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ceremony

The Ethics of Ceremony at Standing Rock

It is not only that there is water in the world, but there is a world in water. It is not just in water. There is a world of sentient beings in clouds. There is a world of sentient beings in the air. There is a world of sentient beings in fire. . . . There is a world of sentient beings in a blade of grass.

– Dogen, quoted in Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild (p. 117).

I awoke one morning before sunrise and stepped out of my tent to take in the deep pink glow of the high plains dawn. The light set the horizon on fire, reflected off the fog that had collected in the valley, and illuminated the tents, teepees, long house, and pickup trucks scattered before me. I was camped at the Sacred Stone Spirit camp, located on the northern edge of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, forty miles south of Bismarck, North Dakota. Thousands of Native Americans and their allies have gathered here and at neighboring camps since April, 2016 to defend the Missouri and Cannonball rivers and the people they support from the Dakota Access pipeline. If completed, the project could carry over half a million barrels a day of crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in Western North Dakota eastward to refineries and shipping terminals in the Midwest and South. Boosters say the pipeline will transport oil more safely and affordably than can be done by rail or truck. Opponents say the pipeline route is a clear case of environmental racism, the siting of environmentally dangerous infrastructure in or near poor communities of color, and that the oil should stay in the ground anyways, a necessary first step to mitigate worsening climate change. I came to Standing Rock to bear witness as a white ally, to be in solidarity with the struggle and to learn about the social and environmental movement emerging there.

Dawn at the Sacred Stone camp. On the left is a longhouse frame. An Ojibwe supporter from Minnesota donated materials and his labor in order to construct several longhouses. This combination of teepees, nylon tents, tarps, and the longhouse is an example of the culturally and technologically eclectic nature of the camps. Image by author, September 2016.

Dawn at the Sacred Stone camp. On the left is a longhouse frame. An Ojibwe supporter from Minnesota donated materials and his labor in order to construct several longhouses. This combination of teepees, nylon tents, tarps, and the longhouse is an example of the culturally and technologically eclectic nature of the camps. Image by author, September 2016.

As the pink sky brightened and sunrise approached, a steady drum beat crept into my bleary consciousness and then took form as a procession of people rounded the corner above the camp and made their way downhill towards the central kitchen. They were decked out in technicolor clothing, some with coyote pelts on their backs, all barefoot in the cool fall morning. A gleaming white truck crept alongside them. The truck’s flashy rims and big tires contrasted both with the dancers and the haphazardly packed trailer that it pulled. The group stopped at the camp’s improvisational receiving area, a clearing ringed by porta-potties on one side and a cascading stockpile of bottled water on the other. The American Indian Movement flag flew highest on the flag pole.

The American Indian Movement flag is a common sight at the camps. Thick vertical bars of red, white, yellow, and black background a red face that is also a raised fist and a peace sign. It can be seen atop flag poles, off the back of pickup trucks, or at individual camps as seen here. Image by author, September 2016.

The American Indian Movement flag is a common sight at the camps. Thick vertical bars of red, white, yellow, and black background a red face that is also a raised fist and a peace sign. It can be seen atop flag poles, off the back of pickup trucks, or at individual camps as seen here. Image by author, September 2016.

For nearly half an hour they sang, danced, and drummed. When they had finished, they formally presented their donations to the camp chef, a Sioux woman, who is more or less in charge of the place. She appeared grateful, overwhelmed, and a bit bewildered by the ceremony that had just occurred. She repeated several times, “thank you, thank you, I don’t know what to say,” then said, “you’re welcome to make yourselves at home here, stay as long as you like,” and she invited them to join the communal breakfast.

Ceremony. I heard the word over and over again during my time at the camps. Ceremony perhaps best describes the movement taking shape at Standing Rock. Ceremony is the rituals that happen at Standing Rock—nightly sweat lodges, all night music and prayers, the formal presentation of gifts I just described. This is what the word has traditionally meant in English: the performance of the sacred. But this definition of ceremony as ritual is too narrow.

In the struggle against the Dakota Access pipeline, ceremony also means political action. Occupations of construction sites are enacted as prayer gatherings, not unlike the civil rights movement in the American South. It seems more accurate to say that at Standing Rock ceremony is being worked with as an ethic and a guiding principle, like the maxim, “this is a ceremony, act accordingly,” that was presented to me at a direct action training sponsored by the Indigenous Environmental Network. I want to suggest that one important way to be in solidarity with Native American activists in North Dakota is to reflect on how ceremony as a principle could shift the conversations of environmental politics more broadly.

Demonstrators, led by activists from the Indigenous Environmental Network, gather in Bismarck, North Dakota to speak out against the proposed Dakota Access pipeline. Image by author, September 2016.

