Tag Archives: Standing Rock

Standing Rock Reflections: On Courage, Cowardice and Criminal Activity

Earlier this month, I returned from several wintry days at the Oceti Sakowin Camp of the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota. What might drive an aging Jersey boy from the comforts of home to the frozen buttes of the Dakotas? Pretty simple, actually. I was delivering warm clothing and supplies, praying with those who call themselves “water protectors,” and to serving in any way that the Lakota elders might direct.

It sounds so mundane, doesn’t it? Prayer, warm clothes and a bit of labor. There was a problem, however. It was – I was told – a criminal enterprise. I was on my way to commit a crime.

There could be penalties for my misdeeds. But I could deal with them, I thought: a few thousand dollars of fines, a couple days or so in jail, some spots on my record. I’ve been arrested before. Not serious problems. I’m old, and white. In America I’d be okay.

But in the days leading up to my visit, reports began to surface of brutal police tactics. Militarized units were training water cannons in sub-freezing winter conditions on unarmed women and men in prayer. Pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets were being fired at them. A concussion grenade nearly blew the arm off of a young woman, who, like me, had come from afar to support the resistance. As I felt my way across South Dakota through bitter winds and unremitting snowfall, I began to picture myself under the boot of the men in black Kevlar.

Police fire tear gas point-blank at water protectors in river ceremony.

North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple had just issued an executive order mandating evacuation of the very encampment that I was struggling to reach. Not only that, his order threatened criminal penalties against anyone heading for the evacuation zone, or even “encouraging” others to remain. Word was out on Facebook that the county sheriff was fining incoming helpers $1,000 for carrying supplies to the camps. My car’s trunk was packed with scores of winter hats, gloves, thermal socks and more. This would be hard to explain, I was sure.

I told myself that Gov. Dalrymple’s order couldn’t really be legal in a free society. It’s a crime to bring help to unarmed people? Impossible. Furthermore, some of the encampments were actually legal, located on the Standing Rock Reservation. Who could say whether I was headed to a legal camp, or an illegal one?

I began to rehearse the denials in my head. “I’m going to the Sacred Stone Camp of the Standing Rock Sioux. That’s perfectly legal,” I muttered to the silence of the car around me.

It was totally unconvincing. Maybe I was lying. Maybe I really would opt for the legal encampment. How could I know for sure?

My musings were suddenly shattered by the flashing strobe of police lights in the rear-view. Oh God. Here we go. The tires crunched as I pulled over into the thick snow on the shoulder.

“You know, sir, you were doing 43 in a 30 zone?”

“No officer. I’m sorry. I guess I lost my concentration.”

Speeding. A mere traffic violation! I sighed deeply with relief. $85 and a ten-minute delay, and I was on my way again. Of course! This is still SOUTH Dakota. They’re not really gunning for us down here, are they?

I stopped for gas and a sandwich. Rumor had it that these places were on the lookout for people like me. Strangers with coastal accents and out-of-state plates. They would be sending word to the local sheriff. I came and went quickly, and spoke to no one.

Several hours later, I made it to the Standing Rock encampments. Tents, teepees and sheds stretched as far as I could see. My first stop was Sacred Stone, the legal camp. The entrance was down a steep embankment, glazed in ice from a three-day blizzard. I looked at my rental car, a small two-wheel-drive sedan, and then back at the chute into Sacred Stone.

“Is there easier access anywhere else?” I asked the gatekeepers. They pointed to the far side of the bridge across the Cannon Ball River.

“Oceti Sakowin. The main camp.”

I figured I’d never make it back up the slippery bank out of Sacred Stone. So I pulled slowly across the bridge. I was now breaking the law. Trespassing on Army Corps land. I was going where Governor Dalrymple had forbidden. Oceti Sakowin, the illegal camp, was now my home.

Unarmed Standing Rock protesters shot with water cannons in sub-freezing conditions.

On the ridge ahead of me, the reddish glare of construction lights cast an eerie glow on the low clouds and relentless snow. I was at the very edge of the Dakota Access Pipeline construction. This was the front line of resistance. Helicopters crossed the camp overhead, and returned to re-cross every few minutes.

