Some two dozen Massachusetts pastors joined more than 500 clergy from around the country Thursday and Friday to protest the construction of an oil pipeline that could endanger the water supply of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota.
The Rev. Noah H. Evans, rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Medford, said in a phone interview from the protest site Thursday that he knew he needed to respond when Standing Rock’s Episcopal priest last week issued an urgent call for help from colleagues across the country after violence marred the mostly peaceful protest on the prairie.
“There are moments in a life of faith where we have to stand with a larger community in solidarity with people who are being marginalized,” Evans said, “and this is one of those moments.”
Native Americans from across the country have joined the tribe in its fight against the 1,170-mile, $3.7 billion pipeline, which would send crude oil through North Dakota, South Dakota, and Iowa to Illinois for shipment to refineries elsewhere.
The pipeline would pass beneath the Missouri River, the main water source for the Standing Rock Sioux, a half-mile upstream of the reservation. The original plan had the pipeline crossing the river north of Bismarck, but it was moved south of the city partly because of fears it would endanger the city’s water supply, according to the Bismarck Tribune.
Its path cuts across ancestral lands of the tribe that are now in private hands, but that the Sioux consider sacred. Tribal leaders say they were not adequately consulted in the planning of the pipeline.
Energy Transfer Partners, the company constructing the Dakota Access Pipeline, says pipelines are safer than above-ground oil transportation, and that the project would benefit the economy by generating jobs and decreasing US dependence on foreign oil.
A federal court rejected the tribe’s request to halt construction of the pipeline. Three federal agencies then stepped in and ordered construction to halt on land owned by the Army Corps of Engineers while the Corps reviewed its decision-making. Construction was allowed to continue on private land owned by Energy Transfer Partners. President Obama said last week that the corps is reviewing alternate routes for the pipeline.
Native American protesters have been gathering near the construction site since spring. They have drawn an array of allies, including international advocates for indigenous people, celebrities, and environmentalists. The protests have been mostly peaceful, but last week, violence broke out after protesters set up camp on private land directly in the pathway of construction. The police fired bean bags and used pepper spray to push the protesters out and arrested about 140 people.
The contingent of Boston-area clergy at Standing Rock is mostly mainline Protestant and Unitarian Universalist, and includes the Rev. Peter Morales, president of the Boston-based Unitarian Universalist Association.
The clergy delegation gathered at Standing Rock on Thursday morning and representatives from different Christian denominations read repudiations of the “Doctrine of Discovery,” the legal doctrine that white Christian colonists used to usurp lands from indigenous peoples.
Evans said the clergy joining the protest were asked to be “prayerful, peaceful, and nonviolent,” while using their own bodies to help protect the demonstrators. He said the encampment felt like “a sacred space of hospitality and commitment to peace and care for the earth.”
But he said there was also a feeling of brokenness, a sense of the “deep violence” that the Sioux had suffered over generations at the hands of white settlers and the US government.
“This pipeline is just the newest expression of violence against native people,” he said.