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Ellen Haroutunian

Picture of Ellen Haroutunian Ellen Haroutunian (’16) reflects on her experience at Standing Rock Reservation in Cannonball, North Dakota

It’s taken me a while to process all I experienced with the Standing Rock Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) resistance. I am sharing how the Lakota people have asked us to share, as a witness to what is happening there. I do not presume to speak for them. What follows are my interpretations and lessons from a powerful and beautiful encounter.

First, I had to face my own privilege as a white person. I felt deeply compelled by what I believe was the Spirit of God to go to Standing Rock. Once I shared my plans openly, I was bombarded with articles and messages from friends telling me why the Lakota Sioux were wrong, that they were liars and just out for money. I did go to a friend who is wiser than me on these matters. But it came down to listening deeply to my heart, formed and transformed by encounter with God on the contemplative path. Heart said, “Trust them. Listen to the marginalized. Listen to their story through their own words.”

Once there, I saw for myself that what the Water Protectors are guarding is indeed treaty land; their water source is in jeopardy. The Army Corp of Engineers disputes that, believing that this land belongs to them. But the US government has a long history of reneging on treaties with the Native American people. However, our deep memory of oneness in God testifies to the fact that what affects one people group affects us all. This is not just their battle; it is ours.

We had to decide if we were “arrestable,” that is, willing to be arrested for the cause. One member of our group was a veteran waiting for an honorable discharge and an arrest would put that in jeopardy, so we decided we needed to stick together and say no. The irony is, we went to the Oceti Sakowin camp thinking it was a prayer only camp. It is indeed a ceremonial camp, but it is also the camp right behind the front lines. (The prayer-only camp is the Sacred Stones camp.) In a beautiful synchronicity, the mysterious ways of God led us to Oceti Sakowin, which is a camp of both contemplation and action. Dispossessing ourselves in prayer so that we may listen and learn from others and walk alongside them through action is the deep need of this extraordinary time.

The protest of the Lakota is non-violent, and they are committed to beginning all things with prayer and ceremony. In the camp, there are no weapons, alcohol, or drugs allowed. Contemplatives will recognize their way of being in this tension as a third force presence. It is not an “us versus them” way of being, but a deeper call to recognize and mirror the dignity of the other. The police drones, reconnaissance airplanes, and jamming of cell signals seemed excessive, almost silly, in comparison.

We were fortunate to attend a thorough camp orientation that again served to help us face our white privilege. White folks have long believed that we belong wherever we choose to go. We do not comprehend that other races do not enjoy that freedom. We were gently reminded that we were welcomed guests, but the whole movement was indigenous led. We were there to bear witness and to serve. It was really an invitation to the spiritual practice of letting go of the demand that our ideas be heard, to release the illusion of any control, and to yield our insistence that time management mirror our communities back home. We needed to release our demand to know, to expect clear answers and explanations about everything. One Native man said, “If you have a question, ask it. And trust that the Creator will find a way to bring the answer if it is needed.” It was a beautiful training in humility, mindfulness, and beginner’s mind. The Lakota are seeking to build a new legacy that is not trampled and defined by colonization and greed. It is a legacy of dignity and care for the earth, our common home.

We also had opportunity to reflect upon Lakota values, which are strikingly similar to the pillars of Benedictine Spirituality taught to me by the dear sisters at Benet Hill Monastery. As I listened, I wondered if the Gospel had not already reached these shores long before Europeans ever got here. Of course it did.

We tried to be as useful as possible, and we were always treated with kindness and gratitude. Some of us served in helping to sort donations and arranging the coat tent neatly so people could find what they needed. The teenager in our group did some cooking in a kitchen tent and picked up trash. It was all prayer.

The paradoxical paradigm of unity and diversity is rarely truly experienced and embraced. The Lakota taught that we are not “one tribe,” as many of us—in our Kumbaya mode—imagine. We intuit that oneness is the design of the Creator in which we live and move and have our being, and who gives us a deep sense of connectedness and value. But we cannot create true unity in our diversity by absorbing others’ stories into our own. It’s similar to how some have responded to “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter.” Of course all lives matter, but ironically that is contradicted by diminishing the stories of the unique experience of being black in America.

