. With Trump at the helm and the fossil fuel industry in the role of “thems what’s got the gold,” the Indians have a loser. Nothing is sacred but the next quarterly profit estimate by Wall Street analysts in the capitalist religion.

  10. Humanity worships power. Dominion over. Dominion over earth, other life, other people.

    That was held at bay for centuries by a simple piece of parchment containing some of the most powerful ideas ever considered.

    Now that respect for those ideas has been cast aside chaos will follow.

  11. This is a great time to be liberal in America. There is not even a slight chance that the fake President will succeed. While he beat Republicans in the primary and Democrats in the general election he is now the butt naked king with no place to hide from the devastation that follows him.

    I don’t even feel sorry for the American electorate for what they brought on themselves.

  12. In the opening response to Sheila’s March 2 blog, daleb said, “accepted doctrine is ‘wealthy old white men know what’s best for everyone.'” In my opinion, Fake President Donald Trump would change the accepted doctrine by one word. “Wealthy old Republican white men know what’s best for everyone.”

    Come to think of it, Trump would probably not be honest enough to make that statement. But that’s the way the old cookie has been crumbling for many a moon. And shame is not something that’s considered by one side of the political spectrum.

  13. It’s another reason to reduce our consumption of petroleum. There is a provision in the rules for federally funded projects that require an environmental impact statement and other documents that address impacts the poorest. I understand that the Corps of Engineer performed a study that found an EIS wasn’t required, but what about the economic injustice of routing through Sioux land?

  14. Add this log to the fire: the petroleum to be pumped through the line isn’t even intended for U.S. consumption–it is for export. Maybe we could rationalize the outrageousness of violating the Sioux nation’s religious beliefs if the U.S. desperately needed the oil, but it’s not even for us–pure profit for the oil companies.

    Reminds me of that song “Cherokee Nation”. The sentiments apply, even though the song is about Cherokee people: “They took this whole Indian nation, locked us on this reservation. Took away our way of life–the tomahawk and the bowie knife. Took away our native tongue and taught their English to our young.” Now, they’re taking away the dignity of their sacred lands and trivializing their religious beliefs.

  15. It doesn’t matter to the fascists who now seem to have the power of numbers and are convinced that they know right from wrong, the christofascists, the israelifascists, the wallstreetfascists and the trumppenceryansessionsfascists. Good luck, America, the fascists are praying for you on the way to the bank, oops, preying on you.

  16. I am appalled at the lack of an Environmental Impact Statement for this project. I worked in the Airport Industry and before you could break ground on any project of any significant scope a very structured environmental analysis had to be completed and approved. I do not believe any such process has been attempted on this.

  17. This disaster has me sick at heart. What in the world can 1 person with no money do about this but hope and pray?

  18. Remember the old saying, “it’s not over until it’s over.” A few months ago I compared Donald Trump to General George Custer who learned the hard way against the Lakota at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. It seems history has a strange way of repeating itself.

    “Sioux is the white man’s name for Lakota. Lakota is the western, Nakota is middle, and Dakota is the eastern—these are dialects.”

    “They [Lakota Indians] also emphasized human values over material values. We noticed a respect for individual personality–they would give advice, but then allow a person to make his own decision, even children.”

    “In our society the emphasis is on the nuclear family, and in general gaining money and material goods for the nuclear family. In the Indian society the emphasis is on the group and sharing with the group. Status is not how much one has or keeps, but on how much one SHARES and HELPS.”

    ~Barbara Hunter Walch, from her course on American Indian culture at Florida State College in Jacksonville.

  19. Powerful, revealing analysis of the hypocrisy that underlies the majority of US economic, environmental, and political policy. While it is always painful for me to watch just how unjust my country can be, I have to say that the blatant, almost boastful behavior of those in power as they unapologetically stomp all over the rights and lives of those they define as “other” brings this dark side to business as usual right out into the open. Hopefully, more and more Americans will find it impossible to ignore these enormous contradictions to their ideals of America and their religious convictions, increasing the numbers of protestors mobbing their elected officials offices. But then again, given our cultural decline into desensitized numbness, Americans will do exactly what those in power assume they will do; brief outrage, then back to the same ol’, same ol’. I pray it will be the former.

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