Indigenous people are showing White Christians the dynamic power of faith in action. Standing Rock is a spiritual center of transformation and a global symbol of the struggle for environmental and interracial justice. The Lakota words, “mni wiconi,” (water is life) have become a rallying cry renewing faith in the power of people to protect their land and water as we struggle to build a fair economy.
If we have ears to listen and eyes to see, we are being taught important lessons about the meaning of faith from our Native American brothers and sisters in at least four areas:
There is a fundamental difference between the way that Protestant Christianity thinks about land in its more conventional theology, and the way that Native Americans think about and understand our relationship to the land. For Native peoples the land is Mother Earth. Caring for the earth is a sacred responsibility. It is one of the duties that makes us human beings. In conventional Protestant theology we treat the land as private property. Cultivating and exploiting the land, by which we mean using it as an economic and commercial resource, is a mark of civilization. What we are learning from indigenous peoples is that our conventional approach to the land is spiritual bankrupt and not sustainable.
The Doctrine of Discovery
The doctrine of discovery is a quasi-religious doctrine that is rooted in 15th Century papal teachings written during the age of discovery and conquest, and a political principle of law for Christian states. For more than 25 years Native Americans have been asking the pope to revoke the papal documents that are the Christian basis of this doctrine. A growing number of mainline Protestant denominations have repudiated the doctrine of discovery, which has been used to justify land theft, colonialism, and genocide. A closely related and even more troubling issue is the plenary power of Congress, which is an issue we have not yet addressed.
The contrast between the non-violent witness of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the violence perpetuated by the Governor of North Dakota, the Sheriff’s Department, and the thugs hired by the company is a shameful demonstration of greed—placing profits over people. The corporate agenda of maximizing profits is the foundation of the current economic system. Nothing will change until we develop new economic models that value people over profits, and then fight for change based on this new priority. People of faith are well-situated to be allies in the fight for an economy based on the principles of respect for the earth, reciprocity, mutual respect.
Native nations entered into 800 treaties with the United States. These sacred documents promised indigenous peoples that “as long as the rivers flow, and the sun rises in the east,” the lands and resources that had been secured for them would be protected. In exchange for cession of millions of acres of land, the United States promised that it would provide indigenous peoples education and health care for all generations to come. The United States ratified 370 of these treaties, and then unilaterally violated every one. This history notwithstanding, Article VI of the U.S. Constitution names Treaties as the “highest law of the land.” White Christians can be valuable allies in the struggle to restore the integrity of these sacred documents.
Already almost $30 million in personal accounts has been withdrawn from banks invested in the Dakota Access Pipeline. You can join this campaign at #Defund DAPL. Write or call your legislator and demand that the federal government honor its treaties with Native American tribes. Learn about the 10 other pipeline projects in Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Texas, Alabama, Quebec, Canada and elsewhere that have already been approved. Join the San Carlos Apache Tribe in its fight to protect the sacred Oak Flats area in Arizona. Learn what is happening in your community and build alliances with the land and our neighbors. Put your faith on the line and become the change you want to see.
David Phillips Hansen has been in active ministry for over 40 years and is the author of Native Americans, the Mainline Church, and the Quest for Interracial Justice (Chalice Press, January 2017). His studies at the Pacific School of Religion and the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley focused on the role of religion in student movements, ethics, and economic policy. He has served pastorates in both the United Church of Christ and the Christian Christ (DOC) from Saskatchewan to Hawaii to Kansas, where he lives now with his wife of 50 years, Sally Duckworth Hansen.