Sovereignty, Cultural Reclamation and Environmental Justice: Scottish Reflections on DAPL
Earlham College--March 27, 2017
Rev. Dr. Rebecca Voelkel
Where are you coming from?
I first visited the Oceti Sakowin camp in early September at the invitation of Rev. Marlene Whiterabbit Helgemo, pastor of All Nations Indian Church and the Director of the Council on American Indian Ministries in the United Church of Christ to be a “witness and interpreter” (as she called it) in support of the Water Protectors. The Water Protectors had started the Sacred Fire on April 1st of 2016 just outside of Cannon Ball, North Dakota which is just outside the boundaries of the Standing Rock Reservation in order to stop the illegal Dakota Access Pipeline. The impact to the Missouri River when a spill happens from the pipeline, will be catastrophic. (turn to slide #3)
The first question we were asked was “where are you coming from?” After I answered Minneapolis a couple of times, a Native colleague said, “you know when you are asked that question, folks aren’t asking for where you live, they are asking who your people are.”
One of the things that Rev. Helgemo required of folks that came to Oceti Sakowin (which, in English means the Seven Council Fires) and stayed in her camp-within-a-camp was that we stayed for at least three days. She didn’t want theological tourists. My first three-day visit was literally life-changing.
Our first stop in camp was at the Sacred Fire which was very close to the entrance gate. It was a space in which a microphone had been set up and elders of the Standing Rock nation were receiving delegations from indigenous nations across the world. When we walked up to the circle, a delegations of Mayans from Guatemala presented themselves and asked to be allowed into camp. When the Standing Rock elders welcomed them, they were given a Mayan flag that was then hung along the entrance road.
After their flag had been accepted a Lakota elder from a different reservation took the microphone and invited anyone who knew it, to join her in song. She explained to those who didn’t know Lakota that the words they were about to sing were:
“We are alive…. We are alive…. We are alive.”
As the song was picked up by people all around me, I realized the other, equally important reason I had come—to stand in solidarity with Native leaders.
The song “We are Alive” brought me to tears. In the face of over 500 years of attempted genocide, broken treaties, concentration camps, forced marches, boarding schools, cultural genocide—most of it perpetrated by my fellow Christians—this was a gathering that said that Native Lives Matter. It was a camp of shared food, shared clothing, shared school supplies and it was filled with music and ceremony and prayer.
At one point, we were all invited down to the riverside to welcome representatives of several Pacific Coast nations who had brought their boats from as far away as Alaska and then paddled across Lake Oahe (which was created by flooding the Missouri River at the Standing Rock reservation). These nations were coming up the Cannon Ball River, a tributary of the Missouri to bless the water and stand in solidarity with Standing Rock. As they paddled past us, people shouted out blessings and one child in particular greeted each new canoe with “Water is sacred. Water is life.” Lalalalalala “Water is sacred. Water is Life.”
As the evening closed, we were invited to a pipe ceremony. The invitation alone was an act of deep honoring. I knew that as a white, non-Native person, that was sacred space that is not mine. And I couldn’t help praying as the pipe came to rest in my left hand, that I would do justice to the honor bestowed upon me as a witness and interpreter of this sacred, revolutionary space.
As I returned to Minneapolis and de-briefed with trusted friends and colleagues, I kept hearing the first question asked of me, “Where are you coming from?”
I began to understand the message underneath the question: that we must know who we are as we purport to do the work of justice in the world.
A second underlying message in the question came to me explicitly from a Native colleague in Minneapolis. As he and I were preparing for a presentation he was going to give to the United Church of Christ in Minnesota, he said, “You know one of the primary differences between Western or European understandings and Native understandings is you believe that time is linear. There is a past, a present and a future and they happen one after another. For Native peoples, time and history are embodied in place. The past, the present and the future are in the land and they live in our bodies.”
And I kept hearing the question, where are you coming from? Who are you, Rebecca Mary MacKenzie Voelkel? What history lives in your body?
I realized that, for me, my solidarity with Standing Rock needed an answer to this question.
I grew up as an only child. My mom is an only child of Scottish immigrant parents. My grammie, my mom’s mom, was the only one of her siblings to have children. And her mother was the only one of her siblings to have children. Because of this reality and the fact that my grammie took care of me as a child and I spent a lot of time with her, I was raised to know my Scottish heritage.
