Standing Rock’s Prayful Resistance: a Ray of Light in the Darkest Night

As a lifelong eco-activist in an age of accelerating climate mayhem and cultural comatosity in the face of that existential threat, I’ve had to learn to embrace the darkness. Winter solstice — the longest, coldest night, symbolic of darkness itself — has become my high holy day, a celebration of the pagan belief that no matter how cold and dark things get, the warming light will return. This faith is expressed in various culturally appropriated rituals performed at this time of year — such as bringing an ever-green tree in to our homes from the bleakness of a frozen landscape and bathing it in light.

As this winter solstice approaches, I can honestly say that the forces of darkness have never seemed as powerfully ascendant in my life as they do right now. The corporate coup empowered by the Supreme Court’s anointing corporations as people is now culminating, and will be emboldened by the total surveillance, militaristic police state justified by 9/11 and perfected by the neoliberal figurehead, Barack Obama. As I watch CEO-elect Trump appoint his nihilistic cabinet — best exemplified by turning the levers of state-sponsored warfare over to Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson — it is clear to me that what we are witnessing is nothing less than a corporate takeover only dreamed about by the anti-government forces of Ronald Reagan (may his soul keep burning in hell).

Of course, Hillary Clinton paved the way for the Big Oil State Department, adding a fracking division with the stated mission to frack the planet for Corporate America’s profit. So all the whining from the Hillaryites who turned back the Sandernistas is just annoying. As someone who has studied environmental engineering and followed climate science since we first discovered we’d ripped a hole in the ozone layer, I have no doubt that eight more years of neoliberal rule under Fracker-in-Chief Clinton would have sealed the collective fate of all higher life forms on Planet Earth (assuming, of course, Obama has not already done so).

But something funny (peculiar) happened on our way to the killing fields of Armageddon. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, the First Nations drew a line in the tar sands, declared the Earth sacred, and vowed to kill the black snake right there at Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. Hundreds of other Indigenous tribes from around the world heard the call, and miracle of miracles ~ PEOPLE BEGAN LISTENING!

As someone who has been on the front lines of the eco-defense movement here in there northern Rockies for the last two decades, and as someone who has grown increasingly exasperated with the head-against-the-wall tactics of the climate movement, I am here to tell you: something has seriously shifted. And if we know what is good for our Mother, we will never be the same movement again.

That’s the thing about darkness. Just as it begins reaching its maximum intensity, when it feels the most crushing and you can’t even see your own hand, out of nowhere, a light appears. This is the natural law of compensation first pointed out by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Our strength grows out of our weakness. The indignation which arms itself with secret forces does not awaken until we are pricked and stung and sorely assailed” (from the essay “Compensation,” 1841). And Ilya Prigogine’s Nobel-prize winning theory of dissipative structures proved this principle applies to all systems: that chaos increases until it reaches critical mass, at which point a single catalyst can transform the whole system to a much higher level of order.

So what has really changed? What shifted at Standing Rock?

Answering these questions correctly is crucial. If we do not learn the historic lessons of Standing Rock, then we as a movement will be overwhelmed by the forces of darkness that are quickly spreading and fracturing the land, poisoning the waters, snuffing out sea life and blotting out the sun with acrid smoke from the battlefields, burning rainforests and coal-fired power plants that cover the planet.

The first seismic lesson from our elders at Standing Rock: We are PROTECTORS, not protesters. Words have power. How long have my bravely suffering brothers and sisters been tortured in the woods and marginalized by corporate media under the label “protester”? In this day and age, it is not enough to be against something if that dissent overshadows and obscures what it is you stand for.

Whenever we are asked why we oppose something, we must answer the way a politician answers a question — by turning the conversation to what we stand for, not playing along with the polarizing story of opposition. And what is the unifying vision that includes the idea of Water Protectors? It is the re-emergent world view that the Earth is a natural life source, not a natural resource. The age of commodification is at an end! Or, in the words of Lakota elder and 19th Generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe Bundle, N’aca (Chief) Arvol Looking Horse: “We recognize our umbilical connection to Mother Earth and understand that she is the source of life, not a resource to be exploited.”

We will PROTECT our Mother and all her children. We speak for the unborn whose future we are shaping. “Defend the Sacred,” as the call went out from Standing Rock. “We respect and honor our spiritual relationship with the lifeblood of Mother Earth,” says Chief Looking Horse. “One does not sell or contaminate their mother’s blood.” That is why identifying ourselves as ‘protectors’ in this time of unparalleled peril resonates so powerfully with so many people around the world. Because that is the kind of fierce activism that is called for by our collective circumstance.

