essays on suffering and awakening

Standing Rock and the illusion of private property

Since last April, members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, along with supporters from across the country, have lived in camps established to block the building of an oil pipeline that would threaten their water supply. The Dakota Access Pipeline would be built under the Missouri River, which has been a key source of water and food for the Standing Rock Sioux for generations. The construction would damage and pollute the river, and an oil spill could contaminate the water for decades.

The protesters, who call themselves water protectors, have stood fast in the face of escalating violence against them by authorities. Local police and private security guards employed by the pipeline company have attacked protesters using dogs, rubber bullets, and water hoses in the freezing cold weather. So far, the protesters have generally maintained a commitment to nonviolence. 

The police have justified their actions as necessary to protect private property and to keep protesters from trespassing on privately owned lands. Most Americans would probably endorse violence in order to protect their own property. The idea of private ownership is a bedrock of our country.

Of course, it’s also an illusion.

The Sioux protesters come from a spiritual tradition that teaches that no one can really own the land, and that we merely borrow it for a while. This teaching recognizes a fundamental truth that all of us know but most of us spend our lives running away from: we can’t actually hold onto anything. No matter how much we possess, eventually our houses will crumble and fall apart, our cars will rust away, and our bank accounts dwindle to nothing.

The belief that we can actually own something is as alluring today as it was for the pharaohs who built pyramids filled with wealth to take with them to the next life. If we buy a home, we like to think we’ve bought a castle too, a safe place that is ours. But that belief is a siren's song that we chase at great cost to ourselves and others, and to no avail. All of our property can vanish in an instant. 

There is actually great freedom in making peace with that. The more we can accept that we really don’t own anything, the less of a prisoner we are to our possessions, and the better we become at accepting change. 

We can also take this a step further, and recognize, as the Sioux do, that the earth will outlive us all. We come from the earth and will there return. Rather than owning the land, we’re really just stewards and servants, who get to use it for a time, before passing it onto our children and their children. If we were all a little more conscious of this truth, I believe we would be much less eager to destroy the land, and hurt each other, in the name of commerce.

Ian Cooper