Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Stand with Standing Rock
distributed 9/9/16 - ©2016

Yesterday, I joined with a great crowd in downtown Denver to stand in solidarity with the Native American "protectors" encamped near the Standing Rock reservation, in North Dakota. Perhaps 2,000 of us marched from the four directions, and converged at the State Capitol for prayers, songs, and voices of witness.

My commitment to the ethical principles of eco-justice made it imperative that I attend the march, and that I continue to act in solidarity with those who oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) near the Standing Rock reservation.

There are many reasons why I believe it is important to support this cause. Today, I will highlight two general factors, and four reasons specific to this issue. Also, I'll suggest several ways that you can join with this movement. (Touching on so many points does mean that this Notes will be longer than usual -- headings will allow you to skim the main topics.)

BREAKING NEWS: This afternoon, a federal judge ruled against the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's request to immediately halt work on the Dakota Access Pipeline.

AND YET MORE BREAKING NEWS: Shortly after the judge's decision was announced, a statement was released from several federal agencies, acknowledging that "important issues raised by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other tribal nations and their members regarding the Dakota Access pipeline specifically, and pipeline-related decision-making generally, remain." Pipeline construction will be temporarily halted on federal lands, and the pipeline company was asked to stop construction on private land near the reservation. In addition, tribes from across the US are invited to "formal, government-to-government consultations" this fall to adress process that will "better ensure meaningful tribal input into infrastructure-related reviews and decisions and the protection of tribal lands, resources, and treaty rights." While nothing definitive has been decided, these announcements show the power of the Standing Rock protests, at the reservation, and from supporters across the country.

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Some brief background -- The Dakota Access Pipeline, now under construction, is planned to run from northwestern North Dakota to southern Illinois. It is designed to carry more than 500,000 barrels of oil per day from the Bakken oil fields near the Canadian border.

At the core of the Standing Rock dispute are two issues about the routing of the pipeline: it would cross under the Missouri River just north of the reservation, and it crosses land that the Sioux tribe considers sacred.

On April 1 of this year, tribal citizens founded the Sacred Rock Spirit Camp along the path of the pipeline. In recent weeks, thousands of Native Americans, representing more than 250 tribes from across North America, have gathered at the camp, seeking to block the pipeline. A violent conflict last weekend between the private security forces of the pipeline company and some of the Native Americans catapulted the protest into national and international news. (On Wednesday of this week, the Washington Post published a fairly comprehensive story about the Standing Rock movement)

As one speaker last night said, "This in now a global issue, not a tribal issue." There are two general principles and four specific reasons why I think people of faith and conscience need to "stand with Standing Rock." Many of these factors are cited in recent statements from US denominations and church leaders. (Thanks to our friends at Creation Justice Ministries for links to those statements.)

1) Take Native claims seriously. As a matter of justice, I have been giving attention to this issue for several months because it is one arising from Native peoples, and dealing with Native lands. In Christian ethics, there is the principle of a "preferential option for the poor", which calls on us to take very seriously the experiences and the voices of those who have been marginalized and oppressed. We are called to seek justice for "the least of these", which surely includes those whose ancestral lands have been taken, and who experience high levels of poverty and despair.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery, a set of moral and legal principles which justified the exploitation of native peoples in the Americas. Any sense of repudiating -- or even questioning -- that doctrine requires that we honor the legal and moral claims of those people, and that we take seriously their cultural and religious views about the meaning of land and water. The claims of the Lakota and other native people provide us with a set of beliefs and values that are in sharp contrast to the dominant American culture, which must be respected on their own terms.

2) Ties to the larger climate movement. Regardless of the details of the Standing Rock challenge to DAPL, I am inclined to honor that protest as part of the larger climate movement. We join with them as allies in a cause that is larger than this one pipeline. The Standing Rock message is not a "not in my backyard" call to put the pipeline somewhere else. It is a call to leave fossil fuels in the ground, and turn toward a way of life that protects ecosystems, and provides justice for those most impacted by petroleum development.

As Bill McKibben wrote this week in the New Yorker, "The fight for environmental sanity -- against pipelines and coal ports and other fossil-fuel infrastructure -- has increasingly been led by Native Americans, many of whom are in that Dakota camp today." We stand with Standing Rock, because they are providing vision and courageous leadership for the global climate justice movement.

The specifics of the DAPL also make this a compelling struggle for justice.

