May 29, 2024

Land Vs. Water

By: Shalom Maleachi ’17

Opinions Editor

If you were active on social media anytime this past month, it is likely that you have seen friends check-in at Standing Rock Indian Reservation, North Dakota. This act of “checking-in” would have been done as an act of solidarity with the protestors of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), as standoffs between protesters and militarized police officers occurred.

You would also have seen reports about increasingly violent clashes between police and protesters at Standing Rock. Just within a week of my writing this, in fact, witnesses record police officers using rubber bullets and water cannons to hose water protectors in the freezing cold, which resulted in risky hypothermic conditions and various injuries (some quite severe). Such use of force—preceded too by such a large social media response—should not only pique our attention, it should arrest it. What is going on? And, more importantly, what does it have to do with us?

Though my interest in this piece is not so much to report on the details and current (rapidly changing) situation—I am more interested in laying out the motivations and framework of thought behind the actions of each group on both sides of the clash.Here’s a brief sketch for background:

DAPL is a project pursued by Dakota Access, LLC, whose parent company is Energy Transfer Partners. The pipeline, if completed, is set to transfer crude oil from North Dakota all the way down to a river port in Illinois—covering a stretch of more than 1,000 miles. Protests of the construction of the pipeline by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and others had started in April, beginning when the tribe appealed through the court system for a halt in construction. The tribe contends that the pipeline threatens their water source, Lake Oahe, while simultaneously infringing upon tribal land recognized in the still-standing Fort Laramie Treaties from 1868. Since then, starting in the summer, many allies have joined the tribe in North Dakota in resisting the pipeline, setting up camps in several areas around Cannonball. Jointly they are loosely united under the hashtag #NODAPL.

Enough, for our present purposes, about background—though I strongly urge you all to research and flesh out this knowledge more on your own. Let us begin our analysis into the fundamentals, starting with what drives the building of the pipeline.

The argument for the benefit of DAPL revolves around economics. As described in their website, the goal of the project is to “enable domestically produced light sweet crude oil from North Dakota to reach major refining markets in a more direct, cost-effective, safer and environmentally responsible manner.” The pipeline will be, as the company and its political supporters argue, an investment in local energy and create hundreds of thousands of jobs.

The environmental responsibility aspect of the statement, too, revolves mainly around an economic view—operating on the premise of land as resource, or capital. Further digging around the website shows that the company promises to uphold environmental responsibility by helping to mitigate the damage done to the land in the process of construction by working closely with landowners. The language there, obviously, betrays the intent as the environmental argument hinges upon “property,” land as capital, to be able to buy a condo on Hilton Head and still take care of the land surround it.

#NODAPL, however, argues against the pipeline on grounds other than economics. The most obvious argument for opposition to the pipeline is that on environmental grounds. Any transportation of oil carries risk of spillage and contamination. In our own lifetimes, I presume, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (remember those pictures of the oil-slicked birds?) still resounds fresh in our collective memories. This environmental concern is, no doubt, a large motivator for many folks to take a stand against the pipeline.

Yet there is a deeper argument—an argument that we at Gordon, I would argue, should consider seriously.

For the main contention the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has against the pipeline is spiritually (read: religiously) based. As stated in documents submitted to the court by the tribe, one of the main reasons they seek to halt construction is the fact that construction of the pipeline risks destroying native burial sites and sacred spaces (in fact, the construction may have done so already).

For the tribe, environmental concerns and spiritual concerns are deeply intertwined. All these point advanced point to one fundamental wish—that on top of preserving their livelihood and living environment, that they be free as well to preserve their cultural and spiritual legacy to future generations.

Is not #NODAPL, as relayed by those who will be most immediately impacted, then, not a religious freedom issue? Is this not a case where corporate interests and governmental silence are conspiring against the religious rights of a people group?

If this is the case, then, I am puzzled by the lack of outrage among most Christians—and more specifically, in the case of Gordon and our evangelical Christian affiliation. Where is the outrage that has been so characteristic of evangelical Christianity over the past years in the fight for religious freedom? If it is our wish for our neighbors, the government and the nation to honor our desire to pursue our religious convictions freely—a wish that has driven us to challenge the establishment, boycott businesses, propose bills and counter bills, start movements, etc.—then should we not be concerned about upholding this ideal for all?

…Or does the issue of ‘religious freedom’ belong only to a select group of people—namely, ourselves?

But I digress.

In sum: at heart, it can be said that the clash over the pipeline is a matter of land vs. water. Those advocating for DAPL seem to operate on a framework that honors land—land as property, land as resource. Those opposing DAPL operate on a framework that honors water (they are indeed called the Water Protectors)—water as a life giving force, water that sustains generations.

…Where does your heart lie?

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