12/06/2016 10:54 am ET

Something Extraordinary Happened At Standing Rock A Few Hours Before Victory

"In prayer and nonviolence, all things become possible."

Stephanie Keith / Reuters
People celebrate in Oceti Sakowin camp as "water protectors" continue to demonstrate against plans to pass the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, U.S. December 4, 2016.

On the same day hundreds of interfaith clergy and lay activists gathered near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation to pray for the earth, federal authorities announced they were blocking the construction of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline.

It was a fortuitous twist of fate for a movement that, from its beginnings, has been fueled by prayer

On Sunday, the US Army Corps of Engineers rejected an application that would have allowed the proposed 1,172-mile pipeline to tunnel underneath North Dakota’s Lake Oahe. Native American activists and their allies have for months argued that the pipeline threatened the water source for the nearby Standing Rock Sioux reservation and would damage sacred land.

Days before the Army’s announcement, Native American spiritual leader Chief Arvol Looking Horse, Keeper of the White Buffalo Calf Pipe, issued a call for people of faith to visit Standing Rock on December 4 to pray and stand with the protestors, who also call themselves “water protectors.” 

An estimated 500 people representing about 40 spiritual traditions heeded the call, according to Rev. Karen Van Fossan, the minister of Unitarian Universalist Fellowship & Church of Bismarck-Mandan, who helped coordinate outreach for the event. 

The interfaith activists attended a Native American water ceremony early in the morning. Then, with the leadership of Chief Looking Horse, they gathered around a sacred fire. Representatives from different faiths came forward to offer prayers in their own traditions ― Christians, Sufi Muslims, Hindus, Old Catholics, and many others. Afterwards, the activists held hands in a prayer circle that surrounded the Oceti Sakowin camp. 

United Religions Initaitive
An interfaith prayer event takes place at the Oceti Sakowin camp. 

News of the Army’s decision spread through the camp around 3 p.m that day, at first leaving the activists in “hushed disbelief,” according to Van Fossan, before the celebration broke out in earnest. 

“We just cheered and immediately there was drumming and singing and a spirit of celebration and renewed prayerfulness in a really exuberant way,” Van Fossan told The Huffington Post. 

The fact that the announcement came on the same day as the prayer gathering wasn’t lost on her. 

“We were just deeply and profoundly and openly in prayer, and even as I start to describe it, I get reminded my body and spirit of the experience of praying with and for and among so many people from so many traditions, holding one another in respect and love,” Van Fossan said. “So to be in that in a world of prayer, all things become possible.”  

Stephanie Keith / Reuters
Chief Arvol Looking Horse, a Native American spiritual leader of the Sioux nation, speaks to participants during a ceremony at Oceti Sakowin camp.

“Prayers have been answered,” Chief Arvol Looking Horse, Keeper of the White Buffalo Calf Pipe, told the protesters gathered at the camp, according to CNN. “I know that the great spirit is going to bless each and every one of you.”

The battle isn’t over yet, however. In a statement, Energy Transfer Partners, the DAPL’s developers, has indicated that they don’t intend to reroute the line. Native activists are worried that President-elect Donald Trump and his incoming administration could reverse the decision. Trump has both supported and invested in the pipeline in the past. 

Van Fossan said she’s “listening with ears wide open” to what Native activists will want to do next. She’s convinced that what’s happening at Standing Rock is the beginning of a “cultural transformation.” 

The spirit of the camp is one that was rooted in prayer, Van Fossan said. At the camp, help is always present for those in need, people give to each other without asking for compensation, and one’s faith blossoms and is magnified by the prayers of people of other faiths. 

“In prayer and nonviolence, all things become possible because that’s where we imagine another way,” Van Fossan said. “And that imagining of another way is the cultural transformation that’s happening [at Standing Rock].”

“While not the end of the story, while there’s still much work to be done, these are glimpses of new ways of being that are the kind of cultural shift that we need to make a sustainable, renewable future really possible.”

Scroll through the slideshow below to see why these interfaith activists are standing with Standing Rock. Quotes and images collected by Sari Heidenreich, Regional Coordinator for United Religions Initiative-North America.

