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Standing with Standing Rock

by Stacey Simpson Duke


November 23, 2016

Standing with Standing Rock

Group assembled around the sacred fire at Oceti Sakowin Camp.

The Borders I Cross is a series of reflections from BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz members and friends about their peacemaking journeys. This particular series focuses on the many borders crossed for peacemaking, which include physical borders as well as those such as language, culture, race, religion, nationality, generation, class, and sexual orientation. These essays come from people from all walks of life; those who cross borders as students, in their paid professions, in their volunteer time, in their family lives and/or in retirement. We hope you enjoy this series from BPFNA!

“My good heart goes to your good heart.” These were the words of a Lakota woman at Standing Rock in early November, speaking to hundreds of clergy and people of faith who had come from all over the country to stand in solidarity with the Sioux Nation as they fight to protect their water and their sacred sites against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). I was so honored to be among those who gathered.

We came at the invitation of the Reverend John Floberg, supervising Episcopal priest in Standing Rock, who, following the increasingly militarized police response to nonviolent protest there, asked clergy to come make a prayerful, peaceful witness of solidarity. His call was echoed by Chief Arvol Looking Horse, one of the Sioux spiritual leaders, asking religious leaders to come and stand side-by-side with the people there, who are themselves standing together in prayer. Rev. Floberg had hoped that 100 people would show up for this act of solidarity; more than 500 people came, from more than 20 different faith traditions.

Even before I knew of Rev. Floberg’s invitation, I had been wrestling with a deep yearning to go to Standing Rock. I kept having this vision of hopping into my minivan with some people from my church, pointing the car west, and just driving until we got there. When I learned of the invitation to clergy of all faiths to come make a witness to solidarity and peace, it suddenly seemed that the vision was not a mere daydream. I and others in my church dropped everything, packed our bags, and headed west. It happened exactly like I’d imagined, only better.

After an orientation the night we arrived, during which we heard testimony from Native American women and men, we gathered on Thursday morning around the sacred fire at Oceti Sakowin, the prayer camp near where the DAPL is being constructed. There, representatives of the various Christian traditions stood before the seven tribal elders and renounced the Christian Doctrine of Discovery, the 1493 doctrine that formed the theological justification for colonization, granting Christian explorers the right to take any land that was not already occupied by Christians. Our Baptist forebear, Roger Williams (founder of Rhode Island and of the first Baptist church in America) argued that the native people were the true owners of the land here and that the Puritans ought to repent of receiving it from the English king. Unfortunately, his was a minority viewpoint, and the European immigrants continued their colonization of the land and its people. In 1823, the U.S. Supreme Court incorporated the Doctrine of Discovery into U.S. law, laying the foundation for the ongoing subjugation of rights of indigenous peoples and the claiming and exploiting of the lands they occupied. The construction of the pipeline through tribal lands that were guaranteed by treaty is a direct result of this doctrine.

On Thursday, November 3, for the first time in history (as far as we know), a group of Christian leaders stood before a group of indigenous leaders and said, “We denounce the Doctrine of Discovery as fundamentally opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ of our carious religious traditions as a violation of the inherent human rights that all individuals and peoples have received from God.”* We then gave copies of the doctrine to each of the tribal leaders, who burned the papers in the sacred fire. It was a powerful and holy moment, reminding all of us again of how essential confession and repentance are in the crucial work of reconciliation. Healing begins.

From the camp, we walked together, singing “Dona Nobis Pacem,” to the bridge where police had formed a barricade, to pray alongside the Water Protectors who go there every day to pray. Police donned their riot gear and a helicopter repeatedly circled low overhead. We continued to pray, to sing, and to make our peaceful witness. “Our plea was heard,” an indigenous woman said, “The people who pray have come to pray with us. So to me, today was a victory.” While the political and corporate machinations around the DAPL continue, and the outcome is currently unclear, it is very clear that the visible witness of people of faith matters. It makes a difference to those who are vulnerable for others to come alongside them in support, encouragement, prayer, and action.

I have so much more to learn about the issues facing indigenous peoples as well as those facing the many other groups of people in our nation who feel threatened, dismissed, or violated. I have so much more to learn about how to engage the gospel work of confession, repentance, reconciliation, and solidarity for justice. At Standing Rock, I was reminded of what is most needed for this work: prayer and community. Oceti Sakowin is a prayer camp, and the Water Protectors at Standing Rock understand that the fight they are in is a spiritual battle that begins and ends in prayer. Their focus is not just on what they hope to accomplish – the protection of their water and their land – but in how they are trying to accomplish it: in community with each other. The gathering at Standing Rock is the largest assembly of Native Americans since the Battle of Little Big Horn. After centuries of being stripped of their land, their languages, their opportunities, their traditions, their very identity, this may be the most important victory they have claimed: the new creation of community.

At Standing Rock, as the people came together to proclaim, “Water is life,” the depth of these two currents – prayer and community – had a powerful effect on my own sense of what it means to live as a person of faith and purpose. I went to Standing Rock to be part of an apology, to make one small effort at repenting for sins that cannot be undone, and to stand in prayer with people who are fighting for justice. I came away renewed, remembering again that the work of peace, justice, and love starts with confession, repentance, prayer, and community. My good heart goes to your good heart.

*Click here for the full text of the renunciation.

Pictured above: Stacey Simpson Duke with two other ABC clergy - Nicole Iaquinto (Greece Baptist, Greece, NY) and Curt Dotson (FBC, Painted Post, NY). 

Stacey Simpson Duke is Co-Pastor of First Baptist Church of Ann Arbor, where she has served, along with her husband Paul, for the past 16 years; they are also the Campus Ministers for the American Baptist Campus Foundation at the University of Michigan. She serves on the steering committee for the American Baptist Creation Justice Network, a new ABC initiative. 

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