New Book from Skinner House, A Fire at the Center, Looks at Dakota Access Pipeline Water Protection Efforts Led by Indigenous Activists Memoir by Rev. Karen Van Fossan Highlights Response by Religious Communities, Challenges Notions of Whiteness

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Suzanne Morse
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Boston, Mass. (October 12, 2023) – In 2016, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe undertook a series of legal and water protection actions to prevent the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline near their reservation. The tribe argued that they were not consulted during the process and that the pipeline, which carries crude oil throughout the Plains and into Illinois, would disturb sacred sites. By Autumn 2016, their efforts touched off a global movement that brought tens of thousands of Native American activists, religious leaders, and others to the region to support the tribe’s efforts to protect their water and their rights.

Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Karen Van Fossan recounts this experience in her new memoir, A Fire at the Center: Solidarity, Whiteness, and Becoming a Water Protector, published by Skinner House Books, the publishing imprint of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Skinner House Books publishes spiritual, religious, and theological books that sit at the intersection of progressive values and life’s biggest questions.

Sandra Bercier, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, and Keeper of the Medicine, highlights the importance of the work that Indigenous activists and leaders undertook in the book’s foreword. “Soon the urgency of the situation compelled people to move closer to the ‘Black Snake,’ the actual pipeline site. The second encampment was called Red Warrior Camp, which evolved into Oceti Sakowin or Seven Council Fires,” she writes. “Everything progressed very fast. It was Creator-driven work, and for many of us it was the only place we could imagine being. We were drawn into a sacred community living in sacred space; by doing so we became protectors of the water, the prairie, our community, and each other.”

Rev. Van Fossan was minister of the Bismarck-Mandan Unitarian Universalist congregation in Bismarck, North Dakota, when the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline began. She is currently the director of Authentic Ministry, based in Fargo, North Dakota. In A Fire at the Center, she not only recounts her own experience as a Water Protector; she examines and challenges notions of whiteness, allyship and accompliceship to work in solidarity with Indigenous communities.

“Today, thanks to Oceti Sakowin Camp, as well as many Water Protector events and reunions that have followed, I have a visceral sense of how and what transformation can feel like. Still, as a white person, I have come to understand that this process is not only about experiencing the great blessings or even the basic human struggles of participation in Indigenous-led, intercultural resistance movements,” Rev. Van Fossan writes.

“In order to bring my own fullness, my own wholeness, to this work of liberation, I need a genuine understanding of the situation at hand, which calls for a genuine understanding of my own culture. Through this process of unfolding, this ever-deepening sense of who I am and who I come from, I believe I can participate with more energy and integrity in decolonizing movements that have nourished my body and my spirit, guiding the course of my life.”

Rev. Van Fossan continues her work as a Water Protector. In 2021, she was one of a number of people who were arrested in protest of the Line 3 Pipeline, which flows crude oil from tar sands in Canada through North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. In addition to concerns about environmental degradation and climate change, Native American tribes in the region, including the Anishinaabe, have expressed concerns about the violation of their treaty rights to the land and waterways because of the pipeline.

“As Unitarian Universalists, we are uniquely accountable to the ethical implications of environmental justice because we have inherited religious wisdom and a tradition that argues for both the inherent worth and dignity of every person and respect for the interdependent web of all existence,” says Rev. Dr. Sofía Betancourt, the UUA’s president. “A Fire at the Center invites UUs and others to understand how we can reimagine our tradition to address the marginalization of oppressed peoples while helping to repair environmental devastation.”

Founded in 1976, Skinner House Books has published hundreds of titles for more than four decades. Major titles include Mira and the Big Story by Laura Alary, illustrated by Sue Todd; Swinging on the Garden Gate: A Memoir of Bisexuality and Spirit by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew; Katha Sagar, Ocean of Stories: Hindu Wisdom for Every Age by Sarah Conover and Abhi Janamanchi, illustrated by Shanthi Chandrasekar; The Stonewall Generation: LGBTQ Elders on Sex, Activism, and Aging by Jane Fleishman; Authentic Selves: Celebrating Trans and Nonbinary People and Their Families, edited by Peggy Gillespie; Trusting Change: Finding Our Way Through Personal and Global Transformation by Karen Hering; and Encounters: Poems about Race, Ethnicity and Identity, edited by Paula Cole Jones. Significant upcoming titles for the imprint also include The Tending Years: Understanding Your Child’s Earliest Rituals by J.L. Shattuck and Through the Lens of Whiteness: Challenging Racialized Imagery in Pop Culture by Diane S. Grimes and Liz Cooney.

Readers can find A Fire at the Center wherever books are available or order it at the inSpirit bookshop. Explore other Skinner House titles online.

About the UUA

The UUA is the central organization for the Unitarian Universalist (UU) religious movement in the United States. Our faith is diverse and inclusive and the UUA’s 1000+ member congregations are committed to Seven Principles that hold closely the worth and dignity of each person as sacred, the need for justice and compassion, the right of conscience, and respect for the interdependent nature of all existence.