Will Prayers and Ceremonies Stop the Dakota Access Pipeline?


“Hope Springs Eternal–The Ghost Dance,” by Howard Terpning

By Zig Zag, Warrior Publications, December 23, 2016

Over the last few months there’s been a lot of noise made about the power of peaceful prayers and ceremonies in resisting the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota. According to many participants, it was this emphasis on prayer that stopped the pipeline dead in its tracks, and paved the way for a historical victory.

But most of us understand that, at this point (late December 2016), over 92 percent of the pipeline has already been built, and only the last section—scheduled to go under Lake Oahe—has been delayed. While we can admire the courage and determination of those who stood against the police repression, which included pepper spray, less-lethal projectiles, water cannons and baton strikes, we should not dismiss the fact that, until the US Army Corps of Engineers announcement on December 4, 2016 (that they would not allow the easement for the DAPL to cross under Lake Oahe without further study), the protest movement was having minimal impact on construction.

There certainly were delays caused, particularly in September when activists “locked down” to machinery, but these were delays of short duration (a few hours, while cops figured out how to remove the locking devices used). And once police figured out how to block activists from reaching construction sites altogether, work proceeded as business as usual.


While police raid one of the camps set up to oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline, people sit in a circle praying the cops will go away.  Oct 27, 2016.

Aside from those who aligned themselves with the Red Warrior Camp, the great bulk of the protest camps resigned themselves to peaceful prayer walks to the frontline and ceremonies. Pacified elders, NGOs, and tribal bureaucrats worked hard to ensure that this was the extent of any sanctioned actions emanating from the camps. And because the Red Warrior Camp did not submit to these demands, the Standing Rock Tribal Council issued a declaration demanding that they leave, in early November.

In regards to the NGOs and bureaucrats, we already know why they sought a de-escalation in the confrontational attitudes expressed by the warriors within their ranks: it makes for bad public relations when you want to have the great masses of settler society and government officials sympathizing with your action. Along with legal challenges, gaining the sympathy of the “public” is the primary strategy of the NGOs and tribal officials as a way of creating political pressure on officials.

And to some extent this strategy was successful, but mostly because Obama did indeed sympathize with the struggle of Natives. He had visited the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe reservation in June 2014 and made his sympathies with Native peoples clear (for some background see this article: “In Dakota Access pipeline controversy, Obama’s ties to tribes played pivotal role”, Washington Post, Dec 5, 2016). Nearing the end of his second term as president, blocking construction under Lake Oahe was a politically expedient move for Obama (and may in fact be only a delay until Trump officially takes over).

But all this is another matter to be addressed at another time. Right now, my main concern is with the process of pacification that is being spread through this myth that peaceful prayer and ceremonies are all that is required to gain victory.

The Ghost of the Ghost Dance


US soldiers throw bodies of Ghost Dance participants into mass grave at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, December 1890.

Remember the last time that Native peoples thought that prayers and ceremonies would be enough to make radical change in the face of an armed and obstinate opponent? It was called the Ghost Dance, a spiritual revivalist movement spearheaded by a Paiute shaman named Wovoka. Although based in Nevada, Wovoka’s vision of renewal for Indigenous peoples spread across American reservations during 1889-90.

Wovoka claimed he had received a vision from God, and that if Natives practised the Ghost Dance this would reunite the living with spirits of the dead, bring the spirits of the dead to fight on their behalf, make the white colonists leave, and bring peace, prosperity, and unity to Indian peoples.

A variation of the Ghost Dance concept adopted by some Lakota in South Dakota was the wearing of the Ghost Shirt, which it was claimed would protect its wearer from bullets.

This spiritualist movement greatly alarmed government officials, who feared it was a precursor to armed rebellion (although there is little evidence that this was the case). The Bureau of Indian Affairs agent on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, James McLaughlin, claimed that Sitting Bull was behind the movement, and demanded military forces be deployed to counter the threat (at this time, Sitting Bull lived in Standing Rock). Consequently, some 5000 troops were sent to the region.



