Beyond the Pipeline: Catholic Voices Around Standing Rock

Catholics on both sides of the issue reflect on their common destiny.

Aerial view of the protest camps in fall 2016.
Aerial view of the protest camps in fall 2016. (photo: Morton County Sheriff's Department via

BISMARCK, N.D. — The nearly yearlong protests over the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline have come to an end. But in North Dakota, the open wounds between the Lakota of Standing Rock and the citizens of the state who supported the pipeline as essential to its oil and gas industry run deep and will endure long after the pipeline crews and protesters are gone.

On Feb. 23, most of the remaining Lakota and Native American demonstrators, and their other “water protector” allies, had followed the state’s mandatory evacuation order and exited the Oceti Sakowin camp that had held up construction of the pipeline for months. The area had turned into a flood zone, as the Cannonball River rose due to the unseasonably warm temperatures in North Dakota.

Law enforcement moved into the camp that Thursday to arrest nearly 50 protesters who did not leave, and private contractors began to clean up the site. By 2pm local time, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department had declared the camp cleared, ending a protest that started last April.

The battle over the Dakota Access Pipeline’s route will continue in federal court, where the Lakota people of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe will continue to argue that the federal government did not adequately consult them on the pipeline, saying it violated standing treaties and posed risks to their water sources and damaged their sacred sites. Energy Transfer Partners, which owns the pipeline, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have contended the Standing Rock Lakota turned down previous attempts at discussion until it was too late to change the route. They maintain the pipeline endangered neither the water nor sacred sites. Both sides have brought forth evidence to contest each other’s claims.

Construction had already resumed Feb. 7 under Lake Oahe, the Missouri River reservoir north of the Standing Rock reservation, after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers implemented President Donald Trump’s order to expedite the process. It is the final piece in constructing the nearly 1,200-mile pipeline that will connect oil from the Bakken Shale fields to a junction in Illinois.

Pope Francis has on several occasions raised his voice to say the Church must defend the rights of indigenous peoples. In a Feb. 15 address, where he met with the representatives of indigenous nations, he staked a middle ground, saying the “central issue is how to reconcile the right to development, both social and cultural, with the protection of the particular characteristics of indigenous peoples and their territories.”

He said governments must recognize the indigenous as part of their populations that must be “appreciated and consulted,” and their “full participation should be promoted at the local and national level.” 

Catholics in the area on both sides of the pipeline debate shared their stories with the Register. What they revealed is a tragedy long in the making, but not uncommon in U.S. history: Two peoples that never truly had an opportunity to live together, listen and learn from each other, and forge a common destiny together.

Now, they seem farther apart than ever. Caught in the middle are Catholic leaders, struggling to find the right ways to respond but prevent further harm and division between these communities.


Lakota: Care for Creation

Basil Brave Heart is a Catholic Lakota and a Korean War combat veteran living on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The reservation, along with Standing Rock, is part of what remains of the 1868 Great Sioux Reservation, lost in a quick succession of broken treaties with the U.S. government after gold was discovered in the Black Hills, their sacred land. 

Brave Heart told the Register that he joined the protest at Standing Rock in December because in the Lakota tradition, and affirmed by Catholic social teaching as well, the Creator made nature a gift, with water being “sacred, holy and created for life.”

“Water represents to us a sacred gift,” he said.

Brave Heart felt the Standing Rock protest was largely characterized by “compassion and love.” He saw the pipeline exploiting the earth for material gain at the expense of the people who live there, and once again backed by the federal government.

The Lakota once had extensive territory guaranteed by treaty in 1851, stretching across Wyoming, Nebraska and the Dakotas — far bigger than the 1868 Great Sioux Reservation, which extended partially into North Dakota and constituted the eastern half of South Dakota. But his people only have a fraction of that, as settlers took their lands for farmland, gold mining and other natural resources, all backed by the U.S. Army.

