By the Rev. Katie Ladd | Photos by Kristina Gonzalez
Note: This week, clergy and laity from the PNWUMC will be sharing letters in the style of Bishop Woodie White celebrating the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Each letter will express some of the ideas, frustrations, questions and hopes from representatives in the PNW. Follow these letters here at The PNW News Blog!
Dear Dr. King,
I wish that I could write you this year with words about how far the country has come, how well we honor the earth, how humanely we treat our citizens, and how much progress we’ve made in addressing and atoning for our duel original sins of Native American genocide and African American slavery. But I cannot. Yet, I do not despair.
Despair is the luxury of the privileged. Those who yearn for a better world cannot afford such a luxury. Rather, we have to dig in, join together, and labor hard. And, from time to time, we might even encounter a holy resistance movement that inspires us not just to engage in this hard and heavy work, but to find joy in the midst of it. This year, I was humbled to have such an encounter.
Over this year, the Lakota Standing Rock Sioux of North Dakota stood as a shining beacon for Indigenous led environmental and tribal rights work all around the country. As so many other tribes are also doing, they have been fighting corporate greed that is destroying the earth, and they have challenged the government’s facilitation of this travesty. They have built a sustained movement to challenge the mendacity of environmental racism and the history that has allowed it to flourish. They have revealed how the legacy of genocide and land theft remains alive and perversely active today. I am humbled that despite the years of marginalization, racism, and land theft, I was welcome into their camp to learn, to listen, to atone, and to accompany them. And, Dr. King, they have been successful. For the first time in living memory, over 300 other tribes joined together in solidarity. They stood together to resist the installation of a petroleum pipeline that would run across unceded tribal lands and underneath the Missouri River, a source of drinking water for the tribe and for thousands of others.
Those resisting the pipeline call themselves “water protectors,” not protestors. Thousands have joined them to live in makeshift camps along the river. I was one of them – for just a few days. What has played out there is a sad repeat – or continuation – of the racism Indigenous Peoples have experienced since Europeans landed on these shores. As you once said, “Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society…Blood flowed in battles of racial supremacy.”
The day I arrived, police from all around the region, even from other states, had opened fired on water protectors with water cannons, rubber bullets, and bean bags. Compression grenades were launched. Sound cannons were used to startle and disorient people. People were injured. It was freezing. While I was there the airspace was constantly patrolled by a helicopter and an airplane. Officers on surrounding hills trained rifles on those assembled. Armored vehicles lined the roads. Police were dressed in riot gear. And, sadly, this was not an isolated occurrence. The police, private security, and the National Guard have been used consistently against the Sioux and their supporters. This is ugly environmental racism. The earth cries, screams, and groans under the exploitation, misuse, and relentless extraction. And the same greed and disregard underpins genocidal racism and earth destruction. It is idolatry, the belief in one’s supremacy and entitlement to relentlessly take without consequence or judgment.
It would be understandable for a people in such circumstances to give in to despair, but they don’t. The Sioux lead from a moral core that inspires us to greater things. Their camps are known as places for prayer, and they use it to rebuff this unholy rapaciousness. They do not return violence with violence. They meet violence with prayer, dignity, and quiet power.
As a White American, I feel called to atone for my ancestors and for my contemporaries. The privilege I have inherited was born from genocide and slavery and is maintained today by white supremacy and the destruction of natural resources. As a Christian, I give thanks for grace, forgiveness, and a Christ who calls us into uncomfortable places to bear witness for life, joy, community, and love. I only hope to live into my Christian identity more than my White American one. And I give thanks for the example of the Lakota Sioux, who have shown me in real ways what incarnate grace looks like. So, there’s a lot wrong here, Dr. King. There really is. Yet, there is hope and there is joy. I know this to be true. And where we find hope and joy, despair cannot flourish.
The Rev. Katie Ladd serves at Queen Anne UMC/The Well.