Thanksgiving at Standing Rock

The sign at the main entrance to the Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock says, “This is a place of prayer and ceremony.”  

To be honest, I was afraid to go to Standing Rock.  Not so much of the cops, despite their violent assaults on peaceful protestors, but of the cold and the discomfort.  In my mind, I’m like those wizened, tough old biker crones in Mad Max—but in reality, I’m a fat old lady with asthma, arthritic knees and a compulsion to pee multiple times throughout the night, and camping out in freezing weather is no longer something I contemplate with alacrity.

Moreover, the crisis in North Dakota and the election crisis coincided with various personal crises that culminated with the urgent necessity of packing up pretty much everything in the house I’ve lived in for thirty years to prepare it for renovations and partial sale, and a related financial crisis.  So it wasn’t the best time to go—but the Thanksgiving weekend seemed to be about the only window of time I could go, and the weather wasn’t going to get warmer.

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I also wrestled with the question of what my role should be as a white ally of an indigenous-led movement.  Was it an act of colonial violence for me to come, an assertion of white privilege?  Should I just donate the money my ticket would cost, and stay warm?

But I’m a public person, with a platform of writing and speaking, and I knew I would be a more effective advocate if I went there myself.  And I hoped to be able to make some contribution.  My training collective, Alliance of Community Trainers, would be there, and my old action buddy Lisa Fithian had been there for weeks and was organizing actions.  So I interrupted my marathon of packing and cleaning, and went.

And as soon as I saw the sign, I knew I was right to come.  For decades, I’ve been writing and speaking, organizing and teaching around the simple concept that spirit and action go together.  Activists need some kind of spiritual base to sustain what is very hard, sometimes dangerous, and often frustrating work.  And spiritual folks need to be engaged with the world, taking action to alleviate suffering and protect the sacred.

So how incredibly affirming it was to walk into a place where everything is grounded in ceremony and every action is seen as embodied prayer.  Lakota spirituality is not my tradition, although deeply aligned in values and world view.  But I have no authority or permission to hold ceremonial energy or lead—and so I was blessedly free to listen, absorb, and do my personal work in a way that I rarely get to do in my own tradition.

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I sat at the Sacred Fire and listened to people speak from the heart about the struggle.  I got up early to go to the water ceremony, led by women, where we processed down to the Cannonball River to offer tobacco.  I was given permission to offer our Waters of the World, and when an Irish-American woman gave some water from Brigid’s Well, I asked to share one of our Brigid Chants at a time when many people were sharing songs.

I sat in meditation at the Global Prayer for Standing Rock, and heard one clear message that said to me: “White people can’t heal until they come to terms with the Witch persecutions.”

For so many decades, I’ve been writing and teaching about the forgotten heritage of the ancient Goddess traditions in Europe and the Middle East.  I’ve been working to recover, or create, the rituals and ceremonies that link us to sacred nature and community.  I’ve proudly called myself a Witch, in an attempt to uncover and reclaim that heritage.

And I’ve also gotten worn down, tired of endlessly explaining the same things over and over again, tired of fending off the same nervous jokes or correcting the same misunderstandings.  I’ve been more excited to learn the practical ways of earth-healing, to share the formula for compost tea rather than the esoteric formula for some magic spell.

But over and over again, at Standing Rock and elsewhere this year, I’ve been brought back to the importance of that early work.  Young people simply do not know the Goddess history—and for people of European heritage, it is vital to know that we also have indigenous roots, have ancestors who knew that water is sacred, and traditions we can connect to that can help us anchor in the land.  So many people hunger for that connection—and we don’t have to take it from someone else although we should always be willing to listen and learn from other cultures.

Sunday was our day for a women’s action.  Lisa had arranged for me to connect with Cheryl Angel, a Lakota elder who was leading the action and to stay in her yurt.  We woke before dawn for a women’s sweat, poured by a Dineh poet, singer and songwriter Lyla June. As I stumbled out into the dark and cold and found my way to the fire, I noticed Lyla June was wearing a tee-shirt emblazoned Boudica—the ancient British woman warrior who led an uprising against the Romans.

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A Statue of Boudica in London. Boudica was a queen of the British Celtic Iceni tribe who led an uprising against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire.

