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PC(USA) synod executive Street-Stewart recounts trip to Standing Rock

‘What American Indians saw as sacred, others saw as profit’

by Duane Sweep | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Elona Street-Stewart, executive of the Synod of Lakes and Prairies and a Delaware Nanticoke, stands under the flag of the Delaware Tribe of Indians at Oceti Sakowin Camp. (Photo provided)

MINNEAPOLIS – While water protectors, encamped near the confluence of the Cannon Ball and Missouri rivers in North Dakota, endure brutal winter weather, Elona Street-Stewart, synod executive of the Synod of Lakes and Prairies, recounted her mid-November trip to the encampment, describing the camp, the work to prepare for the north’s raw winter, the sacredness of water and the role of the church.

Street-Stewart, who traveled along with her husband, the Rev. David Stewart, and a contingent of national Presbyterian leaders, visited the camp Tuesday through Saturday, Nov. 15-19. When the Presbyterian delegation left Wednesday, she and her husband extended their experience with Lutheran clergy and seminarians at the invitation of the Rev. Marlene Helgemo, a Ho-Chunk Lutheran pastor who serves All Nations Church in Minneapolis, a United Church of Christ congregation.

During this week before Christmas, the Oceti Sakowin camp is still being maintained just north of Cannon Ball, North Dakota. Although the Army Corps of Engineers has denied the easement for Energy Transfer Partners to construct its pipeline across the Missouri River, elders at the camp are concerned that work may continue in spite of the denial.

Street-Stewart recently wrote, “Many folks are staying over at the camp because they are concerned [Energy Transfer Partners] will pay a fine if necessary, but still continue to drill. There is increasing attention now, as we enter a new year, on compliance with environmental safety and tribal regulations as well as calls for a complete impact assessment.”

Excerpts of an interview with Street-Stewart are reported below.

We’ve all seen pictures of the camp, the people, the flags. What was it like to drive into the camp for the first time?

On the first day we drove in and literally parked in an open area. When we looked up, the flag right there was the Umatilla Confederated Tribes. That’s where we used to live in Pendleton [Ore.]. It was so exciting and welcoming to be under the Umatilla flag.

Tell me about the flags. There seem to be hundreds of them along the main drive into the camp.

There are hundreds and they all have been delivered in person. If someone just sends a banner and asks to have it raised at the camp, it doesn’t happen. Every single flag that’s been put up is there because somebody brought it. That alone means that hundreds of tribes are represented at the camp. It’s unbelievable.

The camp right now is the seven sacred fires—the Oceti Sakowin. This is the first time in years where all the bands of the Sioux Nation have all come together. The Standing Rock Reservation itself is primarily made up of Hunkpapa Lakota and Yanktonai Dakota, but the elders set it up as a spiritual camp around the sacred fire in the middle and all the lodges set up around it.

In general, what’s going on out there? Or what’s it all about? Is it really about the water, or is it more about the way American Indians have been treated throughout this nation’s history?

It’s about the water—mni wiconi—because one of things that’s clear with the camp is that water is sacred. From the beginning, American Indians have said the earth is sacred and it’s our responsibility to make sure it’s protected. Even around the issues of Native American rights, the underlying reality is what American Indians saw as sacred, other people saw as profit. When the natural resources are used up—or used in ways that don’t bring benefits to all people—then everyone suffers. At the camp we were reminded to hold a cup or bowl of water when we prayed. You can do this even if you’re not at the camp. Think about that water as you’re praying because it will give you a different understanding of your relationship to the earth and to the water. The Native American perspective, regardless whether it concerns sovereignty, treaty rights, land boundaries, land occupation, or utilization of resources, still stresses stewardship. Unfortunately our voices have always been ignored as too primitive—that we’re not really using the resources in the right way—and that view of the indigenous perspective goes back before Columbus to the Doctrine of Discovery.

How does the Doctrine of Discovery fit into the story of Standing Rock?

