Bringing the edges to the center - reflections on Standing Rock

Art featured at top - "Diversity Tipi" by Ronya Hoblit

In late October, The Rev. John Floberg, supervising priest of the Episcopal church on the North Dakota side of Standing Rock in connection with Clergy for Climate Action, called clergy to Standing Rock from November 2-4, 2016 in solidarity, prayer and action. Over five hundred clergy – including over fifty Unitarian Universalist clergy – answered the call. Standing on the Side of Love’s Nora Rasman joined UUA President Rev. Peter Morales and Special Assistant Dea Brayden.

While in North Dakota, Nora sat down with Ronya Hoblit, Acting Director of the Native American Training Institute (NATI) and member of the UU Church and Rev. Karen Van Fossan, Minister at the UU Fellowship and Church of Bismarck-Mandan to learn more about the engagement of their congregation in support of Standing Rock and ways UUs throughout the country can support the work of the water protectors there.

Nora: I have only been here a few days but appreciate what has looked to be an organic and transformative relationship that has emerged between your congregation and folks at Standing Rock. Can you tell us a little about how you and your congregation became involved in Standing Rock?

Ronya: I first visited when it was Sacred Stone. We knew there were needs. I got up in front of the congregation and asked if folks could donate any paper goods for the kitchen. People were very kind and generous in the congregation. The movement in Standing Rock grew quickly, and the engagement at the church with Standing Rock grew parallel, and with similar speed. At the same time Baton Rouge floods were happening, along with other crises. It was powerful to see that folks gave to both. People here are donating without any self-glory; they are not focused on asking for recognition.

Karen: A progressive group in town was organizing folks to send more supplies and asked our congregation to be a drop off spot. Before we knew it we were THE drop off spot in town. There has always been a physical solidarity component to this work: first it was physical things being delivered, and volunteering in the kitchen. Increasingly we became involved in the bigger camp: we would go a few times a week, go to meetings, camp there. We also quickly realized we were a hub for UUs from other places who wanted to support the work, and for other people of conviction who thought to contact a local faith community as a way to be in solidarity.

Because we have been there and are there, when needs have been expressed – like the message that this is a prayerful movement (a message that is being lost by the wider Euro-American community in Bismarck-Mandan) – we have been asked to help out. That means we’re creating our first interfaith meeting later this month. There have been more and more calls for leaders of faith communities to both identify ourselves as well as to show up when we do. We are carrying out what we believe in by going there.

I love this gesture of our church taking lead from (and flanking) Standing Rock. Our Social Action Working Group (SAWG) meetings are getting fuller and fuller. Though the UU community has always been energetic here, there are now stronger roots to the justice work that we are doing. Last week, we had a dinner with UUs from all around country – as virtual strangers we entered into a room and had a really important conversation, the kind of conversation that challenges us and lifts us up. That’s what I consider a revival.

Ronya: In the past, there would be a beginning and end to our engagement and whoever donated would have felt good about it. With this work, its like you can touch the bottom. You know where you are, you know the goal, you know your place in this much bigger movement. When I use water now, this has shifted my relationship. When I use water, and every time I let it run, I see my granddaughter in the water and her not having that water. I save a drop of water, and it means someone isn’t going to have to ask for that. So I have to work for it now, for that future.

Karen: We’re talking about this new experience of water. So often, I think about it like: “Hey, I’m drinking the Missouri river right now. Now because I have been in a place to protect this water, I have such a different relationship to it. Being at water ceremony last week – being with people at the water – that grief, gratitude, exhaustion, and sense of hope ran right through me.

You are both lifting up profound questions about our own future and the possibility of future generations. What are some of the spiritual lessons you two have learned from being involved in these recent efforts?

Ronya: Prayer. I didn’t quite know what prayer was. I have intentionally prayed more in last six months than in my entire life. In recent months you- Karen - did a sermon about the power of prayer. That absolutely impacted me. I define it as kind, thoughtful and intentional conversations with the universe. My prayer might not change anything but helps me respond to the rest of the world in a way I didn’t before.

Karen: Standing Rock has facilitated a reflection between giving up, and giving over something of myself. In the process, even though my experience is still about me – its in a really different way. When I see the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) moving along the land, it takes everything in me to not go stop it: I have always loved that river. There’s a way I feel membership in the world in a deeper way. From what I have experienced from traditional Lakota values (what I have learned through Ronya and through folks at the camp), this is a space that has been created that if you are hungry, you can eat; if you are thirsty, there is water; if you are hurt, there is a clinic; there is space at the fire for you; there is always prayer. These are things that are given to each of us. I have lived in different places in my life, I have been accustomed to chronic loneliness. I have known pervasive, chronic loneliness. And that is gone.

When you think about what you have witnessed and experienced at Standing Rock – what does it mean to follow Indigenous leadership in your work? How do you see your work as a congregation as supporting or fortifying an Indigenous-led movement?

Ronya: There is such a long history of abuse. The church has been – along with the records to prove it – such a long time perpetrator. There is a little conflict there. The people who have shown up in Standing Rock have love in their hearts and have illustrated a general sense of respect.

In general, they are not here to appropriate our experiences; but also understand that the tribe is comfortable being the spearhead with others supporting us. It is good to have people of faith involved with the movement. Civil disobedience is not something people can or should go into lightly. We are thankful for any and all support that is showing up at Standing Rock. It is so powerful to see so many people showing up in support.

Karen: What I got from what you’re saying, Ronya, is that yes we need to go forward, and there is ALL THIS at the same time. That all of this exists in the context of the doctrine of discovery. I think that work has something to do with why Unitarian Universalism was able and willing to show up at this time.

It is not to say that systems of oppression are not still in place and some of us are still benefitting from them. If we’re going to have integrity about this whole history behind this moment, we MUST be in solidarity with Standing Rock. For me, it is really important to see that just because I am in solidarity, doesn’t mean every space is for me. When I see people doing things like songs, dance, and prayer that are not mine, I just get to be an invited witness.

It is also important that I remember the grief that I feel is not the job of Native people to take care of. That’s part of how racism hurts me: in creation of these systems of oppression. When I am in solidarity, I will face both shame for being the intended recipient of systems of oppression and the beneficiary of systems of oppression. There are things that my cultures have lost and I grieve that; and I get to have that grief and need to know what it is so that I don’t make consequences of racism hurt others. So that folks directly impacted don’t end up having to hold that for me. Sharing space is a function of our relationships – it is a gift. I often say I receive more than I give. That is indeed true.

Ronya: When you set your foot in that camp you have to trust that folks will take care of you, and that we are taking care of each other. At camp when tribes have come who are historical enemies – like the Lakota welcoming the Crow- that is so profound. No one enters that camp without having made some sort of sacrifice in their life. And that matters. I hope and guess that everybody goes away knowing that it is a gift to be able to be part of it. No one is excluded from this. Rocks, air, land, humans: we all have a connection to water. We can’t ignore the edges, and we must bring them to the center.

To find out more about the work of the UU Fellowship and Church of Bismarck-Mandan and how to directly support the Oceti Sakowin Camp, click here.