My Reflections on Standing Rock by Christine Caton (Presbyterian Teaching Elder and PPF Executive Committee Member)

I was privileged to spend Thanksgiving week with a delegation from the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota.
We were there because the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota people are fighting to stop an oil pipeline from going through Reservation land. This is threatening to contaminate their water supply, as well as desecrate ancient sacred sites, including the burial site of Sitting Bull. Over three hundred native nations from all over the world were there to share in this struggle, as well as many non-native allies, such as my delegation.
I went because a call went out for clergy and people of faith to join in supporting the Sioux people in their struggle. I went simply because I had that inner tug, that pull, that call from God.
One of the first things we were told after we arrived is that the Oceti Sakowin Camp, where we were located, is a camp of prayer and ceremony. The Lakota people are a deeply spiritual people. A sacred fire has been burning there since the camp's inception in April, tended by selected elders of the people. On our first night there we were invited to the sacred fire and observed speeches, drumming, and dancing. It was a deeply moving experience.
The minute we drove in to camp I could feel the Spirit of the Living God reaching down and touching and surrounding me. They words to an old familiar hymn were stuck in my head, "There's a sweet, sweet, Spirit in this place...".
The Lakota words, Mni Wiconi, meaning Water Is Life, were everywhere. The people there are called Water Protectors, they are not protestors.
One of the things I noticed right away was the similarities between the struggles of the people there and the struggles of the Palestinian people. Even the reactions of the police/military are eerily similar. The night before we arrived there was a nonviolent action on the bridge where the police have put up barriers and barbed wire, as well as burnt out cars, to
block access to this road. Water protects were pelted with water canons in sub freezing temperatures, rubber bullets were used (and one woman lost her arm as the result of being hit by a rubber bullet), tear gas and percussion grenades were also used against the peaceful action. This is exactly what I have seen and experienced in Hebron, in Palestine (except for the water canons, which induced hypothermia in many of the people in Standing Rock.) But this is not happening during a war; this is not Israel/Palestine. This is the United States of America. And I am just appalled.
There were many things to "do" while one was in Standing Rock to support the native people in their cause. One could help with winterizing cabins and tents through construction, one could chop wood, work in the many kitchens that were there in the camp, sort clothing and other donations, be artistic in the art tent, help out in the medic tent, or be helpful in other ways.
Since my health does not allow me at this time to chop wood or do construction (something I couldn't do very well even as a college student in my theatre stagecraft class!), and I have problems standing for long periods of time without a great deal of back pain, I chose to pray. A lot. Constantly, in fact.
I felt called to pray for the people of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, those who were gathered at the Oceti Sakowin Camp and other camps nearby, those who came as allies, and those who opposed them - the police, the government, and the oil company. I prayed for peace. I prayed for strength. I prayed for a resolution to conflict. I prayed for kindness and gentleness to prevail. I prayed for courage and dignity for the people there. I prayed for our group to be safe and yet to be bold. Many of the members of my group engaged in nonviolent direct action while there, especially on Thanksgiving Day (which, incidentally, is not celebrated by the native people.). I was very proud of the group of people I traveled with (we drove from New York City to Standing Rock, North Dakota, with overnights in Chicago and Minneapolis on the way). They were living out their calling as people of faith to stand with those who struggle, those who are marginalized, those who are oppressed. We were eleven Christians and Jews standing with the native people.
I must admit that I was frustrated that I was not healthy enough to do more, to be on the front lines as I have in the past. But I felt that at this time I just couldn't risk arrest, for many reasons, so I stayed away from the direct actions. But I take heart in these words attributed to Oscar Romero:
"We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for [God’s] grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own."
One of the things about the Lakota people is that they absolutely respect women, children, and elders. They do everything in their power to cherish and to protect them. This is not because they think women are weak, but because they see them as strong and as the caretakers of the families. So on Thanksgiving Day the women, children, and elders were evacuated from the camp. In the end, it turned out to be a false alarm. But in that moment, I felt fear and I felt anger. Fear and anger not so much for me, although my adrenaline was pumping, but for the native people and their land which is sacred and precious, and which is being threatened for greed and for profit. In that moment of evacuation, when the men and some of the women in our group stayed, we were all anointed with oil by a clergywoman in our group as she said the words, "Water is Life." It was a moment of pure grace and peace and love in the midst of a chaotic situation.
Since I have returned home I have had trouble adjusting to being back. I'm not sleeping well; the people and the land haunt me. I cannot get Standing Rock out of my mind or my heart or my spirit. And so I am moved to advocacy on behalf of the people there.
And if you are reading this, you, too, can act. You can call. You can write. And the time is now! Call or write to the President, your Senators, your Congressperson, the Secretary of the Interior, the Governor of North Dakota and anyone else you think can be of help. Make your voice heard! We must stop this pipeline from polluting and desecrating the precious land and water! And you can pray. Please, if you are a person of faith in any way, shape or form, pray. It works, and its so important.
Karl Barth said, “To clasp the hands in prayer is to rise up against the disorder of the world.”
I want to share with you a quote from the great Lakota Chief Sitting Bull, as he talks about what it means to be a warrior. There are nonviolent warriors in Standing Rock, committed to protecting their land and water through nonviolent direct action in a spirit of prayer.
Sitting Bull said, "For us, warriors are not what you think of as warriors. The warrior is not someone who fights, because no one has the right to take another life. The warrior, for us, is one who sacrifices himself for the good of others. His task is to take care of the elderly, the defenseless, those who can not provide for themselves, and above all, the children, the future of humanity."
We must listen to the voices of the voiceless and those who struggle to protect their land and water, sacred and precious. Those of us with privilege must be willing to give up this privilege if necessary in order to save the world.
My friends, the time is now. God is calling us. So do what you can, where you are, in whatever your situation in life might be. We are called, as it says in the book of Esther, for just such a time as this. Be strong. Take courage. Be of good faith. And act and pray, for those who cannot.