Recently I was flying across the country on one of those rare cloudless days when you can watch the full bounty of the earth pass beneath you in all its geological and topographic beauty. I sat, mesmerized, as the ragged expanse of the Rockies gave way to the duns and tans of the rolling high plains. Cities and towns – small huddlings connected by a thin tracery of roadways — appeared for a moment and then, just as quickly, were gone.
I was lulled into an almost hypnotic reverie by the landscape passing below me when suddenly the brown list and roll of the plains was broken abruptly by a snaking ribbon of blue that looked like nothing so much as one of those serpentine dragons on the back of a Japanese kimono. The Missouri River. The Mne Sose, the giver of life.
Seeing this vibrant blue artery against the relentless brown of the landscape brought to mind a conversation I once had with a Lakota man outside a convenience store on the Standing Rock Lakota reservation in North Dakota. A severe drought had overtaken the land, and the earth was parched with a desperate thirst.
“I hear the reservoirs on the Missouri are drying up,” I said. “The ranchers are having to truck in water for their stock.”
The man pulled some tobacco shards from a cigarette he had just rolled. “Damming a river is like stopping the blood in the veins,” he said. “It’s bound to cause trouble.”
His words haunted me there at 30000 feet as I thought of the people gathered far below me at the Sacred Stone encampment in an effort to stop the pipeline that would cut like a black snake through this magical landscape. By their presence they were trying to speak the truth that the old man knew in his heart: you do not violate a river, because it is the lifeblood of the earth.
Anyone who has ever experienced the power and the magic of the Dakotas knows that this land has a spiritual presence. It is a land of vast singularities — sky, earth, wind, moon, clouds moving in stately procession through azure skies — nothing small to stop the eye. It leans the heart instinctively toward meditation. And coursing through it all, in majestic counterpoint, is the Missouri, the longest river in America, flowing in sinuous beauty among the hills and swales toward a seemingly endless horizon.
To experience this land is to understand on a fundamental and visceral level that the confrontation taking place here at the edge of the Missouri is more than a struggle between protesters and authorities; more even than test of limits of tribal sovereignty or even claims of violations of sacred land. This is a struggle for the very health of the planet itself.
It is a wager between the belief that technology, in the service of progress, will allow us to adapt and adjust and change the earth to fit our human needs, and the belief that the earth has immutable truths that we cannot violate without irreparable damage. It is a wager we cannot afford to get wrong.
An elder once said to me, “You think you can fix everything, change everything. But there will come a day when things cannot be fixed. And, you know what, it will be a day just like today.”
The committed gathering of people on the banks of the Mne Sose understand this. They know, like the old man in Fort Yates, that the Missouri is the blood in the veins of this earth, and that if it becomes polluted by toxins, whether intentionally or otherwise, all the earth and the life upon it fed by those waters is in peril.
The reactor at Fukashima sits in stark desolation, beyond the capability of human repair, seeping radioactive water into the Pacific. Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Mexico are forever tainted by the oil spilled from the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon. Chernobyl is a ghost city standing in haunted silence amid the rich grain fields of the Ukraine.
In these and a thousand lesser-known places, pipelines have ruptured, reactors have leaked, and trains have derailed, leaving the land and waters poisoned and the plants and animals diseased and dying. And in each case, we had claimed that such accidents were impossible, because all necessary protections and safeguards were in place to keep them from occurring.
Now, in an unholy alliance of faith in technology, our insatiable desire for oil, and the demands of corporate profit, we are trying to put a pipeline beneath the Missouri River, the giver of life.
We must not let this happen. We must now speak up, each of us in our own way. The folks huddling in the cold on those distant Dakota plains, being sprayed with water cannons and maimed by concussion grenades, need to hear our voices added to theirs.
They are not there for themselves. They are there for our children and our children’s children. They are the voice for the seventh generation, if there is to be a seventh generation. And they are being led by the very people whose voices have too long been silenced, the people who have always understood that the earth is alive and that spirit is present in all of creation — the people of Native America.
Those of us sitting comfortably in our homes are called upon at this moment to decide if we will stand with them, or if we will let this fade into the background while we continue to live as if the earth is infinite in her patience and capabilities. We are asked to choose, by our words and actions, whether we believe that the earth is here for our benefit, and technology and ingenuity can always save us from our mistakes, or if we believe that we are stewards of this fragile planet and must approach her with humility and respect.
As we choose, we would do well to keep the words of the elder who spoke with me close to our heart: “There will come a day when things cannot be fixed, and it will be a day just like today.”
I, for one, believe we must do what we can to keep that day from coming.