The Beating Heart of Standing Rock: Walking The Great Mystery With All My Relations

Posted by Nikole Hollenitsch on Jul 7, 2017 1:42:50 PM

A guest post by Joseph Bobrow, Roshi, Ph.D.

oceti_sakowin_camp.jpgFrom April 2016 to February 2017, tens of thousands of people journeyed to Oceti Sakowin, Seven Fires Camp, in Cannonball, North Dakota in support of the water protectors on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in a momentous gathering of tribes, their allies, and people from all walks of life and all ages, standing in solidarity to put a halt to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and protect the water of 17 million living downstream. They won a major victory when the Army Corps of Engineers denied a key permit to the builders (Energy Transfer Partners) and insisted on a thorough Environmental Impact Study. Soon after Donald Trump took office in January, 2017, he ordered that construction resume without the study [1]. The pipeline sprung leaks even while being tested. Now, it is in full operation.

The impacts from the remarkable community of solidarity and action at Standing Rock did not end when camp was closed, the teepees and communal structures razed, and the holdouts arrested. Other protest camps are springing up around the country, including Camp White Pine in Pennsylvania, where residents are working to stop the Mariner East 2 pipeline, and in Louisiana where a multifaith alliance is organizing a camp to block the Bayou Bridge Pipeline. The ripples from Standing Rock was also felt on July 4, 2017, when tribes gather in Black Hills, SD for “Reclamation of Independence.”

To convey and keep alive the power and joy of Standing Rock, I want to share my experience as part of an action by 524 clergy on November 3, 2016. At Standing Rock multifaith spiritually-informed direct action was the interplay, in a remarkable contemporary context, of the principles of Native spirituality: The Great Mystery (Wakan Tanka, also Great Spirit) and All My Relations (Mitakuye Oyasin).

Although I practice and teach Zen, I enjoy occasionally attending the Quaker meeting in Santa Barbara where I live. For months I had been following the stories of young people and women leading the movement against the pipeline. They struck a chord. As a child, I had cut my teeth at peace demonstrations that my mother would bring me to. From 2006-2016, I helped create and shared a profound healing space with thousands of returning veterans and their family members, hundreds of whom worked in law enforcement. I loved and felt honored to know them. Watching the displays of brutality by law enforcement evoked outrage and grief. It disturbed me to see officers abusing their sacred protective function; inflicting their power on those devoted to protecting the water, the land, and the health and well being of millions.

Occasionally at Quaker meeting I would stand during silent worship, as is custom, and speak my heart. It felt better to share, even as my voice trembled and my eyes welled up. One day in late October I got a message from the secretary of the meeting. A member of the Goleta Unitarian Universalist congregation wanted to sponsor someone to go to Standing Rock. Quakers had a tradition of activism so she gave them a call. The meeting asked me if I wanted to go.

I had experience with activism and communities, but I was wary of “the helping hand (that) strikes again,” a term coined by the educator John Holt. This unseen principle had wrecked havoc; think saviors coming to rescue the Iraqi people in 2003. As a white male, I also recalled the tensions back in the day when white folk offered to help black folk fight for their rights.