While non-Native opponents of the Standing Rock protest have invoked the “rule of law” to argue the pipeline must go forward, Brave Heart said the Lakota have typically experienced a double standard. Government officials gave oaths and set laws down one day and broke them the next, to take more valuable land. His grandparents had lived through the trauma of the federal government, engaging in various actions that would today constitute “ethnic cleansing,” from the slaughter of the buffalo to the brutal assimilation process at Indian boarding schools.

But the Dakota pipeline, Brave Heart explained, is bigger than the Lakota’s history or concerns. All humanity, he said, is threatened by a growing ethic of greed, following the logic of “if you have to take life, take it, no matter what it will cost.”

“That’s the shadow that is laying upon the Earth,” he said. “Until that is corrected, I don’t know what our destiny will be.”


Bismarck: Jobs From Oil

Kris Lengenfelder runs a machinist shop in Bismarck that works primarily with the mining industry. The Catholic father tries to provide for his seven children and told the Register that mining, oil and agriculture are the main job providers in the state. He supported construction of the pipeline because the economic conditions in the state are not as good as they were five years ago. The future of the state’s economic growth, he said, is wrapped up in harvesting oil and gas from the Bakken Shale fields and transporting it cheaply to markets by pipe.

“The only big possibility of jobs is the oil industry,” he said.

One day, Lengenfelder said, market forces may dictate that oil is not worth it and discontinue the pipeline in favor of renewable sources. But that day is not anywhere around the corner for people looking to make a living in the state.

However, he said he respected the viewpoints of the “true believers” among the protesters at Standing Rock, who opposed the pipeline over their concerns for the water, despite the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ assessment that the risks are minimal. Even though he disagreed with the protesters, Lengenfelder also understood the feeling of some that the people of Bismarck would have a different attitude if the pipeline were routed north of them, as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers once considered but rejected, because of the perception that a potential break could affect them.

But Lengenfelder believes the pipeline employs the best safety technology, in terms of the strength of its construction materials, monitoring systems and shut-off valves to minimize risks. The Dakota Access Pipeline will run approximately 90 feet under the bed of Lake Oahe. The pipeline’s owners have stated that they will be monitoring the pipeline round-the-clock, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would minimize and reduce the risk of spills and potential damages to the Standing Rock reservation’s water supply.

Lengenfelder also noted that the country is already crisscrossed with pipelines, which are safer than rail and truck transport. Adding another pipeline, with its modern safety features, he said, would not change that reality.


Thinking Generations Ahead

Juliana Taken Alive is a Catholic member of the Standing Rock reservation, and the principal of a Jesuit-run Lakota school, the Red Cloud Indian School, approximately 90 miles south, where revitalizing Lakota culture, language and identity is part of the education.

When Taken Alive, her husband and three older children came to the protest at Standing Rock last August, it was still small, but they saw on the roadway all of the flags from various different tribes and nations that had come to show their solidarity. It was peaceful, prayerful protest.

“It started out good, beautiful and prayerful,” she said.

Taken Alive said she worries for what might happen if the pipelines were to leak and the technology fail. The Lakota traditionally look at the impact of decisions not in terms of simply the immediate future or even the next generation, but about future generations yet to be born.

“It is not if, but when, it will break,” she said, adding that people in non-native communities in North Dakota downstream have also expressed concern. In December, the Belle Fourche pipeline, which was constructed in the 1980s, leaked 180,000 gallons of crude oil into Ash Coulee Creek in remote western North Dakota before it was discovered Dec. 5.

Once the Standing Rock protest gained national attention from major networks and celebrities, Taken Alive explained it changed greatly, as thousands of people — nearly 4,000 at one point — poured in. The last time she was there, she recognized few people she knew from Standing Rock.

On a certain level, she thought it was good how people from all over the world had come to show solidarity. But on the other hand, she added, it became too big, and some people came with “their own personal agendas” and left behind a great deal of garbage that could contaminate their water supply.

“They went home and back to wherever they came from,” she said.