The Doctrine of Discovery [repudiated by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) last summer], beginning in the 1450s, allowed explorers to occupy, claim and dominate native lands because those who were living there were not recognized as Christian citizens, and only inhabited the land like the animals. The American Indians, it claimed, weren’t really using the land. That was the Doctrine of Discovery and it has informed international property law until today. It said to American Indians and other indigenous people, because you’re not Christian or Christian farmers or civilized people, we can dominate you like animals or subjugate you to slavery.

How would you describe the denomination’s response to Standing Rock?

I think the official replies have been helpful statements of clarity and awareness, recognizing the importance of the camp at Standing Rock because of its relevance as a justice issue of the church on environmental concerns, civil and human rights, and a reference to Native American rights. But I think more of the energy that’s been contributed to really show support for what’s going on at Standing Rock has been from individuals as a personal action or through their congregation, especially those congregations with connections to Native Americans. There have also been students, and others as part of environmental networks or alternative energy networks or those who stand for Native rights or treaty rights. Most of the energy or the presence at Standing Rock has come from individuals standing with the protectors.

And regarding your visit to Standing Rock as a representative of the PC(USA) synod…

When we were walking around people would ask, ‘So why are you all here?’ And in our response we said we are part of a group of faith leaders who are with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and we’re really here to listen and hear from you: What do you want us to know? People always appreciated that, and it helped them know that Presbyterians had a high interest in what was taking place.

What was your experience at the camp?

We spent time with the Presbyterians until Wednesday night and then David and I stayed with the Ho-Chunk encampment, meeting and talking every day about the church and our responsibilities related to Standing Rock. We had a guide from the Standing Rock tribe who took us around all day to meet people. It was an informative and intentional process. We literally went from different campsites within the camp, talking with people, explaining who we were, handing out our cards and receiving contact information. It made those days very, very valuable.

How so?

Anywhere you started a conversation you became aware of the connections. A fine example happened when we went to the medic camp. We were visiting and one of the women asked who we were and we said we were from the Presbyterian Church. When one woman took our picture, she counted down in Tlingit, one of the American Indian languages of the northwest. I recognized the language and I asked if they were Tlingit. And another woman said they were, but added that she was also Nez Perce. That connected her to Irv Porter, our national staff person for Native American ministry, and we soon related across shared locations and share heritage, and shared culture and shared language. We also talked about our shared knowledge of Walter Soboleff, a Tlingit elder and the first Native Alaskan to become a Presbyterian minister. [Soboleff died at the age of 102 in 2011.] The women at the medic camp talked about Soboleff’s work in Alaska and we talked about his connection to the seminary in Dubuque [Iowa]. All of those relationships increased the value of what we saw. These women were all incredible volunteers. They were doing so much in the medic camp—first aid, physical therapy, women’s health—to provide the best care possible.

You, of course, were aware that more severe winter weather was on its way. Was the camp reacting to that in any way?

When we arrived we saw two huge semis coming in with logs. When they had unloaded the trucks, they had two mounds of logs that were at least as high as a house. For the next 24 hours guys came out with chainsaws, and started cutting it into four-foot pieces set aside for people to get what they needed. After two days the hill was pretty much down to nothing. People would haul it away in pickups or trailers, but we also saw kids with a wagon. The kids would load the wagon with kindling and haul it away. It was shared and it was good to see. We heard that tribes all the way from Montana and Wisconsin were contributing lumber or wood.

Wood is essential because you don’t really have any electric power to hook up a stove or heater. At the Ho-Chunk camp we had a wood stove for cooking. One day I saw we needed cardboard for kindling for the stove. David and I had to walk halfway across the entire campground before we saw a spare piece of cardboard, and I had to ask permission to take that piece of cardboard back to our camp. Everything gets recycled.

Not much of anything is going to waste?

Everything is being used. Everything, other than maybe occasionally a plastic jug or bottle that’s been blown away by the wind, is being used. There’s so little trash because people are asked to be respectful and recycle everything. And that leads to innovation.

For example…

There are so many innovative ventures started by creative people. There was a young Navajo guy leading a group building ‘tarpees’ instead of teepees. They’re basically set up like teepees, but instead of using lodge poles, they’re using lumber—2-by-4s. The sides are typically like a polyurethane canvas and waterproof. The only thing you have to purchase, outside of the lumber, is a plywood disk with a stovepipe vent already attached that fits into the top of the notched 2-by-4s.

