I have been immersed in thoughts and readings about what has been unfolding at Standing Rock near Cannon Ball, North Dakota and I have been immersed in thoughts about what is sacred. This Native American Reservation has been the site of peaceful, yet solid and steadfast, protests against the installation of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and against the injustice of this happening on what is, rightfully, Native land. Adjacent to this land and these protests is the Sacred Stone camp created by the Sioux Nation and for those who wish to participate in prayer, in community and in joining the efforts to deter the DAPL and to protect the water, land and heritage that are sacred to the tribes and vital to our country and the world as a whole. And, the truth of the matter that shall not be lost is this – this plight, this effort to protect what is sacred from being exploited, is not new for Native Peoples.
As a therapist, I have often shared that trust – whether it’s trust in a relationship, trusting oneself or knowing what your beliefs are on any given subject – is a combination of listening to one’s intuition or inner truth as well as gathering facts and knowledge. On a personal level, this is how I go about gaining insight and growing as a person in my own life. My intuition and inner voice guide me in finding the personal stories and the lush texture of context and history. My mind and the part of me that values analysis of facts and sources guide me in formulating a grounded understanding of the matters at hand. My process of better grasping the circumstances at Standing Rock and the ramifications of the DAPL has been no different.
I’ve spoken to individuals and have read individual writings and descriptions from those currently or recently on the Reservation, I have read stories of babies being born over the past few months and delivered by midwives with love and hope amidst the strife and injustice that is being protested and I have read the journeyed accounts of those who have been arrested, who have been recipients of force and mistreatment as they stood in solidarity near sacred Native lands, and who have helped and been helped as they stumble and search for ways to find light in the dark hours. The personal stories add the color and depth to the facts, figures and outlines of experience and incident.
I have also researched the facts as I seek to educate myself more fully on what has gone on with the Pipeline and why we as a Nation are where we are at this present moment. I have read about the original treaties and the violations of these agreements, have delved into details of the various tribes and their burial practices on and near the site that they are protecting and I have read about the ecological and water protection points. Through my winding course of learning more about Standing Rock and the DAPL, I have been so touched by the writings of people on the frontlines and by those of Native people sharing rich details about culture, family, language, spirituality, trauma, and the origins of Life. The beauty portrayed is overwhelming and the tapestry these elements create is compelling. Standing for Standing Rock is more than an environmental and water protection stance; it is also about awareness, peace, respect, integrity, and the worth of our shared humanity. And, it is about valuing Spirit – in the many forms Spirit can take in the world.
Something else has been rising for me in a sort of disjointed harmony with the compassion I am feeling towards all of those directly affected by what has come to pass in North Dakota. What is emerging in a powerful way is a greater acknowledgement of what is Sacred and what God is to me. I was raised Catholic, attended Catholic school, and have attended Mass as an adult and even guided my own children through their first Sacraments. My first memories of church were at around age 4. As my mother and I would drive to and from our small town, I would gaze out of the car window at the grand steeple of St. Mary’s in the Mountains Catholic Church until, one day, I asked my mother if we could go there. In fact, I believe I told her we had to go inside. Along with the striking brick edifice’s majestic white steeple that was a prominent staple of the distinct yet compact Virginia City, NV skyline, the most prevailing memory I have is of walking into the breathtaking church for the first time. The church itself is well-known for its history and grandeur with tall peaks and arches, high ceilings, vivid stained glass windows, formal confessional chambers draped in velvet curtains, pristine wood pillars, brass fixtures, imported artwork, the wafting scent of holy water and the ornate alter containing an immense William Shuelke pipe organ. This church truly is impressive; however, what I remember is not the vivid descriptors, as I was young and the details blurry. What I remember is being small and looking up at very tall ceilings, a very large crucifix, a plentitude of shiny and colorful things and an undeniable feeling of being engulfed in warmth and light communicating without words that this was a sacred place and that my heart felt safe there. I now know that felt sense was unadulterated Love and that undiluted and purest of loves is sacred and is God to me.
