Thursday, November 17, 2016

Call for Clergy to Standing Rock - Unitarian Universalism on the Bridge

by Rev. Jim Parrish, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fayetteville, Arkansas

On November 3rd, 2016, more than 550 clergy from a variety of denominations participated in a demonstration of solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux of North Dakota. We symbolically stood with them in their opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline installation that endangers their water source, the Missouri River. The gathered ministers, rabbis, and other religious leaders answered the call of the tribal Elders and Father John Froberg, supervising priest of the Episcopal church at Standing Rock, to provide protective witness to the Standing Rock Sioux Nation and their water protectors. The action, I believe, put a spotlight on the inherent racism surrounding decisions about where the pipeline is now located, how it is being financed and built, and moral and ethical questions that are not raised adequately in our nation. These are deeply religious questions about our relationship to people whose history and sense of the sacred are not part of the larger culture; people who, in fact, have been marginalized, if not brutalized, since the beginnings of European occupation of this continent. The question about our relationship to our planet is one of exploitation as well. 

The Dakota Access Pipeline, or DAPL, is being built across the upper midwest to bring crude oil from the Bakken fracking oil fields of northwest North Dakota to a shipping point in Illinois. It crosses a number of rivers and streams, most notably the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. The easiest way to show the relationship of DAPL to the Standing Rock Reservation and its closest city, Bismarck, ND, the state capital, is with this map: 

The map shows the proposed pipeline route above Bismarck, and the present route just above the Reservation (still within treaty lands), and the encampments of protest camps, as well as the reservation and treaty boundaries. 

There are two questions that concern the Sioux people of the Standing Rock Reservation and its allies: that there wasn’t thorough vetting of lands that have sacred, historical meaning to the tribes, and even more important, that the pipeline is routed to tunnel under the Missouri river (Lake Oahe) just above their reservation, where an inevitable break and spill would ruin their water supply, further endangering an already economically and socially marginalized people. 

The proposed route above Bismarck, ND, would be across a narrower part of the Missouri, and I assume across private lands. It is easy to see that the good people of Bismarck, and the landed folk along that northern route, might be concerned about the possibility of spills into their water supply, as well as disruption of their farming and other commerce. But this becomes the moral question for our country and its corporate religious culture, and the reason to stand with our brothers and sisters of Standing Rock: why wouldn’t we, as a moral people, tell the corporation building this pipeline that all the people of Bismarck, along with the people of Standing Rock, that we would together risk this pipeline being built on their water supply if it was that necessary? That we, as one people, insist that the corporation invest their profits in building techniques that safeguard all of these people on the northern route, instead of implying that, “we will take the route of least resistance, and risk the lives of people we don’t care about?” I’m sure folks will point out that there were “hearings” and public meetings to determine all of this, but we know how those work, and how it is inevitable that our pipelines, power plants and landfills end up where people with the least power have to deal with their pollution, health risks and economic degradation. 

Now that sounds harsh, but that is the message that has been given to the people of Standing Rock. It is the message they have been hearing for centuries. It is a miracle that indigenous people are standing up now to say this is wrong, and it is an even greater miracle that the clergy of a number of prominent Christian and other denominations came to stand beside them. It is a miracle because our religious culture has been part of this kind of colonial oppression for a very long time. For Christianity, it became clear with the writing of the Doctrine of Discovery (Papal Bulls) and its religious permission for exploitation by colonial governments since the days of Christopher Columbus. Christianity and most of its variations, including Unitarian Universalism, have carried in their DNA this doctrine of “wherever we go, we have the right to raise up the heathen by any means.” Governments of colonial countries, like the U.S. in its sense of “Manifest Destiny,” are happy to have it in their corporate DNA as well. Native Americans have suffered from this oppression, genocide really, since the beginning of the European occupation, and a simple pipeline seems like nothing to most of the people in this nation. Put the pipeline where it “costs the least,” so we can make a profit from it. Done. 

