Protecting the Source of Life

“Each of us is put here in this time and this place to decide the future of humankind. Did you think you were put here for something else?” – Chief Arvol Looking Horse

As the sun peeked over the horizon, we gathered around the Sacred Fire in the Sacred Circle for a water blessing ceremony led by our hosts. The service opened with prayers, chants, and reflections led by elders of Oceti Sakowin (the Seven Council Fires, the Standing Rock Sioux) and then other native peoples were invited to add their prayers and voices to the mix. Speakers reminded us that we and the Earth are both about 70% water. In fact, our first place of birth was the watery womb where each of us was carried for nine months before arriving on dry land.

At one point, the water gathered at rivers both near and far and cooled by the morning air was poured out into Dixie cups and handed to everyone present. As I sipped and savored the portion that was mine, I was conscious of the feeling as the cool water rolled along my tongue and slid down my throat towards my stomach. I was grateful for those cool sips on an ice-cold morning in a way that I too often forget to be with a whole pitcher of water in the backyard on a summer day. After two sips, I felt an awareness of abundance, looked around for someone who had been missed, and handed my cup off to a man in the row of people behind me. He smiled as he took the gift in hand and brought the refreshing last sips to his lips.

After a while, the members of the circle passed around the Sacred Fire and slowly proceeded down the makeshift street lined with flags, which represent the hundreds of nations and tribes who are standing with the Standing Rock Sioux, towards the water’s edge. As we marched, we sang songs that honored our connection to the water that flows in us and through us and that flows around the world. The songs represented the diverse gathering of people, thousands strong, at the camp and included Native American Chants I had never heard before and chants familiar to Unitarian Universalists like the song we just sang together, The River is Flowing. Water is Life! was proclaimed in many languages – Mni Wiconi! L’eau est vie! El agua es la vida!

When we arrived at the water’s edge, more prayers were shared and tobacco was offered to the Cannonball River. The smells of burning plants filled the air as they did at ceremonies throughout the week – burning sage, burning juniper, and burning cedar. Then, the leaders organized the people who identified as men to form a receiving bridge on the outside as the people who identified as women moved slowly together towards the frozen river. As we passed through the beginning of this human bridge, it was lovely to feel received by men on the left and the right as our gloved hands touched. By the end, as we crossed the narrow dock towards the river, we had need of their steadying presence, especially as we leaned into the river to offer our own bit of tobacco and our prayers. Once the last woman reached the water, we switched places to receive and hold the men on their journey to the river’s edge. All throughout this ceremony, we continued to sing and chant in different languages. The service lasted about two hours, and by the end my feet were completely numb. I moved quickly to find a camp fire. In the harsh Dakota plains in winter, you are deeply conscious of what gives life and what may take it away.

Every morning at the camp begins in prayer and in gratitude by invoking blessings upon the water and upon us who come from the water. Camp Oceti Sakowin is a ceremonial camp and every inch of land is considered holy. Everywhere we walked together while in the camp was part of an outdoor temple, which may be a point easily missed by those of us who come from cultures that have severed our connection to the earth. For centuries, this land has been deemed a sacred site. This was sensed enough by Native Americans from differing tribes, that even tribes in conflict, set this land aside as a place for prayer and peace. Fighting would cease temporarily by those who moved through the site.

Camp Oceti Sakowin is a place of prayer without ceasing. All of us were asked to carry ourselves as we would in a place of worship and to follow the customs of the Standing Rock Sioux. For women, this meant wearing a skirt or a dress. While there were some women who disregarded the request, either because they didn’t know or by claiming feminism as a reason, wearing a skirt came to signify whether white women were willing to de-center their authority and follow the lead of indigenous people. At the orientation, it was a woman who lived there, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, who explained that in their culture the skirt was a symbol that set woman apart as being particularly valued. So, I chose to follow her lead and wore wool long johns under fleece pants and a brown floral skirt over these. Frankly, wearing a skirt in such a harsh winter landscape did alter my relationship to the land. I wasn’t winter camping – I was joining a pilgrimage founded to fortify spiritual resistance, resilience, and revolution.

Camp Oceti Sakowin is a movement about spiritual resistance, about indigenous rights, and about stewardship of our earth, and that order matters. It is the first time the Oceti Sakowin, the Seven Council Fires of the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota peoples have gathered since 1850. It is a powerful moment of awakening and a sharing of the spiritual traditions from one generation with the next. It wasn’t just the morning that began in ceremony and prayer. Throughout the day, gatherings, meetings, mealtimes, and planned non-violent actions are grounded in an awareness of the Creator and our relationship to one another, the land, and the water. The Seven Lakota values served as a foundation for all we did together. They are prayer, respect, compassion, honesty, generosity, humility, and wisdom.

Too often, non-native peoples speak of native traditions as a lost wisdom and practice from the past that “we” wish to reclaim. This is a conquest perspective. It renders invisible the Native Americans of this land who are still present throughout our country and who have living, breathing traditions that we would be wise to include in interfaith gatherings. We, who do not come from Native American heritage, do not own and should not bend Native American traditions to fit our will, but we can learn from one another and share with one another from the wisdom of our respective traditions. We can allow ourselves to be transformed by doing so.

