On Thursday morning I returned from spending three days at the Oceti Sakowin camp which currently sits at the front line of the Standing Rock movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which goes by the acronym DAPL. I have been struggling with how to communicate such an important time well. So, here it is, my best attempt. But before I go on, there is one very important thing that needs to be said: This is a Native American Indigenous struggle against Colonialism past and present. I am just adding a few very unimportant thoughts to the big picture in hopes that it can help people (specifically fellow white people) see what is happening. You really need to be reading, and listening to Native Voices. This is their movement, this is their vision, this is a time for listening and following. Here are just a few links of some Native folks I know and what they are doing, saying, thinking.
No – seriously go read indigenous voices before you read the rest of this.
At first I tried to write up a day by day, but then I would remember something else important, and it would get longer and longer. I am still going to do that mostly for my own memory but I would like to share a few short things that happened/I learned while I was there.
It is beautiful: The land surprised me with beauty. The rolling hills, the rivers, the sparse trees. When you come around the corner and see the camp, people setting up and living in their tribes style of home, Lakota tipis, Iroquois longhouses, Ojibwe wigwams. The first day was a wind advisory, our western tents were straining against the prairie winds, the tipis, it barely looked like a breeze was going over them.
It is holy: Forget our western split between sacred and secular times. The entire movement, the entire camp is prayer. The sacred fire burning in the middle of of the camp, always being attended by prayerful people. The direct action training was prayerful. The days began with ceremonies in the morning, they ended with ceremonies, there were thanksgiving for the water, the food, the air, the sky, for everything.
It is welcoming: Indigenous people have every reason to be wary and suspicious of a white person, especially a white person in a collar. I was welcomed, embraced, fed, prayed for, smiled to. There was a risk of people infiltrating camp (a real risk as I will say soon) and yet there was an openness to all who came in.
It being watched: Helicopters, and planes were always, always overhead. The surrounding hills were covered in police, security, federal agents and soldiers. At night DAPL had huge, stadium lights set up. Not to help them continue work, but to bath the camp in a reminder of their presence.
It is peaceful: We were reminded by elders, chiefs, security, and everyday people all the time, that we are here to pray, and to be peaceful.
I have a few stories I want to share. They are things that I personally witnessed and think are worthwhile to show the kind of leadership that is happening at the camp.
All people who come to the camp are required to get an orientation. At the orientation, people from the Indigenous Peoples Power Project (click here) guide us through the values of the camp and the values of how we act while on the front line. Every direct action is about praying. Each time people have moved to the front line, it is done so that elders and others can pray for the water, for the people, for the land, for the police and for the pipeline workers. Yes the direct actions do involve confrontation, but no, I never experienced a call to violence…well I did once…at the second day of training. We were in a large tent and a man in the back was quite agitated. He kept interrupting the training, and asking when we were going to the front, and when we were going to go the pipeline itself and stop it. He also spoke in the most fake rezzy accent I have ever heard (many Native American people speak with a certain cadence, just like any group bringing hints of their home language to a new language). After many rounds of interruptions one of the trainers asked “Brother, what tribe are you from?” The man froze…hesitated and said “Uh Northern Minnesota” Now I spent a year on the Leech Lake Rez in Northern Minnesota, Ojibwe folks, like all other folks know damn well which tribe they are from and don’t hesitate when asked. He eventually left the tent and as he left he called on all of us to go join him and stop the police and the pipeline before it was too late that we did not need non-violent training, we needed to do whatever it takes. After he left he apparently left camp and no one saw him again. My guess, he was from DAPL or somewhere else. We went outside and worked through using non-violent resistance to hold space. To my surprise, one of the leaders asked me to pray for the group that just went through training. I did then he asked me to come talk to Jonny the head of the camp. The large group of clergy had not arrived yet and Jonny wanted to know details about the pastors…since I only found out about the clergy event on my way to North Dakota, I had very little knowledge to pass on.
(bridge where our action took place – photo not from the day of our action)
Wednesday morning began with prayer, again to my surprise, an elder asked me to go to the mic and offer up a prayer, all prayer is welcome and honored at the camp. I thanked the Elders and the Standing Rock tribe for all they are doing and for inviting us to camp. I said the church has been on the wrong side for over 500 years and it is my hope that healing can continue. Then we were all invited to partake in a water ceremony. It was beautiful, we gathered in a circle where women thanked the Creator for water and then gave some for each person to drink and wash with. We then processed to the Cannon Ball River where we offered prayers, tobacco and water to the river as a sign of gratitude for the gift of water. The ceremony took as much time as it needed to take – oh that the Lutheran Church could learn from this – you cannot rush the holy. On the way back a van drove by and stopped, one of the direct action organizers, the one that had me pray the day before leaned out and told everyone that there was an action about to start, he then looked at me and said, “Hey pastor, get ready, we got a job for you!” then they drove off.
