Thursday, September 15, 2016

Headed to Standing Rock

Earlier this summer I began hearing about something happening near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. A few people from Standing Rock on horseback were trying to stop the construction of an oil pipeline, the Dakota Access Pipeline, that would cross the Missouri River just upstream of their community. Many were arrested. The next I heard, they had been joined by people from the other six Lakota Sioux tribes, then by the Cheyenne, and then tribal people from across the country started getting in their cars and trucks and driving to the camp on the banks of the Missouri River, the longest river in North America.

Now, in September, there are flags of 300 indigenous nations flying at the Camp of the Sacred Stones, and there are several hundred to several thousand people (depending on the moment), of all races, at three different camps, all gathered in support of nonviolent resistance to the “black snake.”

From the Pacific Northwest the Lummi Totem Pole Journey and the Canoe families came to the camp. The people there say they are not “protestors,” they are water protectors, and they are doing this for all of us. Many faith and environmental communities have joined their voices in support, including Rev. Peter Morales, the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, who called on Unitarian Universalists to support the Standing Rock Sioux.

As I watched videos and talked to people who had been to Standing Rock over the past weeks, I could feel my heart turning toward North Dakota, almost as if a part of me was already traveling there, longing to bear witness to something extraordinary, something never before seen at this scale on this continent or perhaps anywhere, the rising up of so many tribal nations to protect water and land - although all over the world indigenous people have been engaged in this struggle for many years. And the protectors have been clear that they need the support of everyone – that without many witnesses, they could be silenced, just as they have been intimidated and silenced before, for these last 150 years.

Ten days ago I gave a sermon about water, as part of the annual water ceremony that happens in many UU congregations, and I spoke about Standing Rock and showed a video of 13 year old Tokata Iron Eyes, talking about why she was there as a water protector. I said then that I felt I needed to be in North Dakota, and afterward people came up to me and said, “I want to be there too. Let me know if you go.”

But how could I go? I just began a new ministerial position at Quimper UU in Port Townsend, Washington, and it seemed crazy to just pick up and go to North Dakota. I have sermons to write, committee meetings to attend. But I kept thinking of the UUs in 1965 who heard the call from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Selma, and how many of them, certainly many of the ministers, had responsibilities that could have kept them home: sermons to give, committees to attend. And yet, and yet…they got in their cars, got on airplanes, got on trains to travel to Selma to support those who were struggling nonviolently for basic civil rights, against enormous odds and overwhelming police presence, threats, and brutality.

How is this different? In North Dakota there are people who have also been oppressed for generations, rising up courageously, facing their own fear for the sake of their culture and community and for the rest of us, and calling for people of conscience to join them. And native people from the Northwest and around the country have answered that call. How can I not?

Then one night last week I watched this beautiful music video, All Nations Rise, and I watched it again and again, and with each repetition I felt more that I needed to go. But how? When? I realized that I had a few days this week that I had planned to take as time away. I could take the train and rent a car in Minot, ND. I looked at schedules and wondered if I had the audacity to do this. I participated in a prayer vigil for Standing Rock and blessed others who were going. I knew I could go on my own, but that didn’t feel quite right. What to do?

On Monday the 12th, I started putting the word out that I was “seriously thinking” of going to Standing Rock, first to the people who had come up to me after my sermon, then to the UU ministers’ listserves and Facebook pages, then to the Native Peoples Connections Action Group, and lo and behold, there were people who wanted to come, with virtually no notice: first Carl Allen from Quimper UU, then Rev. Dennis Reynolds from Whidbey Island, then Share DeWees and Ethan Walat from Quimper UU, then, on the morning of our departure, yesterday the 14th of September, Paula Schmidt. With some trepidation, on Tuesday I talked with my senior minister, Rev. Bruce Bode, about my crazy, last minute idea, and he said, “Go. It is part of your call and it will benefit this congregation too.” I was touched by his support.

So there are six of us traveling together by train. As I write these words, the train is traveling across the prairie in Eastern Montana, and this small collection of committed souls, most of whom did not know each other before yesterday afternoon, are becoming a traveling community. It has the feeling of a pilgrimage, and it seems that each person in their own way feels that this journey is significant spiritually and personally as well as politically.

Carl Allen is in his early 70s, a UU for more than 30 years, and a retired engineer from the Washington ferry system. He is a father to four and a grandfather to eight. Two years ago he and a childhood friend spent seven weeks on the Missouri River, traveling more than 2,000 miles by pontoon boat from Fort Benton, Montana to St. Louis. They traveled past the place where the oil pipeline would cross, if the water protectors are not successful. They saw the flares from hundreds of gas wells, and the nightmare of oil and gas boom towns, side by side with “sacred places” along the river.

