“Get up everybody! It’s a beautiful day! Get up! Come to the sacred fire!”
The voice on the loudspeaker carries over the frozen camp, the dawn little more than a gray blush on the eastern horizon. Teepees, tents and campers are still mostly dark. The wind howls. It’s still snowing. This is definitely not a beautiful day.
“Get up! Come to the fire and pray. Come and pray! That’s what we’re here for!”
The inside walls of my little tent are glazed with a solid sheet of ice. The moisture from my breath in the night now fused with the structure of my little home. I cinch down the drawstring of my mummy bag tighter around my face, and close my eyes.
“Get up, my relatives! Get up Christians! It’s time to pray!”
Now that’s not entirely fair. I’m a Christian, and the voice is basically calling me by name. So this old white man groans and struggles to unzip the cocoon of warmth that has swaddled him through the night, and reaches for the stiff, icey trousers frozen to the tent floor.
The Oceti Sakowin Camp of the Standing Rock Sioux sprawls along the Cannon Ball River and the Dakota Access Pipeline construction route for what seems like a mile or more. For some reason, I have pitched my little tent a long, long way from the “sacred fire,” where the morning Prayer Circle meets. So by the time I slip and stumble my way to the gathering crowd, the prayers have begun. An elder of the Lakota Sioux – the voice that aroused me from sleep – is still speaking.
“Mother Earth, she is hurting right now. She is hurting. She needs us to help her. You know, we now have earthquakes all the time. This is not good. And I hear that up north, the ice and snow are melting, and flowing into the oceans. The sea creatures are being harmed, and the water is rising.”
This is what I have come to expect from Sioux elders. Concern for the whole earth. Concern for the local ecosystem. A keen sense of our place in the larger creation.
“Governor Dalrymple tells us we’re breaking the law. But we’re protecting the earth. They think that they can take, and take, and take from Mother Earth. But you can’t only take, without injuring the creation. At some point, you have to stop taking, and give something back….”
Then he begins to pray. I don’t understand a word. He sings. The notes are unfamiliar to me. I’ve heard these sounds in film – the eerie tune, the drums. They are foreign. This is not my religion. He’s praying to an indigenous God, no? Still, I try to remain in the spirit, praying as best I know how in my own language, in my own faith.
Suddenly, the speaker turns to English: “Our Lord Jesus Christ! We thank you for your love and grace! We praise you! We call on you to protect the earth that you love…”
Whoa! What’s going on here? I had thought….
“… In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
The prayer service is not nearly over. We are given tobacco, cedar leaves, sage, and small cups of water from many other rivers. We are marching in procession to the Cannon Ball River, to bless the waters, and to pray for them. Eventually, it is my turn at the river’s edge. As the women sing, I kneel in the snow, and reach out over the water.
“The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it; the world, and all who live in it,” I recite as I offer my tobacco and cedar leaves to the icy waters. “For he founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the waters.” I pour out my little cup of waters collected from afar.
I am finished. I struggle to my feet, and the singing women smile as they offer me their hands to keep me from falling. I reach for them gratefully.
If you are looking for theological answers from this post, I’m so sorry. You will be disappointed. But theology tends to be challenged and refined by the rough and tumble of life, doesn’t it? I have said that I have come back from Standing Rock believing that Christians must engage with indigenous spirituality, without fear, without prejudice, and with confidence in the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
I believe that. I don’t fully understand it, however. But this I do understand: The apostle Paul tells us in that most famous of gospel passages – Romans 8 – that the groaning creation “waits with longing for the sons of God to be revealed.”
Who, today, are the sons of God bringing relief to the groaning creation in the Dakotas? Who are these sons of God? Up on the distant ridge are the armor-clad police, the massive earth movers and drilling machinery. Overhead, the planes and helicopters, keeping an eye on our every move. Here, by the river, are the Lakota Sioux, praying, singing, preparing to confront the engines of the petro-state.
Who are the sons of God? Who are the ones bringing good news to the creation?
A singing woman meets my eyes. I smile weakly as I take her hand, and steady myself for the climb back up the riverbank. There is much work ahead today.
Note: This is the third in a series of Standing Rock Reflections. Prior posts are
- Standing Rock Reflections #2: Broken Treaties are not “History”
- Standing Rock Reflections: It’s All One Struggle