Taken Alive said relations are now strained between the Lakota and the citizens of North Dakota. Many Lakota at Standing Rock are choosing to drive to stores in South Dakota instead of those in nearby North Dakota because they feel openly unwanted. But within the Lakota, there are divisions about whether to keep on protesting or to follow tribal chairman Dave Archambault II’s lead and pursue the matter in court.

“I think there is hope that something good can come out of this,” she said. But in terms of healing the communities, she did not know where the starting point would be. “We really have to pray.”

Clash of Societies

Stephen Sniabley, a Catholic business owner in Bismarck, told the Register that many North Dakotans felt their lives disrupted by the protests, as well as felt demonized in national media, while social media whipped up passions on all sides.

Sniabley said he recognized that the Lakota and many Native Americans have a different point of view on the pipeline. But he said many protesters came from out of state to “cause trouble” and did the Standing Rock Lakota no favors. The original Sacred Stone camp on reservation land could not accommodate the thousands of protesters that arrived once the media gave it national attention.

The Oceti Sakowin camp was then built on federal land in the pipeline’s pathway. People ended up seeing in the news a couple hundred environmentalist radicals, acknowledged on all sides to be a small minority of the protesters, who were clashing with local law enforcement, setting vehicles on fire and damaging private and public property.

“I think it’s contrary to law and order of any sort,” Sniabley said. Furthermore, a large number of protesters had turned the logic of the Native Americans’ protest on its head, by burning rubber tires and leaving behind other trash and sewage that was contaminating the water they said they intended to protect.

From Sniabley’s vantage point, the Standing Rock Council, led by Chairman Archambault, invited people to join them on national media in October, and when thousands of people showed up, they no longer had control. When the tribal chairman told them to go home, he was ignored.

While Sniabley acknowledged a divide between peoples in North Dakota was already beneath the surface, he said the protests just amplified it at a time when people needed to come together.

A series of town halls, where members of the two communities could discuss each other’s heartfelt concerns, he said, would have been the path to take. Once it went national, and the “de-personalization” of social media went to work, it was too late.

The protests, he added, cost the state $22 million, at a time that could not have been worse: North Dakota is facing a $1.4-billion budget shortfall due to falling oil revenues.

“The budgets are busted, there’s no money, and a lot of anxiety and distrust,” he said.

As a result, many North Dakotans have blamed the entire Standing Rock Lakota people — an attitude that Sniabley understands but opposes because innocent people who had no involvement at the protest are getting hurt. Many North Dakotans have stopped patronizing the casino on Standing Rock or donating to their schools, which heavily rely on private funding.

What was worse was that it seemed people may have profited from the Standing Rock protests. Millions of dollars have been raised by GoFundMe accounts, Sniabley said, but “no one knows where the money has really gone.”


Catholic Leaders’ Dilemma

The Church has to navigate the complexities of the local situation. The Jesuit Conference, which represents the Society of Jesus in the U.S. and Canada, issued a joint statement of solidarity Feb. 22 with the Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation and St. Francis Mission on the Rosebud Reservation. Together they called the decision to suspend the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ environmental-impact reassessment, begun under the Obama administration, “morally unacceptable.”

Part of the Standing Rock reservation is in Bishop David Kagan’s Diocese of Bismarck. Christopher Dodson, executive director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference, said the bishop did not have a position on the protests or the pipeline, because it was not a black-and-white issue with a clear Catholic angle. The underlying issues were enormously complicated, he added, and the main issue was to solve them in a way that was peaceful and respected the rights of everybody.

However, he said Bishop Kagan was deeply concerned about the diocese’s school on the reservation, which had seen a 60% drop in donations since the protests started, and the welfare of the Lakota children. He stressed the few protesters who have caused problems do not have much support of the general Lakota population and will go away.

“They rely heavily on outside donations, as do the parishes. It is an extremely poor area,” he said, adding the population suffers from high rates of alcoholism, drug addiction, sexual abuse and single parenthood. “But those kids will still be there, and Catholic education is their best ticket to deal with those problems.”


Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.