On December 15, 1890, Sitting Bull was shot and killed by a BIA police officer (Bull Head) during an attempt to arrest him for his promotion of the Ghost Dance.

Then, on December 29, 1890, soldiers from the 7th Cavalry attempted to take weapons from a camp of Ghost Dance participants near Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge reservation, in South Dakota. A shot was fired during the commotion, and the soldiers opened fire on mostly unarmed men, women, elders and children. As many as 300 people may have been killed, including 25 soldiers—many of whom were killed by friendly fire.

There are other examples of spiritualists claiming that their prayers would protect them from armed violence. When US troops moved to destroy Prophet Town, the base for the Shawnee leader Tecumseh’s growing confederacy, his brother Tenskatawa, known as the Prophet, told warriors that they would be protected and could not be shot. In a surprise attack on the soldiers carried out on November 7, 1811 (known as the Battle of Tippecanoe), over 50 warriors are estimated to have been killed. They withdrew from the fight, the village was abandoned as the warriors and their families dispersed, and it was subsequently burned by US troops.

Don’t get me wrong. I also believe in the power of prayers, ceremonies and spirituality. I’ve attended many types of ceremonies over the years: sweat lodges, potlaches, sun dances, pipe, peyote, etc. But I do not believe that prayers and ceremonies in and of themselves are enough. We still need to take action in the physical realm. Sitting Bull is a good example: prior to the Battle of the Little Big Horn, he prayed and sun danced and received a powerful vision guiding his people to victory. But they used their weapons and fighting skills to achieve that victory.

Posted on December 23, 2016, in Oil & Gas and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 31 Comments.

  1. Sad. I respect your words. Each person has to follow their own path. It would be harder to stand and take their abuse to show them how they are violent thugs and not fight back then to sit and pray and show them to be violent thugs to non violent people in prayer. In this day of instant documentation maybe things aren’t so different. They would have shot at anyone they perceived as a threat. I am not trying to make any point. Just wanted to acknowledge your words.

  2. Like every people and in this case ‘peoples’ there is a need to unify all processes…particularly the SPIRITUAL with the ECONOMIC and POLITICAL. I do think because of our culture, the SPIRITUAL can be very powerful in combination with the others.

    • There is certainly a lot that people can learn from employing a respect for diversity of tactics. The problem arises when people believe their way is the only way, and in this case it is the pacified protests and prayer circles which are promoted, while those that attempt more militant actions are undermined and denounced.

  3. You’re forgetting the legal fight. All of the Law Suits that have been filed! The legal fight regarding the Treaties, etc.
    Sitting Bull , was aided by Scouts who left the Army, because they would not kill their own.
    The US Army began the war, using fire power. It was not Sitting Bull!
    Are you instigating that we start a War with weapons? You are out of line and need to educate yourself with the true History of all the events over the years in the Dakotas! Peace🕊

    • I did not forget the legal aspect of the #NoDAPL campaign, I noted that this is the usual recourse for bureaucrats and NGOs.
      The scouts for the US Army were not Lakota but Crow and Arikara, who were traditional enemies of the Lakota and which is why they became scouts in the first place. At the Battle of the Little Big Horn, it was the scouts who first identified the village and urged Custer to attack. As the battle began, with Custer dividing up his forces, some participated in the fight and were killed, while others were released by Mitch Boyer, Custer’s interpreter. Some of these scouts left and watched the battle unfold, rather than participate, probably believing it was not a good idea after all to attack such a large encampment.
      Just as the US Army began the conflict against Sitting Bull’s camp, so too can it be said that Energy Transfer Partners “started the war” by building their pipeline and intending to cross under Lake Oahe. The Sioux Tribe have every right to defend their land and people. Nowhere did I state that the people should take up arms against the pipeline, but there certainly are many other tactics that can be employed besides praying.

