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O My America: Standing Rock

Lawrence Bush
December 1, 2016

by Lawrence Bush

YES, I’VE BEEN to North Dakota — as a tourist. I’ve camped in Teddy Roosevelt National Park and seen a bull snake that was five feet long. I’ve been in Fargo and I’ve been through Bismark and I’ve seen Native American poverty from my car window. When I was there, it was a “nothing happening here” place of prairie land, a pass-through state. The shale oil and gas boom was still two decades away.

Two months ago I shipped a carton of winter coats and clothing to the Standing Rock encampment, where thousands of people are now protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline and the serious threats it poses to water and environmental safety and to indigenous peoples’ culture and autonomy. (If you haven’t been following this struggle in the news, here is a good place to start.) Some 2,000 veterans are scheduled to arrive there as “human shields” beginning on December 4th.

I have friends and acquaintances who have done a lot more than ship clothing to North Dakota. Here are excerpts from accounts written by a few of them:


Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, director of the Social Justice Organizing Program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and a board member of The Shalom Center in Philadelphia, wrote this at the Shalom Center website on October 21:

We are camped at the confluence of the Missouri and Cannonball Rivers, with high winds and sub-freezing night-time temperatures, preparing for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. Why did I, a rabbi and son of Holocaust survivors, travel to the Standing Rock encampment to support Native Nations in halting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipe Line (DAPL)?

This pipeline is slated to carry Bakken Crude Shale Oil, fracked in North Dakota, beneath 200 different waterways to a refinery in Chicago. The original plans called for it to cross under the Missouri River close to Bismarck, ND. The local (white Euro-American) leadership objected and the Army Corps of Engineers decided to reroute it through lands sacred to the Lakota Nation. The Nations have claimed in several law suits that the Army Corp did not go through the legally required consultation process. The courts initially ruled in favor of the Army Corps, but the Obama administration has intervened to call for a halt in construction twenty miles on either side of the sacred grounds until the consultation process is completed.

. . . The Native Peoples are defining themselves as water protectors and not as protestors. The Missouri River provides drinking water to 18 million people. No man-made thing lasts forever, pipelines routinely leak. It is not a question of if, but of when this pipeline will leak. They are protecting the water; their call is “Water is Life.” I have come to understand that they are fighting for all of us. They are first and foremost protecting the Earth and are on the frontline against global warming, willing to risk their lives. It would be fully consistent with American history for some Native leaders to be murdered in these actions.

Every day at the camp there is two-hour non-violent training session. On a day that I attended there were over 50 people, mostly new arrivals from the Comanche Nation in Oklahoma. It was repeatedly stressed that this is non-violent, peaceful action and that is under the rubric of Ceremony. The primary mode of action is going to the construction sites and praying. Women are asked to wear long skirts, as this is ceremony, and that for those who need one there is a sewing machine and fabric available to make one.

There are about 40 teepees and hundreds of tents at Standing Rock, housing about 1500 people. Over 300 Native Nations have sent representatives at different times in this unprecedented show of unity. Each time a delegation arrives they are invited to the main circle to share a dance and a sacred song. The challenge now is how to winterize for the brutal North Dakota winter.

Several times during Yom Kippur we collectively confess a long list of misdeeds against other. It is always we have stolen, we have lied, we have spoken slander, and the list goes on, but never “I” alone. It acknowledges that we all make mistakes and that each of us bears responsibility. We intone throughout the day the compassionate qualities of the Divine as we pray for forgiveness for our transgressions against other people. White America has stolen, lied and spoken slander about Native Nations for over 500 years.

This year Yom Kippur is October 12 the original Columbus Day. . .

The original sin of White America is racism, its first victims were the Native People and it has never stopped. By any measure they are the poorest, least educated and least healthy of any group in our country. America must atone for the ongoing genocide of our First Inhabitants, genocide is legally defined as the intentional destruction of a people and that is what the policies and practices have been intended to do.

