Joseph Bobrow

The Beating Heart of Standing Rock—
Walking the Great Mystery With All My Relations

On November 3, 2016, five hundred and twenty-four clergy from around the country and the world journeyed to Oceti Sakowin, Seven Fires Camp, in Cannonball, North Dakota. We came in support of the water protectors at Standing Rock Sioux reservation in a momentous gathering of tribes, their allies, and people from all walks of life standing in solidarity to put a halt to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

At Standing Rock, multifaith action was the interplay in a remarkable contemporary context of the principles of Native spirituality: The Great Mystery (Wakan Tanka , also Great Spirit) and All My Relations (Mitakuye Oyasin). I want to share with you my experience of how this unfolded over four days in November.

I had experience with activism and communities, but I was wary of “the helping hand (that) strikes again,” a term coined by the educator John Holt. This unseen principle had wreaked havoc; think saviors coming to rescue the Iraqi people in 2003. As a white male, I also recalled the tensions back in the day when white folk offered to help black folk fight for their rights.


At the Bismarck airport I met my ride, two pre-Rabbinic Hebrew priestesses who were renting a car. Great company they were and navigating geniuses who led us through miles of unlit, mostly unmarked roads. As I began wondering about the early Hebrews’ magical powers, they said they’d learned a trick to download GPS directions to use when there’s no signal. They dropped me off at St. James Episcopal Church, which Rev. Floberg had made available.

The next morning, I was itching to get to camp. After helping make thousands of sandwiches, Mike, a newly appointed Episcopal Bishop for Oregon, and I drove up. Native author Louise Erdrich captures the approach, “The hills and buttes of the Missouri breaks are dotted with isolated houses until the sudden appearance of the Oceti Sakowin encampment. The presence of so many people catches at the heart.” I got out of the car and stopped to take in the scope and feel the pulsating life. I walked through the main gate and down the road, following the amplified sound of the camp announcer calling for volunteers down by the river. I found him next to the sacred fire. “Relatives, we need you down by the river, there’s an action in progress. If you can witness, that would be great.” “Relatives” —that greeting would stay with me as I experienced that he and other Natives meant it. We were in this together.

I set off to find the river. People were going in different directions. There was a group of excited young Lutherans eager to put their bodies where their beliefs were. Someone who seemed like an organizer told us that if we were willing to be arrested or even if we just wanted to witness, we should go register with the Red Owl Legal Collective up on the hill.

I listened to the legal counselors but decided I did not want to be in jail when our clergy action took place the following day. Things were very fluid, it felt like news was continuously breaking, accounts being updated, versions changing by the minute. Waves of information and energy pulsated through camp. There had been a tragedy by the river. Later, an elder had been hurt. Women and children were now asked to stay back. Then allies too. Something had happened or was happening but it was hard to know precisely what.

I dropped off some warm clothing friends had sent along and decided to stop and just take things in, sitting down a short distance from the sacred fire in the shade of a few tarps.

The swirl of information, activity and concern quieted down. I sensed a lull, a low kind of feeling. It was as if there were a palpable collective pulse.

A female elder took the mic. As she spoke I realized anew how we are all one interacting mind, “Relatives, you might think things here are disorganized, even chaotic. But it’s an ordered disorganization. We Indians don’t put things in squares and compartments. We see circles, we follow intuition. But things get done, they unfold.” And how.

She passed the mic to the announcer, who paused. “There hasn’t been much going so well the past couple days,” he said. Just days before, over 100 water protectors had been arrested and many brutalized. “I think we need some humor. Anyone got any jokes?” When no one came forward, he said, “You know there’s such a thing as Native humor. I hope you white folks aren’t offended.” And he told a series of five or six stories, each funny and with complex interweaving themes. If inclusion—embracing differences within unity—was the order of the day, and it was—things were also pretty nuanced.

“So back in the day, some white folks came to the rez and said: ‘Where did you Indians get all this money?’ They had seen a shiny new USDA building and a few new stores. An Indian said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you. There was this guy, his last name was Custer. One of the Indians knew him. During a conversation we learned what he was planning. So we sent a runner over the hills into the city. And we took out a life insurance policy on Mr. Custer.'”

The others gathered didn’t show much, but I nearly burst out in laughter. There was a barb for sure, but it was complex. The final joke was short. Someone called out Donald Trump’s name. “Nah,” said the announcer. “Nah.” Another called out, “Come on,” but he said, “Nah, he’s not worth it.” Finally the announcer agreed, “Okay…Okay…Donald Trump, you are lucky…“ We waited expectantly, like with a knock-knock joke. “You are lucky, Donald Trump, that you wear a hairpiece.” It took a moment but this time I broke out laughing.

After Grandma’s words and the announcer’s jokes, there was a long lull; a down feeling seemed to return. As I made my way toward the main camp road, I passed a young woman carrying a sign that said Mental Health and asked her if I could learn more. She showed me where the teepee was and invited me to come by.

