Taking a Stand at Standing Rock

Like millions of other concerned people, I’ve followed the standoff at the Standing Rock Sioux Nation in North Dakota for months. The good people of Standing Rock, including the Dakota, the Lakota and all Sioux, have stood their ground since April, to block the evil 1,170 mile, $3.7 billion Dakota Access Oil Pipeline which will dig through the three-mile-wide Missouri River, potentially poisoning the water for hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people, and desecrating the sacred land of the indigenous people. They’ve built several large camps and a permanent campaign that has gained the support of 200 other tribes.

Thousands have made the journey to the Standing Rock to stand in solidarity. The Obama administration has told the Army Corps not to issue the permit for drilling under the river but the preparations continue. Hundreds of unarmed peaceful people have been arrested in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience. State police and brutal pipeline security guards have attacked the nonviolent people with dogs, mace, tear gas and rubber bullets and consistently lied to the media, blaming the peaceful people for their violence.

Through it all, the Native American people have stood and walked in a steadfast spirit of prayer and nonviolence. Before our eyes, they have demonstrated that rare kind of satyagraha reached by Mahatma Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the finest nonviolent movements in history. In doing so, they have exposed for all the world to see the centuries-old racist war on Native Americans and the equally centuries old war on the earth itself, as well as the power of creative nonviolence when wielded properly.

Last week, a national call to clergy went out. We were summoned to drop everything and get to Standing Rock for a day of prayer and repentance, and a march from the main camp to the bridge where the police and pipeline security officials block the road to the notorious pipeline construction site.

And so I went. More than 600 women and men priests and ministers from various Christian denominations made the journey, along with hundreds of other activists. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life.

Looking out from the plane over the barren prairies of North Dakota, I was startled by the massive bright blue Missouri River. It is much bigger than I realized. From the air, it was so clear to see that, indeed, “Water Is Life,” as the Standing Rock saying teaches. Our plane was packed with church folk and young activists, and so was the Bismarck airport. There was excitement and hope in the air. Solidarity seemed alive and well.

As I drove south under the big blue sky across the rolling brown prairies to the village of Cannon Ball near the Standing Rock camp, the orange sun began to set and the sacred landscape radiated beauty, energy and life. I walked into the packed gymnasium for the evening orientation and nonviolence training, and found a hushed standing room only crowd listening attentively to Father John, the local Episcopal priest who has served here for 25 years, as he explained the scenario for the next day. Several Standing Rock leaders spoke before food and refreshments were offered. It was clear from the get-go that nonviolence was the order of the day.

They call themselves “protectors” not protesters, “pray-ers not disrupters, “peacemakers” not “troublemakers.” It’s that creative nonviolence that has attracted the interest and sympathy of people around the country and the world.

The next morning, I drove to the Oceti Sakowin camp as the sun rose over the mysterious North Dakota landscape. From the hills above the camp, it looked like a sea of tents with the striking exception of the scores of large white tipis sprinkled throughout the camp. It was a sight to behold. The Cannon Ball River ran along one side of the camp and large brown rolling hills circled the entire area in the distance. Here, for the past months, thousands of people have maintained a nonviolent satyagraha campaign to protect the land, the water, and the dignity of the Standing Rock people.

At 7 a.m., as I approached the main gathering place for worship, I noticed the large billboard with the camp rules: “We are protectors. We are peaceful and prayerful. We are nonviolent. ISMS have no place here. We respect the locals. We do not carry weapons. We keep each other accountable.”

There, around the Sacred Fire, several dozen Native women offered morning prayers and then set off for the daily walk to bless the water. Over the next two hours, hundreds of clergy, mainly women and men Episcopal priests, arrived and greeted one another. Over the course of the day, we exchanged stories, shared our feelings and plotted strategies for future solidarity. I was happy to see friends Ann Wright of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus, and Bill McKibben of 350.org.

At 9 a.m., Father John began a liturgy of prayer and repentance, where we formally denounced the ancient “Doctrine of Discovery,” the church document from the 1490s which empowered European authorities to steal the land and resources of indigenous peoples. After silence and prayers, it was burned in the Sacred Fire. Then the march began.

We set out from the camp, by now a thousand of us, well over half in various clerical church attire, with black robes, white collars, and colorful stoles. Most of us carried bright posters that read “Clergy Stand with Standing Rock.”

We walked slowly, mindfully, peacefully down the main road, over the hill, and down toward the bridge, where the police have barricaded the road to prevent people from approaching the actual drilling and construction site of the pipeline. We sang as we walked–“Amazing Grace,” “This little light of mine,” “We are marching in the light of God.” It was one of the greatest, most peaceful marches I have ever experienced in a lifetime of marching for justice and peace.

When we reached the bridge, we gathered together for songs and speeches. A wonderful African American woman minister led us in “The Water Is Wide.” A group of Jewish women sang an inspiring prayer in Hebrew. A young Quaker activist read her congregation’s statement of solidarity. Another Native elder and minister prayed for the pipeline workers, police and security guards, and the coming day when they would join our circle and together we could celebrate creation and the Creator.

