Protesters march in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota in 2016. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty)

Cannonball, North Dakota, 2016

The three bustling camps of water protectors near the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline’s crossing of the Missouri River lay along the placid banks of the Cannonball River as it joins the Missouri. The pipeline would pump nearly half a million barrels of crude daily under the river a half mile upriver from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. In October 2016, a friend and I set out to offer our modest support to the camps and learn more on the ground about what I had spent several weeks trying to discern in a sprawling, complex legal decision by a federal judge in faraway Washington, D.C.

The judge had denied a motion by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to block construction, rejecting its arguments that sites of sacred, cultural, and historical significance were unlawfully endangered and specifically that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency controlling the land of the crossing and holding the power to issue the final permits to make the 1,100 mile oil pipeline a done deal, had failed to comply with the consultation procedures with the tribes under the National Historic Preservation Act.

I knew that the Missouri River is vital to the seven Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota nations that make up the Oceti Sakowin, the Seven Fires of the Great Sioux Nation, not to mention the Mandan, Arikara, and Hidatsa nations of the upstream Fort Berthold Reservation. I also knew something about how utterly devastating to these nations was the flooding of their choicest bottomlands by the massive Pick-Sloan dam projects of the 1940s and 1950s, especially given the most famous treaty abrogation in U.S. history, that of the Fort Laramie Treaties of 1851 and 1868, the incursion of gold seekers into the sacred Black Hills, and Custer’s errant bravado to defend them.

I had time to ponder these things in the long hours of the drive across the eastern Great Plains “out” from Minnesota to Cannonball, North Dakota. I also pondered the name Cannonball; how it must have become important to history by virtue of some U.S. military atrocity, and how fitting it was that what I took to be “protest” camps against the pipeline had remapped such a place and made it a center.

I should have known better.

Even before the road arrived on the crest above the splendid camps, with their tipis, trailers, mess tents, flags, and horse corrals, we pulled over at Cannonball’s store and saw in its parking lot a monument with an olive stone orb, the size of a large globe. This we learned, was one of the inyan wakanagapi, translated into English as cannonballs by someone familiar with the U.S. military, or perhaps that person saw a cannonball and understood it as one of the inyan wakanagapi.

According to Lakota tradition, these sacred stones took their shape rolling around in the powerful eddies that swirled each spring at the confluence of the rivers. Each spring, that is, until the Army Corps of Engineers built Oahe dam in the 1950s, flooding the places where families lived, horses fed on hay, elders picked and used medicines, and ancestors were buried. The reservoir, Lake Oahe, swallowed up precious land for a staggering 250 miles upstream, the length of Lake Ontario.

It was clear on that day of our arrival that there was here a roiling confluence of sacred and profane, of the holy and of its potential desecration. But the sacred was not simply a function of the threat of desecration. As the sacred stones suggested, the sacred went deep here. The area around the confluence of these rivers was a veritable sacred district. Weeks before, construction crews clearing the way for the pipeline had bulldozed ancestral memorials and stone circles holding indigenous sky knowledge. Visible from “Facebook Hill” above the camps, where water protectors went for cell phone reception, were the tips of Twin Buttes, two hills where the Mandan people say their ancestors descended to first walk the earth, and which a Cannonball resident told me has been known to glow at night with spirit emanations.

And the three water protector camps formed at the self-same place where Sitting Bull and his Hunkpapa Lakota followers traditionally kept their winter camp. We were told Sitting Bull himself wore a small inyan wakanagapi around his neck as a talisman of his spiritual power. Native people of the camps spoke hopefully, not just poetically, of the return of traditional community, language, culture, and religion to this important place. The inipi, or Sweat Lodge, that a Lakota spiritual leader had created at the Rosebud Camp, where we were guests of Curly Eagle Hawk and his leadership team, was there to provide spiritual sustenance to water protectors. But the lodge also took direction, and made possible further spiritual direction, from spirits in that place. These correspondences ran deep.

So I should have known better. We had not arrived at some protest camp erected “out there” on the Plains at the arbitrary geography of a diagonal pipeline’s appointed crossing of the Missouri. We had arrived at a sacred center, affirmed in the poetics of the sacred and only re-affirmed in the politics of the sacred. When we left, even after only a mere couple of nights at the camps, my own geography had inverted. I wasn’t driving back to Minnesota from “out here”; I was leaving. Imagine how it has felt for the thousands of indigenous water protectors who sacrificed half a year of their lives, many of whom are still paying the price.

