Call to Standing Rock
Wednesday, November 30, 2016
On October 26th, Father John Floberg, the Episcopal priest in Cannon Ball, ND, put out a call for clergy on behalf of the leaders of the Standing Rock Sioux, to join in a day of witness and solidarity. This invitation followed a very violent clash between water protectors and the police and tribal leaders saw a need for clergy witness. The tribal leaders already had relationships with clergy, including Unitarian Universalist minister, the Rev. Karen Van Fossen, who serves in Bizmarck, and who had become involved since the camps were created last April. The message was clear: we were invited to amplify indigenous voices, and follow their lead. We were being asked to show up for a peaceful, prayerful, non-violent, and lawful action. It didn’t take long for the news to be shared on social media and emails.
Rev. Ashley Horan, and the staff at the Minnesota Unitarian Universalist Social Justice Alliance, played a key role in getting many UUs to the event. Father Floberg had hoped for 100 participants. Over 500 responded. 55 were UUs. About 20 arrived through MUUSJA’s help. They organized vans leaving from Minneapolis, and arranged for housing for those of us not staying in camp. This was huge, and I am so grateful for their coordinating efforts. When we heard the call, Wendy Bartel and I, who serve as co-ministers at the Sierra Foothills congregation in Auburn, CA, thought, “wow, how could we get there?” I considered staying home, and having Wendy go. This seemed practical. We had both just returned from UUMA gatherings where we had a leadership role. Wendy is president of the Pacifica Central chapter, and I am co-chair of the CENTER committee. Our bags were still unpacked. There were needs at home, and in the congregation. Sometimes what ends up being the right choice, is not necessarily practical. Our Board president contacted us, asking, “how can we help you get there?” This was a big step for this small congregation. While we have done a lot in the public sphere, it has often been our choice… and here were the people saying, “go… represent us!”
So, a few reflections on the event itself. Wendy and I flew from Sacramento to Minneapolis, on Tuesday, Nov. 1. After staying with a friend in Minneapolis, we arrived at the UU church at 9:00 on Wednesday morning, to be blessed and sent off from folks there. This was lovely. They offered emotional and spiritual support, plus physical support in the way of sandwiches and hugs. Another vanload had left the day before. We piled into two vans, and began the eight hour drive. Two people per van had already volunteered to drive. (thank you!) The van that I was in sang, shared stories, passed snacks, and got to know one another. We arrived at the very small town of Cannon Ball, ND in time for the orientation. I sat on the floor of the gym, and looked around at all of the clergy plus a few lay leaders who had gathered….some weren’t even sure where they were sleeping that night, but they were there, in faith.
Father Floberg welcomed us. My sense, fairly quickly, was that this was a person who was humble, who had a relationship with the Holy and those he served, and that, in the name of those relationships, was willing to go to the edge what he could know, and invite others to join him. As someone who wants to have everything all figured out… all of the answers clear, this was inspiring. It was a reminder that, especially in times of prophetic ministry, we don’t often get to have all the answers.
The evening included logistics, and also mission, voiced by tribal members, elders, and embodied by the incredible young ones who played and danced around the gym, seemingly oblivious to what was going on, and yet offered so much joy and hope. There was a three year old playing with a balloon for much of the evening, running around the gym…. I will remember them always when I read of the children who are the future of the Standing Rock Sioux. We had an opportunity at the end of this gathering to get into denominational groups…. Not all UUs were there. Some had arrived and couldn’t physically stay for the entire event. Some had not yet arrived. Some had been there for the whole day, and had experienced a violent interaction between Water Protectors and police, where people standing peacefully in the river had been tear gassed and shot with rubber bullets. Our colleagues who witnessed this were particularly impacted. There is a photo of many of the UUs there from that evening, but it doesn’t include all of the 55 who registered. Karen Van Fossen noted that those gathered outnumbered the UU members in North Dakota. She invited all of us to a dinner hosted by their congregation after the action on Wednesday.
The local casinos were full, and so the Wednesday van loads of UUs and rabbis had reservations in Mandan, which would usually be about 15 minutes away but because of road blocks, the drive takes about 45 minutes.
Our van headed to camp Oceti Sakowin early, as we wanted to be there well before the 9:00 action began. It was about 29 degrees, and those who had camped said it was COLD! They had been blessed by songs rising up around camp at the 10:00 lights out… with various groups within the 6-7,000 people at that camp offering a song before falling asleep. They were awoken at about 6:30 by a voice over the loudspeaker, calling, “The Black Snake is coming! They are getting back to work! We need to rise!” This went on for over an hour as people slowly came out of their tents. Those of us who stayed in a motel in Mandan arrived at about 8:00. We gathered around the sacred fire that has been burning since April, and watched and listened as the women elders led the morning water ceremony.
