When I went looking for Standing Rock, I blew right past the diminutive monument with its unremarkable parking lot and had to circle back. The rock is about two feet tall and mounted on a brick pedestal about six feet off the ground. Its humble appearance belies the worldwide recognition of its eponymous Native American reservation and people, the Standing Rock Sioux.
Armed with not much more than their slogan “Mni Wicconi” (“Water is Life”), prayers, banners, and songs, they have become known as “water protectors” for their non-violent resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline. It is poised to pump fracked oil across the American heartland and threatens to pollute their sole source of drinking water, the Missouri River.
I notice that someone has wrapped a flower garland around the base of the monument, a reminder that the rock is regarded as sacred. Although different native communities tell variations of its origin story, all agree that Standing Rock symbolizes a woman wrapped in a blanket and carrying a baby on her back. You can imagine it in the rock’s shape, broader at the base where she sits, and slightly conical, as though the top is a profile of her head.
The defense of ‘sacred sites’ and ‘sacred burial grounds’ against the profit-conscious and irreverent trajectory of the fracked-oil pipeline is a central strategy to block the pipeline entirely or re-route it away from the Standing Rock reservation. The sacredness imbued in Standing Rock however, symbolizes core values in the Native American culture–their ways of “being” and their relationship with the animals, plants, and geography of their ancestral land.
In the 19th century, these values were trampled upon by greedy colonizers. Today, in the face of climate change and planetary-scale environmental catastrophes, perhaps the modern American might be ready to hear what Native Americans have been asserting about the profound meaning of nature in their sense of themselves and the world.
The Native American creation story helps to explain these values. “Sky woman”, the original human, falls out of the sky into the oceanic world, pregnant and wholly without resources. This lonely, hapless soul needed help. Brave animals went out of their way to help her find footing. The Turtle offered his shell so she could have a platform to stand on. The brave Muskrat and Beaver dove down to the bottom of the ocean to bring up mud to make ground on the Turtle’s back for her. Sky woman danced to spread this tenuous mud, accrete more soil, and eventually develop the continent that her descendants could walk on. In Native American traditions, the planet’s continental mantle is called “Turtle Island”. Sky woman relied on non-human creatures to survive and find her foothold in this world. Animals are viewed as distant relatives. Human beings are embedded within the intelligent, animated plurality of nature.
How Sky woman behaved on Turtle Island is also instructive; she took care of the world so that her unborn daughter, in her turn, would be able to enjoy its resources to survive. In return for the ‘gift’ of nature’s sustenance, she, in return, nurtured and protected nature to sustain it for future generations. Wrapped into the belief of nature as a gift are two paramount values: reciprocity (you give back) and limits (you take only enough, rather than grabbing as much as you can for the purpose of accumulation and profit, without a thought for appropriate limits).
When David Archambault III, Chairman of Standing Rock asserts to the press, “Water is our relative, not a resource,” he is expressing a value system that reveres the gift of life from water, and makes a reciprocal gift–to protect the river, now threatened by oil pollution, from harm.
The semantics of Native American languages supports the idea that non-human species and land features have potent agency. Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about the ‘grammar of animacy’, in Braiding Sweetgrass, her book merging the wisdoms of traditional knowledge with the perspectives of modern science. Language constructions themselves force speakers to recognize that plants, rivers, and trees possess their own rationale and have specific qualities and character. Plants, animals, rivers, and bays for example, are considered animated beings with an autonomous will and motivations.
These notions may well seem alien to the western European for whom nature and culture are separated by a ranked, dividing line. The European cosmology (after having whittled away any remnants of their indigenous, pagan religions that viewed nature as an intelligent being) resists the notion that humankind was derived, just as all other life, from the context of nature. Thanks to Eve—the equivalent, perhaps, of Sky woman—who consorted with the Devil-snake, the world is ‘fallen’ in the Christian tradition. Heaven is the real reward; earth just a temporary, corporeal, pass-through to be suffered through, before we reach that infinitely better place. This is hardly a basis on which to ‘take care’ of the earth.
