Dakota Access Pipeline Controversy: Bishop Erwin Speaks Out

Due to the continuing media frenzy over the election and the distance between Southern California and North Dakota, it has been easy to miss the current controversy of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The Pipeline controversy has been an ongoing battle since last April between large commercial oil companies and the Standing Rock Sioux tribe over transporting oil through a pipeline that crosses territory considered sacred and environmentally dangerous to the tribe.

Although this fight may seem far away, it hit close to home for Rev. Dr. Erwin, the Bishop of the Southern California Synod of the ECLA and an alumnus professor at California Lutheran University. On Tuesday, November 30th, Bishop Erwin gave a speech titled “Sacred Land, Sacred Water”, which spoke of his own Native American roots in the Midwest, his experience at the Standing Rock Protest and the dangers of the Dakota Access Pipeline, especially those it presents to the tribe.

Bishop Erwin presented two clear sides of the conflict to an overcrowded room of captivated professors, intrigued students, and even one or two children trying their best to stay quiet when their parents shushed them. According to the Bishop, on one side you had a large, successful area for oil in which a pipeline had failed in the past, leaving a pressing need to create a new way to transport North Dakota’s oil. Thus the Dakota Access Pipeline was born, worth $3.7 billion, and was a project that would reportedly pump money into the economy and create jobs for those building the pipeline, but not nearly as many for those to maintain it. With that amount of effort going into a large-scale project, the oil companies “will do anything to keep it going”, according to Bishop Erwin. Yet, on the other side, the Standing Rock tribe sees the pipeline as a large cultural and environmental threat to their tribal history and land. Although the pipeline does not directly go through their reservation, it would be right on the edge of their territory in an area that the tribe says is still ancestral land despite it being undocumented, and therefore is sacred and should be protected. The tribe also believes that the pipeline would be environmentally damaging if it were to leak into the Missouri River. As Bishop Erwin explained, if something were to go wrong with the pipeline, the Standing Rock tribe would be directly affected no matter what.

Protesters, such as Bishop Erwin himself, have flocked to the Bakken Region of North Dakota, where the Standing Rock tribe resides. Once there, they are able to stay on and around the reservation, as long as they follow the tribe’s strict rules of nonviolence and peace during this challenging time. While staying at the largest camp to spread a message of support during a day-long journey, Bishop Erwin made several interesting discoveries. He described how the tribe was focused on prayer as a way to confront the conflict, and how when the Bishop started a prayer circle with his fellow group of bishops, the circle quickly multiplied from ten people to about eighty.

Bishop Erwin also found the massive security presence, around the reservation and in their own law enforcement camp near the territory, to be highly intimidating.

“It was chilling, in a way, to be watched by so many security people,” Bishop Erwin said. “They (the tribe) told us not to point at helicopters because they might think it was a gun.”

So far, since the conflict started in April, there have been more recent reports of violence between authorities and the protesters, including pepper spray, tear gas, dogs, rubber bullets and water-cannons in below-freezing temperatures. The protesters, abiding by the tribe’s rules, have tried to maintain a nonviolent front, yet have reportedly fought back by throwing rocks, burning logs and launching stones with slingshots. There was also an incident in which a man who pretended to be an aggressive protester was arrested and then was revealed to be an undercover pipeline employee attempting to undermine the protest. Bishop Erwin worries that the conflict between military forces and protesters will continue to grow stronger in the coming weeks as pressure to continue building the pipeline grows and more protesters flock to the reservation. In August, North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple even issued a State of Emergency over the protests, bringing forces out of surrounding states in order to help control the pipeline situation. “That was the most disheartening thing for me, to see how far the military would go to defend a commercial property that was on someone else’s land,” Bishop Erwin said in response to the high military presence throughout the protest.

Bishop Erwin also found that since the pipeline’s approval in April, the engineers on the project who made the decisive choices of where and how to build the pipeline are reviewing their policies to make sure they correctly granted these permits to begin with.

During this increasingly long and dangerous controversy, Bishop Erwin has made it clear that he supports the Standing Rock tribe due to his Native American heritage and because of how his visit with the protesters affected his passion for the issue.

“It is fundamental to the Native American identity to be connected to the land from where you come from… for many Native people, the place they come from is the most important thing about them,” Bishop Erwin said. “To be a native is to be connected to the soil, and that connectedness is something that is hard for Western people to appreciate.”


Editor's Note: As of 12/7/16 the construction on the pipline has been halted by the US government and army. It is unclear what this means for the future.