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

Part 1: Mni Wiconi, Water is Life

Early morning in North Dakota is dark and cold. Yet in Oceti Sakowin, the sacred fire is burning and the coffee is hot and plentiful. Oceti Sakowin is the encampment of Water Protectors near the construction site of the Dakota Access Pipeline. We sit with the Fire Keeper, an Indian man entrusted with maintaining the fire’s integrity. Only wood that has been blessed, and tobacco and sage for purposes of prayer are permitted in the fire. The fire has been burning constantly since April, when the encampment began.

I am present with 500+ people of faith, clergy mostly with some seminarians and a few lay people mixed in.  My small group arrives at the camp early in the morning to experience the camp before the influx of so many new arrivals. We are greeted warmly and incorporated into this spiritual setting.

500+ people of faith gathered at the Oceti Sakowin Camp upon the invitation of Episcopal priest Father John Floberg. Photo by Kristina Gonzalez for the PNW Conference.
500+ people of faith gathered at the Oceti Sakowin Camp upon the invitation of Episcopal priest Father John Floberg. Photo by Kristina Gonzalez for the PNW Conference.

We came at the invitation of Father John Floberg, priest of St. James Episcopal Church in Cannon Ball, nearby the camp. Father John hoped for 100 clergy when he issued the call just the week prior to the gathering. More than 500 interfaith leaders came to stand with the Standing Rock Sioux, and the more than 300 Indian Nations who support the cause. This was to be a tangible demonstration of the church’s repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery.

Many faith communities, including our own, have denounced The Doctrine of Discovery (UM Book of Resolutions 2012, Res. #3331, pgs. 424-425), a set of papal bulls issued in the 1400’s upon which property and Indian law are based today. The Doctrine of Discovery was the justification by the church for colonization of the Americas and beyond, and allowed Christians to enslave, slaughter and dispossess non-Christian indigenous people in the ‘discovered’ lands. The action of repudiation is largely symbolic, except when it compels us to stand with indigenous concerns.

At Standing Rock, water is the major issue. The City of Bismarck refused to allow the pipeline’s original route due to concerns that a breach might compromise the City’s water supply. So, the construction was re-routed, endangering the water source for the Standing Rock Sioux. This is a clear example of environmental racism.

But water is not the only issue.  When the City of Bismarck refused the original route, the permitting was fast tracked, opening the pipeline to the ancestral lands of the tribe, including ancient burial sites. The tribe’s protests went unheard; burial sites have been desecrated. My 82 year-old mother likened the action to permitting a bulldozer into the small cemetery in Carlin NV where both sets of my grandparents are buried.  It would not happen. So why is it okay in Indian Country?

Top: From a distance one could see all of the various groups gathered. Bottom: The militarized police presence at the Dakota Access Pipeline construction site seen in closer detail. Photo by Kristina Gonzalez for the PNW Conference.

The day was one of ceremony. The Doctrine of Discovery was repudiated near the sacred fire with a representative of each faith community reading a small part of the repudiation. The group then progressed about a half-mile up the road closer to the construction site. From the hill, I could see four gatherings:

  • A large and ominous presence of police in military gear positioned just across the bridge that leads to the construction site.
  • The small group of faith and tribal leaders who approached the barricade at the end of the bridge to pray.
  • A group of Indian people who were drumming and singing, joined by some faith community leaders.
  • And the majority of clergy and persons of faith who encircled the site with prayer and support.

To what effect? 

  • The Indian people I spoke with generally appreciated the large presence of faith community in support of this effort, and appreciated a public repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery.
  • I am told that the hymns blanketed the site with spiritual support.
  • The inter-faith presence brought additional media attention to this ongoing effort.
  • Leaders of many faith traditions returned home to tell a more complete story of the peaceful nature of the camp, and the spiritual undertaking of the Standing Rock Sioux in protecting water for all the relatives. In Indian Country, the term ‘relatives’ includes us all.

In addition, our presence provided to those encamped a respite from the reportedly constant helicopter and plane traffic near the camp, intended to disturb and disrupt the peace of the camp. The day provided rest from the clash between those who are praying at the site, and the militarized police who attempt to move them away. We heard first hand accounts of the clashes: pepper spray and rubber bullets meeting prayer.

What the actions of the day may not do is seed an alternative narrative to that which we see in the mainstream media. I fear the mainstream narrative gives the impression that Indian people are obstructionist and their concerns lack merit. I fear a narrative that paints the camp as violent when what I experienced was peace, or haphazard when what I experienced was discipline.

What I observed was resolve, resolve on the part of Indian people and those who stand with them to embody dignity and peace in non-violent, prayerful opposition to what could be an environmental disaster. They are turning the other cheek (Matt 5:40), but not in our common understanding of that scripture.

Dr. Frank Rogers in his book Compassion in Practice: The Way of Jesus, explores the meaning of the Jesus’ imperative contained in Matt 5:40, “But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” NRSV. Dr. Rogers puts this teaching in the context of Jesus’ time, in which a strike on the right cheek would have been an action to humiliate, and reserved only for those of lesser rank in society. Offering the left cheek would have been an act of defiance, and one that expressed self worth and discipline. A disarming act. Dr. Rogers refers to this not as an act of condoning, but as the power of nonviolent resistance. This is the position of the Water Protectors at Standing Rock.

A phrase that one hears in camp is this: Mni Wiconi. Water is life.

Water is the element of our baptism. We perish spiritually and physically without it. It is a powerful symbol of our health or disease. I, for one, thank the Water Protectors who, against all odds, raise the questions that go beyond today’s profit to tomorrow’s sustainability. And I deeply respect their call for protection of their sacred sites, as is afforded to communities where graves are marked with marble or stone.

Kristina Gonzalez, Revs. Richenda Fairhurst, Katie Ladd, Melvin Woodworth and Candice Woodworth were in present from the PNW Conference.
Kristina Gonzalez, Revs. Richenda Fairhurst, Katie Ladd, Melvin Woodworth and Candice Woodworth were in present from the PNW Conference.

Almost 30 years ago, faith leaders in the Pacific Northwest signed an apology to American Indians and Alaska Natives for the role of the church in cultural genocide of indigenous communities. We, the church, pledged to uphold spiritual practices of Native peoples, and to stand alongside in pursuit of culture and religion. I am proud to have stood with friends and colleagues from the Greater Northwest Episcopal Area and beyond in solidarity with our relatives. I am proud of our Western Jurisdiction bishops for their letter calling on President Obama to halt construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

More of our faith community will go to Standing Rock in the future. Let’s support them in prayer, and listen to their stories when they return. No media can substitute for direct experience.

And become informed. If you cannot support this effort, then speak respectfully about the Water Protectors and the values they embody. If you can support it, then find your voice.

Mni Wiconi. Water is life.

Breaking News: The Army Corps of Engineers has temporarily declined an easement for the Energy Transfer Partners LP to cross Federal land until potential impacts are studied and further conversation with the Standing Rock Sioux are completed. 11/14/2016

Watch for Parts 2 and 3: Standing With and Empire

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