After dark, I huddled alone in my tiny tent to the voice of the local sheriff on his loudspeaker. “You are breaking the law. You say you are peaceful, but you don’t know the definition of ‘peace.’ You can’t be peaceful while you defy the law. You are lawbreakers.”

North Dakota’s incarnation of Tokyo Rose carried on this dystopian serenade for about an hour. But he was armed, in the dark, and I had no idea how near.

I have been reading a book titled “Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow,” a fascinating account of Christian pastors in the Third Reich who stood up to the Nazis. Some survived the war. Many did not. Their bravery is deeply inspiring to me. I had assumed that bravery comes naturally.

It does not. As I lay in my tent, my spirit wavered. Am I really a criminal? Why did I decide to cross the Cannon Ball, anyway? Do I really have to confront the pepper spray and rubber bullets tomorrow? Can’t I help in some, you know, more appropriate way? After all, I’m way older than most people here.

Most conservative Christians I know take a dim view of law-breaking resistance. We are okay with the rebels of an earlier age. John Adams, Paul Revere and George Washington – we practically idolize these icons of our nation. And we have no quarrel with Corrie Ten Boom and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as they stood against the murderous Nazis. But Rev. Martin Luther King, or Dr. Daniel Ellsberg, or Fr. Daniel Berrigan – these contemporary outlaws of conscience – make us a little uneasy. Don’t they know about “submitting themselves to governing authorities?” This is a democracy; why don’t they change things from the inside?

And yet, even a cursory reading of the Gospels confronts us with a Savior who, time and again, paid little heed to the prevailing law. He violated the Sabbath; he dined with traitors; he proclaimed a kingdom in direct challenge to the emperor of his age. He even declared that he had a counter-weapon that would overwhelm the power of tyrants: You may think you can kill me, but I will rise again from the dead. Your one special trick – the power to kill – has now been rendered obsolete.

Is it really surprising that virtually all of his disciples ended up on the wrong side of the law?

Pepper spray victim receiving treatment from Sioux camp medics

And now, we consider the phalanx of powers arrayed against much that is sacred in our day. What will soon be the presidency, the Congress, and the judiciary – all aligned against almost anything resembling “good news to the poor,” Jesus’ self-proclaimed mission. All committed to the unfettered exploitation of God’s creation. All intent on casting off constraints on polluters. All eager to undermine global efforts to resist ecological chaos.

And against this massive force, can we possibly maintain a degree of loyalty to Messiah without risking the wrath of our nation’s law? Can we be faithful to God and neighbor while always playing by the rules of those in power?

In earlier days, pioneering leaders have modelled for us new methods of peaceful resistance. Gandhi, MLK, Mandela and Walesa have shown us what is possible when courage displaces violence. Today, I believe that the Standing Rock Sioux have taken their place among them in the pantheon of peaceful resistance.

Prayer, courage, compassion and kindness as tools of change. It’s on display at Standing Rock. Can we find a way to bottle it for use among the rest of us? By God’s grace, we must try.

Prior Standing Rock posts:

Standing Rock Reflections #2: Broken Treaties are not “History”

Hi. It’s John again. I promised you that I would report back from my time last week among the Lakota Sioux. You already know a lot about the events in Standing Rock:

  • tob_standingrockwinterlg01_custom-447228e62f73efc8e1a1e012f7b2ee19aaeb676c-s1000-c85

    Lakota Sioux and allies braving the Dakota winter to stop the DAPL pipeline.

    How some 10,000 unarmed people – indigenous and immigrants alike – have placed their bodies in the way of the “Black Snake” – the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline.

  • How police have fired on them with nearly every conceivable non-lethal weapon, injuring hundreds.
  • How thousands of American veterans have swelled the ranks of the indigenous protesters.
  • And how – for now – the US government has decided to deny further pipeline permits.

For the moment, the DAPL pipeline appears to be stopped. For now. And yesterday, I offered the first of a series of five reflections from my brief time resisting the DAPL pipeline. In brief, here they are:

  • The struggle for a survivable climate will not come away clean from other struggles for justice, like indigenous rights, racial justice and inequality. (I discussed this yesterday.)
  • Indigenous treaty rights are not a closed book, as though we can just shrug and blame it on Columbus, or Adam, or something else in the distant past. (Today. See below.)
  • Christians must engage with indigenous spirituality, without fear, without prejudice, and with confidence in the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
  • There are laws on the books today that are not worthy of our obedience. Many of us prefer to look honestly at unjust laws only in our history books, rather than in our newspapers.
  • Many Christians insist on seeing their ethics in black and white. But following Jesus into the arena of injustice may challenge our comfortable purity.