A group of about twenty or more women undressed and crammed into the lodge, and Lyla June spoke to us from the heart about her life and sacredness of water.  Then she began to talk about the Witch persecutions—about how the brutal murder of women in European history has separated those of us with that heritage from our indigenous roots.

I was amazed, and again felt deeply affirmed.  After the sweat, I led a training for over a hundred people in some of the magical activist tools we’ve developed for nonviolent direct action.  Then we scrambled to get ready for the action—a march through the camps and out onto the bridge and the barricades that separate us from the drilling sites.

The march through camp was beautiful—although at a faster pace than I would have preferred.  Cheryl Angel was very determined to have a silent, prayerful action, and people were very good about holding the container of silence.  I was mostly praying not to have an all-out asthma attack before we even got to the barricades, and thankfully that prayer was answered.

The elders at Oceti Sakowin had asked that no one do actions that weekend, in order not to divert attention from the eviction notice, and because they were worried that actions might not be completely nonviolent.  But we had received permission from one of the elders, who asked that we stop at the Sacred Council Fire to do ceremony.  When we got there, however, we found that the elders were not in agreement.  Some of them wanted us to go back—but Cheryl listened respectfully, and then simply led us on.

At the barricades, the next obstacle was our own security, who were acting more like cops than cops, telling us we had to go back, that they had ‘orders’.  Eventually, they let the elders through, and I followed Cheryl, LaDonna who is from the area and owns some of the land we’re camped on, and a group of others, including another Reclaiming Witch, River.

I stood behind Cheryl and listened to one of the most powerful moments of pure nonviolence I’ve ever experienced.  She prayed aloud, apologizing to the earth and the waters for our failure to protect them, speaking to the police who stood on the other side of the barrier and telling them that our prayers were for them, too, and for the safety of their children and grandchildren.  She spoke with such heartfelt power, sometimes crying, sometimes smiling—and I was watching the faces of the officers change, from that stone-faced cop look to meeting her eyes. I saw their faces soften, and saw them begin to nod.  LaDonna spoke, telling them how she had grown up there, how she knew them and had gone to the same schools, how her father had been a law enforcement officer.  By the end, when Cheryl told them we were going down to the river to do ceremony, they agreed.

Although I’ve written about nonviolence, practiced and trained people in it for decades, I generally think of it as a great experience.  I am ever-hopeful, but rarely convinced, that we can truly change the hearts of our opponents, and more often think of it as a strategy to galvanize the hordes of those who are unconvinced or uninformed, and marshall political pressure on our opposition.

But listening to Cheryl, I began to to believe that maybe we can invite even the police to our table, that maybe a strategy for this time of ever-consolidated power might be, as I wrote in The Fifth Sacred Thing, to fight on the terrain of consciousness, to contest not the guns but the mind that chooses whether or not to use the gun.  “Consciousness is the most stubborn stuff in the cosmos, and the most fluid.  It can be rigid as concrete, and it can change in an instant.  A song can change it, or a story, or a fragrance wafting by on the wind.”

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We went, down a steep bank and over muddy ground.  I stood behind Cheryl and was able to give her some of our Waters of the World, water we have used in ceremonies and for offerings at sacred places for more than thirty-five years, that includes waters from every continent and ocean and many, many political actions.  She gave it to the river, with prayer.

Then we walked back.  The action was over, the silence held.  Will the prayers be answered?  That will depend on the support and the political will we can all muster in the coming weeks.

For myself, I am grateful I decided to go, and even more grateful and humbled by the immense commitment and faith shown by the water defenders.

I had to leave the next day, as the weather changed and a blizzard blew in.  This week, with the eviction notice, the struggle intensifies. Please send prayers and every form of support to those who will remain in much rougher circumstances than I experienced.

Water is sacred!  Water is life!

This article, from Indian Country Today Media Network, outlines many of the options for giving material support to the struggle. The Reclaiming Spiral Dance cell is donating $500 to the legal collective. If you are in a position to give material support, these are the most pressing needs right now.

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28 comments to Thanksgiving at Standing Rock

  • Thank you for this beautiful account. Thank you for your presence at that moment, at that sacred place.
    And thank you for all your ongoing pathfinding work. 💚

  • Tree

    Prayers for water and life. Prayers for magics. Courageous heart.