At about 9:00 a.m., the official Clergy Witness event began around the Sacred Fire. This part of camp was not meant to hold more than 500 people. We gathered close… people from camp who had been there for weeks or months and those of us wearing many kinds of clergy garb. There were representatives from the seven denominations which had repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery standing before tribal elders. Fr. Floberg pronounced that there were 524 gathered… one for each year since the Doctrine was written. While these rejections of this document of supremacy had been public, to my knowledge they weren’t done in front of those most impacted. I found myself weeping as they read their statements. UUA President, Peter Morales shared words representing Unitarian Universalism. Each tribal elder was given a copy of the Doctrine, which they chose to burn in an abalone shell, not the Sacred Fire. When this was over, we were invited to make out way out of camp, walking through the rows of flags representing many tribes, and being blessed by people holding bowls of burning sage.
We made our way down the road, with songs from various traditions rising and falling as we walked. At one point, someone started singing Dona Nobis Pacem, and this seemed to touch something familiar within almost all of the 22 denominations gathered. The song continued for a while…. With harmonies and layers of sound as we walked down the road in the rolling North Dakota hills.
We gathered on this side of the bridge where many had been arrested and harmed the week before… this side of a barricade, this side of burned out cars, this side of the river, this side of the pipeline that has created the need for all of us being there in the first place. Many people spoke… there were many words shared. I am grateful for the inspirations and prayers; for the chance to connect and for the space to be. It was also notable when folks hadn’t prepared, they hadn’t remembered that they were there to lift up indigenous voices, but rather chose to amplify their own. Finally we created one single large circle, stretching and curving around the uneven ground. The facilitator began, moving clockwise around the circle of hundreds, offering peace to each person. The circle folded behind him, with the last person joining those who were moving slowly, with connections and greetings being shared along the way. We stood about half way around the circle… it took almost half an hour for the front of the line to reach us. It was beautiful to see… clergy, folks from camp, tribal elders, clasping hands or hugging, sometimes just standing and looking at one another. There were tears, laughter, a few awkward moments, and connections between those who chose to be at this place together. It took another half hour for those in the first half of the circle to make their way past me… so many people. Then, just before I would have joined those who were moving, the circle chose to break for lunch, and folks made their way to the tables of sandwiches and fruit.
Small groups gathered around on the sunny hillside. Some of the UUs sat together, but not all. Some folks were needing to head back to the airport, while others, including me, walked back to camp. This was a chance to see more of what camp was like, and to talk with people there. Wendy and I also had a letter that we had been asked to deliver from our local Nisenan tribe. We were told to bring it to the Sacred Fire, and present it to the fire tender, who would then give it to tribal elders later in the day. Adrean, who was the fire tender that day, had introduced himself in the morning, and had told us all how to approach the fire and how to offer prayers and medicine of tobacco or cedar. We had the letter, and expected that we would just give it to Adrean, but he told us that we should go to the microphone and read it aloud. He assured us that this was how letters of support were presented. It was an honour to share the words of support and solidarity from Council Chair Richard Johnson.
Camp was a busy place. There are elders, children, and many younger adults. Some people prepared meals, others were building winterized dwellings, some were at the art tent making signs and patches. There are trainings offered every day in non-violent resistance.
Some people were sorting through a pile of clothing, sleeping bags and other items that had been bulldozed days before from anther camp. Many items...including cooking gear and computers, had been ruined and were in the dumpsters. Police made arrests and then bulldozed everything. Wild horses graze by the river, and other horses are cared for and ridden around camp. We walked, and talked with several people. Many expressed gratitude for our presence, especially because it meant that there were fewer helicopters and drones. A couple people said that tensions within camp had been rising, and that they felt that our presence brought some ease and peace. Some folks just needed to talk. They had experienced trauma, and were grateful for listening ears. A few people seemed irritated that we were there for a short time only, while still others seemed to just go about their day without caring that there was a clergy action at all.
That evening, many of the UUs drove to the Bismarck-Mandan congregation, where we shared a bounteous potluck dinner, heard from Karen Van Fossen and Peter Morales, and then from a few members of the congregation. Karen shared that when she went there to serve, she had no idea that it would become what felt like the center of the world for a while. Ministry can be like that… we never know what a call will require of us. This congregation is doing beautiful work. They are hoping that through Faithify, that Karen’s ministry can be expanded to full time so that her work for Standing Rock can be compensated. They would like to build a yurt at camp, (a yUUrt) to have a regular UU presence. I don’t know how the latest request from the Army Corps of Engineers to disband the camp will impact this plan. Karen affirmed that the need for ongoing pastoral care is huge… within the camps and within the congregation and community.
There has been another call for clergy and religious people to join in an interfaith day of prayer this coming Sunday, Dec. 4th. Those interested in going need to be self-supporting… have a way to get there, to travel on your own without asking for rides, and arrange for your own warm shelter, winter clothing, and food. During the orientation, we were encouraged to go home and build relationships with the Native people near us. Learn their history and current challenges. Follow their lead. Protect the Earth, her water, her air, her land. The UUs who I have talked with since this event all feel changed by having been there. I am not sure how this is going to impact the future of how we live our faith, but I believe it is already doing so. May it be to live in ways that are more connected, more just, and more loving.