But the people of Standing Rock, other native tribes, environmentalists, and allies just said no… this was too much, they’d had enough. The pipeline is a clear threat to their lives, to their culture, and they took a stand. They built camps on the pipeline route, they appealed to the government, they asked for time, they asked for help. They did not arm, opting for non-violent but admittedly active protest, and they were met with militarized police, corporate mercenaries with dogs, “non-lethal” bullets, sound cannons and pepper spray. Their camps are harassed by constant noise from helicopters, airplanes, drones, and floodlights. Their pleas to have sacred grounds recognized were bulldozed over, and their forward camps in the path of the pipeline were razed, with people hurt and property damaged. Standing Rock has became a front line between corporate United States, and people on the edge; people who have found a renewed pride in their history, and a sense of purpose in survival and preserving their culture and heritage. That is the most basic and powerful purpose we humans can have.

Corporate America and governments, national and state, were not responsive to the pleas of the tribes, allowing the standoff to continue, knowing that the pipeline would just “happen” since their “troops” had control. Even calls by President Obama to halt building until a new route could be assessed were ignored. So the Clergy Call to Standing Rock was made. Father John Froberg, in support of the Tribal Elders, asked for ministers of all denominations to come and show solidarity with the cause. To me, and others, this was not unlike the call Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. made to Selma in 1964, a moral call of support to an oppressed people. I asked myself if this was on the same scale of the Civil Rights movement of that time, and the answer came back that is was not only a continuation, but a growth in scope and importance in ways that MLK was trying take the movement before his death. 

Our ongoing civil rights movement in the US has been revitalized by Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ gains, workers rights/minimum wage and immigration issues among others. The brutal reality is that marginalized people all over this earth are the the first to suffer from climate change. Standing Rock is on the front line, representing oppressed people of all colors and ethnicities, decrying doctrines and policies that keep them colonized and marginalized in our society. It is also a statement of opposition to one of the primary global warming industries, fossil fuels. Not only does the pipeline threaten a water supply, but oil extraction by fracking threatens water and life, pollutes the air, and contributes to our growing carbon footprint. Standing Rock is a global statement for civil and environmental rights. So I had to go… and so did many Unitarian Universalists. 

All of the above is to frame the questions, the wondering, the emotions that I felt as I traveled to the Standing Rock Reservation with eight other UU clergy, a Pennsylvania Rabbi and her student. We took one of four vans provided by the Minnesota UU Social Justice Association, who provided transportation and housing. MUUSJA (sound it out) played a central role in getting over 30 clergy to Standing Rock, and should be commended. Wednesday evening, November 3rd, Father John Floberg greeted us at the gymnasium in the little town of Cannonball, ND. Cannonball is just south of the forward camp, Oceti Sakowin, the small city of around 2000 water protectors. He explained to the crowd of over 500 that he had expected around 100 clergy to show up, so after a while he had to quit planning details, and just let it all happen. His organizing admirably fed all of us, and led us through a meaningful, powerful program of solidarity with the peoples of Standing Rock. 

John instructed us in the program, and we were reminded that we were there to be in companionship, in witness, to listen, learn, and state our solidarity with the tribes in their purpose to save their water and culture from DAPL. We would denounce the doctrines and policies that put people like the Dakota Sioux in harm’s way. We listened to native speakers who taught us local history, thanked us graciously, and reminded us that we were walking in a partnership with people who have felt alone, their stories not listened to, their lives not valued. Father John then directed us to gather into our different denominational groups to greet each other, and we discovered that Unitarian Universalists would likely have over 50 participants in the action, including the president of our Association. As we retired to our various hotels and tents,  I have to say I felt some pride in our gathered UUs, and I hoped it meant we were serious about this witness.

The next day we traveled to Cannonball once again, and then, with the 550, up the highway to the water protesters’ main camp, Oceti Sakowin. 

We gathered in a circle around the camp’s Sacred Fire, its heart, a fire to be tended night and day until the camp was no longer. We listened as Father John and representatives of denominations read from a document of denunciation of the Doctrine of Discovery, including our UU President Peter Morales. A copy of the document was offered to the Elders, asking if they might burn it in their Sacred Fire. The Elders deliberated, and declined to sully their fire with such an evil thing, but an alternate way was found to burn the copy, and we briefly celebrated the symbolism. It was time to move to the front line of the action.

