"We have been praying for this day and God has answered our prayers. We knew it would happen. The priests are here." To say we were welcomed with open arms by the people of Standing Rock does what happened today no justice. We were greeted with early morning waves and words of welcome in many languages, stopped in the parking lot at a gas station for stories and hugs and tears, given tokens of thanks, and otherwise invited to stand as the presence of Jesus in the midst of desperately hurting people. "God alone can change this. We have been praying, and now the priests are here," we heard, over and over again. "We knew you would come. We knew that an honorable nation would come and stand beside us."
This is complicated, make no mistake. It is far too easy to vilify the motives of Energy Transfer Partners, whom we did not interact with on this visit. It is a mistake, also, to dehumanize those in law enforcement who stand guard at checkpoints and on the other side of barricades. But, make no mistake, what is happening here is unjust and immoral, if not about the pipeline specifically (although that case can be argued), then certainly in the way our government and some private interests continue to treat indigenous peoples. What is happening here is an icon of America through which we see that, to quote Neil Young, "behind big money, justice always fails."
In an effort to keep this post reasonably rather than absurdly too long, here are just a few stories of encounter from the past two days:
On Wednesday afternoon we made our way to St. James Episcopal Church in Cannon Ball, which was the epicenter of this event that drew well more than 500 people from all across the country representing numerous faith traditions, including Christian (with a plurality of Episcopalians), Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and others. At St. James we met a young man named Peter (not his real name). I asked him to tell us, from his perspective, what was going on at Standing Rock. Peter was cautious and circumspect in sharing, reminding us that those on both sides of the conflict will need to live together and work towards reconciliation long after the protesters go home. But, he said, it's bad. 1960s Deep South bad. Law enforcement, he observed, has largely been co-opted as a private militia for the oil company, not serving the people, but protecting a corporate interest. Intimidation and arrest are standard practices at peaceful, lawful assemblies. He told the story of a man who, dressed as a protester, drove his truck recklessly toward a crowd of people and then, when forced from the road, shouldered a semi-automatic weapon and pointed it at those who were approaching him "with large knives." Video evidence refutes the knife story. The man was arrested but released without charges. It was determined after the fact that he was a corporate security company employee. Who knows what he was intending to incite, Peter said.
Later that afternoon, our companion, Paul Nesta, asked us to stop at the grave of his friend and seminary classmate, Deacon Terry Star. While there, Terry's father, Woodrow, who lives in Colorado, happened to come by to pay respects to his son. Mr. Star, a career law-enforcement officer, delighted in telling us many stories about his son and the meanings of various tribal names (hint: the names we use tend to be derived from French words and are not the names they use), but also filled us in on the movement of various tribes in the area after treaties were signed, with the US government relocating a tribe that used to live on land north of Bismarck to the land the Standing Rock Sioux now occupy, which displaced the tribe that was already living there to reservations out west. Such relocations meant that ancestral lands and burial places, which are revered in native culture, exist in many places. And unlike our conception of graves, which are clearly defined and marked, the graves of indigenous people exist in an area which is known to the tribe as a sacred burial site. It is not as though you can simply say, "don't dig here, but if you move six feet that-a-way you will miss the grave." That's not at all how it works. Mr. Star gave us the analogy of considering running a pipeline across the battlefield at Gettysburg. The whole place is hallowed ground, not just the exact plots where you can prove a soldier fell and died.
Wednesday evening, at our pre-event assembly at the gymnasium in Cannon Ball, I had an extended conversation with a priest who serves a congregation of indigenous people in South Dakota about what is going on at the lines of this conflict. She told stories of arrests made at lawful, peaceful protests on public lands, of detainees being kept in dog kennels in a parking garage through cold nights, of detainees having numbers written on their arms to identify them, of the personal effects of those arrested being "lost," of obfuscation concerning the whereabouts and health of tribal elders who had been detained, about needed medications not being administered after assurances they had, and about middle of the night transfers of those arrested to facilities over 100 miles away, far from family and legal aid.
We heard stories Wednesday evening from young men and women of the Standing Rock Sioux and other nations about poverty, addiction, lost hope, struggle and high suicide rates; about how this pipeline, which was too risky to cross the Missouri river north of Bismarck where a spill would have affected that city, was deemed to be safe to cross through their water supply and told their concerns are unfounded. And we heard powerful, tearful testimony repeatedly about the deep prayers of the community, and how the presence of the priests was God's answer to them.
