Yom Kippur at Standing Rock, Dakota -- and Sukkot Everywhere

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[This report from the Lakota Native encampment in Standing Rock, ND, is by Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, who is director of the Social Justice Organizing Program at the  Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and a member of the Board of The Shalom Center. Below his report is a song for Sukkot with words written by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, set to a slightly modified melody by Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield of blessed memory. The song can be seen in full and more readable size by clicking on the title of this article and then clicking on the caption "Sukkat Shalom song" just below the black bar called "Attachment." Rabbi Liebling's report follows:]

We are camped at the confluence of the Missouri and Cannonball Rivers, with high winds and sub-freezing night-time temperatures, preparing for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.   Why did I, a rabbi and son of Holocaust survivors, travel to the Standing Rock encampment to support Native Nations in halting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipe Line (DAPL)?

This pipeline is slated to carry Bakken Crude Shale Oil, fracked in North Dakota, beneath 200 different waterways to a refinery in Chicago.  The original plans called for it to cross under the Missouri River close to Bismarck, ND.  The local (white Euro-American) leadership objected and the Army Corps of Engineers decided to reroute it through lands sacred to the Lakota Nation.  The Nations have claimed in several law suits that the Army Corp did not go through the legally required consultation process.  The courts initially ruled in favor of the Army Corps, but the Obama administration has intervened to call for a halt in construction twenty miles on either side of the sacred grounds until the consultation process is completed.

At 2:00 AM the day after Native Peoples' experts filed maps in court showing where the sacred grounds were, the Enbridge Energy company ordered its bulldozers to cross into the legally mandated no-go area. They dug a trench right through the sacred areas that the pipeline crossed.  They have not been penalized.

The Native Peoples are defining themselves as water protectors and not as protestors.  The Missouri River provides drinking water to 18 million people. No man-made thing lasts forever, pipelines routinely leak. It is not a question of if, but of when this pipeline will leak.  They are protecting the water; their call is “Water is Life.” I have come to understand that they are fighting for all of us. They are first and foremost protecting the Earth and are on the frontline against global warming, willing to risk their lives. It would be fully consistent with American history for some Native leaders to be murdered in these actions.

Everyday at the camp there is two-hour non-violent training session. On a day that I attended there were over 50 people, mostly new arrivals from the Comanche Nation in Oklahoma.  It was repeatedly stressed that this is non-violent, peaceful action and that is under the rubric of Ceremony. The primary mode of action is going to the construction sites and praying.  Women are asked to wear long skirts, as this is ceremony, and that for those who need one there is a sewing machine and fabric available to make one.

There are about 40 teepees and hundreds of tents at Standing Rock, housing about 1500 people. Over 300 Native Nations have sent representatives at different times in this unprecedented show of unity.  Each time a delegation arrives they are invited to the main circle to share a dance and a sacred song. The challenge now is how to winterize for the brutal North Dakota winter.

Several times during Yom Kippur we collectively confess a long list of misdeeds against other. It is always we have stolen, we have lied, we have spoken slander, and the list goes on, but never “I” alone.  It acknowledges that we all make mistakes and that each of us bears responsibility. We intone throughout the day the compassionate qualities of the Divine as we pray for forgiveness for our transgressions against other people. White America has stolen, lied and spoken slander about Native Nations for over 500 years.

This year Yom Kippur is October 12 the original Columbus Day.  Christopher Columbus sailed to the West under the Vatican’s Doctrine of Discovery, which gave him the power to “capture, vanquish, and subdue the Saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ," to "put them into perpetual slavery," and "to take all their possessions and property.” 

After Columbus’ voyage of 2493, Pope Alexander VI further defined the Doctrine of Discovery and granted control over all non-Christian lands newly or soon to be “discovered” to the Spanish monarchy, for the purpose of converting the residents there to Christianity -- and to encourage trade.

The Discovery Doctrine became official U. S. law in 1823 when Chief Justice John Marshall cited it in writing for a unanimous court in the case of  Johnson v. McIntosh.  It enshrined in law that the nations of the Native Peoples were subject to the ultimate authority of the nation of Christendom -- in this case the United States –--  that was first to claim possession of a given region of “Indian” lands.  As recently as 2005, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg cited this as precedent in a majority opinion.

The original sin of White America is racism, its first victims were the Native People and it has never stopped.  By any measure they are the poorest, least educated and least healthy of any group in our country. America must atone for the ongoing genocide of our First Inhabitants, genocide is legally defined as the intentional destruction of a people and that is what the policies and practices have been intended to do.

How to atone for the pain inflicted on others that we did not directly cause, but benefit from? In Judaism the deepest form of atonement is to change our actions, next best is by doing our best to make sure that when the situation arises again we will act differently; each are accompanied by reparations for the harm we have done.  We cannot change our lives to stop benefitting from the systemic and institutional oppression of Native People.  We can act to change the situation.


[A note by Rabbi Arthur Waskow:

As we respond to Rabbi Liebling's challenge, we move past Yom Kippur and live into one of the powerful teachings of Jewish tradition for the protection of all peoples and all life-forms: the practice of building the Sukkah -- a fragile hut wth a leafy, leaky roof. It is one of the most profound remnants of the ancient Israelites living as a land-based people, like the Lakota Nation in the continent the Native Peoples call "Turtle Island" -- and like other indigenous peoples around our shared Earth today. I offer the words of this song, set to a melody by  Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield of blessed memory, as we greet the last few days of the Festival of Fragile Huts --  Sukkot.]



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