[Episcopal News Service] The Rev. John Floberg has more than 3,000 pounds of flour in his garage. Depending on your point of view, the bags symbolize either the Episcopal Church’s mission and ministry or the law of unintended consequences, or both.
Floberg, priest-in-charge of Episcopal congregations on the North Dakota side of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, salvaged the flour when the Oceti Sakowin Camp of water protectors near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, was disbanded. It’s what is left after he and others distributed hundreds of bags to area food banks.
The Episcopal Church began standing with the Standing Rock Sioux Nation in mid-2016 to support its struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline. The Church supported the tribe’s claims of tribal sovereignty and the desire to protect its drinking water and culturally important lands.
Even for a church steeped in justice and reconciliation work, Episcopalians learned some lessons and were reminded of their calling to social justice work that is broad, deep and coordinated. The lessons can put the Church in good stead the next time it gets involved in advocacy on any scale.
Some lessons were theological; others were logistical. Some were both.
Episcopalians learned about the lengths to which they are called to reconcile with all peoples. They learned about listening and discerning before acting. The Church learned that standing in solidarity can come with unexpected costs.
“For us as a Church, what we are learning is what we already know; it’s just being affirmed for us, which is when we want to partner with communities whose health and livelihoods are being threatened, we really need listen to what it is they want and not presume that we know best,” said Heidi Kim, Episcopal Church’s staff officer for racial reconciliation.
The Rev. Bradley S. Hauff, Episcopal Church missioner for indigenous ministries, suggests Standing Rock reminded Episcopalians that “issues of justice, whether it’s political, economic, environmental, racially based injustice, must be priorities to our Church because it is what we do as followers of Christ.”
Local Episcopalians and, at times, Episcopalians from elsewhere, ministered to the locals and newcomers who joined the protest. The gathering drew members of close to 300 tribes in an unprecedented show of unity that resurrected the indigenous rights movement in the United States. Upwards of 6,000 to 10,000 people, indigenous and non-indigenous, were gathered along the river.
The pipeline crosses under Lake Oahe, part of the Missouri River that flows along the eastern edge of Standing Rock. The tribe has water, treaty fishing and hunting rights in the lake. Sioux leaders repeatedly warned an oil spill would damage the reservation’s water supply and said the pipeline posed a threat to sacred sites and treaty rights.
The company that built the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, says it will be safe and better than transporting oil by truck or railcar. Oil began flowing through the entire 1,172-mile, 30-inch diameter pipeline on June 1. The line will carry up to 470,000 barrels of oil a day from the Bakken oil field in northwestern North Dakota – through South Dakota and Iowa – to Illinois, where it will be shipped to refineries.
Hauff said Episcopalians have learned they are called to such advocacy work “regardless of the outcome, regardless of whether we’re successful.” The tribe has not yet achieved its objective of getting permitting authorities to abide by its treaty rights and renegotiate a route to take the pipeline away from its drinking water.
“But, that doesn’t matter. We do it because it’s the right thing to do,” Hauff said. “We’re called to try. Whether we succeed or not is out of our hands. But we have to try and keep on trying to correct the flaws of the world, or at least point them out.”
Standing Rock’s story continues to unfold. On June 14, a federal judge ruled that the U.S. Army Corps “did not adequately consider the impacts of an oil spill on fishing rights, hunting rights, or environmental justice.” U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg said the Corps needs to reconsider those issues. Whether Dakota Access must cease pipeline operations in the meantime is a separate question, which he has yet to consider.
‘Reputation’ and racism
When local resistance to the pipeline’s route began in April 2016, Floberg and other Episcopalians began discerning the Church’s place in the budding water-protection movement. They organized to help the tribe protect its sovereign rights and its drinking water.
Floberg, who has ministered with and to reservation residents for more than 20 years, repeatedly asked all Episcopalians to stand with the tribe. He urged them to avoid the other agendas that swirled over the Missouri River.
“It is widely known that the Episcopal Church stepped in. It’s widely known that the Episcopal Church laid it out there and put its own life, its own reputation, out there alongside the tribe and all its members,” Floberg said.
