Coming Home: A Story from Standing Rock

Oceti Sakowin Camp December, 2016
"Welcome home!" The young man greets me as I stop and check in at the entrance to the Oceti Sakowin camp. Home? Here? I'm thinking: didn't I just leave home two days and 1500 miles ago to come by bus and rental car to this place of prayer to protect water and peacefully protest the Dakota Access Pipeline? But in my heart I know that what the young man says is true. I have come home.

Could it be that my heart remembers this land? Gently rolling prairie that stretches to distant horizons in every direction. And wind -- unceasing, unrelenting wind. I recall the days I spent at the Rosebud reservation near here decades ago as an advisor with the youth group from the Swarthmore Presbyterian Church. We called it "work camp," but Father Noah Brokenleg had other ideas. "Here's what you do when you're out here," he said: "Find your small but important place in creation and find beauty in the commonplace." So that was our "work camp." Few activities were ever scheduled; we learned a new sense of time; we went on long walks and played in the open landscape until it grew inside us -- somewhere deep inside us. It's still there, deep inside me. Home.

The young man at the entrance asks if I have brought anything shameful with me -- any alcohol, drugs, or weapons. All I have is a tiny vial of water from Dayspring Creek for a little ceremonial exchange here at the banks of the Cannonball River. Mni Wiconi they say here; water is life. With others here at Dayspring I've been a water protector for decades. Here at this camp I join these other water protectors -- thousands of them -- from hundreds of different tribes, alongside indigenous ones from overseas, and non-natives of many colors. Teepees, tents, and vans stretch out before me in all directions. We all have come here to honor the sacredness of water, and to protect the water from the danger of oil pipelines by making one big prayer. Joined in prayer, we have come home.
  Along US12 between Mobridge and McLaughin, SD
Later on I find myself shuttling some native young people to the tribe's casino resort nearby for showers and shopping at the little store. A 19 year old girl who has been here for over three months tells me she was arrested back in October. She was part of a group in a prayer circle beneath a teepee frame at the pipeline construction site. It was beautiful until the police came, until the one subduing her put one knee on the back of her neck and the other knee in the small of her back, and now she has a herniated disk. It's keeping her from returning to learn construction work with her grandfather back in Wyoming.

As we stop to take some others back to the camp with us, she gets out to help an older woman walking with a cane get into the resort and then into her room. While waiting for her to return, I remember a picture of a prayer teepee I had earlier found online and put in my journal. I get out my journal, find the image, and when she returns, I hand her the journal. Holding my journal she looks at the image, points to a figure at prayer, and says, "That's me in the gray sweatshirt." A warmth rises in my chest like an ember glowing hot from a gust of wind: mystery has dreamed this moment into being.

She plans to stay in the camp through the winter, maybe continuing to help direct traffic at the exit gate. "It's my home now," she says. I ask her name. "It's Little Wind," she says. And, "yes," she says; she is from the Wind River Range in Wyoming.

Outside on this December late afternoon the wind is not little. It's still blowing at 25 mph on average with higher gusts, as it has for the last two days. Wild and fierce and thoroughly chilling. The temperature hovers near zero.

We say that we have come to protect the water, and we have. Important work. But something else is happening here. When we protect, defend, and restore creation, something of our own humanity is restored. It's reciprocal. Like me, an elder taking kids from the camp to the resort and back, giving gratitude and encouragement to the young for what they are doing here. Like Little Wind jumping out to help an older lady all the way to her room. Our humanity is being restored.

And that wind, you know. It's a spiritual thing, a spiritual force to be reckoned with. It blows day and night; it never stops. It tells me things. Go to where the wild wind blows. Bring the ember glowing deep inside you. Be a true elder.

As we enter into a new and altogether scary time in our country, I take heart in the spaciousness of this prairie land. I take heart in all those who are still finding their small but important place in creation. I take heart in those who are still finding beauty in the commonplace. And I take heart in all those who welcome us home.

Jim Hall, December 2016
Way Upstream
A Story From Rolling Ridge
And so I returned to the river; I returned to the mountain, and I asked for their hand in marriage. I begged, I begged, to wed every object and creature. And when they accepted, God was ever present in my arms.
- Meister Eckhart
Early one warm, "Indian summer" day in late September I set out to return to the river. In my mind I see the steep valley, hear the waterfall, know just the rock where I will sit letting the splashing water caress my feet. We are already married, this river and I, and I long to return to my love.

