John Grim on Standing Rock: ‘This is Not Only About Water, It’s All About Water’

In recent days, the conflict has escalated over construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. John Grim, a senior lecturer and research scholar at F&ES and an expert in Native American religions, discusses the historical, cultural, and spiritual significance of the Standing Rock demonstrations for Native people.

Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.

defend the sacred
Since last April, members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their allies — who collectively call themselves “water protectors” — have been camped on the windswept prairie of North Dakota in an effort to block construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) across the Missouri River some 40 miles south of Bismarck.

Standing with Standing Rock

Earlier this month, F&ES students organized a public conversation about DAPL and drafted a Statement of Support for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. This statement, signed by over 300 concerned students, alumni, faculty, and staff, was delivered to the Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II last Thursday. Students continue to organize, fundraise, and travel to North Dakota to protest the pipeline’s construction, which, if completed, has huge implications for climate change and other environmental issues.

In two op-eds, F&ES masters students Sarah Lakshmi Sax ’17 M.E.Sc., and Christina Stone ’17 M.E.M. offer unique perspectives on the Dakota Access Pipeline. Sax discusses the climate change implications of the pipeline, and Stone, a native of North Dakota, describes her personal and conflicting emotions about the pipeline.
But in recent days, the conflict over DAPL has escalated. There are reports of rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons being used against the demonstrators, and last Friday, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple issued an executive order calling for the mandatory evacuation of the Oceti Sakowin camp. Native activists have responded that they have no intention of leaving the camps, except on their own terms. Indeed, this week a group of 2,000 military veterans announced they’re traveling to Standing Rock this coming weekend to serve as human shields for the water protectors.

Construction of the nearly $3.7 billion, 1,172-mile pipeline, which would transport oil from the Bakken shale in northwestern North Dakota to distribution centers in southern Illinois, is nearly complete. But organizers are hoping that their actions will convince the government to block the pipeline from crossing the Missouri River, the primary drinking water source for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Protests against the pipeline’s construction have occurred at several points, especially where the pipeline crosses rivers in Iowa and Illinois. But none has garnered as much support and attention as Standing Rock.

Standing Rock is the largest Native gathering in the U.S. since the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. Hundreds of American Indian tribes and indigenous allies from as far away as Scandinavia and New Zealand have come to support the water protectors. And despite the current sub-zero temperatures and blizzard-like conditions, activists say there are still upwards of 5000 people at the camps.
grim john jag232 John Grim
For greater cultural and historical context of the water protections at Standing Rock, we sat down with John Grim, senior lecturer and senior research scholar at F&ES. Grim, a native of North Dakota, is an expert in indigenous religions and culture. He has written and lectured extensively on indigenous religions, and has been adopted into a Crow family and participated in many Crow ceremonies. Grim, along with his wife, Mary Evelyn Tucker, coordinates the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology. He is the author of “The Shaman: Patterns of Religious Healing Among the Ojibway Indians” (University of Oklahoma Press, 1983), and series editor of “World Religions and Ecology,” from Harvard Divinity School's Center for the Study of World Religions. In that series he edited “Indigenous Traditions and Ecology: The Interbeing of Cosmology and Community” (Harvard, 2001).

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

I’ve read that up to 300 American Indian tribes — and the Sami in Scandinavia and Maori from New Zealand — have come to North Dakota in support of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. How significant is this action for indigenous people?

JOHN GRIM: It’s important for me to say that no one speaks for Hunkpapa people. They are capable of presenting themselves. There are people out there from the community who are speaking about these issues and who realize how important it is to bring this information out and to let people know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.
This action has called across Indian country and has brought up participants from so many different peoples to stand in solidarity. We know that kind of pan-Indian movement from the powwow highway and the Native American Church, but this is at a scale that’s remarkable.
I think part of what this is about is an education for the larger American public. [The Hunkpapa] have been interacting with the dominant U.S. government for 150 years. They know the stakes are loaded against them. They’ve won a few, but lost more than they’ve won. And they’re still willing to stand up in this regard.

What is the role of religion for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe?

GRIM: For the Hunkpapa, the use of the word “religion” here is really problematic. I find the word “lifeway” much more helpful. Lifeways are the values that pervade the way they interact with the world, with one another. I think that we, namely dominant America, are not entirely out of that interpretive schema either. Our values pervade the way we are interacting with Hunkpapa people now. The Lakota concept is to stand in reciprocity, to deal with the need to bring to bear one’s values on the world. Among the Lakota, there’s this phrase: Mitakuye oyasin. When you enter into a ceremony, especially a sweat lodge, it’s entirely appropriate for a Lakota person to say Mitakuye oyasin, as if to say, “Everything I have experienced in this ceremonial moment is in relationship to all my relatives.” This is not a scientific ecology; Mary Evelyn Tucker and I tend to use this phrase “religious ecology” to try and get at what’s going on when people have a sense of humans embedded in a world in which they stand in relationship to this world in a certain way.
It’s really interesting to think about what is culture in relation to values — they’re one and the same. That’s what I’m trying to get at with “lifeway,” the idea that this is not simply an environmental resistance movement.

You’ve spoken about a Doctrine of Discovery. Describe that term and what it has meant for Native peoples?

GRIM: These Lakota people experienced during the mid-nineteenth century the full brunt of the then-developed United States of America. The experience of the Lakota and of all Native people was of a state moving across this continent strongly influenced by a Doctrine of Discovery that had been formulated in the European nations in conjunction with Christianity. The whole idea of the Doctrine of Discovery is that religious ideas are embedded in domination, and the deeper argument for domination is based on the Christian sense of subjugation to conversion. The Doctrine of Discovery ignored the religion and culture of indigenous peoples of the Americas. It thus provided the justification to subjugate others if you convert them because Christianity provides the path to heaven. You’re actually saving people who otherwise would be lost and you’re doing them a huge salvific favor by Christianizing. And of course, they become members of the state by being baptized. In this country we moved to separate church and state, but those values are totally embedded when we talk about eminent domain. We’ve shifted the Christian ethos of baptism into citizenship in the marketplace of ideas that’s the United States of America.