Early on pipeline and law enforcement officials developed a disinformation campaign to discredit the protesters. They used “a lot of very provocative language,” Floberg said, referring to “an ideologically driven insurgency with a strong religious component.” The Intercept website recently reported that the pipeline company hired TigerSwan, a security firm founded by retired military special forces members, to lead that effort.
“Even when we were being discredited, even when the arrests rose into the hundreds, even 700, the Episcopal Church did not abandon its commitment and its public statements,” Floberg said. “That was critical.”
Some water protectors’ goals and tactics did not coincide with those of the Standing Rock Sioux, but, Floberg said, he knew the core was a peaceful movement. “I also knew the state of North Dakota was using tactics that were escalating the whole thing, and now there is evidence out there in public,” he said of TigerSwan’s report involvement.
The Rev. Lauren Stanley, supervising presbyter on the neighboring Rosebud Reservation in northwestern South Dakota, said the Church had been making “a huge difference with relations between whites and natives.” But, she said, “Standing Rock brought out the worst of the racism,” she said. It was hard to find allies among the non-native population in the Dakotas.
Floberg belongs to a fledgling ecumenical clergy group that seeks to address the persistent racism.
“To be able to stand up for native rights, which nobody pays attention to in this country at all, galvanized this Church to say, ‘Yes, this is a baptismal covenant moment,’” Stanley said. “Are we going to respect the dignity of every single human being, are we going to work for justice and peace, or aren’t we?”
Standing with Standing Rock turned out to be risky to the Episcopal Church’s reputation, even among its own members. “We learned that some people in the Church – and this is probably not a new learning for the Episcopal Church at all – can’t tolerate the Church taking a position that is contrary to their personal one,” Floberg said. “So, we lost some people in the Episcopal Church in North Dakota based on this. I know that we lost some in Minot, we lost some in Bismarck.”
Advocacy through action, not just words
Yet, that involvement impressed others. People who aren’t churchgoers, especially indigenous people, were not used to seeing Christians in solidarity with native people. For Episcopalians to stand with Standing Rock activists who were not only not Episcopalian, but not Christian, “meant the world to people who are involved in these battles,” Hauff said.
For the Rev. Brandon Mauai, a deacon on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and one of the organizers of the Episcopal Church’s response, the emerging solidarity between the Church and indigenous people held a powerful lesson.
“Not only did we stand with the people of Standing Rock and all native nations, but also, we were able to stand amongst them as a Church and to tell them we, the Episcopal Church and many other denominations, have repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery,” Mauai said.
The Episcopal Church in 2009 renounced the document issued in 1493 that purported to give Christian explorers the right to claim lands they “discovered” and convert the people they encountered. During an interfaith gathering of more than 500 clergy on Standing Rock on Nov. 3, ministers burned a copy of the document near the Oceti Sakowin Camp’s scared fire.
“General Convention can pass resolution after resolution repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery and that is all fine and dandy, but not every native person is an Episcopalian,” Mauai said. “To be in their presence and symbolically burn this piece of paper and tell them that we don’t believe in this document and that we are here for you, it meant a lot.”
As a native person and as an Episcopal deacon, Mauai said, the ashes of that document symbolized the beginning of something that has needed to happen.
“It is our duty to go out there and make it known, and act in such a way that we’re compassionate and wanting to reconcile for anything that our ancestors of the previous churches might have done,” he said.
Listening before acting
The Church’s stand with Standing Rock gave Episcopalians a way to “put their Baptismal Covenant vows into action in a way that is desperately needed in this country,” Stanley contends.
Yet, it was important for Episcopalians to not assume they knew exactly how to act out those vows on Standing Rock. They needed to listen to what the people there needed from the Church and, Hauff said, what they did not need.
They need to learn that “not all indigenous people are of the same mind on all issues” and many are politically and theologically conservative, he said.
Many tribal members recognized the economic benefit that would flow during the pipeline’s construction and its management, he and Kim said. They were not universally opposed to fossil fuels or to oil pipelines.
All the Sioux Nation wanted, Kim said, was to protect its drinking water the way people in Bismarck did. They objected to the pipeline coming too close to the capital city’s water supply, and the Corps change the route.
