Stand With Standing Rock Nov 11-15 2016 | Image via Flickr user Leslie PetersonThe spirited refusal of conceited and deaf forms of state secularity is on stark display in many contemporary protest movements. This is especially true in Native contexts wherein “Indigenous” is a relational category and “religion” is one of its most active and charged circuits. Visiting the Standing Rock camps in September/October 2016, and again in November, we were struck by the importance of religious registers, by the global scales involved, and by echoes of other momentous Indigenous protection movements. More than echoes, we heard voices. Specifically, we had conversations with a group of Sami musicians and with Kia`i (Protectors) from Mauna Kea who had come to the camp to offer support. In both cases, the clarity of their religious expressions—sometimes localized, other times more global in cadence—caught our ears.

Taking our cue from those conversations and encounters, in the larger essay that this post draws from,1 we explore contrasts, similarities, and connections between three paradigmatic Indigenous occupation movements: (1) Sami protests in the 1970s and early 1980s against a planned hydroelectric plant in Alta, Northern Norway, that resulted in a massive police action, but also in lasting gains for Sami communities; (2) the Standing Rock protests of 2016-2017; and (3) ongoing efforts of Native Hawaiian Protectors to stop construction of a large telescope on Mauna Kea.2 In varying degrees, these share the following features: culturally generative encampments, the solidification of wide-ranging international networks, intense police presence, and expressive cultural action in a marked religious key.

Here we limit our discussion to three topics: (1) an account of indigenous religion(s) as we engage the category; (2) a very brief introduction to the Alta case (for more on Mauna Kea, read J. Kehaulani Kauanui’s essay in this series); and (3) a discussion of religion-making aspects of the cases.

Indigenous Religion(s)

Extremely distant and distinct indigenous communities have over recent decades become more like themselves and more like each other. While not equally characteristic of all contemporary indigenous discourses of religion, this paradox is as prevalent on the global scene as it is inadequately accounted for by means of inherited analytical frames, especially with regard to religion. Our aim here, and in a larger research program (INREL), is to begin to address this lacuna.3

We are especially focused on understanding the relationship of highly local forms of indigenous religions (contextually bound) to more general expressions of indigenous religion (in the abstract). A major theme of our research is exploring how indigenous peoples appeal to the traditions of their ancestors as a means to open new cultural, economic, and political horizons in a rapidly changing and increasingly networked world. The ways they are doing so—becoming indigenous in a global manner—frequently share similar structural features, often happen in collective forums on global stages, and are resulting in shared discourses of “indigeneity” among indigenous peoples themselves, general publics, political and legal actors, and scholars. In this manner, indigenous religions (plural) take on partially shared social lives as indigenous religion (singular). These same dynamics are also generating novel ways of being “traditional” back home.

Sometimes these two senses of indigenous religion(s) map onto one another, other times they remain distinct, and still other times they stand in tension (here generative, there combative and territorial). Indeed, much of what animates contemporary indigenous religion(s) is precisely friction within communities over what registers, voices, and venues are most appropriate for announcing sacred claims at varying scales. Polyphony and cacophony often characterize this context, which presents us with an analytical challenge insofar as we must resist the desire to locate the one true voice of tradition, but instead apprehend full spectrums of expression that together constitute tradition in action.

“Religion” is central to this story; for it is that distinct sphere of human expression that simultaneously stipulates and depends upon hyper-specificity (this rock, this pipe) while insisting upon universal—or at least otherworldly—authority and relevance. Translations between local and global forms of indigeneity often rely upon this religion-fostered dynamic, whether by design or not. In other words, “religion” in its formal capacities is discursively exceptional in its ability to translate local-specific needs, experiences, and aspirations into broader (if not universal) frameworks. Thus it stands to reason and is clear empirically that “religion” and its cognates have been prime vehicles for enabling translation between local and global indigeneities. Protest movements are particularly visible and consequential sites of such expressions of indigeneity, which is why our attention has been drawn to them.

The Alta Case

To become one of the most extensive, bitter, and dramatic conflicts in Norwegian history, the Alta case involved a government proposal to dam the Alta River in Northern Norway for hydroelectric power. The conflict was settled by a Supreme Court ruling in favor of the plant in 1982,4 in the wake of four years of intense opposition, including encampments at the construction site, legal complaints, massive demonstrations, hunger strikes in front of the Norwegian Parliament, and the forced removal of frostbitten activists by six hundred policemen—one tenth of the Norwegian police force at the time.

An estimated twenty thousand people were involved in the activities and organizations established over the period, including Sami, Norwegians, and sympathizers from outside. The river-savers—to use the name preferred by the activists—depended on the willingness of mainstream media to cover their cause, and on old-style telephones, posters, and word of mouth to organize and mobilize for actions. Much of the national coverage was critical, with civil disobedience as one major concern, a sentiment with clear and disturbing echoes at Standing Rock and on Mauna Kea. In response to this discourse and pressure, activists used what was at this point a new identity and resource: repeatedly referring to the Norwegian government’s failure to live up to the United Nations human rights principles, which in international contexts, they supported.

The protests failed in the sense that the hydroelectric plant was built. But the events triggered a new phase of governmental relations between the Sami and the Norwegian State, and were followed by major shifts, politically, institutionally, and culturally. As a forerunner of later developments, the Alta case demonstrates the generative potential of encampment-based protest movements; for democratization, consciousness-raising, and solidarity and network building. Notably absent, however, was marked religious discourse. In this case, at least, secular indigeneity has a deep but evidently receding history. Forty years later, Sami travelling to and from Standing Rock performed their identities in a strongly spiritual way.

