By Thanissara Weinberg
Being in a living prayer. The art of collective resistance; carrying forward the sacred flame of Great Spirit; honouring Mother Nature and Grandmother Earth. Taking to heart Seven Lakota Values and Guidelines.
Standing Rock was a training ground to resist the march of eco-destruction that is now triggering mass extinction and the collapse of human civilisation. Seasoned activists taught new comers, like me, how to withstand militarised police and private militia, clean out tear gas from tender eyes, treat rubber bullets; how to huddle together, to move as one, arms locked, to circle and protect the vulnerable and those targeted first, Indigenous and People of Colour. While a real stretch from my regular safe world, it made perfect sense within the context of our dystopian future that is fast arriving. Interlocking my arms awkwardly while in a clumsy shuffle, a moment of prescience flashed, we will all likely find ourselves at a “Standing Rock” before too long. Perhaps downtown on Main Street, at the shopping mall, outside a slaughter house, protecting a forest, at a fracking site, outside a bank, in any country, at any time, on any and at every street corner.
Two years after Standing Rock, at a climate protest in London, I was handed the bold green black Extinction Rebellion leaflet. For a split second I was back on those frozen lands of North Dakota. Of course, it made perfect sense. The spirit of Standing Rock was on the streets of London, was spreading around the globe through various forms of civil disobedience, protests, acts of challenge, and clear, brave words ringing out loud. The lines are drawn, internally and externally, and the fight for nature, for existence in all its astonishing diversity, is on. The question is what will be our response and contribution?
Standing Rock brought everything to utter simplicity. There was no money to exchange or things to buy, none of our usual café’s and eating houses, no central heating or sheltered houses. It ran on sharing, on appreciation for a shaft of sunlight, a cup of hot tea, a shared meal, the warmth of human connection, and the passionate struggle for life, for justice, for a different world that we know is possible.
Mni Wiconi –Water is Life. It is an immense thing to try and understand that we are about to pull over the great planetary cauldron of life, bubbling for billions of years, and spill it into the dust. “How has it come to this?” as King Théoden said at Helm’s Deep, just before riding out, straight into the grotesque and overwhelming army of terrifying Orcs. The odds of success are low, the power of those who destroy is enormous; the seduction of money and the desire to control everything is wired so profoundly into the brain, we hardly see its insidious mechanisms. However, there is another power that shone through with great brilliance at Standing Rock. The power of the spirit, of heart, of the collective, and of a learnt Indigenous history of what it means to survive centuries of extreme oppression while keeping the sacred fire alive.
Standing Rock is an Indigenous led resistance through the power of collective prayer and ceremony. Its context is the 500-year long impact of Colonialism on First Nation People, which inflicted one of the largest genocides in human history, alongside mass invasion of Native lands, a litany of broken treaties, legislated cultural oppression including removal of children through forced Christianised education at boarding “schools”, and on-going marginalisation of Indigenous rights. This generational domination remains firmly in place illustrated by the State of North Dakota attempting to force, through intimidation and violence, the Sioux Tribe to accept what white society, a few dozen miles upriver at Bismarck city, rejected; the Dakota Pipeline through the heart of their community.
The assurance of Energy Transfers Partnership, who laid the pipeline, that there will not be an oil spill into the Missouri River, which the pipeline traverses, are empty given that that there have been hundreds, if not thousands of pipeline spills, including those from ETP pipelines. In the fierce confrontation that unfolded, Standing Rock also became a learning ground for Energy Companies who are now ramping up their strategies with more violent and insidious tactics.
Standing Rock, one of the most unique gatherings ever, also was a front line against the most powerful corporation ever, the Oil Industry. It was the first time, since the Battle of Little Bighorn in the 1800’s that Seven Lakota and Dakota Nations came together, alongside over 30 other Indigenous Nations. This gathering of Indigenous Nations from all over Turtle Island (the Native name for America) has not been known in historical memory. The tribes represented were joined by First Nation peoples from South America, New Zealand, and beyond, and allies from around America and further afield. Over two thousand military veterans who vowed to protect this courageous and determined community also joined up.
At the heart of this resistance is a commitment to break the cycles of violence born of a colonial mind-set, which feels entitled to extract for self-benefit regardless of the impact. This mind-set is now the front line everywhere, within and around us all. Increasingly, our choices are influenced by a colonising, psychopathic corporate agenda servicing extortionate amounts of wealth for a tiny percentage of the global population (26 people now own as much as 50% of the world’s poorest). But we can also make different choices. Mindful choices that aid a necessary resistance upon which our survival now depends. At its core, Standing Rock rooted itself in an indigenous template for wise choice informed by seven Lakota values around which the community orientated itself. These values speak to collective resistance as both an inner training as well as guidelines for family, community, society, and business. This is how I heard them.
1. Prayer: Honour and respect the sacred within all life, which includes nature, the earth, the elements of fire, water, air, and those living beings that are not two legged. (The reductive term animals is not in indigenous language, instead the term ‘our relatives’ is used.) Purify the heart, connect with ancestors, and the overall indwelling spirit of creation while aligning within community through ceremony. This involves resistance as ceremony.
2. Respect: Respect begins with deferential listening, and from that, a willingness to shift into new ways internally and behaviour externally. It means not pushing ego agendas and strategies. Instead be willing to listen to wise elders, to feedback, to what is needed for the overall good of the community.
