I had coffee with a friend yesterday. At one point in the conversation Standing Rock came up, and we both realised that as soon as we started talking about it our eyes filled with tears. In case you’ve been living under a stone for the past year, or perhaps just relying on the mainstream media for your news, Standing Rock is a Sioux reservation in Dakota in the US where indigenous people, both from the local Dakota and Lakota people, and joined by indigenous people from across the US and elsewhere, and many other demonstrators, just succeeded in blocking (for now) a $3.7 billion oil pipeline. Something very powerful, very deep, is happening there.
You may have felt it. Their call and their story has gone far and wide, and people around the world have stood in solidarity with them. They have endured physical violence, attacks by dogs, water cannons, pepper spray, surveillance, and all manner of other indignations and assault. Their whole campaign has been done with the most extraordinary grace, compassion and poise.
One of the key things that led the US government to not give permission, at the last minute, for the drilling of a pipeline beneath a river that is considered sacred, was 2,000 US Army veterans who went to Standing Rock, offering to form a ‘human shield’ to protect demonstrators. A couple of days ago, a very remarkable thing happened there, a ceremony in which the veterans knelt and asked the Native elders for forgiveness. Wes Clark J., one of the leaders of the Veterans, said during that ceremony:
“We fought you. We took your land. We signed treaties that we broke. We stole minerals from your sacred hills. We blasted the faces of our presidents onto your sacred mountain… We didn’t respect you, we polluted your Earth, we’ve hurt you in so many ways but we’ve come to say that we are sorry. We are at your service and we beg for your forgiveness.”
Here is a very moving film of that ceremony:
Albeit at many thousands of miles distance, I have felt deeply connected to what is happening at Standing Rock. It has felt like a turning point. Like something deep is shifting. Meeting the end of the oil age with firm, clear, compassionate determination. A culture coming together in prayer to protect the earth, the water, the soil. In a spirit of deep truth-telling and in a warrior spirit. And restating always that fundamental principle that we belong to the Earth, the Earth doesn’t belong to us.
I was struck yesterday by the gulf between the kind of poise and clarity at Standing Rock and what we see elsewhere in the world of politics. UK Prime Minister Theresa May was interviewed on the BBC as part of her current trip to meet the leaders of Gulf states to discuss trade deals. This was in the same interview that she stated that she wants a “red, white and blue Brexit”, a nonsense term that suggests it is somehow patriotic to torch your own economy and to isolate it from the rest of the world, and that anyone who questions that is also being unpatriotic.
Anyway, I digress. She was asked how she reconciled the appalling record on human rights in these countries and Britain’s ongoing willingness to trade with them. She replied:
“What is important is that we are able to raise these human rights issues with our friends from the Gulf States, and indeed our friends from other states around the world where we have concerns, but in order to be able to do that we need to be able to engage with those states. It is also important for us to insure that as we build a more global role for the UK that we are looking at interacting with these states on other issues as well, such as our trade and our prosperity. We have long-standing relationships with the Gulf. That enables us to engage with them on difficult issues like human rights, but it’s only because of those relationships that we’re able to do that”.
So, the logic goes, it is only by selling millions of pounds worth of torture equipment and weapons used to kill many thousands of people in Yemen and elsewhere to nations that behead more people than ISIS on an annual basis, deals often secured through bribery and corruption, that one is able to have any kind of meaningful conversation about human rights. You can just imagine the conversation in those meetings:
“I’d like to talk to you about your human rights record”
“Not interested. None of your business”
“Ah ok. Fancy a tank?”
It’s not that, as May put it, “it’s only because of those relationships that we’re able to do that (discuss human rights)”. We can also, as we see so clearly at Standing Rock, live a life of integrity, good heartedness and of values. Actually, if you are a nation that profits from death and torture, you have no moral high ground, no place of truth to speak from in those discussions. And, as you could tell from May’s body language and delivery, she goes into those discussions knowing that.
The title of this blog is, of course, a fantasy. Theresa May has never visited Standing Rock. But I have a fantasy that if she had done, if she had been one of those that had knelt in that forgiveness ceremony to apologise for the UK’s collusion in what happened to the native people of the US, and of native people elsewhere, that she would have been unable to trot out that nonsense on that Gulf runway.
While Brexit is bringing out the worst in some, and was driven by two campaigns both utterly bereft of honesty and empathy, neither of which did anything to appeal to our imaginations, Standing Rock represents the opposite. A torch has been lit there that will inspire and guide this most historic of transitions. And it has set the tone for the spirit in which we must act: together, with poise, humour, solidarity and with an honesty around rank, privilege and power. From the great distance at which I write this, I too go down on one knee to ask those Native elders for their forgiveness, and also to thank them for the renewal, the new fire they have brought to our wider movement at this most crucial time.