  4. Your critique is zeroing in on what was happening in camp but you’re still stuck on this NGO stuff. NGO’s like owe aku and Honor the earth and FANG had people in Red Warrior on actions. The head of Thunder Valley CDC locked down with a trainer from IP3 and another from moccasins on the ground.

    As for the tribe trying to kick out red warrior? Well if you want the real story you go to Cannon Ball and ask them.

    I do appreciate your sharp mind. Thank you for this much needed contribution to the narrative. I’m still a bit sensative about it all because you’re talking about my family and my people.

    • The practise of non-violent civil disobedience type direct actions, such as lockdowns, are in my opinion part of the problem with NGO involvement in Indigenous struggles. The way NGO’s who promote non-violent direct action (NVDA) go about it is that those participating must undergo training in nonviolence and ultimately submit themselves to being arrested. This is contrary to the building of a warrior resistance and in my opinion pacifies our fighting spirit. NVDA, in many cases, causes only a minor and temporary delay in construction. If the Mohawks at Oka 1990 had simply locked down we would not have had a revival of warrior resistance in Canada throughout the 1990’s and up to this day, and they probably would have lost. If the people at Six Nations in 2006 had simply locked down and been arrested, the condominium project they opposed would probably have been built. If the Mi’kmaq at Elsipogtog had simply locked down and been arrested there would probably be fracking occurring all through New Brunswick. The most important victories we have had as Indigenous peoples in recent years, at least in Canada, have not had the involvement of NGO’s and I think that is an important reason why these victories were achieved by warriors, not pacified protesters.

      • Why didn’t you just come and see what we were actually doing? You praise Red Warrior in one minute and then call bullshit on their tactics.
        Truth is we wanted the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave to be Crazy Horse, the liberals wanted him to be Ghandi, but Dave is Dave, a common man.
        Its funny that you mention being a warrior because I’ve gone well out of my way to avoid the title.

        Standing Rock didn’t want a war or a fight and warrior resistance was not welcomed by the locals. Even the soft tactics we used enraged them. It got to the point where we were going to have to physically fight other lakota people before fighting the pipeline. and you’d know this if you just showed up.

        The training mandate came from the chairman to ensure his own people had some framework to work with. When some of the oglalas charged at police attempting to commit suicide by cop if terrified the shit out of a lot of people. Again the NVDA principles were not created by NGO’s but local leaders and elders and we pushed them way beyond their comfort zone. One of the headsmen told me I had no place in camp if i was an atheist, I told him my family and I drink this water, the oglala have been praying all summer and we were not leaving till the water is protected. well i left early. but you got to realize your critique is only theoretical, you’re not wrong you’re just not informed of our reality that we faced on the ground.

        As for submitting to arrest? Bunch of people wanted to get arrested to prove a point at st anthony, we cut around the blockade to make sure work was shut down. zero arrests.

        Consider this a first taste of resistance in a generation, most won’t have the stomach for it. NVDA training and actions were outside the comfort zone of many of the local leaders who wanted this to be prayer only. Your kinda talking smack about the only thing that slowed down the pipeline and as I recall you led no war parties to destroy the pipeline. That is the biggest lesson of standing rock, step up and do, no one is going to do it for you. Yeah, I didn’t lockdown because its not how I roll and its against my ethos but I learned to support the people who do.

        If this was a call to battle, we would’ve came to battle. there is danger here but its not from the NGO’s.

