What Christians can learn from Standing Rock

Oct 20, 2016 by

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If the Old Testament prophet Isaiah lived in northern New Mexico in 1970 when the indigenous people of Taos Pueblo succeeded in their 60-year struggle to reclaim their sacred Blue Lake from the U.S. Government, his words might sound like this:

1For Blue Lake’s sake I will not keep silent,
For Taos Pueblo’s sake I will not remain quiet,
till their vindicated covenant shines out like the dawn,
their redemptive bond like a blazing torch.


2 The United States government will judge your case to be valid,
and all corporations shall acknowledge your rights.


3Your eternal place-bond shall be a crown of beauty in the Lord’s hand,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.


4After Nixon’s decree, no longer shall they call you Divorced from Your Land,
or name your sacred lake Open to the Public and For Sale;
but you shall be called Our Delight Is in Our Lake,
and to Blue Lake country you shall be bonded;
for the Lord delights in you, Taos Pueblo,
and to your land you shall be married.
— Isaiah 62: 1-4, contextually adapted

And to your land you shall be married. My ally Jerry Kennell was the first to introduce me to this Old Testament theme. What would it mean to be married to your land — to be that rooted to place? As a Mennonite minister for watershed discipleship, learning how to treat my region as my rabbi, I’m fascinated by this question. It gets me thinking: what would need to change in me to be truly married to my place?

To be married to our home places goes against every core value of my dis-placed, massively-mobile, uber-disposable Christian consumer culture that tells me everything is for sale, heaven is somewhere else, and a successful individual simply moves when the river gets polluted or the neighborhood becomes tired. But place-based indigenous people understand what it means to be married to the land. Look at what we Christians can learn from this 1970 front-page proclamation in The Taos News by young adults of Taos Pueblo, written as they struggled to reclaim Blue Lake:

We, the young people of the Taos Pueblo Tribe … have heard and read baseless and false criticism thrown at our people by opponents, some whom even question our aboriginal right to this land; some whom even dare say all Indians are inept in the field of conservation. We remind those who say that of the virgin condition of the land occupied by Indians … before foreign influence. Many of our opponents have no other interest in the land except for once a year recreation, and the money to be made from it through activities that are harmful to the land.”


“Our tribal leaders have been criticized that their tribe and traditional way of life is deteriorating, that their young people are not interested in the traditional way of life. Let these people who voice these opinions look and listen: … We want our generation to have the right and the environment to carry on the Indian way of life. Our way of life is centered around this homeland which was founded by our forefathers and we do not want to lose it for the sake of monetary, recreational and plain land-grabbing interests of our opponents.


“The Forest Service is contemplating their multiple use policy for our homeland. This includes harvesting of timber, development for recreational purposes, and manipulation of plant life. This is wrong for a land which must remain as it was created. … Nature took care of itself through these thousands of years and can take care of itself if man respects it and does not manipulate it to suit his needs. Our Taos Indian people have long believed that man should live in harmony with nature. Man should adapt himself to nature rather than forcing nature to adapt to man. Many people across this nation are just now becoming aware of the importance of this way of thinking. … We are not demanding land which is not ours. We are pleading for a land which our people have known as theirs since time immemorial.”
— Front page, The Taos News, July 19, 1970

Standing Rock: Coming together to protect our waters

In 1970, Taos Pueblo’s successful quest to reclaim Blue Lake struck a nerve across the nation. Yes, it was about a specific place, but it was about all place-based indigenous people, in all places under threat. As President Nixon stated when he signed the bill that returned Blue Lake to Taos Pueblo, “It is more than just a land settlement: it is a symbolic turning point in the history of those who were the first Americans.”

Today we are at another powerful turning point for first Americans, and for all of us. The courageous actions of the Standing Rock Sioux inspires place-based people everywhere. Through the example of prayerful indigenous people at Standing Rock, many Christians are coming to a powerful realization: protecting our watersheds for future generations is God’s call to action for people of all faiths today, just as urgent as it was for previous generations of interfaith activists to abolish slavery or march for civil rights. To protect water is the sacred task of today’s generation. “The people of Standing Rock Sioux Reservation…are calling us anew to respect and protect this sacred gift of God, and in so doing to respect and protect God’s gift of human life,” states Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopalian Church. “In protesting … they recognize the gift of water to all of us, a gift given to us by our Creator. … This God-given resource courses through our mighty rivers and our human veins, working to renew and reinvigorate all of creation.”

Yes, the actions happening at Standing Rock are about that specific tribe, rooted in that specific place. But what the Standing Rock Sioux are doing is much bigger than that. Gracey Claymore, a 19-year-old youth representative of the Standing Rock Sioux, recently spoke before a panel of about two dozen United States lawmakers. She explained how her tribe knows that they are acting in defense of not only their home place, but in defense of all humanity: “We are … coming together to protect our waters,” she said. “It’s not just the Dakota Access issue. It’s so much bigger than that. We have been saying over and over that this is not just a Native American issue, this is a human race issue. We are doing this to protect our human race, because without water we cannot survive. Without this Earth, we will not be here any more.”

Taking a cue from the Spirit-led indigenous water protectors risking their lives at Standing Rock, modern followers of Jesus might ask: At what price are we selling our waters? What short-term gain of piped petroleum is worth risking God’s healthy water for our future generations? Like the rest of humanity swept up in consumer culture, many of today’s comfortable Christians seem to lack a sense of being married to place. We stand distracted, numb and impotent as our sacred earth is being eaten alive and permanently polluted. Looking at my own life, I know I embrace far too easily the latest gadgets and comforts, even when these very comforts destroy our ecosystems. It’s time for me to learn from the Standing Rock Sioux and step up to root down — and wake up as a creature dependent upon my watershed of the Rio Grande.

Katerina Friesen made a pilgrimage to Standing Rock with several other Mennonites, both to support the Standing Rock Sioux in their place and to strengthen her own resolve to protect her own home waters. “Before we left, our delegation gathered at the river to pray for the waters and for the water protectors willing to risk so much,” she reflects. “We collected some of the water to carry home with us to remember our time and our commitment to continue the work of healing.”

It’s time for people of all faiths to take a long look at Isaiah’s words, and practice being married to the sacred land in which we move and breathe and have our being. Like the Standing Rock Sioux, we need to answer with our bodies: What of God’s creation is being endangered in our home places? What is worth protecting with our very lives? Our future generations — of all spiritual and cultural lineages — deserve nothing less.

Todd Wynward is an author, educator, small-scale farmer, wilderness trip leader and Mennonite minister for watershed discipleship affiliated with Mountain States Conference. He and his wife, Peg, founded a wilderness-based public charter school in 2001 and are now creating TiLT, an incubator for intentional living in Taos, N.M. His recent book, Rewilding the Way: Break Free to Follow an Untamed God, was published by Herald Press.

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