3) Permitting process and lack of consultation. The tribe's legal claims include distressing details about irregularities in the process by which the pipeline received federal permits. A lawsuit filed in July says that the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers used a "fast track" permitting process that circumvented a comprehensive environmental review. The the Crop approved the permit on July 26. The tribe received only a "48-hour notice" that construction would begin immediately adjacent to the reservation.

The tribe claims that consultations about the pipeline's impacts to sacred sites and culturally important landscapes -- required under the National Historic Preservation Act -- were not taken seriously. These violations of laws and fair processes provide strong cause to support the legal challenges of the Standing Rock tribe.

4) Risk of the pipeline at river crossings. The Dakota Access Pipeline would be buried under the Missouri River just to the north -- upstream -- of the Standing Rock reservation. The river is the primary source of water for the reservation, for domestic uses, agriculture, and ecological health. The risk of the pipeline leaking oil into the river is a primary motivation for the protests, because it would be catastrophic for the tribe's 8,000 residents, and for millions of other people downstream.

The fears of damage to water supplies are not ungrounded. Within the past few years, there have been several large oil spills into rivers, causing extreme damage and difficult remediation. In a very telling detail, the Bismark (ND) Tribune reported in August that "An early proposal for the Dakota Access Pipeline called for the project to cross the Missouri River north of Bismarck, but one reason that route was rejected was its potential threat to Bismarck's water supply". It is unconscionable that pipeline proponents trivialize the tribe's concerns about risks to the river, when the same risks were decisive in protecting the water supply of the state's capitol city.

5) Actions by the state of North Dakota to shut down the protest. As the Sacred Stone Camp drew more protectors, and as the protest started to gain more visibility -- largely through social media, not the mainstream press -- North Dakota officials took actions to shut down the protest. Governor Jack Dalyrmple declared a state of emergency on August 19. Highways leading to the site were closed, water supplies were blocked, and service crews for emptying the porta-potties were not allowed access to the site. The actions of government agencies to silence the protest are a reason for people of conscience to join in amplifying the message.

6) Actions by the pipeline contractor desecrating sacred lands. A decisive turning point happened last weekend, when the conflict escalated into acts of desecration and violence.

Last Friday, a legal filing by the tribe described the location of a sacred and historic site, including a Native burial ground, near the Sacred Stone Camp, and in the path of the pipeline. On Saturday, over the Labor day weekend, the pipeline contractors moved two bulldozers from another construction site quite a distance away, and intentionally graded a 150 foot wide swath across the location that the tribe had described. As the Washington Post reported, "When tribe members and others tried to prevent the action, they were stopped by private security workers for Dakota Access who used guard dogs and pepper spray to drive them back." The images of dogs attacking the tribal members, including children and pregnant women, have often been compared to powerful photos from the Civil Rights movement in Selma and Birmingham -- photos that outraged the nation, and gave strength to the movement's call for transformation.

These blatant acts against the tribe -- taken just before legal decisions about an injunction stopping that section of the pipeline's construction -- demand that all people speak strongly for justice.

Both in broad considerations of justice for Native peoples and climate action, and in numerous specific details about the Standing Rock tribe's situation, principles of eco-justice and Christian ethics demand that we stand in solidarity and support with those protesting the pipeline in North Dakota.

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What can we do to join in solidarity with the Standing Rock people?

  • Next Tuesday, September 13, a wide variety of environmental and justice organizations are organizing a "#NoDAPL Day of Action" in many locations across the US. If there is an event near you, join it. If there isn't a close-at-hand event, consider launching one.

  • Contributions are needed to support the Standing Rock legal defense fund, and the Sacred Stone Camp supply fund. (I made a contribution today.)

  • Contact the White House (by phone at 202-456-1111, or on-line telling President Obama to rescind the Army Corps of Engineers' Permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline.

  • Lift up the Standing Rock cause in your postings to social media -- the hashtag #NoDAPL is encouraged -- on in a letter to the editor.

  • Raise the Standing Rock fight for justice in your congregation, in prayers or newsletters. Feel free to link to this Eco-Justice Notes [] or to hand out printed copies of this message.

Because of last weekend's violence, and with legal decisions about to be announced, Standing Rock is in the news, and is presented to us as a matter of justice. Each of us must decide where we stand, and how we will act.

I have chosen to Stand with Standing Rock in word, deed, and with cash. I pray that you will join with me, and with the protectors at the Sacred Stone Camp.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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