What does a sacred site mean coming from the Native perspective, and what’s really at risk of being damaged with this pipeline?

GRIM: I think sacred sites are just so amazingly different among Native peoples. There are sites there that are understood to be spiritual presences where people don’t go, and there are other places that people go in order to communicate with those spiritual beings. And there may be occasions where they overlap, or they flip. I think this is where the people themselves, their understanding, is crucial. And we need to respect that understanding.

I’ve seen photographs of water protectors on horseback or wearing feathers in their hair. Why are these traditional symbols important to the Lakota?  

GRIM: That type of background question is very helpful because perceptions of Native peoples are largely by virtue of acting in a grade school Thanksgiving play, or a Hollywood movie that generally situates Native people in the period of the Indian Wars of the 1860s-70s. The image is really crucial and complex and historically fraught. But this image issue also works against Native people in the sense that if they show signs of adapting to cars, watches, iPads, going to Yale Law School, then they have, by that very action, left behind their so-called tradition. The DAPL action, by using the word “protector,” is affirming traditional values of these Lakota people who call themselves Hunkpapa.
People who come to the Sacred Stone Camp are given nonviolence training. Even the use of that word casts it in a Gandhian, or at least contemporary, resistance. This nonviolent training has to be anchored into Lakota traditional values. These Hunkpapa people have a profound cultural history in which they have thought about themselves in relationship to where they’ve lived for thousands of years and they have come up with an intricate and complex set of stories, set of values, set of ways of acting in the world that they find successful and communicates not only who they are as people, but a way of life that nurtures them and the life community… I think that’s also what we’re seeing with all the feathers, headdresses — the efforts to foreground what we call “culture.”
I can hear people saying, “These people are standing in the way of progress. They’re frozen in history; they don’t understand what the world is about.” My response is that I think they understand the world better than dominant America does. We can’t live without water; we can’t survive. And so this action in support of water is all the more important. It’s what this School is about.

For somebody who’s unfamiliar with treaty rights, how important are these treaties for the Lakota?

GRIM: The U.S. Constitution mentions Indians and gives to the United States government the right to negotiate with these foreign nations. We inherited from the British and the French a process of interacting with Native nations as nations. Those treaties are not all the same. Some treaty makers were quite savvy and some were not. The Great Sioux Reservation included the Black Hills. Gold was discovered there in 1875 and in rushed illegal gold prospectors. The military came in to protect the miners, and with a larger agenda of, again, domination. The Indian Claims Commission, in an effort “to do right” concerning all broken treaties, determined that the Black Hills were illegally taken and offered $15 million in compensation, but the Lakota refused the money, which has been held in escrow and is now worth over a billion dollars. This is their Holy Land. What we did is alienate these people from their Vatican and carved Mount Rushmore in the midst of their Holy Land.
The Lakota word for white person is wasi’chu — (which means) fat-takers; they take the best parts and they want everything.

I recently read quote by a Hunkpapa person who said, “They’ve been waiting since Custer to do this.” What do you think he meant by this statement?

GRIM: Someone who was not sympathetic would say it’s paranoia. But I don’t think it’s paranoia; I think it’s a real assessment. If you think about 1887 — all the bison are killed. There are remnant herds in Canada and individual animals were brought to the U.S. and that’s the basis of the herds here today.There are Northern Plains people — Crow, Blackfeet, that used these buffalo. We now know that documents show very clearly that the military encouraged and actively assisted in the aimless, pointless, and wasteful killing of buffalo. So that sense of “out to get us” can be traced back very early. In 1887, the Dawes Act allotted 160 acres to every man, woman, and child on the Indian reservation. And when that land was allotted, all the so-called “extraneous land” was then open for non-Native settlement. So, no “prior and informed consent” by Native people at all. They knew about it, but what voice did they have in the United States Congress?
There was the Dawes Act, and the forced removal of Native people from the eastern U.S., and boarding schools where children were taken away from their families to be educated out of their languages, out of their cultural identity. In the 1950s, there was an effort by the Truman administration and the first Eisenhower administration to terminate all treaties. Treaty-making ended in the 1870s by a formal act of Congress, but the 1950s termination policy was an effort by the United States to get out from under — that’s how the metaphors were put — the burden of these wards of the state; to cut off any kind of promised payment that many people had never received. These ongoing activities are behind the statement: “They’re out to get us.” It’s not as if it was just one thing.

How do treaty violations play into the legal argument that the Tribe has to fight the pipeline?

GRIM: The pipeline itself is not on the reservation but the fact that the pipeline would go under the Missouri River is what is threatening to the water on the reservation should there be any leaks. Many scientists have expressed concerns about leaks that have occurred across the country.So the threat that is perceived to the water and that these individuals are standing up to protect is embedded in the treaty right that Native people have to foster life and sustain life on the reservation. And outsiders, or the United States government, shall not take activities that endanger their lives. So in the treaties are written these stipulations that Native nations, like the Pueblos in the Southwest, have used to successfully sue cities, like Albuquerque, about water quality for rivers that flow through Albuquerque and then onto the reservation.

In essence, Standing Rock is really about a lot more than protecting water.

GRIM: I find an interesting way to get at it is, “This is not only about water; it’s all about water.” We’re in this incredible contradictory episode where, when you talk about water, well that’s romantic imaging, or it’s religion, or it’s a symbol; and it’s also about reality, pragmatic reality. It’s not only about water; it’s about a whole range of issues. But it’s about water.