Early on New Year’s Day morning I walked to Muir Beach for a ritual first dip in the winter Pacific. The coast was empty, the lips of the tide drawn back. Ready to say good-bye to 2016, I entered the hiss of sea at the mouth of Redwood Creek where salmon-laced water joins the briny surge of the ocean. I dipped my face into the waves to welcome home the iconic silver salmon and then plunged deep into the frigid ocean.
I have lived and practiced in the Redwood Creek watershed at the edge of the Pacific for 40 years. My blood, brain, bones and gut are made of the cells of my home place. Still, I wonder—how does Zen practice authentically convey the mind and body of a living watershed?
Last autumn I took up this inquiry with the lead Zen farmer at Green Gulch, Qayyum Johnson. We set up a five-week immersion seminar in Buddhism and ecology. Along with Zen farm apprentices and avid practitioners, we studied systems theory and engaged Buddhism, wrote and read together, tasted raw food pulled from the bottomland of the gulch, walked in silence at night on the coastal headlands under the full harvest moon, and sat zazen outside at the rough edge of the known world. We also made a pledge to participate in some direct action designed to meet the challenges of our times.
At the close of the class, around the time of the presidential election, I received a call for clergy to gather in prayer and solidarity with indigenous “water protectors” at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. The call came from Father John Floberg, an Episcopal priest who has been serving the Standing Rock indigenous community for the last 25 years. He encouraged clergy to “gather and stand witness to the water protectors’s acts of compassion for God’s creation and to the transformative power of God’s love to make a way out of no way.”
I made my travel plans immediately. The proposed action was radical and simple: religious leaders would gather for a day of non-violent training led by the indigenous faith community and then stand together for another full day of prayer and direct action near Backwater Bridge, at the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri rivers. There, Dakota Access was excavating a 1,170-mile long pipeline to carry crude Bakkan Shale oil across the sacred burial grounds of the Lakota people at Standing Rock and under the vast Missouri River—the drinking water source for 12 million people.
More than 500 members of the interfaith community came to Standing Rock. We arrived dressed for prayer, joining the native community at the sacred council fire in the heart of the camp. This fire had been burning continuously since the camp was established in April 2016. We prayed there together, not far from Hunkpapa Lakota Chief Sitting Bull’s ancestral homeland.
During our vigil, 10 representatives of Christian denominations stepped forward to apologize for and repudiate the controversial 1493 Doctrine of Discovery that allowed for the subjugation of native peoples and their sacred lands. Standing Rock elders were given copies of this 500-year-old document to burn in large metal bowls, covering the ash of incendiary words with fresh prairie sage and blessing the clergy with the pungent smoke of burning sage. As we set out for Backwater Bridge, we passed in silence beneath the flags of hundreds of indigenous nations. Two hand-lettered banners held my attention: We are Unarmed and No Spiritual Surrender.
I will never forget cresting the Standing Rock road and looking down at the beauty and turmoil at the junction of the rivers. With one voice, 500 clergy began to sing Dona Nobis Pacem [a Christian hymn and message of peace]. Below us, on Backwater Bridge, a large gathering of water protectors stood in dynamic witness to the black gouge of pipeline construction. Blocked from advancing by a thick barricade of burned trucks, the indigenous community faced a menacing throng of militarized police in riot gear. Above the steady roar of the construction, we heard the Lakota chant for protection of the waters rise into the cold winter sky: Mni Wikoni! Water is Life!
We prayed together for five hours. The Cannonball and Missouri Rivers intoned their own water song, moving in stately grandeur through the sacred treaty lands of the Dakota and Lakota Sioux. The Missouri is the third-longest river system on earth after the Nile and the Amazon. Rising in the high Centennial Mountains of Montana, where a commemorative rockpile at Hellroaring Creek marks its source, the Missouri River traces the old contours of glaciation from the last ice age. This ancient river system drains almost all of the semi-arid Great Plains states to emerge 3,500 miles later, joining the mighty Mississippi just north of St. Louis.
Like the source waters of the Missouri, prayer continues to rise at Standing Rock. In early December, after the Army Corps of Engineers blocked construction on a portion of the pipeline slated to cross under the Missouri River, elders at Standing Rock extinguished the original council fire. Immediately, the next generation of indigenous water protectors stepped forward to light a new fire, pledging continuous prayer and spiritual resistance.
In late January, the Standing Rock community faced a new threat following President Donald Trump’s executive order that re-authorized the pipeline to be completed. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe pledged to legally challenge this termination of their human and sovereign treaty rights and vowed to rise above greed and corruption in protection of their homeland.
In these unsettled times I am inspired by the strong call for prayer and action recently issued by Brenda White Bull, great-great-granddaughter of Chief Sitting Bull. This courageous Hunkpapa Lakota woman served in the United States military for 20 years. In the height of tension at Standing Rock, she crossed Backwater Bridge to directly address the militarized police protecting the pipeline. Speaking as an unlikely ally, Brenda White Bull affirmed that water protectors are akin to North Dakota law enforcement agents, both working every day to protect their families, their human rights, and their land.
Since making a way out of no way is the practice of a lifetime, Brenda White Bull widened her prayer circle. She thanked the elders of the Standing Rock community and acknowledged the young indigenous leaders tending the Seven Council Fires of the Sioux Nation: “This is not a movement about ourselves,” she reminded everyone. “We come together as a team. This is a movement about humankind, about nature, and about peace and prayer that flows through us.”
It is raining tonight in Northern California. The artery of Redwood Creek pumps strong in the dark. In its pulse I feel the bloodline of the timeless Missouri. Water is life, whispers the long ancestral river. No spiritual surrender, answers the next generation of water protectors.
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