One of the things I’m most thankful for this Thanksgiving is having been able to make connections with Native Americans. I’m not going to go into the false, sanitized versions of the Thanksgiving story and our settler-colonial history. Rather, I’d like to express my thanks for some of the wonderful changes in my life resulting from various direct and indirect connections with Native Americans and others working with them.
I imagine many of you have also experienced cycles in your spiritual life, and times when things seem at a plateau. I am grateful that my spiritual life was energized about five years ago when a number of things happened, including becoming clerk of Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative)’s peace and social concerns committee, being able to connect to Bear Creek meeting with the “long distance queries” idea, being trained as an Action Leader, and organizing in the Keystone Pledge of Resistance, connecting with Indy10, Indianapolis’ Black Lives Matter group, being involved with the launch of Indiana Moral Mondays, which provided a number of opportunities to be with Rev. William Barber, involvement with North Meadow Circle of Friends in Indianapolis, and with them, participating in the pilot year of AFSC’s Quaker Social Change Ministry Program, which involved partnering with my new friends at the Kheprw Institute (KI), which, among many other things, allowed me to share my passion of photography with the youth there.
This past year has taken my spiritual life to a whole new level as I have been fortunate to have had a number of different ways to connect with Native Americans and water protectors, related to the Dakota Access Pipeline struggle. I am not well versed about Native American culture and spirituality, although I have been studying this, but I want to try to express my own experiences for a number of reasons. I know I have been blessed to have had some experiences that people who consider themselves white don’t often get to have. Although many are beginning to now, for the same reasons I have, as we work together to protect water and oppose the pipeline. But I hope I can convey why I see the best hope for our future would be to seek and follow the leadership of indigenous people.
Many Americans first became aware of what was going on when Amy Goodman of Democracy Now published the video of private security forces using dogs to attack water protectors at Standing Rock in September last year. This brought back memories of the awful images of dog and water hose attacks on the children marching in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1963.
This was at the same time that our efforts in Indianapolis began. Joshua Taflinger, Brandi Herron, and Matt Shull of the White Pine Wilderness Academy contacted my friend and fellow Keystone Action Leader, Jim Poyser, who lived in the same neighborhood, about ways to organize and provide support for the water protectors at Standing Rock. They invited the other Indianapolis Keystone Action Leaders, Wayne Moss, Ted Wolner, and I, to share our experience and join with them to build a local #NoDAPL movement, which we were all glad to do. We gathered for the first time at the Academy, where some of us made signs, while others built a trailer to take donated supplies to Standing Rock. Joshua and others did make several trips there.
Saturday, September 9, we had our first gathering on the Circle at the center of downtown Indianapolis. We had no idea who would show up, but many people did, including Kevin, Matt and Shannon from North Meadow Friends, my Keystone Pledge of Resistance group, Jim, Wayne, Ted and Amanda, and Jeff from Indiana Moral Mondays, Aghilah from the Kheprw Institute (KI), and Joshua, Brandi, Matt and children from the White Pine Academy.
In addition, a large number of Native Americans came. This was my first experience, and I was deeply moved. There was a deep spiritual presence from the beginning. Everyone was very friendly, but serious and silently witnessing, between chants of Mni Wiconi, Water is Life. Many holding signs of their own, or those we had made at the White Pine Academy. Several addressed those gathered and we prayed. Sage was burned, and drummers played the drum.
After a time there, we marched past the State Capitol, to the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, who allowed us to gather on their grounds, and provided water.
It was this deep, palpable spiritual presence that really affected me, at this and all the subsequent gatherings we had together. It was witnessing how the Native Americans comport themselves in public, how they treated each other and were so kind to those of us they were just meeting. Learning from their prayers and songs their deep reverence for Mother Earth, and how we are all connected.
We had a number of other gatherings. One involved marching to, and standing in silence outside the two main banks in downtown Indianapolis that were involved in funding the pipeline, while those with accounts withdrew their money, $110,000 that day! I closed my own Chase account, and North Meadow Friends closed the meeting’s account.
Soon to be my friend, Alex Red Bear, contacted Joshua to say he wanted to organize a demonstration, too. At that gathering I talked about the campaign to defund the pipeline.
At the Kheprw Institute (KI) Ra Wyse interviewed Aghliah Nadaraj (who attend the first #NoDAPL gathering downtown) and I about #NoDAPL for his radio show.
One of the most moving events was when we gathered on the State Capitol grounds one very cold winter day, to celebrate what we had done, and pray together.
I was really glad we gathered (even though it was a really cold, snowy day) at the theater where Nahko and Medicine for the People was going to perform. None of us knew about Nahko, but had heard he and his band were supporting the water protectors. As we shivered outside the theater, members of the band went past us, and gave each of us a huge smile and fist bump.
When I began to find videos of Nahko on YouTube, I became a huge fan. It was through his words and music I have learned the so much about the indigenous approach to Mother Earth and life.
As soon as he could get to Standing Rock after the dog attacks mentioned above, he put on a concert for the youth who had been attacked. Not only were his songs powerful, but what he said to the kids between the songs was, too. He says the resounding message he hears during his travels is:
“Remember that nonviolent direct action is the way to a successful revolution. And that is a hard one, because they are so bad (chuckles). When they come at us you just want to hit ’em, you know? Just sit with that. I know it’s tough. They’re going to try to do everything they can to instigate you. But remember what we’re here for. We’re here to create peace for our Mother. We’re not here to create more violence.”
When you’re feeling bad, when you’re feeling frustrated, put all your prayer into your palms, put them to the ground, put them back to the sky, honor the Father, the Mother, just know it will be alright.
Are you guys feeling proud, are you proud of yourselves? Because the whole world is watching. The whole world is watching. So whatcha gonna do? Gonna show love? Are you gonna be smart? You gonna think before you act? Take care of each other? You’re gonna show ‘em what family does. They don’t know what that’s like.
You gotta put down the weight, gotta get out of your way.
Get out of your way and just look around the corner at your real self and look at all the potential that this beautiful Earth and love has to offer you.
It’s crazy being out in front of you guys. I had a moment there. I was like, I like started spacing out and I’m like oh god they’re looking at me aren’t they? I was thinking about how much happened before any of us were here. You know? There is a lot of history here. We gotta hold that when we’re standing out there. You gotta hold that when you’re on that line out there, too. You’re here for a lot more than just this pipeline.
It’s about rejoicing, it’s about laughter right now. We’ve got a big day ahead of us tomorrow folks. So, I just want to say I’m so grateful and I’m really proud of you guys. I’m really proud of you. (and then he turned away with obvious emotion).”
This deep commitment to nonviolence and how that is exemplified in the culture of indigenous people has affected me deeply. Nonviolence and civil disobedience have been a large part of my life, with draft resistance, the Keystone Pledge of Resistance, and Indiana Moral Mondays, for example. Every person who went to the camp at Standing Rock was required to be trained in nonviolent direct action. Nahko’s Love Letters to God is about this.
It was this example that caught the attention and respect of so many in our country and around the world. I believe this is our only real hope of addressing our environmental crises. In my experience, Native Americans welcome others to join with them in this struggle. But it is important that we listen to them, and follow their leadership.
The way I see it, industrial societies got off track, and have done tremendous damage to our physical and spiritual worlds. Native Americans did not, and they are who can teach us how to get back on track.
Below is the song Nahko played to thank those who have been part of this movement, “Build a Bridge”. It begins with “I have come to build a bridge, so come let’s build” and ends with “I have come to live in peace, so come let’s live.”
I’ll close with this wonderful song Nahko sings in an empty church in Germany. “I resist and I survive.”