Thursday, November 03, 2016

My Time on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation

When I was back in seminary, I spent a summer working on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation. The priest I stayed with had spent several years as a volunteer on the Standing Rock and had been adopted by a family there. During that summer, he invited me to come to a family wacipi...a powwow...that was the last of a cycle honoring the memory of his adopted brother. It was also to be the naming ceremony for that departed brother's nephew. It was an honor to be able to go with him, and several experiences there are coming back to me as we prepare for the observation of All Saints' Sunday and as the continuing ecological controversy over the pipeline access protests.

Remembering all the saints is the focus of our liturgy, and the Lakota people, many of whom are also Episcopalians, have a way of doing that which is deeply rooted in their culture. When they speak in public, they end their speeches with "mitakuye oyasin." That means, "all my relatives." It's a prayer of commendation to God our ancestors, one that provokes us to remember all those who have gone before us and in whose legacy was are living. It is an invitation to recognize that when we share words, we share a relationship...and with a relationship we become linked to each other. When we are linked, we are related. Finally, it is a prayer of hope, for when we call out to our relatives we are remembering the passed, embracing the present...but most importantly we are calling to mind and heart that there are a host of generations that will follow us.

"All my relatives" means more than just simply saying hello and thank you for listening.

It means that we acknowledge that we are all bound to each other, that our destinies are linked. I learned that on the reservation that summer. I also learned a lesson about hospitality: because I was not an expected guest....nor were dozens of other folks who showed up at that family picnic. Martha Stewart would have come unhinged...imagine throwing  family picnic/reunion, expecting to see about 100 and seeing over 250 show up? Did I mention that the wacipi runs for three days? And yet, there was a warm welcome for all. Everyone was given food and drink. Everyone was honored as guest and accepted, even while the providers of the feast worked tirelesly to stretch their supplies.

Finally, the Standing Rock Sioux gave me something that I did not realize I had lost until that moment: pride in my country and in my flag.

You see, it is the custom at wacipis that they open with a flag raising ceremony. Families are expected to bring their family's flags, which then are raised over a circular arbor within which all activities for the wacipi occur. The "family's flags" are the MANY flags that the Lakota families keep for their fallen veterans. Flags with 50 stars....and some with much less...were brought forward in varying states of condition and use. They were lined up on a table in front of the wacipi announcers box, and then veterans were invited forward for the raising. Each flag was lifted by a fellow comrade in service and taken to a flag pole while a traditional Lakota honoring song was sung.

I was weeping from the first moment I learned what was happening. These people have NEVER been welcomed in mainstream American society, and have been subjected not only to racism, but also to cultural and physical genocide....and yet when the call comes to serve in times of war, the warriors of their culture, men and women, have answered the call.

 I grew up in a time and place where the American flag was a symbol of oppression...when anti-war protests on college campuses were met with guns, tear gas and batons wielded by soldiers wearing that flag on students who were for the most part trying to protest peacefully in exercise of their constitutional rights.

As the Lakota honored their dead with those flags, I learned what it means to honor my heritage as an American. I stand with others now when the National Anthem plays. I cover my hand with my heart when I bury a veteran and participate in military honors. I pray for all those who love this country and this land as they stand with fellow Americans to protest a pipeline that in many ways violates the public trust with which we all live on this sacred land.

It took the Lakota to teach me these three sacred lessons....ones that my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has been trying to hammer into me since I was myself baptised into the age-spanning fellowship of the Church:

  1. We are all related...the saints who have passed, those who live and those who are coming soon;
  2. Being all related, we have an obligation with live with mutual hospitality and grace
  3. To be an American is to render honor and respect to each other, despite wounds be they old or fresh
On this All Saints' observance....pray with me for all who struggle to secure the safe future of our community and environment as a country, for we have received a great legacy from those who have gone before, are bound to each other in this moment and strive to ensure that the generations to come will be able to walk freely on land that is clean and safe as they remember their saints.

Mitakuye Oyasin. Amen.

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