Demonstrators, led by activists from the Indigenous Environmental Network, gather in Bismarck, North Dakota to speak out against the proposed Dakota Access pipeline. Image by author, September 2016.

At breakfast, I learned that the visitors who entered at dawn came from the Hopi reservation in Arizona. I chatted with one of the elder women while we sipped coffee around the community fire. They had driven more than thirty hours in that truck and trailer to be here, but only after plenty of debate about whether to come at all. According to her, Hopi people traditionally avoid the sort of direct confrontation happening at Standing Rock, but they came to the decision that the fight there called for them to step out and join the broader struggle. Part of her argument was that fights over uranium mining on Hopi land, coal mining on Navajo land, and oil pipelines on Sioux land should all be understood in the broader context of defending a sacred, living earth, to carry out a form of ceremony as political action.

Political action is also a chance to revisit or learn traditions. Two of the younger Hopi women, for example, were cooking up blue corn bread at the fire while the elder and I spoke. The younger women came over several times to ask for help. “What consistency should it be? How long do we cook it? How much sugar should I add?” At other times, I listened to debates about ceremony and tradition. Should white people be allowed to participate in formal ceremonies? Is civil disobedience, like chaining bodies to construction equipment, consistent with an ethic of ceremony? Immersion in the old ways is sometimes new territory.

The immediate struggle at Standing Rock is over Energy Transfer Partners’ plans to route the Dakota Access pipeline under the Missouri River just north of the Standing Rock reservation. The Army Corps of Engineers are in charge of managing the river and the land immediately adjacent to it. They have not issued a permit for digging under the river, but Energy Transfer Partners have been busy laying the pipeline right up to this buffer zone. An oil spill near or under the river would contaminate the reservation’s drinking water supply. Bismarck residents raised the same concern, prompting a reroute of the pipeline to this spot adjacent to the reservation.

Activists here in Standing Rock insist that the water being threatened is sacred and alive. “Mni waconi, water is life,” is the rallying cry of the movement. It is meant materially, as in we all need clean water to drink and to grow our food. “Mni waconi” is also meant spiritually, that water and sky are the blood of creation and need to be protected as such. They say the pipeline is a threat to both, and call it the black snake in reference to a Lakota prophecy that describes an apocalyptic black snake that will spread destruction as it slithers across the land. Sites for formal ceremonies have been set up along the riverbanks to be near the water. “Protectors, not protestors,” people here are shaping the movement as caring for the water rather than simply resisting the pipeline.

Activists at the Red Warrior Camp produced this sculpture, titled “Black Snake Killa,” which evokes a Lakota story of an apocalyptic black snake. The snake has been placed here, at one of the active construction sites, along with banners and signs declaring solidarity from tribes, communities, and social movements from around the world. Image by author, September 2016.

Activists at the Red Warrior Camp produced this sculpture, titled “Black Snake Killa,” which evokes a Lakota story of an apocalyptic black snake. The snake has been placed here, at one of the active construction sites, along with banners and signs declaring solidarity from tribes, communities, and social movements from around the world. Image by author, September 2016.

At other times, the struggle as ceremony is enacted more pragmatically. While dramatic video of armed private security guards, flanked by German Shepherds that bit and bloodied peaceful demonstrators, brought the struggle onto the national scene, most days at the camp are filled with the work of caring for the people who have taken up residence there. I spent my time washing dishes, picking up trash, and sorting canned goods. I can confidently say that, whatever else happens, there is no shortage of canned green beans in this corner of North Dakota.

Donations are piled up alongside kitchen and supply tents at the Oceti Sakowin camp. A significant amount of labor at the camps goes into sorting and distributing the supplies that arrive from across the country. Image by author, September 2016.

Donations are piled up alongside kitchen and supply tents at the Oceti Sakowin camp. A significant amount of labor at the camps goes into sorting and distributing the supplies that arrive from across the country. Image by author, September 2016.

What began as a gathering of a few folks on the northern edge of the reservation has blossomed into a small town that outgrew its original space and spilled onto federal land just north of the reservation. Tents, teepees, and RVs sprawl across this sweeping flat plain. Each day, beat up pickup trucks come and go, hauling water, firewood, and supplies. Others work pouring foundations for storehouses, sorting through donations of winter coats, sleeping bags, tampons, and medical supplies, or are engaged in the endless work of feeding all these people. One could be forgiven for forgetting that this is the site of a political struggle against the state and wealthy corporations until a helicopter, low-flying airplane, or drone slowly makes it way across the sky, surveilling the camps on behalf of law enforcement and Energy Transfer Partners. What turns the quotidian into ceremony is perhaps the sense of purpose that guides this community building and its effect of making visible Native peoples, their lands, and their rights.

