By Sensei Michel Engu Dobbs, Zen Peacemaker Order
STANDING ROCK, SOUTH DAKOTA. About an hour after going into a ditch in a white-out blizzard as we headed out of Oceti Sakowin camp and back to Bismarck, I began to look over at my friend Grover and wonder what the best way to cook a Zen Roshi was. I had no internet, and wasn’t able to look up a recipe online, so I decided to get out and start digging. As I began to free the right front tire, I heard a voice calling over the howling wind, and saw a young Lakota man standing in the snow- he hooked us up and yanked us on out. I crawled back into the car after hugging him with all my might, and turned to Grover and said, “That’s a miracle, huh?” He smiled back at me with a look that said “Of course, what have I been telling you? What did you expect? Haven’t you noticed what’s going on here?”
Just a couple of hours earlier, as we said our goodbyes back in camp, a wonderful woman who shared a large tent with us and about 12 veterans, grabbed me. Andy, aka- Unci (Lakota for grandma), told me, “I’ve been taking care of people all my life- I had two disabled siblings, my parents were sick, then as a wife, and a mother, and as a professional nurse. Five years ago, I realized that I needed help, and I began to learn how to ask for it, and in those years, what I’ve learned is that the universe is endlessly generous- if you ask for help, you get help.”
This was the strongest message for me, during our visit. From the moment we arrived, as I stood and looked around in stunned silence at the massive camp, populated by about 7,000 people, I saw folks all around who were helping each other, taking care of each other. If anyone opened their mouth and asked for help, there were ten or fifteen people there to offer it. What a startling contrast to living back in NY. In fact, when I finally got back to NYC, looking and smelling a bit like a hobo, I stood on the train platform waiting for the train to long term parking. A young woman came up muttering to herself, and looking a bit lost, and I said, “Do you need help?” She turned and looked at me, and just about broke into a run in the opposite direction, and I sighed and thought, “Home sweet home.”
During our visit, we were generously welcomed and hosted in a camp of the Cheyenne River Lakota, headed by Chas Jewett, an energetic and bright young activist and community organizer, and a member of the Oceti Sakowin Women’s Council. In between meetings with various camp councils, and visiting VIPs, Chas spent time describing to us the complexities of maintaining a community as large and diverse as Oceti Sakowin. And it isn’t easy- there are many voices, perspectives, and needs in a camp of so many people. Not everyone agrees on what to do, or how to do it. Given these circumstances, and adding the aggressive efforts of the oil company and the police, not to mention the weather- it is really remarkable that the overall sense one gets in the camp is of a reverend devotion to the land, the water, the sky, and to one another. It speaks to the strength and wisdom of those who hold this together, and is a real blessing to witness.
We had a joyous and warm reunion with Geoff BoGai Taylor and Sara Taylor, as we arrived in the camp, and our days were spent together listening at the main sacred fire, as water protectors of all sorts described their experiences, offered prayers and songs; and in prayer ourselves, here, there, and everywhere. We prayed with our feet, and we prayed with our hands, and we prayed with our hearts.. Shortly after arriving, we hiked up to the roadway leading to the bridge where the police barricade was, and some of the main confrontations between police and protectors had occurred the week before. As we stood looking out over the Cannon Ball River, and the Missouri River, and the hills surrounding it, a Lakota elder came and asked all present to join him in prayer. We gathered in a circle, and as he began his prayer, an eagle flew overhead in the steel grey sky. “All nations, all faiths, one prayer,” concluded his long and beautiful prayer for the wellness of all beings.
On Sunday afternoon, many, if not most, members of the camp joined hands to create a giant prayer circle that went around two thirds of the camp, as Chief Arvol Looking Horse, a spiritual leader of the Lakota rode around the camp on horseback. At about the exact time that the circle was completed, a man came around and said that he had just heard that Energy Transfer Partners had been denied the rights to drill on Army Corp of Engineers land without doing an Environmental Risk Assessment. Not for the first or last time during the weekend, I turned incredulously to Grover and said, “Oh yeah right, just as we prayed for it.” He smiled, and nodded, as if to say, “What did you expect?”
The reaction to this news in the camp was cautious joy, more subdued than I would have expected. There have been so many broken treaties and broken promises. By the next day, the sentiment was very much, ‘we are staying, our work here is not yet finished.’
Oceti Sakowin appears well supported at this time, and there were trucks of food, and of clothing, and supplies coming in. It seemed to be a bit of a case of feast or famine. Many of the tribal members have been poor and neglected for so long. They are so grateful for the support and attention. Many times, over the course of our visit, I was asked, “Where are you from?” and then hugged and thanked for my efforts to be there in solidarity. I felt so humbled and grateful to be able to be there and to witness the coming together of so many people in support of our native brothers and sisters, of the environment, and of each other.
It seems to me that what is most needed is continued attention, and support, financial and otherwise. I’m concerned that the support not disappear, as some other cause or story captures our attention in the future. There are many ways to support the water protectors and their efforts. Try to be sure you are giving to a reputable one. The official website for the Oceti Sakowin camp is ocetisakowincamp.org, and they are on Facebook. These are a good source of information about what is happening.
Now several days after returning, I still feel an intense warmth and gratitude, and a great feeling of hopefulness for all of us, in spite of the current political news. We can and must come together and help one another, each and every one, because, that is how we connect, and that is how we heal ourselves and each other. Boundless thanks and appreciation to Grover Genro Gauntt Roshi, Geoff and Sara Taylor, Chas Jewell, to all the beautiful folks at the camp- the water protectors, to my wife, family, and sangha, and to all my relations- including you.
With love and a laugh-
Engu is a Zen priest and Dharma heir of Peter Muryo Matthiessen Roshi and a co-teacher at the Ocean Zendo. He has operated a bakery for over twenty years.