- Mountains And Waters
I spent the weekend at Winyan Awanyankapi,“Protecting the Lifegivers” – a conference about missing and murdered indigenous women. While there were painful stories, my experience was more about healing and hope – and connecting with people of like heart.
Something important happened for me, that I want to share. I was in a workshop by Phyllis Cole-Dai, author of the new novel about the 1862 U.S.-Dakota war, Beneath the Same Stars, well-researched and highly recommended – and by Darlene Renville-Pipeboy, a Dakota elder who became her advisor on language, history, and culture.
The Dakota people remember a story from the time when women, children, and old people were imprisoned on the river flats below Fort Snelling on the flats along the river. After a forced march to the camp, they had been imprisoned there all winter with little warmth, minimal food, much disease and no medical care, frequent rape and occasional gunshots by the soldiers supposedly protecting them. Once during this time the women went and danced together at the stockade gate, led by an elder with a hand drum. Suddenly the chains fell off the gates, the gates swung open, and they could see the Mdote – the sacred land where the two rivers came together, the land where they had lived and once been free. Everything changed in that moment, even as the soldiers rushed to close the gates again.
Phyllis asked us this question:
“What would it mean to dance at the stockade gates in this time?”
That question stirred up something in my heart. Some others felt it too, we’ll be having an email conversation, and you’re invited to join us.
The answer cannot be given, only lived. Yet I have some thoughts, guesses actually, that might be helpful.
The women, imprisoned and starving, gathered together to do sacred dance and prayer in their tradition. They did it together. They didn’t rush the gates. I don’t think they expected the chains to fall. But the gates opened, they saw Life outside, and Life gave them heart again.
They were all women. I don’t know whether it was a women’s dance they did; there were very few men in the stockades. I’m guessing that a dance including all genders would be equally powerful, perhaps different.
The story reminds me of some actions that are becoming part of the new tradition of protecting water and land – an indigenous-led tradition. Build a healing camp in the path of a pipeline (Unistoten Camp, British Columbia). Meditate and pray outside a prison when an execution will take place. (San Quentin, California). Pray, make offerings, create a community life, in the path of death (Standing Rock, Unistoten, and many more). Do a sacred walk through the land that is slated for destruction (how many now? Sharon Day leads a Water Walk every year. Compassionate Earth Walk was one of dozens or hundreds.) Plant sacred corn in the path of the pipeline (the Ponca tribe and Bold Nebraska). I want to include the valve turners – simply turning off the flow of oil, then staying for the arrest, seems like a sacred act of its own kind.
Do sacred acts in the face of violence. In the place where you may be imprisoned, killed, or worse for doing them. Dance the sacred, pray, return our own humanity to proper relationship with the earth, through the offering of dance and ceremony, and the chains of imprisonment drop away.
Those of us at less risk because of our white skins or other privilege – what possibility opens to us, when we consider dancing at the gates?
At first, this question stopped me from action. I don’t feel imprisoned. Limited, yes, by my early training in how to be a woman, and by the sexist discrimination that still exists – and yet as an older white woman I move pretty freely in the industrial growth society. This society, here in the United States, North America. (One measure of how much I’m not a target is how easy it is to go through airport security. Or to interact with police.) Am I inside the stockade? How dare I claim the right to dance to oppression.
And yet – I face climate change along with everyone, though later than many. And I could become a target easily enough, if I broke more openly with industrial growth society. For me the fantasy of benevolent government and unconditional safety disappeared in the 1970’s, when I started paying attention. Yes, I am inside the stockade along with my red, brown, and black sisters and brothers, along with my queer and trans siblings, along with Muslims and ecoterrorists and refugees. I actually doubt anyone is outside, though some are guarding the gates or profiting – but that’s a different discussion.
What does it mean to dance at the gates? It’s a Zen koan, a question for study, not something that can be answered once. I’m making words to cultivate the ground on which our lives make the answer.
When I “bought” this land, I sought a place of sanctuary, where you can actually feel the sacredness of the earth. It’s not noticeably threatened by pipeline, mining even development – yet could be easily damaged by zoning changes or even the neighbors. It’s both fragile and privileged. Yet it’s a moment of safety, just as an urban church basement or community hall can offer a safe spot for our gatherings. It’s meant to be a place to learn and listen, to discover/remember what the dance of this place is – without copying or stealing. I imagine the women at the stockade gates danced a way known for centuries. I dream that here and now we might open our hearts and bodies to the voice and movement of the earth.
So we learn to dance and pray together, we honor the sacred together, we get very deep in dancing the dance of holy life together, and then we dance in the face of the enemy, the frozen face of unlife, whatever that may be. What walls imprison us, what gates are there?
My wish is to come together first, in a sacred manner. Together we can find out the nature of the dance and where it belongs. We will be told. I believe that.
If this calls you, please let me know.