My latest book, Defend the Sacred: Native American Religious Freedom beyond the First Amendment, is about such places as Cannonball, about the significance and orientation they have provided Native American communities and about the duties and obligations Native peoples have had to them for generations. I am emphatically not using the past tense, not simply to suggest that a few of these traditions are still alive; I’m using the present perfect tense in order to underscore both that Native peoples continue to practice their traditional religions and that changes made to traditions by those communities can be understood as part of what keeps traditions alive. It is also about how such places are sacred today, especially in light of threats to access, use, and integrity. It is also about the resilience and capacity of Native American peoples to tend the fires of their traditional religions in spite of centuries of concerted efforts to drown those fires by baptism, or by criminalization under American law, or by taking their oxygen through a Euro-American craving for Native spirituality, a craving that I show has also undermined legal claims to Native American religious freedom.

Native American traditions have long eluded capture by the modern Western category of religion, but Native American people have out of necessity appealed to the American discourse of religious freedom to assert their sacred claims. Ojibwe people with whom I’ve worked the past 25 years hasten to point out that there is no word for “religion” in their language: Religion can be found everywhere and nowhere at once in a traditional lifeway through which they seek the full integration of the sacred. “If you pull on the thread of ‘Native American religion,’” historian Joel Martin writes, “you end up pulling yourself into the study of Native American culture, art, history, economics, music, dance, dress, politics, and almost everything else. Talk about Hopi religion and you must talk about blue corn. One thing always leads to another and another when land, religion and life are one.”

The language of religion can [especially] fall short of the range and complexity of Indigenous commitments to lands and waters. Indigenous places can be sacred, but not necessarily in terms of a non-negotiable dichotomy between the sacred and the profane. Places may be too sacrosanct to enter, needing time to themselves, or places may be sacred at certain times or for certain purposes, but not impervious to other, less religious uses.

But sacred is not such an ill-fitting term to describe the sense of duty and obligation to such places, the sense of reciprocity with those places, and the moral standing or spiritual subjectivity of the places themselves, or the plants and animals that people them. To speak of the sacred is to invoke, properly in my view, an appreciation for the depth of these relationships, their more-than-instrumental value, and the real presence and subjectivity of spiritual others. Indeed, where many discussions on the topic hearken to what Native people may mean when they say “we have no religion,” I think it useful to begin instead from Suzan Shown Harjo’s way of putting the matter: “We have no one word for religion.” This is to say, Native peoples have a rich vocabulary, not to mention grammar, syntax, and idiom, for what is reductively called “religion” in the modern West. Drawing on her Muscogee and Cheyenne heritages, Harjo points to how the plethora of words for religion are subtly inflected for specific contexts, including a term for “people who go to ceremonies who don’t have the religion to back it up.” Awareness of the sophistication of Indigenous dispositions to the sacred can thicken the understanding of any claim about a practice like salmon fishing or wild rice gathering, about protections of land base, or language, or manner of political deliberation and decision-making. Given the sacred thread that runs through these, it is perhaps religion more than keywords of the secularized vocabulary of the social sciences—economy, ecology, law, or even culture, that best gets at Indigenous peoples’ lives and lifeways.

My book is also not just about sacred places. It is also about claims to ancestral remains and sacred beings in museum and scientific collections or in the ground in places under development pressure. It is also about claims Native American communities make, and increasingly make, to sacred practices, including ceremonial practices in highly regulated environments like prisons, but also about lifeway practices like fishing, hunting, gathering, and cultivating that are as much about living in proper spiritual relationships as they are about making a living.

The book examines how we regard the term sacred and its weightier corollary, religion, in the political and legal spaces in which these claims are made. It explores the intellectual difficulties and legal possibilities at the juncture of Native American traditions, the law, and the definition of religion. In the gaps between the urgent claims Native peoples make for places, practices, and material items that are surely religious though not plainly or solely so, and what courts, legislatures, and administrative arms of the government do with those claims, we find a space of the very making of the category of religion.

Michael D. McNally is the John M. and Elizabeth W. Musser Professor of Religious Studies at Carleton College. He is the author of Defend the Sacred: Native American Religious Freedom beyond the First Amendment, from which this excerpt was adapted.