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Vestiges of Divine Right

Greetings WAC Community,

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” – From the creation story in Genesis 1:28

First, Creation Justice forwarded us some good news this past week.  The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe won a significant victory in its fight to protect the Tribe’s drinking water and ancestral lands from the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL).  A federal judge ruled that the federal permits authorizing the pipeline to cross the Missouri River just upstream of the Standing Rock reservation, which were hastily issued by the Trump administration just days after the inauguration, violated the law in certain critical respects.  Judge James Boasberg wrote in a 91-page decision, “the Court agrees that [the Corps] did not adequately consider the impacts of an oil spill on fishing rights, hunting rights, or environmental justice, or the degree to which the pipeline’s effects are likely to be highly controversial.” The Court did not determine whether pipeline operations should be shut off and has requested additional briefing on the subject and a status conference this coming week.  

The pipeline development emanates from a heritage of belief in some having a divine right to impose their will on others.  I have it wrong.  I should not be working to end racism, but to end what has given rise to racism: the vestiges of divine rights, which have been justified by the gross misuse of an interpretation of Chapter 1 of Genesis that God giving the right to some to subdue others.

Kenneth Chestek, a professor at the University of Wyoming Law School, spoke on a panel with me at the 7th Annual Return to Foretop’s Father (what the Crow call Heart Mountain).  Ken presented on the history of the Manifest Destiny in Wyoming.  Grant Bulltail, a Crow spiritual leader, led off telling about the negative impact of the European conquest beginning 500 years ago. Ken, researching the origins of the Doctrine of the Manifest Destiny (belief that the United States should expand westward to build a “New World” without regard for the existing people), suggests that the divine rights that European kings were believed to hold, were shaped to give them the right to claim “ownership of land” (an unknown concept to the native people) over an entire watershed at the mouth of a river.  The United States took on this same belief, why it was so important to President Thomas Jefferson for Lewis and Clark to reach the mouth of the Columbian River.  (Mary Keller calls this westward expansion by European settlers the democratizing of divine rights.)

I realized as Ken spoke that we still have the vestiges of the divine right alive and well today in Wyoming exemplified by the conflict in the border decisions between the State and the Wind River Indian Reservation.  The vestiges interfere with our understandings of tribal sovereignty and federal trust responsibility.  I talked about the need to counter the power imbalance and how the Wind River Native Advocacy Center is doing this by being a voice for the people on the Wind River Reservation, using the example of the passage of the American Indian education program bill, which nearly was stopped by the President of the Senate because of his anger toward the tribes for appealing the most recent court decision about the border.

Noel Two Leggins, a Crow youth, closed out the panel with a message of hope that the Crow tribe is in the process of reclaiming its heritage.  I see that happening with the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone also.  Education about the past and restoring what sometimes has been nearly lost of Native American traditions can lead to the formation of a better future.  There’s still much to do to bring about justice.  It gets messy sometimes.  But by working respectfully together, we will counter the vestiges of the misguided beliefs about divine right.

Grant Bulltail, Crow spiritual leader, leading Pipe Ceremony and sharing the meaning of Foretop’s Father.

Fear not. Be bold. Do justice.


Chesie Lee

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