  • Heartfelt blessings from the Preseli Hills in West Wales, where the voices of our Celtic Ancestors are still heard on the wind. X

  • I was born and raised in New York State, and I love the land, but there is bloody human history here. I read your book, The Spiral Dance, when I was in college back in 1987 or 1988, and that started my research and desire to learn about the history of Goddess and the ancient beliefs of the various regions of Europe. And yet! Somewhat like your recent experience, it wasn’t until I saw a youtube clip of a young Native American woman speaking from a stage saying that European people need to reclaim their indigenous roots that I suddenly felt that the word “indigenous” applied to me, too. What a revelation!! In that moment, I felt my chest loosen and the truth of using that word rang like a clear bell.

    Because I feel such guilt for being a US citizen of European decent even though it was not I who carried (and continue to carry) out evil deeds against Native Americans. So to use that word…indigenous…in relation to my European heritage…wow!

  • Kate Yikes

    Thank you Starhawk for showing up to help protect the water, representing us witches, and sharing your story!

  • Star, your sincerity and generosity inspires me always. Thank you for your work.
    Love you,
    Katrina

  • This is an excellent essay! and to get a play-by-play of the women’s action, is so inspiring! thank you for your journey and for sharing it with the world.

    Mni Wiconi!
    Mitakuye Oyasin!
    deJoly LaBrier
    Mentone, Alabama, USA

  • Brooke Franko

    I have been a follower of yours for years since I discovered The Sprial Dance and have followed many of your other writings. I am also a supporter of Standing Rock and have remained informed about the progress or lack of it. My traditions are very eclectic spiritually and I try to learn from as many other traditions as possible. Native American traditions have always had much to teach. I am excited to read of your experience at Standing Rock. Thanks so much for sharing. I am praying for them and I actually have great hope about this. It seems that this experience in North Dakota could be possibly one that breaks some of the bonds of evil that seem to be holding our county back from regaining our leadership in the world on economic, spiritual and ecological greatness. May the spirit of our Eath Mother be present with the Lakota as well as with our country.

  • Rae Ann Schmitz

    Starhawk, I have been a part of your “collective of consciousness” since the late ’70’s. I have read every book, danced the Spiral Dance with you in Boulder, CO. I have lived vicariously in every novel and in every spell. I have held my breath for you while you stood for me in Israel and Palestine and Iraq. I believe totally in the 5th Sacred Thing. I am grateful that you went to Standing Rock and I am grateful for this blog. I live in Western Nebraska and I was adopted by a Lakota family in 1989. I am honored to have learned their ways and to have participated in prayer meetings and ceremonies. Standing Rock is a living prayer. Thank you for Standing and Praying and Witnessing and Being. It is all Love. I love you!

  • Feather Sherman

    Starhawk, Wopila (Lakota for thank you) for coming to Standing Rock. I first met you in 1988 at the Western States National Greens Convention in Santa Cruz, CA. You led all of us in the Spiral Dance, each of us laughing joyfully as we intertwined with one another. It was a beautiful, prayerful celebration to conclude an amazing three days of inspiring workshops. Then I read “The Fifth Sacred Thing”. I was especially moved by the Earth People’s invitation to the soldiers, “Come join us! We have a place for you at our table.” Yes, this IS what is going to bring about World Peace in these very troubled times. Connecting with the humanity and heart of those wearing uniforms is the most powerful thing we can do. Standing Rock is the fulfillment of many prophecies; Hopi, Mayan, Aztec, Sioux and more. I have been here since September and am here for the duration. On November 2nd, we had a very peaceful action led by the Elders and the Sacred Drum, where many of the water protectors swam across the river and stood before the law enforcement officers, educating and connecting with them. Those of us on the shore took turns calling out to them with love. I led the chant, “Come join us! We have a place for you at our table.” The next day two of them turned in their badges!

  • Rahula

    thanks for this…and yes, the witchhunts. because it was through that process that europeans were colonized, that was the process where we lost our own indigenaity, our own connections to spirit and land and self.

    AND ALSO! the witch hunts were where the oppressors learned their strategies and tools, that they then exported, to Ireland, to Africa, to the colonies…to North Dakota.

    Blessings on you Star.