We were smudged twice in purification as we left the circle to walk a mile or so north on highway 1806 to the Backwater Bridge over the Cannonball river, the edge between the Water Protectors and the militarized corporate and state police. At the north end of the bridge the police left two burned military style transports parked nose to nose blocking the highway. We gathered at the south end of the bridge to hear speakers declare solidarity, prayers, singing, hymns and chanting. At one point, a delegation of Elders, clergy and water protectors with banners and a US flag in distress position, walked north onto the bridge to meet the leaders of the police on the other side. They offered prayers of peace, chants and song, then returned to share chanting and song with our main group. The hours were full and went quickly, and in early afternoon our official witness was concluded with a Niobrara Circle of Life. Our 500 plus formed a circle, and the leaders started on the inside of the circle exchanging blessings with every one of the participants. The end person blessed then follows in line doing the same so the circle begins to shrink upon itself as the inner circle pulls the end with it. This was a powerful way to end the day, as each one of us was greeted and blessed by all. We looked each other in the eye, and knew that we had come to do sacred work.

Photo by Rick Danielson

When we completed the circle we ate lunch and went back to the camp, where many volunteered to do simple tasks, spoke to the camp through its central speaker system, or walked about to get know the people who were here. Several times I was thanked for our participation in the clergy action, some with tears in their eyes. It seems the tension in the camp had grown tremendously with the constant surveillance, sniper trucks parked on hill tops, helicopter and drone noise at all times, and flood lights at night, there was little time to rest and recover one’s balance. Our coming had given the camp a day to breathe, to relax, and feel supported… and I hoped it would last a little while longer after we left. This was posted on the Standing Rock Rising facebook page: 
Last night, Oceti Sakowin exploded with energy. The shell shock from the police violence of the past week had seemed to diminish, and electricity was once again in the air. Hundreds of people gathered around the sacred fire as songs filled the air all night long. Every time the low flying aircraft would fly over camp with their lights off, people across the whole camp would shine their headlamps and flashlights in the sky, cutting through the smoke of dozens of campsites to remind the pilot that we are here, and we are well! With clergy in town, and in solidarity, people from all faiths and cultures stood together to celebrate a unity not seen before on Turtle Island. A memory I will never forget. 

Nov. 4th, 2016

In the late afternoon, we left the camp for a potluck at the Bismarck UU church. I was still energized, feeling that we had accomplished something, taken part in something greater than just a demonstration at a bridge in North Dakota. All that I have written above begins to explore this feeling…feeling into knowing. To me, religion, no matter the forms followed and beliefs attached, becomes “how we live,” how I live. Good religion is that which forms and deepens relationships within an individual, to their family, to humanity, to the interconnection of all. It also protects that which is connective. Religion that is about exclusiveness and triumphalism, that is easily co-opted by power, by politics, by “corporate” or doctrinal interests, is corrupt, and can be evil, to be used to deliberately cause harm. We came to confront a deep, hidden evil within our religious structures, within ourselves and our surrounding culture. However small this action may seem, it is monumental in having a number of denominations like the Episcopal Church, UCC, Unitarian Universalism and others repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, and hopefully begin another reformation---a reformation that opens our eyes to the structures of discrimination and oppression built into this nation’s culture, its very life. It may take centuries to transcend the doctrine and the manifest of destiny within us, to find a new spirit to follow. The people of Oceti Sakowin have called on us, from various religions of this country, to aid them in their fight for survival. In the end, if we pay attention, they may have saved us. 

So, Unitarian Universalists, where will this take us? We’ve answered a call to two bridges now, and the underlying corporate racism, economic inequality, and classism in our own system is only slowly being addressed. Add into this mix a need to revisit our understanding of relationship with Native Americans, while reeling from an election that tore the veil off of “middle America.” How will we take up the class and race issues that are built into our own denomination? Will we be able to find a new transcendence within our fiercely independent, educated white religion? What do we have to offer to the lost people of this country, the folks our corporate masters and government have left behind? What privilege, what objection to certain words, what part of “white” UU will we be able to let go of, so we might form a more perfect union? This is a question I ask myself… and I offer it to you, my fellow UUs, so that we may still be the religion on the edge of change, the religion that pushes our culture’s boundaries towards justice, in our small but influential part of the “arc of the universe.” What will our reformation look like to take us into the future? I’m hoping for a real rainbow, one with all the subtle colors, after all this rain. 

So May it Be,
Rev. Jim Parrish