Witnessing Standing Rock: A Short Guide


Three women holding up a sign saying "water is life." I traveled to Standing Rock in order to help sustain the camp and be a witness. Here are some humble suggestions of what you might do if you travel to Standing Rock, and if you are in solidarity with indigenous struggles locally.
Work in the kitchen! Mounds of garlic are peeled daily to feed the thousands of people eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day. There are five main kitchens throughout camp, so there are many opportunities to go into a nearby kitchen and ask when a good time to volunteer is. Working in a kitchen is a great way to contribute directly to the basic ongoing daily needs of the camp and to meet people!
Go to an early morning ceremony. Standing Rock is a prayer camp and attending an indigenous led ceremony is the best way to learn about the spirit of Standing Rock. Morning ceremonies start at 6 AM and may be led by women. The ceremony I attended by the sacred fires on Friday morning was led by a medicine woman named Blue Lightning, who I had the honor of getting to know while I was there. She asked me to be guardian of the east gate because she learned I was one of the first woman rabbis from young Jewish people from the Bay Area who contributed to building several tents for her family encampment. The morning ceremony was dedicated to “untangling” energies that need to come back into harmony. People were invited to dance in four concentric circles around a four directional altar created with crystals and shells. When the sun rose, about a hundred people walked down to the river for a pipe ceremony led by Lakota women who have greeted the dawn in this way by the shores of this river for hundreds and hundreds of years. This is their land.
Be in service. While I was at Standing Rock, I remained in service to Blue Lightning’s intergenerational family, which consisted of elders, parents, and children. I was able to serve in this way due to my relationships with Bay Area Jewish young people in their 20’s and 30’s who contributed funds for and built several winterized tents, each one complete with insulation, a wood stove, lots of heaters, a porch, chairs, cots, blankets, rugs, tables, and a complete kitchen with shelves, cooking utensils, a stove, storage bins, and wash station for Blue Lightning’s family encampment. The kitchen was dedicated by Blue Lightning to be a meeting place for elders. It’s warm and welcoming. I spent time setting up the kitchen and attending to immediate needs of the elders.
Participate in an action that feels right to you. There is nonviolent direct action training at camp. There is also an ongoing conversation about whether or not a particular action is sanctioned by elders. I chose to attend a Thanksgiving Day silent vigil by the river organized by indigenous youth with the sanction of the elders. The action had several components: some people remained in silence on the camp side of the river while others crossed over the river on a plank to get to Turtle Island, which is sacred ground to the Lakota. There were indigenous men protecting the nonviolent nature of the action by not allowing anyone to climb up the hill to the ridge where dozens of militarized police stood in wait threatening them with violence over a bull horn while telling people they didn’t want a confrontation at the same time. People were still traumatized by Sunday’s attack, which injured 166 people. While I was there, the police installed bright floodlights by the river. They also placed barbed wire along the ridge of Turtle Island and the river’s edge. If you are planning to be part of a direct action, please check in with the legal tent on Facebook Hill to be trained and find out about arrest procedures before you participate.
Listen to stories. Being in camp with an indigenous family allowed me to hear lots of stories such as Blue Lightning’s family stories; Lakota, Shoshone, and Ute histories; tribal origin tales, creation tales, and teachings about prayer; the story of this particular Pipe Line; eminent domain, broken treaties, and Native sovereignty rights; and stories about Standing Rock itself. Jane Fonda’s appearance at camp over Thanksgiving started some conversations. The threat of police violence sparks rumors, so don’t believe every story. Dallas Goldtooth is a good source for staying in touch with what is actually happening. Indigenous news sources are the best way to stay informed.
I was delighted to be invited to tell a story at the Standing Rock school for the Water Protector’s children. I chose a seven-minute Jewish Yemenite tale called King Solomon and the Hoepoo. It is a riddle tale with a spiritual lesson about honoring each other’s freedom. The kids liked it. Then, a group of us, mostly parents of the kids, spent two hours removing leaves from branches of cedar for use in ceremony as kids played around us. The Lakota teacher running the school taught us the meaning of “tepee” and the importance of remembering history. I encourage all non-natives to begin to learn about the history of Turtle Island from indigenous perspectives.
Walk through the camp. Nine thousand people were living at Standing Rock over Thanksgiving weekend. Anyone traveling to Standing Rock must visit the sacred fires and listen to the elders speak about what’s happening in the camp. By walking through the camp, you learn about the thousands of outsiders who have come as individuals or in groups and contributed millions of dollars to the sustainability of camp. The combined effort on behalf of Standing Rock is inspiring.
Be ready for the unexpected! On Saturday, Shabbat early afternoon, a silent action by the river was to take place. People met at the Big White Dome. I couldn’t figure out if the elders sanctioned it or not. Nonetheless, I joined the pilgrimage to the river with Molly and Ali. One hundred steps into the walk, I caught sight of four young Navajo men in beautiful regalia walking toward the sacred fires and being a New Mexico girl, I followed them knowing they would dance. They were part of a Navajo-run company promoting Navajo culture. About one hundred people watched the chicken dance, grass dance, and warrior dance. It was a pow wow moment, many native people were present, and it felt like home. Everyone’s spirits were lifted by some of the finest dancing humans have to offer. After that, Molly, Ali, and I continued to make our way to the river. An elder native woman approached us and smudged us with sage. Young boys riding horses galloped down the flag way as a young woman with a walk talky urged us to get out of the middle of the road. Suddenly, people were running toward us calling for medics and a car was commandeered because someone had a heart attack. Then, we bumped into a friend of Molly’s who was a stunt man in the Lone Ranger movie who got thrown off his mechanical horse and was severely injured. After two years, he is healed and working in the movies again. Finally, we made it to the river. About two hundred people in a field were sitting in a circle silently meditating and listening to a young Lakota man in his twenties address the circle with passion. “My grandparents fished in this river. I have fished in this river. I want my grandchildren to be able to fish in this river. Protect the waters!” A contingent of deaf Native people were watching an interpreter translate his story. Plains peoples invented sign language, the first international language in the world. Next, a man from Lebanon invited us to meditate for peace. I took that time to say my goodbyes to the river, now lined with barbed wire and the threat of violence.
Take care of yourself. Native people are incredibly generous and giving. Take care of your own needs if possible. Come with funds, and do research in advance so you don’t burden the camp. Bring enough layers to stay warm. Drink water often. Be prepared for smoky environments. Come with little gifts of ointment, sage, or tobacco to give away as a sign of your appreciation.
Standing Rock bannersRemain active when you come home. Standing Rock is the heart of the medicine wheel right now, awakening a new spiritual awareness throughout Turtle Island. Spider woman is weaving a new web, the web of gathering tribes. Now is the time to purify our spiritual energies so we can come together in a good way. The web must be strong to face the coming violence. This is the only way we can win. Put your anger aside. As we stand with Standing Rock, let us also act locally in solidarity with indigenous struggles happening where we live. And call President Obama this week.
Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb is cofounder of the Community of Living Traditions, a multifaith residency devoted to nonviolence in study and action. She is also cofounder of the Shomer Shalom Institute for Jewish Nonviolence and the Muslim Jewish PeaceWalk, as well as a performing artist, author, and percussionist.

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