Introduction to a special issue of “Signs of the Times” (4 November 2016, No. 94)
by Ken Sehested
By now, DAPL (Dakota Access Pipeline) has become a familiar acronym to many in the US. The confrontation near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, where the Cannonball River joins the Missouri River, is cleft by a thin barricade.
On one side is law enforcement: Morton County sheriffs, augmented with state police, National Guard troops, sheriffs from other states and oil company private security personnel, all heavily armed and supported by surveillance airplanes and helicopters, armored vehicles, even “sound cannons” (“Long Range Acoustical Devices” emitting ear-splitting noise).
On the other, unarmed members of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation (who name themselves “Water Protectors”) and their supporters, which now number in the thousands. It is thought to be the largest gathering of Native Peoples in the last century, and for that reason remarkable, though you wouldn't know it given the bloated media attention to our maniacal election season.
The issue at stake is corporate commerce (which brings public tax revenues as well as private profit) versus Lakota Sioux cultural heritage and protection of water for the Standing Rock Sioux nation. For some of the Lakota, and many of their climate advocate supporters, there is also the fact that another major fossil fuel pipeline only deepens the trauma of our burning planet.
The $3.8 billion pipeline would carry more than a half-million gallons daily of highly volatile crude oil extracted, by means of fracking (hydraulic fracturing), from North Dakota’s Bakken and Three Forks oilfields to existing pipelines in Illinois some 1,172 miles away.
Both Amnesty International, the highly-regarded human rights organization, and the United Nations, have sent observers to monitor potential human rights violations. For a confrontation of this size, thus far the violence been relatively minor.
The ball is now in the court of the Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the easement where the DAPL would tunnel beneath the Missouri River. In September President Obama instructed the Corps to reexamine the legitimacy of its previous permit.
Not all the Water Protectors and their allies exercise the nonviolent spirit of Dorothy Day or Caesar Chavez, though their unarmed presence is remarkable given the tensions. Not all the law enforcement personnel have Mayberry Police Chief Andy Taylor’s disarming demeanor. No doubt there are hot-heads in both encampments. We can only hope that this swelling reservoir of mutual contempt does not escalate with fatal consequences triggered by an isolated, careless outburst.
Left: Religion News Service photo by Emily McFarlan Millerpg
But that’s not the point. The relative moral character of the two constituencies is not the issue. The issues at stake include the historic injustices and indignities heaped on this nation’s indigenous population—and you will not be able to understand the DAPL controversy without historical perspective, of how land was stolen, literally, at least 371 treaties broken or fraudulently altered—and the very real possibility that the planet is near, or at, the point of no return in terms of a sustainable atmosphere, an atmosphere which is literally choking because of human-generated CO2 emissions emitted by burning fossil fuels.
The really scary thing is that we will not know when the environment’s tipping point will arrive until it already has. The complex ecological chain of cause and effect is something like a tsunami (without the early warning system), barely discernible until it crests with cataclysmic affect.
In his sterling essay, “Reckoning at Standing Rock,” which traces the roots of our present dilemma back to our nation’s founding impulses, Paul VanDevelder writes, “In the end, says the Western writer William Kittredge, reconciliation will be America’s only way out of that legacy of dishonor, the only sensible path to a future worth living — our Last Chance Saloon.”
My hope is that this issue of “Signs of the Times” will provide a remedial course in understanding what’s at stake, and that you will be not only convinced but convicted to turn your own justice-fed, peace-inspired dreams into deeds, at whatever point, in whatever place, for whatever direction the Spirit leads.
We are, largely, innocents who must lose our innocence to inherit a future other than the fatal consequence of our transgressions. We have hard work to do, patient work, risky work, but worthy, inspiring, hopeful work.
Take a hand. Make your vow. Gird your loins. Step over your threshold. Prepare for turbulence, maybe threat. Treasure that envisioned future beyond every available horizon. Never forget that history belongs to the interceding intercessors.
P.S. When approaching Native American Indian culture (or any culture other than your own), do so with humility. There is a lot of culture-vulturing out there—duty-free, new-agey fluff and hucksterism passing as spirituality, as if it were a shiny bauble, free for the taking, stripped of actual grounding in communal life and material relations.
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