[Episcopal News Service] Episcopal and interfaith chaplains were about to raise a tent in the Oceti Sakowin Camp on Dec. 4 when a message runner approached and called them to join the crowd already gathering around the sacred fire in the camp’s center. They left the tent, poles inserted, on the ground, and they went.
As they joined the hundreds of people around the fire, Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II took to the microphone to announce that that federal government said it would not allow the Dakota Access Pipeline to cross under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe, the drinking water source for some 8,000 people living on the Standing Rock Reservation, which covers 2.3 million acres in North and South Dakota.
“It’s significant for all of the people that supported us, standing with us,” said Archambault. “It’s huge. It’s big.”
He called on those present to take the lessons learned from the “Water is Life” movement home with them to heal their families and communities, and to create a better future.
“It’s time that we now move forward and that we don’t forget. I’m just so thankful for all of you,” Archambault said.
The crowd, including many who have been camped out in opposition to the controversial oil pipeline for months, erupted into applause; tears flowed, and people hugged one another in celebration.
Thousands of people, including Native Americans and indigenous people representing some 300 tribes from around the world, have traveled to North Dakota in recent months in an unprecedented show of solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Nation.
“On behalf of the Episcopal Church, I offer my gratitude to President Barack Obama and his administration for championing the rights of the indigenous peoples of the United States. We applaud the decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deny the pipeline permit under Lake Oahe,” said Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, who went to Standing Rock in September. “I personally offer thanks to all those who have worked to amplify the voices of the people at Standing Rock, calling our attention to historic wrongs and injustices, and urging us all to consider a new vision for how we might love God, love each other and love creation.
“I am grateful and humbled by the water protectors of Standing Rock, whose faithful witness, serves as an example of moral courage, spiritual integrity, and genuine concern for the entire human family and God’s creation. I am equally appreciative of the sacrifice and example of the military veterans, interfaith clergy and trauma chaplains who accompanied the water protectors during critical moments of the struggle.”
The Dec. 4 decision came as U.S. military veterans were pouring into the camp to stand as a shield between nonviolent water protectors and law enforcement officers in what had become an increasingly violent, militarized standoff. At one point, it looked as if protectors would be forced to evacuate the Oceti Sakowin Camp, located on federal land just south of the Cannonball River on Highway 1806.
“Speechless … completely overwhelmed. I always hoped for today,” said the Rev. John Floberg, supervising priest of the Episcopal churches on the North Dakota side of Standing Rock who has led the Episcopal Church’s continued support to water protectors, following the announcement. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he expressed gratitude “for all those who answered the call and had the church standing with Standing Rock. This is the kairos moment, and we are in the middle of it.”
“I want to thank everyone from every faith tradition who came to support us …. This is the common ground from Roman Catholic to Orthodox to Wiccan, this is the common ground for our faiths, we are at a new place.”
By the time the announcements finished, thousands of people had gathered around the sacred fire, “you could feel joy, shock and excitement all rolled into one; it was like the entire earth was vibrating,” said the Rev. Lauren Stanley, superintendent presbyter of the Rosebud Episcopal Mission West in South Dakota, adding that fireworks and victory songs continued into the night. “They were saying thank you to everyone who has supported them, it’s been a way of proving to the government that people do care, and that’s not been the history of native people.”
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe commended the Obama administration and the federal government for its decision.
“We wholeheartedly support the decision of the administration and commend with the utmost gratitude the courage it took on the part of President Obama, the Army Corps, the Department of Justice and the Department of the Interior to take steps to correct the course of history and to do the right thing,” said the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in a Dec. 4 statement in response to the Army’s decision. “The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and all of Indian Country will be forever grateful to the Obama administration for this historic decision.”
The tribe’s statement went on to thank the tribal youth who initiated the “Water is Life” movement; advocates and the millions of people around the globe who supported its cause; the thousands of supporters who came to the camps; and the tens of thousands who donated time, talent and money to its “efforts to stand against the pipeline in the name of protecting water. We especially thank all of the other tribal nations and jurisdictions who stood in solidarity with us, and we stand ready with you if and when your people are in need.”
The Army based its Dec. 4 decision on the need to explore alternative routes for the Dakota Access Pipeline that “would be best accomplished through an Environmental Impact Statement with full public input and analysis.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers launched a review of the permit on Sept. 9, when it requested construction stop on the 1,172-mile 30-inch diameter pipeline poised to carry up to 570,000 gallons of oil a day from the Bakken oil field in northwestern North Dakota – through South Dakota and Iowa – to Illinois where it will be shipped to refineries. The pipeline was to pass within one-half mile of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and tribal leaders repeatedly expressed concerns over the potential for an oil spill that would damage the reservation’s water supply, and the threat the pipeline posed to sacred sites and treaty rights.
