Congregations in North Dakota and Washington are supporting an effort to stop construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Members of the Quimper, Whidbey Island, and Bismarck Mandan UU congregations stand in front of the people at Oceti Sakowin camp, reading a letter signed by more than 100 UU ministers. L to R: Ministers Florence Caplow, Dennis Reynolds, and Karen Van Fossan. Lay leaders Share deWees, Paula Schmidt, Pat Conrad, and Dean Conrad. (© 2016 Carol Jean Larsen)
When Carlo Voli, a member of Edmonds Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Edmonds, Washington, chained himself to heavy equipment at the site of the Dakota Access Pipeline construction site near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota, he fully expected to be arrested for the nonviolent action.
What he didn’t expect was to turn around and see dozens of machine guns trained on him.
“Yeah, we were pretty surprised to see the militarized response of the authorities,” he said September 16, shortly after being released from jail with one felony and three misdemeanor charges.
Voli is just one of many UUs working in solidarity with members of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation.
A number of native people began what they call a water protection action—not a protest—near the site of pipeline construction close to the banks of the Missouri River in April. They now occupy what started out fairly modestly at the time as the Camp of the Sacred Stone and has since grown to three camps with an estimated 7,000 residents that sometimes swells to as many as 10,000.
At issue is a 1,172-mile-long pipeline that would carry 400,000 barrels of oil a day to Illinois where it would connect with another pipeline. On September 9, a federal judge denied a request by the Standing Rock Nation to stop construction. Only minutes later, the Obama administration ordered the pipeline owner, Energy Transfer Partners, to halt all operations near the reservation while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reviews permits issued previously for the project.
The immediate concern is the potential desecration of sacred sites and damage to the reservation’s water supply. However, in recent weeks it has transformed into a national action addressing larger environmental issues and the fact that the concerns of indigenous peoples often receive scant attention when it comes to major energy projects in or near their homes.
On August 30, Unitarian Universalist Association President Peter Morales released a statement saying, “Unitarian Universalists cannot remain silent as land held sacred by our Native American siblings is threatened. . . . I urge you to join the effort to bear public witness to the injustice in North Dakota and add your voice to oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline.”
That is what inspired the Rev. Florence Caplow, of the Quimper UU Fellowship in Port Townsend, Washington, to lead a group of six, including the Rev. Dennis Reynolds, minister of the UU Congregation of Whidbey Island in Freeland, Washington, to travel by train and then car to Standing Rock. They arrived September 16.
“It has the feeling of a pilgrimage,” Caplow said. “Each person believes that this journey is significant spiritually and personally, as well as politically.”
The group spent three days at the camps and one Sunday morning with the Bismarck-Mandan UU Congregation in Bismarck, North Dakota, about 100 miles away.
The Bismarck congregation has become the touchpoint for other UUs who want to show solidarity with the action. Their activities started small, nearly six months ago, with a handful of congregation members donating food and other items for the camps.
Since then, the congregation has become the official drop-off site for those willing to contribute items that activists at the camps need. It began with food and necessities like paper towels and toilet paper. Now that the weather is changing, it includes tents, sleeping bags, and warm clothing.
The congregation’s minister, Karen Van Fossan, said, “Had I realized the scale, I would have done the math” on what the congregation has contributed, but its activities have grown exponentially over time.
Beginning September 25, the congregation will have a monthly Water Sunday, devoted to the water protection action at Standing Rock. Van Fossan has attempted to rally support from other faith communities in the city. So far, it has been an uphill battle. She has enlisted the help of one other church.
“Our faith communities have a long way to go,” she said, “but it’s in process.”
The congregation, Van Fossan said, is actively in solidarity with the water protection action because “just about everything that matters most to us is at stake.”
She has three recommendations for UUs everywhere who want to join the fight to protect the sacred lands and water rights of the Standing Rock Sioux.
“I can’t tell you how encouraging it is to local people when we hear about solidarity actions and nonviolent resistance in other parts of the country,” Van Fossan said.
“We need to stand with the tribes,” Voli added. “This country was built on stolen land and genocide. This is an incredible opportunity for us UUs to support an indigenous movement.”
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Michael Hart is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor who is also a member of First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles.
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