“When you move, you get the endorphins going, and you have more energy, more life. And that is where the healing begins.”
Those words, spoken by Johnny Eagle, the Wellness director for the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, not only echoed the important healing taking place in the camp at Standing Rock for the mental well-being of its participants, who deal with the realities of suicide and depression that are endemic in Native American communities throughout the US, but also the significance of the movement itself.
The very presence of the camp, and the movement that has risen around it as Native Americans from 320 different nations have gathered to take a stand against the Dakota Access Pipeline, has become a source of life and energy and healing — for these native peoples and for the land and water they seek to honor.
On Tuesday, I was privileged to join a group of six bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, including the Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton and my own bishop, Terry Brandt, of the Eastern North Dakota Synod, as well as a group of about 16 other Lutheran clergy and laypeople as part of a day of Presence and Prayer at Standing Rock.
We were able to meet with tribal leaders at the Standing Rock Headquarters, law enforcement officers and the people dwelling both at the main camp and the front line, where a group recently set up camp, right next to the pipeline itself.
The space felt profoundly peaceful and serene, and the spirituality of those gathered was palpable. It was hard to comprehend that these people had dogs viciously unleashed against them as weapons and that it bore any resemblance to a place had any sense of impending violence.
Instead, the resolute commitment of a group of people fighting for the very water and land they consider sacred, as well as the holy burial ground nearby, permeated the area. The energy and healing of their movement — both their movement to that place and the movement formed within the camp — created a sense of wholeness and holiness.
The community gathered at Standing Rock remain determined to block the Dakota Access Pipeline from traversing the Missouri River and scarring the land surrounding it, on which the Oceti Sakowin enacted eminent domain, claiming 1851 treaty rights.
This band is the largest gathering of tribes in more than a century and the power unleashed by their shared commitment to the earth and the water truly felt transformative. The hospitality and welcome we received was humbling. We were greeted as honored guests and spiritual leaders, who came to acknowledge their fight for justice and bless it with our presence and shared concern for stewardship of this land.
The camp breathed a life of simplicity, with only occasional solar power, tents and teepees, communal meals cooked over a fire and a spirit of volunteerism and community. Those present needed to share a vision of direct action principles that recognize their stand there as one guided by nonviolent resistance. They are peaceful and prayerful protesters who wish to be protectors of the land. Underlying it all was the recognition that what was happening there was ceremony — at its core a religious movement.
The most amazing moment occurred at the end of the day as we gathered in a prayer circle on the front line, with a helicopter swirling overhead watching and photographing us as trespassers on the land recently purchased by Dakota Access Pipeline, which the Standing Rock Tribe counterclaimed as rightfully theirs.
It began as about 60 of us — our group of Lutherans and those who lived at the camp — formed a circle for community prayer. However the circle kept expanding until it seemed the whole front line community had joined hands with us — more than 100 strong in an unbroken circle, a symbol of unity and grace.
Everyone in the circle prayed — some sang, some chanted — I don’t know how many different native languages were lifted up, but I was nonetheless astounded at the depth of spirituality of those present.
I kept thinking, as I heard the most powerful prayers not from the clergy but from the front line community members, what I wouldn’t give to have a congregation with leadership with that depth of spirituality and strong conviction in prayer. Yet that spiritual authority wasn’t just coming from the leadership. It came from nearly every person in the sacred circle.
As the circle grew, someone brought sage, and we passed it around, cleansing ourselves to make the ritual complete. After more than an hour in a shared time of blessing and prayer as the cold wind blew, I know I left the ceremony feeling as though I had been standing on sacred ground.
My prayers as I left is for that echo of peace at the front line and main camp to permeate the surrounding area as the tribes seek justice and for the different forces at odds with each other to be able to dialogue. It was disappointing to learn that many of those involved in directing the enforcement of the area surrounding Standing Rock had never actually visited it and that face-to-face discussions were not occurring.
The law enforcement shared with us that their main concern was public safety and open roadways, and I cannot help but wonder how that can happen if they don’t talk with each other. Such communication — at a local, state and federal level — is the only hope for peaceful resolution.
I left committed to sharing to what I saw, which was a united community of tribes and people who were seeking justice through peaceful resistance and who deserve to be treated with dignity. What I witnessed was what Johnny Eagle described — a healing that took place as a result of movement.
And my hope and prayer is that those gathered will continue to move forward in a mission of justice and peace for the sake of the world.