How to atone for the pain inflicted on others that we did not directly cause, but benefit from? In Judaism the deepest form of atonement is to change our actions, next best is by doing our best to make sure that when the situation arises again we will act differently; each are accompanied by reparations for the harm we have done. We cannot change our lives to stop benefitting from the systemic and institutional oppression of Native People. We can act to change the situation.


This comes from Jewish Currents readers Josh Freeman and Patricia Kelly, who cut short their Thanksgiving holiday to drive from Chicago to North Dakota to assist as medics:

Long ride, with many miles of fog, then snow. Past the road closed sign. Then the encampment comes into sight. Flags, banners, people walking in the road. At the main entry, a check point with signs for no alcohol or drugs, no pictures, we are directed to the medical tent -- straight down and to the left. Past multiple cars, tents of all descriptions, everyone dressed for warmth (oh, I forgot to mention, it’s really cold. And windy). It’s really quite the sight.

The medical tent is a mishmash. About 20 feet in circumference, with supplies in messy boxes and cases around the edge and a few white plastic lawn chairs for patients. With a table in back for patients who need to lay down or providers. We were told to not change the order of anything. We missed the daily noontime medic orientation, and were told that if we were staying for [only] seven days they could not use us. This to us and an ER nurse from California. But there was an ER doc here for a few days and no one to cover last night. . . .I’m pretty sure that policy and practice can differ here. Because we were promptly volunteered to work tonight 8pm to 8am. Sure, no problem.

There are four cook tents with fabulous food. Tonight, we went over and had moose meatloaf and tapenade, cheesy vegetables, fresh pineapple for desert. Really great.

So we are sleeping in the medical tent, which is a yurt full of medicines in plastics bins and a few chairs to see folks. Mostly respiratory problems, aggravated by the cold and wood smoke. Minor injuries. Strep. Someone gave us brand new sleeping bags. There is a larger ‘warming’ tent where Josh is now. I’m in medical tent with an ER nurse from California. Hopefully, the night will be calm.

Oh, did I mention that it’s snowing? And that the people are great.

Patricia and Josh are family friends with Sophia Wilansky, a volunteer at Standing Rock who had much of her arm torn off by a concussion grenade thrown by police during a confrontation between the Morton County Sheriff’s Office and the encampment’s Water Protectors on November 20th (Wilansky also had wounds from rubber bullets). Sophia had been at Standing Rock for three weeks. She was ultimately flown to Minneapolis, where she underwent nine hours of surgery to save her arm. Here’s an interview with her father, Wayne Wilansky, who followed up on November 23rd with a call to President Obama to halt the pipeline’s construction.

And Bernie Sanders, an early supporter of the protests, has called on Obama to turn the site into a protected federal monument. Here’s what Sanders had to say about Standing Rock in his November 29th interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now:

Number one, we’re dealing with sovereignty rights for Native American people, an invasion of their own property, in violation of treaty rights, which is an endemic problem in this country. Number two, you’re talking about an area where, if the pipe bursts, water, clean water that goes to millions of people in that region, could be severely impacted, at a time when we’re all concerned about the amount of clean water that we have. And thirdly, and most importantly perhaps, you’re talking about whether or not we should be in any way supporting a pipeline which is piping in filthy oil at a time when we need to transform our energy system away from fossil fuel to energy efficiency and sustainable energy. So those are the three issues there.

I think what we have done is, number one, demanded that the president do what he did with Keystone. A lot of people put a lot of pressure on the president, and he finally did the right thing. And that is to kill the Keystone pipeline, which, by the way, under a Trump may be reopened again. But that is what he should be doing. And certainly, the demand must go to the North Dakota authorities that the kind of military presence that exists there is simply not what is acceptable. So, we have written to the president. We are going to continue to put pressure on the president to do everything he can to protect the Native Americans in the area and the protesters in the area.

I urge readers to send me accounts that they have from Jews participating in the protest — and to send winter clothes and supplies. (Here’s the website with a list of needed supplies of the largest encampment.) Standing Rock is an incredibly well-organized protest movement that is setting a model for cross-cultural outreach.

Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.