“The liars had fooled everyone, white people and Indians alike.” So wrote Leslie Silko in her classic novel “Ceremony,” a book I read during my seminary years, one I re-read every now and then to keep me grounded in what it means to preach the Gospel on stolen ground.
Trace the title of the land on which your church sits. You’ll find the point in time when it was stolen from those who were here when white people “discovered” America. To preach the Gospel on stolen ground with integrity, preachers must confess the lies that colonizers tell the colonized and themselves are, what Silko called, the “white thievery and injustice boiling up the anger and hatred that would finally destroy the world.”
What’s happening at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation is not just a battle between Native Peoples and oil companies. Activist Jim Hightower called it, “an epic clash of two cultures, one with a guiding ethic of harmony between people and nature, the other driven by an ethos that encourages the exploitation of both.”
It’s a confrontation between those ready to admit that Native Peoples have been victimized by lies and those who won’t.
It began October 12, 1492, when Christopher Columbus lied to himself. His diary first expressed interest in converting indigenous peoples to Christianity followed with a prophetic and conflicting observation. “With 50 men you could subject every one of them and make them do what you wish.”
America then engaged in centuries-long endeavors to accomplish what Iliff School of Theology Professor George Tinker called “the destruction of Indian families, Indian self-sufficiency, Indian cultures, and the Indian peoples themselves.”
The Dakota Access Pipeline is the latest scheme to do so. The pipeline was initially proposed to cross the Missouri River near Bismarck. That route posed unacceptable threats to the city’s water supply. So the plan changed. Now it would, as described by the Sierra Club, “carry fracked crude oil through communities, farms, sensitive natural areas, wildlife habitat, tribal lands, and the Standing Rock Sioux's ancestral lands.” The ruptures these pipelines often experience would no longer threaten white folks, but rather the people of Standing Rock.
The powerful were able to reject a pipeline that exposed their communities. The powerless are now fighting a proposal that threatens theirs. It proves what General William Tecumseh Sherman said when asked to explain an Indian Reservation. “An Indian reservation is a parcel of land set aside for the exclusive use of Indians, surrounded by thieves.”
The thieves have depended on the support of politicians since 1492. That’s what “Manifest Destiny” was all about. With a treaty in one hand and a gun in the other, the politicians cleared the land of Indians and the way for trappers and traders, the railroad, coal miners, gold rushers, farmers and ranchers, land speculators, and Christian missionaries.
Standing Rock was the offspring of one of the biggest lies ever told to Native Peoples, i.e. the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty.
That treaty promised the Sioux all of present-day South Dakota west of the Missouri River, including the sacred Black Hills. When gold was discovered, the Black Hills were confiscated. Little by little the government reneged on the Fort Laramie covenant and the size of the Reservation was reduced to its current boundaries. Thievery was egregious enough that the U.S. Supreme Court concluded, "A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history."
Those dishonorable dealings continue. Although the government has a stewardship responsibility to Native Peoples, it represents the big oil companies, not the Tribes. The federal government sends the Corps of Army Engineers. State governments, including Wyoming, sends armed forces. The church sends clergy.
Tomorrow at Standing Rock, I’ll join approximately 300 other clergy from around the nation. It will be a brief visit, which I will educate us and our congregations while giving the people of Standing Rock a sense that people of faith are in solidarity with their great cause.