Immigrants, Natives and Pilgrims – my trip to Standing Rock.

I compiled this song and video, O’ Immigrant, to reflect on my trip to Standing Rock, and the recent political changes in America.

I am an immigrant.

In late October 2016 my friend Rachel and I took a road trip north to donate supplies to the Water Protectors encamped at The Standing Rock Reservation. It was an incredible trip full of beauty which became a marker in both our spiritual journeys.

A few weeks later in November, Mr. Trump was elected president. I woke up the morning after the election and on hearing the news my heart just sank. “What about Standing Rock??” I thought, “How can they win with such a person in power?” I was ill with worry for them.

It was such irony, that morning after the election. Here was a man elected to be president, the son of an immigrant, the descendant of immigrants, breathing out threats of deportation to all those he calls “illegal”. While me, an actual immigrant, went to visit the actual natives of this land. They let me stay at their camp, pray with them at their sacred fire, cook in their kitchen, wander by their sacred river, breath in the beauty of their home. They want to protect my children from harmful pollutants. The irony was thick, but chilling and painful.

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Picture above: Dawn on the hill overlooking the camp – this is where we slept in our van the first night. 

We arrived at Standing Rock while the sun was setting on a Friday night. We barely had time to donate our supplies before the sun dipped down over the prairie and the vast Milky Way came into view all around us. Her blazing glory was so bright over the Dakota Plains.

That night Rachel and I sat out in our sleeping bags under the stars and listened to the drums and deep, strong voices of the people singing in camp. The sound came rolling and ringing over the prairie – so powerful and intense,  I could feel it in my chest. We barely spoke (which is unusual for us!) we were just so awe struck by the beauty. But when we did, it was to comment to one another that the land and air felt heavy and pregnant with prayer.

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In the morning we walked down to the main camp: Oceti Sakowin. A prayer meeting was happening around the sacred fire. Word had come from the front line that many people had been arrested, so they were calling campers to pray. We joined the circle. An elder was in the center; praying in his native tongue while holding a chanunpa (a sacred ceremonial pipe). The space felt so holy I wanted to kneel, but thought I should stay standing as everyone else was. I closed my eyes and listened. Interspersed in his prayer were English words: cancer, kidney disease, leukemia. He was praying for the water to stay clean so his descendants could be disease free.

I looked up at him and was stunned to see tears rolling down his face. “He’s crying for the water!” I thought. Apart from my own dad (who is  a pastor) I’ve never seen an elder moved to tears, least of all for the Earth. Leaders and politicians in my world use phrases like fiscal responsibility, collateral loses, economic growth, and jobs, jobs, jobs, it’s always the bottom line, always the last selling pitch. Yet, still somehow, after all these decades of job promises the yawning-wide wage gap between the average worker and the billionaire CEOs continues to grow exponentially.

But, water? Clean water? He was weeping for this!? Tears began to run down my face too. I looked at the stranger next to me whose hand I was holding, tears were on her face. All around many were crying, asking God to protect the earth, our only home.

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The elder prayed in his native tongue for a long time, and then he smoked from the chanunpa with other elders. He prayed for the oil company execs and the police in riot gear. He then shared stories in English. He spoke of strength from his ancestors Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. He also prayed in Jesus name. One person close to me in the circle was clearly of the Jewish faith and wore a Yamaka. There was a group from Palestine there. Young, old,  male and female and trans. It was an incredibly diverse group of people praying together for peace and a healthy planet.

All the while, a helicopter circled overhead. Such a strange paradox I thought: the grounded, peaceful prayers of normal people which seemed to stretch on with an eternal value, and overhead the buzzing of the oil company helicopter – temporal and seeking temporary solutions to our energy needs.

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When the prayer time ended Rachel and I wandered down to the river and sat in the sun watching the horses graze. Our usual over-chatiness silenced by our awe of these people. Their bravery and resilience. Their commitment to non-violence. Their love for the earth and their connection to their home.

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Later that afternoon we volunteered in a community kitchen cooking dinner for those coming back from the “front lines”. I spoke to people from all corners of the US. People who’d driven much further than us to bring supplies and support. There was a man dressed like a cowboy who said he was battling a pipeline in his own state of Kentucky. He had brought pigs to donate to camp. There were elderly ladies from the mid-west who’d baked dozens of pies to give. People from every walk of life coming to  protect the water.

Sacred Water

The truth is, I know what it means to love the land. To love the water. I come from the west of Scotland and grew up by a beautiful body of water called Loch Lomond. The people of my land love Loch Lomond. We sings songs about her, sail boats on her, camp on her islands. I learned to swim in those waters and was baptized in them as a child. If someone threatened to pollute her we would probably set up camp and chain ourselves to the diggers too. She is sacred to us.

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Picture above : my sister and I on her sail boat on Loch Lomond.

And now I live in America. I trail run on the prairie – the same prairie that reaches all the way to North Dakota – almost every day. I feel deeply connected to her rolling, golden seas of grass; teeming with life. The prairie has healed me of trauma and soothed me when I was in pain.

I really, really like the home I was born in – the Earth – and as a human that needs to drink water and breath air I really want to keep the earth in good health. That’s why I went to Standing Rock.

Energy Transfer Partners says the Dakota Access pipeline would create up to 12,000 jobs during its 1-2 year construction. It would create around 40 permanent jobs.” – Source, National Geographic Magazine.

40 permanent jobs, that’s it?! That is unacceptable to me. To trample the rights of indigenous people, their treaty lands and their sacred places. To oppress an already oppressed people. To risk the drinking water of millions for a nonrenewable source which is harmful to the planet. Meanwhile billionaires line already fat pockets from the many tons of oil running under our water supply, for 40 permanent jobs! I know what unemployment looks like. I’ve experienced it, its horrible, but this is not the answer, and as they say, there are no jobs on a dead planet.

We need to make alternate plans. We need to stop pretending we’re not harming the water and soil. We need to do better for our kids. This may be the only chance we get to turn back the tide we’ve created of pollution that will make our planet uninhabitable.

Many thanks to the brave and resilient people of Standing Rock. You have my utter  admiration and support.

I first learned about the essential pairing of prayer and non-violent action from Fr Richard Rohr and the Center for Action and Contemplation. At Standing Rock I witnessed a fluid, almost seamless movement between the two. The native peoples talk about The Great Spirit. Christians call it The Holy Spirit. On the long drive home we read aloud from a new book from Fr Rohr and Mike Morrell, The Divine Dance.

In it, the authors write …

“the divine photosynthesis (that) grows everything from within by transforming light into itself – precisely the work of the Holy Spirit. ”

In this spiritual work of prayer and action we mirror the very nature of the earth we want to protect. Surely we  witnessed this in the brave souls at Standing Rock both immigrant and native born.

To read more about Standing Rock check out this insightful NY Times article.

To donate to the cause I would recommend giving to the young people who helped launch the whole movement; here is their petition and fund raising Page

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