Standing with the People of Standing Rock – A Personal Reflection by Deacon Ken Powell

Dear friends in Christ,

            As most of you know a call for clergy to support the community of Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota by Rev. John Floberg for the purpose of resisting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline received an enormous response from well over five hundred faith leaders of virtually every spiritual tradition. Many of the facts and disputes regarding the project are circulating in the media for your own discernment but I would like to share with you a few personal reflections of my experience there which depart from the standard narrative.

            As a deacon called to stand with the vulnerable, to work for justice and to interpret to the church “the needs, hopes and concerns of the world” the rationale for making the long journey from Portland, OR. was self-evident. But given the immense challenges we are facing at every turn I wondered what it was about this situation that was so compelling? I soon realized that land and water anciently understood and experienced as a sacred gift of the Creator is such a rare and precious gift in our time and place that I could not imagine being silent and remote while it was threatened with desecration if it was at all in my power to be vocal and present. In that spirit, I made plans to attend the November 3rd gathering,  knowing that many like-minded souls were also to be my companions and prayer partners.

            Almost immediately the journey became a pilgrimage, and had the fullness of a sacramental immersion. I was aware of a deep need for a ritual of repentance and a gratitude to the native people for preserving a living memory of a spirituality that cherished the earth and all its creatures. I was struck again and again by the terrible dilemma of traveling roughly the same distance by automobile from my home as the proposed oil pipeline from the Bakken Oil Fields to Standing Rock along roadways that followed the Columbia, Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers– already crosshatched with pipelines and powerlines and dams. Was it hypocrisy to proceed in this way, an unavoidable entanglement, or maybe simply time to say to myself and to the world this is too much, the last straw for me? We have to find a better way!

            It needs to be told that the people of Standing Rock were spectacularly hospitable, generous in spirit, gravely committed and deeply moved by the clergy’s honoring of their dignity and right to self- determination, just as we were moved by their many tokens of acceptance and forgiveness.

            The guiding principles of our participation were simple but profound. We were guests of the governing Council and as such were required to act “prayerfully, peacefully, non-violently, and legally.” Our purpose was to “bear witness” to the truth of the circumstances and the residents right to protest in light of the invasive presence of overwhelming corporate power and an intimidating police posture. The tension was palpable on all sides. Our hope to be a calming voice was achieved, I believe, during our relatively short time at the site. Others– we hope– will continue to carry the banner of peaceful resistance.

It also needs to be told that among the mass of “protectors” –as they refer to themselves– there are those who believe that more aggressive and perhaps provocative methods may be necessary. In their readiness to expose themselves and others to a high risk of injury and potential property damage their values do not align with those of the residents to the best of my knowledge.  Our hosts emphasized, on the contrary, that they must remain behind when all is said and done and they were unequivocal in their desire to keep the peace as best they might.

            In closing I would like to highlight what I took to be the deepest and potentially most meaningful feature of the encounter between the leaders of the gathered tribes and the hundreds of Christian faith leaders who spoke on behalf of their own communities of faith from both the personal and the national level.

            In the simplest of terms this was enacted ritually by members of the universal Church of Christ repudiating the 15th century papal bull known as the “Doctrine of Discovery” which provided the “religious” justification for claiming any land in the “new world” not already claimed by a “Christian monarch”.

           If anyone needs assurance that this doctrine is still relevant just travel anywhere along the course of the Missouri or Columbia rivers to the Pacific Ocean and you will see signs extolling the “Corps of Discovery”– otherwise known as the Lewis and Clark– expedition into the lands purchased at a pittance from France, who claimed it for themselves simply because they could.

            By witnessing and burning  a copy of that document as a sign of repudiation– for the first time ever in the presence of tribal elder’s– in a sacred fire maintained by those elders on their sacred land while encircled in solidarity by those who knew the doctrine to be a part of the cross which they had been carrying, the flames to be the presence of the Holy Spirit and the ascending smoke a prayer of repentance for harm done in Christ’s name… we have hope of Christ’s forgiveness and reconciliation with our native sisters and brothers.