      • Thanks for your insights, Mark. I agree with your summary that even NVDA scared people because, as you said, there is a lack of experience. And it is this lack of experience which led people to relying on NVDA at first, and when that was blocked by police actions, to prayers and ceremonies as a means of opposing the pipeline.
        As I stated, what stopped the pipeline going under Lake Oahe was a sympathetic president in his last term in office who, in effect, has only delayed the drilling. Will these tactics work under a Trump regime, who has far more sympathy for the oil industry, as well as financial investments?
        In Canada there have been a number of successful resistance campaigns in which bureaucrats and NGO’s had little or no role, and these campaigns were militant and successful (ie Six Nations, Elsipogtog). Even the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline was cancelled because the government feared a radicalization of Indigenous peoples in northern BC, who were overwhelmingly opposed to it.
        The reason I’m criticizing the methods used in Standing Rock is because bureaucrats and NGO’s up here are already pointing at Standing Rock and the peaceful prayers and ceremonies as a model upon which to base their anti-pipeline protest movements, which in my opinion will lead to the pacification of Indigenous resistance, and which in the end will lead to defeat.
        As for myself, I didn’t make the journey to Standing Rock because A) I have a family and work that I cannot just abandon, and B) I did not want to participate in a protest movement that imposed non-violence on its participants. From my experience, anytime you have tribal bureaucrats and NGO’s participating in an action, they will blunt any potential for resistance and will work to undermine the warriors in their ranks.

  5. Jaime Omar Yassin

    Reblogged this on Hyphenated-Republic and commented:
    yep. And so many lessons here for other subjugated peoples.

  6. Vincent Nanticoke

    Perhaps you should pray for the return of the peacemaker then you’ll see the power of prayers…

    • Prayers can be powerful I do not dispute that, but at the end of the day we must still take action in the physical realm. I can pray for a big productive garden but I still have to till the earth, plant the seeds, and water and nurture the crop. The spirits may help us, but we still have to do the work.

  7. I agree with you that something more needs to be done, and I think many others will agree also. However, I am left scratching my head wondering why people aren’t taking this further. As a settler “ally”, I am grappling with the term ‘Solidarity’. Solidarity seems to be used exessively on social media. it’s a term that can imply spiritual connection to those at Standing Rock. For example: I am not physically at Standing Rock but I am standing in solidarity, in my heart, with the Sioux Nation in their fight to protect sacred water and overcome a legacy of oppression by colonizing settlers. Most folks (at least the ones I know) who claim to be standing in solidarity continue to live their lives not questioning the colonized constructs that which form their day-to-day lives, or they question it but don’t do anything about it. These are constructs and ways of living that the water protectors are protecting their water from – a system, an economy that can be dismantled when a large number of people start refusing to be a part of it. My question to you is, what kind of action do you have in mind? Are you a proponent to the idea that people need to start living by slower, more traditional ways, which is the antithesis of the settler self-regulated economic system? In other words, would you extend your argument to incorporate discourse that promotes living by decolonizing means?

    • The #NoDAPL struggle is not necessarily an anti-colonial liberation movement, it is a movement to stop a pipeline, or at least to stop it crossing under Lake Oahe. At the same time I think it’s part of a process of decolonization–now you have people living in tipis, living communally, participating in ceremonies etc. And the opposition to oil pipelines brings up the question of how society is so dependent and constructed around exploitation of natural resources. We can see in the camps people building an alternative type of society. But the bigger question of decolonization is a process, of which the #NoDAPL struggle will make an important contribution I believe.

  8. diversity of tactics is necessary, when one faction believes their way is the only way, this leads to ego-driven decision making vs consensus decision making. hierarchies are created that sustain the “we are right” faction and false-humility and passive-aggressive behaviors rule the day. so much more could have happened to protect the sacred water, and i hope the young people learn what kind of elders to NOT be.

  9. indigenousaction1

    Ahe’hee’ for your critical perspective, I’ve been working (in collaboration) on a piece that contextualizes sacred lands defense and attacks on Indigenous spirituality that also connects the Ghost Dance and DAPL resistance (to a lesser degree than your piece).
    May I reference/quote you?

    • Yes, and I look forward to your article.

