Assemblies of God pastor Tonya White Mountain regularly makes the nearly two-hour drive from her home on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation to Bismarck, North Dakota, the closest place to shop at Walmart and get medical checkups.
During a recent trip, a truck tried to drive her off the road. After her twin sister recounted several incidents of aggression toward Native American drivers and cars with bumper stickers opposing the planned Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL), she realized it might not have been a random case of road rage.
For locals like White Mountain, the contentious pipeline debate isn’t constrained to the protest sites covered on the news. The tension spills over to the roadways, the hair salons, and even the church pews.
“It’s been divisive, plain and simple,” said White Mountain, who has lived on the reservation since 1991 and served for two decades with the tribal housing authority. “Over the years, I thought this whole race issue, this ‘us and them’ attitude, was decreasing. With this whole DAPL business, it has resurfaced with a vengeance.”
The greatest challenge for churches like hers, Good News Assembly of God Church in McLaughlin, South Dakota, is being a faithful witness amid political and racial polarization.
Despite the rush of mostly mainline denominations that rallied alongside Native Americans protesting the pipeline, local Christians are a minority. White Mountain’s small congregation draws about 20 to 40 people to worship in their gray building each Sunday, surrounded by neighbors whose kids mostly “only know Jesus as a swear word.” (Among all Native Americans, about 5 percent identify as born-again.)
“We represent Christ,” said White Mountain, whose brother, Rocky, and sister, Sonya, preceded her as pastors at Good News. “My brother used to say that we are children of God first, and Native Americans second.”
Reporter Kate Shellnutt spoke with her a day after government officials decided to not to permit the proposed pipeline to go through the contested Missouri River site, a development celebrated by tribe leaders as a “historic decision” in their favor.
What is your response to the recent news that permit for the pipeline was denied?
Speaking as a Native American, I have to say that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has never ceded the lands north of the Cannonball River. Those were lands that were “given” to the Standing Rock tribe during the treaty of Fort Laramie. Our tribe never did cede those lands back. They were chipped away at over the years. It’s an issue that for me, personally, I feel strongly about. But being that it’s a personal issue as a Native American, I did not, have not, and will not take a stand behind the pulpit. To me, it’s more of a political issue.
I would hope that this would be the end of it. But I cannot see them giving up this quickly when they’re talking about billions of dollars. The methods that they’ve used this far, being questionable at best, I just don’t see this being the end of it. They were ordered to halt construction months ago, and they continued.
How do you think of this issue differently as a Christian?
My brother, when he was pastoring, addressed the issue of non-discrimination. And what he said was, “It’s not skin; it’s sin.” That has stuck in my mind and my heart ever since then.
… In my travels, I noticed—all over the country—wherever there’s a minority, there’s going to be issues of discrimination. But it’s not really discrimination. It does boil down to the fact that it is the sin nature of human beings. As strongly as I feel about the whole DAPL issue, it does boil down to the fact that we are dealing with a fallen race. Until our Lord returns, there will always be issues that divide.