Carl was the first person to come up to me after my water sermon and say he was ready to go to Standing Rock. “Give me a half hour’s notice and I’ll be ready,” he said. For him, traveling to Standing Rock is about “this beautiful river,” giving back to those who are protecting it, and showing his grandchildren what it means to live by one’s conscience and to act for future generations.

Dennis Reynolds is the minister of the UU Congregation of Whidbey Island, and like me, a former intern minister at Quimper UU. Dennis saw my “call” to the Pacific Northwest ministers and emailed me right away. “I need to dream on it,” he wrote. “I’ll let you know in the morning.” Happily, his dreams led him to say yes. When asked why he chose to drop everything to go to Standing Rock, he said, “As ministers and UUs, we are called to walk our talk. I can’t stand in the pulpit and ask the congregation to live their principles and values if I’m not willing to do that myself.”

Share DeWees is a UU and Buddhist “in process.” She found UU later in life, in her 50’s, after being raised Episcopalian and spending much of her adulthood as an evangelical Christian She and her husband recently moved to Port Townsend. She, too, began thinking about going to Standing Rock after  following the stories out of North Dakota. When she heard I was going, it took her “about 30 seconds” to decide to join. She is journeying to North Dakota because, she says, “If we don’t start standing up, where does it end?” and also from a sense that “something deeply spiritual is happening there..something profound that could be a real game-changer.”

Ethan Walat heard of the trip less than 24 hours before we left, and immediately said he would like to go to Standing Rock with us. Ethan, in his twenties, is the son of Jean Walat and Gail Bernhard, both members of Quimper UU. He has been in Port Townsend since he was eleven, and was part of Quimper OWL and youth groups. Why is he going to Standing Rock? “Someone’s got to do this. I’m tired of talking about all these things but not doing anything, sitting on the sidelines. I want to be an ally. People like me, young white males who benefit from the power structure, need to stand with marginalized people.” Ethan feels that the real energy is not in the mainstream, but rather in the alternative forms of consciousness and culture that can be seen arising everywhere. “I see what’s happening at Standing Rock as the tip of the spear as far as the revolution goes.”

Paula Schmidt joined us on the day we left. Although she is not a member of Quimper UU or a church-goer, she has been waiting for an opportunity to go to Standing Rock for “weeks and weeks.” When she heard, on the morning of the day we were leaving, that there was a group going from Quimper UU, she called the QUUF office and got my number, even though she didn’t think we would let her join us. She was delighted to found out, hours before we were driving to the ferry, that she was indeed welcome.

Paula recently moved to the Northwest from Montrose, Pennsylvania, from the heart of the area that has been devastated by fracking. In Pennsylvania, she said, people tried to stop the fracking, but it was highly contentious – “most people were for it because they thought it would benefit them financially – and then so many ended up with pollution, damaged water sources, and destroyed farms.” But at Standing Rock, “the number of people involved is amazing. We couldn’t stop it in Pennsylvania, but I think it could be stopped this time.”

Soon we will be arriving in Minot, North Dakota, and after a night there we will be driving south to the Camp of the Sacred Stones. We are in contact with Karen VanFossan, the minister at the Bismarck Mandan UU congregation, since they have been bringing in supplies and will know more on the ground. A UU from the Edmonds, Washington, congregation, Carlo Voli, was arrested Tuesday after chaining himself to construction equipment to stop construction, and we hope to be of support to him in some way.

More to come. I'll leave you with this image of a North Dakota plains sunset.


  1. Hello Florence -

    I am a writer who often works for the UU World. I would like to talk to you about your activities at Standing Rock. Please get in touch with me at or 323-441-9654

  2. Dear Florence, Thank you for your article. You're making it even harder not to go. (Will you be at SZBA, might you give a report?)

  3. Thank you for your time and effort. May ancestral spirits guide you on your way. Janise Rennie, DRE UUSLO CA

  4. Thank you for your time and effort. May ancestral spirits guide you on your way. Janise Rennie, DRE UUSLO CA

  5. Dear Florence, Ethan, Carl, Dennis, Share and Paula,

    You are in my heart, my thoughts and prayers every second. I so wanted to join you, but need to take some time before exposing myself to diesel again, and I need time to just breathe or will end up back in the hospital. But I am a mouse in Ethan's pocket!

    You are touching a true moment in history. The gathering of the tribes from several continents and countries. The opening to be true allies with those our ancestors tried to annihilate is so precious. Being welcome to protect water – what we and all life is made from. This is a threshold action for the future of our species and many other life forms on this planet. You are the verbs and we are all those other bits and pieces that create the dialogue, the story.

    It is with deep gratitude to all of you who said yes and put your lives on hold for this important mission. I love you deeply.

    Thank you. Julia Cochrane

  6. Dear Florence,
    I am really moved to hear of this wonderful action.
    With you all in spirit from a long way away.,