Standing with Standing Rock: It’s more than just a pipeline - Part 2: Action

After lunch with most of the DioCal delegation, we headed to the camp, greeted at the entrance by signs insisting “No drugs, alcohol, or firearms,” directing new campers to obligatory non-violent direct action training, and, facing the highway, a banner, probably intended for would-be attackers, that proclaimed “We are unarmed.” 


Inside we found an orderly, stable, clean mini-city digging in for the long haul. A main road was lined with the flags of nearly every Native American nation, smoke rose from a couple of well-supplied kitchens, and winter clothes were being distributed from several depots. Shelters ranged from the tiny one-person variety to huge army tents and dozens of tipis.

Main Street Oceti Sakowin

In a central square a sacred fire burned continuously. On one side of the square a steady stream of announcements emanated from an open-air administrative booth.
Off to the south was a small stable for the beautiful horses later ridden bareback by a protectors’ cavalry and, on a hill, a variety of “offices” housed a media team, the Indigenous Environmental Network, and a legal aid/medical team of attorneys and physicians. It was at that latter tent that the seriousness of the endeavor hit home. 

Briefed on what to expect and how to behave if arrested, we filled out forms with our next of kin contacts and special needs and were urged to write the legal aid phone number on our arms. I was somewhat amused, when, having later remembered my need for my asthma inhale, I returned to note that on the form I had filled out earlier. Rifling through a stack of forms, a member of the staff found mine, now bearing a stencil pen star and a circle around the “transgender” I had included under “special concerns.”

Taking care of legal affairs

For three days, we spent time walking around the camp, meeting the campers, and listening… above all listening…listening to the stories, the history of indignities, the yearning for justice. I again recalled those Lakota words of wisdom “Listen to the wind, it speaks. Listen to the silence, it talks. Listen to the heart, it knows.” It was clear that what was about water had evolved into something even bigger. It was no longer just about a pipeline.

That was a theme that we heard later that evening during non-violence training in the gym of the Cannon Ball School, as one tribal leader after another described the richness of their culture and how they had been denied access to it.

At that meeting, John Floberg, who had earlier been handed a check for $2,000 from All Souls, Berkeley, stressed again and again that our witness the next day was to be peaceful, prayerful, and legal. It was, therefore, saddening to see a rump group of Presbyterians take the microphone under false pretenses and urge provocative actions that would surely lead to arrests and most likely violence.

John preaches non-violence

Despite that effort, our action the next day, November 3, unfolded peacefully and indeed prayerfully. For some of us it began with a 7:30 am sunrise Eucharist at Floberg’s St. James Church. North Dakota Bishop Michael Smith presided and Deacon Brandon Mauai, a member of the Standing Rock tribe, delivered a moving sermon about how he had been denied his heritage, how he would ensure that his children would not, and how he would forgive.

After a breakfast on the run — a banana in my pocket and a bagel smothered in peanut butter — we drove in caravan to the camp. I’ll never forget the shouted “Thank You”s from the campers assembled on the hill. Gathering at the sacred fire under the rising sun, leaders of our different faith traditions read our renunciations of the Doctrine of Discovery. Elders from the several tribal nations then burned a copy of the hated document in an abalone shell.


Renouncing and burning the Doctrine of Discovery

In our hundreds, we were individually blessed by those elders with the smoke of burning sage, as we marched in silence to the bridge. For a stretch, I was blessed to help Warren Wong carry the huge Episcopal flag that has flown so many years from San Francisco’s St. James Church.

We were sent off with a blessing

Beyond the bridge, close to forty police cars and a few armored vehicles stood ready to repel the faithful. Overhead, a police helicopter circled low in an apparent effort to drown out our prayers and songs. Perhaps they felt threatened by the rousing rendition of “Wade in the water” by the Rev. Cn. Stephanie Spellers, canon to the Presiding Bishop. 
As the prayers turned to speeches, I drifted to the fringes, anxious to talk with others in the crowd — a Muslim couple, a rabbi, a developmentally disabled deacon, the Native Americans from Standing Rock and as far away as Mexico and the Ecuadoran Amazon, the young warriors on horseback guarding the bridge, lest the previous night’s troublemakers seek to spark a confrontation.


Jews                                                                                                       Christians

Warriors on their horses

And, at the end, we formed a huge Niobrara Circle of Life, each of us walking the circle, passing the peace. How incredibly moving to look into each other’s eyes, to shake each other’s hand, as we offered our “Peace,” a greeting I interspersed with “Shalom,” “Salaam,” “Paz del Señor, and the occasional African greeting “I see you.” Having removed my sun glasses to do just that, I left myself vulnerable. They could see my tears. But, then, too, I could see theirs.

The Niobrara Circle

The East Bay chapter of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship is planning to host an early January forum to share the experiences of those who have been to Standing Rock and to provide information to others who may wish to go or otherwise support the people of Standing Rock. Those interested in sharing their experiences and those interested in learning more at such a forum should contact Vicki Gray at or 707.554.0672.