I did some research and discovered that John Floberg, Episcopal pastor for 25 years with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, had issued a call for clergy from all faiths to come to support and help protect the water protectors. The action was to occur within days. I didn’t hesitate.

~~~ At the Bismarck airport I met my ride, two pre-Rabbinic Hebrew priestesses who were renting a car. Great company they were and navigating geniuses who led us through miles of unlit, mostly unmarked roads. As I began wondering about the early Hebrews’ magical powers, they said they’d learned a trick to download GPS directions to use when there’s no signal. They dropped me off at St. James Episcopal Church, which Rev Floberg had made available. I wanted to be at the campground but didn’t think there would be sufficient light to set up in the pitch black. Little did I know that, with the massive floodlights trained all night long on the camp by law enforcement and DAPL security, that would’ve been a piece of cake. People were unpacking and setting up pads on the floor or ingeniously arranging chair beds in the large one room church, while a few were chatting in the adjacent kitchen. I carved out a tiny sleeping space between the dollhouse and the toy bin in the child’s play area. I hadn’t slept with a large group of people since my early Zen retreat days. Between people arriving throughout the night and a few prize-winning snorers, I slept little. But I was glad to be among new comrades.

I got up before dawn and soon met Sarah, the one other person not still in a sleeping bag, who asked if I wanted to take a walk. An Episcopal who drove from her home in Wisconsin, she spent time each year with families at Pine Ridge, an Oglala Lakota reservation in South Dakota. We enjoyed walking under the stars and watching the light rise over the Cannonball River as we shared stories.

I was itching to get to camp. But someone asked for volunteers to help prepare dinner. We began to make ham and cheese, turkey, and peanut better and jelly sandwiches for that evening, when we’d all gather for training in the gym. A few volunteers turned into a team of dozens, and a bunch of sandwiches into thousands. Three hours later we had made enough sandwiches and assembled enough paper bags with chips and fruit for dinner that evening and lunch the following day. I got caught up in the sheer enjoyment of working together with laughing comrades. I called it sandwich samadhi, a highly advanced spiritual state of active communion.

Mike, a newly appointed Episcopal Bishop for Oregon, rode me up to camp. Native author Louise Erdich captures the approach, “The hills and buttes of the Missouri breaks are dotted with isolated houses until the sudden appearance of the Oceti Sakowin encampment. The presence of so many people catches at the heart.” I got out of the car and stopped to take in the scope and feel the pulsating life. I walked through the main gate and down the road, following the amplified sound of the camp announcer calling for volunteers down by the river. I found him next to the sacred fire. “Relatives, we need you down by the river, there’s an action in progress. If you can witness, that would be great.” “Relatives” —that greeting would stay with me as I experienced that he and other Natives meant it. We were in this together.

I set off to find the river. People were going in different directions. There was a group of excited young Lutherans eager to put their bodies where their beliefs were. Someone who seemed like an organizer told us that if we were willing to be arrested or even if we just wanted to witness, we should go register with the Red Owl Legal Collective up on the hill. I listened to the legal counselors but decided I did not want to be in jail when our clergy action took place the following day. Things were very fluid, news was continuously breaking, accounts being updated, versions changing by the minute. Waves of information and energy pulsated through camp. There had been a tragedy by the river. Later, an elder had been hurt. Women and children were now asked to stay back. Then allies too. Something had happened or was happening but it was hard to know precisely what.

I dropped off some warm clothing friends had sent along and decided to stop and just take things in, sitting down a short distance from the sacred fire in the shade of a few tarps. The swirl of information, activity and concern quieted down. I sensed a lull, a low kind of feeling. It was as if there were a palpable collective pulse.

A female elder took the mic. As she spoke I realized anew how we are all one interacting mind, “Relatives, you might think things here are disorganized, even chaotic. But it’s an ordered disorganization. We Indians don’t put things in squares and compartments. We see circles, we follow intuition. But things get done, they unfold.” And how.

She passed the mic to the announcer, who paused. “There hasn’t been much going so well the past couple days,” he said. Just days before, over 100 water protectors had been arrested and many brutalized. “I think we need some humor. Anyone got any jokes?” When no one came forward, he said, “You know there’s such a thing as Native humor. I hope you white folks aren’t offended.” And he told a series of five or six stories, each funny and with complex interweaving themes. If inclusion—embracing differences within unity was the order of the day, and it was—things were also pretty nuanced.

“So back in the day, some white folks came to the rez and said ‘Where did you Indians get all this money?’ They had seen a shiny new USDA building and a few new stores. An Indian said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you. There was this guy, his last name was Custer. One of the Indians knew him. During a conversation we learned what he was planning. So we sent a runner over the hills into the city. And we took out a life insurance policy on Mr. Custer.”

The others gathered didn’t show much, but I nearly burst out in laughter. There was a barb for sure, but it was complex. The final joke was short. Someone called out Donald Trump’s name. “Nah,” said the announcer. “Nah.” Another called out, “Come on,” but he said, “Nah, he’s not worth it.” Finally the announcer agreed, “Okay…Okay…Donald Trump, you are lucky… “ We waited expectantly, like with a knock-knock joke. “You are lucky, Donald Trump, that you wear a hairpiece.” It took a moment but this time I broke out laughing.

After Grandma’s words and the announcer’s jokes, there was a long lull; a down feeling seemed to return. As I made my way toward the main camp road, I passed a young woman carrying a sign that said Mental Health and asked her if I could learn more. She showed me where the teepee was and invited me to come by.

Just then a buzz went up, slowly building to a roar, then a cheer. I looked to my right and along the road that bordered the sacred fire a caravan was rolling up, as if responding to prayers unspoken. On horseback and in pick-up trucks came young warriors, many wearing feathers. They looked like they had been through an ordeal and carried prayer flags on long poles and a drum. Something was happening, something spontaneous and not measurable in “compartments and squares.”

A few Natives formed a circle at the sacred fire and began drumming and singing. The energy of ceremony rose in a sharp dramatic way. From the far corners of the camp residents began to arrive, drawn by the music, which was surely prayer. Young warriors began to dance, circling the drummers. Elders would touch and bless them. The rising tide of energy was palpable and irresistible. Eyes brightened, we became immersed, and the sense of emptiness lifted as we were carried into the ancient ritual.

The drumming and singing and praying built to a fever pitch and, just when you thought it was over, it would begin again. The crowd had grown to hundreds. The community was revitalizing itself using its ceremonial resources. The drumbeats and cries went right through and in— linking, buoying, energizing, awakening. The ancient was alive. Ancestors felt present. While immersed, I also marveled at how the community was spontaneously raising its spirits by raising The Great Spirit (Wakan Taka) through the presence of All My Relations (Mitakuye Oyasin).

Carried along on this great wave, I glanced around and saw that others were, too. The entire community was infused with a pulsating life-giving energy that linked us all. We were breathing and being breathed in a great communal inspiration. When the prayer stopped, there was a long silence. Something had shifted, a “climate change” of benevolent aliveness.

