After spending two days in North Dakota, the Rev. Matthew Funke Crary of the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Amado wants people to know the protest underway there isn’t just about the construction of a 1,200-mile crude oil pipeline.

The thousands of Native Americans, environmentalists and celebrities camping out in Cannon Ball, N.D., are fighting the injustices carried out against indigenous people, Crary said.

“Stopping the Black Snake may have brought them there, but it’s not what’s keeping them there,” he said Friday. “They are not a group. They are individuals who are trying to heal what’s broken in this society. It’s not just about this pipeline.”

Crary flew to North Dakota Tuesday after John Floberg, an Episcopal priest from Standing Rock, N.D., made a plea for clergy nationwide to join a months-long demonstration against the Dakota Access Pipeline. The $3.7 billion pipeline would transport 470,000 barrels of oil a day from North Dakota to southern Illinois.

Native Americans say the crude oil pipeline will endanger the region’s water supply and harm sacred lands and tribal burial grounds.

Energy Transfer Partners, the pipeline’s developer, says the pipeline is a safer way to transfer oil and that the project will create thousands of construction jobs and pump millions into local economies.

Governors of three states the pipeline crosses have urged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to let construction go forward and federal courts have rejected legal challenges from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. ETP continues construction on all privately owned land up to the Missouri River, according to reports.

The Obama administration is asking the Corps to withhold an easement for crossing under a reservoir. The president said late last week that the Corps is looking at rerouting the pipeline to address concerns from Native Americans.

Long-standing feud

The Standing Rock Sioux tribe has been trying to stop the pipeline since it was proposed in 2014; demonstrations began in April, and have gone from a handful of people in the beginning to thousands at some points.

Two weeks ago, local law enforcement officials said protesters threw Molotov cocktails at officers and set cars on fire on a highway bridge, forcing them to close it. One woman reportedly shot a officers and has been charged with attempted murder. Protesters say officers have injured and endangered protesters, who they say are peaceful.

On Wednesday, officers deployed pepper spray as protesters waded through waist-deep water in an attempt to reach property owned by Energy Transfer Partners. Protesters were upset that ETP waited 10 days before reporting that they discovered stone cairns and other Native American artifacts in the area. The company diverted construction by 50 feet after the discovery.

Big turnout

Crary arrived at the camp after Wednesday’s confrontation. He had been told 300 clergy would participate in the protest, but more than 500 showed up. He said he was overwhelmed when he rounded a curve and saw hundreds of tents, teepees and other structures. As he walked into the sprawling camp, there was a road lined by flags of countless tribal nations.

The camp was so spread out, Crary said he couldn’t begin to guess how many people were there.

“The spirit of the place was infectious,” he said. “People were thanking all of us for coming. There was a feeling of community that I can’t recall ever feeling before.”

He said there were different neighborhoods of tents and in the heart of the camp was a sacred fire that is fed constantly.

On Thursday, 524 clergy gathered around the sacred fire and burned copies of the Doctrine of Discovery, a series of religious documents that gave Christian explorers the right to lay claim to lands they discovered for their monarchs. It also gave them the right to enslave or kill the “pagan” inhabitants if they didn’t convert to Christianity.

During the burning ceremony, Christians, Jews and Muslims wore red, which in the Episcopal Church means “witness,” Crary said.

The group then march behind a cross and other religious symbols to the bridge that was burned two weeks ago and they sang Amazing Grace, a Lakota hymn and other songs, Crary said.

On the other side of the bridge was a heavy police presence.

“At one point, I paused and really tried to take it all in and I prayed for everyone on both sides of the bridge,” Crary said.

The “water protectors” are in this for the long haul, Crary said. “They’re preparing for winter. For them, this is a place to live, it’s a way to live.”

Julie Fedorchak, chairwoman of the North Dakota Public Service Commission, said the Standing Rock Sioux declined to participate in 30 hours of public hearings on the pipeline before it was approved. They didn’t speak out at all during a 13-month review process and during a hearing 45 minutes from where the protesters are now camping.

Crary doesn’t know the truth of those statements, but he said he wouldn’t be surprised if it were true.

The history of the area in question goes back thousands of years because of all of the water, Crary said.

“We were told that the tribes were asked to show the government that one spot where their ancestors were buried and they would try to avoid that area, but that would be like us going to Gettysburg and asking someone where their loved ones died during that battle,” Crary said. “We don’t do that and we hold that land sacred. It’s not about that one spot. It’s about sacred land and sacred water.”

Crary was so moved by his short visit he came away convinced his wife, Stephanie, needs to join the cause with their youngest four sons, who are ages 5 to 16. Their eldest is in college and unable to go.

Thanks to the generosity of his brother and others, Stephanie and the boys will leave Monday.

“I want them to be a part of this renewal and my wife has felt called to go for months,” Crary said.

Kim Smith | 547-9740