Rain, Thunder And Lightning Were All Present – Report from the Native American Bearing Witness Retreat in Fort Snelling MN USA, November 2016

Rain, Thunder And Lightning Were all Present – Report from the Native American Bearing Witness Retreat in Fort Snelling MN, November 2016

By Laura Gentle Dragon Kennedy, ZPO

FORT SNELLING, MINNESOTA, USA. Seeds for the Bearing Witness Retreat in Minnesota were planted about 15 years ago when I read Roshi Bernie Glassman’s book Bearing Witness. Through discussions and participating in Bearing Witness retreats, the vision became clear. We would bring this vision to a group of Native people; receive permission and their guidance on the actions of this retreat. The retreat came to fruition on November 17 2016 and was attended by over one hundred participants, volunteers and speakers. A small and mighty group of Native Elders and non-native peoples offered the energy and compassion nourishing the spiritual root of this retreat. With a seed loan from a sangha member, we had the ability to print the brochures to begin to broadcast this retreat.  The Bearing Witness Retreat was supported by the Zen Peacemaker Order, Clouds in Water Zen Center, MN Healing Stories and organized by an interfaith community and led by First Nation peoples. The spiritual root initially delicate, was nourished with compassion and the collective desire for the possibility of spiritual healing.

We developed relationships one person at a time, one organization at a time, letting go of ideas of support and honoring those who connected to this process. The energy and commitment of both Native and non-native peoples supported the growing spiritual root of the retreat. We found that language, and particularly naming genocide and massacres are powerful in their truth-telling. The intention was embodied with humility and dignity.

Research and investigation led to deepening knowledge of genocide in relationship to the Native peoples in Minnesota. I found that the ancient twisted karma alive today is made visible at Standing Rock. Standing Rock was a central part of this retreat for me.  I visited Standing Rock several times, and the connection was intimate and immediate. The connection with the genocide, the concentration camp at Fort Snelling and Standing Rock were inseparable to me in time and space.

The willingness of Native elders to host this retreat was a light in pivoting the inverted past. The retreat included site visits to Mni Owe Sni (Coldwater Springs), a sacred site of water, Oheyawahi (Pilot Knob), a site of burial for Native peoples, and the concentration camp at Fort Snelling, where innumerable Native grandmothers, mothers, elders and children died.  We acknowledged the genocide and honored those who have died there. Ceremony, smudging, talks by Native Elders and council circle were also offered. All were bearing witness to suffering and resilience of our hosts. As guests we responded to the many gifts with open hearts. Giver, receiver and gift all expressed continuously throughout the retreat.

The retreat started with smudging, prayer and drumming.

Each place we visited had its own voice and way of expression. At Mni Owe Sni , rain, thunder and lightning were all present as we listened to the timeless voice of the place and the words of Sheldon Wolfchild, a member and former Tribal Chairman of the Lower Sioux Indian Community. On our way to Oheyawahi the rain become heavy. Arriving at Oheyawahi, participants opened up their umbrellas. The wind forced the rain sideways but did not diminish the spirit of the group. Jim Bear, a parish pastor and a member of the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Nation, shared the history of the place and we walked its grounds. The next day Ramona Kitto Stately an artist and a social activist of the Santee Sioux Nation, led the participants with a her own personal connection to the concentration camp. The day began cloudy and cold. Before going down to the concentration camp, Sheldon led us in a ceremony honoring Medicine Bottle and Shakopee who were hang at Fort Snelling. Sheldon too has a direct connection to this place. We listened. Leaving this place though still cold the sun was brilliantly shining.

The Dakota Grandmothers and Mothers panel was the expression of strength and resilience of the Native people. We listened to a panel about the Two Spirited People, the gender-fluid, sacred, spiritual and ceremonial role that is recognized and confirmed by the Elders of the Two Spirit’s ceremonial community.

We remembered and honored the thirty-eight Dakota men, also known as the ‘Dakota 38 plus 2’, hung in the largest mass hanging in the United States on December 26, 1862, in Mankato, Minnesota. The forced march of Dakota grandmothers, mothers children and elders from Morton, Minnesota to Fort Snelling, where they were held at the concentration camp during the winter of 1862-1863 and the place where an estimated three hundred Natives peoples had died. This is our legacy and it is only through knowing can we remember and honor those who have died. Only then can we vow never to repeat.

The retreat closed with an honoring and drum ceremony on the evening of November 19, 2016.


We are forever grateful to:

The First Nations peoples who supported the hope that spiritual healing could emerge from bearing witness to the legacy of genocide and resilience; Jim Bear Jacobs (Mohican), Bob Klandrud (Dakota/Lakota), John Morrin (Anishinaabe), Ramona Kitto Stately (Santee Sioux), Sheldon Wolfchild (Lower Sioux), Jewell Arcoren (Sisseton Wahpeton), Chas Jewett (Cheyenne River), Ursula Aldrich, Lenny Hayes (Sisseton Wahpeton), Sheila Zephier (Oglala Lakota people of Pine Ridge) and to the many First Nations peoples who supported this retreat.

Roshi Bernie’s vision and his breathing life into the 3 tenets;

Plunging into the charnel grounds of the land with don’t know mind; the place is the teacher.

The many faith communities and organizations which contributed to the nourishment and spiritual root of this retreat;

The generosity expressed in 10,000 ways with the many beings who gave this retreat life;

The Zen Peacemakers who continue to embody the bodhisattva vow through their work throughout this great earth.

I would like to acknowledge Ken Keiyu Ford, Betsy Brown (Enduring Vow) and Scott Russell for their wonderful energy and tireless work throughout the unfolding of this retreat.

I take responsibility for any mistakes and offer a deep apology. I will practice harder. It is only through connection and relationship that we have an opportunity for loving action.

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Laura Gentle Dragon Kennedy participated in Zen Peacemaker Order bearing witness retreats at Auschwitz-Birkenau, at the Black Hills with the Lakota Elders. She also participated in a street retreat in S.F. Gentle Dragon is a Zen priest at Clouds in Water Zen Center and a member of the Zen Peacemaker Order. She co-organized and co-coordinated with ZPO and other faith organizations a Bearing Witness retreat in November 2016 remembering and honoring the genocide of the Dakota in Minnesota.

This report describes the Native American Bearing Witness retreat in November 2016 in Minnesota USA. It was co-organized by the author and managed by Cloud in Water Zen Center, with guidance and support from the Zen Peacemaker Order. ZPO sees this as an expression of the continuous efforts to deepen the relationship of non-Native Americans with indigenous people of Turtle Island, through the 2015 Native American Bearing Witness retreat in the Black Hills, the 2016 Zen Peacemakers Plunge in Cheyenne River, the Zen Peacemakers Presence in Standing Rock in fall and winter 2016, and the 2017 Summer Programs in South Dakota.

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Rain, Thunder And Lightning Were All Present – Report from the Native American Bearing Witness Retreat in Fort Snelling MN USA, November 2016

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