~~~ That night we got to meet all the other clergy and lay people who had come. As we crowded into the Cannonball gym, it felt like attending a homecoming or a high-school basketball game. We filled the bleachers and poured out onto the floor. Pastor Floberg had hoped for 100 but well more than 500 were present. We dined on sandwiches, chips, apple and beverage and heard from John, Native elders, and organizers about the history of Standing Rock resistance camps, what our action the following day would consist of, and how to conduct ourselves. The primary message: We would be peaceful, prayerful, non-violent, and lawful.

When Columbus first set foot on Guanahani island in 1492, he performed a ceremony to "take possession" of the land for the king and queen of Spain, acting under the international laws of Western Christendom. This act of "possession" was based on a religious doctrine now known as the Doctrine of Discovery. In 1823, the Christian Doctrine of Discovery was quietly adopted into U.S. law by the Supreme Court in Johnson v. McIntosh. Writing for a unanimous court, Chief Justice John Marshall observed that Christian European nations had assumed "ultimate dominion" over the lands of America during the Age of Discovery, and that - upon "discovery" - the Indians had lost "their rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations," and only retained a right of "occupancy" in their lands. In other words, Indians nations were subject to the ultimate authority of the first nation of Christendom to claim possession of a given region of Indian lands [2].

The clergy action on November 3, 2016 would be the first public multifaith renunciation of the Doctrine of Discovery in the presence of elders from a wide range of tribes. Reverend Floberg told us in the gym that we were 524 in number, remarkably the same as the number of years since the Doctrine of Discovery was invoked in the Americas. Myth and reality blurred in a felicitous way.

