By Kristina Gonzalez | Director of Leadership Development for an Inclusive Church

Part 2: Standing With

At the writing of this article, the sacred fire burns still at Oceti Sakowin, the camp of the Standing Rock Sioux water protectors and their supporters near the construction site of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The sacred fire is the gathering place for the camp. A good-hearted call goes out through the public address system each morning before dawn, inviting all to rise and gather at the sacred fire. The coffee is hot and plentiful.

The sacred fire is where the spiritual ceremonies are held. The sacred fire is where community is built through prayers, stories, songs and drums. It is a generous place of teaching and learning.

Community is important in Indian country. Community is integral to the culture. While the traditions and languages of Indian people vary widely, a commonly held value is one of deep respect for the collective – for the ‘we.’ And so, the term ‘relatives’ incorporates all in the human family, as well as the animals and plants that sustain us.

By contrast, United States dominant culture is an ‘I’ culture, according to Geert Hofstede whose research provides the basis for understanding differences in communication styles and behaviors among cultures of the world. In an Individualistic culture, one’s self-identity is that of ‘I.’ Each person is expected to care for themselves and their immediate family. High value is placed on self-reliance; think of the saying, ‘He pulled himself up by his bootstraps.’

The ‘we’ and ‘I’ aspects of culture come into deep contrast at Standing Rock, as they have since Europeans began to populate the Americas 500+ years ago. During Thanksgiving, the generosity of Indian people has been reenacted by school children for generations, acknowledging that immigrants to this continent may not have survived their first winter without instruction and care from Native people. ‘We.’

In a collectivist culture, one’s self-concept is that of ‘We.’ Each person is expected to care for their extended families, and to contribute to the wellbeing of the whole community. One’s success is a function of community including past generations, and one’s failures reflect on the whole community.

Turtle Island, a sacred site for the Standing Rock Sioux, has been the location of multiple confrontations with law enforcement.
Turtle Island, a sacred site for the Standing Rock Sioux near Oceti Sakowin, has been the location of multiple confrontations with law enforcement. Photo by Kristina Gonzalez for the PNW Conference.

How one views Standing Rock depends greatly on one’s cultural framework. And one’s cultural framework is deeply embedded over generations. So, the plight of Standing Rock Sioux to block the final phase of a pipeline in which so much money has been invested and where private property is involved may seem capricious to those whose lens is predominantly ‘I.’ To those whose lens is predominantly ‘we,’ it is hard to understand how the pipeline got this far given the concerns for water expressed by Indian people and dominant culture folks alike. You’ll remember that the original route of the pipeline was north of its current location, rerouted because of concerns about possible contamination of water that supplies Bismarck, the capitol of North Dakota.

This contrast in worldviews is not bad. It may be through differences that we find more complete solutions. I Corinthians 12 reminds us that many different parts are needed to make a functioning body, and no part is of higher value. Verse 14 says:

If the body was all eye, how could it hear? If all ear, how could it smell? As it is, we see that God has carefully placed each part of the body right where he wanted it. – The Message

It is communities of color throughout the world who tend to live closer to the earth, and therefore feel the effects of climate change or use of pesticides or oil spills more acutely than those who live further from the land and water. The honoring of the earth is a common value. But it is not only a value; it is practical. Perspectives that value the earth over profit can be important mitigating voices that have the potential to slow decision-making processes so that the best decisions can be made for current and future generations.

April Mercado speaking to participants of the General Conference Climate Vigil. Photo by Jesse Love.
April Mercado speaking to participants of the General Conference Climate Vigil. Photo by Jesse Love.

The Climate Change Vigil at the United Methodist General Conference in May 2016 was both beautiful and impactful. The speakers were indigenous people from around the globe. They spoke about water – personal stories of the loss of loved ones in terrible floods, the loss of homes and whole communities. In that forum, indigenous people appealed for an understanding of the effects of consumption and profit on those who live closer to the earth. Much like the water protectors at Standing Rock.

But these also tend to be communities with fewer resources. They are often cultures who are storytellers, and who honor authority. Having fewer resources in a litigious culture results in lesser voice. Storytelling in a direct communication culture garners impatience. Deferring to authority in an individualistic culture connotes weakness or disengagement. The need to confer in a clock-oriented culture is interpreted as passive aggressive.

If you find yourself nodding knowingly, let me suggest that we all have a hill to climb in providing adequate respect to those of other cultures. In Part One of this series, I spoke about the burning of the Doctrine of Discovery. This was in important ceremony, and is available on YouTube. I encourage you to watch. But there were intercultural errors. Here is what happened.

A repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery was read by dominant culture clergy from different faith traditions in front of the sacred fire, and was witnessed by Native elders from different tribes. As the reading concluded, a portion of the Doctrine of Discovery in the original Latin was given to each Native elder with the invitation to burn it. Shouts went up, ‘burn it, burn it.’ In Indian culture, burning is generally not an act of condemnation but of prayer. An act of prayer is not violent or aggressive. It is done with dignity and understanding. A cultural disconnect.

