On November 3, her first day at Standing Rock Sioux Nation in North Dakota, in the midst of a massive push to stop the controversial Dakota Access oil pipeline, a stranger came up to the Rev. Leigh Kern and gave her a doughnut.
It was a small thing, but for Kern, a Métis priest from the diocese of Toronto, it perfectly encapsulated the experience of living in the camp.
“Everybody just takes care of each other,” Kern said in a phone interview from Standing Rock. “There is such peace here-which is strange, because…it’s like we’re in a war zone.”
The day before, Kern, alongside National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald and the Rev. Laurel Dykstra, of the diocese of New Westminster, had arrived at Standing Rock on the invitation of Canon John Floberg, supervising priest for The Episcopal Church for the North Dakota side of Standing Rock.
On October 23, Floberg had called for “at least 100 clergy” to join him and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in resisting the construction of the pipeline. According to MacDonald, however, the actual number of responders was more than 500.
“They stopped counting at 524,” he chuckled. “This particular issue has caught the imagination of a lot of people.”
On November 3, the clergy assembled by the camp’s sacred fire, and all the denominations that had repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery-a group that includes both the Anglican Church of Canada and The Episcopal Church-reiterated their renunciation in front of the camp and its elders.
They then marched down to the Missouri River to hold an interdenominational and interfaith service for the “water protectors,” as the diverse group of protesters and activists at Standing Rock prefer to be called.
As the clergy made their way to the Missouri River, Kern said she could see Hummers, military jeeps and row upon row of police barricading the bridge; on the hills above, she had been told, there were snipers.
While there were no untoward incidents at the service (which the police had been informed of beforehand), Kern recalled seeing a number of injuries in her first day in camp, and had already heard stories about protesters being beaten with batons and shot by rubber bullets. Several news reports have described protesters being faced with sound cannons, beanbag guns and pepper spray.
But Kern also described a strong sense of spiritual fellowship oriented around prayer, worship and the sharing of food and resources.
“In the midst of such violence and over-the-top militarized brutality, such disrespect for life, there are people making these acts of beauty and love and kindness and goodness,” she said.
However, while Dykstra-the only non-Indigenous member of the Canadian delegation-also spoke of the camp’s hospitality and deep spiritual focus, she noted a stark difference between the way police treated her compared to the treatment Indigenous people received.
“Praying Indigenous water protectors were pepper sprayed, shot with beanbags and rubber bullets, dragged partially clad from a sweat lodge, assaulted with sound cannons and housed in dog kennels,” she said. “[The] mostly white faith leaders were offered the option of ticket or arrest, handled respectfully and physically unharmed.”
In an interview with MacDonald following his return to Toronto, he said it was “difficult to put into words” what the experience had been like for him.
“It’s rare to be in a place where the pain of the past and challenge of the future is so clearly present,” he said, noting that one of the reasons the Standing Rock resistance has garnered so much attention is because it is a “convergence” of human rights issues, Indigenous issues and environmental issues.
“I think that this has just captured the consciousness and conscience of people in a way that very few things have in recent times,” he said.
He noted that there are things Anglicans in other parts of North America and the world can do to support the Standing Rock camp.
Large solidarity protests have been held across Canada, including in cities such as Winnipeg and Toronto, and in Toronto, two Anglican priests chained themselves to a railing at the headquarters of the Toronto Dominion Bank to protest its role in funding the pipeline.
Several petitions have also been circulated online asking government and business leaders to respect the protesters’ requests.
MacDonald argued that the “primary issue” in the Standing Rock situation-as in similar protests against pipelines and resource development projects-is about the rights of Indigenous nations and tribes to have a say in what happens in their territories.
“I think it is critical that we demand that the free, prior and informed consent part of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples [UNDRIP] be a central part of the way in which both business and government deal with First Nations people,” he said. (Canada is a signatory to UNDRIP.)
For her part, Dykstra encouraged Canadian Anglicans to get to know the issues facing Indigenous people before crises such as the Dakota Access pipeline arise.
“Conflict [over development projects] will only continue, and so the more prepared we are, and the more pre-conversations we have with Indigenous communities about how they want faith communities to show up-if they want faith communities to show up-then the better capacity we have,” she said.
Dykstra, who was the Anglican Church of Canada’s representative on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) planning team for the Vancouver event in 2013, added that she has seen a “significant rise in awareness” about issues of Indigenous rights in recent years.
But she also noted that there is a danger of growing complacent now that the TRC has released its final report.
“I think we really need to be clear about what our commitment to the Calls to Action by the [TRC] actually mean on the ground,” she said.