The Rev. John Floberg was on his way home from a national meeting of the Episcopal Church when he saw live video of protesters squaring off with police at a northern "front line" camp on N.D. Highway 1806.
The conflict was escalating — fast. Disappointed by the violence he saw on both sides, Floberg wanted to slow things down and return to the more traditional civil disobedience seen months earlier. When the Standing Rock-based priest returned to North Dakota, he drafted a callout to clergy around the country.
The gathering drew more than 500 clergy members of different faiths to the Oceti Sakowin Camp. The group walked to the barricade on the Backwater Bridge before turning back, creating a moment many said evoked the march in Selma. No one was arrested, though a few, whose bravado Floberg critiqued, traveled to Bismarck and protested at the Capitol, where they were detained.
Though support and endorsements have flooded in from religious institutions around the world, few Christian leaders on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation and in North Dakota took an active role. In fact, Floberg was nearly unique in his activism.
Floberg has been an Episcopal priest on the reservation for the past 25 years with churches in Cannon Ball, Fort Yates and Selfridge. He sees the pipeline fight as the reason for his years there.
“This is why I’ve been here 25 years,” said Floberg, explaining that with fewer years' experience, "I would have had no way to understand how to stand ground.”
Watching the anger demonstrated some nights on the bridge, he saw those same feelings devolve into depression among the youth in his ministry. In the relations with the government, he saw hundreds of years of unfulfilled promises and leaders who did not listen.
“I realized the church had to get there so that the people who were in that camp could hear and understand that somebody else cared and would stand by them,” Floberg said.
The camps were filled with prayer, much of it traditional, and many described the months-long movement as an extended ceremony. A sacred fire was central to the main Oceti Sakowin camp and prayers in Lakota were frequently performed.
"Our vision is for the peoples of all continents, regardless of their beliefs in the Creator, to come together as one at their Sacred Sites to pray and meditate and commune with one another, thus promoting an energy shift to heal our Mother Earth and achieve a universal consciousness toward attaining peace," Chief Arvol Looking Horse, a Sioux spiritual leader, wrote in an August column for Indian Country Media Network on indigenous environmental movements.
Seeing the prayer at camp, Floberg decided not to hold services there, worried it may cause breakage and division amid the unity he saw. With the endorsement of the national Episcopal Church, Floberg provided supplies to campers, hosted people in his church and has undertaken efforts to smooth relations between people on and off the reservation.
Recently, he started handing out gift cards to his Native American congregants for them to eat with non-native friends in Bismarck-Mandan.
Others in the Standing Rock Christian leadership took on a more spiritual, less active role.
The Rev. George Maufort, of St. Peter's Catholic Church, saw his role in prayer and support for his congregants. He traveled to the camps occasionally and listened as congregants grieved over the fear of water contamination.
"Anything that was prayer-oriented, I participated in," Maufort said. "Through prayer, you can move mountains if God wills it."
Maufort, who is knowledgeable of the Native American traditional prayers and ceremonies practiced at the camp, said he believed all the prayer was valid.
“Prayer is prayer,” he said.
He participated in the clergy walk as an individual — the Catholic Church did not take a position on the pipeline — because he was assured it would be peaceful, prayerful, respectful and lawful. When protests grew violent, he could not support them.
"The government has more power than the native people," Maufort said. "It would be a futile struggle."
Another local Christian leader chose to avoid involvement in the protest, though his church is located in Cannon Ball. He was concerned that such entanglement might affect his ability to help locally. Now, he's troubled to see the deepened divisions between natives and non-natives in North Dakota.
The Rev. Boots Marsh and his wife, Jackie, have a youth ministry for young children. He has interacted with the protesters and, most recently, accepted a few donations as they helped clean the camp.
"I took a line for the future of the children, and it didn't include getting on the front lines," said Marsh, of the Tipi Wakan Baptist Church. "Nothing could be gained except to hurt the kids."
More broadly in North Dakota, the only churches to take on an active role have been the Unitarian Universalists in Bismarck and the Presentation Sisters in Fargo, according to Karen von Fassen, of the UU church. Some did partake individually by coming to rallies or participating in interfaith prayer events.
“Many of faith and conviction have been in very solid solidarity as their own conscience speaks to them,” she said.
Reach Caroline Grueskin at 701-250-8225 or at email@example.com
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