Peaceful, prayerful, nonviolent stand of solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux

Interfaith witness draws more than 500 people

By Lynette Wilson
Posted Nov 4, 2016
The Rev. Stephanie Spellers, canon to the presiding bishop for evangelism and reconciliation, and California Bishop Marc Andrus join a circle of more than 500 interfaith allies standing in prayerful, peaceful solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Nation in their opposition to the route of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service

The Rev. Stephanie Spellers, canon to the presiding bishop for evangelism and reconciliation, center, and California Bishop Marc Andrus, right, join a circle of more than 500 interfaith allies standing in prayerful, peaceful solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Nation in their opposition to the route of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service

Editor’s note: An image gallery of the gathering on the Standing Rock Sioux Nation is here.

[Episcopal News Service – Cannon Ball, North Dakota] “We knew you were coming; that one day you would come here and start asking questions about your government,” said elder Regina Brave, her long, gray braid falling over the word “navy” written in yellow, capital letters across the top of her black, leather vest. “We are all children of God. Black, red, yellow, white, are all represented.”

Brave, an Oglala from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, took the microphone at a gymnasium in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, on Nov. 2, the night before more than 500 interfaith clergy and laity joined opponents of the Dakota Access Pipeline in a show of prayerful, peaceful, nonviolent and lawful solidarity and witness.

The majority of the opponents of the Dakota Access Pipeline’s route live in the Oceti Sakowin Camp. The Standing Rock Sioux Nation is paying $1,500 a day for roll-off dumpsters and portable toilets. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service

The majority of the opponents of the Dakota Access Pipeline’s route live in the Oceti Sakowin Camp. The Standing Rock Sioux Nation is paying $1,500 a day for roll-off dumpsters and portable toilets. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service

The Nov. 2 meeting served as a warm up. On the morning of Nov. 3 – as the sun came up, the temperature in the mid-30s – the interfaith allies entered the Oceti Sakowin Camp, the largest of the three camps, and formed a circle surrounding the sacred fire that burns 24 hours a day in the camp’s center.

The 524 interfaith allies representing 20 faith traditions answered the Rev. John Floberg’s call for faith leaders to stand in solidarity and witness with those protecting the tribe’s land and water supply.

Floberg is the supervising priest of the three Episcopal missions on the North Dakota side of the Standing Rock Reservation; there are six more mission churches on the reservation in South Dakota.

Opponents, or “water protectors” as they prefer to be called, have for months camped in three sites on federal land, just south of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation’s reservation in south-central North Dakota. Native Americans representing 200 national and international tribes have camped alongside environmentalists and climate activists who’ve joined in their protection protest.

In his Oct. 23 call for solidarity, Floberg asked that 100 clergy from across the Episcopal Church join in the protection protests. By Nov. 3, the number surpassed 500. The official count of 524 is significant in that it represents the number of years since the Doctrine of Discovery gave Christian explorers the right to claim lands they discovered.

On the morning of Nov. 3 in the center of Oceti Sakowin Camp, Christian religious leaders from Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian and other denominations and faiths – all representing denominations that have repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery – testified to their traditions’ rejection of the 15th-century document. When they finished, they asked tribal elders to come forward and asked that they burn a replica of the Doctrine of Discovery and the elders did so in pots and a bucket near the sacred fire.

“We had to do our business publicly before we could ever come out here and say we are standing in solidarity,” said Floberg, in an interview with Episcopal News Service later in the day. “We had to be as right as we could with the nations that are represented in that camp, and we don’t expect everybody to accept our apology, accept our renunciation, we have to live into that.”

One way Episcopalians and others can live into that is to ask the U.S. government to honor its land treaties with Native Americans, he said. The standoff near Standing Rock centers around two issues: water quality and sacred lands.

