Letter to America: From Protest to Protect, Learning to Shift at Standing Rock
By Susan Cerulean
The first morning of my visit to Standing Rock, I came upon Oceti Sakowin’s main sacred fire, which had been tended and kept burning since late summer. Now it was early December, snowy and stinging cold. Under a simple plywood shelter, a band of Lakota drummers and kind-voiced elder kept a continuous thread of amplified verbal contact with the crowd.
“My relatives,” the elder would say, and then he’d announce the needs of the moment: a ride to Bismarck for two young people, cooks for one or another of the kitchens, six tepee poles for a group of young women who’d arrived with canvas but no poles. Among all the cold and the rugged conditions and an unknown future, the warm voice of the leader brought us into the needs of the present moment.
The encampments at Standing Rock had evolved into the longest-running protest in modern American history. In a moving, historical first, representatives of every tribe on this continent gathered to halt completion of the 1,172-mile Dakota Access pipeline, which is intended to transport fracked oil from the Bakkan shale oil fields of North Dakota to southern Illinois. I, too, hoped in some way to support the Sioux nations in their struggle to protect the sacred waters of the Missouri River.
At one point, the elder’s voice deepened with emotion. “My relatives,” he said. “We need to offer a special welcome to a young veteran who has just arrived here on foot from Oklahoma. He walked all the way here to help protect us!” The elder’s voice broke over the mike.
The young veteran stood before us, straight-backed and open-faced. I was standing close enough to see his lips tremble. Any mother of any tribe would recognize the courage of this son, this warrior, this father of daughters.
A tin can with a makeshift wire handle was procured, and before any more words were spoken, Chris Turley, a member of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma who had served in the U.S. Army for nine years, was blessed with burning cedar chips and sage.
The Sioux elder passed the microphone to Chris.
“I’ve come here because of the vow I made when I entered the armed services, which was to protect our country from both foreign and domestic threat or terrorism,” Turley said.
None of us missed his emphasis on the word domestic, particularly as a yellow Energy Transfer Partners corporate helicopter buzzed directly overhead. He inclined his head. Every one of us recognized it for what it was: domestic terrorism.
Turley’s arrival marked a surge of military veterans who came to the camps to give occupiers a respite and call attention to human rights violations committed by militarized law enforcement. For months, participants in nonviolent prayer marches and actions had met with blockades, illegal eviction notices, arrests, tear gas, rubber bullets, attack dogs, and water cannons.
Each day of my visit—along with many hundreds of young people, veterans, clergy, and others crammed into long army tents for orientation—I was reminded that I was there to pray, and in no way to bring violence to the pipeline protest. All of us were asked to be mindful of our status as “allies,” that this was a Native struggle, and that their thinking needed to be always central.
We were asked to confront the fact that all of us whose ancestors came to this continent from Europe are settler-colonialists. We were reminded that we are part of the global struggle to protect our planet from extractive capitalism, and to heal the devastation of oppression of all kinds in our lives.
All of my life I’ve worked on behalf of the natural world. Always, I’ve been drawn to this question: Why is it so difficult to protect non-human species and natural landscapes when we love them so very much? From the moment our European forebears set their sights on this continent, their occupation was based on theft of the land, the taking of resources, and genocide of indigenous nations. From the vantage of Standing Rock, I could witness that the mindset we inherited and the policies that drive the destruction of Earth are visibly and unmistakably still at work. But I also saw how people can confront those ways of taking with love, prayer, and presence.
And I was reminded that we have entered a time when we can no longer count on politicians or the government to protect our life-giving planet Earth. The President and his cronies intend to sacrifice our climate, our public lands, women’s reproductive rights, civil rights, and affordable health care. Every single one of us must step up our activism. Like the tribes at Standing Rock, we can begin by viewing ourselves less as protestors and more as protectors.