Why Standing Rock Matters

(guest sermon for Evergreen UU)

Good morning.  I had some trouble deciding how to start what I wanted to share this morning.  Lots of electrons bit the dust on my computer.  But then I remembered something I was told in seminary.  Start with the personal.

Particularly these days, people like to put social media down.  But in August of this year, I would have known next to nothing about Standing Rock if it were not for social media.

Lawrence O’Donnell, who has a program called “The Last Word” had done a powerful segment both on Standing Rock and reviewing the sordid history the United States’ mistreatment of our First Peoples.  I saw it as it made the rounds on Facebook and strongly recommend the segment.  If you go to You Tube and search for “O’Donnell Standing Rock”, you’ll find it.  Still timely.  Sadly it is still so very timely.

It remained tough to get updates.  Neither the NY Times nor the WA Post were all that interested.  But Democracy Now was interested, and Amy Goodman was arrested and threatened with jail for having the audacity to document what was happening.  What was happening?  Dogs had been set on the Sioux and their allies who were peacefully gathered to protect their rights and their only natural source of clean drinking water.  Goodman’s case was thrown out.  But other daring journalists have been threatened as well, including documentarian Deia Schlosberg, who was facing up to 45 years in jail for recording what was happening and only this week was at last informed that her prosecution would be “suspended.”

But as August turned into September and then October, I was becoming increasingly alarmed.  The authorities had been shamed out of using dogs to attack the peaceful assembly.  Now they used pepper spray, mace, sound cannons – with worse to come.  Over and over again, the police would create a confrontation, and then resort to violence to “resolve” the confrontation they themselves had created.  For the seniors among us, when I see Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier I am reminded with a shiver down my spine of another Sheriff: Jim Clark of Dallas County in Alabama who likewise used violence in his day, the 1960’s, against peaceful civil rights marchers.

I was a shade too young to march with Dr. King in the 60’s, still in High School when Sheriff Clark called on the KKK to help him keep peaceful protestors in line.  Now, seeing it all over again, it tore at me.  What could I do?  I felt I needed to be at Standing Rock, but I didn’t know how to be effective there.  Then, thanks to social media, I saw a post of a friend who lives in Georgia.  It spoke of a clergy call to come to Standing Rock.

This call was just a week before the date we were asked to be there.  But it was important, hugely important to me.  So I made arrangements.  My ears don’t allow me to fly, and I frankly wasn’t well enough to drive 18 hours, so I travelled by train.

As it turned out, I was one of more than 500 clergy from a multitude of faith traditions across the United States who answered this call from Rev. John Floberg of the Standing Rock Episcopal Church to, “Come and stand witness with the Standing Rock Nation in its protest.”

There was violence the very day I arrived, the day before we would officially gather as clergy to witness with and support our brothers and sisters of the Standing Rock Nation. We met for several hours that evening of the day of violence, so we had real safety concerns as we listened to presentations and become at least marginally organized for the events of the day to follow.  Rev. Floberg had expected about 100 participants just the week before.  He was blown away that well over 500 clergy (plus many allies who were not clergy) would within a week, just like me, simply put their lives on hold and descend upon Standing Rock in support. How he managed even a semblance of organization is truly miraculous.

In a moment, we’ll speak of the Doctrine of Discovery.  I was aware of it before Standing Rock, and I’m told much of the congregation here is as well.  But quickly for those who may not be: in the mid-fifteenth century, the European powers were setting sail to explore the world beyond that known to Europe.  The Christian Church had begun to establish it before then but laid out a clear Doctrine of Discovery once Columbus returned from the Americas.  The doctrine encouraged Christian European nations to claim possession of and conquer the lands they “discovered.” Indigenous peoples had no acknowledged rights.  None.  A bit of background.

The next morning, over 500 of us gathered and listened as one Christian denomination after another renounced and denounced the Doctrine of Discovery–which, by the way, played a role as the United States expanded west.  A copy of that doctrine was then burned in the sacred fire that the gathered Water Protectors kept alive day and night.  It was a powerful moment and I was so very glad to be there.  We then marched close to but not onto the bridge that just the day before had seen so much violence.

We were fortunate that no police violence was initiated while we gathered and spoke … though police did continually buzz us with a helicopter (to make sure we clergy didn’t do anything untoward).  We heard from members of the Standing Rock Sioux as well as clergy representing a multitude of spiritual paths.  I was hugely honored and humbled to be asked to lead an interfaith prayer at this gathering of so many committed people.  That too was for me a very powerful and sacred moment.

It felt important to me to be at Standing Rock, supporting our Sioux brothers and sisters who, like all of our indigenous brothers and sisters, have seen too many treaties ignored, too many rights violated, and too many centuries of disrespect.

