Several people I know have made the journey to Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, where thousands of Native Americans and their allies have been prayerfully endeavoring to protect the Missouri River from the dangers posed by the installation of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). From afar, I’ve been trying to follow news of what is going on there. I’ve found articles and videos from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, and other mainstream media. The reports that have most touched my heart, however, have been videos focusing on the Native people at Standing Rock, and first person accounts by other people of faith who have traveled there, including a member of my Quaker meeting. These stories have helped me piece together a picture of a courageous witness in a time when all of us need to ask: How is God calling me to act on behalf of a hopeful future?
Standing Rock Reservation, December 2016
A Christian theologian named Jonathan Hatch visited Standing Rock over Thanksgiving. In “Doing Theology at Standing Rock” he wrote, “The Oceti Sakowin camp is specifically a camp of prayer and ceremony. Life is rigorous and disciplined (you’re wakened at 6am), as well as incredibly peaceful. That’s important to stress- the spirit of peace in the camp is overwhelming.” His blog post explains the rules of the camp and tells how he was asked to spend time picking up trash. A humbling task, but necessary to help keep the place sanitary for the 4,000 people then living there. He reflects that, “American Christians have talked endlessly about how they want to ‘be like Jesus’. It’s central to their very self-identity. But again, conveniently, they make themselves the final arbiters of what it means to ‘be like Jesus’. But in this Advent season, as we prepare for the coming of the ‘Light of the World’, I can think of no better example of what it means to ‘be like Christ’ than to do what Christ did: … “emptied himself, by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature. He humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death —even death on a cross….” (Philipians 2:7-8).
In late November, John Bergan, associate pastor at a Mennonite Church, served as an observer. In his first-hand report from Standing Rock, he tells that he witnessed “police breaking ribs at peaceful sit-ins, repeatedly strip-searching young women, throwing elders in dog cages, destroying sacred ceremonial items (including peeing on them), dragging indigenous young people from cars, and denying medical care or needed medicine after protectors were teargassed and beaten.” He believes that “the military forces protecting DAPL intend to destroy this movement by any means necessary.” He describes a night of violence against peaceful protestors who were removing a burned-out truck from a blockade. 300 people were injured, by rubber bullets, pepper spray, tear gas, and a cannon that doused them with water on a freezing night. He believes the viciousness of the violence toward these peaceful protestors is related to “the ongoing destruction of native communities by extractive industries and state military forces around the world. It comes from a system that many of us remain complicit in, still unlearning a colonial mindset….” He urges education, prayer, and action: “We need to pray with our hearts, with our hands, and with our bodies. We live in transformative times which demand deep, grounded commitment.”
The Lakota Sioux at Standing Rock have been joined by members of hundreds of other tribes. They see themselves not as protestors but as defenders of the waters; they and their allies have been calling themselves Water Protectors, and their nonviolent movement is fueled by prayer and love. Mennonite Tim Nafziger, was a delegate from Christian Peacemaker Teams during a week at Standing Rock. In “Indigenous Peoples Solidarity”, he describes preparations for an action he participated in: “I was crowded with more than 100 other water protectors into a large geodesic dome in the center of Oceti with our body heat and a stove warming us from the freezing temperatures outside. … After an opening prayer, one of the indigenous organizers began to speak. His voice rose and fell as he challenged us to ground ourselves and let go of all hate towards the police and recognize them as people who were lost and in need of healing. He talked about how mother earth grieves as she watches us hate each other.”
The Native and Non-Native Water Protectors at Standing Rock have shown that there is a rising spirit of nonviolent, courageous resistance against the oppression of people and the earth. They give hope that transformation is possible. In early December, a group called Veterans Stand for Standing Rock planned for 2,000 US military vets from all branches of the US military to go offer a nonviolent defense of the demonstrators. A Quaker I know was part of a team of military chaplains who accompanied them. He reported that more than 4,000 vets actually showed up.
