Friday, November 04, 2016
Oct. 27th is my wedding anniversary. My wife and I had been trying to make plans to do some things together, but we just couldn't get anything to work. So we planned on going out the next day to celebrate. However, on Oct. 27th of this year, two events converged. #1: 7 men who had engaged in an armed occupation of the Malhuer Wildlife Refuge in Oregon had been acquitted of conspiracy to impede federal officers and possession of firearms in a federal facility. #2: Protesters of the Dakota Access Pipeline tear gassed, pepper sprayed, shot with "less-than-lethal" ammunition, and arrested while they took direct action that was mostly peaceful until law enforcement officers were ordered to clear an advanced protest camp just north of the the main camp called "Oceti Sakowin."
This news angered and disgusted me, but then on that next morning, I got a text from my good friend Ben Morris (read his story here)asking if there was anyone who would like to go or support going to the Standing Rock Reservation. I felt as if my only answer to that question could be, "Yes, I can go. I can help make this happen." I spent the next two days preparing to head to Standing Rock trying to make sure that this guy who hardly ever sleeps on ground let alone outside would have everything he needed to go to North Dakota and stand with Standing Rock and the Water Protectors. But here I want to stop you from thinking that this post is all about me. Rather this post is about the struggle that roused me from my comfortable life and about the people, the story, the prayer, and the land that I witnessed.
Much can be said about what is going on at the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) protest, but it is first and foremost an event that is mainly about Native American sovereignty and their and all indigenous people struggles with colonialism that have occurred throughout the past 500 years. For too long Native voices have gone unheard and unheeded. For too long have they been the victims of colonialism, oppression, and genocide. For too long have they been lied to. For too long have promises been broken again and again.
This past summer the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America passed a statement as a churchwide body repudiating the idea contained in the Doctrine of Discovery that Native peoples are heathens and consequently have no rights to the land that they inhabit. This doctrine also goes so far as to say that it is the duty of Europeans to subjugate and bring salvation (in the form of European culture and religion) to these peoples. As a church, we have basically stated that Native Indigenous peoples are to be respected and have full rights under human law. The vestiges of this doctrine can even be seen in the planning of the DAPL. The pipeline was first proposed to cross the Missouri river north of Bismarck, ND, the capital of North Dakota. The plan changed as the concerns of white people in Bismarck were heard, and the pipeline was re-routed to the south but just north of the Standing Rock Reservation. (A map of this can be seen here.) If we feel like Native Indigenous rights are to be protected as a church, this cannot be only a feeling we have about events that have occurred in the past. Native American rights must be held with the highest regard. Native voices must be heard and respected.
From the news reports that I had seen and read, I half expected the main protest camp, Oceti Sakowin much more a buzz with activity. I half expected there to be people chanting and screaming at all times. Instead, what I heard was the regular beating of the drum and the singing of prayers. I heard people chopping firewood. I saw tents struggle against the North Dakota wind, and tipis stand still and firm as people from all across the Sioux Nation and from Native tribes from all across America worked to make this their home even as winter on the North Dakota prairie is surely on its way. The camp was peaceful and quiet, even as planes, helicopters, and drones flew low overhead every 10-15 minutes. The camp was peaceful even as Dakota Access shone bright stadium style lights throughout the night towards the camp. The camp was peaceful even as law enforcement officers kept a constant watchful eye us from the ridge just outside of camp.
The people I met during my time there also amazed me. I am a big white guy, and I consistently feel the weight of my heritage whenever I have the privilege of walking among Native Americans. I know that they know that people who look like me have been the people who have hurt them for hundreds of years. I know that the Christian Church has been a source of much of that hurt for many Native peoples. So to be welcomed and embraced so warmly by people of Standing Rock and people of other tribes while I was wearing my clergy collar was a testament to what this protest is about. It is about life, rights, and the water that gives life. It is meant to be a protest of peace and life.
Whatever else may have been said about the DAPL protest, what I experienced was a people who want to stand strong for their rights and for the water that gives them life. Yet, standing strong to these people does not mean committing act of violence. In fact, people who come to Oceti Sakowin are asked to undergo non-violent direct action training. In participating in this training, we were even told that any kind of assault against law enforcement would be contrary to their goals. One of the signs even reads, "Destruction of property does not lead us to the completion of our goals."
In the end, I feel like I did so little, but I experienced so much. My hope is that there is much good that can come from this protest even if the pipeline isn't stopped. Native voices must be heard, regarded, and respected. No longer can they be the people who we force to deal with our messes. Their backyard is just as important as our backyard.
May the God who hovered over the waters of creation that sprang forth life call us to protect the waters of us all that give us all life in the here and now.