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Tuesday, May 30, 2023
May 30, 2023

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Local clergy members join Dakota Access oil-pipeline protest

Two women respond to request to stand in solidarity with Standing Rock Sioux, other tribes, forming protective circle

By , Columbian Assistant Metro Editor
3 Photos
Members of clergy from across the country stand in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota last week.
Members of clergy from across the country stand in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota last week. (Jessie Smith) Photo Gallery

As members of the Standing Rock Sioux and other Native American tribes gathered last week near the construction site for the Dakota Access oil pipeline, more than 500 clergy members surrounded them in a protective circle.

Two of those clergy members were the Rev. Richenda Fairhurst of Camas United Methodist Church and the Rev. Jessie Smith of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Washougal. The pair rushed out to the anti-pipeline demonstrations Tuesday at the invitation of a Cannon Ball, N.D., priest who asked religious leaders to stand in solidarity with the tribes.

“It was an absolute privilege,” Smith said. “I was not just there representing myself. I was there representing my whole congregation.”

Sioux elders set up a camp this spring near construction of the proposed $3.8 billion pipeline. The line would cross beneath waterways near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, raising concerns about an oil leak and what it could do to the water.

Since then, anti-pipeline activists have flocked to the North Dakota camp and other nearby sites. Demonstrators — referring to themselves as “water protectors” — have clashed with the police and security officers tasked with protecting construction of the more than 1,000-mile pipeline.

Fairhurst and Smith returned from their trip over the weekend, bringing their experiences back to their congregations during sermons Sunday morning.

Fairhurst told The Columbian on Sunday that the fight against the Bakken oil pipeline may be familiar to those in Clark County who oppose the proposed oil-transfer terminal at the Port of Vancouver.

“We know this fight here,” said Fairhurst, 50. “We know … the clout that those transporting oil from the Bakken have and how much they want to make money on the product they have. They have what they consider money in the ground.”

Burning fossil fuel is bad for the environment, and the Dakota Access pipeline is causing further damage to Native Americans, an already “traumatized community,” Fairhurst said.

Smith, 34, also has environmental concerns about the pipeline, “but the primary reason I wanted to go is because I saw the dignity of indigenous people being worn away once again.”

As Smith saw it, her visit to North Dakota was an opportunity to seek forgiveness for the sins of her Christian ancestors. One of the most moving experiences she had on her trip came when Christian leaders stood at the camp’s sacred fire and apologized to tribal members for 500 years of unfair treatment.

“There was so much unity and opportunity for forgiveness and healing,” Smith said Sunday.

The more than 500 clergy members came from across the country and Canada, Fairhurst said, and they covered a wide range of Christian denominations and other faiths. They were fed sack lunches made by community members and learned about peaceful resistance.

During their visit, some people were hit with rubber bullets and pepper spray from police, Smith said. At one point, the camp was placed on lockdown, and children and elders were evacuated for their safety, Fairhurst said. Native American woman who had been arrested returned to the camp, shaken by their experience, Fairhurst said.

Fairhurst had the phone number to call in case she was arrested written on her arm in black Sharpie. Smith had assurances from her church’s board that they would bail her out of jail if need be. In the end, neither were arrested.

Throughout the women’s visit, tribal members didn’t just pray for their own success, Smith said. They prayed for everyone, including the pipeline workers, security personnel and police officers.

“They’re good men trying to do an honorable job,” Fairhurst said of the police. “It’s not really their fight. … It’s an impossible situation for them.”

It appears that the activists may be making an impact on the pipeline project. President Barack Obama said last week that the Army Corps of Engineers is considering whether to reroute the pipeline away from sacred Sioux lands.

Smith said she asked several people during her trip what they thought would happen with the pipeline. Opinions were mixed, but many agreed that even if the pipeline is built, the Standing Rock camp has succeeded in uniting tribes and other community members like never before.

“They were just going to build on the beautiful thing that has come out of the resistance,” Smith said.

Columbian Assistant Metro Editor