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Dakota Pipeline Conflict Shows Political Theology Must Take Indigenous Spirituality Seriously (Roger Green)

As I write these words, the state police in North Dakota and the National Guard are moving in on protestors of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) in Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota.  Arrests have escalated.  At 5:20pm last Thursday, apparently shots were fired. The state police have closed in on protestors throughout the day.  There is no way for me to know as I write what the outcome will be, but it is not likely to be good.

The events of the past week include the arrest of 141 protestors, but according to a colleague of mine, who was in North Dakota recently, another 60-70 were arrested last weekend.

Both of these groups arrests come a month after President Barack Obama gave the protestors a thumbs-up saying, “You’re making your voice heard.”  On October 27th, protest organizers were asking people to call and email the White House in support of the protest at Standing Rock.

My goal in this brief post is to address in political theological terms the deep framing rooted in the Christian doctrine of discovery as described by Steven Newcomb, author of Pagans in the Promised Land and founder of the Indigenous Law Institute. Newcomb, who met with Pope Francis this summer, has argued that the roots of even the Standing Rock conflict are entrenched within papal bulls from the mid 15th century, even before Columbus “discovered” the “new world.”  More particularly, the Inter Caetera bull of 1493, issued by Alexander VI speaks directly to indigenous peoples of what came to be known as the Americas.

Newcomb gave Pope Francis a copy of his book, which the Pope said he would read; but the real issue facing the people at Standing Rock has to do with the 1823 Johnson v. M’Intosh decision, which incorporated the Doctrine of Discovery into U.S. law.  This law continues to be cited in court cases against indigenous peoples and underwrites much property law in the United States.

As a general rule, religion as a concept is a European invention while variants of religiosity are of course ancient and diverse.  To the extent that we in the U.S. have legal recognition of “religious” entities such as the Native American Church – which was founded in 1890 amid one of the lowest population moments for indigenous people in the U.S. – the concept is itself expressive of late nineteenth and early twentieth century definitions of religion.  Of course, the expressions of “religious freedom” had more to do with post-Reformation offshoots of Protestantism than ecumenical interfaith or “world religions” models of inclusivity we see today.

David Chidester’s recent book Empire of Religion goes a long way in discussing the ways that religious studies as an academic discipline are entrenched within the process of colonization.  Still, with respect to the both the laws in the U.S. seeking to protect native American “religion” and the liberal and New Age seekers who seek to adopt such practices, there is almost always an undercurrent or shadow text of Christian Protestantism.

The blurry distinction between “religion” and “spirituality” so often invoked has also recently been called into question by the sociological work of Nancy Tatom Ammerman’s Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes.  Although Ammerman’s work admits to being expressive of mid-to-upper class demographics and thus favors the retention of “religion” as a category, both concepts (religion and spirituality) tend to exist within a Protestant Christian frame that views religion as a static and transcendent category.

It was just such a static and transcendent category of religion that led early twentieth-century Protestants to seek the fundamentals of their religion and to retreat from a conflation between politics and religion, especially after the Scopes trial in 1925.  As is well known, the neo-fundamentalism of the 1950s and 1960s in the U.S. was able to successfully galvanize a politically-oriented conservative religious base that coalesced during the late 1970s and came to be known as the “religious right” in the U.S.  The political-theological success of the movement’s rhetoric was in its ability to move a Christian fundamentalism from a place that saw politics as too worldly to a place where patriotic nationalism was in harmony with religiosity.

While the “religious right” has arguably lost traction, especially with the absence of “family values” in the current Republican campaign, there are no signs within U.S. politics that the transcendent and static notion of religion as a secularized Protestant Christian notion is going anywhere anytime soon.  In this sense we could say that what Carl Schmitt said about all significant political concepts being secularized theological concepts applies perhaps more distinctly to the civic ways we think of “religion” in the U.S.

Newcomb’s argument, which is based largely on George Lakoff’s cognitive linguistics, attests that the deep frames of Protestant theology underwrite politics in the U.S.  And let’s face it, the U.S. had one Catholic president, and he was assassinated in his first term.

Lakoff’s Moral Politics acknowledges not only that deep framing is at the root of political dispositions such as the “strong father” (Republican) but also the “nurturing parent” (Democrat).  As he suggests, it is not a simple binary between the two frames so much as the fact that, culturally, both Republicans and Democrats contain both frames.  As he says, we can all understand a Schwarzenegger film.