The interfaith witness formed a huge Niobrara Circle of Life just south of the backwater bridge where on the other side law enforcement officers kept watch. Opponents of the Dakota Access Pipeline have held the bridge since law enforcement on Oct. 24 cleared a newly set up protest camp. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service

The interfaith witnesses formed a huge Niobrara Circle of Life just south of the Backwater Bridge where on the other side law enforcement officers kept watch. Opponents of the Dakota Access Pipeline have held the bridge since law enforcement on Oct. 27 cleared a newly set up protest camp. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service

When Floberg issued the call to solidarity and witness to Episcopalians, he called it a “powerful opportunity to exercise our shared baptismal ministry.” As the passing of the peace made its way around the Niobrara Circle, Floberg explained what he meant.

“In the Episcopal Church, when we baptize we take vows that say we are going to respect the dignity of every human being and human beings make up nations,” he said. “So for the church to say that it respects a Sioux it is to respect their nation. And if it respects their nation, it’s going to respect the rule of law.

“You hear a lot about law and order from the other side of that bridge, and I want to turn this conversation to the real rule of law which is that the United States of America has never fulfilled the treaty obligations of any treaty that it has ever made with any tribal nation,” Floberg continued.  “…so if we are going to say we respect, we are going to call our government to task and to accountability that as citizens we are going to speak from within and say we are not respected. And according to another identity that I have, a citizen of the kingdom of God, as a child of God, as a citizen there, I am calling upon this government to honor and fully fulfill [and redress] its treaty obligations.”

North Dakota Bishop Michael Smith, a member of the Potawatami Nation, said the burning of the 15th-century Doctrine of Discovery would help to further people’s understanding of a great evil that happened that at the time the church participated in it. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service

North Dakota Bishop Michael Smith, a member of the Potawatami Nation, said the burning of the 15th-century Doctrine of Discovery would help to further people’s understanding of a great evil that happened that at the time the church participated in it. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service

The Standing Rock Sioux argue the pipeline would cross treaty lands, disturb sacred areas and threaten drinking water for 8,000 members who live on the tribe’s nearly 2.3 million-acre reservation, located just south of where the pipeline would cross under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe. The lake is the reservation’s drinking water source. The sacred sites fall outside the reservation’s boundaries, but the tribe argues they were part of an 1851 land treaty.

The Dakota Access Pipeline would carry up to 570,000 gallons of oil per day across 1,134 miles from the Bakken oil field in northwestern North Dakota through South Dakota, bisecting Iowa from its northwest corner to its southeastern corner to Patoka, Illinois, for transport to refineries. The Bakken field is the largest oil deposit discovered in the United States since Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay in 1968; the Bakken created an oil boom in North Dakota in 2008 which has since slowed. Bakken oil has been shipped by rail, a costlier alternative to pipelines.

Challenges to the proposed pipeline route began with Iowa farmers in 2014; a previous route that brought the pipeline closer to Bismarck, North Dakota’s capital and second largest city, was scrapped over concerns to protect the city’s drinking water.

On Nov. 2, President Barack Obama said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was considering an alternative route. An online petition is circulating to asking Obama to honor his commitment to protect the people of Standing Rock.

In September, federal officials stopped construction of the pipeline on lands bordering or under Lake Oahe belonging to the Corps of Engineers, the federal agency responsible for permitting on public lands and waterways. Since then, the Dallas, Texas-based Energy Partners, the company building the pipeline, has purchased private lands near the proposed route and continues construction on the pipeline. Some say the land belongs to the Sioux Nation, where opponents of the pipeline set up another protest camp. On Oct. 27, law enforcement cleared that camp and arrested 141 people. Since then, unarmed opponents of the pipeline have been in a standoff with law enforcement officers at the Backwater Bridge on Highway 1806, just north of the Oceti Sakowin Camp.

Last week’s arrests came on the same day antigovernment protesters were acquitted on federal conspiracy and weapons charges in the armed takeover of a wildlife refuge in Oregon. The protesters held the federally owned refuge for 41 days in early 2016.