      • Coaster Demarcating

        I believe that people have never learned the craft of non-violent resistance. When the population of Standing Rock was at its max (~10,000 people) an effort should have been made to peacefully march onto public land with hands held high to show that we had no weapons; even more effective to go in rows so as to not intimidate police. A mass-incarceration of protesters would have but immense economic, social and legal pressure on the government to shut down operations. No one would listen to me. Why? Because I’m not native? We were all once indigenous. We still are, at the core of our beings. This is a human struggle. Oh well, I know I did what my heart dictated…

      • “Mass incarceration”? That sounds like a bad idea. But you bring up a good point: there were thousands of people in the camps but when the protest actions happened at the construction sites you had only a few hundred participating. It seems like a lot of people thought that just being in the camps was enough action for them… I agree that at one time all peoples on earth were tribal peoples but that is not the case today, and you were participating in an Indigenous struggle…

  10. Ankhasanamen Sow

    Yes. I absolutely agree with your last paragraph. They are deathly afraid of the strength of the spirituality of PoC. But we must not underestimate that fear and their ability to disconnect ( by killing) us from the material world. Warriors serve a purpose: they protect the People so that they can do the spiritual work that those people fear so much. We must recognize, understand and utilize that symbiotic relationship. Either/or is a western construct…the People must use the construct of both/and.

  11. Xonahuia. I was taught that prayers and ceremony are something that you hold and carry with you through your thoughts, words, and actions, they dont stop at the end of attending an event. Prayers dont always work according to our time, place, and conditions. I feel to state or suggest that prayer was a failure because it did not meet your expected results within your preferred time frame is a bit shortsighted and I also wanna say a bit selfish.

    I was confused by the blog piece because you downplay native spirituality and the practicality of prayer for the first 90% of the article then on last paragraph say that you believe in them. For most Nativez prayer and spirituality is something we live and walk with all our life, not something we “attend many times.”

    I understand the sentiment you are trying to get across about not being physically idle but I think you do more damage to the reputation of Native spirituality than you do encouraging the common people to ante-up their self-defense game and mobilization.

    Peace nocniuh.

    • In the context of trying to stop a pipeline people need to do more than pray. We can look at our history and see this is true, and that is why they had warriors to physically fight. If all it took was prayers our ancestors would never have been colonized. As for the “reputation” of spirituality, the use of spiritual practises to control and pacify people in the face of a struggle such as NoDAPL is what tarnishes the concept of spirituality.

      • Xonahuia. Again, that’s going by your understanding and experience of “Prayer.” Also, I wasn’t talking about the reputation of religion in general, I was specifically talking about the negative attention regarding Native Spirituality you chose to focus on. Everyone plays their role in the circle, shaming others for their style and type of contribution to the struggle is not productive. There’s a time and place for everything and everyone, palabra still has to be respected whether one agrees with the decision or not, even more so if it’s not our nation or territory.


      • Right well maybe you should take your message of not shaming others over to the new age spiritualists and pacifists who have worked very hard at imposing their beliefs on others. And if people in our respective regions are going to proclaim that Standing Rock is the model for struggle then I am going to voice my opposition to this.

    • Wow, you put into words that which I could not. Prayer is a constant connection with God. A mindful walk. Thank you.

  12. As a Baha’i, and as a human being, I appreciate this sharing of yout thinking. Thank you. Megwitch.

  13. Reblogged this on Dolphin and commented:
    Spirituality IS at the heart of this battle. Zigzag mentions Donald Trump…if Donald Trump were to observe his Presbyterian spirituality, in which they believe that nature, the environment, is God’s Creation, and therefore, we should take care of it…then he would not pollute it. So, you see, spirituality is at the heart of all of this. Prayer is powerful. Connecting to God is powerful and is the only way to resist the dark side. In your passionate response to the dark side, it is important not to feed the dark side. Nor become that which you are fighting against. The dark side feeds off of negative energy and waits for the opportunity to replace the good in you with the bad.

  14. I appreciate the effort everyone has put into NoDAPL. It isn’t easy for so many people with different points of view to come together on specific actions. Even at the time of Red Cloud and Crazy Horse because each warrior fought independently it was hard to get all to cooperate. Please don’t become impatient with each other:argue, fight but stick it out together.

  1. Pingback: Will Prayers and Ceremonies Stop the Dakota Access Pipeline? | Warrior Publications – [ mexika.org ]

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