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."

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.