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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.