I was so honored to be able to attend the call for clergy at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota in their quest for witness in opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The pipeline has been routed through treaty lands that have sacred meaning and remains from burials and battles, and would be buried under the Missouri River just above the the reservation, putting the Dakota Sioux living there in peril.
This map shows the issues clearly, the pipeline was rerouted from a northern route above Bismarck, ND, because imperiled the water supply of that city. So, as our nation has done for centuries, we allowed people who have little voice or perceived worth, to bear the danger. Look at the neighborhoods where coal power plants, pipelines, railroads and waste is dumped, and you will see neighborhoods and land of discrimination.
When DAPL began bulldozing sacred sites within the treaty boundaries, and the intent to put a crude oil pipeline under the water source for an already impoverished people realized, the Standing Rock Sioux and other tribes, activists and environmentalists swung into action. Their unarmed, non-violent, but admittedly active protests and encampments along the pipeline route were met with violence, vicious dogs, rubber bullets, pepper spray and a sonic cannon. Their pleas for the pipeline to stop were not heard, and they were removed from its path. Amid growing despair, the Elders and religious leaders of the reservation wondered what to do next. It was a moment that had similarities to another call, a bridge in Selma, and now the Backwater bridge in Cannonball, ND.
The call went out on social media in late October for clergy from all denominations to come to Standing Rock as witness to a civil rights and justice action, to acknowledge the right of a people to not have their lives threatened for corporate profit. The tribe Elders and organizer Father John Floberg were expecting around 100 clergy, over 550 answered and came. Over 50 Unitarian Universalists attended, including our President, Peter Morales. Episcopalian Priest Father John Floberg of the reservation’s Diocese, organized and led us in the action of witness. We met at the Water Protectors main camp of around 2000 folks, Oceti Sakowin, circled around their Sacred Fire, and heard a reading of repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery, which is a central tenet to the oppression of native peoples around the world, and tacitly gave permission for a pipeline to endanger indigenous people in place of anyone in power.
Led by representatives of the tribes, the organizing Episcopalian Church, and leaders of the gathered denominations, we then walked to the bridge on the Cannonball river that marks the demilitarized zone between the Water Protectors and the militarized police that removed protestors and camps from the path of the pipeline.
The gathered clergy, Native Americans, and lay people prayed, sang and spoke of solidarity for over 4 hours, ending the action in a Niobrara Circle of Life, a circle of blessing each other, each and every one. We then took time to meet our hosts, help in the camp, and hear stories. I was thanked a number of times, sometimes with tears, for our witness, for giving the camp peace. I thanked them as well, for their sacrifice deeply touched me, they were on the edge of change, and I know I gained much from this encounter. There is a lot of what the protectors of Standing Rock are doing that needs to be done in my corner of Arkansas, and across this nation. I wonder what a true repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery, and our own nation’s Manifest Destiny, might mean to our religion of Unitarian Universalism. I wonder how much of our struggle to be a truly diverse religion is because of the DNA of these doctrines of colonialism in our “soul.” I intend to find out… and I hope you help me by thinking about what you insist is UU, that doesn’t really have to be, and could be a barrier to our diversity.
I shared this greeting with Father John Floberg, to be given to the Elders of camp Oceti Sakowin:
Greetings from Northwest Arkansas, part of the Southern Region of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I bring well wishes and support from my ministerial colleagues in Oklahoma and Arkansas, and from the people in my ministry at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fayetteville, Arkansas. I am here representing these voices, these hands and hearts, who stand in solidarity with the Water Protectors of Standing Rock as we all ask for their sacred lands to be honored and remain unsullied, we ask that the bodies of Native Americans be counted as sacred, full of worth and dignity to be lifted up in equality with all in this Nation, and as a united people who deeply understand that water is life… that we must do everything we can to protect the waters of this land from further harm. We stand with you in this cause, and hope to prevail for the sake of all of our peoples, our children, and our grandchildren. We are one.
So may it be.