Last Thursday I had the honor of traveling to the Standing Rock reservation with seven other colleagues from the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church to stand in solidarity with the people of the Standing Rock Sioux. We heard the call for clergy to come from Father John Floberg of the Episcopal Church on Standing Rock, and so we came. When we arrived at the gym for training, I was floored by the sea of clergy from all over the country. They were hoping for 100. Over 500 showed up. Something was happening here. We learned the action we would take the next day, and then we heard from various members of the community who shared their heart with us. The gratitude for our mere presence was overwhelming as one elder shared that she had dreams and visions that we would come, and she knew we would, but she just didn’t when.
The next morning we woke up, donned our various garments identifying as clergy and headed over to Oceti Sakowin Camp. The sun was peaking over the hills, smoke from the fires warming the campers gently graced the crisp air, and peace like I’ve rarely if ever felt- a peace that you might say surpasses understanding- dwelt among it all. We gathered around the sacred fire where we were to meet (500+ people gathering around a fire is no small feat!), and began. Tribal leaders welcomed us, explained a little about the camp, and again expressed their sincerest gratitude for our presence. Then Father John took the microphone and led us through a ceremony wherein we burned the Doctrine of Discovery, followed by each denomination present repudiating it.
After the repudiation, we were smudged (no idea if I’m saying that right), we marched to the bridge which was the scene of some violence a week earlier. Our original plan, which Father John had worked out with authorities in advance, was to cross that bridge and march to the scene of Dakota Access Pipeline work, but when we arrived at the bridge, it became clear that this would not happen. I don’t know why, and I don’t know who’s decision it was, but members of the tribe stood at attention on the other side of the bridge with police vehicles about 50 yards behind them, prohibiting us from crossing. We then gathered in a circle to offer prayers and pass the peace (also no small feat with 500+ people!), and then we were essentially done. We walked back to the camp, and prepared to head home.
As we walked back to the camp, numerous people shook my hand, looked me in the eye and said, “thank you for coming here. It means so much”. It occurred to me then, that though we didn’t “do” much, we did what the tribe needed us to do, which was simply to show up and say “we’re with you.” Sometimes the call is merely to show up. One young man who appeared to have just come from what I can only describe as the front lines, shook my hand and said “thank you, you have no idea how much it means to us that you’re here”. I looked back at him and said, “It’s the least we could do. We’re with you. Stay strong, and don’t get weary”. He said, “I will stay strong. I love my people, and I love this land, and I will die protecting them if I have to.”
At that moment I realized just how much what I feel I can only describe as “White America” does not understand what’s happening here. It may have seemed merely like a nice symbol to burn a 500+ year old document, but the reason we needed to do that is that, like it or not, we are still living into that document today. It’s alive. By decree of the Pope, that document gives us the “right” take lands we have “discovered”. As those machines tear up these sacred lands, which we took from the people of Standing Rock, gave back to them, then took them back again, the Doctrine of Discovery lives. As I looked into that young man’s eyes I realized that this is not a protest against oil; this is battle for national security. These are not protestors; they are soldiers fighting for the very survival and well being of their people. And, friends, as extreme and as uncomfortable as this may sound, we- our “great nation”- are the imperial force literally ploughing our way to further domination of native peoples. This is a reality to which we need to wake up.
But these soldiers I met are not like any soldiers I’ve ever met. They carry no weapons. They are, as the sign outside the camp says, unarmed. They desire that no one or no thing die or be injured. They are there to protect and to pray. And they are met with more familiar soldiers to me; ones with riot gear, guns and pepper spray. And while our president, our media, and our nation focus on an election for our next president, the “Manifest Destiny” we all read in our history books in high school lives in our very midst. And just like 227 years ago when we elected our first president, we, as a nation, don’t seem to care. Every four years we elect a president, and to some degree we put the hope of our nation into the hands of whomever is elected.
What I witnessed on Thursday is that the hope for America is not in Washington and it is not on your ballot. The hope for America is on Standing Rock. On this small reservation straddling the North and South Dakota border, in an area too hard to get to for the media to cover, is a people guided by a sense of peace, community, simplicity, and love. Their idea of being “great” is not rooted in being number one, but in living in communion with each other and the land. Their idea of being “stronger” is not in being some kind powerful savior to the world, but in serving one another and the land. As a Polynesian clergy person said,”I look to my brothers and sisters of Standing Rock, because it is them who have become the moral compass of this country”. While our president, for whom I voted twice, and who vowed to protect the people of Standing Rock paid some lip service but largely remains silent, the people of Standing Rock are fighting not only for themselves, but for what is truly in the best interests of this nation and the world.
In Genesis 2 God breathes the breath of life into Adam, and then gives Adam a job. It is a job that God quickly realizes he cannot do alone, so he makes for him his opposite to share in the work. That is he makes for him someone who is not like him but who has what he doesn’t have to do this important work. And that important work is to “till” and to “keep” this Garden of Life. Another way to translate these words “till” and “keep” is to “serve and protect” the Garden of Life. There in North Dakota stand a band of soldiers wearing badges that read “to serve and protect”, who are not serving and protecting the Garden of Life, but who are serving and protecting machines tearing up the earth to lay down on an oil pipeline. Meanwhile, the people of Standing Rock come unarmed, willing to literally give their lives to serve and protect the Garden of Life. Friends, the hope for this nation about which we are all very afraid, is- just as it often is- in an unsuspecting place. The hope for America is not in Washington nor on your ballot. The hope for America is on Standing Rock.