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standing rock protests

Rev. Canon John Floberg, Canon Missioner for the Episcopal Diocese’s North Dakota Council on Indian Ministries

Personal Reflections From The Cannon Ball River

The following is not a comprehensive history of the story that is being told along the Cannon Ball. It is my witness – a partial witness – of that story. It isn’t even my whole experience. It highlights our call as the Church to Stand With Standing Rock against racism and prejudice and our vigil to see Treaty Obligations met fully and completely.

In August the Standing Rock Nation changed. For years it had been known as a place of athletic rivalry in both boys and girls basketball. Further back it was also known as a powerhouse in football. But even further back it was the place known as the home of Chief Gall and Sitting Bull. In the fall of 1863 it became the home of survivors of the Yanktonai of a massacre that took place at White Stone Hill when the Cavalry stormed the peaceful village that was preparing itself for winter. In history that is closer at hand was the flooding of the Missouri River Valley that took precious acreage and homes to make way for the Lake Oahe Reservoir.

The truth of the matter remains that we don’t know what we need to know about Standing Rock and its iconic place in American history. But some things are now exposed because of the standoff that has been taking place in the land just to the north of the Standing Rock Nation.

standing rock protests

When I first started going into the Oceti Sakowin Camp on the north side of the Cannon Ball River, I came into a place that was growing in numbers day after day. Near a fire that has been kept burning for months we would hear people speaking – this is where Bishop Smith, Bishop Tarrant (South Dakota) and Presiding Bishop Curry made their statements of solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. It is where United Methodists, United Church of Christ, Presbyterians, Bishops of the ELCA have each stood and made statements of support for the Protection of Sacred Water and Sacred Land.

This central fire is also where ceremonies take place. Not Christian ceremonies, but Indigenous people’s ceremonies. It is a pre-1850 Camp that provided for its spiritual needs using their pipes and sage. Early on the question was raised about offering Christian services in the Camp. If a church were to come into the Camp to do a communion service it would show the division and brokenness that exists in the Church. Either not everyone would be invited to receive or would not, in good conscience, receive because of the division that exists in the Christian Church. Oceti Sakowin was a place of unity.

The Church was able to come and share its support. Our primary work in those statements was to reaffirm the Treaty Rights/Obligations and to speak out against the growing presence of racism in the area. This land, spoken of in the 1851 Ft. Laramie Treaty, is part of the string of broken promises made to the Great Sioux Nation and not kept by the United States people. We cannot simply cleanse our hands of the wrong that has been done by saying it was the Government. The United States is made up of “We the People.”

By the end of August the peaceful protest was met with escalated police response. Blockades were set up just south of Mandan – 30 miles from the work site of the Dakota Access Pipeline and of the Oceti Sakowin Camp just beyond. This was the beginning of the escalation that has included actions by law enforcement to make it appear that the actions were dangerous. Law enforcement made unsubstantiated reports of pipe bombs at the Camp. These so-called pipe bombs were the Sacred Buffalo Calf Pipe being loaded with tobacco to be used in ceremonial prayer. But that report was used to justify the roadblock and detour for weeks.

The escalation included police in full riot gear standing in a line at the Capitol during a rally that was authorized with a permit. Why the riot gear? A previous event had taken place on the sidewalk to the south of the Capitol with a permit provided by the Bismarck Police. That ended in a Round Dance with the Police taking part.

And then there is the rhetoric of the Governor Dalrymple administration. It includes such phrases as identifying everything associated with Oceti Sakowin Camp as being unlawful because it was connected to some arrests made at the work site up the road on 1806. That is when the Chairman of Standing Rock, Dave Archambault II and a few others were arrested when a rumor ran through the lawfully gathered protestors heard of human remains being dug up. This is an area where graves are known to exist.

It is a justifiable reaction to defend sacred places. The Sioux, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara and Cheyenne tribes know all of this acreage as a sacred place. The land and events that took place there is in their history.

It is a justifiable reaction to defend sacred places. The Sioux, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara and Cheyenne tribes know all of this acreage as a sacred place. The land and events that took place there is in their history. It was part of the Treaty of 1851 that kept this area within the use and control of the Great Sioux Nation.