On Wednesday evening we heard about the Doctrine of Discovery, by which colonial powers laid claim to sovereign nations, the burning of which would be a key symbolic action for our group when gathered with the tribal elders. This Church doctrine led us, ultimately, to this day upon which the government, in the interest of a corporation and over the objection of the native peoples, enforces property laws and rights that overrule their sovereignty. The Episcopal Church repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery by action of General Convention in 2009. So on this day, we were here to say that the Doctrine was wrong, and that we are sorry, a symbolic gesture that we hope finds real-life application.
And on Wednesday we pledged that ours was not a protest, but a presence which would remain prayerful, peaceful, non-violent, and lawful.
Then the Cubs won Game 7 of the World Series in the 10th inning of a far-too exciting baseball game. Huzzah!
This morning began (early) with the Holy Eucharist celebrated by Bishop Michael Smith of North Dakota (and once part-time of Louisiana). The preacher was a local deacon, who spoke passionately about the cultural, institutional pressure towards identity erasure among indigenous peoples and the need for all of us to know and claim our own heritage.
We then caravanned to the camp on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation just south of the pipeline construction route. There we gathered in a circle around the sacred fire with the elders of several nations. Representatives for several denominations read repudiations of the Doctrine of Discovery, then presented a copy of the doctrine itself to each of the elders to decide whether and how to burn it. The sacred fire in the encampment was deemed inappropriate, but the elders did light it ablaze in an abalone bowl. About this time, a police helicopter began to circle overhead, flying low enough to drown out the voices of those who were attempting to address the crowd. This, I learned, is a frequent tactic, flying helicopters and drones over the camp at all hours of the day and night in an effort to disrupt speeches, announcements, and sleep. This is not, remember, public or disputed land; this is the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, their own land, where they are peacefully, lawfully, and prayerfully assembled.
From there, we walked to an area just south of the pipeline construction site, each of us being smudged as we left the circle. We gathered in a large circle on a hillside to listen to speakers and prayers. The helicopter overhead made it difficult to hear much, so after awhile Fr. Matthew Cowden and I, along with our newfound friend Fr. W Lee Domenick, moved closer to the stage - and to the bridge where the tribal elders and protesters were gathered. Here I must confess that I suffer from situational attention deficit disorder (a self-diagnosis, of course); these types of events with speaker after speaker bore me to tears. So after awhile, Fr. Matthew, Fr. Lee and I worked our way behind the stage to meet and speak with some who were there to protest, especially the indigenous peoples. We were, as requested, dressed in splendrous clerical array, Fr. Matthew most of all with his bright red cope and whatever kind of hat it was he was sporting. This drew attention to our presence immediately and, before long, we were being approached by some of the elders to come forward with them onto the bridge, to survey for ourselves the slight damage that is deemed too extensive to re-open the bridge, to see the barricade left by two burned-out military trucks and a car crashed into them by an unknown person, to listen to them, to pray with them. We politely expressed that we wanted to do nothing that would detract from the event we were there to attend. But they had been praying, and the priests were now here, and our presence had to mean something, and would we please come pray with them. Well, Jesus wins, and to be asked to gather with elders is a great honor not to be dismissed lightly. So it was that Fr. Matthew, Fr. Lee, Fr. Paul Nesta (who, I swear, apparated next to me out of thin air) and I, escorted by tribal elders and a small security detail, walked through a security line onto the bridge where we heard the elders' stories, asked our questions, gathered in a circle hand-in-hand, and prayed with one another.
Have you ever had the feeling that all eyes are on you? When we broke our prayer circle with the elders, we turned around to discover that it wasn't just a feeling. We were soon joined by a handful of other clergy: an imam, a Pentecostal bishop, a Methodist minister, some elders from other nations. As we began to make our way back, we were stopped by several reporters who wanted to know what we had said, what we had prayed about, what repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery meant, what we thought of this whole situation. The priests were here, and on this day, more than any other I have ever experienced, they wanted to know what the priests thought.
I am not disobedient by nature. I loathe attention like this. I certainly meant no disrespect to the organizers of the event we were there to attend. But, oh my, what a humbling, troubling, and singular honor it was to be one of the priests today.
This whole situation unsettles me. Say as you will about pipelines and economics, this is an icon of an America that I had rather hoped would be more beautiful. It is a disillusionment; a loss of naivete, perhaps, about the underbelly of our country. We can be terribly violent, terribly cruel, terribly careless with people and the earth. What we have done - what we continue to do - to the indigenous peoples is an outrage; it is deep, systemic, historic, and habitual sin. I don't need to vilify anyone to make that point, but - for God's sake, and for the sake of our sisters and brothers of the Standing Rock Sioux nation and all others at the margins - we do need to figure out how to repent.
I'm one of the priests, and that's what I have to say.
(for now, anyway).