With the invitation to burn the Doctrine of Discovery came the question to the elders, ‘Do you want to burn the Doctrine of Discovery in the sacred fire?’ The sacred fire is where the prayers of the people are spoken and the cedar, tobacco and sage carry them in the form of smoke to the Creator. The request to burn any paper, and especially paper representing the basis for violence to indigenous people, was inappropriate. Another cultural disconnect.

When the elders looked to one another – for Indian cultures are generally conferring cultures – the fire keeper stepped in and refused. It was his role, after all, to guard the fire’s integrity. In that moment, the organizer pushed the question again. Another cultural disconnect.

Coyote Marie Hunter-Ripper offers a prayer preceding the burning of the Doctrine of Discovery. Photo by Kristina Gonzalez for the PNW Conference.
Coyote Marie Hunter-Ripper offers a prayer preceding the burning of the Doctrine of Discovery. Photo by Kristina Gonzalez for the PNW Conference.

An awkward pause ensued, as the elders would not have wanted to publicly refuse the wishes of a respected Christian leader. In that moment, the fire keeper came forward with a coffee can, and one of our United Methodist Native elders, Coyote Marie Hunter-Ripper, brought forward her smudge pot. These became the vessels for the burning of the Doctrine of Discovery.

What I did not know until conferring with Ms. Hunter-Ripper was that the coffee can contained coals from the sacred fire, a huge compromise by the fire keeper to accommodate the request of the organizer – an intercultural compromise to preserve the intent of the moment. A compromise by Indian people for the benefit of non-Indian people.

While well intentioned and important, the ritual was organized from a dominant culture perspective. The dominance embedded in the Doctrine of Discovery was at work in unconscious ways in the organizing of the action.

My point is this. Even when we have the best of intentions, our own cultural lenses can get in the way. Even when we think we have done the work of vetting our plans, we can misinterpret the communications. Communities of color, and other non-dominant communities suffer these wounds all the time. They are called micro-aggressions – not large or blatant, but reminders that one walks in the world differently from the dominant patterns.

John Wesley offered three simple rules for our lives – simple, but not easy. They are these, as interpreted by United Methodist Bishop Rueben P. Job, in his book Three Simples Rules, A Wesleyan Way of Living:

  • Do no harm.
  • Do good.
  • Stay in love with God.

How do these translate into ministry with, rather than ministry to or for? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Enter an intercultural interaction with humility, understanding that your culture is just one model of reality.
  • Listen for understanding using all your senses, intellect and heart.
  • Verify what you think you understand, for you may not really know what’s going on.
  • Do not assume that what represents meaning in your culture translates equally to another.
  • Be mindful of power dynamics, as you may be perceived as the more powerful even if you do not feel such.
  • Be open to being corrected.
  • Enter the interaction without agenda.
This burned barricade blocking Highway 1806 was the subject of a clash on Nov 20. Photo by Kristina Gonzalez for the PNW Conference.
This burned barricade blocking Highway 1806 was the subject of a clash on Nov 20. Photo by Kristina Gonzalez for the PNW Conference.

The conflict at Standing Rock is primarily about water. Mni Wiconi. Water is life. But it is also about history. A history of discounting the perspectives of Indian people. A history of broken promises prompted by profit-motive. A history of disrespect and even contempt for Indian languages, cultures, traditional ways and spirituality.

The Army Corps of Engineers and the Governor of North Dakota are calling for closure of Oceti Sakowin on the basis of protecting the water protectors from the elements. Those who have been to the camp know that preparations are well underway for the bitter cold of the region, and that the culture of the camp is to care for the well being of each one present. Could the call for closure be for another reason? Could the call for closure be to silence again the voices of dissent, couched in altruism? I am reminded of the justification for Indian boarding schools. ‘Kill the Indian, save the man,’ was the slogan, a terrible legacy in which our Christian institutions were complicit at best and active at worst.

Whatever your perspective on this issue, let us stand in prayer for peace. Let us remember that we make our best decisions when multiple perspectives are considered deeply and with cultural humility. Let us remember that I Corinthians 12 reminds us that when one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers.

‘Standing with’ is hard work, tedious work, humbling work. But it is also blessed and gracious work. In standing with, we have the potential to find greater compassion for one another and a more complete understanding ourselves as followers of Christ.

Jesus created a ‘we’ culture among his disciples. We are called to ‘we’ culture even today – especially today.

Mni Wiconi. Water is life.

Breaking News:

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau approved the Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline, which would significantly increase shipping of oil through the Strait of Juan de Fuca

For more information, go to these sites:

Featured Image: Photo by Flickr user Leslie Peterson, cropped, CC BY-NC 2.0.


  1. Thank you to Kristina Gonzalez for both of her articles anout Standing Rock. Excellent, very helpful in teaching all of us about Indian cultural understandings and practices. I deeply confirm the importance of becoming the “we” who stand with and minister with rather than “to”.

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