“But do you think that the time you just spent there was productive,” he asked me with just enough bite that I understood the real question beneath his words. “They’re going to build it. No matter what. That’s the circle of life. You’ve seen the Lion King, right?”
This past week I traveled with a group of other young adults to the Oceti Sakowin, or Seven Councils Fire, Camp in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, perhaps better known as the Standing Rock reservation. In truth, I had no real concept of what to expect there. I’d read the lists (here’s one in case you’re interested). I’d kept up with what little media has had to say. I’d packed plenty of layers. But there was still a deep sense of unknowing present in my core. Why was the Spirit pulling me towards this conflict in North Dakota? And what could I possibly have to offer? With many more questions than answers and yet with the deepest of longings in spite of that, I got on a plane, and then into a car, and then pulled into a dusty camp lined with flags and banners, brimming with energy and life, and suddenly it registered that I had arrived.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Because I didn’t get there on my own. Instead, with the support of donors from all over the country, our team raised about $5,000 dollars, which covered expenses and supplies we brought with us- 22 tons of fire wood and solar panels being built as you read this. The community here at Epiphany supported that figure and sent me with more concrete supplies- a solar phone charger which enabled me to continue to take pictures and communicate- a down sleeping bag, which meant that the cold nights wouldn’t be a problem, and the support of prayers and gratefulness. The truth is, without a community to support it, this trip wouldn’t have happened. But it did happen. And as I sat in the Baltimore airport preparing to fly to meet the group in Kansas City, Missouri, I couldn’t help but reflect on the transformative power of community. A community that came together in a time of great polarization, across what has become the great chasm of political and ideological differences, to witness to the world that we worship a God who created the earth and who continues to call us to recognize our dependence on that gift.
As we checked into the front gate, two cars stuffed full of sleeping bags, pads, tents, hay bales, camp kitchens coolers, six people, each, themselves, carrying loads- whether real or imagined, I couldn’t help but wonder what in the world this ‘showing up’ would mean.
As we drove slowly along the dusty main drag of flag row, lined with the flags of organizations and tribes and peoples and lands, who had also come out to stand in solidarity with Standing Rock, I was completely overwhelmed. We stopped our car next to an empty camping spot under the Episcopal Flag. This would be our home; reminding us that we had answered a call that others in our faith community had also answered. Surrounded by people and by this tangible reminder, I suddenly felt very much a part of something much bigger than me. As we stepped out from the car, young man approached us. “I’ll be standing here for a few minutes waiting for someone,” he said. “I’m new to all of this and I’m from Brooklyn and I haven’t camped a lot, but I’d like to help you set up your tent if you could use it.” The wind was picking up and the sun was dropping fast and together, we quickly set up our three-tent camp. We had to re-do the biggest tent’s crossbar three times, but it came together- with the help of a stranger whose name I wouldn’t learn until after the whole endeavor.
That night we were tired from driving through the night and from the emotional expenditure that was the initial arrival and so we turned in early. I crawled into my tent, snuggled into my new sleeping bag and lay, listening to the drumming and singing and dancing coming from 50 yards away at the Sacred Fire. “Tonight, relatives, we dance and tomorrow we pray and we work,” announced the elder on the microphone at the Sacred Fire.
I could go on like this- through each day, inviting you to walk through the silly and the profound anecdotes that, together, made up the experience. That post would be chapters long.
I won’t do that, however.
Because even then, I would forget pieces. I wouldn’t paint the complete picture. And, in truth, so much that I experienced couldn’t be described in words no matter how hard I tried. So instead, I’ll go back to the question that opened this post, the question I was asked while sitting at the hotel bar the night before my 6 am flight back to Baltimore.
“But do you think that the time you just spent there was productive?”
I’m not sure productivity was ever the issue in the first place. I’m not sure that’s ever really been the point. What I most experienced in my, ultimately, short time at Oceti Sakowin Camp, was a way of being in the world- a way defined by the abundance of community. That sounds cheesy. But it’s true. We were asked to arrive and to be as self-sustaining as possible. If you could bring your own food, you were asked to do it. If you could supply your own tent, you were asked to do it. But if you couldn’t, then you should come anyway.
Because you would be fed.
And cared for.
There were medics and veterinarians, midwives and artists, legal teams, and community organizers, teachers and builders. You were asked only to help. That was the expectation of the camp- that everyone would do what they could with what they had. Resources were definitively limited, but you wouldn’t know that when walking by the main kitchen watching lines of people receive full plates of food. Spirits were sometimes low, but you wouldn’t know that listening to the nightly singing and drumming by the fire.
I started off this trip overwhelmed by the generosity of community and that thread weaved its way through the entire experience. We were the guests in a home that was not ours and yet, somehow, almost paradoxically, a home that needed us all in order to continue working. It was a humbling experience- being a part of a community where the expectation is that everyone will help one another. Because it meant that on many different occasions, I was in a position of needing that help. Help to find the kitchen we were working in after leaving to take a quick pit-stop at the porta-potties, help to understand the moves of the dance it seemed that everyone else already knew, help to build a wind-block so we could light our camp stove to make dinner, help to fold up a tent that was flying every which way as we began to pack up, help in the form of reminders that I had forgotten to put on my skirt before coming to the ceremony (an expectation for those of us who identified as female), help through a deep connection to prayer that called me, that called us all, to remember why it was that we were there, help to draw us back from the edge of an anger that could have consumed, but that, instead, directed.
Because, let me be clear- there is anger there. On all sides. And it was palpable, sometimes more than others. There were moments where I wondered if the non-violent container would hold, where I felt myself being challenged. Could I contain it? Because while it perhaps seems that I have been working to describe a utopia, I mean to do no such thing. We are people- all of us- in beautiful and destructive ways.
“Mother nature did not call us here to heal her. She called us together so that we would heal each other,” said a man who identified as Natchez as he came to rest with us at our campsite for a few minutes. His words hung with me from that moment and still do. Because we do need to be healed. We do need to be reconciled- to one another, to the earth, even to ourselves. “She called us together so that we would heal each other”. Do we have the wisdom, the humility, the grace to step into that redemption? Do we even believe it’s possible?
My prayer is that we do; that through a deep sense of prayer, of connection to the Spirit that unites each of us, and with a humility that calls us into relationship, we begin the shaky and tentative and profound journey towards healing- towards a healing that means coming to terms with our actions, that means recognizing our complicity, that means seeking forgiveness and that means, as Christians, specifically, believing, deeply, in a God who is calling all of creation to be in right relationship.
“Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth.”
If you’d like to know more, or if you feel called to support the Water Protectors, you can find information and donation requests here: http://www.ocetisakowincamp.org/
If you are able to help, please do.
If you are able to go, please do.
And if you are able to pray- with words and actions, please, please do.
Mni Wiconi: Water is life.