Institutions Legislation Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

The disappointing victory at Standing Rock

Veterans join activists in a march just outside the Oceti Sakowin camp during a snowfall as "water protectors" continue to demonstrate against plans to pass the Dakota Access pipeline adjacent to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, near Cannon Ball, N.D., on Dec. 5, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Lucas Jackson *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-SILK-COLUMN, originally published on Dec. 6, 2016.

Let’s not kid ourselves.

Sunday’s decision by the Army Corps of Engineers to seek an alternate route for the last leg of the Dakota Access pipeline is no cause for rejoicing.

Yes, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe succeeded in protecting the waters of the Missouri River and sites sacred to them, perhaps more than temporarily. A coalition of supporters on-site and around the world can take satisfaction in a show of solidarity for indigenous rights and environmental protection.

But we should be way past this point.

It was the usual liberal-left religious suspects who stepped up — mainline Protestant denominations, Reform Jews, Evangelicals for Social Action, the Franciscan Action Network, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The dogs that needed to bark didn’t.

Neither hide nor hair was seen of those staunch Catholic and evangelical defenders of the right of faith-based nonprofits to keep their female employees from getting free contraceptive coverage. Protecting sacred burial sites evidently doesn’t count as religious liberty to Archbishop William Lori, the Becket Fund and the American Center for Law and Justice.

The Standing Rock protesters declared their hero to be Pope Francis, whose 2015 encyclical “Laudato Si'” sounded the clarion for  fighting global warming — calling special attention to the need to protect indigenous rights, safeguard water resources and reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

But these issues cut no ice with the Catholic bishops of North and South Dakota, or with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops itself, whose silence on the Dakota Access pipeline was deafening. “Pope shmope” seems to be the USCCB’s attitude when it comes to “Laudato Si’.” Nary a peep either out of the National Association of Evangelicals or the Southern Baptists’ Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration, as usual, showed itself to be a late responder to climate change concerns. It should long since have called a halt to permitting fossil fuel infrastructure to be built on public land.

If you want a sense of what the latest science actually says about the imminence of the warming threat, read this. Even Republican senators, in thrall as they are to the fossil fuel industry, are alarmed.

Last spring, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed a proposed funding bill for the Department of Energy to start studying geoengineering techniques to reflect more sunlight from the Earth. Such “albedo modification” would cost trillions and carries its own huge risks to life on Earth.

God may, as Shane Claiborne writes, have heard the Standing Rock protesters’ cry for justice. But the future of the planet requires an alternative route entirely different from the one the Army Corps is now seeking.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service


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  • The pope and the Indians have one big thing in common: They both need to be in the spotlight. The Indians are sore winners, who won’t be satisfied until all the white people in North Dakota are driven back to their ancestral European homes, and the pipelines crossing that river for years without a single spill-incident, are ripped out so the buffalo can roam the prairie and drink water in peace. And the indians can continue to survive on those green US Government checks!

  • Good for them for winning. Why should their land be subjected to corporate manifest destiny.

    Science has become ridiculous in their attempts to halt GW/CC. It is exactly like the person who has to take more and more medication to combat the side effects of the previous medication. Never put your total faith in science, as it has been compromised from greed, recognition, and been politicized to death.

  • @Sabelotodo2. It might help if you knew and acknowledged the history of how native peoples have been treated since the 16th century in North America. As it stands, your comment amounts to nothing more than a racist screed.

  • No racism here, PhonyProf! As with African Americans and Latinos, I’ve taught Indians as a high school and college instructor, and my objective was to let their past speak to the current realities they face, as they attemp to live with the current realities of their lives. I tried to get them to see the glass as half-full, and to make the best of the opportunities afforded them.

    I believe it’s time we–and they–quit worshipping their past as somehow “sacred” in a way that keeps them stuck there and unable to move ahead. Everyone needs to deal with the current realities, and appreciate the resources there for them. The pipeline would provide some economic opportunities right there where they live. The buffalo ain’t a-comin’ back!

  • Sable, you are so off base on your comments regarding American Indians. Having Indian students in your class does not make you an expert and former prof is right about your racism regarding Indians. Every time they are the topic you go ballistic. You are stuck in their past.

    This isn’t about buffalo, and their past and culture is no more or less sacred than yours. What this is about is the rule of law. Treaties are binding legal agreements and Indians have wisely learned through experience that American courts often ignore the legal contracts they’ve entered into with white Americans.

