“I don’t know when we will become human. No one is listening, hearing, recording our voices.” This is what a woman in the Tribal offices said to me on Nov. 4 on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.
I went to Standing Rock to listen. I had been watching the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) from afar and trying to promote their cause through social media. On Nov. 1, I learned about a call to action for clergy. I re-organized my calendar and packed my car because I felt the obligation to witness and support Standing Rock.
I am concerned about pipelines, climate change and environmental pollution. But, those issues are not why I stand with the Standing Rock Sioux. I stand with the Standing Rock Sioux because they are being deprived of their rights, treated like second-class citizens, threatened, terrorized and abused.
I stand with the Standing Rock Sioux because I know what it is like to have your people denied the rights of citizenship. I know what it is like to have your people denied the freedom to worship in your faith tradition. I know what it is like for your people to be treated as sub-humans, numbered and portrayed as parasites, slandered and terrorized.
As a Jew and as an American, I know that it is my duty to learn about the mistreatment and legal abuse of Native Americans and take a stand against it.
On Nov. 3, I joined over 525 clergy members in prayer. We stood together to share prayer and song from our various faith traditions—including Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Catholics, Unitarian Universalists, African Methodist Episcopalians, Buddhists, Muslims and Jews. One of the leaders of the gathering remarked that at no other time in recent history have all of our faiths been joined together in a common cause. This is what brought us together and the power of that unity had an impact on each of the clergy present and on the Standing Rock Sioux.
One member of Standing Rock told me that the energy in the camp had been different since Oct. 27. There was fear and division, distress and hopelessness in the camp. He told me that after our prayers, the energy was renewed. Their spirit was strengthened.
On Oct. 27, the water protectors were fired upon with rubber bullets, assaulted with sonic cannons and had their supplies and sacred objects destroyed by the State Police, Morton County Sheriff’s department and DAPL security. After I participated in the prayer gathering, I returned to the camp to work. A call was announced for volunteers to help sort supplies. I went with three others to the side of the road, outside the camp, where the police had dumped the destroyed tents, teepees and supplies of the protestors. As I sorted through the damaged tents, urine-soaked sleeping bags and rotting food looking for canned goods and other useable supplies, my emotions hovered between anger and despair. If officers of the government can come in and destroy a community’s sacred objects and personal supplies, what else can they do?
While the power of the Clergy Standing for Standing Rock Gathering was strong, it was just one small event in a long struggle. I felt guilty for leaving so quickly and not being able to sit and learn and listen for days and weeks. Today’s protest at Standing Rock is just one event on a timeline of American history when the national government has violated the rights of Native Americans.
I witnessed a people seeking justice in the face of injustice. Those injustices are being perpetuated by our government. We have told the Sioux that their land would not be used without their approval. We have told the Sioux that their sacred spiritual and burial sites would be protected. We have told the Sioux that they are full citizens of the United States with all the rights and guarantees of freedom known to each and every other citizen. And yet, over and over again, the American government has broken its word and blamed the Sioux for the problem.
In September, lawyers for the Standing Rock Sioux notified the court of sites in the path of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The next day the pipeline construction workers cleared and graded the area, destroying the sacred sites. Somehow, the continued disregard for the Sioux shown by the pipeline company and the state of North Dakota, have not swayed the federal authorities or President Obama to put a halt to the pipeline’s construction.
As the late Elie Weisel taught, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Shame on us if we remain silent.
Please go to www.standwithstandingrock.net to take action. You can sign a petition, donate needed funds to help support Standing Rock Sioux’s legal and public relations battles, and learn more about the struggle.
We cannot change the past, yet we can make a future that respects the rights and human dignity of all America’s citizens, especially Native Americans.
Francine Roston is a rabbi with the Glacier Jewish Community/B’nai Shalom and lives with her family in Whitefish. This writing represents Rabbi Roston’s personal views.
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