For many, this story got lost amid impeachment proceedings in Washington, but it is a vitally important story for every person of faith who cares about environmental justice. In late October, a leak was discovered in the Keystone Pipeline, shutting it down for about two weeks, but not before more than 383,000 gallons of oil had been spilled onto the North Dakota soil.
At this time three years ago, protestors – including many clergy – gathered at Standing Rock to resist the building of the pipeline. Many had been protesting at the site at least since April. The protest continued as winter and its plummeting temperatures arrived on the windy Dakota plains.
NPR reporter Leah Donella noted in a November 2016 story on the Standing Rock protest: “Resistance, an offspring of history, continues … and if resistance is an old story, that’s because the systemic violation of indigenous land rights is an old story.”
Statements like this made me wince then and make me wince now because they implicate me. The harsh truth is that ignoring indigenous voices has become the social norm in the United States, even among its faith communities.
“We must acknowledge again that the origins of this ‘national holiday’ whitewashed the reality of colonialism.”
Too often I have overlooked the fact that the land where I work and play and sleep was taken from indigenous peoples. The chosen mascot of the professional football team in Kansas City that I have cheered for inflicts harm on Native American culture in its misappropriation and stereotyping. The park alongside the Missouri River where I walk in St. Charles has a large statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark with their canine companion. The famous explorers were tasked with finding a way to the Pacific Ocean. Regrettably absent from that statue is Sacagawea, the enslaved young Shoshone woman who made such an expedition possible while journeying the long trek with her infant. The names of rivers that run through my home state – the Missouri, Osage, Meramec and Niangua – all have indigenous origins. But the stories that connect with those names are largely unknown and forgotten.
In the fall of 2016 I was teaching world religions at a local university. The resistance at Standing Rock prompted me to revise my syllabus to include a couple of class sessions on Native American and specifically Lakotan religion. We learned that Lakotans considered the contested land a “sacred place” and “burial site.” We also learned that this wasn’t the first time the dominant culture has oppressed Lakotan peoples. In their expansion westward and search for gold, white settlers had all but eliminated the buffalo, an essential animal to Lakotan livelihood and religion. Now the descendants of such settlers had returned for the liquid gold known as oil.
I realized that I, as a Christian, have much to learn from Lakotan peoples. Their reverence and concern for the earth challenges me to think deeply about how I believe the Holy Spirit imbues all of creation. Do I really believe, as the Psalmist says, that “the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it?” Does this affect how I live my day-to-day life?
As we approach Thanksgiving, we must acknowledge again that the origins of this “national holiday” whitewashed the reality of colonialism. The reality of smallpox, forced migration and reservations. The reality of Christian boarding schools which denied Native American children to speak their own language and separated them for long stretches from their parents.
“Too often I have overlooked the fact that the land where I work and play and sleep was taken from indigenous peoples.”
Why should the plight of the Lakota peoples at Standing Rock matter to Christians? What significance does this oil spill hold? And why should we remember America’s history of systemic violation of indigenous rights?
Because we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. Because as Baptists, we affirm the freedom to worship apart from intervention from the state (or fossil fuel companies and other powerful corporations). And because remembering our history, even the parts that implicate our guilt, is how we can even begin to forge a more just path toward the future.