Episcopalians rally behind Native American protests of ND pipeline

Presiding Bishop issues statement supporting action

By David Paulsen
Posted Aug 25, 2016
The Rev. John Floberg, who has ministered on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation for 25 years, and Carmine Goodhouse, a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Fort Yates, North Dakota, stand near an Episcopal Church flag that was added to the flags of other organizations and tribes participating in the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Photo: Facebook/John Floberg page.

The Rev. John Floberg, who has ministered on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation for 25 years, and Carmine Goodhouse, a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Fort Yates, North Dakota, stand near an Episcopal Church flag that was added to the flags of other organizations and tribes participating in the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Photo: Facebook/John Floberg page.

[Episcopal News Service] Episcopalians are standing side by side with other protesters in a growing effort by Native American tribes to stop an oil company from building a major pipeline across the Missouri River in North Dakota.

The protests, which succeeded this month in halting work on part of the pipeline, are being compared to some of the most momentous events in American Indian history, and the Diocese of North Dakota has rallied behind the cause. It issued a statement Aug. 19  in support of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said Aug. 25 that he supports the protest’s goals as well, calling the action “one that joins the fight for racial justice and reconciliation with climate justice and caring for God’s creation as a matter of stewardship.”

“The people of Standing Rock Sioux Reservation are calling us now to stand with Native peoples, not only for their sakes, but for the sake of God’s creation, for the sake of the entire human family, and for the children and generations of children yet unborn,” Curry said in his statement. “The legendary Sioux Chief Sitting Bull reminds us: ‘Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.’”

“It’s not just a native thing. It’s not just an Indian issue. It’s a human issue,” said the Rev. Brandon Mauai, an Episcopal deacon on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

Anglican Church of Canada Archbishop Fred Hiltz and National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald said Aug. 25 that the issue is also a moral one and “there is only hope that the moral issue can be raised and heard.”

Opponents of the Dakota Access Pipeline say it poses too great a threat to the environment and to the way of life of the people living nearby, who draw on the Missouri River for their drinking water, including 8,000 Standing Rock tribal members. The company building the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, and its supporters argue the pipeline is safe, economical and necessary to transport North Dakota oil to markets and refineries across the country.

The tribe also is worried that the pipeline, which will pass just outside the 2.3-million acre reservation, will disturb sacred lands.

Law enforcement officers line up along a road in Morton County, North Dakota, Aug. 15 to block protestors who oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline that would run from the Bakken oil fields in the northwest part of that state to Illinois. Photo: Standing Rock Dakota Access Pipeline Opposition via Facebook

Law enforcement officers line up along a road in Morton County, North Dakota, Aug. 15 to block protestors who oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline that would run from the Bakken oil fields in the northwest part of that state to Illinois. Photo: Standing Rock Dakota Access Pipeline Opposition via Facebook

It was thought that the issue could come to a head this week with court hearings over the project and the protests. However, rulings were postponed until early next month.

Local Episcopal congregations aren’t just passive observers. Some church members are on the front lines, joining in the protests or supporting the hundreds – and at times thousands – of people camped there, and the issue has influenced Sunday sermons, prayers and even the choice of liturgy.

“We see our obligation through the lens of our baptismal covenant, respecting the dignity of every human being,” the Rev. John Floberg said.

Floberg, canon missioner for the Episcopal Church community on the Standing Rock reservation, serves three congregations in the North Dakota part of the reservation: St. Luke’s in Fort Yates, St. James’ in Cannon Ball and Church of the Cross in Selfridge. And although he is white and not a member of the tribe, he has spent 25 years ministering here and is well aware of the historical context being applied to both the recent protests and the Episcopal involvement.

Floberg is a member of the Episcopal Church’s Executive Council and Mauai’s term on council ended last year.

The Episcopal Church’s early ministry to the Sioux dates back to the mid-1800s, Floberg said, and he noted how President Grant’s “peace policy” of the late 1860s assigned oversight of reservations to religious denominations, including the Episcopal Church.

The history of white interaction with native peoples, however, has been marked by violence, oppression and broken promises.

Standing Rock Sioux leaders, in their lawsuit opposing the pipeline, cite treaties from 1851 and 1868 in arguing that the U.S. government has yet to fulfill its side of those agreements. The Standing Rock reservation straddles the border between North Dakota and South Dakota, and the tribal treaty lands extend north beyond the reservation, they say, to the pipeline construction site.