The idea of environmental politics as ceremony is one that mainstream environmentalisms are only beginning to grapple with (or return to). Terry Tempest Williams, one of our country’s more spiritually inclined white environmental activists, hopes, “If we can learn to listen to the land, we can learn to listen to each other. This is the beginning of ceremony.” And in one sense, this is where American environmentalism began. Henry David Thoreau, in one of his more well-known essays, wrote that his best thoughts co-habitate with the land, emerging from a dialogue with place that dims when he retreats to his cabin and his thoughts are left alone in his head. Thoreau, along with other American transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson, thought that psychic, spiritual, and material life are all continuous with one another. There is less distance between their philosophy and the “water is life” ethos at Standing Rock than one might expect. The dominant discourse of American environmental politics, however, has largely shifted away from the philosophy of nature towards the science and economics of conservation. Biodiversity and ecosystem services are languages that translate more readily into the quantified knowledge worlds of conservation, but they offer little opportunity to understand Emerson’s argument that, “a dream may lead us deeper into the secret of nature than a hundred concerted experiments.” Conservation’s desire to know the world precisely may amplify our material knowledge of the world but compromise our ability to effectively care for it by rendering mute the moral and spiritual meanings of earth.

And yet, American philosophies of nature have rarely confronted the injustices heaped upon Native American nations. While Thoreau and Emerson were writing, the United States military was waging war on the Sioux in the Dakotas. A generation later, John Muir, inspired by their work, penned essays on finding the sacred in nature that led to the formation of Yosemite National Park. But the new park excluded the Native Americans who already lived there, a pattern repeated at new parks across the nation. Starting in the 1960s, whites interested in the connections between nature and spirituality turned to Native American traditions for inspiration, but too often a gap remained between interest in the idea of Native American spiritual practice and support for the political struggles that would allow Native voices to share those traditions on their own terms. Practices like the sweat lodge and vision quest began to find a larger audience while many Native Americans remained systematically impoverished, isolated, and disempowered.

The struggle at Standing Rock is an opportunity to confront this specific moment of environmental injustice and racism as well as to allow the movement to prompt larger existential questions about the principles that should guide environmental politics more broadly. Activists at Standing Rock offer a politicized moral ecology that insists that we act in deference to an earth that is alive, sacred, and is an active participant in the construction of our moral and psychic, as well as material, lives. They invite those of us situated in the dominant culture, like me, to remember that this moral ecology has echoes in Euro-American traditions, but that centuries of injustice must also be confronted to build a movement that weaves these traditions together. Standing Rock is more than a struggle over a specific pipeline, it is an opportunity to confront the colonization of people, land, and ideas.

Featured image: The largest camp sits on federal land administered by the Army Corps of Engineers. In mid-September, the Corps approved a special use permit for the camp. Activists plan to occupy this land through the winter. Image by author, September 2016.

Charles Carlin is a PhD candidate in the department of Geography at UW-Madison, and an occasional instructor at the National Outdoor Leadership School. He studies the relationship between psyche and place in the American wilderness tradition. Charles lives in Madison, WI with his wife and son. Contact

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8 Comments

  1. Jane Eagle

    This is an important article, and a beautiful read!
    Several years ago I was introduced to the idea that environmentalists are actually cells in the immune system of Earth; that we are spreading as the threats to the health of Earth increase. I like that. Of course, the planet will still be here when we have destroyed all life; but life has been a billion year long project of the living Earth, and she does not want it destroyed.
    I also have learned that people only protect that which they recognize as sacred. Most of us are brainwashed from birth to believe that if we acknowledge Spirit, we are crazy. We have been successfully distracted and seduced by shiny things to buy that “will make our lives better”…farther than the nature that is the life in our veins.

    We Were Made For These Times
    My friends, do not lose heart. We were made for these times. I have heard from so many recently who are deeply and properly bewildered. They are concerned about the state of affairs in our world now. Ours is a time of almost daily astonishment and often righteous rage over the latest degradations of what matters most to civilized, visionary people.

    You are right in your assessments. The lustre and hubris some have aspired to while endorsing acts so heinous against children, elders, everyday people, the poor, the unguarded, the helpless, is breathtaking. Yet, I urge you, ask you, gentle you, to please not spend your spirit dry by bewailing these difficult times. Especially do not lose hope. Most particularly because, the fact is that we were made for these times. Yes. For years, we have been learning, practicing, been in training for and just waiting to meet on this exact plain of engagement.

    I grew up on the Great Lakes and recognize a seaworthy vessel when I see one. Regarding awakened souls, there have never been more able vessels in the waters than there are right now across the world. And they are fully provisioned and able to signal one another as never before in the history of humankind.

