In December 2016, I responded to an invitation from Chief Arvol Looking Horse, 19th Generation Keeper of White Buffalo Calf Pipe Bundle, Spiritual Leader of the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota Nations, to travel to Oceti Sakowin Camp of the Standing Rock Reservation, on the banks of the Missouri river in North Dakota. The invitation, to clergy across the United States, was to “Pray with Us.”
“We are asking the religious people to come and support our youth, to stand side by side with them, because they are standing in prayer. If you can find it in your heart, pray with them and stand beside them. The police department and National Guard would listen to each and every one of you.”
It was a critical moment in the resistance movement to end construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline through indigenous lands. The previous month over 500 clergy – including over 50 Unitarian Universalist clergy – answered the call to come to Standing Rock. Despite evacuation orders, many campers refused to disperse. Police and National Guard troops surrounded them with munitions, including water cannons. Some campers were arrested or injured.
The invitation continued: “The hearts of all people’s faiths must now unite in believing we can change the path we are now on. We, from heart of Turtle Island, have a great message for the world to unite for our children’s future. Already we have witnessed many nations of life are now dying because of contamination: those that swim, those that crawl, those that fly, the plant nation, the four legged, and now the two legged. This is a very serious time we are in. I know in my heart there are millions of people that feel this is long overdue. It is time that all of us become leaders to help protect the sacred upon Mother Earth. She is the source of life and not a resource. In a Sacred Hoop of Life, where there is no ending and no beginning.”
The clergy responded to this appeal, and so did others, including thousands of U.S. Veterans, who began arriving by the busloads the Sunday morning I arrived at the camp. They mobilized, and deployed, to serve as “human shields” between the self-identified “water protectors” and the police and National Guard.
As both a clergyman and a U.S. Veteran, I thought I had shown up at the right place, at the right time. I stayed the morning, joined the prayer vigil, and left camp that afternoon.
The next day, some of the Indigenous People conducted a “forgiveness ceremony” with U.S. Veterans, giving the veterans an opportunity to atone for military actions conducted against Natives throughout history. Observers of the ceremony described it as “a historically symbolic gesture forgiving centuries of oppression against Natives and honoring their partnership in defending the land from the Dakota Access Pipeline.”
My reading, and re-reading, of our Common Read Indigenous People’s History of the United States, has challenged me to reflect on the whole Standing Rock episode in a larger historical context. Our denomination, and many other religious people as well as Veterans, showed up with the best intentions. We meant well, but the outcomes were not what we had hoped to achieve.
I am left wondering: What happened? Why did it happen? What ought to have happened? What we should do next? I invite you to consider these questions with me in the month of March.
See you on Sunday.