Since April of this year the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has stood in opposition to the development of the Dakota Access Pipeline by the Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners, a Fortune 500 company. If completed the pipeline will carry approximately a half-million barrels of crude oil from the North Dakota oil fields through South Dakota and Iowa to Patoka, Illinois, where it will connect with another pipeline. According to Democracy Now, dozens of financial institutions are bankrolling this project.
There are also powerful political interests invested in the success of the pipeline. The original design called for the pipeline to be closer to Bismarck, North Dakota. However, when it was determined that this would pose a threat to the water supply of that city, the pipeline route was moved closer to the Standing Rock Reservation, where is poses a threat to the water supply of that community and all communities downstream. The governor of North Dakota has deployed the national guard, the local sheriff has mobilized several area police departments, and Energy Transfer Partners has hired para-military forces to clear a path for the pipeline. In response to this aggressive action Dave Archambault II, Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, sent a letter to Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch calling upon the Department of Justice to take action “to protect Sioux treaty rights, sacred sites and all our waters.”
Thousands of people have rallied in support of the water rights of the Stand Rock Sioux peoples. Social media has given wide coverage of efforts to block development of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Chairman Archambault has testified before the United Nations Human Rights Commission. The effort to protect the rights of indigenous peoples has national and international significance.
The Christian community has been an advocate for the rights of the Sioux. On October 25, 2106, Reverend John Floberg, who has served for 25 years as the supervising priest of the Episcopal churches of Standing Rock in North Dakota, issued a public letter inviting all who are able to join him on November 2 and 3 to stand as “protective witnesses” who are in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Nation. Reverend Brooks Berndt of the Environmental Justice Program of the United Church of Christ recently circulated a letter on social medial inviting concerned clergy to sign in support of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation.
In addition to protecting the water rights of the Standing Rock Sioux, there are other issues that must be of immediate concern. On April 12, 2008, Charmaine White Face, Spokesperson for the Teton Sioux Nation Treaty Council, signed a Declaration of Affirmation of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. The Declaration was signed by witnesses. The Declaration affirms that the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which was ratified by the United States Senate, stands as an international agreement between the Sioux, Brule, Oglala, Miniconjou, Yantonai, Humkpapa, Blackfeet, Cuthead, Two Kettle, Sans Arcs, Santee, and Arapaho and the United States (“A Declaration of Affirmation of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868,” Teton Sioux Nation Council, Craig Howe, Lydia Whirlwind Soldier and Lanniko L. Lee, eds., He Sapa Woihanble: Black Hills Dream, St. Paul, Living Justice Press, 2011, 85-87). I proffer that the Fort Laramie Treat of 1868 and other relevant international treaties between Native American tribes and nations and the United States government must be taken into consideration.
The United Nations Human Rights Commission is now investigating the potential violation of Native American Water Protectors and their allies who are defending the rights of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. It is important for us to remember that in 2009 President Obama signed the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People. UNDRIP recognizes that indigenous peoples have suffered from historic injustices as a result of their colonization and dispossession of their lands. It recognizes “the urgent need to respect and promote the inherent rights of indigenous peoples… and especially their rights to their lands, territories and resources.” The United States was one of the last nations in the world to sign UNDRIP, but we are a signatory.
Not to be overlooked is the history of Christian church’s contribution to the colonial exploitation and expropriation of Native Peoples. I examine this history in some detail in my book Native Americans, the Mainline Church, and the Quest for Interracial Justice (Chalice Press, November 29, 2016). In 1095, Pope Urban II issued a papal bull, terra nullius (nobody’s land) establishing the right of Christians to conquer land occupied by non-Christians. It is a quasi-religious doctrine that now serves as a principle of international law. I believe that it is important that the church withdraw its support of this usurpatious and antiquated right of conquest, which underwrites the doctrine of discovery. A number of Protestant denominations have repudiated this doctrine. Now we must withdraw our support of the theological warrant for this doctrine.
Lastly, I want to call attention to the witness of Oren Lyons, Faith Keeper, Onondaga Nation. In 2015 he was a member of the Intercontinental Indigenous Peoples Delegation at the Parliament of the World’s Religions. In his address entitled, “Value Change for Survival,” Lyons said: “We are living in a time of prophecies…. We either have to change our (the world’s) values, or we won’t survive.”