Back in September, federal agencies said the case highlighted the need for discussion regarding nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes’ views on infrastructure projects.
Energy Transfer Partners responded on Dec. 4 by saying that it and its partner Sunoco Logistics Partners are “fully committed to ensuring that this vital project is brought to completion and fully expect to complete construction of the pipeline without any additional rerouting in and around Lake Oahe. Nothing this Administration has done today changes that in any way.”
The statement went on to say, “The White House’s directive today to the Corps for further delay is just the latest in a series of overt and transparent political actions by an administration which has abandoned the rule of law in favor of currying favor with a narrow and extreme political constituency.”
President-elect Donald J. Trump says he supports the pipeline’s completion.
Even while celebrating the Dec. 4 victory, water protectors and their allies are preparing for the long winter and road ahead.
“People will not leave until this situation is secure and that the victory that was won yesterday is sustained, and we have confidence that it will be sustained even into a new presidential administration,” said Floberg in a Dec. 5 telephone interview with Episcopal News Service. “Will some people go home? Yes, there can be a large stand down right now, but there will be a significant presence maintained, that will call back this force of people from throughout this country and around the world if this course is not maintained.”
Although the Dec. 4 decision is a victory, the case is not over. On Nov. 15, Dallas, Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, the company developing the pipeline, filed a lawsuit asking for federal court intervention to finish the project.
The situation on the ground intensified in late November, and initially, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Morton County Sheriff called for the evacuation of the Oceti Sakowin Camp, but both have since backed off. The Dec. 5 evacuation deadline coincided with the planned “deployment” of military veterans on the ground. In anticipation of the veterans’ arrival, the Standing Rock Sioux Nation asked for chaplains to be present.
After the Dec. 4 announcement and the initial celebration the Episcopal and interfaith chaplains returned to erect their tent, and early on the morning of Dec. 5, they hit the ground running, providing wellness and pastoral care to water protectors and their allies in the Oceti Sakowin Camp.
“We’re going two-by-two knocking on tents to make sure people are warm enough; if they are not we can help them get to a warming place, we have hand warmers and blankets,” said the Rev. Michael Pipkin, a former Navy chaplain on the Minnesota diocesan staff, who is coordinating the chaplain’s response.
Temperatures were in the lower teens on the morning of Dec. 5, and by noon snow was falling. Temperatures are forecast to fall as the week goes on.
Once the person’s physical needs are addressed, Pipkin said the chaplains move on to “deep soul work,” asking questions like, “How are you feeling? What does this mean for you?”
“We all understand that this is a prayerful place, Oceti Camp is a camp of prayer. In my whole life, I’ve never been around so many people praying and praying for a single cause … this is prayer in action and prayerful action all at the same time,” he said.
Thirty chaplains, including Episcopalians, Unitarians, Quakers, hospital and prison chaplains, are spending their days in camp through Dec. 7, while sleeping on the floor of St. James’ Episcopal Church in nearby Cannon Ball. On the evening of Dec. 4, Pipkin said, there was a line of veterans from recent and past conflicts still waiting to get into the camp.
“I’ve seen vets in wheelchairs … I just met an 80-year-old veteran from Alaska; it’s fascinating to me,” he said. “This has been very healing as a vet who has experienced conflict.”
Also on Dec. 5, during a forgiveness ceremony held in the pavilion of the Prairie Knights Casino and Resort on the Standing Rock reservation, non-native veterans including Wesley Clark Jr., son of the retired U.S. Army General, knelt for 14 minutes asking elders for the forgiveness of sins committed by the U.S. government against Native Americans. Following the ceremony, Native American veterans were asked to come forward and make relationships with those who were apologizing, and they did so by exchanging hugs and handshakes, said Stanley.
“Forgiveness and reconciliation is what Dave Archambault was talking about, and of course that resonates with us Episcopalians,” said Stanley. “This is a whole new chapter between natives and the rest of the United States.”
The Episcopal Church has supported water protectors and their allies since August when opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline began in earnest. And the support will continue, said Floberg.
The Church will continue to provide support comfort and pastoral care to people on the ground, and Floberg is encouraging Episcopalians to continue to come to Standing Rock in a show of solidarity; yesterday as the announcement was made, a group from Rochester, New York, was making its way.
“What we are doing is we are staying where the people are, that is where the Church belongs, among the people, and we continue to call for Episcopalians and clergy to come and bear witness here. We’re not calling for people to turn around.”
— Lynette Wilson is an editor/reporter for Episcopal News Service. The Rev. Lauren Stanley contributed reporting from the ground in North Dakota.