“Prayer is action”: Contemplative practice and social justice in Standing Rock, ND

Photo by Daysha Eaton

On my first morning at Standing Rock, after a cold sleep punctuated by the sound of a helicopter in the night sky, a camp leader addressed newly arrived people in these words: “I see many of you who are new to camp walking around looking for action. Let me remind you that prayer is action.” Prayer is at the heart of Oceti Sakowin and other camps where members of the Great Sioux Nation and their indigenous and non-indigenous supporters are gathered. Ceremonies exuding gratitude and hope are often held next to the camp’s sacred fires and the Cannonball River, quietly flowing under a thin layer of ice. Elders ask every supporter at the camp to be in constant prayer.

The emphasis on mindful presence, prayer and ceremony struck me as being the roots of the movement when I visited Oceti Sakowin in November 2016. Contemplative practices in the form of individual and collective prayer, chanting and mindfulness are ubiquitous at the camp in a way that I had not experienced in other social contexts with an explicit purpose that went beyond joint practice. I related this experience to the Mind & Life Summer Research Institute (SRI) this past June, where many participants shared an aspiration to engage beyond the sole scientific exploration of contemplative practices, into their intersections with social justice issues. Since then, as a result of the conversations during SRI, a “Mind & Life Social Justice Community” has formed. Additionally, during Mind & Life’s International Symposium for Contemplative Studies (ISCS) in early November, Rhonda Magee invited Standing Rock demonstrator Michaela Caplan to participate in a panel presentation on social justice, during which Michaela shared moving insights on these same topics.

The premise at Standing Rock is that a person’s intention is not just in the head or mind; it is a potent stream of action. So when helping at the camp — whether one is building, sorting, cooking, caring or, for some, nonviolently demonstrating — peace and compassion should lead the way. Newcomers are encouraged to keep their motives and emotions in check, and to seek a peaceful and trusting inner place before seeking action. At the heart of the camp is a sacred fire always burning, where elders foster togetherness and presence through prayers and songs, sometimes accompanied by the smoke of burning sage and the sound of drums. Anger and fear are not only considered undesirable, but dangerous, including at the frontlines where such emotions may encounter those of the construction workers and police. If activists and supporters do not feel clear of these negative emotions, they are asked to step aside and pray, which in these cold North Dakota days may start with awareness of the ground beneath one’s feet and the air within one’s lungs — back to the physicality of being here.

This focus on prayer, ceremony and presence is difficult to grasp from the outside, yet it is what makes what is happening at Standing Rock different from any social and political protest I have encountered (and I am French — so, a fair amount), and it seems especially powerful and timely. In this struggle, led by Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people, the end does not justify the means but rather it is the means (is there, after all, ever truly an end to the consequences of an action?). Everyone’s first contribution is their state of being and their genuine intention — from which all action emerges. Research has shown that a contemplative practice increases awareness of intention and control over actions and in this large scale, real-life experiment, it works: despite the diversity of supporters on site, the long history of oppression of indigenous peoples in the Americas and the current pressure from heavily militarized police forces, the camp is filled with generosity and compassion.

There is a reason why those at Standing Rock have been calling themselves Water Protectors, not Protestors: to highlight a stand for justice and life, not a fight against other people. There is no place given to revenge and anger outside of the listening tent in the medic area, and the discussion circles where these emotions are addressed. Pipeline construction workers and people in the police are not diminished or hated — compassion extends to them, too. They are water, too.

Importantly, this commitment to what connects rather than what divides does not mean tolerating abuse or backing down in the face of violence. To the contrary, it provides strong and confident roots for resistance in dignity because what is being defended is at the source of our very being, and experienced as such through presence and prayer: a natural and nondual commitment to protecting life that comes from experiencing — before rationalizing — our connection to other beings and to the earth, air and water.

While drifting asleep on a bed of hay in one of the camp’s community sleeping tents, I thought of
Parker Palmer’s call a few weeks ago to “learn to listen beneath our own and other people’s political rhetoric for what Howard Thurman called the sound of the genuine in each of us.” It was clear to me after a few days as one of many guests at Oceti Sakowin that indigenous elders at Standing Rock are not only walking this path, but showing it to others who have come to stand with them — a stream of wisdom that has led to historical moments of reconciliation such as a recent forgiveness ceremony uniting U.S. Army veterans and native elders, and that will continue flowing far beyond the Missouri River.

At a time when many are defining themselves against others rather than with, this invitation to connect to and defend our truth from a place of physical presence and mindfulness is a timely antidote to divisive denial or cynicism, as it is to guilt-ridden or ego-driven activism. It is also a call to examine and engage with the connections underpinning our ethical know-how — to use Varela’s phrase — and what it means for each one of us to do the right thing.

I wondered what took me there, why I felt it was right to go and why I need narratives at all to justify my actions. I also wondered about the police officer who on November 24 shouted to the demonstrators, “We do not want confrontation, please leave. You are wearing goggles, which is aggressive behavior. We will have no choice but to defend ourselves against aggression.” The demonstrators were indeed wearing goggles after being tear-gassed the weekend before. Was the police officer trying to convince himself that he would be doing the right thing if he gave orders to fire?

As I walked out of a Bismarck hotel room at 5 a.m. a few hours after leaving the camp, there were dozens of young people in military gear in the lobby. They were members of the police force headed to Standing Rock, waiting to catch their bus. They looked tired. I knew I was running late but as I spotted an empty seat among them, I asked if it was free; I wanted to ask how they felt. My shuttle driver called me, however, and I left before I could ask. On the shuttle, I wondered if these officers prayed, what they held sacred, what helped them feel what is the right thing to do. I wondered how much they, as we all, suppress the sound of the genuine in order to follow the sounds of institutions. I wanted to tell them that they could take a moment that day to feel the ground beneath their feet on that hill, to hear the drums and look at the people facing them, with them in this landscape — where they may see themselves.

Photo by Daysha Eaton


SARAH LABORDE is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Anthropology at the Ohio State University. She attended the Mind & Life Summer Research Institute in 2016, which was focused on the theme of “Context.” Standing Rock, ND, is where a grassroots movement, led by Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people, emerged in April 2016 to prevent the construction of the North Dakota Access Pipeline under the Missouri River, upstream of tribal land. Construction was halted on December 4 by the Department of the Army, as a result of the struggle.

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