  • Margitta Wigren

    Thank you so much Starhawk! These words-“White people cant heal until they came to termos with the Witch persecutions” really really resonates with my soul!!! So true! Goddess Blessings Starhawk. I feel a deep calling to come as a grandgrandgrandgrand child to the Wise Women/Witches in my bloodline!!!

  • Gina "Selchie" Nichols

    Mni Wiconi from a Bay Area reclaiming member who lives now in Wyoming, right on the Bozeman Trail. Reading about the Bighorn battle and the treaties now being broken again. My ancestors included Scottish border clans who lost their lands to the English, and Highlanders. Having lost everything in the Valley Fire, I can’t contribute money, but am working the magic I learned in The Spiral Dance.

  • Karen

    Thank you for this first person account. And thank you for leading by example. 🙏✊🏼

  • Raynbow

    Thank you for showing up!

    May we all pick up our tools and do our our good work!

    Thank you for taking the time to not only go there but to share it out~

    You truly are inspiring me to pull my “spirit boots” on tighter…

    I hear the call: ” It is no longer time to dream; it’s time to act!”

  • Lisa Curnett

    Your words have opened my heart. Thank you!

  • I am so moved and grateful for this account of your connection to our sacred purpose here on earth. With all the turbulence and chaos we are witnessing currently, in our personal and collective lives, I have been thinking of The predictions you made in The Spiral Dance and The Fifth Sacred Thing. I have lazily studied goddess traditions, Wicca, and wild craft lore. I am fascinated by the world of archetypal mind and drawn to the study of astrology . I believe all of these pursuits, including my attraction to ritual, are about finding and aligning myself with my sacred purpose here on this planet. We are living in tumultuous times, but times brimming with potential for aligning ourselves with our sacred purpose on sacred earth now! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  • Thanks to you Starhawk as a woman of color who is a healer and intuitive, it sounds like your energy and support was a gift. We were with you there.

  • Marisol

    Star, As someone who knew The Fifth Sacred Thing to be prophecy-in-art from the time you published it, I have been thinking of you since following the news of Standing Rock prayer camp. I prayed that you would be able to witness and experience the powerful presence of the prayer there that friends have expressed to me is/was present there on a daily, hourly, moment-by-moment basis. I’m so glad to know you got to be there with those women and police at the river. Thank you for writing the account for us. Gracias and Blessed Be.

  • Donna Melcher

    Dear Starhawk, I’m so glad you had a chance to meet Lyla. She is the most beautiful example of a courageous heart I believe I have ever seen. Not to mention a stand out poet. My ends are getting tied together as you are both sheros of mine. Love to u. Donna

  • Trudy Johnston

    I started a women’s group in the UK, in 1980, based on your work and we met for over 17 years. Your words and actions have been a huge part of reclaiming my own indigenous spirituality and femaleness. Thanks you from the bottom of my heart for still showing up, despite your own health and energy. I hope being immersed in a prayerful place and hearing your life’s work honoured has offered you some of the energy and connection you have so generously and steadfastly offered to the earth. Blessed Be.

  • Dianna Suarez

    Thank you for this most beautiful account of this woman I have long admired. Through your words, I was there with you although I had to leave the Friday, the day before you arrived. Many blessings and happiness to you and all of us for our Mother Earth.

  • Dear Starhawk, I am one of those women who continued to meet with Trudy (above) here in England for over 17 years, inspired by your writings and your action. We both met you in Glastonbury one Eostre many years ago, when you led a weekend workshop and the spiral dance, the memory of your presence and power remains with me to this day. I want you to know that I continue to be inspired by your wisdom in the work that I do, and I want to thank you for going to Standing Rock. Thank you for supporting, for witnessing, for taking the waters of the world, and for reporting back. Much love to you. I hope your difficult times ease soon. Blessed be.