In my speech, I thanked the Standing Rock people for their steadfast resistance and exemplary nonviolence, and reflected on Jesus’ connection between nonviolence and oneness with the earth. I recalled his teaching in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the meek; they shall inherit the earth,” and noted that meekness is the biblical word for nonviolence.

Long ago, Jesus connected nonviolence with oneness with the earth, I said. We have forgotten that connection, rejected nonviolence as a way of life, supported the culture of violence, and now are faced with the consequences of systemic violence–the destructive pipeline and catastrophic climate change. But the Standing Rock people are calling us back, I continued. They urge us not just to reject the pipeline, honor their land, and protect our water, but to reclaim our common nonviolence and shared oneness with the earth. They are showing us the way forward, and it’s time for more and more of us to follow their lead.

More songs, speeches and prayers followed, and then everyone exchanged the sign of peace. Bag lunches were offered and people sat down on the tall brown grass to eat, talk and rest after the day’s march.

Later that afternoon, a hundred clergy drove north to Bismarck for another protest at the State Capitol. Fourteen were arrested inside during a sit in, calling for an end to the pipeline and for respect for the native lands and water.

But I stayed back and spent the rest of the day walking through the main camp, meeting and listening to hundreds of people. It was a powerful experience, to encounter so many people who were coming together in this difficult but beautiful campaign.

One young Standing Rock couple with two little children showed me their video from the demonstration the day before, when police and pipeline security officials sprayed the people with tear gas and shot them with rubber bullets. Others told me about the military-style raid on another camp the previous week, which led to the removal of everyone’s meager possessions and the arrest of 140 protectors. The pictures could be from our military maneuvers in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Palestine, Libya and Pakistan. More, this war against the indigenous people and North Dakota landscape is not new: for one thing, hundreds of nuclear weapons have been planted in this sacred ground, ready for takeoff and global destruction.

One Native elder, who was also an ordained UCC minister, reflected with me on the possible outcomes that lay ahead, including the Obama administration’s effort to move the pipeline many miles north. In the medic tent, one young Native physician’s assistant told me stories of previous demonstrations, their care for the marchers and their basic mission—“to keep people alive.”

I visited the artist collective, various kitchens, tents where extra clothes were being collected and given away as needed, and the media tent. In another tent, I came upon the daily nonviolent direct action training, required of every newcomer on the day of their arrival. Some 150 people were being trained in the basics of nonviolence. It was the Civil Rights movement all over again.

Right now, everyone is digging in for the long, cold winter. But as I stood and watched a group building the geodesic dome in the center of the camp, it was clear: they may be cold, but they are on fire.

The next day, I read an editorial in the New York Times calling for the pipeline to be moved far away from Standing Rock. It said in part:

A pipeline may well be the most profitable and efficient way to move a half-million barrels of crude oil a day across the Plains. But in a time of oil gluts and plummeting oil prices, is it worth it? Is it worth the degradation of the environment, the danger to the water, the insult to the heritage of the Sioux?

The law-enforcement response to the largely peaceful Standing Rock impasse has led to grim clashes at protest camps between hundreds of civilians and officers in riot gear. The confrontation cannot help summoning a wretched history. Not far from Standing Rock, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, sacred land was stolen from the Sioux, plundered for gold and other minerals, and then carved into four monumental presidential heads: an American shrine built from a brazen act of defacement.

The Sioux know as well as any of America’s native peoples that justice is a shifting concept, that treaties, laws and promises can wilt under the implacable pressure for mineral extraction. But without re-litigating the history of the North American conquest, perhaps the protesters can achieve their aim to stop or reroute the pipeline.

Perhaps. If the Standing Rock campaign is able to stop or reroute the pipeline, it will do so because of their steadfast nonviolence and the strong movement that has grown up around them. But like every grassroots movement of nonviolence, they need help and are asking for it. Everyone can get involved to help build this movement, support their nonviolence, and reach that good outcome and transformation.

As we continue our solidarity with Standing Rock, we are being summoned to take a new stand in our own lives, to give ourselves to the growing grassroots global movement to stop the destruction of our common sacred land, the poisoning of our shared water and the oppression of the indigenous peoples. One immediate next step is to get involved in the Nov. 15th National Day of Action. Another would be to join the group I work with, www.campaignnonviolence.org.

But Standing Rock is more. It is a sign of our predicament, and a sign of hope. We can continue the legacy of racism, oppression, corporate greed, war, environmental destruction and hasten the worst of catastrophic climate change—or we can all become earth and water protectors, Standing Rock people of nonviolence.

Standing Rock offers a path beyond the stale politics of corporate media, corporate greed, and corporate violence. It demonstrates the best of our humanity. We can all become people of peace, prayer, earth and water, people who care for one another in community, who share our resources with one another, who learn from creation how to live in peace together as the Creator intended.

With the people of Standing Rock, perhaps we can all find new strength to stand up for what is right, for a future in solidarity with Mother Earth and one another, for a new world of nonviolence.

A long cold winter may lie ahead for us all, but if we open our hearts, stand up and join hands, as our sisters and brothers of Standing Rock have done, we too can catch fire.

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John Dear is an American Catholic priest nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. He has been arrested more than 75 times in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience against war, injustice, and nuclear weapons.

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