  • Rev. Karen Van Fossan
    United Religions Initaitive
    I'm the minister of the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Bismarck, ND. I'm honored to stand with Standing Rock. My tradition is very much a church of the world, where love supports justice and justice makes deeper love come alive. I see Standing Rock as the center of the world right now. I'm grateful to the people of Oceti Sakowin camp for sharing this center with me.
  • Jaya Reinhalter
    United Religions Initaitive
    I am an interfaith youth organizer. I stand with Standing Rock because as a believer in the sacredness of all life, I see the struggle at Standing Rock as a fight for the right to life by way of the preservation of sacred and clean waters, but also the refusal to accept the decimation of the indigenous peoples and cultures of this nation. Those  who share in the interfaith tradition recognize that it is high time we ascend delusions of separateness and create new models that hold interconnection at their heart. The indigenous leaders at Standing Rock have done just that, and we owe them tremendous gratitude for this gift.
  • Moji Agha
    United Religions Initaitive
    I am Muslim, was born in a Shia family in Iran and I have obviously Sufi tendencies. I [am] standing with Standing Rock because as a Muslim and as a Sufi, I am called to stand with the oppressed, to understand that we are interconnected in such a profound way with everything and every being in the universe -- we are brothers and sisters. My brothers and sisters at Standing Rock are just yet another group that are being oppressed by oil companies, huge corporations that are destroying Mother Earth. We are stewards of nature.
  • Rev. Dee Lundberg
    United Religions Initaitive
    I am a pastor in the United Church of Christ in Wyoming. I standing with Standing Rock because the United Church of Christ has had a really long history of social justice movements; In particular we have spent a lot of time in the last couple decades looking at our own historical role in the oppression of the Native American community ... Standing with Standing Rock is our social and moral and religious obligation to stand with our brothers and sisters regardless of race, color, sexual orientation or any of that ... We all have a duty to stand with our tribal brothers and sisters and let them know that they’re love and supported -- that we care.
  • Great Grandmother Mary Lyons
    United Religions Initaitive
    I am an old Ojibwe woman...Our cultural belief is of the oneness. We believe in the protection of the four elements of life, that is fire, air, water and earth. That is what sustains us. We also believe...that we originally had an agreement with Creator, as we are spirit, and when we were birthed here, we had this agreement of coming down to Mother Earth as a student so when we entered, we entered the purest of waters, which is our mother’s womb and she blessed us with making this beautiful blanket of a body that embraces our spirit. And when we enter Mother Earth we take our first breath so when we walk here we believe that every morning we inhale Mother Earth’s breath and we exhale our ancestors. We believe that ... we’re never alone, because we reference our self as the ‘we’, that’s the body and spirit ... Our blanket is made up of a library of DNA of all our ancestors ... So we have to learn how to take care of those four elements.
  • Rabbi Rain Zohav
    United Religions Initiative
    I come from the Jewish Renewal tradition. I’m standing with Standing Rock because my tradition teaches the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. My heart told me I needed to be here.
  • Adam Wiese
    United Religions Initaitive
    I am from the Bismarck bi-monthly meeting of the Society of Friends (Quakers). I stand with Standing Rock because not a very long time ago my ancestors settled this land beside the native people and when they did that they [threw] their lot in with a common destiny.  And being a part of the Christian tradition, I am very concerned with who our neighbors are and our proper relationship to our neighbors. And our neighbors at Standing Rock asked for our help to protect clean drinking water and ceremonial grounds and cemeteries. That is a call that, as a Christian, I feel compelled to follow for any of my neighbors.
  • Father Jakob Thibault
    United Religions Initaitive
    I am Fr. Jakob from Providence, RI, and I’m an Old Catholic. I stand with Standing Rock because our faith calls me to stand with those who have no voice and to stand against violence and against the money power that control the world so that we can live in a better world.
  • Vindo Seth
    United Religions Initaitive
    I identify with all the world's religions. I am quoting my lovely wife who said this yesterday and it touched me: When Gandhi did his passive resistance to get the [independence] for India, I was not born. When Martin Luther King lead the protests at Selma when people of all colors joined, I was not in America. Now that the Standing Rock people are doing a passive, nonviolent protest to protect our waters, I want to be with them. I am proud of their nonviolent, prayerful, passive resistance. It is the largest such movement on earth now.


Standing Rock