Seminary students huddle around a table with bright red ministerial stoles in an intimate, round chapel at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California. The students were supposed to leave at 3:00 PM, but about twenty people from the Starr King community want to bless them before they leave. The room is packed with parents, professors, students, friends. Together they pray, singing hymns about water. Many cry, moved by what they know is happening at Standing Rock and the show of support around them. Even though they are not ordained, the group insists the students have the red stoles.
“In the Episcopal tradition, the color red is the color of witnessing,” said Rev. Deb Hansen, an interfaith minister and Starr King student.
Immediately after the service, the eight students piled into two cars and drove for 30 hours to respond to North Dakota Episcopal priest John Floberg’s clergy call for solidarity in early November. A ninth student from Virginia would meet the group in North Dakota. A week ago, 140 protesters were arrested there after a violent confrontation with the police.
They drove together through the snowy Donner Pass, stopped at a diner in Reno, watched the sun rise over brilliant red sandstone in Utah, and gazed at the deer that lined the roads in Wyoming. They drove past oil wells and wind farms. In Wyoming they saw an armory—a giant, two-story grey block surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with razor wire. And about two hours later, one of the cars — in which the passengers were two women, a gay man, and black man — was stopped for speeding by a state trooper.
The trooper smirked and said, “If you’re going to a protest, that’s fine with me. I don’t mind.”
“I didn’t say we were going to a protest,” replied Kip Wanamaker, a Starr King student and Orthodox priest. The officer let them go without a ticket.
They arrived in Cannonball, North Dakota at one in the morning and most of them slept on the floor of the Episcopal Church. The land was frosted over that night and overhead, the Milky Way spread its arms across the vast, North Dakota sky. Inside the church where they slept, wooden beams spiraled into each other.
The next morning, everyone gathered to greet the land and learn. All the students knew was that going to Standing Rock was like a call to ministry, but they never talked in-depth about it. Most of those who went counted themselves as Unitarian Universalists, and each believed deeply in the seventh UU principle — “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”
Since the students have been to Standing Rock, the political landscape has undergone many changes. The water protectors secured some victories, but the ultimate fate of the pipeline still remains unclear.
On December 4, the Army Corps of Engineers denied a permit to allow the pipeline to cross Lake Oahe, saying there’s, “…a need to explore alternate routes for the Dakota Access Pipeline Crossing.” Drinking water was threatened by the pipeline, and during the process of construction, Native American burial grounds were desecrated. On January 18, the Army published a notice that they are gathering information to launch an environmental study of the crossing, which would most likely take two years to complete.
The denial of the permit felt like a victory for the water protectors, and victories are hard to come by in the fight against the military-industrial complex, but the water protectors stress that it is not over. The new president, Donald Trump, could overturn this action easily, and he has expressed his support for the DAPL project.
The Sacred Stone camp is where water protectors gather to sustain the movement against the construction of the pipeline. It is a sprawling space dotted with teepees, tents, and fire pits. It sits on a gentle slope going down to the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri rivers, and this is where people have camped for ages.
That morning, water protectors went to stand in the frigid waters together to perform a ceremony. On the other side of the river, police in riot gear sprayed the water protectors with mace and, in a bit of twisted, dark irony, tried to knock them over with water cannons.
Many of the water protectors gathered later as a spiritual leader beat a huge drum to provide a strong, steady rhythm. A chorus of voices repeated phrases the leader sang.
“Their faces were red and intense…” described another student, 59-year-old Nancy Reid-McKee. She was a Nurse Practitioner on the Navajo reservation before starting at Starr King and remembers how it was plagued by social problems. The U.S. government makes decisions on their behalf, diminishing their autonomy, she said.
As other students joined, they made their way to the river and watched the police through binoculars. Tensions were high. To the left, there was a scorched hill—an arsonist set it on fire. The police had recently raided a nearby camp, arresting 141 people. The protestors there were shot with rubber bullets and sprayed with mace. “I can’t get it off! It won’t stop!” screamed one young man about the burning from the chemicals.
That evening, there was a general meeting for the clergy action. Rev. Tet Gallardo, a practitioner of Zen Buddhism and a Unitarian Universalist minister from the Philippines, said an elder Native woman hushed the crowd in the gymnasium with her mere presence and said, “We had dreamt of you coming. One day you would question your own law and your government.”