Some environmental activists used the pipeline to protest any use of fossil fuels, Hauff said. That made for conflicting agendas and tactics, some enacted by people who indulged in what Kim called a self-congratulatory attitude about being activists “on the reservation.”
The Episcopal Church was just one of many groups that got involved with Standing Rock. “We had no control over what all the other groups did, but we had control over ourselves and I think we did well,” Hauff said.
Kim said that Floberg’s leadership on Standing Rock epitomized the Church’s role and can be a guide to future advocacy.
“One of the things I liked about how John [Floberg] organized the clergy and lay folks coming to Standing Rock was that it was just prayer – prayer and peaceful demonstration,” Kim said of the Nov. 3 gathering. Some clergy from other denominations traveled north to Bismarck later that day, determined to get arrested to show their commitment. Floberg consistently counseled against such demonstrations.
Ministry of presence in practical form
Along with advocacy and solidarity, the Church had a nitty-gritty and practical ministry of presence.
St. James Episcopal Church in Cannon Ball, one of the churches Floberg serves, offered an inside place to meet. Its kitchen and working Wi-Fi were bonuses. The Episcopal Church flag flew in Oceti Sakowin Camp. The area it marked was known as a welcoming place.
To anticipate where they were needed, Floberg and others watched what was happening and listened to what was being said, including on social media. They soon realized the camp needed portable toilets and dumpsters. Episcopalians told the rest of the Church that they wanted to help the tribe pay for them. People donated money.
Episcopalians could not anticipate other needs so clearly. Floberg said ministry on Standing Rock “would have always been behind the eight ball” had it not been for people who contributed money and trusted in its wise use.
Episcopalians donated $116,369.29 to the Stand with Standing Rock effort, according to Floberg. The money covered things such as Christmas dinner at St. James, various kinds of support in the camps and housing costs. Anticipating future needs, Episcopalians bought a cargo trailer, a dump trailer and a skid-steer loader.
When the authorities decided to close the camps, they turned to Episcopalians for help. Floberg saw the Church’s first task: “We’ve got to get people out of this without harm.” He enlisted people with pickup trucks and vans.
Then, there was all the material left behind. A December blizzard had collapsed and buried tents and other flimsy structures – debris that the tribe did not want spring floods to sweep into the river.
Plus, Floberg said, “everybody that came to the camp seemed to need to bring a bag of macaroni or a bag of flour.” Moreover, people sent material goods that were not needed. The donations were an unintended consequence of constant media coverage. Some, Kim said, came with what she called a “colonial model” assumption that the reservation was so poor that residents would appreciate the donations.
Before and after the closing, Floberg helped salvage and distribute of more than 7,000 pounds of rice, beans and macaroni, as well as much of the flour, to area food banks. The remaining flour is now in his garage, awaiting a home.
“What we know in the Church is that now when the camps are empty and the pipeline is going through, now is when we are truly called to walk in solidarity with the community whose water is being threatened,” Kim said. “Just because the cameras have gone away, doesn’t mean the ministry has gone away. Now that the cameras have gone away the ministry can begin in earnest.”
That lesson was one the Church began to learn as Episcopalians responded to the aftermath of the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Kim said.
“What we’re recognizing is that we need to take a step back from all the hyperbole,” she said. “You can’t really engage in a conversation around discernment, collaboration and true partnership when all of that is going on.”
While the Episcopal Church continues to minister with and to the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, Episcopalians elsewhere can use the example in their own communities.
“Find out whose territory you are living in. Don’t make the big claim about Standing Rock unless you’re willing to put forth the effort locally,” Floberg said. “What’s true about Standing Rock’s relationship with the federal government, what’s true about Standing Rock’s issues and problems, it’s true all over Indian Country. It’s not that the federal government is dealing differently with Standing Rock than they are with some other tribal entity elsewhere.”
Hauff said there is an even larger lesson for the Church. Its staying power – and its most effective ministry – needs to be rooted in a discipline to “not jump into every cause célèbre that may happen in the world,” he said.
“We’re not in there to get the headlines and the attention. We are always about doing what is right, regardless of whether there is any attention paid to it at all,” Hauff said. “It’s not about photo ops; it’s not about getting the lead story on the evening news. If we do, that’s great but … that’s not the end-all of it.”
– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is senior editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.