    Look out over the prow; there are millions of boats of righteous souls on the waters with you. Even though your veneers may shiver from every wave in this stormy roil, I assure you that the long timbers composing your prow and rudder come from a greater forest. That long-grained lumber is known to withstand storms, to hold together, to hold its own, and to advance, regardless.

    In any dark time, there is a tendency to veer toward fainting over how much is wrong or unmended in the world. Do not focus on that. There is a tendency, too, to fall into being weakened by dwelling on what is outside your reach, by what cannot yet be. Do not focus there. That is spending the wind without raising the sails.

    We are needed, that is all we can know. And though we meet resistance, we more so will meet great souls who will hail us, love us and guide us, and we will know them when they appear. Didn’t you say you were a believer? Didn’t you say you pledged to listen to a voice greater? Didn’t you ask for grace? Don’t you remember that to be in grace means to submit to the voice greater?

    Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.

    What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.

    One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times. The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires, causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these – to be fierce and to show mercy toward others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity.

    Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.
    There will always be times when you feel discouraged. I too have felt despair many times in my life, but I do not keep a chair for it. I will not entertain it. It is not allowed to eat from my plate.

    The reason is this: In my uttermost bones I know something, as do you. It is that there can be no despair when you remember why you came to Earth, who you serve, and who sent you here. The good words we say and the good deeds we do are not ours. They are the words and deeds of the One who brought us here. In that spirit, I hope you will write this on your wall: When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for.

    By Clarissa Pinkola Estes
    American poet, post-trauma specialist and Jungian psychoanalyst, author of Women Who Run With the Wolves.

    • Charles Carlin

      Jane,

      Thanks so much for your comments and supportive words. What I like about the idea of environmentalists as cells that you shared is how it is a description that has us living within the earth and not exploiting it, defending it, or speaking for it as if we were something different.

      Thank you also for the poem. Her work is new to me. Her words seem especially apt to me today. I was struck by this line: “Ours is a time of almost daily astonishment and often righteous rage over the latest degradations of what matters most to civilized, visionary people.”

      It took me right to the scenes of violence from Standing Rock yesterday that I watched on video streams. Police from several states along with the National Guard “cleared” a camp that was set up directly in the path of pipeline construction. It is unceeded territory, land the water protectors are saying rightfully belongs to the Sioux. I felt anger, desperation, and so much sadness as I watched the police use sound cannons, bean bag guns, rubber bullets, batons, and armored vehicles to force the water protectors to leave the camp.

      The demonstrations at Standing Rock are being met with a tremendous of violence right now, which amplifies the contrast between the North Dakota government’s efforts to use the force of the state to defend resource extraction and the ethic of caring for a place as both the site of material sustenance and as sacred ground.

  2. miranda

    powerful article sir chuck, keep on 🙂

  3. Meghan Dana

    the article above needs editing. it rehearses arguments many have already made. it feels like the author used this “blog post” as a chance to write a second-rate academic article. it reads like an expository piece of academic writing, filled with jargon. the author tries to label every cultural “ritual” with some anthropological concept. that’s fine, if you actually have something original to say. but it feels like the author just wanted to practice using big words, not actually make sense of anything.

    It’s like the writer followed a How-To guide; every sentence feels careful and overly-formulated. It seems like EdgeEffects gives bumbling graduate students a chance to mansplain. Get your head out of your ass. most people don’t have the luxury or time to rehearse arguments that say so little. It would be one thing if you actually had something original to say. But it just feels like this author takes himself way too seriously. It’s absurd how long this is. The author is so elitist to think that most people would read this whole thing. How self-important is he? That we’re all just supposed to sit here while he soliloquizes some rehearsed academic argument? Wake up. You’re not that important.

    • Rachel Boothby
      Rachel Boothby

      Meghan, as managing editor of Edge Effects I was sorry to read your complaints! Since we’re a publication of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we do our best to feature work on topics of interest to the broader public while maintaining a scholarly perspective. While you’re right that this perspective entails a certain amount of privilege, we’re very proud of the quality of our authors’ work. If you have specific feedback on types of articles and perspectives you’d like to see featured on our site, feel free to email us and let us know at edgeeffects@nelson.wisc.edu.

    • Charles Carlin

      Meghan,
      I’m sorry you didn’t find this piece meaningful. I hope you find some other good reads here at Edge Effects.

  4. Ric

    Fantastic article full of provocative insights.

    In radical Christian circles (inspired by the Berrigan brothers and others) we speak of “liturgical direct action”. One source here is a 1991 book Seasons of Faith and Conscience: Explorations in Liturgical Direct Action, by Bill Wylie-Kellerman.

    Good work. Keep it up.

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