Reflections on a journey in support of indigenous community action, after church call draws some 500 clergy as “protective witnesses”
Two weeks ago, I woke up in a tent in North Dakota.
At 6 a.m., the only light that visible poured in from across the Missouri River, a set of mega floodlights illuminating the ongoing construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).
Less than a quarter mile away from me, a 70-year-old elder sat near the central fire and coaxed us awake into an amplified microphone that echoed through the fog and across the camp.
“Wake up… wake up! The Black Snake is creeping across the river! Sun Dancers! Pipe carriers, smudge your pipes! Christians, dust off your Bibles! The water is warm. We are here for a purpose!”
By 9 a.m., I was gathered alongside over 500 clergy from across the United States, representing over 20 different faith traditions. Surrounding us and continuing their day of work, recuperation, and prayer, people at the camp numbered in the thousands.
We circled around the fire in our sacred clothing—robes, stoles, albs, protest-prayer signs—and observed, as representatives of our faith traditions stood alongside several indigenous elders from the #NoDAPL camp. Each of the represented traditions had repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery in their denominations, and read aloud from those repudiations into the microphone ringing over the camp. (Written by Pope Alexander VI in 1493, the Doctrine of Discovery formalized into writing a set of patterns of domination that became the basis by which European monarchies claimed lands and resources of indigenous peoples. Ultimately, land was deemed “unoccupied” if it was not settled by Christians. The doctrine has been cited in court decisions as recently as 2005.)
After their statements, a copy of the Doctrine in the original Latin was given to the elders, and then burned in an abalone shell among the ring of people near the central fire.
Each of the 500 of us were smudged with sage by local community leaders as we made our way along the road to Backwater Bridge where police waited, in long lines inside cars, and watched us from roads and hilltops. The bridge was the location where, one week prior, 141 indigenous and ally Water Protectors were arrested by militarized police in riot gear.
We wept, we raged, we prayed, we sang as police helicopters flew overhead, snipers watched from hillsides, and the Missouri River wound its way over the horizon.
“Wade in the water!” we sang, each of us holding the other. “God’s gonna trouble the water!”
It was only one week prior to that moment that Father John Floberg—a man who has served for 25 years as the supervising priest of the Episcopal churches of Standing Rock—put out an email to several clergy networks, calling upon clergy of all faith traditions to come to North Dakota and serve as “protective witnesses” with the Water Protectors.
He had only expected 100 of us to respond.
Father John was also clear: The actions of we 500 witnesses would reflect on the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies, long after we left. He and the elders who stood beside him asked for four things of all of us: “that you remain prayerful, peaceful, nonviolent, and lawful.” And most of all, that we return to our communities and call upon our people to join this protective resistance.
Standing near the fire in my stole that morning, an elder from the camp approached me and expressed that our presence was a welcome pause in the recent escalations of violence, a chance for the community to regroup. He shared that he hoped we would carry prayers that the community of leaders at Standing Rock maintain their spiritual structure as they are continually battered, instigated, and even infiltrated by DAPL security or police forces. As clergy wandered the camp, police presence was minimized for the day—with fewer helicopters, airplanes, and drones. Some expressed how this was a welcome pause in the ongoing assault of the senses and the spirit.
For others whom I didn’t speak to our presence, I suspect, was complicated, if not painful and enraging—particularly as representatives of religions that have undergirded, if not outright orchestrated, native genocide. Alongside the stories I’ve heard before arriving, I have personally experienced the ways white, non-native visitors occupy space at the microphones, or take up resources without return or regard. As white folks, we have so much work to do to “call each other in” as white people, to unlearn entitlement and domination, and to learn new patterns of relationship that generate life and honor the sovereignty of that life. This shows up in the ways we reach for microphones, to the ways we use policies to grab resources for profit. This is an urgent task.
It is urgent because Standing Rock is not only a specific struggle in North Dakota—Standing Rock is everywhere we are. It demands of us, particularly as community psychologists: Where do you come from? Whose land do you occupy, whose land do you call home? Who were your people? And who are your people now? Perhaps, in the time of Trump, we might add: What life and whose life experience have you disregarded, and what are your relational obligations for restoration?
It’s personal, it’s communal, it’s ecological, it’s economic, it’s political, it’s ancestral, and it is work that requires us to be where we are, right now. Be with one another, right now. Practice accountable relationship, particularly with the indigenous communities where we live, right now. Not as a task to complete, but as vocation—as in vocare, that sacred call—that we are responsive to for the rest of our lives.
As a community psychologist and a theologian, I understand that our role is to make visible that web of relationships and issues that connects each to all, such that this sacred web becomes actionable and our role within it becomes strategic, intentional, resilient, and restorative.
Will we take up our role?
What is needed at Standing Rock: Please visit their websites to know what they are asking for. They need ongoing financial support as they prepare for winter (portable restrooms and trash services alone cost $1,500 per day), advocacy/direct action at local, state, national, and corporate levels, and bodies—especially humble bodies capable of listening and learning, with offerings for healing, feeding, building, and the ability to be arrested.
What is needed everywhere: knowing whose land we are on, honoring the treaties where we are (all treaties made with US government have been broken), anti-racism and public recognition of the positionalities we carry (especially for those of us who hold identities as white settlers, we can turn to national organizations such as SURJ to turn this idea into embodied practice), repatriation of land and resources, funding Indigenous-led movements, a move away from entitlement to deep and humble permission and learning, centering the voices of indigenous community psychologists in our field, and an actionable awareness and reverence of where the sources of our life come from (our food, water, power, people). For more on these ideas, visit the Standing Rock Solidarity Network resources.
As community psychologists in the field, in non-profits, and in academic institutions, we are uniquely positioned to bring embodied awareness to the patterns of “discovery” and colonization that have informed our lives and our field, to learn in community and model the life-generating alternatives, and to put our bodies on the line to bring that alternative into reality.
May we respond to such a sacred and necessary call.
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