Upon returning to the church, some who’d stayed the previous night got their knickers in a twist when they saw that a large group of newcomers had taken their places. There was enough space for all and I thought, “How the beat goes on.” How bountiful the opportunities for “helping hands” to learn to walk our talk. Two hundred people slept peacefully on the floor at St. James Church that night.

~~~ The next morning I walked in the dawn light with Zen friends across the hills to the town hall where breakfast awaited. Then we shuttled over to the campground. The area around the sacred fire is not large. With elders from the multiple tribes gathered, residents from camp, and the clergy and lay people gathered, it was quite a crowd. On a clear bright morning, Rev. Floberg convened the ceremony with simple, powerful words. Each of the faith leaders spoke briefly, renouncing the Doctrine of Discovery. They presented each of the nine tribal elders with a copy of the Doctrine. John suggested they could place them in the fire if they wished. I couldn’t help but notice the look on the elders’ faces: “But of course,” they seemed to say. One after another, the elders burned the Doctrine of Discovery.

It was momentous. In the same container as the burning doctrines, elders offered sacred tobacco. They began to smudge the clergy and the other elders. We had been instructed to proceed through the gate and up the hill to the front lines, the 1806 Backwater bridge, for the rest of our ceremony. But we weren’t moving and seemed to be dissipating the momentum that had just been created. When I turned around and glanced up the hill, I realized that every person was being individually smudged from a single ceramic container, the same one that contained the burning Doctrines of Discovery and the sacred tobacco offering. My restless eagerness abated; I saw the transforming alchemy and how it had spontaneously arisen. We all walked up the hill and assembled at the edge of the bridge. In the middle of the bridge were three Native volunteers policing the event. On the other side of the bridge were concrete barricades, a burned out semi truck, scores of county and state police, DAPL security, and numerous police and militarized vehicles. We gathered into a big circle, spreading well up the hillside. John began to speak but the low tech sound system could not compete with the helicopters buzzing low over the bridge. Some said they were deploying Stingray spy technology to tap cellphones.

After multifaith prayers, John invited us to come up, asking if we were “singers” or “speakers.” The first presenter was a vibrant African Methodist Episcopal female cleric in brightly colored robes. She spoke powerfully and incisively, making clear the connections among racial, economic, political and environmental injustice, NoDAPL and Black Lives Matter, and American slaves and Native Americans. The Associate Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the U.S., also an African-American woman, followed. She jumped in with “Wade in the water, wade in the water Children, wade in the water, God’s gonna trouble the water.” Her voice rose above the helicopters and we all began to move together, en rapt, joining in song. Of course, Mni Wiconi! Water is Life! The battle cry of the Standing Rock movement. We were all in the water together, and of the water too. Someone from every denomination represented sang, spoke or both. Each was moving and distinctive.

There were also sounds coming from another action that had developed nearby, at the middle of the bridge. A group of younger water protectors was pushing the limits, surging toward the police and barricades on the other side. Restrained by the volunteer Native police, their chants and protests drew a few from our own ranks. When the singing and speaking finished, we 524 strong began a slow ceremonial movement in which the circle folds in on itself and continues round, permitting everyone to come face to face with everyone else. This we did, one by one, seeing and greeting one another. Like the smudging earlier, this practice was powerful in its own way, though not as confrontational as the smaller louder counterpoint out on the bridge.

Standing by the side of the bridge I noticed two Native women who’d both spoken, Lyla June and an elder, perhaps her teacher. I’d heard they were leading a forgiveness march in two days to the Morton County Police Station. Rather than suffering paralyzing animosity, they drew from their Native spirituality to practice and offer forgiveness to those who had harmed the water protectors. Not everyone agreed with their approach, but I was intrigued and approached to say hello.

Lyla was finishing a conversation with a young Christian man, a musician who was wearing a few crosses on chains around his neck. He had just finished singing them a song, perhaps a song of healing. He took off a chain and gave it to her. I couldn’t see what the amulet was. I thought it was a cross but later saw it was a purple stone. Lyla began to weep and sob. Finally she said, “Oh, your (Christian) ‘way’ must have major powers, major spirit…” I thought, A gift? A true gift from a Christian, a group that has so harmed our people? I think what moved her so was the unusual experience of safety and generosity from someone toward whom she still rightly felt suspicious and aggrieved.

As the actions wound down, I walked out to the middle of the bridge to one of the Native volunteer police. I’d overheard part of his conversation with a water protector and said, “As a veteran, it must not feel so good to have high powered (sniper) rifles trained on you.” He replied, “Yeah, there they are,” pointing to the top of Turtle Hill. “Doesn't bother me, I’m used to it.” After a pause he continued, “If they shoot at me, that means they’re not shooting at you all.” I was moved by his warrior spirit, looking out for others.

I walked over to where my Zen friends were talking to another Native volunteer policeman. He was Christian, wore a Mohawk, and was an mixed martial arts fighter. He spoke softly and thoughtfully. Wendy suggested we pray together and invited him to lead the prayer. He declined but she was persistent. The four of us took one anothers’ hands on what he had called ‘The Bridge of Hope.’ “The one thing I pray for today,” he said, “is for one of those police over there on the other side, just one, to come over here so we can have a dialogue. Just him and me. As people, not in our roles. A one-to-one dialogue.”

Powerful moments in the spaces between what was organized.

As we were about to leave, the veteran policeman was looking through his binoculars and said, “They’re mobilizing. They’re preparing to move on the camp.” A wave of fear, a traumatic ripple; our body-minds “mobilized” too. We tried to figure out what they were doing and why. There had been no provocations. After a few minutes, he realized it was an hour past the time John Floberg had told the police the event would end. We were still on the bridge talking and so was a long trailer with packages of bottled water. After we cleared the bridge and the trailer drove off, the troops withdrew.

