“A Season for Solidarity:
Reflections from Standing Rock”
A Sermon by Rev. Megan Lynes
Delivered on December 11, 2016
At The First Parish in Bedford
A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
O our Father, the Sky, hear us and make us strong.
O our Mother, the Earth, hear us and give us support.
O Spirit of the East, send us your Wisdom.
O Spirit of the South, may we tread your path of life.
O Spirit of the West, may we always be ready for the long journey.
O Spirit of the North, purify us with your cleansing winds.
— Sioux prayer
Give us hearts to understand,
Never to take
From creation’s beauty more than we give,
Never to destroy wantonly for the furtherance of greed,
Never to deny to give our hands for the building of Earth’s beauty,
Never to take her from what we cannot use.
Give us hearts to understand that to destroy Earth’s music is to create confusion,
That to wreck her appearance is to blind us to beauty,
That to callously pollute her fragrance is to make a house of stench,
That as we care for her, she will care for us.
–United Nations Environmental Sabbath Program
by Rabbi Michael Adam Latz, in response to Martin Niemoller,
adapted by Megan Lynes
“First they came for the African Americans and I spoke up because I am my sister’s and my brother’s keeper.
And then they came for the women and I spoke up because women hold up half the sky.
And then they came for the immigrants and I spoke up because I remember the ideals of our democracy.
And then they came for the gay folks, as if AIDS proved sin and I spoke up because love is love is love.
And then they came for the Muslims and I spoke up because we are one human family.
And then they came for the Native Americans and Mother Earth and I spoke up because the blood soaked land cries and the mountains weep.
And then they came for me,
and I heard voices loud and strong like mine.
They keep coming.
We keep rising up.
Because we who remember history
know the cost of silence.
And we will link arms, because when you come for our neighbors, you are coming for us, and that just won’t stand.”
My colleague Julia Hamilton writes: There was still snow on the ground this past April when riders on horseback made a 30 mile journey to a spot along the Cannonball River, just across from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, to establish a spirit camp, a line of resistance against the Dakota Access Pipeline. They kindled a sacred fire that has been burning ever since, a sacred fire that is now at the heart of the Oceti Sakowin Camp.
The name of the Oceti Sakowin, means “Seven Council Fires” and it is the proper name for the people commonly known as the Sioux. The great Sioux nation is not one single group of people, but is made up of seven different bands, and right now, for the first time since 1876 and the Battle of Little Bighorn, all seven bands have come together at this historic camp. The seven council fires are burning together as one. And they are not alone. Over 300 different tribes, along with other indigenous people from around the globe, have sent support to this historic movement, which has become one of the largest gatherings of Native peoples in recorded history.
The Standing Rock Sioux, the people who occupy the reservation just downstream from the proposed pipeline route, have been on record against the pipeline since September of 2014. The pipeline was originally planned to run north of Bismarck, but it was rerouted in part because of the risk to the city if the pipeline should break. The risk was offloaded to the reservation, routing the proposed pipeline beneath Lake Oahe which provides drinking water to 8 million people downstream. The pipeline digging is in direct violation of a treaty created in 1851 which declared the land to belong to the Sioux people. Despite the fact that it was not legal to dig, the Energy Transfer Partners and their great, earth-moving machines pressed on, even through sacred burial sites, until they could not dig an inch further, without plowing down human beings who gathered to protect the water with their very bodies.”
The other day I saw a cartoon of a pipeline uprooting Arlington National Cemetery juxtaposed next to an image of the Native burial grounds near Standing Rock. The symbol haunts me; of course there is no pipeline through Arlington National Cemetery. There would be an outrage if that cemetery were harmed, but digging through the equivalent for Indigenous people barely made the news. If your mind, like my mind did did at first, just whispered “yeah, but that’s our National Cemetery, their burial grounds can’t be quite as special as that,” we should ask ourselves why we think that way, and what kind of messages have been taught to us to make us consider one sacred spot more sacred than another.
