Saturday, November 5, 2016

Thoughts about Standing Rock

“Shall we gather at the river?”

There are more than 500 clergy from at least 22 faith traditions gathered on that bridge near the confluence of the Missouri and Cannon Ball Rivers just feet away from the northern boundary of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. They are wearing robes, cassocks, albs, and stoles of such variety and colors. Some carry crosses and other symbols of their tradition.

They are Presbyterians, Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Unitarian Universalists, Buddhists, Disciples of Christ, Muslims, one fellow who identifies as a Christian-Druid, and others. There hasn’t been such religious unity since the day before Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door at Wittenberg.

Each of us received the blessing of the smoke from a Tribal elder as we walked out of the camp onto a road toward the bridge, a line of demarcation between those who come to defend the rights of the Native Peoples and those dispatched by Governors like Matt Mead of Wyoming to defend the rights of the oil companies.

The interfaith multitude begins singing. “Shall we gather at the river, where bright angel feet have trod, with its crystal tide forever, that flows by the throne of God.” We barely finish the first verse when a security helicopter dips low across the gathering. The harsh juddering thrum of its rotating blades overrides the merciful sounds of the hymn.

It’s an apt metaphor for what I witnessed during a brief stay at Standing Rock Indian Reservation. For months the Dakota Sioux have been joined by hundreds of other Native and non-Native peoples in protesting plans for a pipeline. The protests began when the pipeline was re-routed. It was initially to pass through the Missouri River north of Bismarck. Powerful politicians at the North Dakota capitol said, “No, not here.” They worried the pipeline could burst. That happens too often with these pipelines. Bismarck rightly worried their water supply would be threatened.

The Army Corp of Engineers agreed. The threat to Bismarck’s water was just too great. They agreed not to build it there. The pipeline was re-routed. Now it would pass a few feet north of the Standing Rock Reservation. The Tribe’s objections mirrored those of the white folks in Bismarck. However, the Sioux got a different response.

Like the noise of the helicopter competing with the lyrics of the hymn, one side drowns out the hopes of the other. And yet the sounds of the hymn are not lost in the North Dakota wind. The hymn singers never stopped singing and as the helicopter makes its wide turn around the camp to circled back, the sounds of music could be heard again. The clergy continue to march toward the river, singing all along. “Soon we’ll reach the shining river, soon our pilgrimage will cease, soon our happy hearts will quiver with the melody of peace.”

We stopped just short of a blockade. A few burned out trucks blocked the road. On the other said was a large militarized force. It included officers from the Wyoming Highway Patrol. We are warned there are snipers on the hillside above the bridge. We can see military vehicles and the heavily armed officers.

There are speeches. As we watch and listen, soldiers loom menacingly over the backs of each speaker. The speakers come from many faith traditions, several countries, and sovereign Native nations. There are words of forgiveness among words of pain. Some words are harsh and angry. Others are reconciling and forgiving. Some thank the white clergy for coming. Others ask what took us so long to join the cause.

One tells a story of the day his grandfather took him the river. As he tossed a stone into the water, he asked the young boy to watch not the stone, but the circles it created. He said that what we were doing on that bride was like the stone. It is the responsibility of each of us, the speaker says, to make certain the circles created by the experiences of that day resonate among all peoples.

At my feet appeared a dog, a beautiful old dog with coloring like I had never seen. His fur was black and brown mixed with some white, yellow and red. His gentle face invited touch. After but a moment with me and with no awareness of the tension between the two sides gathered at that bridge, he wondered away into the crowd. That old dog reminded me of Leslie Silko’s novel about the Native American experience, “Ceremony.”

“Tayo though about the animals then…and the way they drifted with the wind. Only humans had to endure anything because only humans resisted what they saw outside themselves.  Animals did not resist. But they persisted because they became a part of the wind.”

Let us pray that the words spoken and the hymns sang that morning on the bridge become a part of the same wind.

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