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A Peaceful Stand at Standing Rock

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By Rev. John Dear


'It was one of the greatest, most peaceful marches I have ever experienced in a lifetime of marching for justice and peace,' writes Dear of his experience at Standing Rock.
(Image by (Photo: Steven Martin/National Council of Churches))
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Like millions of other concerned people, I've followed the standoff at the Standing Rock Sioux Nation in North Dakota for months. The good people of Standing Rock -- including the Dakota, the Lakota and the Sioux -- have stood their ground since April to block the evil 1,170 mile, $3.7 billion Dakota Access Oil Pipeline which will dig beneath the three-mile-wide Missouri River, potentially poisoning the water for hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people, and desecrating the sacred land of Indigenous people. They've built several large camps and a permanent campaign that has gained the support of 200 other tribes.

Thousands have made the journey to the Standing Rock to stand in solidarity. The Obama administration has told the Army Corps not to issue the permit for drilling under the river but the preparations continue. Hundreds of unarmed peaceful people have been arrested in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience. State police and brutal pipeline security guards have attacked the nonviolent people with dogs, mace, tear gas and rubber bullets and consistently lied to the media, blaming the peaceful people for their violence.

Through it all, the Native American people have stood and walked in a steadfast spirit of prayer and nonviolence. Before our eyes, they have demonstrated that rare kind of satyagraha reached by Mahatma Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the finest nonviolent movements in history. In doing so, they have exposed for all the world to see the centuries old racist war on Native Americans and the equally centuries old war on the earth itself, as well as the power of creative nonviolence when wielded properly.

Last week, a national call to clergy went out. Clergy were summoned to drop everything and get to Standing Rock for a day of prayer and repentance, and a march from the main camp to the bridge where the police and pipeline security officials block the road to the notorious pipeline construction site.

And so I went. Over six hundred women and men priests and ministers from various Christian denominations made the journey, along with hundreds of other activists. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life.

Looking out from the plane over the barren prairies of North Dakota, I was startled by the massive bright blue Missouri River. It is much bigger than I realized. From the air, it was so clear to see that, indeed, "Water Is Life," as the Standing Rock saying teaches. Our plane was packed with church folk and young activists, and so was the Bismarck airport. There was excitement and hope in the air. Solidarity seemed alive and well.

As I drove south under the big blue sky across the rolling brown prairies to the village of Cannon Ball near the Standing Rock camp, the orange sun began to set and the sacred landscape radiated beauty, energy and life. I walked into the packed gymnasium for the evening orientation and nonviolence training, and found a hushed standing-room-only crowd listening attentively to Father John, the local Episcopal priest who has served here for 25 years, as he explained the scenario for the next day. Several Standing Rock leaders spoke before food and refreshments were offered. It was clear from the get-go that nonviolence was the order of the day.

They call themselves "protectors" not protesters, "pray-ers not disrupters, "peacemakers" not "troublemakers." It's that creative nonviolence that has attracted the interest and sympathy of people around the country and the world.

The next morning, I drove to the Oceti Sakowin camp as the sun rose over the mysterious North Dakota landscape. From the hills above the camp, it looked like a sea of tents with the striking exception of the scores of large white tee pees sprinkled throughout the camp. It was a sight to behold. The Cannon Ball River ran along one side of the camp and large brown rolling hills circled the entire area in the distance. Here, for the past months, thousands of people have maintained a nonviolent satyagraha campaign to protect the land, the water, and the dignity of the Standing Rock people.

At 7 am, as I approached the main gathering place for worship, I noticed the large billboard with the camp rules: "We are protectors. We are peaceful and prayerful. We are nonviolent. ISMS have no place here. We respect the locals. We do not carry weapons. We keep each other accountable."

There, around the Sacred Fire, several dozen Native women offered morning prayers and then set off for the daily walk to bless the water. Over the next two hours, hundreds of clergy, mainly women and men Episcopal priests, arrived and greeted one another. Over the course of the day, we exchanged stories, shared our feelings and plotted strategies for future solidarity. I was happy to see friends Ann Wright of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus, and Bill McKibben of 350.org.

At 9am, Father John began a liturgy of prayer and repentance, where we formally denounced the ancient "Doctrine of Discovery," the church document from the 1490s which empowered European authorities to steal the land and resources of indigenous peoples. After silence and prayers, it was burned in the Sacred Fire. Then the march began.

We set out from the camp, by now a thousand of us, well over half in various clerical church attire, with black robes, white collars, and colorful stoles. Most of us carried bright posters that read "Clergy Stand with Standing Rock."

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