Sunday, September 18, 2016

At Standing Rock

We have been camping for two days at the Standing Rock encampments along the bottomlands along the Cannonball River south of Bismarck, North Dakota.

As I write this, sitting in the shade of one of our tents in a huge grassy meadow, I hear horses neighing, hoofbeats, children’s voices in the distance, laughter, the soft rumble of truck engines, and the muffled sound of drums and the PA system at the main gathering place, a quarter of a mile away.

I can see tents and tipis, willow shelters, blue tarps, and horse trailers, and along a hill nearby, the line of more than three hundred tribal flags, a “native United Nations”. Through cottonwood trees, there is a hint of blue: the Missouri River. Six kids bareback on painted horses are walking by, one lying backward on his horse. There are perhaps five or six thousand people here – the numbers fluctuate from day to day, but that’s been the average each weekend, and today is Saturday – but in the midst of the bustle, it seems peaceful.

Yesterday on the way here  we stopped first at the Bismarck Mandan UU congregation and met with the president, Steven Crane, the minister, Karen Van Fossan, and a few others. This small liberal congregation has found itself on the front line of an immense and unprecedented movement.

After visiting the congregation, we drove south in the rain through the soft green prairie hills of North Dakota. The road that leads directly to the encampments and Standing Rock was closed to all but local traffic by the National Guard, but it was easy enough to drive around the detour. There are several camps here: the first camp to form, called the Camp of the Sacred Stones, Rosebud Camp on one side of the Cannonball River, and the largest, Oceti Sakowin, where we are. on the other side of the Cannonball, a tributary to the Missouri.

The folks at the UU congregation had suggested that we go to the largest camp,, since it is the largest and most active. The first sight of the camp, where the road crests the hill, was breathtaking: tipis and tents spread across the low land, kids galloping their horses, and that magnificent corridor of flags.

As we drove down into the camp, the people at the entrance smudged our vehicle with sage. We found a spot out in the meadow, and within a few minutes two people galloped up on horseback: Deedee (one of the medics) and Frank, here to greet us and give us the lay of the land. In the next hour, we were greeted repeatedly and made to feel welcome.

Day and night there are speakers at the main area, near the kitchen, the donations tent, the cooler (a refrigerated trailer) the medic tent, and “command central” – the tent where all the logistics happen.

In the center of a big swept open area is a fire that seems to be always burning, over on one side another fire with huge pots of coffee always brewing, and under a tarp nearby, a large drum ringed by chairs.

Over the last two days we have heard many powerful words and prayers. This is a place of prayer above all else. Every time a new tribal delegation comes in, they introduce themselves and speak to the gathering, often beginning in their native language.

Today the Hopi arrived  after a 30 hour trip (and the Hopi carry such weight and spiritual power that it feels like those last words should all be in caps –TODAY THE HOPI ARRIVED). twenty five Hopi in full regalia, and they spoke of their own struggles to protect their water – the arsenic in the river that is making their kids sick, the wastewater used for making snow for skiing on their sacred peaks, the tram being planned into the Grand Canyon, their creation place, and why they felt compelled to travel here in support of the Standing Rock Sioux.

Here are a few of the words I have heard in the last day.

From a Lakota woman: “I come from Wounded Knee. Someone threatened to kill me for what it is that I say, and I said, ‘Go ahead, my people have already been killed at Wounded Knee. Put me in jail; I’m already gay. There’s nothing you can do to me. But I am peaceful – there is no justice in killing someone else.”

From an elderly Lakota man, “I’m nobody, just a man. But there were over 200 pipe carriers [carriers of the traditional sacred pipes, handed down for generations] here the day of the court decision. One mind, one heart, one prayer. This is a prayer that is going all over the world. What you are praying for is spreading energy all over, for all races, all people.”

From the brother of Arvol Looking Horse, the carrier of the White Buffalo Calf Woman pipe, “We as native people see Mother Earth, and she is suffering. If the prophecies go through, the earth is done.”

From the traditional Standing Rock man who began the first camp with a group of young people, speaking at the place where the pipeline crosses the road and where burial sites were disturbed: “For 97 days we prayed, just a little group of us, while the pipeline got closer, and then people started to come. The water was calling, our prayers were calling, and you heard. ”

And from a very elderly woman, in tears. "I cry for my people. I hope that my people can survive this. I pray that my people will survive."

There are native people from all over the US and Canada, many of them with few resources, traveling here however they can. We met a woman from Iowa who had sold nine puppies from her two dogs to have the money to get here. She showed us pictures of her puppies, and then, in the next photo, a picture of the “poisoned river, full of runoff” near her house. Once here, it is entirely a gift based world. No money changes hands.

But there is also a feeling of something international here: the man from Venezuela who wants someone to come down to his country and tell indigenous people there what is happening here; the ceremony for three native men who died helping the Kurds, young Palestinians pledging their support to Standing Rock.

There are non-Indian activists too, like us, but we are in the minority. Nonetheless, we are welcomed. At one ceremony, where the whole camp was thanking the Hopi, one of us felt that perhaps as non-Indians we shouldn’t participate. A native man nearby said, “No, it’s not like that here. We are in this together. All races are in this together.” One of us was told, "I do not hold you accountable for the actions of your ancestors."

One of the things I want to stress is the tremendous spiritual depth and commitment to nonviolence here. The elders are teaching peace all the time, and a huge sign that could be read from the air reads, “We are peaceful.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t warriors here – there are, men and women, riding their horses at a gallop when needed somewhere  - but they are peaceful protectors, under the watchful eye of powerful spiritual elders.

Well, it’s getting dark, and the drumming is starting up again. More later…

"Until we are all one peoples, we shall never win."


  1. I am learning about prayer in a new way, that it's relational. In relation we will stop the rape of our mother and work for the possibility of future generations. Thank you so much for being there. Julia

  2. Thank you, Florence, for going to Standing Rock, and with your communications, bringing all of us into this struggle. Jean Walat

  3. Sweet Florence, So looking forward to seeing you at the conference in Port Townsend. I'm coming on Friday Sept 30 and staying for Church on Sunday. I'll be staying in Cherri Mann's house. If you have any time Friday would love to have coffee or tea with you and talk about what this all means. I am with ALL that is happening there (adults, children, horses, dogs, the river, the travelers). It gives me goosebumps to understand what this truly means. Unprecedented! Fondly, Beth

  4. Thank you. Helps me understand and maintain a stand to hear your experience.