Firewood from this pile keeps the sacred fire burning around the clock in the center of the Oceti Sakowin Camp. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service

Firewood from this pile keeps the sacred fire burning around the clock in the center of the Oceti Sakowin Camp. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service

After the interfaith allies witnessed the burning of the Doctrine of Discovery, they formed a single line and received a smudging, a ritual act of purification, as they exited the camp and reassembled on Highway 1806 to march toward the Backwater Bridge. There they spent hours sharing testimony and gathering in a Niobrara Circle.

“As I’m looking around the circle of 524 faith leaders from all over this country, I feel like I’m watching reconciliation,” the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, canon to the presiding bishop for evangelism and reconciliation, told ENS. “What we say is that reconciliation is the embodiment of Good News …. This is what the love of God enacted looks like. And the fact that we are doing it together, the fact that the spirit has drawn us together is one more of those signs that this is what God looks like and this is why it’s reconciliation.”

California Bishop Marc Andrus attended with 10 Episcopalians from his diocese.

“I think we witnessed the end of an age,” he said with tears in his eyes, after the Niobrara Circle closed. “While we were here, by burning copies of the Doctrine of Discovery we were signaling an end to a past that has affected millions and millions of people. People who have been colonized and people who have been enslaved, but also the enslavers and the colonizers, it’s affected us all.”

Virginia Theological Seminary students and supporters join the Nov. 3 show of interfaith support and solidarity. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service

Virginia Theological Seminary students and supporters join the Nov. 3 show of interfaith support and solidarity. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service

Floberg’s call, initially targeting Episcopalians, went far and wide, drawing Christians, Muslims, Jews and others. Judith Lee, a Buddhist from Colorado Springs, drove to North Dakota on her own to participate. Friends of Wendy Johnson, a writer and Zen lay teacher from San Francisco, California, paid for her to come. Sandi Carter, a member of Christ Church in Puyallup, Washington, drove 20 hours and slept in her car outside St. James’ Episcopal Church in Cannon Ball because there wasn’t enough space to sleep inside. She decided to make the trip on Sunday, after hearing the Rev. Brandon Mauai, an Episcopal deacon serving St. James’, speak about the protection protest near Standing Rock at the Diocese of Olympia’s convention.

Carter posted her intention to come to Standing Rock on Facebook, where her son saw it and called her. “I told my son, ‘I want my grandchildren to know that I stood for something,’” she said.

An elder woman sets fire to the Doctrine of Discovery. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service

An elder woman sets fire to the Doctrine of Discovery. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service

The cause has resonated with Episcopalians who have stood with the Dakota people since their exile from Minnesota during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and his staff visited the Oceti Sakowin Camp in late September.

“It’s profound to see so many people of different faiths gathered to stand with the people of Standing Rock in their mission, which is to have their lands respected and water protected and to have indigenous people be consulted in the future … and [to] be equal partners in the determining of development that affects their life and their destiny,” said South Dakota Bishop John Tarrant.

The burning of the Doctrine of Discovery sent a strong message, said Mauai.

“I think it’s a statement from not just Episcopalians but all denominations and religions that they do stand with Standing Rock and it’s a statement that needed to be made,” he said. “I’ve lived on Standing Rock my whole life; I’m from Standing Rock. And it’s a statement from not just the Episcopal Church but all denominations and faiths, religions.”

During the Nov. 2 briefing in the Cannon Ball Community Center, Floberg reminded participants that they signed a pledge to keep the Standing Rock events of Nov. 3 prayerful, peaceful, nonviolent and lawful. There were some who called for a more aggressive front-line approach elsewhere. Following the five-hour long day of testimony, marching and singing, some people left for Bismarck and a rally at the state capitol. The Bismarck Tribune reported 14-people were arrested.

–Lynette Wilson is an editor/reporter for Episcopal News Service.


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Comments (11)

  1. So many people over the years have asked, “What would Jesus do?” Actions speak much louder than words and, if Jesus were present with us today, this is where Jesus would be. I am so proud of the present leadership of the Episcopal Church and the many others of Faith who are present there as the visible presence of Jesus the Christ in this 21st century. Be sure to let us who are unable to be present there can contribute to this presence!

