Supporters witness a victory at Standing Rock

MCC staffers among those who stand with indigenous 'water protectors' resisting oil pipeline in North Dakota

Dec 19, 2016 by and

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Representatives from Mennonite Central Committee were present Dec. 4 at the Oceti Sakowin camp near the site of the Dakota Access Pipeline protest when the word spread that the “water protectors” had won a victory.

The Army Corp of Engineers had announced it would look for an alternate route for the oil pipeline to cross under Lake Oahe within half a mile of the border of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota. Pipeline opponents said the planned route threatened the tribe’s drinking water supply.

Native American “water protectors” celebrate the Army Corp of Engineers’ Dec. 4 announcement that it would look for an alternate route for the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline. — Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Native American “water protectors” celebrate the Army Corp of Engineers’ Dec. 4 announcement that it would look for an alternate route for the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline. — Lucas Jackson/Reuters

“I think it’s a good sign. It sets some kind of precedent,” said Erica Littlewolf, Indigenous Visioning Circle program coordinator for MCC Central States. “I think because of the decision, people tend to think it’s over, and it’s not. It’s good, but the work continues.”

Littlewolf and Andrew Wright, MCC Central States director of programs, went to the camp to observe the situation and discern MCC’s role for the future, as well as to participate in an interfaith prayer service.

“We went up there to be a bodily presence. We were not going to be participating in any civil disobedience, but we were going to be there as witnesses,” Wright said. “We were lining up on Sunday to participate in a prayer circle with all these leaders and veterans. We were called in around the main fire, and they made the announcement that the easement had been denied.”

Littlewolf said the experience was very emotional for her.

“Seeing native and indigenous people globally empowered . . . to have a collective energy to do something — I haven’t seen that in my lifetime,” she said. “I think it’s inspiring for what’s to come. We’ll remember, ‘We did this.’ ”

The camp was visited by representatives of more than 300 federally recognized tribes. Activists called it the largest gathering of Native American tribes in at least a century — the epicenter of what many considered a spiritual movement to protect the environment and the rights of indigenous people.

‘Anabaptist ethos’

Littlewolf credited the Oceti Sakowin camp values of prayer and nonviolence for the victory.

“It didn’t happen how things usually happen,” she said. “Everyone thinks we have to have war to make things happen, and we didn’t do that.”

Wright said his experience did not match stereotypes of what a protest camp was like.

“They embodied the ethos of Anabaptist vision — a deep commitment to nonviolence, patience, a willingness to suffer, a commitment to hospitality, an organized but non-hierarchical leadership,” he said.

Wright was impressed by the way the indigenous-led community mirrored his ideals for what the church should be.

“What I think the most radical thing they did was the ordinary practices of living,” he said. “Cooking, cleaning, finding a way for a camp of 10,000 people to have a clean bathroom situation. To hear that just for a moment, perhaps, that this community’s efforts, that had stood and looked at the powers and principalities and were able to make a difference, to have some effect — to watch the people there embrace and the sense that ‘we can actually do this’ — was an incredibly emotionally powerful time.”

Littlewolf said that despite the decentralized leadership, the camp was highly organized, and she did not observe great needs for everyday material aid while she was there, although winter storms increased the need for certain supplies such as firewood and winter shelter. She also said legal aid was needed for protestors who had been arrested.

“There was food, sanitation; it was highly, highly, highly organized,” she said. “At one point there was a tent that was super organized with supplies; you could just walk in [and take what you needed].”

Wright said MCC is considering providing aid in the future, but the emphasis right now is on observing the situation and building relationships. Many are going home, but some protestors have stayed, citing uncertainty about a lasting victory.

“Our material response will be in direct relationship with people we know there,” he said.

Apology by veterans

On Dec. 5, a group of U.S. military veterans participated in a ceremony symbolically asking for and receiving forgiveness from Native American elders for land removal, broken treaties and violence.

Littlewolf said the apology was only a starting point to enter into a different relationship.

“Sometimes apologies can be awkward, and sometimes it can have people feeling relieved of their continued responsibility,” she said. “It’s a place to start, but not a place to end.”

Wright agreed the ceremony was a first step toward deeper relationships between white people and indigenous people.

“I’m wary about cheap grace,” he said. “If it’s an opening to a longer process of thinking about even more radical things like land return or indigenous sovereignty, deepening U.S. commitment to treaties — if it’s an open door to those things, I think it was a really incredible moment. It’s also a dangerous one in the sense that it leaves us vulnerable to doing nothing after it’s over. Are we going to follow up on that?”

Wright said expressions of forgiveness should be part of “the broader work of dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery. . . . It’s not just about needing forgiveness once; it’s about peeling away the layers of the way the Doctrine of Discovery has affected native peoples.”

Iris de León-Hartshorn, director of transformative peacemaking for Mennonite Church USA, said the conflict at Standing Rock is just one manifestation of the Doctrine of Discovery — a centuries-old idea that gave “Christian” governments the right to seize indigenous lands and dominate indigenous people.

“This happens all the time. Standing Rock is not unusual,” de León-Hartshorn said. “It’s just part of [indigenous peoples’] daily life that happens. They have no power over where they live or how they live. At any time, that can be taken away.”

Littlewolf and de León-Hartshorn are part of the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition, a group of Mennonite church and lay leaders formed in 2014 to share information and resources to dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery.

“When we look at the Doctrine of Discovery, it basically says Christians have the right and title to land,” de León-Hartshorn said. “Even though we don’t state those words anymore, that’s still what happens.”

The coalition, which includes representatives from MCC, MC USA and the Mennonite Creation Care Network, will continue to monitor the situation at Standing Rock and discern future responses.

“The Doctrine of Discovery is still alive, and it’s still destroying life for native people,” de León-Hartshorn said. “If we’re smart, we’d see how we’ll eventually destroy ourselves if we don’t pay attention to the things they’re calling out about the environment.”

Mennonites involved

Several Mennonites have visited Standing Rock camps over the past few months.

Christian Peacemaker Teams sent a delegation in early October to meet with the camp’s legal assistance team. Doctrine of Discovery Coalition member Anita Amstutz visited in September and saw a banner bearing the MC USA logo.

“Where it came from, nobody knew,” she wrote in her blog.

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