The other extreme is to hold onto differences with a posture of exclusion, as if “not them” is an identity. They will “taint” us, they are bad. We’ve seen the extreme scapegoating going on in America this election cycle. The “other” is always at fault. The indigenous peoples of the Americas have been “othered” since 1492. True unity in diversity is a third way, created not by force or ideologies, but by pouring oneself out to make room for the other. The Lakota seem to embody this even as they hold their life-giving boundary.

It was also interesting to watch how they addressed gender binaries. Women needed to be in skirts. (We wore them over our jeans because it is freaking cold in ND!) But the binary was not divided into superior/inferior or other dualistic terms or measurements. There was no “holiness code,” shame, guilt, or a message of “unclean” attached to women on their moon. Woman are seen as especially powerful and given special honor during that time. “Women are the strength of our tribe,” said the Elder. They also showed great honor to “men who walk as women” and “women who walk as men” (transgender) and Two-Spirit People, which is the term to honor all LGBT people.

There were other rules as well, such as if you see a tipi pole on the ground, you must always walk around it, never over it. I couldn’t help but think of the many religious and ceremonial laws of the Old Testament and other ancient cultures as they sought order and meaning in their lives. But there was no shame or punitive words attached to these rules. There was only a call to respect and honor.

There was a ceremony honoring Veterans on November 11. The solemn march started at the frontlines and walked back toward the camp. Songs were sung in their Native language that communicated an ache far beyond words. To see Native people as well as other people of color carry the American flag, being so loyal to a country that has severely betrayed them, breaks the heart wide open. It was more than I could comprehend. I could only follow them in silence.

On our last morning we had the privilege of attending a Water Ceremony. This is a ceremony that is usually carried out by women, but all were invited to participate that day. Accompanied by drums and song, we walked to the river to give an offering. Typically the offering is tobacco, and people were sharing what they had so all of us would have something to give. I was at the back of the crowd so it took a while before I could see what was happening at the riverbank. When I got close I could see that the steep path down to the water was lined on either side with men of all races and ethnicities. They held out their hands for the women to hold as we descended the steps to the water. There was never grabbing or forcing, just a gentle way of offering a hand in a respectful and quiet advocacy. My friend Nicole said, “They were walking us into our strength.” We each in turn approached the Grandmother who stood at the end of the dock, and leaned over to give our tiny offering to the flow. Grandmother handed us a pitcher to pour water back into the river. Then she poured water from it into our cupped hands, so that we could drink of the water that is life. Her lined and wizened face beamed at each one of us.

“Water is life!” the elders shouted, and the crowd called back, “Water is life!” Then “Water is life” was called out over and over in multiple languages, including many Native American languages, Ukrainian, Dutch, Farsi, and even Hebrew, led by a man in a yarmulke. We called back in all the languages. Water is life, and all of what is happening in this far, cold corner of the world is so much bigger than any religion, government, or institution can manage or legislate. The river is flowing and growing, down to the sea, we sang. There’s a larger flow that carries us all onward.

I had planned to go to Standing Rock long before the soul crushing results of the election. Afterward, the choice to divest oneself of comfort and safety, to stand with the marginalized and affirm their dignity, seemed more important than ever. That has always been the Christ path, but perhaps we are now going to be awakened to it with more urgency. But no matter the outcome of political machinations and the strivings of empire, there is a quiet stream of loving resistance that values the true riches of the Kingdom of God—the poor, the vulnerable, the oppressed, the marginalized. It is the way that leads to Life.

The Lakota are inviting all to come and I hope to return. They plan to stay through the bitter cold winter and were working hard to winterize the camp while we were there. If you can’t go, please consider donating or sending some of the needed supplies listed on their website, There’s also information there on how to contact the executives of the corporations that are involved. And please divest from banks that are supporting this action. More information can be found here.