Some white supporters have joined with the American Indian protesters, but Floberg said the standoff also has elicited racist criticism in some corners, particularly in Facebook comments on the issue.

Another historical reference point is the 1944 Pick-Sloan flood control plan, which involved building dams on the Missouri River. This created Lake Oahe, which stretches from south of Bismarck, North Dakota, to well into South Dakota. The lake’s western shoreline runs through the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River reservations, and the pipeline would cross the lake just a half-mile from the Standing Rock border.

When it was created, Lake Oahe flooded tribal farmland, orchards and forests along the Missouri River, displacing many Native American families.

Mauai’s ancestors were among those affected. His mother’s family had lived along the Cannonball River, a Missouri River tributary that was flooded, and they were forced to move.

“I grew up knowing the story,” said Mauai, now 31.

Raised on the Standing Rock reservation, Mauai went to a Roman Catholic school as a boy, but he was confirmed as an Episcopalian around fifth grade. He eventually got involved in the church’s native ministries and was ordained as a deacon in 2007. His wife also serves as a deacon.

The Episcopal Church flag is tied to a fence at the Circle of Sacred Stones protest camp, joining the flags of other organizations and tribes participating in the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Photo: Brandon Mauai via Facebook

The Episcopal Church flag is tied to a fence at the Circle of Sacred Stones protest camp, joining the flags of other organizations and tribes participating in the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Photo: Brandon Mauai via Facebook

His appreciation for the Episcopal Church’s activism grew as he attended General Conventions over the past decade. He said he sensed in the church a sincere interest in working on issues important to native communities and the socially oppressed.

“The church has long been an advocate for natives nationwide, and I think that is just one of the things we’re called to do,” Mauai said.

That advocacy is reflected in the statement issued Aug. 19 by the Diocese of North Dakota’s Council of Indian Ministries. It cites General Convention resolutions supporting indigenous people and opposing environmental racism and legal doctrines that critics say have been used to deny Native Americans their rights. And it asks the Episcopal Church “to advocate for us.”

The statement also specifically calls on the Army Corps of Engineers to reverse its decision on the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The company outlined its pipeline project, as well as efforts to start construction, in its recent court filing seeking a temporary restraining order against protesters.

The pipeline is to stretch 1,154 miles from the Bakken oil fields in northwest North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois, sending as much as 570,000 barrels of oil a day to toward the East Coast and Gulf Coast. Oil production in North Dakota has surged in the past six years, the company said, and transporting much of that oil by pipeline will be safer and cheaper than to ship it by train or truck.

The company also asserts it has obtained all the permits it needs, including permission to cross the Missouri River with a pipeline under Lake Oahe. The Army Corps of Engineers gave the OK to that plan on July 25.

Construction at the Lake Oahe crossing was scheduled to begin on Aug. 10, but the company said it was met by up to 30 protesters. That group grew to 350 by Aug. 12, according to court documents, which accuse some protesters of threatening workers and tearing down a fence intended to keep protesters from hindering the project.

“It does not appear that the Defendants have any valid legal basis for interfering with Dakota Access’ construction of the Pipeline,” U.S. District Court Judge Daniel L. Hovland wrote Aug. 16 in granting a temporary restraining order against the protesters. A hearing on a preliminary injunction against the protests that was scheduled for Aug. 25 has been postponed until  Sept. 8. The temporary restraining order remains in effect.

Tribal Chairman David Archambault II, one of more than two dozen arrested in the protests, responded to the judge’s initial order with a statement pledging to continue to oppose the project and to do so peacefully.

“Our basic position is that the Corps of Engineers has failed to follow the law and has failed to consider the impacts of the pipeline on the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe,” Archambault said.

“Our hand continues to be open to cooperation, and our cause is just,” Archambault said in an Aug. 25 opinion piece in the New York Times. “This fight is not just for the interests of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, but also for those of our neighbors on the Missouri River: The ranchers and farmers and small towns who depend on the river have shown overwhelming support for our protest.”

The cause has resonated with Episcopalians in North Dakota because of the intersection of racial justice and environmental justice, and the environmental cause has drawn support from outside activist groups, notably the San Francisco-based Earthjustice, which filed the federal lawsuit on the tribe’s behalf. The action has also attracted the attention of celebrities such as Susan Sarandon, Leonardo di Caprio and Divergent star Shailene Woodley, as well as from organizations such as the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations.

Pipeline company spokeswoman Vicki Granado said work continues on other parts of the project. She called the protests “unlawful … in light of the fact that we have the necessary permits and approvals to work at this site.” A federal judge said Aug. 24 in Washington, D.C., that he would rule by Sept. 9 on the tribe’s legal objection to the Army Corps of Engineers’ approval.

