The Rev. Rachel K. Taber-Hamilton —
Riding bareback, the young Lakota warrior drove his dappled horse at a dead run towards me. I paused in my walk along the wide grassy swatch cut through the field leading towards the tributary to the Missouri River and quickly stepped off the trail. As horse and rider thundered past me, I called out,
“What’s happening?” Shouting back to me over his shoulder, the young man answered with urgency, “What’s happening is crazy! Go! Go and help! Please help!” As his horse galloped onwards towards the Oceti Sakowin Camp, the young warrior continued crying out to anyone and everyone within hearing, “Help! Help them! Everyone go to the river! Please help!”
The morning of November 2, 2016 had begun in a fairly mundane way. I was one from among 524 clergy, representing multiple faith traditions, who were gathering in response to an invitation by The Rev. John Floberg, Rector of St. James Episcopal Church in Cannon Ball. We were coming together in order to participate in an interfaith prayer action, protesting the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline [DAPL] within the historic treaty lands of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota.
For the previous two nights, I had been sleeping in St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Fort Yates. When I reluctantly extricated myself from the warm cocoon of sleeping bag on the morning of the 2nd, I became aware that sometime during the course of the night I had made the decision to stay at the Oceti Sakowin Camp for the coming evening so that I would already be in camp for the clergy gathering on the following morning.
A good night’s sleep on the floor of a church sanctuary had apparently diffused any lingering concerns I may have had about staying in camp. I was raised to be a “good girl” and a “good Indian,” so the idea of challenging state and national governmental agencies does not come readily to me. I had been taught to have the best of all possible relationships with police, to see them as friends who would help me in times of need. However, I fall into the category of being raised as an “urban Indian” as compared to a “reservation Indian.” Life is different on the rez, since by conception a federal reservation is an area of land reserved for tribes under treaty where the federal government holds title to the land in trust on behalf of the tribe. However, every single one of the more than 700 treaties with Native Americans has been broken by the US government at some point or another. Every. Single. One.
Environmental racism refers to socially marginalized racial minority communities which are thought to be subjected to disproportionate exposure of pollutants, the denial of access to sources of ecological benefits (such as clean air, water, and natural resources), or both. Mineral and resource extraction on Native lands have jeopardized ecological and communal health with each successive century of colonialism and its subsequent ongoing practices of environmental racism.
The 1851 Treaty of Ft. Laramie between the U.S. government and nine Indian tribes (including the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation) shows that the DAPL pipeline cuts through the middle of the treaty boundary. However, the lines of the reservation started changing without Sioux approval in the mid-1800s, after gold was found in the Black Hills. At that time, the US Congress passed a number of unilateral statutes that altered the boundaries of the reservation, effectively confiscating the land.
The Dakota Access Pipeline’s original route called for the pipeline project to cross under the Missouri River north of Bismark. However, the original route was rejected because of the pipeline’s potential threat to Bismarck’s water supply. The route was then changed to cut through the Sioux treaty area, to endanger the tribe’s water supply instead.
Before arriving at camp on November 2nd, I packed my gear into my rental car and drove to Cannon Ball where I spent the morning helping to organize the supplies necessary to feed the 524 clergy who would be gathering the next day for prayer. After my work was competed at St. Jame’s, I drove into the Oceti Sakowin Camp.
Within minutes of my arrival, I heard an announcement from the fire circle that the camp elders were placing the camp on lockdown, which meant that no one could leave or enter – for their own protection. Apparently, an unscheduled action was taking place on the northeast edge of camp. The night before, Water Protectors had built a makeshift bridge across a river tributary in order to reach a hill called Turtle Mountain, an ancestral burial ground upon which state security forces had set up a surveillance station on the previous day. Local Natives wanted to say prayers on behalf of those buried there and negotiate with the security forces to ask if they would move off the burial ground area.
The call went out for aid. After prepping a set of goggles with duct-taped holes (to ward off the effects of tear gas) and making sure I had earplugs with me (to ward off the effects of sound canons), I walked over to observe the action from the near side of the tributary and be ready to receive casualties for transport to the camp’s first aid tent. I was heading to the site, when the young Lakota warrior galloped by with his earnest cries for help. I quickened my pace to a run and reached the tributary river at the foot of Turtle Mountain to behold a stunning sight.
Fifty officers in full body armor and riot gear, armed with large canisters of teargas and guns loaded with rubber bullets, rappelled down the steep near side of the hill, while an armed security boat simultaneously entered the tributary from the Missouri River. Security forces in the boat quickly deconstructed much of the makeshift bridge. However, several unarmed and barely clad Water Protectors began to swim across the tributary, asking for a respite and the opportunity to talk with the officers. In shocked silence, I watched while a new generation of Native youth and young adults experienced the full force of modern day colonialism – and its racism – in the United States of America.
There was no conversation to be had. The young people were met with streams of teargas and directed fire of rubber bullets. The people in the water made no attempt to harm the officers or to come ashore – they stayed in the water of the river, literally at the feet of the officers standing on the land, and tried to ward off the spray and bullets with a ragged blue tarp and small plastic storage bin lids used as shields. The Native youth did not advance, but they would not leave – they kept asking for dialog.
One young Native woman at the edge of the shore and staying in the river, looked up at the officer standing above her and asked, “Why are you doing this?” The officer’s response was to raise his large canister and spay her directly in the eyes with a five second torrent of teargas from a distance of less than two feet. The stream of teargas was so copious that the deluge poured over her head like a milk bath before running down her upper body and into the river in which she was standing.
The woman did not retreat. When the spraying stopped, she dipped beneath the surface of the water and reemerged with her swollen eyes shut, and said to the officer, “You don’t have to do this. We can talk. We have so much in common. We both need water to live.” The officer’s response was to hose her down with another five-second stream of teargas. She did this six more times before returning to the camp side shore, unable to see and unable to feel her legs or hands.
Many people in the water began to succumb to hypothermia and we’re taken to the medical tent in camp. After helping load an unresponsive young man into the cab of a pickup truck, my years of experience as a hospital chaplain contributed to my decision to stay at the medical tent in order to support the medical crew there. The nurses and doctors there were all volunteers. In the midst of the cultural and physical trauma going on around them, the volunteer medical staff knew that they were treating the victims of modern American warfare – one in which the decedents of those who came to these shores seeking freedom continue to afflict the descendants of those who have never really been free since.
The experience at Oceti Sakowin Camp has taught me that issues of racism are at their core issues of relationship, and genuine relationships begin with dialog. Each person that I meet has a life experience different than mine; I must come to know the stranger, if I am going to be of any real help in removing barriers and building bridges. Therefore as a Christian, vulnerably standing within the waters of my Baptism, I am daily compelled to ask, “Can we talk?”
The Rev. Rachel K. Taber-Hamilton is rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Everett, WA and is an ordained priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia (Western Washington). She was the first (known) indigenous person to be ordained in the diocese in 2003. Born and raised in the United States, Rachel’s heritage includes the First Nations Shackan Indian Band of the Nicola Tribal Association in British Columbia, Canada.