In October, Chief Arvol Looking Horse, a Spiritual Leader of the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota Nations, asked for faith leaders to come to the camp and join the water protectors in prayer and solidarity. Clergy from all over the globe began to gather at Standing Rock. The elders expected maybe 100 people to come – but over 500 people arrived just in the first week, representing 24 different faiths, hailing from 45 states and three countries. Of course non-clergy folks went too… and it soon became clear that a large contingent of at least 2,000 US Veterans were planning to arrive in late November. The camp was up near 10,000 by the beginning of December, and I joined them as well on December 4th, the day officially designated at the Interfaith Day of Prayer.
Both at Standing Rock and in congregations all over the U.S, people gathered in solidarity to hear the words of Chief Arvol Looking Horse: “The hearts of all people’s faiths must now unite in believing we can change the path we are now on. … We are asking the religious people to come and support our youth, to stand side by side with them, because they are standing in prayer. If you can find it in your heart, pray with them and stand beside them. The police department and National Guard would listen to each and every one of you. This is a very serious time we are in. I know in my heart there are millions of people that feel this is long overdue. It is time that all of us become leaders to help protect the sacred upon Mother Earth. She is the source of life and not a resource in the Sacred Hoop of Life, where there is no ending and no beginning.”
My own decision to go to Standing Rock was in part inspired by a request put out by John Floberg, an Episcopal priest who has lived and worked with the Standing Rock Tribe for over 25 years. He knew that a large number of vets were about to arrive, many of whom might be experiencing PTSD, and who might at times struggle to follow the lead of the elders. He put out a call for chaplains to come support the vets, and thus serve the overall efforts of the Standing Rock community. When I heard the request for chaplains, by which John Floberg meant clergy with at least one unit of “clinical pastoral education,” I decided to go. I have four of those units, but I still wasn’t certain I had something useful to offer. Nonetheless, it was a relief to know that our presence was requested, and that numbers at the camp mattered. Count me in.
Our flight to Bismarck was quite surreal. The plane was filled with vets whose faces looked resolute and proud to have a worthy mission. It took me a minute to realize that the other emotion I sensed from them was a sort of controlled giddiness. They were happy! Will Griffin, a Veterans for Peace activist and former U.S. Army paratrooper who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, wrote in an op-ed piece for Common Dreams in October that after two wars, fighting for Standing Rock was “the first time I served the American people.” Each veteran had a story of why this journey was significant, and we sat in a circle chatting at the layover. Remarkably, Cornel West was also on our flight and heading to Standing Rock, and he too joined our listening circle.
With people like Cornel West and Malia Obama visiting Standing Rock, the movement is receiving more press. But before we go much further, I feel it’s important to mention that original incentive to stop the pipeline was begun by a number of teenage girls of the Standing Rock Sioux. They are the ones who inspired the elders in their community to meet, pray, consider, and lead thousands of people in a movement for environmental protection and respect for the earth.
When the ceremonial prayer camps were established last spring, Native people gathered, and non-Native people joined them. The camp was founded on the seven Lakota values: Prayer. Respect. Compassion. Honesty. Generosity. Humility. Wisdom. The whole camp is organized around these values – you can find them on the Oceti Sakowin camp website, as the framework for everything from how the meals are held, to making sure that elders are given a seat at camp meetings, to a prohibition on all alcohol, drugs and weapons. In fact, during the entire time I was at Standing Rock I never once saw anyone drinking or using any substances (other than cigarettes.) Signs around the camp read, “Alcohol or drugs don’t belong in our camp or in us.” I did however see many people walking around with sage smudge sticks, and the air everywhere was fragrant with the sweet smell. The elders hold everyone at the camp accountable for making each action a prayer, for maintaining a commitment to nonviolence, and for honoring and protecting the water and the earth above all.
