As the sun shone down on a relatively mild 30-degree North Dakota winter Sunday, words of prayer, solidarity, and song rolled over more than 500 people of faith, including close to 200 Unitarian Universalists, who had gathered at Standing Rock’s Oceti Sakowin camp.
Filling the air for two and a half hours on December 4, the words mingled with the sounds of nearby helicopters and the scents of burning sage and the camp’s central fire. Then Chief Arvol Looking Horse, who had issued the nationwide call to this Interfaith Day of Prayer, guided the clergy and laypeople into a human chain, encircling Oceti Sakowin.
“I remember feeling this tension in my shoulders as I was reaching for other people,” says Terri Burnor, a candidate for Unitarian Universalist ministry from St. Paul, Minnesota. Not long after the circle dispersed, she heard the news spreading through the camp: the Army Corps of Engineers had denied Energy Transfer Partners an easement to dig under Lake Oahe, blocking completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline. With this unexpected turn of events, the camp broke into a minutes-long celebratory cheer.
The news and the Interfaith Day of Prayer came just one day ahead of a December 5 deadline to evacuate the camp set by the Army Corps of Engineers and the governor of North Dakota in late November. Oceti Sakowin is one camp in a tiny community of camps that have sprung up at Standing Rock since last spring to protest the 1,170-mile oil pipeline stretching from North Dakota to Illinois. In the ensuing months, members of other Native tribes, environmentalists, veterans, and people of faith have joined the Standing Rock Sioux water protectors. They say the current path endangers the area’s drinking water and, if completed, would desecrate sacred tribal land.
Many of the UUs at Sunday’s Interfaith Day of Prayer began the day about 45 miles away, at the Bismarck-Mandan Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Bismarck, North Dakota. “There was this giant gathering of people at our church,” says Ronya Hoblit, a member of the congregation who is an Oglala Lakota.
On the way to the camp, “we sang and reflected on the beauty of the land and buttes in the snow,” says the Rev. Karen Van Fossan, minister of the congregation. “It was just such a glorious morning.”
UUs say that Sunday at Standing Rock felt beautiful in a way unlike any other place, at the intersection of Native rights, environmental concern, and community. “There were people everywhere. It was energetic, and there were people of every race, ethnicity, and gender present,” says the Rev. Harlan Limpert, the chief operating officer of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Limpert was the UUA’s senior representative at the event.
UUs at the prayer service felt a powerful spectrum of thirty-five faith traditions, including Judaism, Cherokee, Pagan, Baptist, Methodist, Lakota, Sufi, Mormon, United Church of Christ, Druid, Hindu, and others, according to Van Fossan. She knows because she coordinated event publicity and logistics with Johnnie Aseron, an Oceti Sakowin camp organizer. Aseron reached out to Native American tribes and nations, while Van Fossan led outreach to all other people of faith, with Unitarian Universalism as the hub. The two coordinated at the request of Chief Arvol Looking Horse.
“I said yes because of the deep respect that I have for Standing Rock and the prayerful heart of the camp,” Van Fossan says. And she did so, she says, confident that the Minnesota Unitarian Universalist Social Justice Alliance (MUUSJA), Standing on the Side of Love, and others would continue to provide whatever support Standing Rock needs.
As people from across the United States answered that call, Oceti Sakowin’s population swelled, likely to more than 5,000 people, Van Fossan estimates, including some 2,500 veterans who arrived for a December 5 event.
The leadership that brought the Interfaith Day of Prayer to fruition—both the months-long Native leadership that fostered a particular camp culture and Van Fossan’s steady presence—left as much of an impact as the event itself.
“Indigenous people are firmly in the lead here,” says the Rev. Dr. Michelle Walsh, a lecturer in social work at Boston University.
The experience felt new to the Rev. Karen Brammer, minister at Fourth Unitarian Society of Westchester in Mohegan Lake, New York, who traveled to North Dakota in late November and stayed on for the day of prayer. “We were clearly partnering and the Native relationship was so clear and so strong,” she says. “I have experienced a sense of camaraderie in the past, but this site was unique.”
The Rev. Fred Small, minister for climate justice at Boston’s Arlington Street Church, echoed this sentiment and praised Van Fossan. “I was just powerfully impressed by Karen Van Fossan’s leadership,” he says. “It was very clear that she places the needs of the indigenous activists and Standing Rock first. She comes with an ethos of public service, from a place of humility and listening.”
That low-profile ethos began after Hoblit first visited the camp in April. “If there were ten people, there were a lot,” she says of the movement’s beginnings. Shortly thereafter, Hoblit stood up during a Sunday service, asking her congregation of 60 people if they could donate some paper towels to the first water protectors. They did. And the help has grown exponentially.
“All of a sudden, someone donated a yurt; I mean, who does that?” Hoblit chuckles. A friend of the congregation indeed raised nearly enough money to purchase a yurt, with the congregation raising more than $5,000 to cover the rest of the cost, plus a heater and lumber.
That interfaith yurt has become part of Oceti Sakowin camp. It is one of the few structures there sturdy enough, just insulated enough, to withstand the winter ahead, should water protectors and their allies decide to stay, according to the Rev. Ashley Horan, executive director of MUUSJA, who was in Standing Rock last weekend.
With Sunday’s cheers of joy still echoing, UU Standing Rock allies were asking what’s next.
Brammer says she hopes that the kinds of donations that funded a Faithify campaign to bring Van Fossan’s position from half-time to full-time until the end of December will continue to roll in. “The work of Standing Rock is not going to go back to half-time,” Brammer says.
Moving forward, “I want to share with Unitarian Universalists in Massachusetts my own experience of the Standing Rock community,” Small says. “I also feel a responsibility to support indigenous struggles closer to home.”
Like others, Hoblit experienced Sunday’s decision—however long a victory lasts—as a pivotal moment nothing short of historic, thanks in large part to Standing Rock youth. “Those kids, those young people; they’re going to change the narrative,” she says. “Indigenous groups from around the world know what this looks like. We’ve showed them what this looks like.”
With blizzards burying Standing Rock in snow this week, Energy Transfer Partners has already asked a federal judge to allow the company to continue building without further study; the hearing is scheduled for Friday, December 9. Dave Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux, urged protesters to return to their homes for the winter in a statement December 6. “We deeply appreciate all the people who supported us with their presence,” he said, “but when this storm passes, it is time to dismantle the camp and return to our homes.”
In a letter distributed by UUA’s Standing on the Side of Love campaign, Limpert said, “The Water Protectors have demanded NO Dakota Access Pipeline, which means for those of us who seek to show up in solidarity, our work and organizing will continue. We may be called to return again. But I hope yesterday’s win at Standing Rock marks the beginning of further sustained solidarity with Native-led organizing toward sovereignty and autonomy.”
As she waits for events to unfold, Van Fossan knows what’s next for her: “Maintaining a practice to listen to Native nations, listening to those who protect the water, whatever their background,” she says.
An earlier version of this story did not include the institutional affiliation of the Rev. Dr. Michelle Walsh.