After that ruling, Archambault said from Washington that “whatever the final outcome in court I believe we have already established an important principle — that is tribes will be heard on important matters that affect our vital interests.”

In the meantime, out-of-town protesters continue to camp out near the pipeline work site, and local Episcopal leaders visit regularly. Mauai brought a big pot of hamburger macaroni soup to the camp on Aug. 19. With an estimated 2,000 people to feed, it was quickly consumed.

Standing Rock officials said this week that more than 80 tribes across the country have expressed support for the cause, a unifying moment that Mauai said is unlike any the tribes have seen in 140 years. At stake is the water they drink, Mauai said, and he noted the importance of water to Christians, from biblical references to the use of water in baptism.

People protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline that would begin in North Dakota stand at sunset in the Camp of Sacred Stones near a sign reading “mni wiconi,” Lakota for “water is life.” Photo: Indigenous Environmental Network via Facebook

People protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline that would begin in North Dakota stand at sunset in the Camp of Sacred Stones near a sign reading “mni wiconi,” Lakota for “water is life.” Photo: Indigenous Environmental Network via Facebook

He also referenced a term in the Lakota language, “mni wiconi,” meaning “water is life.” That is what they are protecting, he said, and it’s not just Native Americans coming to support them.

“It’s everybody who has a stake in clean water,” he said.

– David Paulsen is a freelance writer based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and a member of Trinity Episcopal Church in Wauwatosa.

Editor’s note: This story was updated Aug. 25 at 4:00 EDT to add reference to a statement of support from the Anglican Church of Canada, to reflect the postponement of a hearing that had been scheduled for Aug. 25 and to add comments from the tribal chairman following the Aug. 24 hearing. A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Brandon Mauai is a member of the Episcopal Church Executive Council. His term ended in 2015.


Comments (26)

  1. Marcia Tyriver says:

    Thank-you for supporting this protest!

    1. Mercedes Hurt says:

      As an Episcopalian and an Osage I am proud and grateful you are there, we are there. Spirit and prayers to everyone protecting our waters. So grateful.

  2. Rich Basta says:

    Just like in Ferguson,MO, where the ECUSA ended up supporting lawlessness, the ECUSA, it appears, is not just engaging in peaceful protests, but encouraging and supporting lawlessness on behalf of some of these protesters. As long as the pipeline has in place reasonable and scientifically proven measures to ensure that water is protected from pipeline ruptures, I don’t see what the problem is.

    There are only two practical ways to get oil to the refineries–pipeline and rail. There is never going to be a no-risk solution to transporting oil and other chemicals. We need oil right now to address poverty in our country by providing good-paying jobs that have been lost during the Great Recession. Of course we could reduce our consumption of oil by building more nuclear plants! We could also build more wind farms that kill birds by the thousands. My point? There is no perfect solution.

    If the company building it has a history of shoddy construction and safety practices, that’s one thing. Then the protesters do indeed have a valid concern. If the protesters are just anti-oil, just for the sake of being anti-oil, then I don’t know why the ECUSA is supporting them. But, I’m sure there are much wiser people than me who have a different take on it. So be it. Just my opinion. I could be wrong.

    1. Louis Stanley Schoen says:

      You definitely ARE wrong, Rich. The company could have built the pipeline, potentially around the Northern and Eastern sides of the Missouri, to avoid crossing a lake so vital to the well being of a large community. The disastrous history of U.S. oppression of Indigenous people, and especially those in the Missouri Basin, especially demands moral and legal attention to changing corporate and federal regulatory patterns such as the one we’ve been seeing here. Thanks be to God for the courage and anti-racist consciousness that finally exist within the Episcopal Church, after its own historic participation in oppression; and thanks for the leadership of our Presiding Bishop.

      1. Wanda Hughes says:

        Indeed, the protest is justified and should be supported by all Americans who are fed up with the sacrifice of all natural resources in this country, especially the purity of life-giving and life sustaining water. All for the sake of oil that will only profit the big oil corps who continue to lay waste to the land non-stop. No way does this compare to Ferguson-these are two separate issues entirely; though equal in importance. Another example of the decline in humanity propagated by the greedy few and allowed by the multitude of “us”. We have failed miserably in our treatment and neglect of these wonderful people. How can we help, sincerely?