Just then a buzz went up, slowly building to a roar, then a cheer. I looked to my right and along the road that bordered the sacred fire a caravan was rolling up, as if responding to prayers unspoken. On horseback and in pick-up trucks came young male warriors, many wearing feathers. They looked like they had been through an ordeal and carried prayer flags on long poles and a drum. Something was happening, something spontaneous and not measurable in “compartments and squares.”

A few Natives formed a circle at the sacred fire and began drumming and singing. The energy of ceremony rose in a sharp dramatic way. From the far corners of the camp residents began to arrive, drawn by the music, which was surely prayer. Young male warriors began to dance, circling the drummers. Elders would touch and bless them. The rising tide of energy was palpable and irresistible. Eyes brightened, we became immersed, and the sense of emptiness lifted as we were carried into the ancient ritual.

The drumming and singing and praying built to a fever pitch and, just when you thought it was over, it would begin again. The crowd had grown to hundreds. The community was revitalizing itself using its ceremonial resources. The drumbeats and cries went right through and in—linking, buoying, energizing, awakening. The ancient was alive. Ancestors felt present. While immersed, I also marveled at how the community was spontaneously raising its spirits by raising The Great Spirit (Wakan Taka) through the presence of All My Relations (Mitakuye Oyasin).

Carried along on this great wave, I glanced around and saw that others were too. The entire community was infused with a pulsating life-giving energy that linked us all. We were breathing and being breathed in a great communal inspiration. When the prayer stopped, there was a long silence. Something had shifted, a “climate change” of benevolent aliveness.


The clergy action on November 3, 2016, would be the first ever public multifaith renunciation of the Doctrine of Discovery in the presence of elders from a wide range of tribes. The doctrine was created by Papal decree and adopted by the U.S. government, enabled Christopher Columbus and white US settlers alike to justify their taking possession of Native lands. Reverend Floberg told us in the gym that we were five hundred and twenty-four in number, remarkably the same as the number of years since the Doctrine of Discovery was invoked in the Americas. Myth and reality blurred in a felicitous way.


The next morning, I walked in the dawn light with Zen friends across the hills to the town hall where breakfast awaited. Then we shuttled over to the campground. The area around the sacred fire is not large. With elders from the multiple tribes gathered, residents from camp, and the clergy and lay people gathered; it was quite a crowd. On a clear bright morning, Rev. Floberg convened the ceremony with simple, powerful words. Each of the faith leaders spoke briefly, renouncing the Doctrine of Discovery. They each presented a tribal elder with a copy of the Doctrine. John suggested they could place them in the fire if they wished. I couldn’t help but notice the look on the elders’ faces: “But of course,” they seemed to say. One after another, the elders burned the Doctrine of Discovery.

It was momentous. In the same container as the burning doctrines, elders offered sacred tobacco. They began to smudge the clergy and the other elders. We had been instructed to proceed through the gate and up the hill to the front lines, the 1806 Backwater bridge, for the rest of our ceremony. But we weren’t moving and seemed to be dissipating the momentum we’d just created. When I turned around and glanced up the hill, I realized that every person was being individually smudged from a single ceramic container, the same one that contained the burning Doctrines of Discovery and the sacred tobacco offering. My restless eagerness abated; I saw the transforming alchemy and how it had spontaneously arisen.

We all walked up the hill and assembled at the edge of the bridge. In the middle of the bridge were three Native volunteers policing the event. On the other side of the bridge were concrete barricades, a burned-out semitruck, scores of county and state police, DAPL security, and numerous police and militarized vehicles. We gathered into a big circle, spreading well up the hillside. As John began to speak, the low-tech sound system could not compete with the helicopters buzzing low over the bridge. Some said they were deploying Stingray spy technology to tap cellphones.

After multifaith prayers, John invited us to come up, asking if we were “singers” or “speakers.” The first presenter was a vibrant African Methodist Episcopal female cleric in brightly colored robes. She spoke powerfully and incisively, making clear connections among racial, economic, political and environmental injustice, NoDAPL and Black Lives Matter, and American slaves and Native Americans. The Associate Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the U.S., also an African-American woman, followed. She jumped in with “Wade in the water, wade in the water, Children wade in the water, God’s gonna trouble the water.” Her voice rose above the helicopters and we all began to move together, enrapt, joining in song. Of course, Mni Wiconi, Water is Life! The battle cry of the Standing Rock movement. We were all in the water together, and of the water, too. Someone from every denomination represented sang, spoke or both. Each was moving and distinctive.

There were also sounds coming from another action that had developed nearby, at the middle of the bridge. A group of younger water protectors was pushing the limits, surging toward the police and barricades on the other side. Restrained by the volunteer Native police, their chants and protests drew a few from our own ranks.

