Phil’s Thoughts, December 2016

Published December 5, 2016 by

Since April, the Standing Rock Sioux Nation and its allies have been resisting the construction of the Dakota access pipeline that would transport crude oil from the Bakken fields in North Dakota to an oil tank farm in Illinois. Those opposing the pipeline have established encampments at Standing Rock North Dakota where thousands have gathered over the months. The participants describe themselves not as protestors but as water protectors. They oppose the pipeline because its route intrudes on what the Sioux Nation considers sacred sites and because its passage under the Missouri River would threaten the reservation’s water supply if there were a leak. The pipeline is also opposed by the Sioux Nation and a wide array of environmental groups because they see the project as perpetuating our country’s dependence on fossil fuels. 
The resistance to the pipeline continues to grow and intensify as does the reaction of the government and the energy company. Recent protest actions have been met with tear gas and water cannons which, especially in subfreezing weather, has heightened concern for the safety of the water protectors.
The resistance has political, economic, and ecologic dimensions, but I agree with the analysis that posits that at its root, the conflict is spiritual. The call to action for the water protectors is “mni wiconi,” which is a Lakota saying meaning “water is life.” The phrase emerges from the Lakota/Dakota creation narrative that identifies water as one of the first elements of creation. In the beginning, mni – water – covered the earth and it continues to be the life force that makes existence possible. To threaten the waters of the Missouri River is to desecrate the gift of the Creator and to threaten life itself. The Dakota resistance is not solely with regard to “their” land and “their” water; it is about the land, and the water, about the essence of life for all creatures.
This understanding is consistent with Southeast Traditional Values as expressed at the 2004 Elder Forum. The values include, “respect for nature and property,” and stewardship “of the air, land, and sea.”
The spiritual aspect of the struggle was highlighted in a Religion News Service interview with Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Councilman Dana Yellow Fat who said, “We began this with prayer, and we look at this whole movement as a ceremony. It began with prayers before we left [for the encampment], and in the end, it will close with prayers. We’re fighting the pipeline with prayer.”
The spiritual power of “mni wiconi,” is known in Christian thought as well. It is through the water sign of baptism that we are claimed as God’s children and respond to God’s love by living as disciples of Jesus. Like many religious traditions, biblical imagery affirms the importance of water as life sign – in the crashing waters of creation and in the nurturing waters of birth as well as in the baptismal waters of transformation. United Methodist and Presbyterian Church USA denominational officials are among the ecumenical leaders who have voiced support for the water protectors and opposition to the pipeline. The way United Methodist Dakotas Conference Bishop Bruce Ough put it, “This is a protest about the stewardship of God’s creation and justice for the indigenous peoples of the Great Plains.”
You can learn more about how you can support the Standing Rock water protectors and oppose the pipeline at,,, and
We also have a personal connection through a member of our church, Dabney Meachum (pictured), daughter of Freda Westman, who is participating in the encampment. Our Native Ministries committee is exploring ways we can support Dabney’s efforts; I am grateful for what she and all the water protectors are doing. During these days of Advent, may our preparation embrace care for creation and for all the earth’s creatures. Mni wiconi – water is life!

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