    2. Greg Hyden says:

      Rich, I cannot speak for Missouri but in Florida a project like this would have been subjected to years of scientific and legal scrutiny by state and federal agencies. That scrutiny would require multiple agencies looking at historical sites, social and environmental justice issues and the projects impacts be they permanent, secondary and/or temporary. There is another layer scrutiny if any of the land is federal parkland.

    3. Lisa Johnson says:

      Then put it in your backyard, let your kids, dogs and trees get sick, it is BS! They get water and food from there, they hunt the animals that drink from it. Plus If there are promises that are not being upheld from the past, then that is even worse…come on….If the blacks are wanting payment for their ancestors. ..then they will have to just wait…because the white man has screwed them over big time….I’m with the protesters! They can stick that pipe where the sun don’t shine!

    4. Beth kelly says:

      One can Google ‘number of oil leaks’ for a multi page listing of leaks from 2000_to present alone.

    5. Kathryn Kerr says:

      We pray for a just and proper use of God’s creation. The Prayers of the People vary by Rite and by calendar, but always we pray for God’s creation and our wise use of it.

  3. Janet Diehl says:

    What we need is to quickly develop wind & solar power; but we can Not continue to squeeze out the last bit of oil in shale! It is hurting the Earth, damaging soil & water, dangerous to ship on long trains or pipelines through cities, towns, fields that grow food, forests that hide wild animals, and anywhere near drinkable water. Without clean water – already in short supply in the USA & other countries – Life will cease. There are already battles & lawsuits over water & water rights.

    Also, Routes of pipelines & railroads are heavily influenced by politics & greed, as much or more than science. Presently Congress is anti-science!!!. BUT the bottom line is the repeated defilement of sacred lands – holy places – by the consumeristic Western culture. What good do profits do if we have no clean water, or fruitful land, or holy places to meet our spiritual needs. Land is sacred. Water is sacred.

    Regardless of how many permits or government papers a company has, some things are still morally wrong. To defile the Earth is always wrong.

  4. F William Thewalt says:

    Once again the Episcopal Church is on the wrong side of an issue. The U.S. needs all the oil it can produce internally so as not to be left hostage to other oil-producing nations many of whom are hostile towards us. Pipelines are far safer and less expensive than rail to transport oil.

    1. Mary-Lee says:

      Get going with developing solar, wind, geothermal and other sources of energy and you won’t need oil. Oil and gas are so yesterday!

    2. Rev. Deacon. Judith Cirves says:

      Can you back up your statement on the safety of pipelines with proven data ?

      1. M. J. Wise says:

        Pipelines are widely accepted to be environmentally and physically safer than truck and train transport on a per gallon basis.

  5. Dianne Aid says:

    Certainly the people who were stewards of this land long before conquest have every right to protect it. I am thankful that The Episcopal Church stands in solidarity.

  6. Owanah Anderson says:

    I have never been more proud of my Church, its Presiding Bishop, the Diocese of North Dakota and my Sioux sisters and brothers. If I were 10 years younger I would be standing beside you at Standing Rock but at age 90 I can do no more than try to spread the word of the situation and give thanks for all of you – from many Indian tribes and nations – for your presence. I pray for your safety.
    Owanah Anderson, Choctaw elder.

    1. Joanna Finzel says:

      God bless you! What you do impacts us all, each one doing what they can.

  7. Janice Mitich says:

    Standing Rock Sioux Fight for Us All

    They are standing.
    They are standing.
    At Sacred Stones Camp
    They are standing.

    They are standing.
    They are standing.
    The Standing Rock Sioux Nation
    Are standing for us all.

    They are praying.
    They are praying.
    To the beat of drums
    They are praying.

    They are riding.
    They are riding.
    Spirit Horses to stop the madness.
    They are riding.

    They are fighting.
    They are fighting.
    The Wasicu* black snake
    As it slithers across sacred land
    And tunnels under the Missouri River
    To wait in quiet coils until it strikes.
    Black Death and Destruction seeps from steel fangs
    To poison water and Mother Earth
    While big oil seeks profits at all costs.
    They are fighting.
    They are fighting.

    They are standing.
    They are standing.
    With hands bound and heads held high
    They are standing.

    The camp is growing.
    The camp is growing.
    More Nations and People are gathering.
    The Camp is growing.

    It’s time for gathering.
    It’s time for gathering.
    Women, children, men, the elders
    Warriors, all, are gathering.

    It’s time for standing.
    It’s time for standing.
    It’s time to protect Mother Earth.
    It’s time for standing.
    © August 18, 2016 by Janice E. Mitich
    Picture Rock, AZ.

