I have been following the Dakota Access Pipeline for months now, and have been shocked and angered at the uncalled-for and violent forces used against people who were peaceful, prayerful water protectors. The water cannons, concussion grenades, police dogs, tear gas, and rubber bullets used on human beings for no good reason mirror the civil rights movement of the 1960's. Native Americans tend to be invisible to other Americans because of the lack of, and distortion of, media coverage. I care about the Earth, water, vulnerable peoples, and justice issues, and the ability of faith communities to make a positive change and be a moral voice. I also wanted to continue learning about these intersectional justice issues and the role Christianity had in Indigenous Peoples in this land, to listen to and bring back their stories, and to continue my education about my privilege, in order to become a better educator. I wanted to support them, as did Drew Theological School Professor Heather Elkins, so when this professor proposed that I go for her because she was unable to, I agreed.
Part of my mission was to gather information and make contacts for Prof. Elkins for her upcoming course, "Native American People and Place: Appalachia: ‘This Land is Life to Me'." The other part of my mission was to be a representative of Drew Theological School and express support to the people of Standing Rock and their water protection efforts in standing against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) in North Dakota. More than 10,000 people were present on the last weekend before the blizzard on December 5.
Visiting in September, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preached encouragement to the congregation of St. James' Episcopal Church in nearby Cannon Ball, visited Oseti Sakowin Camp, and recorded an mini-sermon on the importance of standing in solidarity with these historically marginalized people, who have been treated violently by the security forces. Being an outspoken moral voice in a series of letters to South Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple, Bishop Curry said this treatment simply was not acceptable, and was escalating. In affirming that "water is a gift for all God's children," and that "every human being, every person is a child of God," he affirmed the humanity of every Sioux Lakota person, all humans as brothers and sisters, as well as the sacredness of water. This event and these justice issues were the new Selma of the times, according to Bishop Curry, whose very clear, biblically grounded voice unified, motivated, and spoke of solidarity with the Water Protectors of Standing Rock, which had a big impact on me.
As a person who loves the snow, and all things related to it, I am a former Outward Bound Instructor, and am experienced in winter camping and expeditions. I was prepared to camp and was ready to contribute in any way I could to help in the camp community. I ended up with a group of chaplains, who I later found out were called in to support Wes Clark, Jr.'s call for veterans to arrive and act as human shields between the unarmed, nonviolent, peaceful, prayerful water protectors and the National Guard/security forces defending the pipeline's construction.
After sleeping on the floor of St. James' Episcopal Church in Cannon Ball, as we arrived at the camp entrance each day, we were greeted by camp security with a sincere "Good morning! Welcome home." The constant scent of sage burning, sacred to the Lakota people, was a beautiful reminder of the sacred mission and prayerful, peaceful camp, as was the sign at the gate, saying that no alcohol, drugs, or weapons were allowed in.
The around-the-clock burning of the Sacred Fire of Osceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires) was the center of prayer and leadership, noting that seven tribes were present with their tipis there. The sacred fire is also where the microphone was held by the leadership of tribal elders and carefully given to those leading prayers, songs, and for special announcements. I learned that this fire is sacred, ceremonial, ancient, and a place of prayer, entirely different than our "campfires" with marshmallows and ghost stories. Their powerful place of prayer, the Sacred Fire, had near it two buffalo skulls, a statue of a woman, and other sacred objects, with bunches of herbs around the fire. One was free to go up and visit this sacred fire area with respect. We could hear the microphoned voices of praying and singing through most of camp. I grew attached to hearing the Native American singing in the background from where ever I was, the smell of sage burning, both reminders often that this was a peaceful, prayerful camp, and that water is sacred, "Mni Wiconi." This set the tone of the place, but also was a way of teaching the hundreds and thousands people who were not from Indigenous communities these important lessons. In addition, often being addressed as "relative," had seeped in me for the seven days I was there, and started a shift internally. Hopefully our thought process went from "water is a resource to buy and sell" to "water is life, water is sacred, we must protect it," or "Mni Wiconi."
After I got over the "honeymoon" and excitement of being there, it was odd being a guest within a foreign culture on my own soil. Really accepting that took a while, and much humility, and some mistakes of not quite showing respect, before I learned, and am still learning. Checking one's ego, identity, status, sense of entitlement, thinking I had all the answers and they should do it "my way," and especially privilege, as an educated European-descent woman, was a hard lesson to wrap my mind around, but I was slowly getting the hang of it. Another week there, and I would have made more progress. I saw it in the long-timers who had been there for many weeks or months: they had a very different consciousness of relating, respecting and humility about them. This challenged my past involvement with environmental activist efforts and started a change of consciousness internally.
All around me were people working on different projects: putting up tents, directing others, cooking, helping people get to where they needed, bringing supplies in, resupplying snacks at tables, replacing free hot tea at the tea station, bringing donations to certain tents, winterizing, along with giving plenty of hugs. There were other smaller fires around where one could warm oneself and have a snack, and warming tents were available. There were varying types of structures there: tipis, large and small contemporary camping tents, traditional canvas tents, new box tents, yurts, RV's, a growing number of wooden cabins being built, creatively painted buses, and army-style tents. People, allies and Native Americans were helping and giving freely, with no sign of money around: the first sign of something alternative.
Because I was not yet fully qualified to be a trauma chaplain, I ended up serving as chaplain-in-training. I was happy to do anything helpful, and prayed for guidance. While visiting the group "Veterans for Peace" one night at a campfire, a woman asked for help making sandwiches for an emergency meal for people who needed it. Another time, since the van was a valuable resource and water was needed, we drove a van full of 30 empty 10-gallon jugs back to the church and filled them, which worked to our benefit on the trip back to Oceti Sakowin, because the extra weight helped in the newly falling snow, preventing us from sliding off the road like dozens of other cars did. I connected people to resources who needed or asked for them, such as the midwifery tent for a mother who needed formula for her baby. Another person wanted to be connected to the Two Spirit Yurt, the LGBTQ group, where she got support.
Tension was high in the beginning of December due to the eviction notice given by authorities. Tribal elders received a call from the White House saying the Army Corp of Engineers had denied the pipeline construction permit. This announcement brought grand celebration in dancing, singing, and drumming, with allies invited to dance. In another call from the White House, the Rev. John Floberg, Rector of St. James', Cannon Ball, was thanked for his work there in preventing deaths, which could be seen as a definite possibility if the security forces continued escalating. His work has been healing and reconciling, to say the least.
Clergy, especially Episcopal, were involved with days of prayer and action that were extremely important, and church leaders provided the moral voice, guidance, and stood in solidarity with the Lakota Sioux in this snowball of events that hopefully will set the relationships down a new, better, more just path. In this complicated interweaving of events and histories and issues, we will need to keep sorting this out, along with calling out and healing the racism that still exists, by learning new ways of treating each other as children of God.
We will still need to be vigilant and watch the pipeline construction, and stop it, because it is still happening even after the announcement. We need to listen and follow guidance from the tribal elders about how they want us to support them in their ongoing battle with the new administration, unless President Obama makes an executive order permanent. We will still need to work on divestment of the pipeline's funders, and stop investing in old, polluting infrastructure that fuels pollution, oil leaks, and climate change. And we will need to create a new way into the future for our children with clean, green renewable energy sources and conservation, with justice, equity, and opportunity for all peoples. And we still have a lot to learn about living together as brothers and sisters respectfully and in harmony within the same home planet, where we breathe the same air, drink the same water, and are part of the same land.
Peg Crilly is the Assistant for Environment and Sustainability Ministries at Church of the Redeemer in Morristown.