Podcast: Treading on Sacred Ground

Does the freedom of religion protect sites that are sacred to Native Americans?  In this episode, we talk to Nicole Ducheneaux, attorney for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in the ongoing Dakota Access Pipeline litigation.


In this episode of The First Five, Nicole Ducheneaux, lead attorney for the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe in the ongoing Dakota Access Pipeline litigation, discusses her legal argument that the U.S. government’s decision to allow the pipeline to run underneath water that is sacred to the tribe violates the tribe’s freedom to practice its religious beliefs.

The Dakota Access Pipeline is an underground pipeline intended to transport oil from North Dakota to Illinois.  The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers gave the Dakota Access company permission to build the pipeline, and approved of the pipeline’s route.  The route of the pipeline includes a portion that crosses the Missouri River at the Lake Oahe reservoir.  The Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes get all of their water from Lake Oahe, and also consider the water to be sacred. The purity of the water is essential to Sioux religious practices–and according to the tribes, that religious purity is something that’s compromised by an oil pipeline running under the lake. 

Nicole discusses bringing a claim against the government for violating the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the inherent difficulty of conveying the religious significance of Lake Oahe’s water to the D.C. District Court:

“That was a struggle for us, to try to frame the meaning of ritual purity of a natural resource, in a way that could be understood by a Judeo-Christian-centric judiciary.”

This episode also provides a general overview of how the free exercise clause of the freedom of religion works and how the Religious Freedom Restoration Act expanded its power.


Lata Nott is the Executive Director of the First Amendment Center at the Newseum Institute.


Nicole Ducheneaux is a partner at Fredericks Peebles & Morgan LLP, a law firm dedicated to representation of American Indian tribes and organizations throughout the United States.


To learn more about Dakota Access Pipeline litigation, see this timeline of events.

To learn more about the relationship between sacred sites and religious freedom, read Treading on Sacred Ground: Are Native American Sacred Sites Protected by the Freedom of Religion? by Melemaikalani Moniz.


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