I’m sure many of you have followed the courageous effort by the Standing Rock Sioux and others to fight the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota. In addition to activists on the ground, shareholders have also been involved with both the energy companies and banks that have financed the project to make sure that the environment and the rights of indigenous people are fully accounted for. Together, we’re winning! I could share details of the shareholder initiatives, if you’d like to give me a call, but here I’d like to honor my friend and client, the Reverend Dr. Peter Terpenning, who was among hundreds of clergy members who visited the site in November. Here he shares his personal experience…. THANKS, Pete!
I have talked several times with people about the Standing Rock experience since I returned and have clarified my thoughts a bit. When asked what the main issue I saw at work there…certainly, water rights is key since they originally routed the pipeline north of Bismarck, ND and the moved it because of the danger to the water supply…moved it to north the Indian reservation…after all, who cares what happens to Indian’s water. There was a Lakota elder, a woman who first set up the Sacred Stone Camp on private land belonging to a tribal member near the path of the pipeline as a protest in April, 2016. They started calling themselves water protectors. Perhaps you know, but Standing Rock is one of Sioux reservations set up after the break up of the much larger reservation…originally set up in 1851 at Ft. Laramie. The old treaties were never officially nullified, but changed when white people wanted gold in the black hills and farm and ranch land in the only fertile areas of the reservation). The Lakota people claim the land where the pipeline runs as part of that old treaty and object to the use of that land by the pipeline and the desecration of graves and sacred sites on that land.
For me, the really striking issue is how the Native American protesters are being treated. It is so different than the way white protestors who occupied the Oregon Malheur national wildlife refuge were treated. The white occupiers, though heavily armed, were not only not pepper sprayed or shot with rubber bullets, but then acquitted. The double standard is amazing. It’s really about the bigotry and unjust treatment of Native people through the years. This being just the latest instance.
After Sacred Stone camp became too small, the protestors at Standing Rock set up a second camp near the river (Cannonball?) immediately across from where the pipeline company was working. They call it the Oceti camp, where Rev. Rick Danielson, Rev. Chris Gilmore, Rev. Todd Smiedendorf and I camped. This is an amazing camp of over a thousand people when we were there…teepees, old army tents, modern tents, canvas tents, trailers, makeshift structures, horses wandering wild, yurts…etc… Campfires everywhere, a haze of smoke, flags from 30 Native tribes who are represented and indigenous people from Siberia, Polynesia and other places. Sprawling, wonderful, friendly camp of welcoming people. Lots of young people from all over who just arrive and camp…join in and wander around. Lots of dreadlocks and tattoos. But not only young people, many older folks as well. It was definitely attracting all sorts of people who wanted to stand for justice. I woke up to go to the porta-potty in the night and nearly walked into some horses wandering through, one was white and one a Paint. In my half-awake state I thought for a moment that they were spirit horses from the past …maybe they were, but then I did see some similar horses the next day.
Before the clergy were called as a non-violent presence, the North Camp (or winter camp) was set up across the river (from the Oceti Camp) in the path of the pipeline. This North Camp was broken up by security and police with over 100 arrests and lots of violence…rubber bullets, vehicles burned (at least one by Native American youth in retaliation), people dragged from tents and sweat lodges and everything carted off in trucks. The mass of tents, sleeping bags, clothing and such were returned to Oceti camp by the police the day we were there and we saw many people sorting through the piles looking for their belongings. The violence of that day is what inspired Rev. John Floburg, the Episcopal priest who has served on the Reservation for 20 years to call for the clergy to come. He hoped for 100; 524 or more showed up.
Our action of 524 clergy (the same number as the number of years since Columbus landed) had a ceremony by the central fire where we read the Doctrine of Discovery issued by the Catholic Church that legitimized the conversion of and taking of lands of indigenous people in the Americas. We read documents of repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery from various denominations, including the United Church of Christ (my denomination) and then symbolically burned the Doctrine amidst cheers and Indian calls (the high pitched la la la la -if you’ve heard that). Then we were smudged with tobacco smoke (blessed) and walked to the river to listen to speeches, sing songs and make a huge circle. All manner of clergy garb was present from simple stoles and collars to full liturgical regalia…you may have seen pictures.
There were no incidents with the private security or police, though their militarized presence was everywhere. (The last thing they wanted to do was shoot a white clergy person with a rubber bullet, I would think). There were police cruisers on every hill all around the river valley (7 hills or so), there were armored personnel carriers across the river blocking the road…innumerable cruisers and private security trucks on the road down to the river across from us…groups of security and police gathered around. helicopters and drones flying overhead. There was a private security drone that flew over the Oceti camp all night and kept me awake…though I did sleep a bit eventually. Rick was smart and brought earplugs. Chris and I listened to the drone. All the police and security were wearing full swat team apparel, helmets, flak vests, etc…all for a group of unarmed native Americans and clergy. Teenagers riding around bareback, a Native American veteran wearing his uniform and holding an upside down American flag.
What else struck me?… We were welcomed generously, as were everyone who arrived, it seemed to me. A group of young women from Madison Wis, students from the Univ. of Wisconsin arrived as we were leaving…10 or more, who were setting up camp and wanting to be supportive…perhaps writing papers on the experience. They had been excused from classes to travel over. Lots of people from all over…reminded me of the late 60’s and 70’s and concerts and “happenings”… Tiring, uncomfortable …but inspiring. We were welcomed at the central fire and offered food and coffee.
At the time we were there they definitely needed supplies for the winter, though many things had been donated. They were settled in for the long haul and many planned to stay the winter or as long as necessary. They didn’t need more clothes…but welcomed the tarps and solar chargers we brought. Money was also welcome…for legal defense and supplies. There is list of needed supplies if you hunt down Standing Rock on Google. They were feeding anyone in the camp who asked for food…several hundred at least, a day. I read that that increased to over a thousand. Anyone could go to the supply tent and pick up things they need…it was organized chaos… Drumming circle at the central fire nightly…morning announcements start over the loud speaker at 6 am…like a military camp or something. Telling people to get up and get busy, there is work to do for justice today. Low key Indian humor…and announcements…quite a thing to wake up to.
I am very grateful that I had an invitation and a chance to go there and support the protest. One Native woman told me she thought it was the most important action by Native Americans in her generation and she would not have missed coming for anything. The unity of Native American tribes and other indigenous people was a wonderful thing, and I got the sense that the Native people thought it was unusual and great opportunity to build unity and coalition between tribes. One Polynesian man gave a moving speech to the gathered clergy about how he believed the Lakota at Standing Rock were standing for all indigenous people. Clergy added that the Lakota were (are) standing for all of us, as environmental stewards, and as agents for justice for all oppressed people.
The movement was definitely growing after the time that I was there with the clergy. More and more allies were arriving, most dramatically with the veterans who went there. It is tempting to speculate that the government intervened (with the army calling for more study) to derail the strength of the movement gathering around Standing Rock and keep it from becoming a focal point for a larger environmental and justice movement. By delaying and getting everyone to go home, perhaps they think people will lose interest. Perhaps they are right, but the Lakota people of Standing rock and their Native allies are not going anywhere and are prepared, from what I’ve read, to get back up there if the pipeline company started digging. For now, they are keeping about 100 people there as witnessed, and the need for legal defense funds and other support continues.