Reverend David Wilson is a member of the Choctaw Nation and the conference superintendent of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference (OIMC) of the United Methodist Church. Rev. Wilson was vitally involved in connecting churches to the protest at Standing Rock over the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. He graciously accepted my invitation to be interviewed on the struggle and the future work of advocacy for Native peoples and environmental stewardship. Here is a short video of Rev. Wilson on the subject, and here is his recent interview with Faith and Leadership.
Before we begin, it is worth drawing attention to the following. For a brief overview of the Dakota Pipeline protest, refer here. According to one source, August 10th marked the one year anniversary for the protest becoming more widespread. Another source discussed legal proceedings. A new brief was filed August 7th asking for a pipeline shutdown while a more thorough review of environmental impact is carried out (I don’t know what occurred concerning a prior ordered review pertaining to insufficient research on environmental impact). While the controversy around the Dakota Access Pipeline does not receive as much attention globally or nationally as it once did, the impact of past decisions carries long-term consequences for the people living there and beyond. The controversy also speaks to issues that continue, bearing on the well-being of indigenous peoples in our society.
Paul Louis Metzger (PLM): Reverend Wilson, please provide a thumb-nail sketch of the factors that led to the Dakota Access Pipeline protest, including the rationale for the protest.
David Wilson (DW): In late July, I had read a fb post from the organizers of the Indigenous Environmental Network about the need for persons to come to Standing Rock to witness what was going on against the people at the camps by the river. It had not received much attention from the mainstream press, and it was at this point that the Dakota Access Pipeline had stepped up their harassment of the campers. Since we represent so many Native Americans in Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas from the United Methodist Church, I knew that we needed to go and see for ourselves what was going on and to see how we could help. I also knew that at that point there would be few religious organizations that would pay attention to what was going on outside the Episcopal Church there, who was already on the ground. In addition, persons from our own churches were asking what OIMC was doing to assist.
PLM: How did you and the United Methodist Church get involved in the protest?
DW: I struggle with the word “protest” because for the campers at the various camps there at Standing Rock, it was more about a place of prayer for people of all ages and places. The camps originally started as that—gathering folks to pray for the situation. Our role evolved into providing aid, such as food for the camps, shelter, gasoline, etc. The other larger role was to bring awareness of the situation to various entities within The United Methodist Church. We continued that for about a year and we are still connecting and working with organizers to see that work proceed and to provide assistance where it is needed. Most of the heads of our general agencies made it to Standing Rock and many provided assistance in various forms, especially in terms of grants for various causes.
PLM: Native peoples have a profound passion for environmental stewardship. As a Christian who takes seriously the biblical creation story and as a member of the Choctaw Nation, you share that passion. Please explain to the readers why environmental justice is so important to you as a Christian and as a Native person.
DW: Historically, the environment has been a great cause of Indigenous peoples. The changes in our societies and the world have lessened that interest among some. However, on the whole, Native persons understand the importance of the environment and this world that we all share. Traditional Native persons can talk about the changes in the world and prophecies that talk about these changes. My interpretation of Genesis concerning humanity having dominion over the earth does not suggest destroying the environment but taking care of what Creator God has given us.
PLM: Some readers might think the battle at Standing Rock is over, and that ‘once again,’ Native peoples have lost the fight. How would you respond in view of Native resilience and resolve?
DW: I don’t think the people of Standing Rock feel that they lost this fight. There were so many who did much to raise awareness about the environment, the value of water and the need to care for what Creator God has given us. There are many individuals and organizations that have gone on to help raise awareness in other places such as Flint, Michigan. This was truly a David vs. Goliath story—the people of Standing Rock against forces such as DAPL, which has billions of dollars to work with, the state government which was siding with the new president long before he was president, the local county government and police forces that still hold racist attitudes towards Native people there and in other places.
PLM: What did you find successful about the struggle? What in your opinion did not work, or could be changed in the future? How might you respond to critics who speak of the damage and cost resulting from the movement?
DW: Some of the responses are listed above. The greatest success for me about this effort was the awareness raised among millions around the world. Also, there has not been any event in over a century that has united so many tribes from around the country. The issue was not just about protesting the pipeline, but also about uniting to protect the water and environment. Situations like this have happened for years in Indian Country and will continue as well, unfortunately. There was no need for Morton County to engage so many police forces. The gathering was a peaceful gathering and only became challenging when the county and state brought in militia-like forces and armed vehicles that brought a feeling of violation to the people. There were helicopters and drones from the police force and pipeline to monitor the camps. There was no need for that. There was no damage to the camps where the people were. The campers kept the place in good shape. It was only through the quick demand to vacate the camps and the winter that might have brought about damage.
PLM: Building on Standing Rock, what are other some specific areas to address in solidarity with Native peoples today in this country and beyond?
DW: There are many issues that need to be addressed. They include tribal sovereignty, issues of the environment, and racism and economic structures around Indian Country. There are so many individuals and groups working on various causes. This is great because there are enough causes for us to be involved with in many places.
PLM: You said in the video highlighted above that people don’t always listen to the Native voice. In closing, what would you encourage non-Natives to do to help cultivate listening ears to the Native voice? Please recommend specific Native voices and resources to draw attention to and amplify.
DW: Because of the size of Native persons in the country, we don’t have much political clout as a whole (it should be noted, however, that there are places where the tribes do have clout, especially the larger ones in the country). Therefore, there are not many entities that listen to our needs. We always need non-native persons to advocate for us on many levels and to draw attention to issues that are affecting Native persons negatively. In closing, here are some entities to highlight: the National Congress of American Indians (which does much on a national level for these various issues); the Indigenous Environmental Network (a great voice for environmental issues); the American Indian College Fund (which provides good scholarships for many students); and last but not least, the Native American Rights Fund (which works to defend the rights of Native American persons).
PLM: Lord, help us to listen, to learn, to advocate and to amplify the voices of your Native peoples, including David Wilson and those at Standing Rock. May your justice prevail on their behalf. Empower them. Transform our hearts and strengthen us in our resolve so that we might also take a stand. Amen.