Standing Rock Report: Christian Clergy Factoring into Native Resistance Efforts

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524 years ago, Pope Alexander VI issued a papal bull that gave European explorers the right to claim any non-Christian land they “discovered” as their own. That doctrine became known as the Doctrine of Discovery. The United States Supreme Court has invoked the doctrine throughout its history, and has used it as recently as 2005.

On Nov. 3, 524 clergy members gathered at Standing Rock, ND to pray in solidarity with the water protectors who have been here for months. The clergy members gathered at the camp’s sacred fire in the morning and then marched north on Highway 1806 to pray in a huge circle near two burned, rusting trucks blocking the highway.

Various clergy members—mostly Episcopalian, Unitarian, and of the United Church of Christ—took turns speaking and singing, using a truck as a makeshift stage on the road. The most rousing speech came from Stephanie Spellers, canon to the bishop of the Episcopal Church. I spoke with Stephanie and a few other clergy members in the hours and days following the prayer.

Spellers said that she had felt the call to come to Standing Rock for a while, and that the bishop of the Episcopal church had already come to Standing Rock in September. But when John Floberg put out a call for more clergy to come, she felt she had to come too. Clergy, Spellers said, have weight in a protest because in the eyes of police, “Native lives may not matter but clergy lives matter.” So she asked her coworkers, “are you willing to come place your life, your body, on the line?” Many of them said yes, and came to Standing Rock from all over the country.

We had that conversation around mid-day, before seventeen clergy members were arrested for a protest they staged in Bismarck, North Dakota’s capital. Among those arrested were some of Spellers’ Episcopal colleagues.

Spellers and her colleagues see the journey not just as ethically right, but as an ethical duty. Rev. Weston Matthews, Spellers colleague, recounts the beginnings of Christianity: “In the earliest churches in the Apostolic age, it was a rebellious movement. It was a kind of protest.” In these clergy members’ eyes, Christ’s crucifixion is also closely tied to protest. Rev. Michael T. Sniffen, a clergy member from Boston, said, “The Christian faith is fundamentally tied to nonviolence. The crucifixion is the ultimate form of nonviolent protest for us.”

Vitally, remembering that crucifixion is not just an abstract project for these preachers. Sniffen said, “Our tradition is very strong on faith being not an intellectual exercise, but a lived practice.” Spellers spoke similarly of sacrament: “Sacrament is this visible sign of something you can see, taste, or touch that reminds you of a deeper truth. And I feel like this whole camp is sacrament.”

Something shifted for many clergy members when they came to actually see and take part in the prayer here. Spellers said, “We are now able to touch, to feel, to see, to know that water is life. That every life—and especially native lives that have been erased—matters.” Mathews, echoing that sentiment, said, “Once you’re here, you know this is important because you’ve just touched it.” Some clergy members criticized those who came to Standing Rock for mixing faith and politics. But Rev. Mathews maintains that, “this idea that there’s sacred and profane, that there’s this dualism, doesn’t make any sense. Everything and everyone is sacred. And the more we can embody that in our prayers, the better. To be here praying with our feet—that’s faith in action.”

But coming here as a Christian is not so simple as stopping by to show support. I asked clergy members how they came to terms with the fact that people who purported to be good Christians were responsible for the vast majority of the oppression they’re now standing up against. When I asked, it became clear this question had already been on their minds. Rev. Sniffen spoke of the importance of being here precisely because of the historically oppressive role Christianity has played. “Being here now could be a big step in changing interaction between Christianity and indigenous peoples,” he said. Rev. Mathews said, “I felt I was repenting today. We have to repent for having turned away, and for the awful things we’ve contributed to. That’s vital for all of us.”

That repentance has taken form in church law in the past few years. In 2009, the Episcopal Church repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery at their annual meeting. That means clergy members and laypeople voted together to repudiate the word of a pope. It’s a rare phenomenon, but many other churches have followed suit in recent years. At the prayer at Standing Rock, a copy of the Doctrine of Discovery was burned to show the clergy’s support.

But of course, burning a piece of paper is more symbolic than effective. Rev. Dr. Lauren R. Stanley, a preacher at the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota (the home of the Sicangu Oyate Lakota), was also at the prayer on Thursday. Rev. Dr. Stanley has studied the history of Christianity and how it has manifested in the United States of America and she’s interested in repairing those wounds.

When I asked Rev. Dr. Stanley what she thought the cops on the front lines might be thinking, she said, “it depends on where they’re from.” Cops have been brought in from many nearby states, and many of those cops have now been called back to their home states. “North Dakota and South Dakota,” on the other hand, “are Alabama, 1963.” Racism, she says, is “deeply engrained here in North and South Dakota. It goes all the way back to the settler days.”

That racism is inextricably tied to Christianity, and Rev. Dr. Stanley was quick to say so. Part of the appeal of the frontier states in America was the possibility of bringing Christianity and its “civilized” ways to uncivilized land. What that meant in practice, as Rev. Dr. Stanley told me, was imposing such laws as the Dawes Act of 1877, which parceled out little sections of land to individual Indian Americans “in order to break apart the tribal structure and take their power,” as Rev. Dr. Stanley puts it. But those Indian Americans had not conceived of individual property rights. Rev. Dr. Stanley said, “people would come in trying to buy land and they would say no, this land is our ancestors. This is grandmother earth. You cannot buy my grandmother.”

Rev. Dr. Stanley sees clear parallels between the Dawes Act and the current struggle between indigenous peoples and DAPL. But none of the clergy I spoke with thought that American oppression of indigenous peoples had any grounding in Christ’s teachings. In fact, they often told me that historically, indigenous peoples have lived in closer accordance with Christ’s ideas than many purportedly Christian Americans have. That’s why Rev. Dr. Spellers, Rev. Dr. Stanley, and many others are ensuring that the Christian faith is on the right side history this time around.

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