Since the very beginning of the resistance at Standing Rock, nonviolence has been the heart of the movement. However the actions of the Morton County Sheriff’s department enforced a cost for the resistors’ nonviolence. By late October, tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets had been used against them. Most recently the police and other U.S. officials fired water cannons on unarmed civilians during freezing temperatures. One 21-year-old activist named Sophia Wilansky, who some of us know personally from the pipeline protests in West Roxbury this fall, had her arm ripped to the bone by a grenade.
Here in Bedford, we couldn’t stand this injustice. Our Climate Justice Group has been vocal about pipeline expansion for a long time now, educating all of us about the environmental risks, not to mention the inhumanity and disrespect for the Native people and their land. They have been organizing and collaborating, attending rallies and protests, and even teaching folks in other congregations about resisting pipeline digs. Most recently, they applied for and received a grant from our Social Responsibility Council so as to send upwards of $2,000 to Standing Rock. Before I left for Standing Rock myself last week, many of you donated an additional $2,000 for me to take to them, and I thank you very much for this generosity. This money helped buy hay for horses, and winterize tents, and bought warm boots for people whose feet were getting frostbite.
The very young to the very old are now braving temperatures so cold you can’t stop moving outdoors or you’ll freeze. It was two degrees when we woke up on Monday. And with the wind chill it was negative 25. I remember a moment when all of the chaplains were struggling to erect a long military tent, but it was so cold our hands couldn’t make it work. Somehow we had the top sheet on the ground by accident and were bumbling around underneath the heavy tarp, and it was a real mess. We never could get the tent up in the strong wind, and the warming tents were already full. We were chilled to the bone. Finally we decided to get back in the van and turn the heat on for a while. As we all clambered in I looked around and began to laugh. The men with beards looked like abominable snowmen! We were lucky to have that van for warming up, and the nearby episcopal church provided floor space for the chaplains to sleep on at the end of our long days outdoors, but most Native folks slept in winterized tepees or tents on the frozen ground.
Another way to get out of the cold was to enter a porta-potty. Out of the wind, and near the Sacred Fire, you could sit for moment and hear chanting, singing or a story being told. At one point, an elder at the camp was speaking about a seven year old girl who had been at the camp the previous week. He recalled that she was excellent at memorizing songs, and that he wasn’t good at that himself. He reminded the listeners that everyone has a gift within them that they are called to use, and that everyone has a story they cultivate and share with others, in addition to retelling others’ stories. He talked about how each of us is part of making history as well as inheriting history. The speakers always referred to the listeners as “my relatives.” They didn’t say “my brothers and sisters,” but instead talked about how we are all relatives, not only Indigenous people, but all people and in fact all sentient beings.
One last note about the cold. Though it’s really a comment about the ethic of care at Standing Rock, more so than the cold. At one point we found a lost dog wandering around. She was shivering, with her tail tucked in tight beneath her body. We had heard that there was a “lost dog tent” equipped with a vet! Of course there are no street signs, everything is word of mouth, so we wandered around for a while until we finally found the tent, and delivered her there. The volunteers there assured us that they would take charge of reuniting the dog with her owner by having an announcement made at the Sacred Fire. When we left she was gobbling up a bowl of food.
The ethic of care pervades every corner of the camp. Take the example of the Two Spirit Tent. It was a place for LGBTQI people, non-binary gendered people, and all those who transgress the norms of gender identity or sexual orientation. Many Indigenous traditions hold a special role in their culture for individuals who are considered to have “two spirits.” It would be hard to describe the feeling of love that filled the circle of people making prayers and burning sage. The young adult who was chanting could do things with her voice I’ve never heard before, and participants at that sacred fire stayed a long time, almost as if absorbing and storing up the kindness of welcome. My heart is very full from my time at Standing Rock.
