Why do I care?

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Why do I care about Standing Rock?  The “water protectors,” of the Lakota Sioux in North Dakota, joined by other Native Americans and friends, for months have stood unarmed and prayerful in opposition to the oil pipeline going under the river next to their home. But it’s a long way from here, 1,507 miles for goodness sake.  (Yes, I checked it out.) I have plenty of concerns that need attention right here in the congregation where I work as a pastor.

So why do I care about Standing Rock?  I have been talking about it a lot.  I imagine I can feel listeners begin to roll their eyes—here she goes again.

Perhaps it started in the summer of 2002 when the land was in a severe August drought that made leaves crackle, grass scratch, and apples fall too soon from thirsty trees.  I was attending a clergy leadership retreat and met in my assigned prayer circle a new friend of Cherokee heritage.  I think I had brought a rock back from a walk in the fields nearby. He taught me that whenever we take from the earth we must give something back.  So the next day on another long walk I took extra water.  In the heat of the afternoon, I came upon an overturned turtle struggling unsuccessfully to right itself. The rescue was easy, although whether she appreciated the extra gift of me pouring water over her dusty head and legs I don’t know.  I have taken much pleasure from hiking through the Appalachian woods.  Now I understand more fully that the earth, including the forests and fields I traverse, is struggling because of how we humans have used and abused its resources.  I ask myself: how can I give back and what will it cost us as a human race to do so?

Five years later in the cold of winter 2007 there was a rare deep snowfall in New Mexico where I was again on a retreat/pilgrimage.  Every year on the feast of Epiphany the Jemez Pueblo opens its doors to visitors, and that year our pilgrimage group attended. We watched the dances to throbbing drums.  This was followed by a unique ceremony: a man dressed as Abraham Lincoln walked up to the chief and presented the original cane signed and given by Lincoln to the Jemez people as a guarantee of the sovereignty of their territory—where were standing.  Afterwards the whole village opened their homes to any guests.  Our group had been especially invited to the home of a school teacher/potter who had been with us on a previous day demonstrating her art.  She and her son had been up since dawn (or before) baking bread in stone ovens in the back yard.  Epiphany was her “name day” and, as was the custom, she always celebrates by offering a feast for others.  And it was delicious, plates piled high.  The enchiladas were better than I have ever tasted. But the laughter, singing and blessing was the best part.  I have been gifted by knowing and learning from my Native American friends who have taught and offered hospitality to me.  For all I know, those whom I have met are at Standing Rock now; if I could, I would be with them.

The following year in 2008 I took a sabbatical during which Rick and I spent a couple of weeks in the Pacific Northwest.  We took a ferry from Vancouver Island to a smaller island named Tsa Kwa Luten by the Laichwiltach people (Quadra by white setters) where we stayed in a lodge built and operated by first nation people.  Their stony beach was home to driftwood, petroglyphs, mink and seal.  At low tide we would wander on spits of rocks in awe of the red anemones and starfish in their startling purple and pink, clinging to the base of the stones.  I have since learned that in the last several years these starfish are disappearing; the bay waters off of Vancouver are becoming too warm for them to survive.  I came home with bits of driftwood and sweet memories;  what can I give in return? What can I do to protect?

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Since that trip I have deliberately read a number of books—novels, memoirs and teachings—written by Native Americans.  I have grown to have a deep respect for their spirituality, their regard for the interconnectedness of all things living, their passionate and responsible care for the creation. I am also growing in my awareness of the suffering that has been caused because of forced displacement, racism and broken treaties.  The book I am reading now, Braiding Sweetgrass”  is written by Robin Wall Kimmerer, an Associate Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF).  She is Potawatomi and combines her heritage with her scientific and environmental passions. Her indigenous knowledge and her scientific knowledge are from two different worldviews, yet they can be complementary.  Although she doesn’t know it, she is my current teacher, chapter by chapter, teaching me theology, generosity and creation stewardship.  Here are a few of her quotes I am pondering:

That is the fundamental nature of gifts: they move, and their value increases with their passage.  The fields made a gift of berries to us and we made a gift of them to our father.  The more something is shared, the greater its value becomes. This is hard to grasp for societies steeped in notions of private property, where others are, by definition, excluded from sharing.  Practices such as posting land against trespass, for example, are expected and accepted in a property economy but are unacceptable in an economy where land is seen as a gift to all…. 

We are showered every day with gifts, but they are not meant for us to keep.  Their life is in their movement, the inhale and the exhale of our shared breath.  Our work and our joy is to pass along the gift and to trust that what we put out into the universe will always come back….

Many Native peoples across the world, despite myriad cultural differences, have this in common—we are rooted in cultures of gratitude.

When I backpacked through the state of Virginia, I came to love and appreciate the earth in a deeper way.  So I think I understand what the author is trying to say in the quote below, but which my own worldview as a white settler American has not adequately taught me:

Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate.  But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond.

So now I guess I care about Standing Rock because I feel gifted and loved by creation and because loving the earth is activating me to give back.  Native Americans are giving me the words and understanding to talk about creation care in spiritual and relational ways, as well as scientific ways, and so when they speak as clearly and as prophetically as they are at Standing Rock, I must listen.  I have prayed with them, received their hospitality, learned from them.  I have had plenty of time to “celebrate,” as the author writes about, on my hikes, but I am not yet sure of the specifics of what I will or can do to “defend” and “protect.”  I do know, given the current political climate, that many people like myself will need to speak up about what is important about climate change, energy use, broken treaty promises and racism—all of which come into play for the Standing Rock water protectors.

No, I can’t go to Standing Rock now, but I can keep praying for them with the knowledge that prayer will end up changing me.  I can speak up and I can write about  what I have learned from Native Americans concerning our earth and it gifts.  I can teach how creation care is part of our faith journey, part of being stewards of God’s creation.  And one more small step in the right direction—Rick and I are working out the details of putting solar panels on our home roof.  That should reduce our carbon footprint for electricity by a third. One small step.  🙂

Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing your stories.
    They are wonderful to hear and how fitting on Giving Tuesday!

  2. Thank you for this. Thank you for the “I can…” speak up, teach, pray.” Care of creation is far more important than most of us realize. There will be no quick fix when we finally realize what we have done to the earth. You inspire me to take one small step.