By Jen Kilps
I went to North Dakota this past week to be present with the Standing Rock Nation and other indigenous peoples who are acting as water protectors of the Missouri River against the very real threat of the Dakota pipeline that will run fracked oil under said water sources. Whew, long sentence. Many of you know about this already. It is literally a crime, breaking treaty and civil law, but also a travesty. I wanted to share some of my experiences with you.
I went to Standing Rock with a gathering of 525 religious leaders of all shapes and sizes. Religious leaders tend to be very good organizers of people and I went with confidence that this gathering would be held with the utmost respect and deference to the actions and religious traditions being practiced by the native peoples there. Sometimes religious folks can be the most respectful of other religious traditions.
And I was not disappointed. Father John Floberg, the Episcopal priest of Standing Rock, was exemplary in his leadership of this action, emphasizing that we were guests and that we, in no way, were to interrupt what the Tribal Elders and leaders were practicing. We were told not to take photos of sacred items, such as pipes, feathers, the Sacred Fire (in the middle of the Oceti Sakowin Camp) or peoples faces. Apparently protesters were being arrested after the fact as their faces were recognized on Facebook posts. One had to ask permission before any picture could be taken. Someone brought up the possibility of acts of civil disobedience and Fr. Floberg said emphatically no. We had signed a paper stating our actions were to be peaceful only, if people wanted to protest, it would have to be out of the context of this group.
My experience of participating in this action was first, I was a little lost as I arrived there, I think we all were. There were options for us to sleep in churches, at the casino and at the camp. I was going to sleep in a church (for the warmth) but quickly figured out that the Oceti Sakowin Camp was the place to be. And it was. It felt a bit like an old fashioned Grateful Dead camp with teepees scattered around. In the center was the Sacred Fire where tribal people worshiped, told stories and made announcements. There was also an ad hoc kitchen, which provided water with a little coffee in it.
The Camp was not far from the bridge where the standoff occurs. In the middle of this bridge are burned-out cars. Across the bridge are 20+ police vehicles and tons or police officers. It was really very intimidating. On “our” side of the bridge the clergy gathered, prayed and such. In truth I felt a bit disconnected with this. I felt myself drawn to chatting with the “kids” (mostly young people) who had been living at the camp for months and who were planning to continue to live there over the winter. (A side note. I slept in my car because it was below freezing and when I woke in the morning two of my car doors broke as the cracked through the frost – yipee.)
I also spoke with some of the native guards who were keeping our group from entering the bridge area. Of course I spoke with people who seemed to want to speak with me. There was one fellow who spoke to a group of us, telling us stories of the past weeks, what his family was experiencing, the fear they all felt. He seemed anxious to talk. He told us that with the legislature being pushed through, the drilling should start in two or three weeks.
Meanwhile another Elder was conducting a ceremony closer to the bridge than our prayer group so I sat and watched. It was all very intense; so very powerful. This is what I will remember most of my time there. The young Lakota man telling stories, The Elder performing his set of rituals, and the cute blond boy picking up trash and rocks telling me about his girlfriend at home suffering from depression. And Vergie, a 70 year old clergy woman who was kind of pissed because her friends didn’t let her sleep in a hotel with them and she was stuck on a cold church floor. I liked Vergie.
I have mixed feelings about the Camp. My best friend sent me an article addressing how “white men” were co-opting the sacred fire and taking over their sacred space. At times it DID feel like a Grateful Dead show with a bunch of white hippies pushing solar power and veganism. Like others, I am always down for a Grateful Dead show, but that’s not what I think this space is really for. Some young white men spit at our group as they were praying. That happens.
But mostly the Camp, the bridge, the Sacred Fire were places filled with beautiful people, different people with loving and hurting and spirit-filled hearts. All gathered in prayer and hope.
Jen Kilps has spent her career, her vocation, working for social justice particularly with people living on the margins. She received her doctorate from St. Mary’s Divinity School at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Her work there focused on the intersection of religion and politics with special reference to the welcome of refugees by churches in the U.S. She is influenced by the lives and writing of Br. Jean Vanier, Henri Nowen and Thích Nhất Hạnh. Currently Jen's interests focus on what could be called the new post-colonialism—a world besieged by “new” old forms of forced migration and manipulation of indigenous peoples.