The morning glowed with golden pink light, washing over the hills and rock formations as we drove into the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, specifically the Oceti Camp. Planning our route carefully, having received word that the most direct road into camp had been blocked by law enforcement.
The day began in darkness… back on the road after three short hours of sleep. We drove through complete darkness across North Dakota. But just as we entered the valleys and hills around the reservation, the sun spilled over the edge of the earth and lit up the whole of creation with splashes of glorious gold, creating long shadows and dramatic vistas. From darkness to light, we travelled to a place that was held sacred for generations, and it was very clear why.
Upon approaching our final turn to the Oceti Camp local law enforcement made its presence known, holding a post at the intersection. Rounding one last hill, the camp opened to our right as cars streamed onto the highway, parking on the narrow shoulders of the road. Clergy robing up on the side of the rural highway in the morning light. From every kind of faith tradition, robes, collars, stoles, banners, crosses, cleric hats, tassels, aprons… all streaming into the Oceti camp between the flags lining the entrance. As we walked, a lovely woman yelled, “Thank you for being here! Thank you for coming!” to each and every person as they walked in.
As I prepared and prayed about going, I did a lot of soul searching and a lot of explaining. I recognize that many outside of the American Indian community don’t fully understand or know what is happening at the Standing Rock Reservation. With the boom of oil production in North Dakota, the oil company is laying a pipeline across North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois to move oil with more efficiency.
The problem is that the pipeline is planned to cut across the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and more troubling, directly through sacred lands and camps – places where the tribe has sacred ceremonies. These sacred sites are on the banks of sacred waters. These waters are deeply connected to the spirituality of the Standing Rock Sioux. Worry about the destruction of sacred sites and potential for pollution of sacred waters are the main cause for protest of the pipeline. A protest that has taken the form of a tent/teepee city on the sacred grounds.
In fact, the tribe has not asked for the pipeline not to be built, just not directly through their sacred sites. Here is a map to show exactly what and where things are taking place. (Map from a great article about the clergy gathers at Standing Rock by the Baptist News: https://baptistnews.com/article/clergy-repudiate-doctrine-of-discovery-as-hundreds-support-indigenous-rights-at-standing-rock/#.WBy1X4WcFPa )
With various levels of escalation of tensions between protestors and law enforcement, local Episcopal Priest, Father John Floberg published a request for clergy to come on Thursday, Nov 3 to stand in solidarity with the protestors at Standing Rock who are seeking to protect their sacred spaces.
When this invitation for clergy to come, I immediately knew that I wanted to go… The teachings of Christ compel me to love my neighbor. This teaching of loving our neighbor, is directly related to the parable of the Good Samaritan, found in Luke’s Gospel chapter 10.
To summarize, in this story, Jesus explains that a man is travelling on a road and is overtaken by robbers. The robbers assault the man, take the load he is carrying, and leave him for dead. As time passes, a few men walk by the man lying on the road, men who were from the same community as the injured man, but they walked past. Not wanting to get involved. Finally, a man from a different culture, community, even religion (a Samaritan) walks by the injured man. He stops, attends to the man’s wounds, and walks with him to safety.
I did not go to Standing Rock because I represent the ‘Good Samaritan’ who helped the injured man. I went because I represent the robbers. As a member of clergy, I represent the church. (The church collective, throughout time.) It is easy to say that this struggle has nothing to do with me. That I wasn’t here when this land was settled by Europeans. It’s easy to say that the people on Standing Rock should have worked the system, stopped this thing before it even began. It is easy to say that this isn’t my fight.
And on one hand, it isn’t my fight. This should be, and I am so happy to see that it mostly I,) led by, managed by, organized by, and protected by the local Sioux community. However, this is my fight because this fight is a fight about protecting sacred space. It is also my fight because in the name of Jesus, the one I follow, the church perpetuated the belief that these sacred spaces and the people who valued them were not to be valued.
It was in the name of Manifest Destiny, an idea proposed in the very name of Jesus, that this land was overtaken. It was the belief that God was on the side of the European explorers that led settlers and pioneers for centuries to not only take land from the people already living here, but to destroy and kill those very same people. It was dangerous theology that proved to be devastating for anyone not the ‘side of God.’
It was because the church promoted these beliefs that genocide, exile, banishment, and finally forced assimilation became standard practice. It was the church that came to ‘save’ the ‘heathens’ from their ‘pagan’ beliefs and kidnapped, yes KIDNAPPED!, children and put them in church-run schools (of almost every denomination.) These children were taught how to be ‘good Christians’ through abuse, threat, and isolation. It became illegal to practice their native religions or speak their native languages. And before we think this was ancient history, the practice or forced ‘Indian Boarding Schools’ persisted until the 1978! The year I was born.
The church did this. In the name of Jesus. We took what Jesus intended for good, for healing, for wholeness in this world and distorted it to the point of making abuse. The hurt experienced by Native American communities at the hands of the church is impossible to measure.
Yet this past week, the tribal community, a priest of the people, invited the church to walk in unity against the continued oppression of their people and land.
It is not my sacred land, but it is my job to stand alongside my neighbors, not because the church has been such a good neighbor, but because the church has not been a good neighbor, and yet… we are invited.
It is humbling. It is powerful. It is the call.
When I said, not as a pastor, but as a human, that I would follow Jesus, it meant taking seriously the call of Jesus when he said that if a person asks you to walk one mile, walk with him two.
When I arrived at the camp, people from many Christian faith traditions shared statements of repudiation – a statement saying that the theology that led to a proclamation, The Doctrine of Discovery, by the church 524 years ago was wrong. Elders representing the Standing Rock community were given a copy of the Doctrine of Discovery and burned it.
The elders then blessed the 500 clergy that had gathered as we joined together in a walk to edge of the law enforcement line, a standoff at the bridge, running over the sacred waters.
As we walked, my friend and I were asked to walk in unity with a young Navajo woman and her friend. The Navajo women played a drum and sang. And we walked. In unity. At the invitation of these women.
This event was not about my song. It was not about the guilt of a church or a nation. It was about not about being a hero or a rescuer. It was about being together. It was about being physically present. It was about walking on the land. It was about witnessing the sacred beauty and power it contained. It was about literally saying, “We are with you.”
I did not go because I am so great, or so brave, or a good neighbor… I went because I was invited. I went because Jesus said, ‘Go.’ I went because sometimes we are simply called to walk together.