3. Compassion: Take care of one another. Be compassionate towards ones self, and to self and others when making mistakes. The stronger let the physically weaker go first, for example, at meals, the elders, women and children go first. As a practice, step aside from assuming entitlement due to race, gender, class, wealth, and instead tune into the needs of the marginalised and vulnerable.
4. Honesty: Be true and authentic with each other, while being self honest about our conditioning and how that plays out in ways that generate harm, even subtly, to others and the environment.
5. Generosity: Put in more than you take out. Generosity is not just sharing physical goods, but is essential to generating sustainable life for all. It is the direct opposite of colonisation, which is based in domination and ownership at the expense of others.
6. Humility: Be grounded in your own being, while checking your expectations of others and what is around you. Hold off from pushing your agenda, particularly if it is dominating the space with “I have a better way” or “My idea is best.” Be sensitive to internalised colonised conditioning, and be willing to own it.
7. Wisdom: We all carry wisdom within us, but within the context of Indigenous or Elder wisdom spaces, listen and be guided by the understandings offered. Resist an “extractive” mind-set, or cultural appropriation of what is not offered. Be respectful of elders and learn to listen to all voices, even those you don’t agree with.
Bring it Home! Not everyone can get to Standing Rock, and not everyone at Standing Rock can go on the front lines. But every one of us must now pay heed to what unfolded there, because we all need to play our part to ensure a liveable planet for future generations. We are on a precipice and the lights are going out. We are losing the Arctic, the Great Barrier Reef, the great forests, most wild life, and we are being threatened by a craven political and corporate agenda that cares for no one, except it’s own profit. Those who crave money will find out soon that they cannot eat their money. But, as said the Elders, those at Standing Rock stand for them too, and for their children and their grandchildren.
At the heart of this sacred, prayerful and ceremonial resistance at Standing Rock is a commitment to complete non-violence. My understanding of this, from what I witnessed, heard, and experienced, is that there is an invitation to align with a deeper power. This power, articulated as guidance of ancestors, forces of nature, and the overall guiding intelligence of the Great Spirit, pulses within us. At Standing Rock, the heart was stripped down to its essential rawness. In place of socialisation strategies, what arose was strength of authenticity, of sharing, of camaraderie, and a wonder at the resilience of human beings rising up.
Here’s what I heard from an Indigenous man who is a Water Protector and leader of the heart and spirit.
“What should be remembered about Standing Rock is that it began with children calling us to pray with them. Elders too. We must mean and do what we say. Fighting from violence disrespects the ancestors. The ancestors are fighting the battle also, and they need us to be here without violence. You must pray for yourself, to take out your pain and have love put in your heart instead. As we unify with nature, she will heal us. Respect Mother Earth.
He also said,
One day, at the height of the Iraq War, an Elder Grandmother prayed to the ancestors at the sacred fire to ask that the war stop. They responded by saying to her that her prayer was a good prayer, but it was not enough. That everyone must pray to stop war. We are at a precipice. Everyone must now pray.
Water is Life. This meme is the underlying stream of consciousness at Standing Rock. The pipeline threatens the clear and beautiful waters of the Missouri River. Every morning, as day broke with its icy chill, the pre-dawn circle around the sacred fire, buoyed by shared wisdom from Elders and water protectors, enacted a ceremonial and collective walk to the frozen bank of the river. There, offerings are made. Sometimes we saw formations of geese fly across the limpid snow grey sky over the still glass waters and sometimes we felt spirit of the Missouri respond. It was felt as a subtle jubilant uplift within the heart. This earth is alive and she feels our intentions, our actions, and our hearts. The evocative experience of this living prayer was an invitation for us all to reclaim a sacred relationship to water, air, earth, fire, and to be attentive to our indwelling consciousness.
Everyday we use water. We depend on it for life, and yet we entirely take it for granted. One late afternoon, a woman spoke at the sacred circle fire. She had come from Flint, Michigan to join forces. She spoke of poisoned water in her city, of people drinking and having their teeth dissolve, of people getting sick, dying, and of her own infertility and pain at not being able to mother children due to the poisoned water.
Standing Rock is not just about Standing Rock. It is about everywhere and our struggle to reclaim the sacredness of water, of the elements, and of Grandmother Earth. It speaks to our need to reconnect with each other in more direct, generous, authentic and respectful ways, and it speaks to our true spirit, which seeks to release from the mechanistic, disassociated, drudgery of a desacralised life by undertaking acts of loving service and sacrifice. We do this for all of us. Chief Arvol Looking Horse asked us to join together at Standing Rock in prayer and ceremony. To do so can help to help avert our catastrophe. We must continue to honour his request.
Standing Rock and its blazing heart lives on, through the voluminous, potent seeds that were planted long ago, as I was told, by the ancestors of that very land who knew these times would come. The seeds are now fast growing as collective resistance. The Indigenous People are showing the way, as have many oppressed people throughout history, and for this, words of gratitude seem paltry. The gift of Standing Rock bequeathed a clarified, strong, heart burning with a light of commitment and passion in the face of such wanton destruction, hate, and ignorance. This then, is our offering of gratitude. To pick up that flame of hope, and to carry it long into the shadowy night that is fast circling us all.