  2. Joe Parrish says:

    Seems that the plans did not include the notion that the water supplies were important for all people. The environmental impact statement was not done or published. The builders were led to believe that all was well, pun not intended, and have invested significant resources as a result. The nation does need oil, and the Balkan region is very rich in it, but getting it to a place where it can be refined is the issue. Trucking does not seem very economical, to say the least, and to build a railway also would not be cost efficient. There needs to be a new route planned, a diversion from the Lake, and surely someone can plan a good alternative way without affecting the critical waters.

  3. Ronald Davin says:

    Are Church people doing this while on their Churches billable hours or are they on leave ? If they can be spared from their Churches for such a long time, perhaps their job should become part time.

    1. Dave Baldwin says:

      They’re DOING their jobs!

    2. Eliza Patta says:

      I cannot speak for all, but I know many at Standing Rock for this ceremony took 5am flights from home, arrived in Mpls, drove 8 hours to Standing Rock, camped outside in 35 degrees, woke at sunrise to participate in the ceremony, and then turned around to drive eight hours back to Minneapolis, and then fly home, arriving late, to get back to obligations at home. This was not an easy journey, and I appreciate their efforts.

    3. Vicki Gray says:

      I don’t recall Jesus counting his “billable hours.” As an unpaid deacon neither do I. But we both were at Standing Rock this week with my dear Bishop Marc Andrus who slept three nights in the camp…on the eve of a grueling journey to the Climate Conference in Marrakesh. Our DioCal delegation, by the way, comprised three other deacons, two priests, and four lay persons who probably had to take unpaid leave to seize this opportunity to testify.

  4. Louis Stanley Schoen says:

    May God bless fully all the participants in this demonstration and all who enabled them to go – and most especially John Floberg and Brandon Mauai for their leadership. And may the Doctrine of Discovery be forever burned to its death in the hearts and minds of humanity.

  5. PJCabbiness says:

    A denomination, insidiously corrupted by ecofascist Marxist operatives protesting a legitimate and necessary economic activity that is beneficial to our great nation is an unfortunate historical occurrence and a theological tragedy. No, Jesus would not be there and no, native totemic spiritualism cannot be equivocated with the Christian Gospel as revealed in the Bible.

  6. Francis O'Brien says:

    I think we should pray also for our police and government officials doing their job as they see best. Are there any facts that we don’t know here?

  7. PJCabbiness says:

    The pipeline will be completed. Needed energy will be distributed and many will be employed. Thank the Lord!

  8. HUGH HANSEN, Ph.D. says:

    I am amazed that this expenditure of human capital was not there, in Flint, MI when thousands of kids were having their mental ability permanently altered by lead in the water system. And yet, these Episcopalians claim this is primarily to insure clean water for this reservation. Even today, nothing permanent has been done for the kids in Flint. The lack of logic is clear.

    I have many commercial aircraft flying over my house every day. The likelihood of one crashing into my house is about 0.005%. in 40 years, thanks be to God, it has never happened.

    If these protesters are serious, they would work with authorities to assure safety of the water supply. While nothing is 100% safe in this world, redundancy can be designed into the pipeline to assure safety for, say, 500 years (barring an act of God, like an earthquake). Such engineering just as is done on a space craft can be done with a pipeline. Our probes into space are intact for many decades. This is not an argument for a pipeline, it is a rational discussion of how we can move on in the spirit of Christian faith. The pipeline in Alabama recently ruptured. This is uncalled for. We could all pay a few more pennies for gasoline to increase the likelihood of this never happening.

    The Anglican/Episcopal Church has a great and highly esteemed history of finding truth with the foundation of Christian Scripture through respect for tradition in a rational approach. We will do well not to turn aside from this firm soil to other approaches like politics, history revision, and nihilism.

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