Episcopal Church pledges support for ‘water protectors’

By Kevin Cummings

After the latest victory for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in the effort to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline from crossing under Lake Oahe on the Missouri River, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said the Episcopal Church will continue backing the “water protectors.”

On Dec. 4, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would deny an easement to allow the oil pipeline under the water source for the Standing Rock Reservation, which is home to about 8,000 people in North and South Dakota. The announcement came one day before the Corps’ deadline for protestors — who call themselves “water protectors” — to vacate their main camp about a mile from the pipeline’s planned Missouri River crossing. After issuing the evacuation order last month, the Corps of Engineers stated it would not forcibly remove the protestors.

The Episcopal Church is officially a backer of those at Standing Rock and in a statement Curry praised the Corps of Engineers and President Barack Obama’s administration for halting the pipeline and potentially rerouting the project. Curry said there is still a challenge ahead.

“We will also urge the current and incoming presidential administration to launch a thorough Department of Justice investigation into the use of brutal force by law enforcement on Standing Rock. Our work is not over, and the Episcopal Church has a critical role to play in ensuring a just and humane outcome is fully realized,” Curry said.

“We recognize that this struggle for the protection of water and of the basic human rights of indigenous people is one moment in a wider movement for social and environmental justice,” he added.

Energy Transfer Partners, the pipeline construction company, issued a statement after the Corps’ decision stating that the 1,171-mile pipeline from the Bakken oil fields in northwestern North Dakota to an oil storage and transfer site in Patoka, Ill., will move forward.

“(We) 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 company stated.

“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,” the statement continued.

The Corps of Engineers has ordered an Environmental Impact Study that could delay the project for more than a year, but Energy Transfer Partners filed a federal lawsuit on Nov. 15 demanding to continue construction. That lawsuit is expected to move further through the court system in early 2017.

The water protectors made up of Native Americans and indigenous people representing about 300 tribes have stood in solidarity at Oceti Sakowin Camp about a mile from the pipeline site for months. Many others, including Episcopalian clergy and church members, have joined protestors at various times. As the Dec. 5 call for evacuation neared, thousands of people poured into the camp and region in support.

When the news of the Corps’ decision to halt the pipeline reached the camp, Episcopal and interfaith chaplains were on the verge of raising a tent. People gathered around the sacred fire for the big announcement.

“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.”

Some Episcopal parishes have held fundraisers and sent supplies as well as supporters. At the camp on Dec. 4, the interfaith chaplains came back after the victory celebration to erect their tent and the next day offered care to people in the 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.

After physical needs, Pipkin said the chaplains attended to the emotional and spiritual needs of those in the camp.

“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.

The Rev. John Floberg, supervising priest of the Episcopal churches on the North Dakota side of Standing Rock, said some people will remain at the camp even with the snow and brutally cold temperatures.

“People will not leave until this situation is secure and that the victory that was won (Dec. 4) is sustained, and we have confidence that it will be sustained even into a new presidential administration,” Floberg said. “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.”

According to Popular Science, now that the planned pipeline is mostly complete, rerouting options are fewer, but a possible route 10 miles north of Bismarck could be reconsidered, although the Corps’ initially rejected the option due to potential hazards to the city’s water supply.    n

Kevin Cummings, freelance writer for the Sewanee School of Theology in Tennessee, compiled news reports from Episcopal News Service and other sources for this article.