Reflections from Standing Rock

Over 500 years ago, European governments adopted something called the Doctrine of Discovery: any lands and resources not already ruled by a European Christian monarch automatically became the property of whatever government whose subjects traveled to and occupied the territory. This Doctrine of Discovery is what legitimized the colonization of the Americas and later other lands, and the genocide and enslavement of millions of indigenous peoples. It was also this doctrine that gave various Christian denominations justification for establishing missions all over colonial territories and forcibly converting millions of indigenous peoples to Christianity.

I tell you this history because I want you to understand how profound it was for me to be among the 500 clergy who gathered with elders from many tribes at Standing Rock (in early November 2016) to publicly beg forgiveness for our traditions’ roles in the decimation of Native peoples and their cultures. And I want you to smell the smoke I smelled from the sacred fire the Standing Rock Sioux have kept burning since they established the Oceti Sakowin camp to try and prevent the Dakota Access Pipeline from being routed through their sacred lands, from being laid at all given the horrible risk such a pipeline would pose to the water supply of tens of millions of people down river. I want you feel the catch I felt in my throat as UUA President Rev. Peter Morales participated in burning a copy of the Doctrine of Discovery.

I want you feel the dizzy disbelief I felt at the generosity of these peoples whose entire trajectories my culture has all but annihilated, and my amazement as their grandmothers smudged and blessed me when the purpose of my trip had been to try to support them. I want you feel the rage that burned in the bottom of my stomach as I saw the heaps of personal belongings and sacred objects the police had trashed after they arrested, stripped, numbered on the arm with permanent marker, and left overnight in unheated cells the size of dog kennels several peaceful water protectors. And I want you to feel that rage quadruple as I did when I learned that the pipeline had originally been routed to go through Bismarck, but that it had been rerouted when that city’s mainly white citizenry objected, worried about a leak jeopardizing their water supply, the rage of learning that the governor of North Dakota and his closest friends stand to personally profit from the completed pipeline.

I want you to feel the tension I felt as I walked from camp to the “front line,” where a militarized police force had positioned burned out vehicles and officers in SWAT gear to keep water protectors from even being able to see the destruction the oil company’s construction workers were waging as they dug through sacred lands that include burial and battlegrounds as hallowed to the Lakota and Dakota peoples as Gettysburg or the Alamo are to many of us. I want you feel the sense of unease I felt, the sense of being under a microscope, as a police helicopter and later a small prop plane circled just overhead of us as we clergy confessed and prayed, sang and listened to the stories and urgings of tribal elders.

I want you to feel the great sadness that slowly settled into me, more every hour I was in that place so saturated with over a century of loss and theft and violence, the sadness of knowing that my lifestyle is contributing to the hunger for oil. The sadness I felt as I learned that the police were using that same helicopter and plane along with sound cannons and huge prison yard lights to deprive the water protectors from sleep at night. The sadness that while I got to get back on a plane and fly home to my healthy family and the new home and job that I love, many of these peaceful and strong and admirable people would remain at the camp through the winter, or go back to lives in which simply going grocery shopping can be impossible because racist cashiers routinely refuse to serve Native Americans.

There is so much more of what I saw that I want to share with all of you, but I want to end with what I think is the most important part of my experience at Standing Rock: the sense of the sacred every time I met a water protector. Their grounding in prayer, their profound spiritual maturity left me greatly humbled. Never once did I hear any of them, whether in personal conversation or from a microphone speak with hatred towards the police who have been injuring them, or towards the Americans whose greed for wealth and hunger for oil have forever crippled the natural resources of the continent that they honored for millennia before colonization. Instead, they spoke of their growing concern of this pipeline and a prophecy that foretells great destruction if a “black snake” is allowed to travel from the top to the bottom of north America. And they spoke always of a need for all of us to heal, all of us to repent, all of us to change our ways and live in alignment with the goodness and bounty and beauty of the earth we share.

A water protector I met there named Shoshi reminded me of something I’d forgotten: the word apocalypse literally means “the lifting of the veil” or the time when people begin to see what’s always been in front of them. We know that relying on oil to power our lives is bad for the earth and, as such, bad for us. Our culture has just been working really hard for a really long time to ignore that truth.

May my tiny contribution to supporting indigenous self-determination and supporting the water protectors at Standing Rock, may the contributions of each of us in our own ways, help tip our world into a new age. May the contributions of each of us help tip our world into a new moral revival, where people are valued more than profits, where the health of our planet is valued more than lifestyle convenience, and where love of human diversity is valued more than fear.

Against a band of vivid orange sunset and deep blue sky, the silhouette of a teepee and flags
At least two dozen clergy members, in vestments, representing a number of faith traditions, at Standing Rock