The next morning, the Doctrine of Discovery, a Papal Bull issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493 sanctioning European monarchs to take lands in the Western Hemisphere as long as they were unoccupied by Christians, was handed to seven tribal elders. They stood by the sacred fire, which has been burning continuously since the start of the camp in April.
“Burn it!” one elder said. Representatives from nearly a dozen denominations formally repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery. The elder set it on fire, holding it up for everyone to see, and then placed it in a bucket, choosing not to burn the document directly in the holy fire. The students and hundreds of clergy watched the document go up in flames. Everyone cheered.
The clergy then marched to a bridge that was the site of many confrontations between the water protectors and the police. Everyone was dressed in their religious vestments and the students wore the red stoles.
They left the camp and headed for the bridge, going out the driveway, which is lined on both sides with more than four hundred flags representing all the different Native nations that have come in solidarity to Standing Rock. An elder sitting at the top of a rise held a pipe and scattered the smoke with a feather so the clergy were blessed with the prayers in the smoke. Five young men riding horses bareback raced through the grass. The clergy sang hymns as they marched and some Native people approached the clergy to shake their hands and thank them.
At the bridge, there were two burned-out army trucks that were still smoking. Just beyond the trucks were police cars and officers in riot gear. The clergy, from over twenty different denominations and faith traditions, stayed behind the bridge and gave speeches on how the values from their faith traditions tie into Standing Rock.
Lauren Renee Hotchkiss, a Pacific School of Religion student, was among the speakers. She spoke about how people of different faiths could find unity and solidarity through the common cause of stopping DAPL. Hotchkiss is seeking ordination in the United Church of Christ and draws on her values as a Christian, Native, and Druid for her climate change activism.
After her speech, Hotchkiss looked across the bridge and thought about everything the pipeline represents: broken treaties, climate change, and war.
“There’s blood mixed with that oil in the Dakota Access Pipeline,” she said.
That afternoon, three students drove to Bismarck to participate in a protest at the capitol building. Fourteen Jewish clergy had just been arrested for sitting on the floor of the capitol building and refusing to leave. After protesting at the capitol, the clergy walked to the governor’s mansion. As five of the students and clergy prayed on the governor’s lawn, they saw him walk outside to talk to the police.
Wanting to bring to the prayerful nature of the action to the forefront, Mira Mickiewicz, another Starr King student, suggested to the group that they shout The Lord’s Prayer because she knew the governor would recognize it. Though Mickiewicz is a Unitarian Universalist and not Christian, she is intimately familiar with the prayer. As she screamed, “Our father, who art in heaven…” she noticed the police nearby started reciting it out of habit.
As dozens of clergy and lay people recited the prayer, Mickiewicz was struck by the line, “Thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven.” She later reflected, “It was a confirmation that we’re here doing a good thing. Standing up for people who are oppressed is God’s will.” Three clergy left the lawn after being threatened with arrest. Two others stayed and were arrested.
“While we were protesting,” Hotchkiss remembered. “The governor’s neighbors came out of their houses and talked to each other about how the Native Americans don’t have a right to the land because they sold it to us. They didn’t get that the Native Americans did not have the same concept of ownership as the western Europeans.”
As the group stood on the sidewalk across from the governor’s mansion, a Native man was snatched from the sidewalk by the police. “There were other clergy there who had made a conscious decision to get arrested, but the police instead chose to arrest this man who wasn’t doing anything simply because he looked Native,” Mickiewicz said.
The clergy negotiated with the police, saying they would disperse if the police let him go. The police did end up releasing him and the protesters dispersed.
“It was dirty,” Hotchkiss said about the trade, but it’s also the oldest trick in the book. Oppressed human beings have always been used as pawns in the game to gain more territory and power.
Photos courtesy of Lauren Hotchkiss.
Paige Foreman is an editorial intern at Tikkun and is currently studying for her Masters in Social Transformation at the Pacific School of Religion. As a seminary student, she’s exploring the intersection between interfaith work, social justice activism, and the arts. In her spare time, Paige writes novels for children and teens, composes music, and trains for swimming across the English Channel.