  • Stephanie Morningstar

    I remember driving with you one day back in 2006 when you were kind enough to come teach a weekend workshop at a festival I produced. You asked me why, being a Haudenosaunee woman, I wasn’t more involved in my own culture and spirituality. I didn’t have a great answer and wondered that a lot myself. I felt scared, I guess. I wanted to so badly but felt too colonized. After years I started to reclaim my indigeneity. I’m now living in Canada in the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee territory and am finishing a new degree in Anthropology and Indigenous studies focusing on traditional medicine and knowledge exchange. My mentor is deeply embedded in Standing Rock’s issues. I just happen to unpack a box the other day and “Dreaming the Dark” was the first book I saw. I started re-reading it and I felt like I had come full circle. I started off this journey as a Reclaiming Witch, and have reclaimed so much more than I ever knew I could. I completely agree about Allies- you need to reclaim your own indigeneity. In some sense, I think my foray into the Craft was my only way to express my connection to the land as a part of us. I thank you so much for that- for the conversation one late autumn evening, the discomfort, and the words and actions that have helped me, and many others, begin to decolonize our minds and hearts <3

  • Judith Wonstolen

    Thank you for your account , Starhawk, and to all my sisters who shared in response..I did not know until just tonight that you had gone to Standing Rock, and yet, I am not surprised that you would face down fears and personal challenges to make your way there to stand for the Earth and Water and the People . Hearing that Lyla spoke in the sweat lodge, to the scars left collectively on white Europeans from the witch burnings fills me with awe over how many strands of sacred traditions, both the horrors and the miracles, are being woven together now in one circle of love and healing . Earlier this evening I watched the video of veterans on bended knee ask for forgiveness..and I see my sisters share as I can, of magical time spent with you (mine was at the Bailey CO retreat, Fall 14,where I asked if you still believed that Spirit is our “wild card” and you hesitated just barely, then said firmly replied “Yes, because I have to”)..and now, with what we see unfolding at Standing Rock, we KNOW it is so! I too, have a 20 yr women’s circle, and teach a women’s spirituality course at a college (under women’s studies), have passed the 60 benchmark, and wonder where this cultural path is heading..but I see now, how many of us there are! WE ARE RISING …Goddess IS Alive, and Magic IS Afoot! My prayers go out to you, Starhawk, for peace, grace, trust and clarity as you navigate what sounds like a very hard life transition..to you, and all my sisters, BLESSED BE!

  • Dianne

    Dearest Starhawk, We had the great gift of permaculture from you and the chance to visit your land and home as we passed through San Francisco….I have been praying you would find your way to Standing Rock. We have supported native families there and Cheryl is a dear friend. I am so grateful to be touched by you again through this sharing. All the best and great gratitude, Dianne and Salvatore from Permaculture class in 2007.

  • Diana Spoonfire

    Starhawk- I had the opportunity to participate in the training that you ladies led. It was inspiring and very moving. So powerful to witness so many young women so empowered in love and in light, praying for justice. I was also moved in the discussion of European witches losing our sense of our heritage. It was heart bursting to listen to Lyla sing so beautifully, her song solidified the wise words that Cheryl Angel and you put to voice. I was unable to participate in the March, but was stirred beyond words in the witnessing of you all in silent prayer lines as you filed out of Sacred Stone Camp towards Rosebud.

    I was there for also only for the weekend, we brought our humble donations, folded blankets, sorted medical supplies, but feel unbelievably impacted. I attended with a younger woman from my tribe, it was a huge learning and soul opening for both of us. It has also been a moving opportunity to share these moments with folks back here in MN both in Mundania and in Circle, solidifies my desire to honor the Mother through prayer and activism.

    Thank you for your part in all of this, Blessings

  • Dear Starhawk,
    I am writing across the miles and decades to honor you and your/our work beloved sister and activist – You were there at standing rock for many of us who could not go in body this season. The time is ripening for more both spirit and action , for both ceremony and community organizing for survival, resilience, and thrival in the face of the national election.
    (Expanded nuclear force indeed!)
    It is time to expand and strengthen the NEW CLEAR arsenals that link prayer and ceremony with pracitcal earthsacred community action. Regenerative practices, renewable energy, food security, and “The steps we take now make new earth grow beneath our feet. Lets have a deep shared re-read of Fifth Sacred Thing – just the frontispiece is a lifetime credo. The steps we take now decide what kind of earth that will be.” (From Random Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty 20th anniversary edition – foreword by Desmond Tutu – art by Mayumi Oda) with fierce Gaian love and gratitude from your sisters – M. Paloma Pavel (and Anne Herbert – who is with us in sprit.) .

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