That church was a fundamental fixture of my Sundays and its masses – preserved and said in original Latin form – were an anchor for me as I grew. Even after I moved away from my hometown, I still attended Mass of my own volition and found congregations that felt like spiritual “home” for me. I also found a few that did not and I would know this right away. When my husband and I moved to Portland, we briefly attended a church that was non-denominational and known for its social justice practices on a quest for an inclusive congregation. Eventually, our attendance fizzled and raising our babies became the focus. In retrospect, though the church seemed ok for a time, it wasn’t the Spiritual nourishment that fit for me. Also in retrospect, my husband was coming to terms with the reality that no church would ever be a fit for him
I returned to Catholic Church several years later. My 3rd baby and 1st daughter was stillborn and my grief and anger were raging waves and flames within me. In my despair, I was given a book on miscarriage and baby loss written by a minister. This book was different from the religious platitudes that are often spoken to those in pain. This book said I had a right to my anger and that God was strong and loving enough to take my rage and feelings of injustice at the loss I was suffering. Spirituality and a belief in God, Light, Love, Universe, and any form or name for what is greater than oneself is about relationship. My relationship to what was and feels sacred within me and having a healthy relationship of any kind meant and still means being emotionally honest and showing up despite the pain and not only for the joy or righteousness of it. Four weeks after my little girl was born silently, I walked back through the doors of a Catholic Church in my new neighborhood by myself and felt “home” again. It was as if Spirit had seen me from the doorway, ushered me into the oak pew, wrapped me in a warm blanket and sat unwaveringly beside me. I could hardly hold back my tears and the rhythms of standing, kneeling, sitting, observing, responding and silence, were a sort of balm for my soul. The priest welcomed me, remembered my name, listened to my grief, embraced my family when we attended together and found value in listening to my husband’s struggle with religion. Admittedly, I am not a staunch or formulaic Catholic nor do I necessarily hold beliefs that are stereotypical of the religion. Yet, for a multitude of circumstances, implicit and explicit reasons, and with the perfect-for-me combination of safety and relationship, my churches have served as one of many conduits between my Self and my God.
The more I show up in an emotionally honest and genuine way in the world and with myself, the more it seems that sacredness and Love have the potential to exist in anyone, anything, or anyplace where true connection and relationship are possible. Connection, relationship, and sacredness exist within us and the recognition and felt sense of what is sacred is not tied only to a traditional church or religion. The experience of what is sacred – what is greater than us – exists in the awe-inspiring warmth and courageous vulnerability of holding your newborn child for the first time and in the fragility and tenderness felt when bearing witness as breath leaves the body of a loved one for the last time. Sacred spaces exist on a mountain, through accomplishments both large and small, at the ocean, in a conversation of hope and understanding between strangers, and they exist in both the pivotal and the mundane of life. Sacred spaces exist at Standing Rock and among those protecting the water and protecting the right of the Tribes and the Sioux Nation to affect change and to decide what is in the best interest of their greater good. I believe, inevitably, it is the greater good of all as I believe we are interconnected.
My father was born in Rapid City, South Dakota and was raised there and in Huron, South Dakota where he moved as a teenager. He would share his stories with me of life in South Dakota and of the customs and realities he had learned and seen growing up near Sioux reservations. When he would return home to me as a child from his trips to his home state and excursions hunting pheasant, he would bring home dolls made by Native American artisans and tell me of his encounters and conversations had while purchasing my gifts. My father passed away 10 years ago and I can’t help but wonder what he would say about all that has happened around the DAPL and the broken treaties. My sense is that he would be saddened as he always communicated a deep respect for the land and customs belonging to the Sioux Nation and, as a veteran and former military policeman, he would be proud of those servicemen and women who arrived this past weekend to support and commune with the Water Protectors and the Elders. Quietly, I wonder if any of these lands were sacred to him and my heart aches as I think of the sacred spaces that people hold in the corners of heart and spirit and the pain and disconnect that is felt when what is beloved is threatened, devalued or lost.
I am grateful that, as of this weekend, the DAPL through Standing Rock has halted and I also realize the work is far from over and much need for healing and support remains in the camps and in the aftermath. Though Native American suffering is not my personal cultural suffering, caring for and preserving the sacred spaces within us, around us and between us is precious to me. There are times to take a stand, there are times to simply listen and there is a beautiful and sacred space in which both can exist, fully valued and carefully held. I stand for the protection of that which is sacred.