Protesters, by contrast, have been marginalized by corporate media and corporate politicians as “just another special interest.” While it is true that the Big Green NGOs have acted out the role of the pigs in Animal Farm*, at the grassroots level, we have always known that we are not a special interest. We’re Earth Protectors. Our interest is common and natural.

But how’s that been working out for us? Speaking for the common interest has not exactly won the day against the forces of avarice and greed, has it? Something has been missing all along in the environmental movement, from Earth Day forward — something that has prevented us from winning the hearts and minds of average Americans living normal lives in the corporate matrix. I can’t begin to tell you how many times over the years I’ve been privy to conversations around this issue. It can be summed up thusly: “What did the civil rights movement have that we do not?” And I can now say unequivocally that the usual answer was the wrong answer: “We just need a charismatic figurehead like Dr. Martin Luther King.”

The answer to this vexing question now stares us in the face, but I’m afraid most of those in the climate movement are still not ready to return that steady gaze. In fact, I’ve already seen essays from thoughtful leaders in our movement that attempt to appropriate the success of Standing Rock while simultaneously ripping out its beating heart: the power of prayer.

But guess what? You can’t become a protector of something that is sacred in a way that actually connects with all who hear and see your efforts unless you are willing to express that deep connection in an authentic way. Otherwise, you will continue to be relegated to permitted protests on the margins of society.

Prayer is powerful. Can you imagine the civil rights movement succeeding without the strength that came from Black people praying together? Does anyone who closely followed Standing Rock believe it would’ve succeeded without prayer? Or without keeping the children who started it all close to heart while continuing to listen to the elders? Can we even relate anymore to a culture that is motivated to act for their children’s future and listens to their elders?

But the prayerful power emanating from Standing Rock isn’t about religion. Instead, it’s about expressing a spiritual worldview that recognizes the inner- and inter-connectivity of people and the planet, human nature and the natural world. It’s about having the conversation Pope Francis calls for in L’adauto Si, about “what it means to be human.” This spiritual worldview may be common to all religions, but it belongs to none — it pre-dates religion, in fact, and is still embodied in the first peoples of the world, as well as our own pagan roots, reflected in the rituals of this solstice season. For centuries, we’ve made the mistake in the West of thinking religion and spirituality were somehow opposed, that you had to choose one or the other.

This radically subversive “ensouled” world view has been culturally drummed out of us, because it is anathema to the consumerism that fuels corporate domination of the world as resource, not life-source. We even have a cynical, smugly dismissive term for this natural human urge to connect spiritually with one another through nature: kumbaya.

I can speak from experience in telling you that cynicism is no substitute for activism — and we are all being called by Earth to become climate activists now. But how we choose to engage is more important than if we choose to engage. As climate author Charles Eisenstein points out, “If this planet and our civilization [are] to heal, it cannot be through winning a contest of force … [B]y entering into war mentality we strengthen the field of war, including the reduction and domination of nature.”

Another political observer who appreciates the historic significance of what just happened at Standing Rock, Richard Moser sums up the reasoning underlying this social imperative to be prayerful in our activism quite nicely:

In a world hungry for spiritual sustenance, the fusion of politics and the sacred has already touched millions. Like most white people, I know little of native beliefs. But the straightforward reverence for nature — a theme common to many indigenous cultures — is a universal truth that appeals to the whole person and to people around the whole world.

Even the veterans showed up (unarmed) at Standing Rock, including Indigenous Member of Congress, Tulsi Gabbards of Hawaii, which forced President Obama’s hand politically. And each of the 25,000 men, women and children that were standing as one, united by prayer, when the Army Corp of Engineers backed down at Standing Rock would agree that happened there on the frigid, blizzard-swept banks of the Missouri River was just the beginning of something much larger than stopping a pipeline in its tracks. That is their prayer, still carrying on the wind and on the water across Turtle Island and around the Earth, falling on our privileged ears.

Will we heed their call? Can we answer their prayers with powerful prayers of our own? That is the question I will be pondering on the darkest, longest night this year, as I light a candle at sunset and keep it burning till sunrise. I’m not afraid of the dark, and I’m not afraid of Donald Trump. I love my Mother, and I’m willing to die for her. If enough of us feel the same way, we can turn back the night.


*”Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

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Zhiwa (Tom) Woodbury is the Program Coordinator for WildLands Defense, editor/columnist for Immanence: The Journal of Applied Mythology, Legend & Folklore, and author of the soon-to-be-published book, Climate Grief: Making Sense of Climate Chaos. He blogs at Planetary Hospice.

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