In the first week of November I was invited to come to Standing Rock, North Dakota, to pray.
The Elders of Oceti Sakowin and Sacred Stone camps asked for our prayers for the protection of their water and land from the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Construction began on treaty land without proper consultation; opening and desecrating burial sites. Pipelines are hazardous enterprises. A leak in DAPL could mean the poisoning of major water sources, including the Missouri River.
Since DAPL began their project last spring, the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies have been camping out on their land, in protection of their territory and treaty rights. The ‘water protectors’ have engaged in nonviolent and prayerful public witness, yet have been met by heavily militarized police wielding tear gas, riot gear, sound cannons, rubber bullets, and more. Just a few days before I arrived, their North Camp was raided by the police. I met dozens of Indigenous water protectors with terrifying stories of being pulled out of tepees where they were in ceremony, being beaten, arrested, strip searched, held under bright lights for over 24 hours, and then kept in dog kennels, as the jail cells were full.
When Bishop Mark MacDonald and Rev. Laurel Dykstra arrived in North Dakota and drove out to Oceti Sakowin camp, we passed by a dump truck disposing of items the police had seized from the North Camp. Elder’s sacred items had been taken and mistreated, along with many people’s personal belongings, including cellphones, tents, clothing, and purses.
At Oceti Sakowin I experienced the most radical generosity I have ever encountered. I was taken in by the Cheyenne River Sioux, whose water source is also the Missouri river, who have been at the camp since there were only seven tepees and have promised to be there as long as necessary to protect their water.
My hosts offered me a tepee to sleep in, and invited me into their rhythm of meals around an open fire. There was always a hot pot of coffee brewing over that flame, and a member of their family made us all hot buffalo stew at night (cooking with a broken arm from the police violence, as I later learned).
In the water protectors I witnessed such profound courage, kindness, hospitality, prayer, and resilience. I heard countless stories of police violence, but despite this I also heard: “we will stand like stones against whatever they bring, we must protect our water and lands for the future generations.”
Though snipers on hill tops and constant aero-surveillance overshadowed Oceti Sakowin, the camp was filled with the sound of singing around the big drums, round dances, and prayers around sacred fires. I was privileged to attend prayer walks around the area, a vigil at a local jail, and participate in many gatherings of prayer for the protection of the waters, land, and people.
The courage and faith of the people at Standing Rock in the face of such brutal, militarized, corporate, and racist violence, is a profound witness of the love that we are called to embody. There are many ways we can support the water protectors, from performing prayerful actions in institutions that have invested in DAPL to raising funds for legal aid- connect with others and join in the struggle to protect the waters and support land defenders against ongoing colonial violence.
The Rev. Leigh Kern is Assistant Curate at the Cathedral Church of St James in Toronto. Leigh is a friend of the SCM who was recently part of our Turning Tables retreat.