Prayers began in April when a handful of Standing Rock tribal members set up tipis on the banks of the Cannonball River. They named their camp “Sacred Stone Camp,” after the large spherical stones created by currents where the Cannonball River meets the Missouri River. So it began—a movement which recognizes as “sacred stones” what the dominant culture sees as “cannonballs.”
In eight months, the movement to protect the waters of the Missouri River and sacred sites on Lakota land has swelled the first camp and two additional camp sites so greatly that the population now exceeds that of most small towns in North Dakota. Thousands of people from hundreds of tribes, races, and ethnicities have come together. The water protectors have the attention of pipeline developers, oil producers, the Army Corps of Engineers, law enforcement from five states, the National Guard, the President of the United States, and international news media. What’s missing from most reports about what’s happening at Standing Rock is any recognition that the heart of the gathering is prayer.
I joined a prayer gathering for Standing Rock on Saturday, November 26, at the headwaters of the Missouri River. About 20 people, including children, young people, and elders, stood next to the water for an informal, interfaith time of prayer. We began with a traditional smudging, passing a smoldering bundle of sage and sweetgrass around the circle and letting its aromatic smoke purify us for the prayers. A Crow man sang an honor song as he beat its rhythm on a handheld drum. A long, empty coal train passed behind him on the opposite bank of the river as he sang. Then those who wished shared their thoughts. One woman began by reflecting on covenant, both its biblical roots and its role in our relationships. Two young women, one white and the other Native, shared their personal experiences at the Sacred Stones Camp earlier this year. Both described a warm welcome into community, and an atmosphere of peace and love. Another man sang the first song he learned about Jesus in the Crow language. Then we bowed our heads and prayed.
We prayed for Mother Earth. We prayed for the water protectors, for their safety and for their cause. We prayed for law enforcement officers and their families. We prayed for a peaceful resolution to the conflict between those who want to build a pipeline for oil and those who want to ensure clean water for future generations. We prayed that Indian people and white people and brown people and black could understand and respect one another. We prayed in appreciation of the earth and in gratitude for all living things, for water and rocks and air. We prayed for all our relatives. Mitakuye oyasin.
When I opened my eyes, the sun had emerged from behind clouds and there was a clarity to the air which wasn’t there before. I felt spiritually connected to those around me, and literally connected to the community at Standing Rock by the river water which flowed by us, on its way to where they also pray. A few moments later, someone pointed toward the hillside beyond the river, where a bald eagle circled in the sky.
The heart of what is happening at Standing Rock, at the camp called Sacred Stone, is prayer. It is not a story about environmentalists trying to stop progress, it is not a story about protestors asserting their constitutional rights, it is not a story about Indians seeking revenge for 500 years of broken treaties, land theft, and attempted genocide. The real story is about people claiming the power of their ancient spiritual tradition and their tradition’s deep wisdom regarding the sacredness of water, the earth, and all of life. The real story is about prayer.
My prayer is that this story will end differently than most other stories about Native Americans and people of European ancestry. My prayer is that in this time of intensified racism and desecration of the earth, we will experience the dawn of a new way of relating to one another and to our precious common home, thanks to the water protectors. May the sacred, life-giving waters show us that we are one.