Walking along the old rutted gravel road I find the place where the path to the waterfall begins. Through the open woods I go, fallen leaves crackling beneath my feet until I begin to descend into the steep-walled valley. I pause, sensing that something is not quite right. Listening intently I hear nothing -- no falling water splashing on rocks below -- not a single note of river song. Curious now, uneasy, I pick up my pace on the narrow path, then drop down the steep slope hanging on tree by tree, till I reach the rocky bed of the river.

The riverbed is dry; not a drop of water is there. A few feet up the riverbed I see a flat place with a puddle a foot or two wide, an inch of water covering its silty bottom. Ten feet below me, between two huge boulders is a smaller puddle. The rest -- rocks, gravel, sand -- is bone dry. Dead branches, sticks and leaves are packed in here and there among the rocks, remnants of some earlier day when the river surged with life.

Tears from my eyes fall to the dry riverbed, and I cry out -- The river is gone, it's all gone! Am I too late? Have I waited too long to come back? Having returned to the river, I am suddenly filled with longing for the river to return to me. "Come back, please, come back," I cry, but the river is not coming back. Not now, maybe not ever.

I wonder, what's happening further upstream? Words from a wise rabbi at a Watershed Conference I once attended come to mind. She said," We work way upstream; we work at the level of soul." I will go upstream.

Scrambling back up the steep slope I reach the path and head out of the valley. Back on the gravel road, I walk uphill , onto another road, then onto a path that takes me down a steep grade and back to the river, now but a creek, where the path crosses a shallow ford. I have never been able to cross this ford without getting my feet wet -- until today. Today I stand on rocks that are dry, and I bend over, look down and listen. I hear nothing, but notice a tiny trickle of water flowing down between the rocks.

Filled with anticipation, I make my way upstream along the creek, through briars and over fallen logs, until I see a small pool of open water, just big enough to step in. Taking off my shoes and socks, I put one foot after the other into the clear, cold water. The flaky gravel feels rough against my feet as they sink down a little, and the water begins to cover some of my toes. I take a deep breath and sigh. The river is still here.

Bending over I examine the neighborhood around my feet. The flakes of gravel are light tan and shinny. At one edge of the gravel pool dark green strands of algae float downstream from a rock to which they are attached. Some slime is caught in the algae and in an effort to clean it up, I brush it off with a stick. The blob of slime floats out into the little pool of water toward my feet. I see something in it that looks like a leg. And then another. Frog legs. It's a dead frog at an advanced stage of decomposition. A brief wave of nausea passes through me. I have never seen this before. What is happening to this river?

I have returned to the river only to find it dry beyond belief downstream, and now I find this decomposing dead frog! Is it all dry and dead and dying?

My eye catches a flash of movement at another edge of the gravel pool, just by a submerged stick. It's a crayfish, less than an inch long, translucent, darting in and out from under the stick, paying no attention to the remnant of frog or to my feet. Nearby I see a small piece of stick resting on the gravel. I poke at it with my stick ,and it moves. A baby minnow. Right here in this dying river filled with death, there is yet a spark of life. I wonder if it is the prayers of little crayfish and baby minnow that are somehow keeping this river alive, crying out like me for the river's return.

It is growing late in the afternoon, but I have time to travel just a little further upstream. With a thread of renewed hope, I crawl over fallen trees, skirt huge boulders, and pick my way carefully through patches of greenbriar. From time to time I stop and listen, hear nothing, and move on. As the valley narrows appreciably, steep rock walls on either side now closing in on me, I stop again and listen. And then I hear a soft, barely perceptible sound, a low gurgle from deep beneath the rocks. And then a second sound, a tenor tremolo from somewhere hidden, just upstream. I pause for a long moment listening to the soft, unwavering song, sweet and pure. The river flows still, sings its heartsong into my heart.

I know there is more to discover further upstream. What is here right now is enough for today, as the late afternoon light begins to fade. On another day I will go further upstream. Maybe I will find the place where the water seeps forth from deep below ground, bubbles forth into this world from another deeper world. Maybe I will find the place way upstream at the level of soul of which the Rabbi spoke.

On the day on which I find that place, I will draw some of that water to my heart. I will return to my people with its story. I will tell them about the water of life that still flows from deep within the earth, beyond our knowing. And I will tell them that however desperate things seem to us, little crayfish and baby minnow are praying, and that will be enough.

Jim Hall, September 2015
That the Earth May Be Sacred Again:
The Story of Jenny's Tree
If you walk up the small rise of hill just beyond the "Lake of the Saints" at Dayspring, to the wooden bench that looks out over the water and the open fields, you will be standing under the branches of Jenny's tree.