  8. Jixel pacanza says:

    Protect the native Americans, Be strong Episcopalian people!..

  9. nick matthews says:

    Please. If you can. Make the trip to the spirit camp. I think the physical show of support is important. Great to see these great people getting together. Feels good as a non native to join in and help something finally go their way.

  10. Shannon Bergman says:

    I’m not Native American or Episcapalian, but I fully support the Native Americans for protesting this. I’m a planning commissioner for a city in California and can tell you that this never would have gotten past our environmental review. We have laws that require that all environmental and cultural elements be evaluated and that a period of public comment be gathered and negative declarations be made (and not contested in court) before projects go through.

    Explore alternative energy types. My God, we’ve got to stop doing this to our Native Americans and our natural resources. And with regards to safety… Nothing is full proof. And what is safely monitored at the beginning is easy to brush aside at a later date. I live ten miles from where the San Bruno gas pipeline burst and killed several community members. And in our town, we raised a suit against Pacific Gas and Electric for burying evidence that a pipeline through our town had missing or substandard safety checks.

    No one can definitely state there would never be a spill, so find another routed that doesn’t involve the possibility of destroying Tribes water supplies. It is not going to break the bank of the oil and gas company.

  11. The Rev. James McConnell says:

    I am not a native American, I am an American, an Episcopalian, and a Louisianian. I weep over what big oil has done to my state. Where have the wet lands gone? How much of our culture has been lost due to what is called progress.Katrina is a testament to their carelessness and callousness. Stand strong 1st nation people.

  12. Bill Homans says:

    I am Watermelon Slim, a bluesman from Oklahoma and now from Mississippi. I am a baptized and confirmed Episcopalian. I have almost no native blood, but what I have stands up.

    I met Leonard Crow Dog, Lakota medicine man, in the Black Hills at the end of The Longest Walk in 1978. Around the campfire, Crow Dog prophesied to a few of us, and I will never forget:
    “The human beings have a few more years to stop tearing Mother Earth, or she will take herself back from us.” That’s 38 years ago now, and I wonder what Crow Dog (who still lives, to my knowledge) thinks now. Since then, we have had Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, the Exxon Valdez, the Gulf Oil Spill, and finally, Fukushima Daichi, the last of which looms over us all today. We’re all just waiting for the Mother to shrug, on the northern coast of Honshu.

    In Oklahoma, we stopped Black Fox, which would have been OK’s only nuclear plant. We must stop this pipeline, and transition, as Germany is doing, to renewable energy resources.

    I am a veteran who served in Vietnam. As a veteran, and an old man now, I know there are things worth fighting for. The song below will be on my next CD.

    WOLF CRY (2015)

    Enjoying ourselves while we’re destroying ourselves, the Medicine Man was right.
    The earth-rippers chase in the race for what’s left, every tree, every drop, every rock is their prey. We must fight!

    I— got to make my Wolf Cry. I’m gonna make my Wolf Cry—- One day.

    The blues is communion– eating the meager bread and drinking the bitter wine of the blues together. It will feed your soul. If freedom means more than a footnote in human existence, come and share this bowl.

    And I—- got to make my Wolf Cry. I—-‘m gonna make my Wolf Cry—- One day.

    I’m— gonna make my Wolf Cry. I’ll strike for the children today and the children to be.
    I’m gonna make my Wolf Cry. Now I know my song well, I’ll start singing, just watch me.

    I’m— gonna make my Wolf Cry. I’m— gonna make my Wolf Cry (al coda)

  13. Rich Basta says:

    A Prayer for the Bakken Pipeline:
    Dear Jesus, you came so that we may have life and have it in abundance. Thank you for the blessings of abundant oil, which comes from deep within the womb of the Earth, our island home. Bless the oil company workers as they harvest the oil safely for our use. We were anointed with oil at our baptism, and so we know it is a symbol of your love and warmth. May those who benefit from its production have a living wage to lessen the burden of income inequality. May the schools funded from the taxes on this resource be centers of growth and renewal for our children. Give strength and alertness of mind to those who stand watch over the pipeline to ensure that the rest of your creation is not spoiled beyond our capability to restore it. This we ask in your name. Amen.

    1. Beth kelly says:

      Motor oil? Probably olive oil sweetie.

  14. Rich Basta says:

    To Rev, Deacon Judith Cirves:

    A good source of data regarding the relative safety of the ways to transport oil. No method is perfect to be sure.


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