Those Broken Treaties: Not My Problem?

Indigenous treaty rights are not a closed book, as though we can just shrug and blame it on Columbus, or Adam, or something else in the distant past.

We all know the facts. Our nation has violated treaty after treaty with virtually every indigenous nation. We shake our heads piously at this theft of land, this genocide, based solely on the race of our treaty partners. But how does it end there? Has the passage of time absolved the guilt of racist genocide? How is it that we ourselves feel no obligation to honor treaty rights of those whose principal crime was that they occupied land that our race wanted?  This is not the sin of some distant “Adam,” which we can only lament, but recent actions that are only tolerated among us because of racism and power.

Source: National Geographic

Source: National Geographic

In Standing Rock, a stranger like me would hardly know that he is standing on a mere remnant of land legally allocated to the Oglalla Sioux in the days of my great-grandfather. In 1851, the United States and the Sioux nations bound themselves under the Treaty of Fort Laramie to recognize each other’s sovereign territory. The Great Sioux Reservation, recognized under the Treaty, spanned half of today’s South Dakota, one third of Nebraska, a quarter of Wyoming, plus parts of North Dakota and Montana to boot. At more than 100,000 square miles, it was larger than New York and Pennsylvania combined. It was larger than all six states of New England, plus New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland. Only eight states on today’s map are larger than the Sioux Nation, established by a binding treaty of the United States.

Since then, my country and race has repeatedly seized those lands – ultimately without even the pretense of rectitude, solely because of an assumed right of white Europeans to own the “empty lands” – Terra Nullius – before them. At its heart was radical racism: Lands that are not occupied by English-speaking white people are empty, available for conquest, regardless of treaty obligations.

Source: National Geographic

Source: National Geographic

And while we almost all think of these land grabs as distant historical artifacts, the Standing Rock Sioux lost one-quarter of their homes without consent in 1958, when the US government dammed the Missouri River, creating Lake Oahe, which inundated Sioux riverfront communities.

And now, in many political circles, the Sioux are vilified because, in their defense of the creation, they are trespassing on Federal lands outside of the final remnant of their territry. No matter that those very lands have been seized with impunity – even during our own lifetimes.

What Can We Do? 

I was surprised to hear that in June 2016, the Christian Reformed Church (CRCNA) adopted a report repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery – the Christian edict originating in the 1500s which provided theological cover for the racist seizure of Native lands in the New World.

“What’s a modern-day church doing unearthing arcane papal edicts?” I wondered at the time.

Well, it turns out that they were doing something sorely needed, as a start. The CRCNA operated boarding schools which indigenous children were forced to attend as a tool of assimilation into European culture – right into the 1900s. Furthermore, many CRCNA churches and their members occupy unceded native treaty lands. As such, they are the beneficiaries of land theft.

“We don’t like to hear these stories, but we drink downstream from them,” said CRCNA task force member Mike Hogeterp during the 2016 synod. “We cannot change that brokenness today, but perhaps in truth-telling and lament as a first posture we can begin to reconcile.”

Truth-telling. Lament. Reconciliation.

We saw that displayed vividly yesterday in Standing Rock. In a ground-breaking “Forgiveness Ceremony,” US military veterans confessed American crimes against the Sioux people.

Here are the words of the veterans’ spokesman, Wesley Clark, Jr. “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 faces of our presidents onto your sacred mountain. … 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.”

Some will say: These are mere words. And perhaps that’s fair enough. But we cannot begin to atone, and to reconcile, without words. And even more, these same veterans have come to Standing Rock to place themselves on the front lines in defense of the Sioux people struggling to protect the earth and their homes from the DAPL pipeline.

Where does atonement for crimes against Native Americans lead us? I cannot say. But if we are serious in our prayers for God to heal our land, then we must begin to pray, to learn and to act. For starters, whose land do you live on? I’m on Lenape land. How about you? Can we find the elders of our land’s true owners?

Do we even dare to try?

