The Courage To Stand

As we journey through Advent we actively—wait. I am of Lakota heritage, and hold in my heart, in my prayers, and in my spirit, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, also waiting, and doing so actively. For well over a year the tribe has been objecting to a proposed route for the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which would carry crude oil through their reservation lands. These objections have been in the form of litigation and fierce feet-on-the-ground activism. 

The Standing Rock Sioux Reservation is situated in North and South Dakota. 

There are individual tribes within the Sioux nation, each having distinct cultural, linguistic, territorial and political histories. The people of Standing Rock are members of the Dakota and Lakota nations. 

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, having signed treaties as equals with the United States Government which established the original boundaries of the Great Sioux Nation, stands by its position that these treaty rights are just as applicable today as on the day they were made (tribal history and statistics from standingrock.org). 

People who objected to the DAPL began camping close to the proposed route, to monitor the site and protect the land, water, and sacred sites that would be impacted by the pipeline. Oceti Sakowin means the Seven Council Fires, and is the proper name for the people commonly known as the Sioux, and has become the name used to refer to the Standing Rock camp at the pipeline site. 

As word spread through social media, independent journalists, and within Indigenous circles, coalitions of representatives from tribes in North and South America arrived to stand in solidarity with Standing Rock. 

The momentum of this solidarity is awe-inspiring. 

Nations with long histories of conflict have come together bringing about reconciliation and unity. The Oceti Sakowin camp is the largest assembly of tribes since the Great Sioux Nation assembled with other tribes before the battle of the Greasy Grass (Little Big Horn) in 1876. But unlike the previous gathering, this camp is unarmed and dedicated to prayerful peaceful protection of the water, land, and sacred sites of the Standing Rock people.

Beyond the amazing coming together of Indigenous peoples from around the world, thanks in no small part to reporting in real time via social media, this environmental action has reached beyond Indigenous communities. People from all walks of life, and from cultures around the world have demonstrated the courage to stand with Standing Rock.

The first amendment of the United States Constitution provides for the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. And yet, private security and local law enforcement personnel in riot gear have met the Water Protectors at the Oceti Sakowin camp exercising that right. Unarmed people standing to address their grievances have been met with rubber bullets, tear gas, mace canisters, concussion grenades, and water cannons. 

Water Protectors and journalists covering the ongoing conflict at Standing Rock have been arrested, some to be later released while others were detained. 

In spite of this violent response, the people assembled at Oceti Sakowin have the courage to stand in peaceful, prayerful opposition to a pipeline that would desecrate sacred sites and compromise the quality of drinking water for millions of people native and non-native alike. 

As the situation escalated, a group of veterans known as “Veterans for Standing Rock” reached out to fellow veterans to assemble as a peaceful, unarmed militia who would stand in protection of the Water Protectors at Standing Rock. The veterans raised money for their own expenses, and arrived as an assembly of over two thousand veterans who had the courage to stand. 

Not only were these veterans present to stand between peaceful unarmed people and the armed law enforcement and security personnel charged to protect the DAPL interests, they were also there to stand in the presence of Native elders. Wes Clark Jr., the son of retired U.S. Army general and former supreme commander at NATO, spoke for the assembled group of veterans as they met with Lakota elders:

"We fought you. We took your land. We signed treaties that we broke.”

He continued: “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." 

The elders were moved by the way in which this group of veterans owned and apologized for atrocities inflicted upon Native American people by their predecessors. Leski Leonard Crow Dog not only granted forgiveness in a very moving ceremony, but also displayed courage and humility in asking for forgiveness for any hurt that might have been caused June 25, 1876, when the Great Sioux Nation defeated the 7th Cavalry at the battle known as Custer’s Last Stand. Crow Dog spoke of the power of reconciliation, forgiveness, and world peace. You can see a video of the ceremony of apology and forgiveness here.

The Department of the Army announced on December 4, 2016, that it would not approve an easement that would allow the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline to cross under Lake Oahe. Celebration and jubilation spread through the Oceti Sakowin camp, and social media lit up with headlines of celebration. 

However, the fight is far from over. 

Energy Transfer Partners says the denial of an easement necessary to drill under the Missouri River is of no consequence for its plans to complete the project. 

On Wednesday, I had the honour to lead a litany at Chicago Theological Seminary (CTS), where seminarians, faculty, and staff demonstrated the courage to stand in solidarity with Standing Rock. Incorporated into our observance of Advent, as an embodied group we named the ways in which Creator has drawn boundaries between the earth and the sky, the land and the water, and spoke words of covenant with Standing Rock drawing a line between the sacredness of water and unfettered corporate greed. 

One might not expect a Christian seminary community to incorporate activism with Advent. I am proud to say that in spite of the hectic end of semester rush, and in the midst of Advent, the CTS community created sacred space, voiced commitment, and demonstrated the courage to Stand with Standing Rock, for the protection of the water and the earth, as well as the safety for the Water Protectors.

The Standing Rock Tribe, and the vast community of Water Protectors on the ground in North Dakota and in support around the world, are of one mind. 

We are in this for the long haul. 

Standing Rock has become much more than a place, much more than a activation of First Amendment rights, much more than an Indigenous issue, and has become a human issue, as well as a symbol of fierce environmental stewardship, and a symbol for the Courage to Stand. 

During this Advent season, as we await the arrival of the Messiah, may we also remember all who wait for deliverance from oppression. May we remember those who seek liberation from those who value fossil fuels over land and water, money over the sanctity of God’s creation; and as we are able may we each have the Courage to Stand.

Photo by Avery White via Oceti Sakowin Camp

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