They set up the 2-by-4s, attached the stovepipe vent, and wrapped it with the polyurethane material. They had made probably eight of these. Then, they scavenge tarps thrown in the trash when people leave camp—big ones, small ones—and clean them and cut them, and line the inside of the ‘tarpee’ – nothing’s wasted. They also take all the water bottles that people leave behind, making sure that they’re clean, and they’re collecting them in plastic bags and dumping them between the liner and the outside for insulation. It was unbelievable. Plus, with this stovepipe fitting, there’s a small wood stove that can be purchased and placed in the middle of the tent, vented through the top. They told us they could build the whole thing for about $350, including the stove.

That’s incredible…

The week we were there, the blizzard was already predicted and for the next 24 hours people were scrambling to winterize their shelters. We saw every kind of lodging or shelter possible — traditional teepees and many different teepees. Even at the school the kids met in a teepee that had been donated. In the veterans’ camp there were big army tents. In the main cooking and dining area for the camp there are commercial canopy tents with doors and windows. That area was next to a huge geodesic dome where up to 200 people could meet. There are several smaller domes around the camp. I was surprised to see how many yurts were set up. We also saw little pup tents that people had hauled in on bicycles; those tents won’t last in the Dakota winter. We saw people who were digging below grade and then putting a shelter over the top. Some had literally dug in steps, a fire pit and sleeping area. Then there were ice-fishing tents — pre-insulated. I wish somebody could just buy a whole bunch of them and bring them out; they would be ideal.

You mentioned a school for kids. How does a school function at the camp?

Families have come with their children. There’s an area set aside for the school. They have two yurts, that big teepee that was donated, and one of the big army tents. There are teachers, all volunteers who come from all around the country. There’s someone directing the school, and teachers arrive and work based on their availability. Some weeks there might be seven teachers and maybe the next week there could be five. I visited with a woman who was at the camp for the third time. She’s been there every couple months and she stays for a month or so. The children were on a field trip to Rapid City [South Dakota] when we stopped by so we missed them.

You mentioned yurts. What are they?

I had to laugh when I saw them at the school. They’re used like the extension—or portable—classrooms we have around here. A yurt is a traditional round house set up like a teepee that originates in Mongolia. They’re really quite large and very nice. There is a wooden door in the entry. And if you’re using traditional practice, you’re supposed to enter with your right foot first. When you go inside, it’s all round and reinforced so the structure stays pretty permanent. We probably saw five or six varieties of yurts around the camp.

There’s been mention in some media that some at the camp have firearms. Did you see any guns?

No. The elders are very emphatic; we’re not here to be disrespectful. The elders said this is a prayer camp, and not about violence. Anyone who commits violence is doing so without our approval and we will let you know that.

While I was there, there was an opportunity for the camp to take some direct action. The action was to be just a presence, standing together praying or singing in formation. We were told doing that was not against the law. We were cautioned, too, that crossing the bridge and trying to touch one of the secured trucks would be an action that might get you arrested. Our direct action would be a symbolic presence or prayer.

The elders even spoke against using profanity. They made it clear that if you’re cursing, they were would tell you to stop because this is supposed to be a traditional gathering and a sacred site. When you participate, you act in a way that will be respectful.

What about paid protestors?

It would be so hard to imagine. In fact, the real concern was not about paid protestors. The fear in camp was that you might have somebody infiltrating the camp as a water protector, but really be there to escalate or instigate an incident.

What was it like to you? What thoughts come to mind when you think about the effort at Standing Rock in terms of American Indian history?

This has been such a quite draining experience for me because, as an American Indian, it sums up our whole history. It’s the pain of always being exploited and deceived for the purpose of someone else’s interest—colonial interest in the past and corporate interest now.

At Standing Rock, Native people say all this ground is sacred, but those who don’t understand are saying, ‘What do you mean it’s sacred? By law this isn’t your land; this is public domain; or the company’s right of way; or the state’s or some other owner.’ As American Indians we know treaties created boundaries that are always been impacted and adjusted without our consent.

