When the Spirits Descend Upon You: Acts 1:8 and the Assemblage of Oceti Sakowin Camp

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I went to Oceti Sakowin camp, North Dakota to join the call for clergy and spiritual leaders in the interfaith prayer on Dec 4th, 2016. This interfaith prayer is part of the Dakota Access Pipeline Protest’s (#NODAPL) fight against the construction of Energy Transfer Partners’ Dakota Access Pipeline that begins from the Bakken oil fields in western North Dakota to southern Illinois. Oceti Sakowin camp was chosen as the site for protest because the pipeline was intended to be built on it. This campsite is in the Standing Rock Indian reservation area, which is considered a sacred land for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. The pipeline was also designed to be built under lake Oahe in the reservation – a sacred water considered by many Native American tribes. The protesters or the “protectors” are confronting this construction because it neglected the value of sacred lands and waters of the Native Americans. The feasibility project of the pipeline led by the US army corps of engineers (and its corporate partners) was wanting as its review were not extensive and inclusive of the concerns of the Native American tribes.

From early 2016, the protectors gathered, encamped, and fought back against the construction of the pipeline who began the construction without the permission of the Native American tribes. As the news of this struggle broke out into the media, thousands of fellow protectors from all over the world came to join the Native American tribes.

Unfortunately, the protest had its violent moments. The tide was against the protectors. The US army corps of engineers were spraying water cannons, tear gas, and other harmful devices in order to discourage the spirits of the protectors. Finally, the US army corps of engineers gave an ultimatum to the protectors – they are forced to by December 4th. That is why I joined the interfaith prayer; this prayer event was intentionally scheduled on Dec 4th because it was right before the day the campers were supposedly removed involuntarily from the campsite by the US corps of engineers (Dec 5th).

This journey was also my pilgrimage for a requiem that remembers the environmental degradation that happened in the Philippines. As a Korean from the Philippines, I participated in demonstrations against the government and corporations who had corrupt plans to build businesses that destroy the environment. I wrote, taught, and marched with my fellow Filipin@ brothers and sisters in their cry for eco-justice on the streets of Manila and elsewhere. However, I have to admit, I did not engage in the protest fully because I feared for my status as foreigner – I feared deportation. That is why in my sorrowful dirge-like journey, my need to cry out for forgiveness for not being able to protect my sacred waters and lands in the Philippines drew me to this trip. I wanted to witness that the voices of my sacred lands and waters might have been muted, but they are never squelched.

To be honest with you, I was afraid again. I am only a green card holder, and not a US citizen. I could get deported for committing a federal crime.

Saturday, Dec 3rd, D-1 days, a day before the interfaith prayer, as I was driving down from Bismarck to Oceti Sakowin camp, at a distance I saw a road blockade with soldiers.

And I said to myself: oh I’m screwed! Jesus, if you would just help me this time, I will sing your praises all my life!

50 yards, 30 yards, 10 yards. I rolled down my window, and the soldier asked me, “where are you going, sir?”

I lied and said, “casino?”

The soldier smiled back at me and said, “this road is not safe for you to drive. Here, (giving me a piece of paper) please follow this detour direction. This is how you will get to the camp site.”

My heart just dropped. I did not expect the soldiers, the US corps of engineers, to be on the side of the Native Americans that day. After profusely thanking him, I turned back and drove to the camp with a huge sigh of relief.

Dec 4, 2016, in our stalls and Anglican collars, hundreds of clergy and spiritual leaders stood side by side, praying together in various tongues, listening to messages from various religions and faith traditions. We were at the center of the campsite. At the sacred fire area, the smell of burning incense, the warm ray of sunshine, and the cold breeze of North Dakota winter air surrounded us as we prayed. We looked for signs, anything and everything, to show us that it will ok. We saw birds flying over us – we shouted and comforted ourselves by saying that even the birds are joining our prayers! When the clouds dissipated and the sun shined brightly, we convinced ourselves that the spirits are with us that day. We just had to believe…

After our prayers, we decided to process the entire camp site. As we marched along, we invited bystanders and other protectors of the land to join us in our sacred march for unity and hope.

With heavy hearts and fear of the unknown, our procession increased in numbers. And then the veterans came. Bus after bus, thousands of veterans came to the camp site. They wore their military insignia, waved their flags, and with their heartfelt smiles, they emboldened us by promising that we are not alone. They stood as the buffer, the wall that protects the oppressed, the vulnerable, and the marginalized.

And then unexpected good news arrived into our camp. Around 3pm, Chairman Archibault II informed us that the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline has been halted. At that moment, the collective assemblage of the protectors, spiritual leaders, birds, buffalos, sacred water and land, veterans, and other actants created a molecular revolution. We felt a sudden burst of energy, as if the spirits descended upon us. From random places and all around the campsite, we danced to the rhythm of one-ness with the earth. We shouted words of gratefulness to our maker(s), ancestors, spirits, and the nonhumans who guided, protected, and encouraged us. We also cried cries of jubilation and relief that there is still a glimmer of hope in sad reality we are facing after the 2016 presidential election.

Those moments were captured in (social) media. As the spirits descended upon us, our “pentecost-like” fiery elation reminded me of Acts 1:8. Instead of colonial aspirations, our decolonizing hope against corporate greed became a witness that emanated – that is, broadcasted – from Oceti Sakowin camp, North Dakota, the US, and the rest of the world. The gospel that we shared transgressed the boundaries of the virtual and the corporeal. The affect that emanated from the celebration of the news – from what I heard – was felt by those who saw the news miles and miles away. The spirits of eco-justice descended not only upon us, but to all those who believed in the collective assemblage of the good. This protest sprout new protests in other parts of the US. Florida and Georgia also began their fight against its own pipeline construction: Sabal Trail pipeline. Other countries around the world also were affect by this spirit of eco-justice and partook in their own version of #NODAPL.

Of course, the fight does not begin and end with Oceti Sakowin camp. As Cornel West said that day: when Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream,” that water did not come ex nihil. Rather, that water flows from the Native Americans’ centuries of fight for justice. When we fight, we never fight alone. We are one with those who fought before us. We let ourselves be haunted by the very specters that brought forth revolutionary movements. In the hope that we will always remember that humility and justice go hand-in-hand.

Importantly, we fight together even if the issue is not directly our own. As a Korean-Filipino, I had no reason to be there. This is not my business. But I join the fight because the Native Americans’ fight is my fight. And in my struggle, I hope that they will not forget me. I learned that there is power in the collective. When we witness together, we could cultivate a culture of compassion and care. It is overwhelming to do this by oneself. But as an assemblage, we might stand on firmer grounds.

Dong Hyeon Jeong is a PhD Candidate in New Testament Studies at Drew University.

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