Global Ministries

The United Methodist Church

Connecting the Church in Mission

Nicaraguan/US United Methodist Missionaries with Standing Rock Lakota Tribe

Miguel Mairena and Nan McCurdy*

I am listening to a deeper way.
Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me.
Be still, they say.
Watch and listen.
You are the result of the love of thousands.

—Linda Hogan, indigenous writer born 1947

We went to the Oceti Sakowin Camp to accompany the Standing Rock Lakota Sioux tribe on their land in North Dakota November 30–December 9, 2016.

Photo by Nan McCurdy and Miguel Mairena

We first read news in April 2016 describing the struggle of the Lakota indigenous people to protect people, water, land, and the sovereignty of the land that had been theirs for countless generations from the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) project that would pollute all of the things they hold dear and bring them life. Existing pipelines have small, large, and even enormous leaks almost daily. The danger that the DAPL would pollute the Missouri River, the land of their mothers and fathers and an aquifer that covers twelve states, bringing water to nearly a hundred million people is certain. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) reported more than 3,300 incidents of leaks and ruptures at oil and gas pipelines since 2010. 

We bought our tickets to go to Standing Rock after reading the October 25 letter from the Western Jurisdiction Bishops to President Obama: “We…. write in support of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation and all who bear peaceful witness to its opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline. We recognize that the abundance enjoyed by many in the United States has come at the expense of the original inhabitants of this land, and we recognize that we have a moral obligation to seek just relationships with their descendants.”

We learned from indigenous sisters and brothers of many tribes about our history and culture; about living in true community where people share just about everything, pitch in, organize, and take care of whatever needs to be done; and about nonviolent, determined resistance to injustice.

Photo by Nan McCurdy 

It turned out to be a spiritual journey. Something called us to drive down an old road near the Cannonball River by a long-empty granary that used to fill train cars with grain. We stopped to take a picture of a hundred-year-old church, silent and haunting. A man was carving wood and we started talking to him. We were still there two hours later. Philip Himel, “Wu-ku-u-mao” or Big Cloud (his Hopi name), told us how the Lakota lost their very best land when the Oahe damn flooded their land in 1962:

The Army Corps of Engineers damned up the Missouri River around Pierre, South Dakota. Apparently it was in the wintertime when the water started backing up on the Lakota and Dakota People of Standing Rock. They had all their churches, cemeteries, their gardens, farms, ranches, their grazing areas for cattle and horses, were all down there in the bottom lands. And the forests, they were well known since the late 1850s as woodcutters and farmers and hunters. And they supplied the railroads that were coming through and emerging. The Dakotas supplied them with firewood for the steam engines. As far as consultation goes, I don’t think they were consulted about the flooding. The population was not as astute back then—not even that many English speakers then that would be able to really grasp the gravity of the situation.

The floods came up. The lake rose and it took out all of the best of the reservation, all of the woodlands and the bottom lands that are most verdant and productive for growing corn and other grains. Two hundred thousand acres of their land was covered by lake Oahe.

Indigenous peoples have lost everything—not one time, but many, many times.

We are ecstatic that President Obama stopped the construction of the pipeline under Lake Oahe. We were near the Sacred Fire at the Camp when the Tribal leaders announced the news about 2:45 pm on Sunday, December 4 that the U.S. Army did not grant the permit to lay pipe under Lake Oahe. The companies that were set to profit are Sunoco, Philips 66, and Energy Transfer Partners (ETP). President-elect Trump has stock in Philips 66 and ETP.

Photo by Nan McCurdy and Miguel Mairena

We befriended Ray Cook, a Mohawk journalist and Opinion Editor for the Indian Country Today Media Network. He explained that the U.S. indigenous tribes pooled their funds to hire one of the best law firms in the United States, Williams & Connolly LLP, to sue the government, alleging it violated the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). NHPA requires consideration of the cultural significance of federally permitted sites. NEPA requires consideration of the implications to waterways.

Philip Himel (Big Cloud) is an elder in his non-denominational church. He says most Lakota are active Christians who take the example of Christ to heart. He invited us to his church in Fort Yates, a town on the reservation. The Lakota Tribal Headquarters are there, as well as some remains of Sitting Bull, who led the victory over Custer’s army in 1876 at the Battle of Little Bighorn. In Fort Yates, a town of just over two hundred people, we counted ten churches!

We are thankful to have been lead on this journey to understand our own past and the restorative justice struggles for which Christ leads us to work. We think it may be the indigenous people with their reliance on Christ, family, and community that show many of us the way forward to a healthier life in the United States and the world.

Photo by Nan McCurdy and Miguel Mairena

*Global Ministries Missionaries Miguel Mairena and Nan McCurdy serve the Western Jurisdiction as Mission Advocates, preaching and teaching about missionaries and global mission programs you support through apportionments. They served for decades in Nicaragua