Consultation, Communication, Camps

At Alta, Standing Rock, and Mauna Kea, the banality of bureaucratized deafness around issues of cultural consultation has left Indigenous Protectors with little recourse other than direct action, even while they have made good faith efforts to work through the secular apparatuses of their respective states. In the case of Alta, specific consultation mechanisms per se did not yet exist, but broadly democratic instruments that should enable such consultation did, the failure of which underscored the need for culture-based consultation moving forward. Such a bind—of consultative promises and failed delivery of the same—links our cases, as do modalities of civil disobedience in a religious key. It has taken place at the edges of the respective states, highlighting their colonial claims to jurisdiction and foregrounding their monopoly on violence and justification thereof. So it is that Protectors position themselves on the high ground of nonviolent action.

Whether at Oak Flat, Standing Rock, or Mauna Kea, and in a growing number of instances, it is clear that even while proximate threats vary, responses to them are remarkably consistent, partly due to communication technologies, but also due to shared presence around one another’s fires. The network of Indigenous Protectors is breathtaking in its reach and mobility, yielding cosmopolitan scenes of indigeneity in the remotest of places. Occupation camps are spaces of survivance; of active resistance and renunciations of dominance, and come with fertile ground for identity and community making. There has been a constant flow of comings and goings at these camps, along with long-term settlements. Campers have shared food and sites, tasks and challenges, hardships and victories. They have also shared and jointly fashioned increasingly expansive frames of Indigenous religious belonging.

In a previous work, we suggested that indigeneity as a comparative category “may be most effective when understood as a circuit that is switched ‘on’ when ‘the Indigenous’ is no longer only local or exclusive, but reflexive and reflected, in short—transacted.” Alta offered some opportunities for this circuit to be switched on, but was primarily a contact-zone for the geographically dispersed population of Sami, and for alliances with non-Sami activists and organizations. Mauna Kea came with regular opportunities along these lines, especially with regard to Polynesian and Native American allies; at Standing Rock it was more or less constantly on. As possibly the most longstanding site of inter-Indigenous encampment, the habitus at Standing Rock, through aesthetics (for instance, through long lines of flags framing the camps) and protocol (welcoming ceremonies for newcomers), encouraged performances of distinct identities within the broader frames of an Indigenous “we.” Becoming Indigenous was facilitated through comparisons and translations on the ground, through everyday talks and encounters, through staged performances at the camps and during direct action, and through participation in ceremonies. The citizen-making apparatuses of nation-states here paled in comparison to solidarities formed and enacted on other grounds, notably narratives and ceremonial performances of shared experiences and collective futures as announced through prophetic idioms.

Standing Rock may be the “world’s Alta-case”—to quote former Sami Parliament president Ailo Keskitali—but relative to four decades of development, from near the beginning of the organized Indigenous movement to its present state, and from an environmental paradigm centered on local issues to the present one of global connectedness, it is one in which it makes sense to think of Mother Earth as one, her rivers as connected, and Indigenous peoples as her protectors. One, moreover, in which religious registers have become increasingly emphasized. Our cases speak to such developments, from a focus on Sami-ness at Alta, to global indigeneity at Standing Rock, and from the locally scaled problems of salmon and reindeer-herding to top-scale attacks on Mother Earth.

Illustrative of these changes, the main slogans at Alta and Standing Rock were, respectively, “Let the river live”5 and “Water is Sacred/Water is life.” Both slogans refer to specific rivers that can be seen, felt and literally protected, but the potential for upscaling varies. “Let the river live” refers literally to a particular river, and symbolically to Sami rights and the Norwegian colonization of Sami areas. “Water is life” refers to water (and rivers) in general, and thus to the foundations of life, to all people, everywhere. The Alta protest was primarily a specific case, framed by Sami symbols and performances, linked primarily to Sami politics. The Standing Rock protest was related to Mother Earth and to all her rivers.

The death of one river is a local issue. The death of water is ultimate and universal—a religious concern if there ever was one, even for the most hardened secularists among us.


  1. A full version of this piece will appear as “Protective Occupation, Emergent Networks, Rituals of Solidarity:  Comparing Alta (Sápmi), Mauna Kea (Hawai`i), and Standing Rock (North Dakota)” in Whitney Bauman and Laura Hobgood, eds. Elements of Religion and Nature (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, forthcoming).

  2. For more on protests at Standing Rock, see Kraft, Siv Ellen and Gregory Bruce Johnson, “FIELD NOTES Standing on the Sacred: Ceremony, Discourse, and Resistance in the Fight against the Black Snake,” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, 2017. ISSN 1749-4907.

  3. The paragraphs in this section are drawn from Greg Johnson and Siv Ellen Kraft, “Introduction” in Handbook of Indigenous Religion(s), eds. Greg Johnson and Siv Ellen Kraft (Leiden: Brill, 2017), 1-24.

  4. John T. Solbakk, Álttà-Guovdageaineanu stuimmi birra. Dráma odda áiggis. Drama i Nyere tid. Kampen om Alta-Kautokeinoelva (Karasjok: CálliidLágádus – Forfatternes Forlag, 2010).

  5. In Norwegian: La elva leve; In Sami: ellos jokka.