One of the distressing secrets of today … right now … is how in so many ways so little has changed.  As we are all I hope and trust much too aware, racism remains not only a stain but a cancer within our culture.  And while racism against people of color is at least much more frequently called out for what it is, are we even aware, I wonder, of how much racism exists concerning our indigenous brothers and sisters?

A few quick examples.  In the World Series this year, one of the teams was the Cleveland Indians.  I wonder how many of us were bothered or even thought about that?  How would we have reacted as a country if a team called the Minnesota Negroes were competing in the World Series?  If you watched the World Series, you probably saw grinning “Chief Wahoo” on baseball caps, jerseys and posters.  How many of us did that bother?  Or did we even think about it?  And there’s the Washington Redskins in the NFL.  There’s been some heat.  But do you think the “N” word would be allowed as the name of a football team?  What about the Washington Pollocks?  Or the Kikes?  How is it then that we still have the Redskins?

A few moments ago we sang, “Singer of Life.”  I’ve always liked it.  But buried in that song’s history is something I didn’t know until I went to Standing Rock. We sang a song there, meant for church, that had been written in Lakota.  But for years no member of the tribe was allowed to sing it in Lakota.  It could only be sung in English.  At Standing Rock, as best we could, we sang it in the original Lakota – over 500 non-Lakota speaking clergy.  What blew me away was that that Lakota melody is the one, used with different lyrics, in “Singer of Life.”  I was reminded of my friend Debra, a minister at the Interfaith Community Sanctuary in Ballard, who shared with me similar stories; deeply personal stories, of attempts to suppress, indeed obliterate Native culture.

As a nation we took whatever we wanted from the Native Americans, then unilaterally “renegotiated” when we found something new we desired.  We shoved them onto reservations and forbade them their language.  We did everything possible to make them invisible.  And it worked.

Something else I learned while at Standing Rock has more recently become more widely known.  It too shows us how facilely our culture has trained itself to ignore Native Americans and Native American culture.

As unearthed by the Bismarck Tribune – Early in the planning process, May of 2014, the Dakota Access application had as the route for the pipeline a path that crossed the Missouri River about 10 miles north of Bismarck.  The residents of Bismarck were opposed.  The Army Corp of Engineers evaluated the route and one reason given for this not being a viable route was that this was a “high consequence” area – meaning that a spill here could have significant adverse consequences.

Ok then, the application was changed and the route for the pipeline moved.  In September 2014, just four months later, the revised application was for a pipeline to cross the Missouri River miles further south, near the Standing Rock reservation.  Bismarck need not worry any more.

A spill here could only affect the Sioux.  Hardly a “high consequence” area.  The Sioux, once again, made invisible.

Then there’s the matter of a pipeline through sacred ground.  As Rev. Floberg put it: “Can you imagine the uproar if an oil pipeline were proposed to be run through the cemetery at Gettysburg?”  But here: no uproar.

I believe that one reason that the Standing Rock Sioux and their indigenous brothers and sisters from around the country are determined to stand their ground, in the face of attack dogs, mace, pepper spray, rubber bullets, water cannons and sub-freezing temperatures is a determination not to be invisible any more.

As the minister of a church based upon mutual respect and affirmation of our diverse spiritual paths, I deeply believe we are all one family, made more beautiful by our differences to be sure, but all one family.  None of our family should be considered invisible.

And yet…and yet, with all of this: the question remains, what do we do now?  What do we think?  Important, sure.  How do we feel?  Also important.  But what is crucial to me is what will we do?

Today is another day that clergy have been called to Standing Rock.  Not physically able to go back there, I was glad to be asked to be here.  To witness.

What shall we do?  We can help our indigenous brothers and sisters not to be invisible!  A few weeks ago, I participated in a small show of support of Standing Rock in Lynnwood, unable to go to the much, much larger gathering in Seattle.  I would encourage an organized show of support here.  I’ll gladly lend you a few signs.

Have you called the President?  If not, I would urge you to call the comment line and urge that the President do the honorable thing and support the Sioux of Standing Rock.  This is not politics.  This is not left or right.  This is honoring treaties with the Sioux nation.  This is honoring justice.  This is holding up a people that we have too long held down, often by design but frequently by indifference.

And stay alert.  We may all have to act quickly.  In 1948 we overcame the Russian Blockade of Berlin with airlifts and food drops.  We may have to duplicate that effort on our own soil.  As of this moment, both the Governor of North Dakota and the Sheriff of Morton County are trying to shut off all supplies from reaching the Water Protectors at Standing Rock.  They seek to make them invisible.  Again.

In closing, we are only helpless if we allow ourselves to be helpless.  We are only voiceless if we choose not to speak.  Why is Standing Rock important?  Because justice is important.


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