Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Listening and Standing With ( at Standing Rock)

I first learned about CPT as a young child, when a member of my church joined a delegation to Palestine.  This was the late 90’s, and CPT was standing alongside Palestinians facing home demolitions (the Campaign for Secure Dwellings).  I didn’t fully understand why Israeli military forces were demolishing people’s homes and taking their land, but instinctively I knew that it was wrong.

By John Bergen, CPT Reservist, first printed in the Dec. 2016 Christian Peacemaker Teams newsletter; reprinted with permission.

Fast forward almost twenty years, and CPT continues to stand alongside people’s movements to protect community, water, and land.  After I graduated high school, I went on my own CPT delegation (to Grassy Narrows), and eventually trained with CPT and served with the teams in Kurdistan and Palestine.

In these varied contexts, I caught sight of connections and intersections between experiences of oppression and strategies of resistance.  I witnessed Kurdish communities using nonviolent blockades to slow dangerous fossil fuel extraction, just like the Anishinaabe community at Grassy Narrows (Canada) did in their work to stop clear-cut logging.  I saw Palestinians bravely face down teargas and live ammunition just for demanding the right to move freely on their own land, and I talked with Kurdish villages refusing to leave ancestral homes despite repeated rocket attacks from Turkey.

So last week I found myself in a car headed to Standing Rock, North Dakota, to stand alongside indigenous communities resisting the construction the Dakota Access Pipeline.  If you haven’t been following the ongoing resistance at Standing Rock, I encourage you to check out some of the resources available on the #StandingRockSyllabus, which provides both historical context and current commentary.  The Dakota Access Pipeline (or DAPL) was deliberately routed through lands sacred to the Standing Rock tribe (and rerouted away from the majority-white city of Bismarck), and its path under the Missouri River poses a serious threat to the safety of the tribe’s drinking water.  Since April, members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have nonviolently protected the waters of the Missouri, launching waves of prayerful direct action.

Prayer and ceremony truly are at the center of the resistance at Standing Rock.  At the Oceti Sakowin camp where CPT currently has a presence, every morning begins with a ceremony around the sacred fire led by an indigenous elder.  Every meeting and training begins with some prayer or cleansing.  Many direct actions involve prayer, song, and drumming.

The call from Standing Rock has brought together over 300 indigenous tribes and nations from across Turtle Island, the largest gathering of tribes in this country in a generation.  Additionally, Standing Rock has brought together the Seven Council Fires of the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota nations, which have not come together since the Battle of the Greasy Grass in 1876 (what white male historians called the Battle of Little Big Horn).  As a white settler, someone whose ancestors benefitted from the displacement and genocide of native peoples and who lives on stolen land, I know that I will not truly understand the depth of this prayerful gathering.  It is too big for me to comprehend.  And it is truly a humbling experience to be a small part of such a moment in the long history of decolonial struggle. 

Equally as huge is the response of police and private DAPL security.  During the six days I was in the Oceti Sakowin camp, I sat with people and recorded stories of police braking ribs at peaceful sit-ins, repeatedly strip-searching young women, throwing elders in dog cages, destroying sacred ceremonial items (including [urinating] on them), dragging indigenous young people from cars, and denying medical care or needed medicine after protectors were teargassed and beaten.  During my last night at the camp, while serving as an international legal observer at an action, police shot unarmed protectors in the head and legs with rubber bullets, shot dozens of tear gas canisters, and as night fell and temperatures dropped below zero, began spraying water on the crowd, many of whom were gathered around a group of native young people leading song.  A dozen ambulances had to be called in to deal with injuries.  One elder suffered cardiac arrest, but was revived by CPR.  In the end, over three hundred people were injured.

Despite this brutal violence, the prayerful and dedicated resistance continues, because this resistance is rooted in something deeper than anger at DAPL.  In every place that CPT works, we build relationships with movements that tap into legacies of resistance that extend far beyond the given moment.  The struggle for peace in Colombia is decades old; Palestinians have resisted Israeli occupation for nearly 70 years; Kurds have struggled against foreign occupiers for centuries, native communities here on Turtle Island have resisted since 1492.  Each call for solidarity is also a call for us to reorient ourselves, to see ourselves as a link in the chain of nonviolent struggle that extends far beyond us.

As CPT continues to support native water protectors and their allies at Standing Rock, we know we need everyone involved in movements to protect water, land, and community. We know more Christians and people of faith need to practice listening to indigenous movements.  Even when we do not fully understand the scale or depth of what we witness, we must continue to bear witness to the call for justice and peace.

John Bergen is a CPT Reservist.

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