The Ashes of our PrayersApr 05, 2017
I've been reflecting lately about how my 5 weeks at Oceti Sakowin Water Protector Camp this winter were some of the happiest weeks of my recent life. Now those camps are gone, the sacred fires have been put out, and I am home. On a daily basis I feel the intense discomfort of trying to fit myself back into a life founded on the basic structures of colonialism. Everything looks topsy-turvy now: Old goals now are burdened with the uncomfortable stink of privilege, and old complaints sound hollow and entitled against the background of my new understanding of the deepest forms of oppression in this country. I find myself at a crossroads, in limbo, floating between an old comfortable identity and a new perspective that shines light upon that which was invisible and casts new and frightening shadows across everything I used to take for granted.
The question that weighs heavily upon me is: how can I, as a white descendant of European settlers, build a life of integrity that boths supports my health and happiness, and also works to redistribute resources to the indigenous peoples and people of color who were brutalized and exploited to build the wealth of my culture? And how can I do this while living on the land that my soul calls home, here in Vermont, one of the whitest states in the union?
My time at Oceti Sakowin left me convinced that the core of decolonization is in how we treat each other. At that camp I experienced true village life: a community where we depended on each other, greeted each other by name, each contributed what we could and took what we needed to be healthy and strong for the fierce ceremony we were creating together. We asked each other's advice and offered help whenever it was needed.
There is no community without friction. Some really terrible things happened at that camp. Water Protectors were assaulted and abused by the police, and sometimes Water Protectors also assaulted and abused each other. People fell in love and people made enemies. Ancestral trauma and despair seemed to rise up from the very burial grounds under our feet and overwhelm us at times. But trouble is inevitable: the true test of a village is how we confront and heal conflict. This process wasn't perfect at Oceti Sakowin, but the principles of indigenous culture that guided us were potent seeds of re-humanization. Whenever emotions were running strong, someone would light sage or sweetgrass or copal, sending cleansing smoke into the space. Each person was welcome to speak in our meetings without limits, sharing what was in their heart, no matter how long it took. When we had big questions, we took them to the sacred fire or the sweat lodge. We took the time to pray and listen to the spirits and listen to our own hearts. We slowed down. When someone was threatened within the community, there was a process of rallying around them, re-affirming bonds: the person we were supporting would shake the hand and look into the eyes of every person in the space, even if it took a very long time, reaffirming her connection with each one of us.
At Oceti Sakowin, everyone had an equal right to be there. All of us were technically trespassing together by camping there, so each of us had no right at all to be there in the eyes of the government... and each of us had chosen to disregard the oppressive laws and listen instead to the inherent right of humanity to gather at the sacred waters. At Oceti Sakowin, I learned that breaking the law is a path to human liberation. While we sometimes invoked broken treaties that had granted that land to the Lakota people, those treaties are also oppressive agreements signed amidst the grief of genocide, and the deeper sentiment was simply that we all had a right to be there just because we are human animals, little different from the bison and the eagles that would pass by our camp.
And so here I sit, on a ridge of land in Vermont where every inch of soil is privately owned, returned to my culture where everyone is on a tight schedule and seldom has time to sit and burn sage and listen to someone speak their heart. I'm living in my little house, alone with my computer. It takes at least five emails to schedule any actual social contact, and then a half-hour drive (isolated in my own private car) to get there. Everyone is working to be independent: have their own income, their own land, their own car. We each strive to never need anyone's help, and then we wonder why we are so lonely. This is White American culture.
In the short term, I've been coping by traveling a lot, putting myself into road-trip and out-of-town-visit situations where other people can temporarily be persuaded to participate in the intensive togetherness that I miss so much. When I'm home, I call a different friend every night. I go on dates and set up community gatherings. Much of the time I feel like I'm a different species from the people I'm talking to, because our basic assumptions about the world are now so different. Sometimes I'm able to slip back into my previous slumber, to perceive my life from that old familiar place of undisturbed privilege, and this does feel like a relief in a way. But then I wake up at night gasping, clawing at the bedsheets, terrified that I will lose my grasp on the heartbreaking gift that Oceti Sakowin gave me: the lived knowledge that what I have always wanted is possible.
Have you ever tried to cut down a mulberry tree? The stump re-sprouts ten little branches, and the roots send up new runners too, and you inadvertently create a teeming thicket where once there was only one tree. I think that the ashes of our sacred prayer fires will be like that. The people have been forced off that land and the fires have been put out, but the fires in our hearts are still burning brightly, and we carry those embers all over the country and the world as we leave North Dakota. All of us are homesick for a camp that no longer exists, and I say, "Be homesick! Feel that grief, feel that love, and don't give up. If we all live our own homesickness hard enough, if we all refuse to forget, we can build this everywhere! We can spread this way of loving each other and the earth. We can spread the generosity. We can spread the way of relating that affirms each person's inherent value."
So, I'm trying to hold this pain as a gift. When I run up against the pain, it is a compass for me. Each time it floods through me, I sink deeper into the questions of how I can help create this transformation. My work already centers on fostering nature connection and empowerment, so I can add this gift to my teachings in the world. As the ashes of our prayers sting my skin like lye, burning me, branding me, my life becomes a firewalk. Each day I must find the courage to set my foot down on the coals. What will I find on the other side?
I pray for the courage to not forget.