I think it’s been said several times in the last months that every development along the Missouri River has been at the cost of the Dakota, Lakota and Nakota. So many other tribes have also been impacted by development.

Now tribes are being told that once more they have to agree to a change in an agreement that wasn’t to the tribes’ advantage anyway. We have always faced having our homeland eliminated or diminished by development. And it’s tough.

Every day at camp we prayed. I sensed the sacred. When we went out to a place along the river, a place called Turtle Island, we put tobacco down and we prayed. It was just our small group of faith leaders, the Presbyterians, the Lutherans, praying. While standing there you could look up on the hill and see the drilling equipment, the huge lights—like football field lights—and sometimes you hear equipment noise from construction work being done. And from time to time there were surveillance drones and helicopters overhead.

That same place where we prayed later, a couple days later became the spot where an altercation took place between the protectors and law enforcement officials—the water hoses, the rubber bullets and everything.

We can see the contrast of the past and present—the worlds of yesterday and today, blending the traditional and the modern.

Truly, this is a teachable moment. We are filling in the gaps of history, and policies and experiences that most Americans don’t know—and were actually never told. People need to learn about how American Indians were cheated all along the way and how people perished. These are real things that happened. But much of this history has been overlooked and shoved aside.

The fiction is this country—this country along the rivers of the Midwest—was simply settled overnight, and the Dakota people agreed to sign a paper and move away. Well, it didn’t happen that way, not just here in the upper Midwest, but anywhere, starting where I’m from on the east coast.

You’re Delaware and a long way from your ancestral home…

The Delaware were moved multiple times before America’s independence and experienced a trail of tears like what impacted the Cherokee. Right here in our synod, there have been multiple trails of tears.

My people, originally on the east coast, were removed to what was then the northwest frontier, meaning the western side of Pennsylvania. They were dispersed many times and ended up in many locations, including Canada. The Delaware Nation’s headquarters are in Oklahoma. Other tribes have similar histories. Here, the Ponca, Ho-Chunk, even the Anishinaabe, the Ojibwe, were forced from their homelands by early settlement. The forced displacement and dispersal was horrific, and this removal, this dispersal, is the history of American Indians and the history of this nation.

The American Indians’ history is the experience of being decimated by disease or removal or genocide. All of the tribes and bands have similar histories.

What would you say to Presbyterians about the camp, about protecting the water? How would you describe that?

Our understanding as Christians is that we have sinned, and that part of the sin is that we have not cared for each other or for the world the creator gave us. That’s very Presbyterian. We remember the promise fulfilled through Jesus Christ, who said I come to give you life and a life that’s full, a future should be full of promise and hope.

As Presbyterians, we see what’s going on at Standing Rock as the epistles right there. As Presbyterians we need to remember that our first established mission in Jesus’ name in America was to Native people here. Every institution that we’ve established and all the resources the PC(USA) has are based on what had been Native originally and then was either taken, utilized, bargained or negotiated from them. Also, in North Dakota, we have to remember that Presbyterians crossed this area and settlers stayed, praying that this would be the promised land for them. For the indigenous people, it already was home—their promised land.

We have to remember, too, that some things that were done in the name of Christ really harmed people—like boarding schools, Indian wars, and loss of language and family relations.

We also know that in this area there were missionaries who stayed with the Native people, like the Williams and the Pond brothers. And so there were times when the church, in its presence, represented Jesus Christ by people who fulfilled that commitment. They may not have fulfilled it without blemish, but they were able to say Presbyterians will stand with you. We will be present with you.

And now here, in this synod, beginning with Dakota Presbytery—the first presbytery west of the Mississippi—Standing Rock is a result of all those evolving conversations among settlers, Native people, tribal people and the missionaries. And now that conversation is extended to include residents, homeowners and developers. We must not forget that those conversations resulted in the treaties that were established for the advantage of settlers and the displacement of American Indian people whose resiliency is embodied in this camp at Standing Rock.


Duane Sweep is director of communications for the Synod of the Lakes and Prairies.

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