But I’ve gotten ahead of myself here. Let me back up to that first morning, Dec 4th, when the veterans gathered in a nearby field to muster, before heading over to Oceti Sakowin Camp. The chaplains stood to the side, wondering what the tenor of the meeting would be. Were the vets activated by the recent violence with the water cannons, and ready for a stand off, or would they follow the leadership of the tribal elders and participate in the non-violence training being offered to them? The media joined us in the field and took photos of the vets holding signs reading “Vets against the pipeline,” and “Vets for peace.” Still, it wasn’t until a prayer began that I knew all was well. As one body, the entire group of vets, reporters and chaplains moved into a circle and a Native heritage man led a prayer of peace with the earth, with each other, and with the Great Spirit. In the bitter cold, every single person removed their hats, news reporters as well.
After the non-violence training, we made our way over to the Oceti Sakowin Camp. What a beautiful sight. Everywhere we looked was bustling with life and activity. People were carrying water, erecting tents and tepees, sharing prayers around a fire, and propping each other up on the slippery icy paths. Everyone was busy, and yet, surprise and joy flashed across weary faces as busload after busload of veterans poured in. The water protectors had felt dismissed or targeted for so long by the police and law makers, the military and the other government officials. But now veterans were arriving in their military uniforms, ready to join them rather than crush them. The folks at camp couldn’t believe it until they saw it, that the vets would care, or that they would stand in opposition to the Army Corps of Engineers. Many people were thanking the veterans, but over and again the vets said, “don’t thank us, we’re here to be with you, we honor YOU, don’t thank us, really.”
It was good that the vets showed up and chose to follow the elders’ lead, but they also did something unprecedented in U.S history. Following the meeting in the field, the vets asked for a special meeting with Lakota Spiritual elder, Leonard Crow Dog, (who stood in for all Native peoples.) A time and place was arranged, and a day later a forgiveness ceremony unfolded. The vets got on their knees and bowed their heads before all the elders. Then they apologized and asked for forgiveness for a history genocide that they as veterans, had/have participated in.
This is the statement that the vets gave, on their knees before the elders, read by veteran Wesley Clarke Junior. “Many of us, me particularly, are from the units that have hurt you over the many years. We came. We fought you. We took your land. We signed treaties that we broke. We stole minerals from your sacred hills. We blasted the faced of our presidents onto your sacred mountain. When we took still more land and then we took your children and then we tried to make your language and we tried to eliminate your language that God gave you, and the Creator gave you. We didn’t respect you, we polluted your Earth, we’ve hurt you in so many ways but we’ve come to say that we are sorry. We are at your service and we beg for your forgiveness.”
I don’t know how the elders did it, but with such grace and generosity but they extended their hands and touched the heads of those who were kneeling, and they had them rise, and they blessed them and they hugged them. It was a huge hug fest, and soon everyone was holding each other and apologizing for what their people’s people had done, owning what they could, and being open and loving and messy and real. Little children and wise elders reached across such divides.
I find it so hopeful that such large numbers of people are willing to gather, en masse, to protect and stand for the rights of human beings as the United States faces uncertain political times. I think if veterans can do this, so can others; their advantage is they have discipline and training. It is crossing news feeds now that some of these veterans will deploy to Flint, Michigan to stand with the people there to attempt to secure clean and safe drinking water for the residents there. I think that all of us need to get that humble sometimes. We need to find ways to get on our knees and make amends with others, or even just to face the history that we haven’t been taught in our own text books, and decide to do some extra reading. We need to take the time to meet people we don’t usually make time for, and get to know them, and ask what it’s like to be on “the other side.” Because maybe we are all on the same side at the end of the day.
The bottom line is that, as Wesley Clark Junior said, Indigenous people of this land have endured disease and war and racism and mistreatment by settlers, colonists and those who came after that; they are the ones who deserve our utmost respect. They are leading us all, in an effort to reclaim our relationship with the earth and with each other, and we should do all we can to follow their lead. I find it telling that “Cannonball” is the word that the European settlers used to describe what the Native People called the Sacred Stones found on or near the Standing Rock reservation. These stones are large round boulders created by the nearby river tumbling them for thousands of years downstream. The settlers later blocked off the stream, which halted the creation of new sacred stones. The two names, “cannonball” and “sacred stone” highlight the extreme difference in worldview.
