Hi. It’s John again. I promised you that I would report back from my time last week among the Lakota Sioux. You already know a lot about the events in Standing Rock:
How some 10,000 unarmed people – indigenous and immigrants alike – have placed their bodies in the way of the “Black Snake” – the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline.
- How police have fired on them with nearly every conceivable non-lethal weapon, injuring hundreds.
- How thousands of American veterans have swelled the ranks of the indigenous protesters.
- And how – for now – the US government has decided to deny further pipeline permits.
For the moment, the DAPL pipeline appears to be stopped. For now. And yesterday, I offered the first of a series of five reflections from my brief time resisting the DAPL pipeline. In brief, here they are:
- The struggle for a survivable climate will not come away clean from other struggles for justice, like indigenous rights, racial justice and inequality. (I discussed this yesterday.)
- Indigenous treaty rights are not a closed book, as though we can just shrug and blame it on Columbus, or Adam, or something else in the distant past. (Today. See below.)
- Christians must engage with indigenous spirituality, without fear, without prejudice, and with confidence in the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
- There are laws on the books today that are not worthy of our obedience. Many of us prefer to look honestly at unjust laws only in our history books, rather than in our newspapers.
- Many Christians insist on seeing their ethics in black and white. But following Jesus into the arena of injustice may challenge our comfortable purity.
Those Broken Treaties: Not My Problem?
Indigenous treaty rights are not a closed book, as though we can just shrug and blame it on Columbus, or Adam, or something else in the distant past.
We all know the facts. Our nation has violated treaty after treaty with virtually every indigenous nation. We shake our heads piously at this theft of land, this genocide, based solely on the race of our treaty partners. But how does it end there? Has the passage of time absolved the guilt of racist genocide? How is it that we ourselves feel no obligation to honor treaty rights of those whose principal crime was that they occupied land that our race wanted? This is not the sin of some distant “Adam,” which we can only lament, but recent actions that are only tolerated among us because of racism and power.
In Standing Rock, a stranger like me would hardly know that he is standing on a mere remnant of land legally allocated to the Oglalla Sioux in the days of my great-grandfather. In 1851, the United States and the Sioux nations bound themselves under the Treaty of Fort Laramie to recognize each other’s sovereign territory. The Great Sioux Reservation, recognized under the Treaty, spanned half of today’s South Dakota, one third of Nebraska, a quarter of Wyoming, plus parts of North Dakota and Montana to boot. At more than 100,000 square miles, it was larger than New York and Pennsylvania combined. It was larger than all six states of New England, plus New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland. Only eight states on today’s map are larger than the Sioux Nation, established by a binding treaty of the United States.
Since then, my country and race has repeatedly seized those lands – ultimately without even the pretense of rectitude, solely because of an assumed right of white Europeans to own the “empty lands” – Terra Nullius – before them. At its heart was radical racism: Lands that are not occupied by English-speaking white people are empty, available for conquest, regardless of treaty obligations.
And while we almost all think of these land grabs as distant historical artifacts, the Standing Rock Sioux lost one-quarter of their homes without consent in 1958, when the US government dammed the Missouri River, creating Lake Oahe, which inundated Sioux riverfront communities.
And now, in many political circles, the Sioux are vilified because, in their defense of the creation, they are trespassing on Federal lands outside of the final remnant of their territry. No matter that those very lands have been seized with impunity – even during our own lifetimes.
What Can We Do?
I was surprised to hear that in June 2016, the Christian Reformed Church (CRCNA) adopted a report repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery – the Christian edict originating in the 1500s which provided theological cover for the racist seizure of Native lands in the New World.
“What’s a modern-day church doing unearthing arcane papal edicts?” I wondered at the time.
Well, it turns out that they were doing something sorely needed, as a start. The CRCNA operated boarding schools which indigenous children were forced to attend as a tool of assimilation into European culture – right into the 1900s. Furthermore, many CRCNA churches and their members occupy unceded native treaty lands. As such, they are the beneficiaries of land theft.
“We don’t like to hear these stories, but we drink downstream from them,” said CRCNA task force member Mike Hogeterp during the 2016 synod. “We cannot change that brokenness today, but perhaps in truth-telling and lament as a first posture we can begin to reconcile.”
Truth-telling. Lament. Reconciliation.
We saw that displayed vividly yesterday in Standing Rock. In a ground-breaking “Forgiveness Ceremony,” US military veterans confessed American crimes against the Sioux people.
Here are the words of the veterans’ spokesman, Wesley Clark, Jr. “We came. We fought you. We took your land. We signed treaties that we broke. We stole minerals from your sacred hills. We blasted the faces of our presidents onto your sacred mountain. … We didn’t respect you, we polluted your Earth, we’ve hurt you in so many ways but we’ve come to say that we are sorry. We are at your service and we beg for your forgiveness.”
Some will say: These are mere words. And perhaps that’s fair enough. But we cannot begin to atone, and to reconcile, without words. And even more, these same veterans have come to Standing Rock to place themselves on the front lines in defense of the Sioux people struggling to protect the earth and their homes from the DAPL pipeline.
Where does atonement for crimes against Native Americans lead us? I cannot say. But if we are serious in our prayers for God to heal our land, then we must begin to pray, to learn and to act. For starters, whose land do you live on? I’m on Lenape land. How about you? Can we find the elders of our land’s true owners?
Do we even dare to try?