Grammie was born in Inverness, Scotland in 1905. In her many stories, she often told me that her father’s first language was Gaelic and that his English wasn’t that good. She loved to recount the story of going to visit her father’s family in Applecross, a tiny village on the side of the mountain on the West Coast of Scotland.
On one particular evening, she was taking a walk with her uncle Murdo who spent most of his time dressed in tartan and hiking in the mountains since his job was to be the hunter for the wealthy land owner. As the darkness fell, Uncle Murdo turned to Grammie and said, “would you like to talk with Robbie Burns?”
Now, Robbie Burns was one of my Grammie’s favorite poets. She had memorized dozens and dozens of his pieces—many of them in Gaelic. As he was known as the Scottish national poet, you can imagine that my grammie would have been thrilled to talk with him.
But she responded to Uncle Murdo’s request with deep fear, “Uncle Murdo, Robbie Burns has been dead for over a hundred years.” To which Uncle Murdo replied, “Ay, Lassie, a spirit like that never dies.”
I’d heard that story many, many times. But as I grappled with where was I coming from, I started to do some reading.
And there’s a bit more to the story of Uncle Murdo and my great-grandfather. As I said, they had grown up in Applecross, on the West Coast of Scotland. But our family had originally lived in the Western Islands.
The story of how they got to Applecross is rooted in a century of brutality known as the Highland Clearances. In the mid-eighteenth century, as punishment for participating in the Scottish Clan uprising against English colonization, the Scottish wealthy class began clearing people, including my MacKenzie relatives, from the communal lands in the Highlands and the Western Islands. Then, those same lands were given to wealthy people to develop large-scale sheep farming.
The Clearances were marked by violence and brutality and often removed whole villages off their land on short notice. People were often left homeless, without any source of income or food. And, if they stole food to feed their families, many were arrested and sent to penal colonies in places like Australia. Additionally, wearing tartan was outlawed and punishable with arrest and deportation. And speaking Gaelic was discouraged and suffered greatly.
This use of forced displacement and cultural destruction as punishment for liberation struggles, coupled with rewarding the wealthy who are already aligned with the colonizer, are old, old tactics.
Robbie Burns, by the way, wrote much of his poetry during the Highland Clearances, in Gaelic. And his voice was one of resistance and resilience and cultural reclamation. These, too, are old, old tactics.
So, in September and October, the answer to the question of where are you coming from was that I was the great, great granddaughter of those who’d been cleared from their land, whose language had been outlawed, whose traditions and clothing had been outlawed but who’d resisted. I was Grammie’s granddaughter but also Uncle Murdo’s great, great niece. And my presence at Standing Rock was another act of resistance and support.
But then I was asked to go back to Standing Rock on November 2nd and 3rd for a Clergy Call, this time by Father John Floberg, priest on Standing Rock. He prayed he’d get at least 100 people and over 525 came. Our purpose was to stand in solidarity as religious and spiritual leaders. But before we could stand in solidarity, Father Floberg knew that particularly the Christians needed to do some spiritual work. Before we marched, we were being asked to ceremonially repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery.
For those of you not familiar with the Doctrine of Discovery, it was a series of pronouncements by the Pope starting in 1452 which stated that it was the right of any Christian who encountered a non-Christian to take their land and kill, enslave or otherwise dominate them. Many also call the Doctrine of Discovery the Doctrine of Christian Domination. It was first issued to encourage the Portugese to colonize West Africa and enslave folks. And it literally baptized the expedition of Christopher Columbus and subsequent explorers. And the Doctrine of Discovery was cited as early as 1823 by US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall and has been woven into US law—continuing to be cited in case law as recently as 2014. There is a lot more to say about the Doctrine of Discovery but I hope that gives you some idea if it is an unfamiliar term.
Given the genocidal impact of the Doctrine of Discovery, our Clergy Call needed to start with it. And so, on a cold November morning, we arrived at Oceti Sakowin and gathered around the sacred fire before a council of elders. (turn to slide #10) And then, one by one, leaders of the various Christian denominations who’d done work within their own traditions to repudiate the Doctrine—the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America were three—came forward and read the official statements of repudiation. And then they handed a ceremonial copy of the Doctrine of Discovery to the Standing Rock elders who then took coals from the sacred fire and burned it.