We have been reflecting on what it means to build the Beloved Community together across the differences we hold in this congregation and in the wider community in which we live. In many ways, the experience that David and I have just returned from felt like living in Beloved Community time. There were Indigenous Traditions from around the globe, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Unitarian Universalists, Jews, and thousands of Veterans standing together in solidarity and prayer with the intention of protecting the water. On December 4th, the Interfaith Day of Prayer and December 5th the day set aside for the Veterans Action, the numbers swelled to as many as 15,000 people at the camp. Somehow, the firewood, the food, and the fellowship stretched to encompass the additional presence of so many guests leaning into our differences and learning about our commonalities. Part of the recipe that allowed this to work is that those who usually experience the greatest privilege because of race, gender, or religion were willing to practice stepping back and being led by others.

Camp Oceti Sakowin is a movement led by Indigenous Peoples and about Indigenous Rights. In a very real sense, this fight is about drawing the line and saying “You can go no farther.” In the Treaty of 1851, the Sioux Tribe was given a span of land that is theirs and not to be interfered with by the United States. Not only is the Dakota Access Pipeline potentially dangerous to the water supply of the Reservation, it is an illegal move on the part of the United States. Stopping the Dakota Access Pipeline is about 500 years of broken promises that were made between the United States and Native Americans. Our country is continuing a program of domination and genocide connected to religion, racism, land ownership, and water. Sadly, this is an example of how dangerous corporations gaining a vote and a stronger voice in our political system can be. The land that the Energy Transfer Partners and Sunoco are drilling towards is not owned by the U.S. and ‘might makes right’ is not a moral stance, no matter who is elected president.

In the camp, we practiced a focus on Indigenous Rights by centering on the voices and ideas of the Standing Rock Sioux first, then other Native Peoples, then People of Color, and last people who identified as White. This is, of course, the reverse of the order in the world beyond Oceti Sakowin.

Camp Oceti Sakowin is a movement about stewardship of our earth and protecting the water. The outside world is defining the Standing Rock Sioux as protesters, but they call themselves water protectors. As Chief Arvol Looking Horse shared, they believe that Mother Earth is sick with a fever and disease, which is spreading across the face of the Earth. This is a shared understanding of many Indigenous Tribes around the world. We are being invited to participate in a movement to heal the Earth and our relationship with the Earth and with one another. At a different water ceremony offered by an Ojibwa delegation, an elder spoke of how their chief shared a prophecy that one day people would sell water to one another. Everyone gathered laughed because it seemed so preposterous… But, it doesn’t seem preposterous to us. This is the world we have created and our children are inheriting. Clean water is no longer a human right, but a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder. Water is becoming a source of war and death, rather than the source of life and birth.

But on the afternoon of Sunday, December 4th, we encircled the camp with our prayers and with thousands of peacemakers from every religious tradition and thousands of veterans (estimates of over 4000 and maybe as many as 10,000 veterans). Just imagine, peaceniks and veterans holding hands! Muslims and Jews, Christians and Indigenous religious leaders holding hands. This was a powerful moment. And just when we managed to encircle the entire camp, and all those flags representing the hundreds upon hundreds of tribes and nations that are standing with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe… just as we held one another in prayer, and had a circle wide enough to exclude no one… at that moment the “town crier” showed up to let us know that the Army Corps was halting the Dakota Access Pipeline project.

Now, a skeptic Unitarian Universalist standing next to me whispered, “Do you think this was known before we all got into the circle? Do you think they waited for this moment to announce for dramatic effect?” I turned to them and said, “People have been praying here since April. People have been praying here without ceasing and practicing a new way. And, this is the day when thousands of Native Peoples, thousands of people of faith, thousands of veterans – thousands of peoples representing the diversity of our Earth – gathered together. What does it matter if it happened right this minute? It happened because of this movement led by the Oceti Sakowin – a movement where we have shown up for one another and for Mother Earth – a movement of spiritual fortification, of resistance, of resilience, and of revolution. What followed was a glorious, glorious celebration.

Within a day we heard that Energy Transfer Partners plans to proceed with construction towards the Missouri River, and they do not intend to be stopped. But, we have glimpsed what is possible when we hold hands with one another. This type of destructive project can be stopped. We can forge a new way. It requires the bending of the moral arc of the universe with the weight of all of us and our love in action. Justice can move forward, but it will not be without repeated backlash. So, do not lose hope my friends, it has always been this way. We are living in a moment of awakening. Let us push forward with every fiber of our being. Let us indeed reach to the left and the right until the way that you and I live and walk on the earth encircles all the living.

May it be so.

A sermon delivered by the Rev. Alison B. Miller

Morristown Unitarian Fellowship, December 11th, 2016

To listen to this sermon, download the podcast here: