By Erin Maxfield-Steele
“My soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you, as in a barren
and dry land where there is no water.”
Cannon Ball, North Dakota is a small town that sits on a bluff overlooking the Missouri river. An hour south of Bismarck, Cannon Ball is the epicenter of the struggle of the Standing Rock Sioux to protect the river from the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Recently my partner, Allyn, and I joined other Virginia Theological Seminary students in responding to Rev. John Floberg’s invitation to come to Cannon Ball and show our solidarity with the water protectors who are risking injury and incarceration on a daily basis in order to defend the water and their own sovereignty. The VTS community and the Diocese of Virginia generously helped offset our travel expenses, making it possible to respond to Rev. Floberg’s invitation.
Finally, after a long drive from the Minneapolis airport, Allyn and I approached Cannon Ball from the north, the night so dark our headlights seemed absorbed by it. As we crested a hill the night broke open in a gash of headlights that filled the road below. A line of armored military vehicles formed a broad blockade that covered not only the narrow road but extended into the fields on either side—it was an overwhelming show of force. As I slowed the car we were approached by men in fatigues carrying military weapons. My heart pounded as I rolled down the window, feeling at once afraid and embarrassed, powerless and betrayed. When we finally reached Cannon Ball and our home for the night, St. James’ Episcopal Church, we had driven an extra hour to skirt the blockade.
As a middle class white woman from the Shenandoah Valley, I’ve had little to fear from the police and military. My family was not displaced by Harrisonburg’s racist “urban renewal” in the 1960s and my family gets pulled over without fear that we’ll be separated by deportation. I’ve always had the luxury to feel that the powerful were on my side. But supporting immigrant communities and the Movement for Black Lives has introduced me to the fear of “my own people”—people who no longer treat me with respect because I am standing on the “wrong” side. Beginning our time in Cannon Ball with a blockade was, in fact, the perfect welcome to the violence taking place against the water protectors, against the land, and against any who offer themselves as allies in this struggle. Peaceful, unarmed people are being met with gas and riot gear and rubber bullets that break the skin, being hauled away from friends and family to be locked up.
After a night of restless sleep on the floor of St. James’ we made our way to Oceti Sakowin (Och-et-eeshak-oh-win) Camp where hundreds of tents and tipis fill a flat field embraced on one side by curving hills and on the other by a tributary to the Missouri. The air smelled of the wood smoke hanging over the camp—rising from fires. As we joined over five hundred religious leaders to walk from the camp to the water’s edge, I realized that we were approaching that same stretch of road where we had turned around the night before, this time from the South through the skeletons of burnt-out vehicles, and through the healing smoke of cook fires, the Spirit Fire, and sage.
At the bridge leaders asked that we form a circle and we were reminded that for the Lakota and many indigenous peoples the circle represents unity, wholeness, and harmony. As we started working ourselves into a circle, we all stepped farther and farther back to make room for one another, the cluster becoming a chain and the chain widening and widening until it arced up the hillside to the West and down the slope to the East.
The Oglala Lakota medicine man, warrior, and spiritual leader Black Elk said, “the power of the world always works in circles, and everything tries to be round” (Black Elk Speaks, chapter 17). As we each moved back in order to form one thing, one circle, I knew that we were part of something broken trying desperately to be whole again. With the curving earth beneath my feet, the hands of my siblings in my hands, and the wide arc of the sky above, I was reminded of the fullness of the God’s embrace, the fullness of the Earth, and the power we find when we reach out to one another.
The struggle in Standing Rock is bigger than labels like “environmentalism” and “protest”—it is a curve that strives to bring those torn away by greed and self-interest, those hidden behind riot gear and steel, those armed with bullets and tear gas back into wholeness. When my impoverished and hopeful great-grandparents came to South Dakota from Denmark they accepted a square piece of land from the government. Whether they realized it or not, this land grant folded our family into the project of breaking what was whole into pieces and “civilizing” it for the European expansion. Yet even we who are the children of those who broke this circle—are breaking it still—are invited into this full, powerful hoop. We are being shown the power of love.
Returning to Northern Virginia and bundling up in warm clothes as fall slowly moves toward winter, I am reminded that the circle extends here to those of us in the Diocese of Virginia. Oceti Sakowin is preparing for winter and needs funds in order to continue to work to protect the Missouri as well as the many families who have made the camp their home during this struggle. We have been invited to be part of the mending of the circle, part of the healing of the earth—invited to stand in solidarity with those whose sovereignty and freedom is being violently denied, as it has been for so long. Please go to http://standwithstandingrock.net to learn more about how we, as a diocese, can respond. Let us join this movement—and all movements—that bring us together with the force of love.
“Driven by the forces of love, the fragments of the world seek each other
so that the world may come to being.”
–Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Author: Erin Maxfield-Steele is a postulant in the Diocese of Virginia, and a seminarian at Virginia Theological Seminary, where she is pursuing a diploma in Anglican Studies.
Standing Rock Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service