October 11, 2016
Standing Rock, North Dakota. Here one of the most significant and historic gatherings continues, as indigenous peoples and their supporters rally in the name of environmental protection and indigenous rights. The ongoing movement began in April of 2016 when indigenous leaders established their camps through prayer. The movement has now grown immensely holding over 5,000 people in their indigenous-led Sacred Stone and Oceti Sakowin camps, to stand against the construction of the Dakota Access/Bakken Pipeline. As you enter the camp, you see the main roadway overlooking the floodplain with the rolling hills in the distance lined with dozens of flags that represent more than 280 indigenous tribes from all around the world and allies who traveled from far to stand in solidarity with the Water Protectors. These numbers represent the largest inter-tribal gathering since 1874’s Battle of Little Bighorn. Indigenous leaders as well as hundreds of allies are intentionally sharing space in these camps to demonstrate their commitment to overcome differences in history, background, and upbringing to unify against their common enemy that is corporate greed and colonialist ideologies.
The pipeline was originally planned to cross the Missouri River, north of Bismarck. However, it was rerouted as it was deemed too dangerous of a threat to the residents’ drinking water, 90 percent of whom are white. Now, it has been set to go through the Cannonball River, only less than half a mile away from the Standing Rock Reservation, crossing through indigenous treaty land including sacred burial grounds. These communities, despite their differences in culture and socio-economic environments, both recognize how this pipeline threatens their common want and right to clean water. Still, the events that progressed from the early planning of the pipeline in 2015 to today clearly follow the textbook definition of environmental racism.
It was about a month ago when I had the privilege to head to North Dakota with the Praxis Team to serve and stand in solidarity with the Water Protectors at Standing Rock. It was here that I witnessed that this movement followed by various hashtags as #NoDAPL and #StandwithStandingRock, was about more than opposing the construction of another oil pipeline. This movement reflects the 500+ years of resistance and resilience against the colonial and corporate forces that has kept the U.S. from treating indigenous communities with the dignity and respect that they deserve as being sovereign people to the land we currently stand on.
This is certainly not the first native gathering of its kind against colonialist greed. There are close parallels between the events happening today in North Dakota and other native movements such as the Oka Crisis in Kanehsatake, Quebec about 25 years ago. As it was then, the movement in Standing Rock has also developed a spiritual purpose for indigenous communities in all.
In addition to being clear stances of resisting corporate greed, the camps at Standing Rock are also a place of spiritual healing for indigenous communities as they’ve faced intergenerational trauma from a history of broken promises and forceful assimilation. Due to violent relocation and forceful assimilation through boarding schools, many do not know their language or cultural traditions. Being in this space however, has given indigenous communities the ability to reconnect with their traditional ways of life. Lessons for youth to learn their traditional sacred songs and language are offered in the camp. In the main encampment, elders actively make themselves available to guide other natives through prayer. Many are taking a break from their urban lifestyle, as they left their jobs or school, and have come closer to living off the land and community through their own cultural traditions. This sense of spirituality clearly transcends tribes’ cultures as members of tribes with a deep history of not getting along, are in prayer together over the sacred spirituality of nature. To indigenous communities, this movement has has also been about unlearning their imposed ways of life and relearning their own traditions.
As an ally, it was important for me to acknowledge this but I was also unsure at the time on where I fit in relation to the dynamic spirituality of the movement. It’s very easy for allies to simply identify with this movement for its stance on the protection of our drinking water and the land we live from. Sure, finding commonality in our purposes is important as it allowed me to deconstruct the word “ally” and really take this fight as also my own. But it’s just as, if not more, important for us to dig deeper into our own privileged bubble. To me, embodying the message brought through the powerful spirituality of indigenous communities means for our society to unlearn the imposed acceptance of extractive energies and its oppressive nature, and learn how indigenous knowledge can lead the way to a more dignified path towards climate justice. It means for our society to unlearn the biasedly taught history of our country, and learn about the powerful resilience of indigenous communities throughout America’s continuing violent history. It means for our society to unlearn the biases that have othered indigenous communities, and learn how to actively uphold the dignified sovereign power that they deserve.
Witnessing the spirituality of this movement also made me realize the power behind peaceful prayer in social movements. Spiritual leaders have been honorable in ensuring that the movement continues to build peacefully yet passionately, despite the media’s constant portrayal of water protectors as violent rioters. The Keystone XL pipeline was defeated this way, it can be done again. Water protectors have continuously met militarized authorities in peaceful prayer while being attacked with water cannons in nearly freezing temperatures, rubber bullets, tear gas, and psychological warfare. They recognize that resilience is rooted in remaining grounded to your purpose to fight for yours and your loved one’s well being and not in hatred. Resilience is rooted in the ability to build community through this common purpose as people begin to acknowledge that their liberation is bound up with one another.