Environmentalism is at the heart of many Indigenous religions and cultures. Animism, the belief that elements of nature such as trees, streams, and rocks are imbued with the spirits of gods, was an idea shared by many ancient cultures around the world. The central place given to nature lives in many Indigenous cultures today, particularly in North America. According to Ed McGaa (1990), “Native American Indians learned how to live with the earth in a deeply spiritual plane. Their intuitive sense of intimate connection with all of existence from Brother Bear to Sister Stone to Father Sky to Mother Earth provides the deep ecological wisdom that the present-day environmental prophets have rediscovered and begun to teach to an alienated world.”
Though Indigenous Peoples rightly claim a long tradition of reverence for the Earth and the environment, anthropologist Shepard Krech III reminds us that one should not over-generalize. Indigenous people are people and therefore hold a wide variety of beliefs, interests, and ideologies, while stereotypes are dehumanizing and deny variation. Also, by holding Indigenous Peoples to higher environmental standards we may prevent them from engaging in legitimate economic development activities, thereby hampering their community development. There are in fact times when the interests or beliefs of indigenous peoples conflict with what may be considered by others to be the “correct” view on an environmental issue. The Osage Peoples of Oklahoma, for example, opposed the establishment of the Tallgrass Prairie National Park on their lands, fearing that it would eliminate revenue from oil and gas development from which they benefited. Indigenous peoples have also sought and been granted waivers for the hunting of endangered whales, which is shunned and prohibited by most other societies on the planet.
Nonetheless, it is fair to say that many Indigenous cultures place a high priority on harmony with nature. The natural world and its inhabitants hold a sacred place in the religious beliefs of many indigenous people, which sometimes puts them at odds with the larger society. As an example, in 2016, members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota protested the development of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a crude oil pipeline which they viewed as a threat to the water source on their reservation. Intervention by law enforcement and a variety of legal actions resulted.