Standing Rock Reflections: It’s All One Struggle

Hi. This is John. I promised you that I would report from my time last week in North Dakota, where I was among those supporting the Standing Rock Sioux. You already know a lot about the events in Standing Rock:

  • How some 10,000 unarmed people – indigenous and immigrants alike – have placed their bodies in the way of the “Black Snake” – the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipe Line – as it advances toward completion under the Missouri River.
  • How police have fired on them with nearly every conceivable non-lethal weapon, including water cannons in subfreezing temperatures, concussion grenades, rubber bullets and mace that have injured hundreds.
  • How thousands of American veterans have swelled the ranks of the indigenous protesters, to place their lives on the line once again – this time facing the weapons of American police.
  • And how – for now – the US government has decided not to issue necessary permits for the DAPL pipeline to slice further into Sioux treaty lands.
The sprawling Aceti Sakowin Camp near the front line of the DAPL pipeline resistance.

The Aceti Sakowin Camp near the front line of the DAPL resistance. The pipeline runs along the ridge beyond..

For now, the pipeline appears to be stopped. For now, the military muscle and corporate might behind this enormous project seems to have been overcome by a modern day incarnation of Gideon and his tiny remnant of unarmed soldiers. But friends, it’s not nearly over. It’s only just begun. More on that in a few days…

But for starters, you’ve asked for my impressions from first-hand experience among this peaceful resistance. I can only tell you how my personal biases have been challenged, and my vision has been focused. So without pretense of any special wisdom, here are some of my take-home thoughts from the stance of Standing Rock Sioux:

  • The struggle for a survivable climate will not come away clean from other struggles for justice, like indigenous rights, racial justice and inequality.
  • Indigenous treaty rights are not a closed book, as though we can just shrug and blame it on Columbus, or Adam, or something else in the distant past.
  • Christians must engage with indigenous spirituality, without fear, without prejudice, and with confidence in the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
  • Many of us prefer to look honestly at unjust laws in our history books, rather than in our newspapers. But there are laws on the books today that are not worthy of our obedience.
  • Many Christians insist on seeing their ethics in black and white. But following Jesus into the arena of injustice may challenge our comfortable purity.

It’s All One Struggle

The struggle for a survivable climate will not come away clean from other struggles for justice, like indigenous rights, racial justice and inequality. We are fighting for each other now.

In America, it’s a tragic fact that climate action is largely a Caucasian passion. We see Latinos facing the onslaught of mass deportation from the xenophobic spirit of the age. African-Americans are facing mass incarceration under a system of justice that seems designed with them uniquely in mind. Muslims are fearful of being registered, monitored or interned because of their faith. The poor and sick are afraid of losing their only lifeline to decent medical care. Marginal communities are being bullied, harassed and hated on subways, in stores and in schoolyards.

But in this dark era, suburban middle-class whites have the “luxury” of caring about climate change – something that can multiply virtually every other problem, and ultimately threaten world civilization, but probably not for another few decades.

So they’ve got their issues, we say. We’ve got ours.

But among the thousands at Standing Rock, it’s becoming clear how firmly bound together these threats really are. You’re worried about migration? Climate disruption is driving millions on a desperate search for food and stability – like we’ve already seen in Syria, Somalia and Darfur. We wonder why black lives don’t seem to matter to so many of us? And yet people of color know they are many times more likely to suffer the effects of polluted water, air and soil than white people. And they’re more likely to need related medical care, whether or not they can afford it. We’re worried about religious tensions between Muslims and Christians? Yet much of Muslim Middle East and North Africa is being rendering nearly uninhabitable by desertification and epic droughts.

And finally, the beleaguered survivors of the American indigenous genocide turn out to be the closest thing we’ve seen to the “sons of God” for whom the injured earth is groaning (see Romans 8:19).

My fellow white Christian earth-keepers, if I’m learning anything from Standing Rock, it’s this: Whatever right I once thought I had to ignore marginalized communities in the name of environmental focus, it’s too high a price to pay. If I want God to hear my cries for his creation under the lash of the consumerist petro-state, I’m going to have to heed his call to bind the wounds of my suffering neighbors on the Jericho Road.

End note: Friends, please come back tomorrow to consider Indigenous Treaty Rights. I went to Standing Rock thinking that broken treaties were unfortunate artifacts of history. Not so much anymore.