standing rock: 24 hours, 2400 miles, 600 words.

Last week, more than 500 clergy and faith leaders from across the country converged at Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, in support of the Sioux people and in solidarity with water protectors, protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. I and two members of Woodside Church of Flint were among them.

Folks may know that Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is the latest offense to a people who have long felt the effects of centuries-old conquest and colonization. It is also the latest offense against the rights of people to safe, accessible, affordable water – a fight the people of Flint and southeast Michigan know fairly well these days.

Folks may also know that the pipeline route was originally drawn through Bismarck, the state capital; because of fears of oil leaks and spills that could endanger the majority-white city’s water supply, the route was shifted perilously close to the Standing Rock Reservation – where the tribe has expressed the same fear of contaminated water, as well as its anger that the construction is already desecrating sacred land.

What is less commonly known is that the laws in the US undergirding our treatment of America’s “First People” derived from a proclamation of a pope in the mid-1400s, declaring that in the age of exploration, possession of “newly discovered” territories could be claimed by the first white Christians to get there. This Doctrine of Discovery continues to define US treatment of Native Americans five centuries later.

The Doctrine of Discovery was the centerpiece of our gathering at the Oceti Sakowin Camp. There, leaders of Christian churches took turns reading aloud their denominations’ statements of repudiation of the doctrine, and then a copy of the doctrine was burned in a symbolic rejection of such an egregious disregard for human rights.

After the fire, we walked in procession to the backwater bridge on highway 1806, the demarcation line held by a fairly massive law enforcement presence protecting the pipeline. With burned out vehicles blocking the bridge, and the realization that we were under constant surveillance, we prayed, sang and listened as others told stories; but I couldn’t keep my eyes off the heavily guarded highway bridge – a reminder that human rights in America continue to be quite tenuous.

The organizer of the event was adamant that this was not a time for confrontation or provocation. To our mostly white, mostly Christian group of leaders, including me (white and Christian), he said: Whatever you all instigate with law enforcement, the Indian people have to live with after you’re gone. But a small group of white people couldn’t help themselves. They called for interested folks to plan an “action,” with the intention of getting themselves arrested. And a dear friend, a black woman to whom I related this story, noted, “It’s like the doctrine of discovery acted out all over again. Just show up and take over.”

As I’m writing this, the people of Standing Rock are still standing; Virginia Tech researchers are in the midst of the latest round of water testing to tell us whether it is yet safe to drink the water in Flint; presidential election returns are shifting America to the right, white and Christian privilege showing its supremacist underbelly; and I’m not always sure how to be an ally.

Somehow we have to be in solidarity, to care for one another, to seek the common good, to know that wisdom is also a collective effort. The Doctrine of Discovery had to go. It still has to go. We have a lot to learn.

(This is one piece of an on-going reflection on the journey; for other thoughts and connections, you’re invited to listen to Sunday’s sermon, “Perfect Fit,” also posted on this site.)  

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