Quietly, and with great concern, I’ve watched the controversy at Standing Rock unfold.
Though it might seem a white woman, or “wasicu,” writing about faith would have little to say on the matter, I grew up alongside the Lakota and Assiniboine on the Fort Peck Reservation in northeast Montana, where my parents taught and lived for 37 years.
Given that my formative years happened in Indian Country, maybe my perspective could be helpful. Certainly, the situation has been pressing on my heart; I have friends in both worlds and love them all.
In the place of my rearing, tensions often tumbled, sometimes erupting in violence. The fires I see burning now in southern North Dakota have a familiar look to them, and I’m convinced that, though the presence of the Dakota Access Pipeline has prompted the contention, what’s been roiling at the Cannonball River is about more than this.
The pipeline is like a pin-prick that poked at a long-festering wound that has never received adequate salve and has now been painfully re-exposed.
Adding to that, the ills faced by most indigenous people of our country are numerous and complex. The lack in my hometown alone was and still is striking and disturbing and deserves our attention.
One of my favorite writers, Flannery O’Connor, once said that the Christian novelist, challenged by the repugnant distortions of modern life, often needs to show her vision in bold ways to reach those accustomed to seeing such alterations as natural.
“To the hard of hearing you shout,” she said, “and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”
Looking west to the Oceti Sakowin Camp, I see “large and startling figures” being drawn, an urgency in the air. We need to come together, but we also need to drop the weapons and angry voices and begin seeing each other’s hearts.
O’Connor, who wrote primarily in the 1950s and ’60s when racial and social tensions were heightened, felt it her mission to help correct injustice through her art. But even as she reflected real life often in dramatic ways through her stories, she wouldn’t have advocated violent means to resolve conflict.
I think that’s why I’m finally prompted to speak up. The turmoil has already caused enough damage. It’s not worth the loss of even one life. But we’ve also underestimated the passions at Standing Rock, and we need to look past the pipeline to see clearly.
It’s time for celebrities to go home and those of us who will live most directly with the consequences to begin searching out just solutions.
After peeling away the most ugly and unfortunate layers of this mess, I see Native Americans wanting to be heard and made visible. I see people involved in the oil industry attempting to thoughtfully cover their bases. I see law enforcement personnel doing their jobs at great risk.
In other words, there are good people on all sides, and some troublemakers, who only serve to belabor the chance for peace. The good-intended need to move beyond the mob.
Growing up in Poplar, Mont., we kids were not unaware of our differences, but we tried to look past them. In a sense, we were all surviving the hardships of the reservation together, and many deeply-set friendships that formed remain today.
Can what I experienced in the laughter shared with my Native friends there and then happen here and now?
“It’s not that easy,” some might say. “You don’t understand.” But I think I do, as much as one can. Though I no longer live on the reservation, the reservation still lives in me.
My vision for peace involves a God who loves everyone involved and is ready to help guide us to a satisfying end. Maybe we can start by praying to this Lord of Life, in whatever ways we find fitting, seeking first reconciliation with God to prepare our hearts.
Let’s not forget that we are siblings with shared hopes and dreams, and while the past can inform us, today is what we have to work with. The rest of the world can help by joining us in prayer to the God who sees us not through our skin shades, but our souls and straight into our deepest needs and desires.
Perhaps leaders on each side, with the help of a mediator, could sort through the real issues and seek creative solutions. What if, for instance, the oil industry set aside some of its profits to help reservations across our land? It’s just a thought, but we have to start somewhere.
Dakota means “friendly.” An opportunity to show the world what true collaboration looks like has been presented us and at no better time. How will we respond?
I’m just one North Dakotan with a small voice, but I see the potential here for a deeper healing than has been possible before now.
For the sake of our children and theirs, I hope we can give peace a chance.
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Dec. 3, 2016.]