Christians and Standing Rock: An Update

News outlets often describe the standoff between the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Energy Transfer Partners, developers of the North Dakota Access Pipeline, as contest between the water rights of indigenous peoples and the energy needs of the nation. This is a false and misleading characterization of the conflict.

People of faith have understood from the beginning that for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe the deeper issues are Native sovereignty, treaty rights, and religion. Religion for many Native peoples is land-based, and Native spirituality is bound to the land, making sacred places set aside for human remembrance such as burial grounds. For the Great Sioux Nation, to be a Sioux is to care for Mother Earth.

The centrality of land for Native spirituality was recognized by the United States with the enactment of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. This law calls upon the government to “protect and preserve for Native Americans their inherent right to freedom of belief …  and to worship through ceremonies and traditional sites.”

In October Churches Uniting in Christ, eleven denominations in covenantal relations, joined the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other indigenous peoples to support tribal sovereignty, water, cultures, way of life, and sacred sites, citing the centrality of land to Native peoples and Native religious practices

On November 4, 524 clergy representing many denominations responded to a call put forth by Reverend John Floberg, an Episcopal priest who has been serving the Standing Rock Sioux people for 25 years, to come to Cannon Ball, North Dakota, for a time of prayer and to be in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The clergy who gathered used the occasion to ceremonially burn a copy of the Doctrine of Discovery, a policy used to justify the confiscation of Indian lands, the destruction of Indian cultures, and the taking of Indian lives.

One month later, with protesters facing an order from the North Dakota governor to leave their encampment before the harsh winter sets in, more than 1,000 communities around the world joined an Interfaith Day of Prayer. People of many faiths came together to pray with and to pray for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Water Protectors. That same day, the Army Corps of Engineers denied a key permit needed to finish construction, a major victory for the water protectors. Whether that victory will end the debate, rerouting the pipeline away from Standing Rock, time will tell.

These prayers and the ongoing vigilance of the faith community is greatly needed. North Dakota Governor Dalrymple called the Army Corps of Engineers decision “a serious mistake.” The Morton County Sheriff’s Department pledged to “continue to enforce the law.” Energy Transfer Partners has pledged to complete the present pipeline.

Christians from many denominations are showing strong support for the religious rights of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. We must stand in deep solidarity now and in the coming year.

David Phillips Hansen David Phillips Hansen is a minister in the United Church of Christ and author of Native Americans, the Mainline Church, and the Quest for Interracial Justice, available for preorder now for delivery in January.