500 of these vets participated in a ceremony in which they asked forgiveness from the Native Americans for past actions of the US military. A statement was read by Wes Clark, Jr. acknowledging the long-time role of the US military in oppression of Native peoples: “Many of us, me particularly, are from the units that have hurt you over the many years. We came. We fought you. We took your land. We signed treaties that we broke. We stole minerals from your sacred hills. We blasted the faces of our presidents onto your sacred mountain. Then we took still more land and then we took your children and then we tried to…eliminate your language that God gave you, and the Creator gave you. We didn’t respect you, we polluted your Earth, we’ve hurt you in so many ways but we’ve come to say that we are sorry. We are at your service and we beg for your forgiveness.” Lakota elders including Leonard Crow Dog, Faith Spotted Eagle, and Ivan Looking Dog (also a US military veteran) offered forgiveness. A Huffington Post article shows moving photos and videos of the ceremony.
For a delegation of Quakers from New England, the witness in Standing Rock revealed both the great dangers that lie ahead related to climate change and the bold faithfulness that is being called forth: “Once again we are invited, through faithfulness, to the quiet yet profound voice of Truth that whispers in our hearts and gives us courage and power to walk boldly in uncertain times. When we give ourselves over to it, we know we too can enter into this Kingdom where our hearts are clarified in purpose, where we cling less to the illusory safety of our culture, where we feel more closely the security and Love of God.”
The dangers the Dakota Access Pipeline poses to the Missouri River and the land around it are real. On December 12, a break in a pipeline just 150 miles from Standing Rock spilled 176,000 gallons of crude into a creek, contaminating it for at least six miles. The video, “Standing Rock – The Whole World is Watching,” states that there are, on average, 560 serious pipeline leaks every year.
In a press release issued on December 7, Native leaders at Standing Rock Reservation warned of arctic winter weather conditions. (For more info, go to www.ocetisakowincamp.org.) They asked everyone to leave the camp now who is not prepared to work very hard every day to survive under such conditions.
The Lakota/Nakota/Dakota people of The Great Sioux Nation have survived in these conditions for thousands of years. If Ally Protectors cooperate with the ancient wisdom and ways of these lands, we will fare well. This movement is unlike any other—it is prayerful as well as peaceful—the consciousness we have raised here continues to resonate across the world. … Oceti Sakowin Camp remains determined—to protect our land. We have been given the obligation to do so in the treaty of 1851—we were specifically asked to protect this river. This is the way of the Standing Rock people, the Lakota people, the Hunkpapa people. All of the seven tribes of The Great Sioux Nation have gathered here again in an historic way—once as former enemies, we now stand together as brothers and sisters.
Sarah van Gelder, editor of Yes! Magazine traveled across the country to visit many places where people are uniting to advocate for health and safety. In the winter 2017 issue, she writes that this coming together as crucial to a hopeful future: “The solidarity at Standing Rock is key to local power going big. The forces that would extract the last barrel of oil, frack the last rock formation, or put at risk the water supply of millions are powerful ones. And only together can communities overcome that power and create the conditions for the regeneration of life. Only together can they weather the damage already done, and support one another in preventing more destruction.”
Awareness, education, organization, and spiritual power are needed for people to join together in hope and effective action. Where I live, a group of neighbors of diverse age, race, religious denomination, and sexual orientation has gathered to consider how we can work together for good. Six of us attended a recent training sponsored by local Quakers and The New Sanctuary Movement, an interfaith group. We saw a short news video about how Denver Quaker Meeting has provided sanctuary to a mother of two young children who is facing deportation.
Quaker author and activist Eileen Flanagan writes, “In this time of tumult, fear, and hatred, the world needs the gifts that you were born to share. You may not be sure where to use them. You may not know how to use them to greatest effect, or even if you can make a difference at all, but you know you need to do something to work for a more just and loving world. You are not alone!” She’s offering a five-week online course starting January 2nd entitled “We Were Made For This Moment.” Each lesson of the course will blend three kinds of teaching: social change theory, spiritual discernment, and personal empowerment, to integrate “hearts, minds, and spirits for the work of creating a more just and sustainable world.”
Standing in Hope: Do you find inspiration or hope from the witness of the Water Protectors at Standing Rock? How are you being called to act, or to prepare to act?
* * * * *
Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey, by Marcelle Martin, is available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook. The book was designed to be a resource for both individuals and groups to explore their own experiences of ten elements of the Quaker spiritual journey of faithfulness. It is also available from QuakerBooks.
For information about Marcelle’s upcoming courses and workshops, go to Teaching and Upcoming Workshops.
© 2016 Marcelle Martin