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Epistle from Travelers to Standing Rock
To Friends In New England,
We write to you on our return from the prayer encampment of the Oceti Sakowin—the Great Sioux Nation—in what is now known as the State of North Dakota. Led by the Standing Rock Sioux and the other tribes of the Seven Fires Council, thousands of Indigenous and non-Native people from across the country and the planet have gathered in this camp as winter comes. United in prayer and ceremony, they commit their bodies and spirits in deeply prayerful nonviolent direct action to ensure that Native sovereignty is recognized, that the so-called “Dakota Access Pipeline” is stopped, and that the precious water and ecology of their region is preserved for this and future generations of living beings. We were honored to be guests of the camp from November 24–26, 2016.
We traveled with prayers and donations from New England Friends, and with New England Yearly Meeting’s statements of support and solidarity: the Minute Repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery, the Minute of Support for Standing Rock from the Committee on Racial, Social and Economic Justice, and the public statement "A Call to Prayer and Support for Standing Rock" written by the Presiding Clerk and Yearly Meeting Secretary. We also delivered a banner created by teenage Young Friends in support of the water protectors. We stood together as our Yearly Meeting secretary, Noah Merrill, offered words of gratitude and shared what he was given to say on our behalf with the tribal elders. He spoke of our commitment to acknowledge the wrongs of the past and our prayer that we will continue to discover how to live more fully in right relationship with our Indigenous relatives and with all Creation.
The Oceti Sakowin camp is located on the banks of the Cannonball River on land controlled by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers—land promised to the Sioux by treaty, but taken for other purposes although the treaty was never revoked. The camp, situated on river bottomland, is a vast field of tipis, tents and improvised structures. Perched on the ridgeline above the camp, which includes an ancient Sioux burial ground, is a continual heavy surveillance presence: military vehicles, armed police, spotlights, helicopters, airplanes and drones encircle the camp.
When we saw the camp it struck us that we were witnessing a vision of the future. We understand this to mean two things: We were reminded that growing climate disruption will increasingly force people from their homes, creating many more such makeshift camps in our world, in the shadow of repressive force. But equally striking was the fierce assurance we felt that many more will be led to such bold acts of holy obedience, coming together across our differences to do the work of God in these times.
It is our deep hope that as Friends we will find ourselves following the way of Jesus—standing with and recognizing in ourselves and our faith communities the condition of the poor, oppressed and vulnerable rather than struggling to protect whatever relative affluence, comfort, security or privilege some of us possess. It is in protecting our own vested interests and maintaining the illusion of our superiority and separateness that we lose sight of the sacred relationships upon which all life depends.
As guests in the camp, we dedicated our time to service—simple tasks of sorting donations, splitting firewood, and making food. Working alongside others who had come for this shared purpose, we found relationships across boundaries of distance and background. Through this experience of service we were reminded that common labor binds us together, and that no contribution offered in faith is too small. While it can be tempting to view the work of building the Beloved Community as being about heroic deeds or grand projects, far more often it is these small unnoticed acts of service that provide the space for us to meet each other and—through the Love we find together—to meet God.
Our time at Standing Rock closed by attending a press conference led by David Archambault II, Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, responding to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers letter stating their intention to close public access to the camp on December 5, 2016. In the voices raised in that press conference we encountered the living God—the same Spirit attested to by Friends throughout our history.
Nick Tilsen, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, lifted up these words:
“Where we arrived at as a people ... we went through a lot of healing, we went through a lot of ceremonies, and what’s left is pure love for our land, pure love for our people, and there’s not a place for fear in that. And so to the Army Corps who sent that letter, the message from Indigenous people here is the letter means nothing to us.”
Facing the threat of the forcible closure of their camp, the speakers on the panel expressed fearlessness—a fearlessness arising from a Power that comes not from institutions, uniforms and guns but from inward conviction, from the unquenchable fire they have found in their hearts. Their articulation of this inward experience was an example to us, and we hope that we too can learn to stand ever more solidly in this Power.
Once again we are invited, through faithfulness, to the quiet yet profound voice of Truth that whispers in our hearts and gives us courage and power to walk boldly in uncertain times. When we give ourselves over to it, we know we too can enter into this Kingdom where our hearts are clarified in purpose, where we cling less to the illusory safety of our culture, where we feel more closely the security and Love of God.
We ask all Friends to continue to pray that the Spirit protect the Indigenous water protectors at Standing Rock and to continue to advocate, by all means possible, in support of their holy work to oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline and to re-envision a world where we all live in right relationship. We affirm that following the guidance of Indigenous leadership is essential for all who seek to support this witness. While conditions may change rapidly, we encourage Friends who may be led to respond to the invitation of the Native elders to travel to North Dakota in a spirit of solidarity and service to seek ways to do so, with humility and boldness.
In the Love that binds us together and frees us from fear,
Christa Frintner (Cambridge, MA), Meg Klepack (West Falmouth, MA), Noah Merrill (Putney, VT), Jay O’Hara (West Falmouth, MA), Kim West (Cambridge, MA), Honor Woodrow (Framingham, MA)
Important Update: Due to weather and changing conditions at Standing Rock, all Friends interested in supporting the continuing witness of the water protectors are encouraged to consult www.ocetisakowincamp.org and sacredstonecamp.org for current news and guidance and to read this December 8 coalition statement from the Dakota Access Pipeline resistance camps.