When the singing and speaking finished, we five hundred and twenty-four strong began a slow ceremonial movement in which the circle folds in on itself and continues round, permitting everyone to come face to face with everyone else. This we did, one by one, seeing and greeting one another. Like the smudging earlier, this practice was powerful in its own way, though not as confrontational as the smaller louder counterpoint out on the bridge.

Standing by the side of the bridge, I noticed two Native women who’d both spoken, Lyla June and an elder, perhaps her teacher. I’d heard they were leading a forgiveness march in two days to the Morton County Police Station. Rather than suffering paralyzing animosity, they drew from their Native spirituality to practice and offer forgiveness to those who had harmed the water protectors. Not everyone agreed with their approach, but I was intrigued and approached to say hello.

Lyla was finishing a conversation with a young Christian man, a musician who was wearing a few crosses on chains around his neck. He had just finished singing them a song, perhaps a song of healing. He took off a chain and gave it to her. I couldn’t see what the amulet was. I thought it was a cross but later saw it was a purple stone. Lyla began to weep and sob. Finally she said, “Oh, your (Christian) ‘way’ must have major powers, major spirit…” I thought, A gift? A true gift from a Christian, a group that has so harmed our people? I think what moved her so was the unusual felt experience of safety and generosity from someone toward whom she and her people still rightly felt suspicious and aggrieved.

As the actions wound down, I walked out to the middle of the bridge to one of the Native volunteer police. I’d overheard part of his conversation with a water protector and said, “As a veteran, it must not feel so good to have high powered sniper rifles trained on you.”  He replied, “Yeah, there they are,” pointing to the top of Turtle Hill. “Doesn't bother me. I’m used to it.” After a pause he continued, “If they shoot at me, that means they’re not shooting at you all.” I was moved by his warrior spirit, looking out for others.

I walked over to where my Zen friends were talking to another Native volunteer policeman. He was Christian, wore a Mohawk, and was an MMA (mixed martial arts) fighter. He spoke softly and thoughtfully. Wendy suggested we pray together and invited him to lead the prayer. He declined, but she was persistent. The four of us took one anothers’ hands on what he had named ‘The Bridge of Hope.’ “The one thing I pray for today,” he said, “is for one of those police over there on the other side, just one, to come over here so we can have a dialogue. Just him and me. As people, not in our roles. A one-to-one dialogue.”

As we were about to leave, the veteran policeman was looking through his binoculars and said, “They’re mobilizing. They’re preparing to move on the camp.” A wave of fear, a traumatic ripple; our body-minds “mobilized” too. We tried to figure out what they were doing and why. There had been no provocations. After a few minutes, he realized it was an hour past the time John Floberg had told the police the event would end. We were still on the bridge talking and there was also a long trailer with packages of bottled water. After we cleared the bridge and the trailer drove off, the troops withdrew.


One month later, on December 4, 2016, following a nine-month long struggle and the arrival the previous day of thousands of U.S. war veterans, the Army Corps of Engineers denied the DAPL owners, Energy Transfer Partners, an easement to drill across the Missouri River. On February 9, on the orders of President Trump, the Army Corps aborted the Environmental Impact Statement in full progress and granted the easement. Drilling progressed and pipe was laid under the Missouri River.


The burned-out semitruck is gone but concrete barriers still keep the ‘Bridge Of Hope’ impassable, severely limiting Natives peoples’ mobility. The pipeline is operational, and there have been many leaks already.


Joseph Bobrow

Joseph Bobrow is the founder and Roshi of Deep Streams Zen Institute. An author, activist, and psychoanalyst, he has long been integrating Buddhist practice with Western psychology to create communities that transform individual and collective anguish. Among these, a rural cooperative school for young children, an educational and support program for divorcing families, mentoring and meditation groups for incarcerated teenagers, and reintegration retreats that mobilize the power of community to help veterans, their families, and their caregivers transform the traumas of war and find peace. 

Joseph tells the story of his integrative peace building work in Waking Up from War: A Better Way Home for Veterans and Nations, with a foreword by the Dalai Lama. Joseph’s first book was Zen and Psychotherapy: Partners in Liberation, with comments by Thich Nhat Hanh. After Midnight: Selected Poems, Joseph’s first collection of poems, was published in 2017.

Coming Home Project, a community service of Deep Streams Zen Institute, was dedicated to alleviating the unseen injuries of war. Now it offers consultation for those creating environments for transforming trauma and cultivating social and individual change.

Joseph practices psychotherapy in Studio City, CA and teaches widely. Here is one of his poems:

Playing with Barry

understanding overcoming
understanding understanding
overcoming understanding
overcoming overcoming
over under
ov  un
o  u


(Note: The first four lines are from Barry Spack’s poem, The Practice)

More on Joseph Bobrow's work can be found on our Links page.