December 5, 2016
Standing Rock became real to me when I saw the video during a cabinet meeting last week. Thomas Lopez Jr., the cousin of one of our district superintendent’s daughter-in-law, was interviewed on November 26 at the Oceti Sakowin Camp in Standing Rock, North Dakota. Perez, along with thousands of others, has been protesting the 1,170 mile Dakota Access Pipeline, which stretches from Stanley, North Dakota, through South Dakota and Iowa, and ends at an oil tank farm near Patoka, Illinois.
For months, leaders of the Standing Rock Sioux, over three hundred separate indigenous groups, environmentalists, and others from around the world have protested the pipeline, which proponents say will increase U.S. energy independence and provide jobs. 470,000 barrels of oil are expected to pass through the pipeline every day. However, Standing Rock Sioux leaders claim the $3.7 billion pipeline crosses land sacred to the tribe, might harm burial grounds, and could pollute the Missouri River, threatening the safety of their only source of drinking water.
Those occupying the Oceti Sakowin Camp, which is on federal land under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, have insisted that they are protectors, not protesters. They are protecting their water, and they are also protecting Mother Earth. They have vowed to stay put, for Mother Earth is sick and has a fever in North Dakota. Their strategy is prayer, music, dancing, and solidarity.
For United Methodists, the Standing Rock stand-off is reminiscent of our complicated relationship with the indigenous people of this country, particularly the Sand Creek Massacre, which occurred along the Big Sandy River of the Colorado Territory. Early on the morning of Nov. 29, 1864, Col. John Milton Chivington, who was a Methodist Episcopal Church pastor and member of the Union Army, led a surprise attack by 675 soldiers on a Cheyenne and Arapaho encampment. The ensuing slaughter resulted in the massacre of two hundred Native Americans, including women, children, and the elderly. Subsequent atrocities were committed on the dead.
The tragic treatment of native people in the United States since its settlement/conquest by Europeans continues to haunt us. In an attempt to “Christianize” indigenous people, there was complete disregard for native languages, dress, culture, and religious practices, not to mention separation of children from parents, oppression, and seclusion of indigenous people on reservations. At both the 2012 and 2016 United Methodist General Conferences, delegates participated in acts of repentance for our gross mistreatment of our indigenous brothers and sisters.
Bishop Bruce Ough, the episcopal leader for the Dakotas and Minnesota Annual Conferences, is also the President of the Council of Bishops. Ough, who grew up in the North Dakota oil fields, issued these words in September after visiting Oceti Sakowin, “It is with intentions of unity, peace, and hope that I bring you a message of support from The United Methodist Church. I lift each of you up in prayer and will continue to do so daily. My hope is that you will not let the spirit of this gathering die. The United Methodists hope to work in a continued relationship to fulfill God’s commandment to be stewards of creation and maintain loving relationships with all of God’s people.”
Other religious leaders voiced support in a rally at Standing Rock on November 3. In addition, Wespath Investment and Benefits, the pension arm of The United Methodist Church, has investments with ETP. In a letter, chief investment officer Dave Zellner expressed concern about legal challenges to the pipeline and asked ETP to continue to be in conversation with the “protectors.”
On the night of November 20, law enforcement officers and protectors clashed. Authorities used high pressure water cannons, concussion grenades, rubber bullets, and tear gas in sub-freezing temperatures against protectors who allegedly tried to push past a police barricade on a bridge. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the North Dakota governor’s office declared that the protectors/protesters must evacuate the camp by today, December 5. In the meantime, several thousand U.S. military veterans mobilized in an effort to show solidarity by nonviolently protecting the camp from December 4-7.
In breaking news, the Department of the Army announced last night (Sunday) that it will not approve an easement that would allow the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline to cross under Lake Oahe in North Dakota. Army Corps of Engineers Assistant Secretary for Civil Works, Jo-Ellen Darcy, issued a statement which said, “Although we have had continuing discussion and exchanges of new information with the Standing Rock Sioux and Dakota Access, it’s clear that there’s more work to do. The best way to complete that work responsibly and expeditiously is to explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing.”
How might people of faith respond to Standing Rock?
- Standing Rock continues a long history in the US of the oppression of indigenous people by those of European descent. The “Doctrine of Discovery” promoted by Papal Bulls of the 15th century gave Christian explorers the right to seize any land not inhabited by Christians to be “discovered” and claimed on behalf of the king. This led to exploitation, enslavement, and genocide of native peoples. In light of this history, what are appropriate expressions of the love of Jesus at Standing Rock?
- Standing Rock is a clash of cultures: a culture of using the earth’s resources to provide jobs and profits and a culture that has a deep connection with and recognizes the sacredness of Mother Earth. How can we understand and reconcile these cultures?
- What should the role of law enforcement be in this situation? How does the decision of the Department of the Army reflect justice for indigenous people?
- How important is it to wean ourselves from fossil fuels in order to preserve our earth?
- Sitting at the table together to discuss differences in a respectful way and truly seeking to understand rather than be understood is one of our growing edges in United Methodism. What does Standing Rock teach us as we face critical decisions in our denomination?
- Never doubt what a small group of committed people can do to change the world through peaceful means.
The words of Thomas Lopez haunt me. “When I am not here (at Standing Rock), going back into the matrix is very difficult, especially not only being a person of color but being an indigenous person who practices these sacred traditional ways and who was raised in a sacred traditional household. It can often be very isolating. It can be very lonely. It can very difficult to be proud of who you are, especially when everywhere about you, there are nothing but lies about you and stereotypes about who you are.”
“When I remember being in high school, people would make comments like, ‘Well, Indians don’t exist anymore,’ or ‘O my God, I can’t believe you guys are still alive.’ And to hear things like this is not only insulting but very degrading to your very moral being and moral fiber. Many indigenous youth feel that backlash. They feel those scars. The suicide rates, the drug addiction, the alcohol abuse, the sexual abuse runs rampant, not only in the tribal reservations but in our minority communities in general. Many times it’s not addressed. Being here has reminded me to stand proud of who you are. Every single one of us comes from someplace. Every single one of us is indigenous to somewhere and has a thousand ancestors behind us, supporting us.”
God, during this season of Advent, when we anticipate your coming once more, empower us to work for the day when every person in this world can be proud of who they are, and for the day when we can all be proud of how we are caring for your world. Make us instruments of your peace.