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‘Our water is life… We’re doing this for everybody.’

Presbyterian, interfaith leaders join Standing Rock solidarity gathering

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service
Original reporting by Gregg Brekke

CANNON BALL, N.D. – Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) leaders have been standing in solidarity with Native American tribes and groups protesting the construction of the Dakota access pipeline and its encroachment upon Native American lands.

More than 20 PC(USA) representatives joined a 500-person gathering of clergy and lay leaders at Oceti Sakowin prayer camp November 3, after the local church community at Standing Rock put out a call for clergy witness.

Members of the Standing Rock Sioux nation and its supporters, who call themselves “water protectors,” have gathered at the prayer camp site since April, hoping to stop construction of the 1,170-mile pipeline scheduled to move crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in western North Dakota to refinery facilities in Illinois.

At dispute are environmental dangers associated with potential oil spills from the line scheduled to burrow under the Missouri River and the desecration of sacred burial sites.

“Oil lines that [could] leak on Native American lands is another act of genocide,” said Rick Ufford-Chase, moderator of the 216th PC(USA) General Assembly (2004-2006). “It needs to be brought to an end.”

During the clergy witness solidarity gathering the Doctrine of Discovery was repudiated—and then burned. The papal edict issued in 1493 asserted indigenous peoples did not have sovereignty over their land, giving western colonizers the right of dominion.

“It gave the church permission, a mandate to convert indigenous people,” says Ufford-Chase, “and kill them if they didn’t convert to Christianity.”

Leaders from faith groups that officially repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery read from a portion of a statement crafted by the World Council of Churches.

When the leaders, which included Sara Lisherness, director of Compassion, Peace and Justice ministries at the PC(USA) Mission Agency, were finished reading, an apology, along with copies of the Doctrine of Discovery, were offered to tribal leaders.

When asked if they wanted to place the documents in the sacred fire at the center of camp, tribal leaders conferred before one said, “This paper, these words, do not belong in a sacred fire.” Instead they were burned in the space between faith leaders and tribal elders.

“At one point I looked down at me feet and was overwhelmed,” said Lisherness. “Recognizing that I was standing on holy ground was profound.”

One of the supporters of the Standing Rock Sioux nation who plans on staying at the prayer camp through the long winter months said those gathered were going to “do what it takes to protect this water.” Vanessa, who asked Presbyterian New Service use only her first name, is from the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe in Port Angeles, Washington.

“Our water is life,” she said. “We all need it. Our children’s children, their children. We’re not just doing this for us. We’re doing it for everybody, for mankind.”

“We got a clear message from folks here,” added Ufford-Chase, “that all of us are on occupied territories on indigenous land around the country—and every one of those communities are struggling with similar issues, of how to protect their land and water. We need to support them.”

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