Deacon Jana Milhon-Martin of St. John’s Church, La Verne, her husband Victor, and their sons, Kasen, Samuel and Aiden, were eyewitnesses to a recent confrontation between what Jana called a ‘militarized” police force and “water protector” protesters at Standing Rock, North Dakota, where Native American groups and their allies are trying to stop construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline, which they believe threatens their water supply and a sacred burial ground.
The Milhon-Martin family was at the protest site to deliver supplies donated by members of the Diocese of Los Angeles’ Program Group on Native American Ministries. A Facebook group named “EDLA stands with Standing Rock” is following the family’s journey.
On Nov. 21, Jana Milhon-Martin reported on the Facebook page, “Last night, the water protectors were confronted by a militarized police force. The confrontation took place outside of camp, but the encampment was overwhelmed with injured people, and as you can imagine, there was a lot of chaos, the ever-present police airplane, ambulances, and police cars.
Because of the violence, the Milhon-Martins took their sons to safety in Bismark, North Dakota.
According to news reports, the protesters tried to clear a road that had been blocked by state troops, citing concerns about access to their encampment, especially for emergency vehicles. The law enforcement group responded by turning water canons on the protesters in sub-freezing temperatures, and firing rubber bullets and tear gas.
“These people are literally putting their lives on the line in order to make their own voices heard,” said Jana Milhon-Martin. “I am shocked and appalled by all of it. Lord have mercy.”
The family was delivering supplies that were purchased with funds gathered at a “Water is Life” service on Nov. 13 sponsored by the program group and held at St. John’s, La Verne. About 50 people participated in the event, which raised some $4,700 in donations, according to Canon Kelli-Grace Kurtz, vicar of St. John’s. Canon Mary Crist, a priest of the diocese who is Native American, officiated at a service of solidarity, and offered traditional sage blessings to participants.
St. John’s and the program group used the donated funds to buy two extra-large winterized tents equipped with wood-burning stoves, plus winter gear and food staples.
The local efforts mirror wider Episcopal Church has support for the water protectors’ cause. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry visited the protesters’ encampment in October, and many Episcopal priests, deacons and lay members were among 524 interfaith allies representing 20 faith traditions ecumenical representatives who gathered Nov. 2 – 3 at Standing Rock in solidarity with the protesters, who represent some 200 Native American tribes.
The Standing Rock Sioux argue the pipeline would cross treaty lands, disturb sacred areas and threaten drinking water for 8,000 members who live on the tribe’s nearly 2.3 million-acre reservation, located just south of where the pipeline would cross under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe. The lake is the reservation’s drinking water source. The sacred sites fall outside the reservation’s boundaries, but the tribe argues they were part of an 1851 land treaty.
The Dakota Access Pipeline would carry up to 570,000 gallons of oil per day across 1,134 miles from the Bakken oil field in northwestern North Dakota through South Dakota, bisecting Iowa from its northwest corner to its southeastern corner to Patoka, Illinois, for transport to refineries. The Bakken field is the largest oil deposit discovered in the United States since Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay in 1968; the Bakken created an oil boom in North Dakota in 2008 which has since slowed. Bakken oil has been shipped by rail, a costlier alternative to pipelines.
Challenges to the proposed pipeline route began with Iowa farmers in 2014; a previous route that brought the pipeline closer to Bismarck, North Dakota’s capital and second largest city, was scrapped over concerns to protect the city’s drinking water.
On Nov. 2, President Barack Obama said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was considering an alternative route. An online petition is circulating to asking Obama to honor his commitment to protect the people of Standing Rock.
In September, federal officials stopped construction of the pipeline on lands bordering or under Lake Oahe belonging to the Corps of Engineers, the federal agency responsible for permitting on public lands and waterways. Since then, the Dallas, Texas-based Energy Partners, the company building the pipeline, has purchased private lands near the proposed route and continues construction on the pipeline. Some say the land belongs to the Sioux Nation, where opponents of the pipeline set up another protest camp. On Oct. 27, law enforcement cleared that camp and arrested 141 people. Since then, unarmed opponents of the pipeline have been in a standoff with law enforcement officers at the Backwater Bridge on Highway 1806, just north of the Oceti Sakowin Camp.
Parts of this story were excerpted from reports by Lynette Wilson, writer and editor for Episcopal News Service. Local reporting by Janet Kawamoto. For more about Episcopal Church participation in the Dakota Access pipeline protests, click here.