This ceremonial act acknowledged that given over 500 years of physical and cultural genocide, forced clearing from the land, boarding schools, and environmental degradation—all done in the name of Christian domination—we needed to begin with confession and repentance. And out of confession and repentance can come acts of repair. And perhaps, then, some kind of reconciliation might be possible.
Our being there as religious leaders was an act of solidarity—a small act of repair—but we needed to start with confession and repentance and the ceremonial repudiating of the Doctrine of Discovery was that.
And then we marched from the camp to the bridge on Highway 1806 just south of where the pipeline would go under the road and then under Lake Oahe. But by this time, the Morton County Sheriffs Department had become a militarized force and we were standing on the road in plain sight of armored vehicles with aircraft flying overhead on a regular basis. It was an eerie and palpable sign of the Doctrine of Christian Dominance.
I only had less than a week before I returned a third time to Oceti Sakowin as a guest of two Standing Rock tribal Council members. I knew I would be asked where I was coming from and this time this answer to who I was and what history lived in my body was even more complex.
I am the granddaughter of Mary Doyle MacKenzie Unwin whose people survived the Highland Clearances but resisted. But I am also a Christian pastor and heir to all that was done in my name and in the name of the Doctrine of Discovery. (As I was doing some research in preparation for being here, I was looking at photos of the massacre at Wounded Knee, which is often said marked the end of the US Indian Wars, and of the grave site there. And I was looking at photos of the grave site at Culloden Moor, where the Scottish uprising was put down for the last time. It is eerie to see some of the similarities. But more painful for me was that twenty soldiers were given medals of honor for their killing spree done under the command of Col. James Forsythe. It was a Scotsman who led the massacre.)
Where are you coming from? I come from the survivors of the Highland Clearances, those who resisted. I come from those who survived the Highland Clearances and then came to this country or to Australia to turn around and perpetrate genocide on others. I come from a Christian tradition of a gospel of liberation—rooted in one whose whole ministry was to resist Roman Imperial occupation. I come from a Christian tradition that has been colonized by Empire and used to perpetrate unspeakable Holocaust and Slavery and pogrom and domination all over these lands.
What, then, am I supposed to do with all of this history that literally lives in my own body? And why do I share it with you?
You might recall that Rev. Marlene Whiterabbit Helgemo asked that we come to Standing Rock in the first place to be witnesses and interpreters but not to do so from a perspective of being a theological tourist. She has since asked that we go and “get our people” to tell the story.
This ask is a complicated one because it entails several layers of thinking and acting.
Because the Doctrine of Discovery and the Highland Clearances both live in me, my telling the story of Standing Rock has to be both the story of Empire Christianity and how Christian Domination is a distortion of the liberative story that is the core of Christianity.
(I haven’t even talked about my being queer and how a big piece of the rationale for Christian Domination was that indigenous understandings of sexuality and gender were more expansive than Empire Christianity’s and were a critical part of what the Doctrine of Discovery sought to crush. As Pedro Font, an early Franciscan conquistador in the America’s wrote in his diaries:
Among the women I saw some men dressed like women, with whom they go about regularly, never joining the men… From this I inferred they must be hermaphrodites, but from what I learned later I understood that they were sodomites, dedicated to nefarious practices. From all the foregoing I conclude that in this matter of incontinence there will be much to do when the Holy Faith and the Christian religion are established among them.
So, being a witness and interpreter of Standing Rock is also the story of being in solidarity in a way that is honest with the complexity of the power and vulnerability I hold in my own body. And for me, that is balancing being a follower—listening to the voices of indigenous leaders and doing what I’m asked to do—with being a leader in the context that it makes sense for me to lead.
The very good news is that although Oceti Sakowin and Oceti Oyate are no longer camps, the movement that has sprung from Standing Rock is only growing.
As I close, I would ask you, where are you coming from when you do your justice work? Whose struggle do you hold in your body?
 Pedro Font, Font’s Complete Diary of the Second Anza Expedition, trans. and ed. Hubert Eugene Bolton, vol. 4 of Anza’s California Expeditions (Berkeley: University of California, 1930), 105, quoted in Katz, Gay American History, 291.