Our own worldview must be grounded in respect not only for the movement at Standing Rock, but also for all the Indigenous-led movements that happen around us, whether in Boston or Western MA, or right up the road at the annual pow wow held here in Bedford. We have folks with Native heritage here in Bedford, and within this congregation. And we must never pretend that Native People have been wiped out completely. It’s simply not true. What is true, is that Native People despite the terrible ongoing genocide of their people, are most certainly here, and worthy of our true respect.
Estimates now are that more than 25,000 people were at Standing Rock this week and were there to celebrate the victory when word got out that the easement to dig was denied. That moment of joy is indescribable really. Amid the pain of the world, amid the fear of all that might happen despite this victory, in that instant all was right for a change. We need to honor and celebrate those times because they remind us of the good things we work for that are possible, despite setbacks and fear. Without good cell phone coverage, word spread person to person and soon people were falling into each other’s arms, elders wearing feathers and beating drums began a victory dance at the sacred circle, and people were whooping and weeping everywhere. A news reporter behind me asked one of the 13 year old girls who had started this movement what this moment felt like, and she replied, “It feels like I just got my future back.” Then she started laughing uncontrollably, and the news reporter burst into tears and laughter and the filming was disrupted by their giant hug.
Meg Riley, of the Church of the Larger Fellowship wrote in her newsletter this week, “It’s true. The decision made by the Army Corps of Engineers to do a thorough environmental impact study before drilling under the Missouri River to build the Dakota Access Pipeline, and to halt construction for now, is a fabulous step. But it’s also true that already Energy Transfer Partners, the pipeline building company, has vowed to ignore the order, and the indigenous leaders know that their responsibility as water protectors doesn’t rise and fall with such decisions.”
Another columnist writes, “Victory at Standing Rock will have far-reaching consequences. It may seem inconsequential in the macro view if the pipeline is merely rerouted or replaced with rail tankers (which are even worse than pipelines). On a deeper level though, a victory will establish a precedent: if [resistance] can happen at Standing Rock, why not globally? If a pipeline can be stopped against great odds in one place, similar violations can be stopped in every place. It will shift our view of what is possible.”
Beyond the issues that brought all these folks to this place, are the questions of how we will find ways to be in relationship with those who see the world differently, who believe and value differently, when our discursive spaces appear increasingly polarized and antagonistic. We will need communities of resistance, willing to stand between divided worlds, willing to disrupt the rhetoric and behaviors of “us vs. them.” These folks are not neutral because they will stand for something different, a new way forward that refuses to deny or diminish the worth and dignity of ALL involved.
In closing I will tell you my take home message. It is simple, but it is what I heard over and over throughout the camp in words, companionship, and kind deeds. Let us not take our moments here on earth for granted. Let us instead rejoice in the wonders of our universe, and work together to protect our planet. Let us embrace the exuberance of all life, human and otherwise. We are all relatives. And let us equally embrace the divine restlessness that calls us to expect more from ourselves, as we seek to be good to one another and faithful stewards of our earth.
Or in the words of Eryn Wise of the International Indigenous Youth Council. “We’ve been fighting this fight our whole lives and now there is no doubt in our minds that our generation can change the future. We know that the next presidency stands to jeopardize our work but we are by no means backing down. We will continue protecting everywhere we go and we will continue to stand for all our relations. We say lila wopila (thank you) to everyone who has supported the resurgence of indigenous nations. This is just the beginning,”
May the spirit of gratitude and respect be extended to all the indigenous peoples of the world. May compassion encompass the police as well as the water protectors, may solidarity and love soften our hearts and open our eyes, and may the beauty of all life renew our faith. Amen