Carol Lakota Eastin, Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference
It was a three-hour ride from Spirit Lake Ministry Center to visit the Water Protectors Camp at Standing Rock. Our bus was filled with Native American youth and leaders who had gathered to make life better. This trip was a deviation from our original plan, but seemed to have been preordained. We passed through the police blockade, which tested our intentions, and through the Indian Warrior blockade, which tested our spirit. The road led us to the crest of a hill, where we saw the camp spread out before us, a site that would remind us of the former glory of the Dakota people, and reveal to us the present glory of all who had gathered to protect the water. Tipis were scattered between tents and campers, cars in the parking lot were near horses in their corrals, rows of nearly two hundred tribal flags lined the pathway, and the Missouri River running clean made this life possible. “Mni Wiconi” (“Water is Life”) was the rallying cry written on t-shirts and banners.
The excitement among us was palpable, eyes big, expectation written on young faces. The hours of preparing prayer ties had readied us to see our People, but even more, to see the Creator among the least of them. One young woman expressed her joy, saying “These are my people . . . I belong here,” defying old messages of “you are nobody,” and “you are different.” Two young men proudly held up their tribe’s flag, and others prepared prayer cloths to tie to the fences, already full from pilgrims who came to pray before us. The smell of sage smoke and the sound of the drum drew us to a center circle, where we carried our gifts, the Oneida nation flag, a letter from the Chief of the Nanticoke people, greetings from The United Methodist Church, bundles of tobacco, and our prayers. We were brought to the center of the circle and honored, the elders touching each one of us with a blessing. A grandmother whispered to me, “Welcome home granddaughter,” and I was reminded of the unconditional welcome Christ offers us.
Time evaporated, and it was as if I was my great grandmother. It was as if the city was transformed to a village, and we remembered the former glory of the great Plains Indians, whose villages dappled this country like spots on horses. We walked a trail to the water’s edge and gathered to pray. We tied blue ribbons on each other’s wrists, ribbons that marked our promise to protect the water wherever our people live. “Water is life,” we said, and we were joined by some of the people who had been camping here for months. One rowed up to the shore in a rowboat and joined us. For that time of worship together, we were one family. “Mitakuye Oyasin,” the people say . . . “We are all relatives” . . . its meaning echoed in our hearts. And Jesus’ prayer resounded in my mind, “Lord, let them be One.”
“Your water is my water,” we remembered. Whatever happens to the water in one place happens to the water in every place, because all the water is connected. The water we drink is the same water that was made at the Creation of the World.
Later, as we sat in a circle by the fire at the youth lodge, we heard songs and stories from the young adults there, while their infant children played at our feet. Their songs became our songs, and their stories became our stories. We were welcomed there like family, and we left them gifts of prayers.
I felt my life changing in that one day at Standing Rock, remembering what the People can do when they pray together. I saw young people’s lives being changed. We all left stronger than before. Knowing more about who we are and whose we are. We would go back to our various communities, and we would stand to protect the water there.
And we did. Some have stood with signs in Washington DC, and others have helped organize a water summit in Minnesota. After all, it’s all the same water. And the People, we are all One people. And our God is the Giver of the gift of Life.
Postnote: The Dakota Access Pipeline is in place. It is like a black snake under the river at Standing Rock. When will it strike? We will see.
 Tobacco is one of the sacred plants Native Americans use as part of their prayer ceremonies. The gift of a tobacco bundle honors the person receiving it; you are approaching them in a sacred and respectful manner. The tobacco itself may be spread on the ground, placed on a drum, or burned. The smoke from tobacco burned on a sacred fire or in a sacred pipe rises, carrying prayers to the Creator.