Rather than taking the political binary descriptions that Lakoff provides, however, Newcomb provides extensive linguistic metaphorical analyses in Pagans in the Promised Land to show that a deeper Euro-Christian frame continues to underwrite both law and public perception in the United States. It is from within this frame that people who have never studied Christopher Columbus can raise their voices.  As one conservative Christian recently told one my colleagues on the Native American Justice Committee at Iliff School of Theology the indigenous critique of Columbus is just another way “they” are trying to take another holiday away from “us.”

The affective identification of such a perspective has as much to do with politics as it does religion, but if you ask many conservative Christians they will tell you that they do not talk about politics in church.  “Politics” are seen as worldly whereas “religion” is transcendent.

If there is anything that proves Newcomb’s argument about the persistent political theological resonance of the Doctrine of Discovery, it is in the exclusivist and American exceptionalism of rhetoric that expresses itself from largely Anglo-Protestantism.  Only in a conflation of static transcendent theology enmeshed within a static transcendent notion of the State, where the State is deified within nationalistic sentiment, does the feeling that an “attack” on Columbus Day as an affront to “us” make sense.

The political-theological question with respect to indigenous people expresses itself not so much in bipartisan politics in the United States as it does in the forces that underwrite bipartisanship to begin with, a bipartisanship which works cooperatively to perpetually exclude indigeneity.  This means that in order to get at political theology with relationship to indigenous communities we need to somehow transcend the charged partisan politics that haunt the current presidential election.

An indigenous perspective will never accept an exclusively anthropocentric worldview that amounts to species-specific sibling rivalry at the expense of the world’s resources, not just for humans but for all creatures. As Phyllis Young, a leader in the Standing Rock opposition to DAPL put in in a recent speech at the Colorado State Capitol, “whether you’re a Nazi fascist or a left-wing liberal, we all water to live, and it is my people’s duty to protect our water” (I quote her loosely from memory).

The political theology of Standing Rock rests on agreements among indigenous tribes both before the formation of the United States that were implicitly recognized by the U.S. in their treaty with Standing Rock Sioux on April 29, 1868 at Fort Laramie, which defined the boundaries of their territory.

Article I of the treaty states, “From this day forward all war between the parties to this agreement shall forever cease.”  The actions by the U.S. at both the state and federal level on October 27th are to me in clear breach of the treaty.

Just as the Johnson v. M’Intosh ruling incorporated the doctrine of discovery as its legitimating shadow text, the treaty with Sioux acknowledged their community’s self-determination and sovereignty, including previous agreements with other “tribes,” including their sacred practices.  The protection of the water in the Missouri River, is held by Standing Rock Sioux to be a sacred duty.  Unlike the practices of Europeans, as Phyllis Young says, “God does not live in a house down the street that you visit on Sundays” (again, quoting from memory).

An attack on the land, to put this in terms relatable to the shadow text of Protestant religion, is an attack on Native American faith practices and “religion,” which is so often never appropriately recognized as such because of fundamentally different conceptions of the sacred.  Newcomb takes this argument as far back to the book of Genesis and man’s dominion over the Earth.

In a liberal democracy that truly recognizes the idea of religious tolerance, we must admit that the anthropocentricism that underwrites so much of our law and relationship to the environment is culturally biased within a Judeo-Christian deep frame.  It is therefore a constitutional obligation to the protection of religious expression to recognize and respect the indigenous perspectives with respect to potential oil pipelines on their sovereign territory.

This is a case where theology and politics cannot be separated from one another by a transcendent ruler or a transcendent God.

Roger Green, PhD, is a Lecturer in English who teaches composition and rhetoric at Metropolitan State University in Colorado.  His recent professional work brings political theology into conversation with the field of aesthetics.  He is the author of “Aldous Huxley, in the Aldous Huxley Annual: A Journal of Twentieth-Century Thought and Beyond (Ed. Bernfried Nugel and Jerome Meckier (vol. 14, 2014 / 2015) and several other related articles.  In 2011 he received a certificate from the Cornell School of Criticism for the work he did with political theorist Victoria Kahn.  He is also a performing musician and a composer.

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