This September 2016, Roshi Anne Seisen Saunders, abbott of Sweetwater Zen Center, San Diego USA and member of the Zen Peacemaker Order, visited Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, Turtle Island (USA), the location of the ongoing historic stand taken by many nations of Native Americans in response to construction of pipeline on reservation land. This is her report.
“When An Elder Speaks: Impressions from Standing Rock”
By Roshi Anne Seisen Saunders
My friend and dharma sister Debra Shiin Coffey dropped everything to join me. Her husband is native (of the three affiliated tribes) and they live close to Standing Rock. We ended up talking past midnight. She shared about the suffering of her husband’s ancestors and about her own spiritual growth through native tradition. Her Mother-in-law and family were flooded out of their ancestral home because of a dam in 1951. To this day they are treated with racism and cruelty by the non-native people in North Dakota. On the other hand her life is so rich due to the deep spiritual tradition of her husband’s people.
When we first arrived at the camp we were interviewed by a young non-native who had brought her camera equipment from Arizona to ask people why they were there. She was taken with Deb’s laugh and just had to interview us as elders. I said “I am here because I think this is the most important thing happening on the planet right now”. Deb talked about the beauty of the native way. “When a child is sick, Mom stays home from work to take care of the child. Mom is willing to put her job in jeopardy to care for her child because, for the natives, family is the first priority”
After Debra left I was sitting with folks around the kitchen area. There were a group of young non-native activists sitting around the fire laughing etc and a native elder who was also sitting there started to talk. The others kept talking. From across the area comes a loud voice “when an elder speaks you listen. You will learn something.” The youngsters listened and afterwards were deeply grateful for the teaching.
We had a beautiful and long prayer before the meal that was completely from the heart and so inspiring. Then someone said “now first the elders eat. Let the elders go first from respect” An elder woman came up to me and said “You go eat now” I said (not being hungry, being vegan and feeling more like watching than participating) “no thank you” she said a little louder “you come eat now” so I followed her to the head of the line (a couple non-natives said “o do you want to eat first?” and she said “yes”) Afterwards I talked to her and she said, ”you have to eat with everyone to be part of the community—to fit in.” I thanked her so much for her teaching. Then I found out that she and her son had taken the bus from Denver to protect the water. She is hoping to live in one of the places there are for old people since she is originally from North Dakota. When she said that she smiled for the first time. Then she asked me to take her to Bismarck the next day. I was heading out the other way but there was a part of me that wanted to stay and follow her around and learn from her for a long time.
There was an action that day. The Red Warrior Camp is a few miles from where the pipeline is halted and where the action occurs. The folks who were out there that day who were not arrested appeared and got in line for dinner. Then I got the sense of the bravery and courage of the warriors. And also the sense of the camp as support for them and also a training ground for us to learn about respect and appropriateness.
SO many other encounters, the two white women from California decked out in beads and turquoise (cultural appropriation anyone?) who were so sweet and so genuine. The white woman who was cooking and told me she drove here and immediately started cooking (she seemed to have moved up to a top organizational position in the kitchen right away). Her back hurt from sleeping in the car and she was cold. “O Mama” I said “you are still giving everything for the struggle” Hugs and tears and stern admonition that she get a good warm place to sleep. And the horses, some doggy kisses, a calf who was very interested in me but Mama said no to that.
This is the most deeply spiritual place I have ever encountered. There were incredibly powerful people just walking around. The feeling of the place is so peaceful and yet two miles away some young people were jailed for standing in the way of the bulldozers that are harming our earth and our water.
A medicine man allowed me to connect with the eagle that is his medicine stick. I think it was a real eagle head. Once I looked at him (the eagle) I started bowing from the waist and almost couldn’t stop. I cannot express how powerful it was to connect with that eagle. The medicine man just said “don’t touch him!” and then turned his back and chewed on some jerky and allowed that connection. So grateful.
I am so grateful for Debra for everything she shared with me and to all of the people who are involved with Standing Rock and saving the earth. I am so grateful to the native people for their teaching.
As I was leaving I was one of a few cars on the two-lane road, headed towards Standing Rock were car after car. I said to myself “this has been the best day of my life.” At a convenience store, I encountered an older cowboy who reminded me of my people (who worked for the railroad and homesteaded in the Dakotas). With the native clerk looking on with amusement, we had a conversation about what was going on at Standing Rock.
Cowboy “you’re the second car from California I saw today, that’s so rare” me “we’re participating at Standing Rock” him “I just don’t get that. We need the pipeline for the oil” me “we have to stop our dependence on fossil fuels, the planet is dying” him – long conversation about his idea about how to make a pipeline that won’t leak. Me “eventually pipes leak” him “what am I going to do with all this corn I planted” I think both the clerk and I were impressed by his genuine desire to understand the issues and a realization of the hardship that divesting ourselves of fossil fuels is.
This is such a small slice of being at Standing Rock. I went to Bear Witness and to pray. As I expected, I received way more than I gave. My vow was to take the peace and harmony and deep spirituality of Standing Rock with me along with a stronger vow to fight for the health of the planet.