Oh, the layers of complexity at Standing Rock! Indigenous rights, property disputes, law enforcement, energy policy, environmental priorities, water rights, racial justice, jurisdictional ambiguity. And on and on and on. What's a church to do? I know that for some the answer is clear: "Stay out of it!" There are some who think the church should simply stay away.
But many disagree. This week a group of ELCA leaders (6 bishops, 2 leaders of the Native American Lutheran Association and a group of local pastors and lay people) visited Standing Rock. We talked with tribal leaders, with people in the encampments, and with law enforcement officers. All of our conversations were civil, everything we did was surrounded by prayer. Nobody wants this thing to blow up. Everyone wants a peaceful settlement, especially the people who will continue to live there, both tribal and non-Indian, after the pipeline dispute is over.
Why is this our business? In 2016, both the Montana Synod and the ELCA Churchwide Assembly adopted a Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery, which, among other things, pledged to walk with the tribes in their quest for justice. And in 2010, the Montana Synod adopted an Apology to the tribes of Montana, and promised to stand with them in the future. In short, this is our business, because we pledged accompaniment. This is also our business because it is not simply a local dispute. It is not simply about one pipeline on one piece of land.
The vigil at Standing Rock has become a defining moment for Native Americans in understanding what it means to be both American citizens and members of a sovereign nation. A history of broken treaties, unkept promises, land and water disputes, assimilation, genocide, poverty, and racism has drawn advocates, sympathizer and witnesses to come to Standing Rock. It's like a Rosa Parks moment for American Indians. Enough. People have come from all over the world. There are 320 flags along "Avenue of Flags." I found myself standing under the Episcopal Church flag, just a couple of flags away from the flag of the Blackfeet Nation.
Many people assume that what is going on at Standing Rock is protest. There are certainly elements of that. And there are some people there whose primary agenda is protest. But not the vast majority. The whole response to the proposed pipeline began last spring with prayer. A group of tribal members gathered on a hill overlooking the Missouri and prayed together for a long time. Not a quick pro forma blessing, but extended prayer. Prayer continues to be the bedrock of this movement. Everywhere we went we were asked to pray--with law enforcement, with pilgrims, with tribal leaders. The separation of church and state that we cling to so fiercely in the rest of civic life was simply not an issue. This is a deeply spiritual movement.
Tribal leaders see their goal not as protest, but as protection--protection of the river, protection of the earth, protection of future generations. Protest is focused on being against something. Protection is focused on being for something.
So what is a group of bishops doing there? Presence. We followed in the footsteps of many faith leaders from other denominations and faith groups by simply showing up. By bringing coats and hats and blankets and firewood, by praying, by listening and simply by being there.
As faith leaders we do not have the power to direct the Army Corps of Engineers or to stop the private security company's surveillance helicopters. We do not have the authority to set up roadblocks or enforce treaties. But we do have the power of prayer, and we do have the power of presence.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
Bishop Jessica Crist
Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA