An Enlightened Diwali: Saving the Sacred at Standing Rock

This Diwali weekend, I thought I would take the time to do something that is symbolic of Diwali’s deeper significance: focus on the non-materialistic aspects of the holy day and shed the light of awareness on an issue that many are ignorant about.  The story of what is happening at Standing Rock is being largely ignored amidst the backdrop of the presidential election campaign and the hate that it has generated. As a Hindu who values the sacredness of all life and all Creation, the silence from the media and the public at large is deafeningly sad. Especially since the non-violent stand that is being taken against the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline is being met with violence against Native Americans yet again. Like musician Neil Young, “I wish somebody would share the news, I wish somebody would share the news…”

For the last few months, a massive camp-in has been led by the Standing Rock nation, one of the seven Sioux tribes, in order to block the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which would carry oil from the Bakken shale in North Dakota across several states and under the Missouri River. Native Americans and their supporters have come by the thousands, from around the world, to protest construction of the 1,172-mile Dakota Access oil pipeline, which would run within a half-mile of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. Opponents say the pipeline will adversely impact drinking water – the Missouri River is the main source of water for the Sioux and an accidental oil spill would be catastrophic – and disturb sacred tribal sites that are protected by federal law (more info is available on the Standing Rock Sioux Litigation FAQ).  

Through non-violent protests, living in teepees and tents set up at the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri rivers in North Dakota, Native Americans and their allies seek to protect Native sacred sites and the environment from continued encroachment and destruction by outsiders.  The Stand Rock Sioux are being supported by several other native American and indigenous groups from around the world, including representation from all the Sioux tribes. This is the largest coalition of Native American groups — more than 200 tribes are represented — in over a 100 years, and the first time in more than 200 years that the Oceti Sakowin, the Seven Council Fires, the political structure of  the Great Sioux Nation, came together to meet in one place.  

While media outlets from NBC to the NYT are now actually covering this — after a long media blackout — it has not received the national attention that it deserves as a critical issue of the times. Journalist Sarah Jaffe at Billmoyers.com explained Why the Struggle is Bigger Than One Pipeline: “For indigenous people, the fight to halt the Dakota Access Pipeline is about reviving a way of life.” Over 80% of the world’s biodiversity is being protected by 4% of the world’s population: indigenous people from all over the world, including the Native American peoples right here in the United States. In fact, nearly a decade ago, a principal finding of the World Bank report “The Role of Indigenous Peoples in Biodiversity Conservation: The Natural but Often Forgotten Partners” was that “creating a sustainable future for biodiversity conservation worldwide will critically depend on the active and effective engagement of Indigenous Peoples.”  The key recommendations of the report included actions that need to be taken by governments, international organizations, and funders. And the first recommendation? To support processes toward the recognition of the rights of Indigenous Peoples to their ancestral lands and natural resources. Today, we are doing the exact opposite, with only a temporary order halting the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline instead of recognizing the rights of the Sioux to their ancestral lands.  

In addition to all this is a double-standard: Native and indigenous people’s sacred sites are not given the same protection as man-made structures. If a church or a synagogue were threatened with similar destruction, there would be mass outcry.  Sacred Native sites aren’t given the same importance, since they are part of the landscape, something Mother Nature created. Standing Rock protesters talk about the river having rights – contrasting it to how in the current socio-political climate, corporations have rights. As a Hindu, it’s easy for me to relate to the Sioux protesting the destruction of what they hold sacred, given that we too hold nature sacred: the holy river Ganga is mother, the wind is deified as the god Vayu, and Mt. Kailash is venerated as the abode of the Lord Shiva.

This inherent respect for the divinity of the environment is something Hindus around the world share with indigenous and native people whose way of life has been decimated by conquerors and colonizers. As a Board member of the Hindu American Foundation, whose policy brief “Predatory Proselytization and Pluralism” calls out that the right to religious freedom is compromised for billions around the world, I have written about the asymmetry of power faced by Hindus – something that also applies in the context of Standing Rock.  Hindus around the globe recognize the rights of indigenous people to retain their traditions, just as Hindus worldwide seek to retain our traditions. We also share a common bond with indigenous people in adhering to non-violence, something that the Standing Rock protesters have held to for months – amid escalating tensions, or when faced with violence. With more media coverage from the likes of CNN, alongside social media campaigns to Stop the DAPL on Facebook and Twitter, perhaps the silence is broken, and people will learn more, and do more, about saving the sacred.

"This posting was a breath of fresh air. Thank you"

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