~~~ One month later, on December 4, 2016, following a nine-month long struggle and the arrival the previous day of thousands of U.S. war veterans, the Army Corps of Engineers denied the DAPL owners, Energy Transfer Partners, an easement to drill across the Missouri River. Joyful celebration ensued. Two months later, on February 9, on the orders of President Trump, the Army Corps aborted the Environmental Impact Statement in full progress and granted the easement. Drilling recommenced, and pipe was laid across the Missouri River, and the oil began being pumped, and leaking.

The burned out semi truck was removed but concrete barriers still kept the ‘Bridge Of Hope’ impassable. Police and DAPL security remained visible and continued to arrest water protectors praying on the hillsides of their ancestral lands. Surrounded on all sides by a mass of National Park Rangers, Bureau of Indian Affairs officers, and highly militarized local and state police, residents either left, crossing the Missouri River and burning their teepees and structures behind them to prevent desecration, or were arrested.

A fiercely determined group of Natives and non-Native allies remained encamped nearby at the renamed Oceti Oyate, All Nations Camp, as they worked through record blizzards and sub-zero weather cleaning up the camp and preparing to move to higher ground nearby as Spring arrived with warmer weather and the likely flooding of the plain.


The fire of Standing Rock continues to burn in new protest camps in Pennsylvania, Louisiana and around the country and Canada. Recent revelations showed that a paramilitary unit, TigerSwan, modeled after Blackwater, had been providing security for Energy Transfer Partners. Their strategies were the same as employed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“The Intercept recently revealed how international private security firm TigerSwan targeted Dakota Access water protectors with military-style counterterrorism measures. TigerSwan began as a U.S. military and State Department contractor, hired by Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline. The investigation based on leaked internal documents, which show how TigerSwan collaborated closely with law enforcement agencies to surveil and target the nonviolent indigenous-led movement. In the documents, TigerSwan also repeatedly calls the water protectors "insurgents" and the movement "an ideologically driven insurgency," even using words like "jihadi." [3]

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe recently won a major legal victory in federal court which may have the power to force the shutdown of the $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline. District Judge James Boasberg ruled Wednesday that the Trump administration failed to conduct an adequate environmental review of the pipeline, after President Trump ordered the Army Corps to fast-track and greenlight its approval. The judge requested additional briefings on whether the pipeline should be shut off until the completion of a full review of a potential oil spill’s impacts on fishing and hunting rights, as well as environmental justice. [4]

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is preparing to build a solar farm in Cannon Ball, less than three miles from the Dakota Access pipeline, and aims to have all twelve communities at Standing Rock powered by renewable energy sources.


[1] Washington Post, February 2, 2017.

[2] Five Hundred Years of Injustice: The Legacy of Fifteenth Century Religious Prejudice; Steve Newcomb

[3] Story on TigerSwan

[4] Ibid

joe_bobrow.jpgJoseph Bobrow, Roshi, Ph.D.,is a Zen master and Roshi of Deep Streams Zen Institute in Santa Barbara, CA. An author, activist, and retired psychoanalyst, he has long been integrating Buddhist practice with depth psychology to create communities that transform individual and collective anguish. Among these non-denominational learning and healing environments are a rural cooperative school, an education and support program for high-conflict divorcing families, mentoring and meditation groups for incarcerated teenagers, and acclaimed reintegration retreats that mobilize the power of community to help veterans, their families, and their caregivers transform the traumas of war and find peace. Experience has shown Joseph the power of what Martin Luther King aptly called the beloved community. He tells the story of his integrative work and its contemporary applications to building peace in Waking Up From War: A Better Way Home For Veterans And Nations, with a Foreword by His Holiness The Dalai Lama. Joseph’s first book was Zen And Psychotherapy: Partners In Liberation, with comments by Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh. After Midnight: Selected Poems, Joseph’s first collection of poems, was published in February 2017 by Fisher King Press. Coming Home Project is a non-denominational service of Deep Streams Zen Institute that from 2006-2016 was dedicated to alleviating the unseen injuries of war endured by veterans, service members, and their families and caregivers. Coming Home now offers consultation and training to create optimal environments for healing, learning, and social and individual change.

Topics: Trauma, Pacifica Events, Social Justice, community psychology