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But the governor’s administration chose to escalate rather than negotiate. Instead of meeting with the Chairman they established roadblocks, put their uniformed police officers in riot gear and militarized their vehicles. The clear image being broadcast was that they were preparing for battle against a people that were gathering in prayer. They chose to side with the oil company with a use of force and intimidation.

That erupted on September 3rd. The anniversary of the White Stone Massacre in what is now southeastern North Dakota. In 1863 it was the ancestral lands of the Yanktonai Sioux. On Labor Day weekend, union workers running bulldozers came across land – far ahead of the progress of their work to the west – and tore up land that were identified in court documents just a day before as having sites on them that were sacred. There is no coincidence that work just happened upon that same site.

When people from the Camp heard the machinery they hurried up the road to find the work being done and a security force with dogs and pepper spray unleashed on them as they tried to stop the desecration. The sheriff’s office responded by arresting national media that was present and later forming an investigation into the use of the dogs that bit people that day. The judge threw the charge against the journalist out and the dog handlers have yet to be “identified” and charged even though it has been determined that they acted without a license to make use of dogs that attacked people in North Dakota.

Each of the candidates for governor said that the use of force was the wrong way to begin to handle this crisis. It is into that arena that clergy were called together to make a Witness near the Cannon Ball. As I returned home from the Executive Council Meeting of the Episcopal Church I was getting live feeds on Facebook that reported scores of arrests and the use of force. The call went out hoping that 100 clergy would come to Standing With Standing Rock. We would stand against excessive force used by law enforcement. We would stand against a state government that was using its resources to defend an oil pipeline company as it continued to disregard the request of the Federal Government to stand down while the pipeline project was being reviewed.

The result of the invitation was that 524 clergy plus people in the Camp and other lay people came to the Sacred Fire in Oceti Sakowin Camp. We read an edited version of the World Council of Churches declaration against the Doctrine of Discovery. Many of the Churches present in the Camp have officially repudiated this doctrine that was formed after Christopher Columbus set foot in “discovered” land that was inhabited by non-Christian people. This doctrine, put in place by the Pope, justified the taking of lands and of people by European Christians.

The document was read by representatives of those denominations and then handed to elders from several different tribal nations. In turn they took that doctrine and turned it into ash and let the smoke rise up among shouts from the crowd of hundreds that were gathered.

The clergy witness lasted from 9:00 am until 2:30 pm amidst prayers, songs and short speeches on highway 1806 up near the Backwater Bridge. The backdrop of the day were a few burned out vehicles from the events of a few days before – the very events that drew the clergy to come and have a day of prayerful, peaceful, nonviolent and lawful witness of solidarity with the Standing Rock Nation. The Morton County Sheriff and Governor Dalrymple ignored our Bishop's letter that announced this gathering and sought their support to the exercise of our freedom to gather, the freedom to speak and the freedom to exercise our religion.

And now it is a time of watching and waiting. People ask what I think and what I hope. The authorities have used high levels of force. They have used rubber bullets that can cause ribs to break or loss of sight and leave huge welts. They have shot nurses tending to people as well as reporters that are witnessing their escalation. There has been some retaliation that is violent, but the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has always met that by requesting people to remain prayerful and peaceful. I would hope that the militarized law enforcement would lower their response in every place as they have done in Bismarck.

The Episcopal Church has been standing with Standing Rock. We maintain a prayerful, peaceful, non-violent and lawful witness. We stand with Standing Rock for the Rule of Law. The highest law that our Nation recognizes – Treaty Rights to be called for and Treaty Obligations to be provided. We travel throughout North Dakota to bring back those that have been arrested. We help provide some basic levels of hospitality to those coming from their homes to support Standing Rock. We maintain a truthful narrative of the events and the position of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation as we know them. We are standing against racism in all of its forms.

The Prophets, the Psalms, the Epistles and the Gospels have all rightly guided us during these months. Return to August and begin reading them again – bear in mind the events taking place along the Cannon Ball River. Can we do anything other than Stand With Standing Rock?

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Reverend John Floberg