There are powerful consequences to these underlying beliefs. In the native American stories narrative structures always include animated relationships of intention, action and motivation of nature. The ‘human’ self is always in negotiation with ‘non-human beings’, and the moral and ethical framework of the culture encompasses connections of compassion, understanding and respect with ‘non-human beings’.
In the European world, other non-human species are not given the same moral standing as human beings. The ethical consequences are enormous. Nature is relegated to an inanimate, inert platform on which to build human enterprise. You use and take from it as if it is a resource that is there for the grabbing, without mindfulness of gratitude, reciprocity, or limits. Animals, rivers, and plants have no legal rights, including habeas corpus—the legal right to live without harm and to seek punishment for those who cause them bodily harm.
European languages reflect this limiting lens within which nature is an ‘object’ of use. In English a non-human entity is treated as an ‘object’; the appropriate pronoun in English for a tree or a moose or a river is ‘it’. When viewed as a ‘thing’ rather than a ‘being’, a tree is stripped of its intelligence, its motivations, and its relationships within the ecosystem. English grammar literally robs non-human life of animation and spirit. It also robs us of our own spirited and animated response to nature.
The language of Science used to ‘study’ nature strips away the human experience of nature. Science relationships described in terms of the interactions of physical particles. It has no language for the reciprocal experience of nature with humans. Only poets, who can use metaphors and fluidly refer to the emotional and spiritual faculties of being human, can acknowledge the entire range of human experience in relationship to nature: delight, love, reciprocity, healing, and beauty.
Sadly, the modern environmental movement reflects those limitations of language and the terms of Science. Rachel Carson successfully pierced the male-dominated 20th century technocracy with environmental awareness, but it was framed in terms of Science: the environment is important to protect for “public health” or for “ecosystem services”. Decades after her sad demise from cancer (linked to toxic chemicals sprayed into the environment at the time), the environmental movement is still relegated to an impotent role on the sidelines of extraction industries that sees the Earth as an ‘object’ rather than a ‘being’.
So, in this moment of planetary crisis, it’s perhaps fitting that it has taken a group of Native Americans, rather than the science-based environmental movement, to elevate the fight to protect nature, and sear the uneasy conscience of many Americans.
On an especially cold October day, police, who look like formidable robotic war machines rather than human beings, used especially violent tactics against the water protectors. Over 140 people were arrested in front of the pipeline work site. When Native Americans standing in freezing Dakota rivers take body blows and cry from the sting of tear gas, it goes beyond limiting a pollutant to a particular threshold beyond which the river cannot be used as a drinking water source or a recreational resource. It’s because they see their history as interwoven with the gift of that river, and at the same time, they want to secure it for future generations, both of people and other creatures in nature. They see their identity in the river. What it means to be a human is wrapped into their need for and bonds with the river. They defend the river out of love for both their children and their “relatives” in nature—its rivers, birds, and fish.
Americans of many stripes now rally around the slogan, “I stand with Standing Rock”. I like to think their solidarity with the Sioux marks an internal awakening to a reciprocal, spiritually-alive relationship in which self and nature are linked. Modern Americans who observe or mimic Native American prayers and ceremonies can begin to accept and perhaps imitate in their own way, a language and attitude that respects nature in all her infinite intelligence, and limitless variation.
I realize more profoundly that people who see nature as an animated being can see the sacredness of Standing Rock. The people who took care of Standing Rock for generations recognized its significance without carving and chiseling the rock into a human form of a woman and a baby. They knew that the “human” form is not the only form that matters; we are only a part of this rich and complex diversity of creation–human and non-human–that make up the world.
How we use our significance and influence as humans in this world matters. Just consider the untenable imbalances we, as a species, have wrecked on the planet.
I wonder if the words “I stand with Standing Rock”, might contain a deeper symbol of a transformation of modern hearts and minds. Animals, trees, mountains, rivers, and nature might hold deeper meaning for us than just “resources”. We may yet recognize the truths of the Native American values that were crushed in the 19th century. We have the ears to hear now. We recognize that those values offer us the wisdom we need to survive. We are bound together with nature, like family, in need, love, and reciprocity. We need nature to live, and she needs us to find our better selves so we can see, respect, and care for her.