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American IndiansPublic Commentary

An Open Letter to the Heartland: Let’s Protect the Sacred Together

By February 11, 2013February 24th, 2018No Comments

Dear neighbors in America’s heartland,

On January 23-25, 2013, I had the privilege of representing Fast for the Earth at the “Protect the Sacred” gathering hosted by the Ihanktonwan Dakota in Pickstown, South Dakota. Their call for unified action to protect Unci Maka, or Grandmother Earth, brought together in solidarity an impressive group of native peoples and non-native allies. Together we commemorated the 150th anniversary of the historic 1863 peace treaty between the Ihanktonwan, Ponca and Pawnee Nations, and supported those nations as they updated that document’s language.

A key part of the new International Treaty to Protect the Sacred from Tar Sands Projects is a statement notifying President Obama and the U.S. Department of State that approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline would be a grave abrogation of native treaty rights. As Article V declares, “We affirm that our laws define our solemn duty and responsibility to our ancestors, to ourselves, and to future generations, to protect the lands and waters of our homelands, and we agree to mutually and collectively oppose tar sands projects which would impact our territories, including but not limited to the TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline, the Enbridge Northern Gateway, Enbridge lines nine (9) and sixty-seven (67), or the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline and tanker projects.”

During the three days when the treaty language was being hashed out by lawyers and leaders of the Nations, attendees were also working to strategize resistance to the Keystone XL. We came up with creative ideas on a wide variety of fronts: cultural, political, legal, spiritual, educational, direct action and more. We all agreed: We’ll probably need to do all of these, and then some, to stop the pipeline.

Faith Spotted Eagle at the Treaty-Signing Ceremony

My impression was that the “Protect the Sacred” gathering was a powerful experience for many who attended, native and non-native alike. As I heard various people saying during our last day together, “This is just the beginning,” and, “We have to keep doing this.”

What was the “this” to which they were referring? Was it only our resistance to the Keystone XL? I don’t believe so, although that is crucial. Was it our celebration of native lifeways and spirituality and history and community? I doubt it, although that, too, is extremely vital. (Indeed, I’m convinced that our immersion in native spirituality greatly facilitated and deepened the best of all that happened during the gathering.)

No, I believe that the “this” we have just begun, and which we must carry forward, is the work of healing–healing both among native peoples themselves, and between natives and non-natives. I know that the word “healing” may sound overblown and presumptuous, but it’s the only word that seems to fit. Forgive me if I overstate things, but at times during the gathering there were some truly wondrous dynamics moving in the circle, beyond my ability to put into words.

Allow me to offer an example. One afternoon, around 20 non-native landowners (most, if not all, from Nebraska and South Dakota) spoke to the gathering about their reasons for opposing Keystone XL. They were men and women, ranchers and farmers, most probably aged 50-75. One by one the landowners stood in the circle and sometimes with great emotion described their love of the land, their gratitude for a way of life it made possible, and their practice of caring for its resources. They briefly sketched their families’ history on the land, and conveyed their hope to bequeath the land in as pristine a condition as possible to their children and grandchildren. Some also acknowledged the history of native peoples on the land, still evidenced on their properties by stone markings, prayer circles, burial sites, traces of native villages, and more.

With great passion the landowners further expressed how betrayed they feel by their elected officials, at every level of government–public servants who, rather than defending the rights and livelihoods of their constituents, have consistently advocated for the profits of Big Oil and Big Business. They told how bullied they feel by TransCanada and its agents. One rancher related how a land agent had tried to intimidate him, saying, “We took this land from the Indians. We can easily take it from you.”

It’s amazing to see a tough old rancher weep, or a weather-beaten farmer get choked up, especially in front of a predominantly native crowd. And it’s amazing to see native people tearing up in recognition of a white landowner’s pain, or trying to console a distraught farmwife through the kindness of touch. Somehow in these precious moments we were transcending the rifts of history. We had come together against a common threat, were uniting in common cause, and now were discovering, to some degree anyway, our common humanity.

When all the landowners had spoken, many native people responded with strong words of support and understanding. I can best remember the words of a Ponca woman, an elder. I can’t quote her exactly, but this is a close paraphrase: “Now you know. Now you know how we felt so long ago when the government took our land, and drove us off. You know how disconnected we felt (banished from our homeland) from our way of life, and how cut off we felt from our ancestors. You know how sad we were that we couldn’t pass on the land and our ways to our children.” She concluded, very calmly but very firmly, “You white landowners are the new Indians.” 

You white landowners are the new Indians.

Everybody sitting in that council circle got it. You could feel it. Those words held immense power.

During the gathering, exchanges like these were not isolated incidents. And when it finally ended, and I headed home across the prairie in the dark and extreme cold of night, I was full of undeniable hope. I had a deep conviction that together, we people of the heartland can resist the Keystone XL and make life mighty hard for TransCanada and Big Oil. I had a deep conviction that we can do incredible things to protect Unci Maka. And I had a profound conviction that, if we can only prove wise enough to grasp it, we have an historic opportunity to promote the healing of gaping wounds between the native peoples and the non-native settlers (i.e., colonizers) of Middle America.

As I drove eastward, the stars were brilliant above me, and the moon hovered immediately before me, bathing the quiet landscape in bluish-white light. And I remembered how the same Ponca truthsayer who had identified the “new Indians” had reminded us during the last hours of the gathering, “This struggle will be long and hard. But we are not alone. We are the Star People. We come from the stars, and the stars are always with us, helping us. And Moon Woman is above us, shining down.”

Of this I have no doubt. No doubt whatsoever.

Neighbors in the heartland, let’s rise up to protect the sacred together. Let’s protect Mitakuye Owasin, “all our relations.” Let’s protect treaty rights and property rights and human rights and nature’s rights. Let’s protect the “holy land” of the native peoples–e.g., the spiritual corridor of the Oceti Ŝakowiŋ, the People of the Seven Council Fires–that TransCanada’s pipeline construction would destroy. Let’s protect the land and the water and the air that all of us need to survive. Let’s protect Earth’s ability to sustain all creatures; indeed, to sustain life itself. 

There is no place where the Sacred is not. The Sacred has no boundaries, no limits.

It’s just that some of us–all too many of us–have forgotten, and need some powerful reminding.

Deep peace,

Phyllis Cole-Dai
Co-Founder, Fast for the Earth

Phyllis Cole-Dai

Phyllis Cole-Dai has authored or edited eleven books in multiple genres, including historical fiction, spiritual nonfiction and poetry. She lives in Brookings, South Dakota, USA.

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