In the opening chapter of her book, The New Community, Elizabeth O'Connor tells the story of the little girl, Jenny Dodge, and of the little stick of a tree she liked to water when it grew in a pot on her back porch. Elizabeth tells of the strange symptoms that began to appear when Jenny was two years old and of the tumor that medical tests found growing on Jenny's brain stem. Elizabeth tells of the way Jenny's illness, her surgical treatment, and then her death brought new life and healing to the community who knew and loved her:
In those weeks the mortally wounded child became to many of us spiritual director, priest and prophet, connecting us to that which was deepest in ourselves. . .In those weeks we discovered that we were indeed members one of the other--that Jenny was child of ours--that our love would last forever. . .

The little maple sapling planted as a memorial to Jenny's life now stands 35 feet tall with a full and spreading canopy of leaves in season; a sturdy tree, a good climbing tree, and for many of the children I work with at Dayspring, a sacred place.
In a Bill Moyers' interview I heard several years ago on PBS, Audrey Shenandoah, an Onondaga clan mother and elder, tells of her work with young children and the ways she is teaching them about the earth. She tells the story of asking the children what the word sacred means. Do they know something in their lives that is sacred?

For many of the children, she says, the answer is two words: my mother. She goes on to say that in the experience and understanding of native North American peoples, the earth is like a mother to us, providing us with food, clothing, shelter, beauty and wisdom; nourishing both body and soul. For native North American peoples, she explains, the earth has always been known as sacred.
If I had to name the one single thing that lies at the core of all the work I have done for the past ten years with children and adults at Dayspring--the walks and outdoor explorations, stream monitoring Dayspring Creek, the liturgies celebrated under an open sky, the classes and workshops, the times spent tending the vegetable garden or planting native wildflower seeds--it would be to come to know the earth, God's creation, as sacred.In the language of my Christian faith I would say it this way:The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, the world and they that dwell therein.

We must come to know in our bones that the eastern box turtle and the red fox, the eastern bluebird and my soon to be born grandchild, all belong to what Thomas Berry has described as a single sacred community of life.

In the times in which we live, there is no deeper work of the soul than this--to come to know the very special, unique role and destiny we human ones have to fulfill within a world which is sacred in every detail.In the fall of 2001, as I was reflecting on my work with children at Dayspring, I was asking myself what I could do that would address the sorrow all of us were experiencing and the need for comfort and hope.
I decided to tell them the stories of certain particular trees at Dayspring--how and when and why they had been planted--and then to walk with them to the hillside above the lake and tell them the story of Jenny Dodge and her maple tree.

I knew it was a risky thing. Would they be overwhelmed by the story of one so young and her illness and death? But I have learned over the years to trust the most tender, alive and growing things in my own soul. Jenny's tree has been a sacred place for me for twenty years of walks and wanderings at Dayspring. It became sacred to me through Elizabeth's story and my own direct experience of the place.
So we set out on a sunny, cool November morning with Elizabeth's book and a mid-morning snack tucked in my backpack. After visiting the newest evergreen trees planted along Neelsville Church Road--trees which many of us had in our homes as living Christmas trees the preceding Christmas, we went to the lake and Mait Flood's Bradford Pear tree, and then to the wooden bench and Jenny's maple tree.
I told the story of Jenny, of the little tree she watered on her back porch, of her illness and her parent's struggle, of her surgeries and her death. We looked at the pictures in Elizabeth's book. We talked about the story and the children asked a few questions. Then, for a small time, there was only the wind in the oak trees at the edge of the woods and the sound of geese splashing down into the open water.

Can we climb up into the tree? one child asked.

I took a look at the trunk and decided I could boost them up one at a time onto safe perches. "Not too high," I called after the first climber.

I can see the farmhouse, one child yelled. Wow, I can see everything! another shouted from the branches.

After a time they came down and sat on the bench. We ate our snack and one of the girls asked if she could find a rock and put it under the bench.

What's the rock for? I asked.
This is my sacred place, she said, I want to be able to come back here and find my rock.

It is a simple ritual, a kind of tangible prayer, I have witnessed often in various places at Dayspring as the children have taught me the meaning of the word sacred.

For these children there are many such sacred places now at Dayspring--Jenny's tree, the ledges, falls and pools of Dayspring Creek, Bud's sycamore tree at Merton Pond. It is my intention and hope that the whole 206 acres will become for them-- through story and direct, lived experience--what it has always been: sacred.

And if Dayspring can become a sacred place for our children--all our children--in the scattered communities of the Church of the Saviour, in the inner city missions, and in the suburban housing developments that surround Dayspring--then the earth in other places, may also become sacred again. And the earth and the children of the earth will be woven together, through story and lived experience, into one single sacred community of life.

--Cheryl Hellner