    It’s also about human decency. The white people of Bismarck, North Dakota’s state capital, didn’t like the original pipeline route which was near them because they were concerned it would pollute their water. Yes, DAPL said, that’s a legitimate concern, We’ll reroute it. They decided it would be easier to threatened the Standing Rock water. Those residents very wisely and courageously have used the means available to prevent that.

    Where does your obsession with buffalo and American Indian history fit in that?

  • It is sad that Christians on the conservative side could not find it in their peculiar belief system to support the protestors. It makes them look more like opportunists in search of the next money-making dog whistle issue. They’re missing a great opportunity to practice their faith and show themselves as more than political money grubbers. (I’m referring to the leadership.)

  • Gee Her-Leftiness, you just won’t turn loose of this willl you?! And you certainly use information selectively! First of all this AIN’T about the rule of law! This isn’t their land we’re talking about here! This pipelilne route is OFF the reservation, or didn’t you read that part? Several other pipelines criss-cross the river, and there have been no leaks, or didn’t you read that part either? These Indian people are trying to claim sovereignty over land and matters that are not their business! They are merely pushing the envelope as far as they can, tesing how far they can push this gutless Obama administration before the new sheriff comes to town!

    You and PhonyProf need to go sit on the cold ground to stand in solidarity with these folks who want to worship the rocks that represent their past, and refuse to move into the present era! Take a good cushion!

    BTW, how many Indian students did you teach? I’m betting this is an “arm’s length” issue with you. I bet you get all your info from the NYT!

  • “you just won’t turn loose of this willl you?!”

    That’s called projection on your part. Hence all the exclamation points and extreme reactions.

    I repeat, there is no pipeline which has not leaked at some time. That means that the one they’re pushing now will leak at some time in some place. Because a line crossing the Missouri River has nor leaked yet means nothing.

    About the legal contact- It guarantees adequate food, water, education and other things. The pipeline threatens a part of that contact. It is a legal issue of law. In addition, the law protects certain sacred sites and requires consultation with the owners/ families of the sites. DAPL picked their own guy to do a quick and cursory survey of the land and said there was nothing there. Tribal archeologists found several specific sites which were not addressed. That too is a matter of law.

  • I have no dog in this fight, one way or the other, I think legitimate and substantive arguments can be made from either side of this debate. I am curious about the fact that several pipelines already traverse the water course in question; is an additional transitway really necessary? Why can’t the proposed pipeline tie into an existing line on one side, and feed out on the other side? It’s a question of volume and ownership I suppose. This is more and more of what the future will look like: Conflict and intransigence, whether the question is environmental, political, social, legal, or religious.

  • I don’t understand the claim that “the dogs that needed to bark didn’t.” The fight was won without them, so it’s tough to argue that we needed them in the fight.

  • Silk doesn’t even consider the possibility that the Catholic bishops did not speak out on the issue because not all of the claims about the pipeline were legally or factually accurate. The U.S. bishops, if Silk would bother to look, have been great supporters of Laudato si.

  • Unfortunately they didn’t take action at the various hearings that took place prior to the route being finalized. They also didn’t protest about sacred ground and burial sites in 1982 when a natural gas pipeline was run along nearly the same route. Now with it almost complete they protest. Unfortunately Trump will allow it to be completed.

    I wish them success in getting back the lands promised by the treaties we constantly broke. About 20 years ago, the Catawba Indians here in South Carolina claimed a victory and got back a significant chunk of land. The courts are where real change happens.

  • No. There is no extra capacity. The Bakken fields are pumping significant amounts of oil. Currently it is shipped via tanker and train to Illinois. That is too expensive (and burns a lot of fuel) and poses as much, if not more, of a threat as a pipeline. There is an oil pipeline that currently runs under the Missouri.

  • Will it matter if the pipeline is altered and it goes a different route? The result will be the same just moved two hundred miles north or south. Just a question if the pipeline is changed for religious reasons — the sacred burial grounds of Native Americans, then isn’t the government supporting the establishment of a particular religion? I know the government is not supposed to be hostile to religions and when able to make accommodations. But is this overstepping the boundary lines? Seeking knowledge.

  • It’s not a perfect victory, but it’s good and can be used to encourage and energize for similar work in the future.

    I agree with you about the courts, and oftentimes they need to be pushed to take these issues seriously.

  • You, literally, defined an entire group of people based upon your interactions with a subset of their population, declaring that all “Indians” want to see white people removed from this continent and collect government paychecks. That is the very definition of racism.