[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.
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.
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.
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.