In the 1970s and 1980s, high school youth of the First Church in Oberlin UCC traveled every June to the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota.
As pastor, I sometimes accompanied them. Together with members of the Sioux Indian YMCA, we set up a summer camp on the shore of Lake Oahe, a body of water created by an Army Corps of Engineers dam in the Missouri River.
Each year we lived for a few days in one of the small Native American communities scattered around the 4,267 square miles of the reservation. We heard stories of life before 1958, when the corps began building dams that flooded over 200,000 acres of riverfront forests, fruit orchards, fertile farmland and sacred places in that reservation, the adjoining Standing Rock Reservation, and others up and down the Missouri River valley. Villages were submerged, forcibly displacing the Native American population and forever altering their traditional ways of life. Eventually the tribal councils received some compensation but individual landowners and their heirs are still suing to be paid for their loss.
This history of forced dislocation helps explain what is in the news now: the resistance by members of the Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, and other tribes of the Great Sioux Nation to construction of the $3.7 billion Dakota Access Pipeline that would run under the Missouri River a half-mile from the Standing Rock reservation boundary. They have been joined by members of nearly 200 other tribes and by indigenous peoples from around the world in peaceful protection of the river that supplies water to millions of Americans.
How did the pipeline developers respond to this intentionally non-violent “Protect Our Water” effort? Over the Labor Day weekend, Energy Transfer Corporation bulldozers began what appeared to be deliberate destruction of Native American historic and sacred sites; the much-criticized global security firm G4S deployed personnel; dogs imported from an unlicensed trainer in Ohio attacked and bit people; journalists were arrested; and the state of North Dakota mobilized armed patrols and requested federal help in dealing with “outside agitators.”
In response, solidarity protests were organized against Citibank and other pipeline investors. Statements of support continue to pour in, including an interfaith statement that concludes: “…Our faith traditions call for action to address the urgent challenge of climate change. The well-being and future of all people depend upon our willingness to transition justly and quickly away from fossil fuels and toward carbon free alternatives. Therefore we stand with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, other tribal nations, and indigenous peoples in support of their children, their tribal sovereignty, natural resources, cultural heritage, and sacred places.”
The Friday after Labor Day, a federal judge denied the tribe’s request for a temporary injunction to halt construction of pipeline. The tribe argued that the project violates federal environmental laws and threatens the water supply for millions of people.
Minutes later, the Department of Justice, the Department of the Army, and the Department of the Interior issued a joint statement to “cease to authorize construction” on federally-controlled land – nullifying the court’s action – and asking the pipeline company voluntarily to pause construction within 20 miles east or west of Lake Oahe. The federal court then made this construction pause mandatory.
Thus the interfaith statement continues: “We applaud the federal government’s decision to halt pipeline construction on corps land until more thorough review of applicable laws and the adequacy of tribal consultation are conducted. We pray for a peaceful resolution that brings forth a new and more equitable chapter for tribal nations and a just transition toward a (fossil fuel)-free future.”
The Native Americans who have gathered at the “Camp of the Sacred Stones” view themselves not as protestors, but as protectors of the land and of the water of life. They have been coming by the thousands since April. They plan to stay as long as needed to accomplish their goal. One who volunteers as coffee-maker reflected on why he is there: “The cause for me is peace and prayer. We don’t want violence. That’s not what we came here for.”
Standing Rock has entered the national, even global, narrative of the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. A great question now is whether the next chapter of that narrative will be, even here in Oberlin, like the movement for civil rights led by Martin Luther King Jr. — a story of commitment to non-violence, peace, and prayer.
John Elder was pastor of the First Church in Oberlin UCC from 1973 to 1991 and has been a Kendal at Oberlin resident since 2007. The Views from Oberlin group writes and peer-reviews columns on major issues.