Early in the morning on Thursday, Nov. 3, a mass of clergy members gathered with tribal elders around the sacred fire in the heart of camp Oceti Sakowin. They were there to do something unprecedented.
The Doctrine of Discovery, a 1493 religious document justifying the American colonization and oppression of indigenous lands and peoples, has since been repudiated by Unitarian Universalism, along with many other faiths. But on this morning, representatives of those faiths, including UUA President Peter Morales, were to take it one critical step further. For the first time in history, they looked into the faces of tribal elders and read a statement of repudiation.
Copies of the original doctrine were given to the elders to decide what they wanted to do, inviting them to burn the papers in the sacred fire if desired. The elders consulted, then lit a match to the copies, holding the burning pages high in the air as the audience of clergy and water protectors cheered. You don’t put a doctrine like that into a sacred fire.
At the previous night’s orientation, Father John Floberg joked that the provided dinner was basic sandwiches because he had prepared for about 100 clergy answering his call to come to Standing Rock, but instead received over 500 registrations. Growing serious, he said that he capped the registration at 523 people, for the number of years the Doctrine of Discovery has been in existence.
A 523 year old religious document, burned in the witness of 523 registered interfaith ministers. The significance of that was not lost on anyone.
After the burning, the clergy and water protectors processed up the hill toward the bridge to partake in a prayer event. As they exited the camp and again at the entrance to the bridge area, they were smudged by women holding bowls of burning sage. The clergy formed a wide circle on the land near the bridge, and they took turns going up to a platform stage to share prayers and songs of their own faiths, make statements of solidarity, and walk on the bridge to pray.
An audience of water protectors formed on the hills near the stage. An audience of armed police stood on the other side of the bridge. Prior to this event, Father Floberg had spoken with the police (while at gunpoint) to assure them our event would be peaceful. But they still watched our every move.
After nearly five hours of prayer and statements, the clergy and water protectors formed a huge receiving line and shook hands with each other, wishing one another “Peace be with you.” It was moving, inspiring, and healing for all who attended.