- Since my participation there, I’ve been thinking about what it means for me as a South Asian American and a Hindu to be a settler and practice my faith on stolen Indigenous land.
Gii miigwetch ahwayn nimiigoo
“Water, we love you. We thank you. We respect you.”
On a sweltering June day, I joined 1,500 people in marching down a country road in northern Minnesota, singing this song in the Ojibwe language, composed by Indigenous activist Dorene Day and her grandson. Surrounded by swarms of blue-green dragonflies and gently swaying aspen trees, in a landscape dotted with beaver ponds and paddies of wild rice, we were approaching a bridge near the headwaters of the Mississippi River.
But we weren’t just here to sing and admire the natural beauty around us. We were here because this land — the homeland of the Anishinaabe people — is currently the site of “America’s biggest environmental fight.”
What is This Fight all About?
A Canadian company, Enbridge, is planning to replace an aging oil pipeline by constructing a new one, called “Line 3,” to transport crude oil from Canada to Wisconsin, cutting through 67 rivers and over 200 water bodies across northern Minnesota. This region is the traditional homeland of the Anishinaabe people, and according to treaties they signed with the United States government in the 1800s, they have treaty rights to hunt, fish, and harvest wild rice across these lands. The Line 3 pipeline would devastate the ecosystems of this region. Despite overwhelming public pressure, the Minnesota courts and the Biden administration have chosen to support this pipeline.
I was in northern Minnesota as part of the Treaty People Gathering: a weekend of education and action to stop Line 3, organized by Indigenous women and elders. This gathering drew around 2,000 people from across the United States and beyond. I was representing my organization, Hindus for Human Rights, as part of a multi-faith delegation of over 350 religious leaders and activists convened by GreenFaith, Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light, and other organizations.
Once our march reached the bridge, a group of Indigenous activists and allies crossed into the water to construct a prayer lodge on the banks of the Mississippi. This particular site was chosen for a reason — it was one of Enbridge’s construction sites. Another group of activists entered a construction site and physically chained themselves to the construction equipment, where they were harassed by a Department of Homeland Security helicopter and local police. Dozens were later arrested.
The weekend’s actions received national press coverage, but they are just the beginning. Throughout this summer, Indigenous activists are leading efforts to stop this pipeline before it goes under the ground. And all of us non-Indigenous people should be standing with them.
Practicing Faith on Stolen Land
Many Anishinaabe elders talked to our multi-faith delegation about Christianity’s harmful impact on Indigenous people. One elder shared that colonialism “began long before boats arrived — it began in the Catholic church.” We heard about the abuse that Indigenous children suffered in boarding schools run by white Christians; many of those same children were buried in unmarked graves not too far from where we had gathered. One Indigenous leader we spoke with, Rev. Jim Bear Jacobs, spoke about the importance of holding the church accountable for the trauma faced by his family members: “The church stole my grandmother’s voice — and I’m coming to get it back.”
As the only Hindu representative in our 350-person multi-faith delegation, I had the opportunity to share a few prayers and reflections: I recited a vachana by Akka Mahadevi, and also a prayer to Mother Earth (Bhudevi). But throughout the weekend, I increasingly found myself asking questions about my own identity: What does it mean for me as a Hindu to practice my faith on stolen land?
As Hindus, we have prayers to Mother Earth (Bhudevi) that seek her forgiveness for stepping on her, but how often do we think about our relationship to the people who originally inhabited the lands on which we live? Many Hindus in the United States come from privileged castes: how do we portray Adivasi (Indigenous) characters like Ekalavya, Shabari, or Kannappa in our sacred stories? Have we been paying attention to how Dalit and Adivasi activists have been engaging with and reclaiming these figures?
Something I noticed throughout my weekend in Minnesota was the practice of land acknowledgments: beginning events by naming the Indigenous communities who originally inhabited the land where the event is taking place. A few days ago, I attended a virtual puja where the priestess included a land acknowledgment in the sankalpa (intention-setting) portion, naming that she was sitting on “occupied Lenape land.” I would love to see similar creative ways to acknowledge and celebrate Indigenous people in our religious practices. And of course, these symbolic gestures should be accompanied by concrete actions in support of Indigenous communities.
We’re All Treaty People
As South Asian Americans, our families and religious communities might not be directly connected to the harms that Indigenous people have faced. At the same time, each one of us is a settler on stolen Indigenous land. As settlers living on stolen land, we have specific obligations towards our Indigenous siblings. Just as contracts are signed between individuals, treaties are signed between sovereign nations. Indigenous activists reminded us throughout the weekend that “we are all treaty people,” and as Americans, it is our responsibility to ensure that our government follows the treaties it signed with Indigenous nations. That includes making sure the Biden administration takes action on Line 3.
At the same time, while I was marching in Minnesota in solidarity with the Anishinaabe people, thousands of Adivasis (Indigenous people) in Chattisgarh were protesting against the harassment and violence they’ve been facing from local police and security forces. And while many of us have been rightfully horrified by the news about residential boarding schools coming out of Canada, we shouldn’t forget that tens of thousands of Adivasi children across India are currently in residential boarding schools (often called “factory schools”) today, where they are taught their cultures are inferior, forcibly given Hindu names, and subject to curricula that seek to “assimilate” them into mainstream society. Although the governments of India, Pakistan, and other South Asian countries may not have signed formal treaties with Adivasi communities, we must hold those governments accountable for their actions as well.
My time in Minnesota was deeply moving and has inspired me to educate myself and take more action in the struggles for treaty rights, Indigenous sovereignty, and climate justice. I’ve also found myself reflecting more on what it means for me as a South Asian American and a Hindu to be a settler and practice my faith on stolen Indigenous land. While I hope many of my South Asian and Hindu peers will join me in this reflection, I hope we will also take action. Here are a few concrete ways in which all of us can support Indigenous activists in the struggle against Line 3:
Call the White House and Climate Office of Gina McCarthy by dialing: 888-724-8946. Tell them: “President Biden must honor the treaties and protect our climate by stopping the Line 3 tar sands pipeline now.”
Donate to the bail fund for the approximately 200 water protectors arrested at the Treaty People Gathering.
Nikhil Mandalparthy is the Advocacy Director for Hindus for Human Rights.