In recent weeks, protests against the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline across North Dakota have escalated. Native American elders, families and children have set up tipis and tents on a campsite near the pipeline’s path in the hope of stopping the pipeline’s construction.
Dave Archambault Jr., the leader of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe that is leading the efforts to stop the pipeline, summed up what is at the heart of the issue. In a brief two-minute statement before the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, he said,
“Oil companies are causing deliberate destruction of our sacred places.”
As a Native American scholar of environmental history and religious studies, I am often asked what Native American leaders mean when they say that certain landscapes are “sacred places” or “sacred sites.”
What makes a mountain, hill or prairie a “sacred” place?
Meaning of sacred spaces
I learned from my grandparents about the sacred areas within Blackfeet tribal territory in Montana and Alberta, which is not far from Lakota tribal territory in the Dakotas.
My grandparents said that sacred areas are places set aside from human presence. They identified two overarching types of sacred place: those set aside for the divine, such as a dwelling place, and those set aside for human remembrance, such as a burial or battle site.
In my forthcoming book “Invisible Reality,” I contemplate those stories that my grandparents shared about Blackfeet religious concepts and the interconnectedness of the supernatural and natural realms.
My grandparents’ stories revealed that the Blackfeet believe in a universe where supernatural beings exist within the same time and space as humans and our natural world. The deities could simultaneously exist in both as visible and invisible reality. That is, they could live unseen, but known, within a physical place visible to humans.
One such place for the Blackfeet is Nínaiistáko or Chief Mountain in Glacier National Park. This mountain is the home of Ksiistsikomm or Thunder, a primordial deity. My grandparents spoke of how this mountain is a liminal space, a place between two realms.