Upon return from the water ceremony one of the direct action leaders called us to gather with him and the noDAPL Mni Wiconi flags. He instructed that we were being asked to head up the 1881 road towards the bridge. That we were to pray and observe another direct action that was to take place later down at the water. We gathered together. We were reminded again that we were to be prayerful, that we were non-violent, that we are here to protect water and never to harm anyone. We were told to walk slow so elders and those with mobility issues were not left behind. So we walked, we prayed, we sang. We approached the two burned out trucks from the events the previous Thursday. There we sang, and we prayed for about an 3/4 of an hour. As we were clapping with a drum beat the direct action guy started walking through the crowd saying “Where’s my pastor, where is my priest?” He looked at me and said, “You ready? Come with me!” That is the moment when all of the courage I thought I brought to Standing Rock flew away. I walked with him to the front of the crowd, in front of the trucks. He told everyone, “All prayer is good, and this Christian is going to pray for us all in his way. So everyone bow your heads” I had no idea what to do, so to begin by having everyone repeat the words to Desmond Tutu’s song,
Goodness is stronger than evil;
love is stronger than hate;
light is stronger than darkness;
life is stronger than death.
When all else fails, always punt to Desmond Tutu. Then we prayed, for creation, for Water Protectors, for Native People, for Police, for Oil workers. Then I said Amen and walked back into the crowd. I felt a hand on my shoulder, the leader said with a huge smile, “Oh no priest we’re not done, we need to go get you arrested!” Not knowing what to say, I said, “ok”. He took me around the trucks and about 25 yards ahead, were all of the police, fully militarized, fully armed, ranks of them and two maybe three big armored vehicles, police in the top hatches, fully armed. The leader smiled at me and said “Go pray for them, pray for their safety, pray for their loved ones, bless them.” I took a breath and started walking.
*An aside: I am a good Lutheran, I believe that as a society we need police. We need those who answer the call to defend us from harm and evil. I affirm the vocation of Police Officer. I also believe deeply in Native Rights and sovereignty, and in God’s call for justice. Our society, and its long standing policies of white supremacy have often time pitted our police against the very people they are called to serve. This was the first time I have found myself, as a white man, looking in at ranks of police officers, standing against me. Without its association with hate, the police now were my enemies, and I was being asked by Native Leadership to pray for them. The Native Leadership was calling me to fulfill the command of Jesus, they were calling me to fulfill my ordination vows. The Standing Rock movement was calling me to be a Christian.*
So I, with a type of fear I have never known, walked towards the barricade. At the barricade were two police officers, in vests but not combat gear, very stern looking, and two elders. The elders embraced me, and said thank you for coming to pray, prayer is why we are here. I told the two officers, “My name is Benjamin Morris, and I am a Lutheran Pastor, I am here to pray for you, and your safety, and your families, may I shake your hands?” They looked at each other and nodded yes, I asked them their names, which they told me, and which I immediately forgot – way too much adrenaline. I yelled back to the ranks of officers “I am here to pray for you all.” Using my best Lutheran hand gestures I called them into prayer. My prayer went something like this: I prayed for their vocation, I prayed for their safety, I prayed for their families, I prayed for oil workers. I prayed that each side not see each other as enemies and that we see each other as humans made in God’s image. Feeling I needed to call for God’s justice, my mind struggled to find words to describe why the stand the Water Protectors are making is justified. Not knowing where to go, I again leaned on the Lutheran depth of song and liturgy, to the baptismal liturgy to be specific:
We give you thanks, O God, for in the beginning your Spirit moved over the waters and by your Word you created the world, calling forth life in which you took delight. Through the waters of the flood you delivered Noah and his family. Through the sea you led your people Israel from slavery into freedom. At the river your Son was baptized by John and anointed with the Holy Spirit. By water and your Word you claim us as daughters and sons, making us heirs of your promise and servants of all
I have no idea if I said it that perfectly, but I followed it with the fact that water runs as deeply in our sacred stories as it does the sacred stories of the Lakota and that Water Protectors are protecting everyone’s water, water that was given as a gift. I prayed we would all reach a better understanding of each other. Then I said Amen and walked back, surprised that I had not wet my pants.
We stayed on the bridge and prayed another hour before heading back to join with the Direct Action on the water, and in the Camp, but that is truly another story. I was not down at the water but two people were shot with rubber bullets, and multiple people with pepper spray and tear gas. They had built a bridge so elders could pray at desecrated graves. Things went more chaotic and we were asked to protect the entrance of the camp as there was fear it would be overrun. Women, Children and Elders were evacuated. That is when the LSTC group rolled in, amazing timing on their part as they were able to witness the camp in the midst of action, protection, and a sense of urgency. They have stories along with the 500 more clergy who began arriving, including my internship mentors, Rev. Harold Eagle-Bull and Rev. Mark Olson And that is when my group took our leave, knowing more people will be showing up to witness, listen and learn, and that many Native people will remain, staking their lives in the movement, preparing to spend the long North Dakota winter in their traditional structures and tents, protecting water, and continuing their 500 year struggle against colonialism, genocide and oppression.
These are the things I have experienced. There were 10 others in my group who have stories to share, and thousands who have taken part in some way. Please, please take time to learn more.
Mni Wiconi – Water is Life #noDAPL