Tribal councilman Dan Yellow Fat describes the Native movement this way: “We began this with prayer. And we look at this whole movement as a ceremony. It began with prayers before we left, and in the end, it will close with prayers. We’re fighting the pipeline with prayers.” (RNS, Nov 24, 2016)
And several tribal leaders point out the Native movement is not against economic development. Rather, it focuses on economic development in environmentally and spiritually sustainable ways.
Rabbi Susan Goldberg says it was Chief Arvol Looking Horse’s call for faith leaders to join with the youth in prayer that drew her to join the effort. “Standing in prayer feels deeply Jewish,” she says.
When she arrived at the camp and entered the main tent for orientation, “Here again was the clear intention of prayer that had moved me to come. The elder began with a prayer and closed the session with a prayer. This was to be the way with every action about the pipeline. The language was of prayer, not protest.”
Rabbi Goldberg found herself moved by many aspects of the camp, including the faithfulness of the young people. “A Native mom from nearby said that she had always rejected her culture and traditions, but now her 16 year-old son insisted that they live there in the camp and was learning to speak their native language. Claiming cultural traditions when they have been eroded and rejected over time rings very true to me as a Jew. Here too was my son – in bitter cold, unpacking medical supplies, and telling me that this experience made him feel more deeply connected to being Jewish.”
Protestant faith leader and nonviolent activist, Shane Claiborne, says the large gathering of Native and supportive Water Protectors have shown the world “how people of faith can stand up . . . in the strength of nonviolent resistance.” (RNS, Dec 5, 2016) He observes how faithful, nonviolent struggles against oppression, like this one, are expeditions deeply rooted in prayer that span generations. Much like resistant movements over the past two years, including in Ferguson, MO, NYC, and around the country, resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline crossing the Missouri River started with young people encouraging their neighbors and elders to pay attention and act with integrity.
Their efforts did not go unheard or unappreciated. On Sunday, Dec. 4, the Army Corps of Engineers announced they denied the application for the necessary easement for the pipeline to pass under the river. “It’s clear there’s more work to do,” says Jo-Ellen Darcy, spokesperson for the Army Corps. “The best way to complete that work responsibly and expeditiously is to explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing.”
One significant factor in the efforts of young protestors in Ferguson, MO, and continued in ND: elders listened to their young people and valued their perspectives. In Standing Rock, in particular, Native elders embraced their young people’s vision and leveraged official support on their behalf.
Still, there are many challenges and questions ahead. Marshall Connelly, reporting for the Catholic California Network, reminds readers how there are Catholics on both sides of the protest, both as faith leaders standing in prayer with Native tribes and as workers preparing the pipeline project. Connelly points out how the pipeline projects asks Native tribes to tolerate something their neighbors in Bismarck rejected. Connelly astutely asks: “Does this project truly do all it can to reasonably protect the people who are mostly likely to bear the risks? Do those who benefit have the permission of those who are paying for it by living next to it?”
We may further inquire:
- Is there a way to proceed with the pipeline, including enhancing American energy abilities and expanding American job opportunities, without endangering water supplies or destroying sacred land?
- How can local interests be preserved for both Native tribes and North Dakota residents, without being hijacked by outside interest groups including environmentalists, activists, corporations, and politicians?
- What best practices do Native tribes, the Army Corps, and other groups model in these vital negotiations, and can those practices be replicated in other negotiation settings?
Sustainable, faithful acts of resistance and meaningful negotiations that take into account the concerns of all parties in conflict require ongoing self and congregational care. Native elders have offered a scope of reliable care practices for their people and the thousands of supporters who have come to camp in Standing Rock. They have included food, shelter, clothing, prayer, singing, medical supplies, and personal practices known to lower blood pressure and enhance patient and knowledgeable presence during confrontations.
While many feel some progress has been made by the recent decision of the Army Corps of Engineers, conflict remains. Energy Transfer Partners issued a statement saying they "fully expect to complete construction of the pipeline without any additional rerouting in and around Lake Oahe." In their statement, they imply their only concern in conflict is the current White House Administration, leaving no mention of local residents or tribes. It remains unclear whether the camps will dissipate in the coming days, even as tribal leaders have recommended campers to leave for the time being. Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault says tribal leaders seek to work with the incoming Administration to seek consensus.
Thousands will continue in prayer.
Picture credit: E. Sarai/VOA News