Two lines, facing each other on a North
Dakota highway. On one side, concrete barriers protect a row of
armored vehicles and helmeted police with assault rifles. On the
other, a young man rides a white horse whose legs are stained with
blood. A woman, wearing a scarf to protect her lungs from tear gas,
wafts sage smoke over a boy to give him strength, wash away hate,
and remind him of his sacred purpose.
Here, on a highway stretching across
trampled prairie grass, the fundamental contest of our time is
The fundamental contest of our time
is playing out.
It’s a confrontation not only between two
groups of people, but between two world views. The space between the
lines vibrates with tensions of race, historical trauma, broken
treaties, money and politics, love and fear. But the underlying
issue that charges the air, mixing with the smells of tear gas and
sage, is the global contest between two deeply different ideas about
the true meaning of land.
On one side is the unquestioned
assumption that land is merely a warehouse of lifeless materials
that have been given to (some of) us by God or conquest, to use
without constraint. On this view, human happiness is best served by
whatever economy most efficiently transforms water, soils, minerals,
wild lives, and human yearning into corporate wealth. And so it is
possible to love the bottom line on a quarterly report so fiercely
that you will call out the National Guard to protect it.
On the other side of the concrete
barriers is a story that is so ancient it seems revolutionary. On
this view, the land is a great and nourishing gift to all beings.
The fertile soil, the fresh water, the clear air, the creatures,
swift or rooted: they require gratitude and veneration. These gifts
are not commodities, like scrap iron and sneakers. The land is
sacred, a living breathing entity, for whom we must care, as she
cares for us. And so it is possible to love land and water so
fiercely you will live in a tent in a North Dakota winter to protect
It may turn out that the cracks in that
stretch of two-lane highway mark a giant crack in time, when one set
of assumptions about reality snaps and is replaced by another. This,
like all times of paradigm shift, is an unsettled time, a time of
shouting and police truncheons, as privileged people defend the
assumptions that have served them royally.
What are they so afraid of out there in
North Dakota, that they arrest journalists, set dogs on women and
children, send prayerful protectors to jail and align para-military
force against indigenous people on their own homelands?
Everyone can join the people of
Standing Rock and say No.
Maybe they are afraid of the
truth-telling power of the people at Standing Rock and their
busloads of allies, who are making clear that we live in an era of
profound error that we mistakenly believe is the only way we can
live, an era of insanity that we believe is the only way we can
think. But once people accept with heart and mind that land is
our teacher, our mother, our garden, our pharmacy, our church, our
cradle and our grave, it becomes unthinkable to destroy it. This
vision threatens the industrial worldview more than anything else.
Indigenous people are saying, there are
honorable and enduring lifeways that beckon to people who are weary
Everyone can join the people of Standing
Rock and say No. No more wrecked land. No more oil spills. No
more poisoned wells. We don’t have to surrender the well-being of
communities to the profit of a few. We can say Yes. Yes, we
are all in this together. Yes, we can all stand on moral ground.
Yes, we can all be protectors of the water and protectors of the
silently watching future. The blockade on the highway is an
invitation to remember and reclaim who we might be — just and joyous
humans on a bountiful Earth. Right here, between the barricades, we
are offered a choice.
On the highway, a warrior steps around
the concrete barrier, offering a sage bundle that trails white
smoke. Approaching a figure in riot gear, he extends the blessing to
the officer, letting the smoke wash over him. To give him strength.
To wash away hate. To remind him of his purpose.