Susie Silversmith and her husband Richard visited the Standing Rock Sioux camp recently to answer a call to people of faith to stand with Standing Rock. For more reflection from Richard and Susie and background on the situation in North Dakota, visit this Banner article. Susie was interviewed by Danielle Rowaan after her return.
Why did you go to Standing Rock?
Ever since I heard about Standing Rock, I felt a tug at my heart to know more about what was going on. When I learned it was a pipeline being constructed on the 1851 treaty land of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, I was saddened that the Dakota Access Pipeline had no regards, no respect for the Sioux people living there. Somehow in their thinking, it was okay to route the pipeline through the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, instead of taking the original path through Bismarck. I believe the whole area there is Sioux land according to the Treaty.
What were a couple of the most memorable things you experienced there?
I felt so at home. As soon as we got there the Sacred Stone Camp welcomed us and offered a tipi for our stay. (Since we were only going to be there for a short time we passed on it, so that those who are going to stay longer could stay there.) They were the nicest, most polite people I have met. The way they were living reminded me of my childhood. Running free, nature all around me. How they were camping reminded me of sheep camp with my parents and siblings, with the animals around me. The feeling of the softness of the earth under your feet when you walk on the ground. The sunrises and sunsets were beauty to behold. The water, so clear, cold, and full of life. The sacredness of the camp with people praying 24 hours a day.
What is the role of prayer at the Standing Rock camp?
Prayers are sacred, very sacred. I've always appreciated that about our culture. Especially our elders and medicine people often pray all night till sunrise, as my Navajo people do in certain ceremonies. My parents used to get us up before sunrise to pray.
At Standing Rock they were holding a peaceful sacred gathering with prayers. The camp reminded me of my own Navajo people who have ceremonies like that. The ceremony is treated seriously and respectfully. When we visited, the Lord had plans for us to meet some of the frontline protectors—we went to their camp and prayed with them. We formed a circle with our hands and while we were praying, the helicopters and drones started flying above us like they were trying to interrupt our prayers. It was a form of intimidation—they were trying to interfere with our prayer circle. I got a taste of what it feels like when the water protectors are praying and the militarized police make their commotion to disrupt their prayers.
Prayers are sacred, very sacred. I've always appreciated that about our culture.
Another thing that made me mad and sad was the stories I heard about the times the militarized police came and raided their camps, urinated on the sacred items, and threw them away. This story was shared with us by the some of our people who carry these sacred items for prayer. We use our feathers, cedar, sweet grass, tobacco, pipes, and other sacred items when we pray. Many of these items are passed down from generation to generation so that the ceremonies can be carried on. To me it's just like stepping into a church and dishonoring the altar or the piano, items that people use to worship God. My heart was broken when I heard that there was so little respect for our people and how they worship Creator God. There is only one Creator that we all worship. I believe that before any Europeans came, we Navajo people already had our relationship with God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. We already had our own ways of worshipping our Maker and Creator.
How do you feel about the response of local law enforcement to the camp?
I saw that the North Dakota governor had formed a militarized police force and hired other security to go in with dogs and attack the unarmed water protectors and defenders of water. Other weapons that were used by the police were tear gas, concussion grenades, rubber bullets, and the water cannons that were used in below freezing temperatures. Those water cannons caused hypothermia for elders, youth, women, and men who were protecting their drinking water and other people's drinking water who drink the water downstream to millions of people.
This is 2016, but our civil rights are still being violated.
They are standing up not just for their water, but for millions will be affected by this pipeline, and that's what some people who talk negatively about the situation need to know and understand. The water protectors’ human rights were violated, they were strip-searched, asked to squat and cough in front of opposite-gender officers. They were placed in dog kennels too, they have been treated as non-humans. I am glad that the camp's media were there to take pictures and videos of all that was happening. I did not like the way the militarized police bulldozed and disturbed the sacred burial grounds. It was so disrespectful. How would they like it if we did that to their people’s graves? They have withheld emergency vehicles, after hosing off water protectors in freezing temperatures. This is very inhumane. This is 2016 in the U.S.A., but our civil rights are still being violated and war crimes are still committed against our Native American nations and others who are standing with the Standing Rock Water Protectors and Defenders. It wasn’t covered by the media at first, but I'm glad that the mainstream media are putting it on their news now. This story needs to be told all over the world so that they will know this is what Christian America is doing to Native Americans in the USA.
I heard you taught the camp cooks how to make your mother’s fry bread recipe! What was that like?
I do not have a recipe from my mother. As far as I can remember maybe at 2 years old, she taught us how to measure the flour, baking powder, salt by hand. The water isn't measured, I just pour what I think I need to come up with the dough, kneading it, letting it sit for a while and rolling the dough in small balls to make the fry bread.
I've never had a quick fry bread class like the one I taught at the camp, right on the spot. There was one guy from India who was so interested that he said he was going to practice making it at his home and come back during the Thanksgiving holidays to make frybread at the camp. There was another girl who was a pro at it. She made the perfect round fry bread. I found out she works at a pizza place. So, I told her she was in charge of fry bread making at Sacred Stone Camp.
What does it mean to you that the Christian Reformed Church declared the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (DOCD) to be a heresy this past June?
I am glad that they acknowledged it and declared it as a heresy. They rejected the DOD as it was put before them at Synod 2016. I know that many didn't like it. It was hard for them to think back and look at what their ancestors had done to the Native American people. I hear very little about what is being done in the churches these days. There needs to be education about the history of the DOCD. I hear a lot of negative remarks about the study that was done by the task force, by both the churches and the Native Americans.
The Native American people have intergenerational trauma from boarding schools. The idea was genocidal: they wanted to kill the Indian and save the man. Strip everything of who we are, their culture, tradition, languages, clothing, everything, and make them white people. The cultural genocide that has happened to us lives on in the generations to come. The U.S. government tried to kill us off, to get rid of us, and they are still doing the same thing today. It's like telling us that we are not human. This is the Church’s Doctrine of Christian Discovery that was put in place back in the 1400's to commit cultural genocide against the Native American people.
We will pass our trauma to our children and to the generations to come, if we do not heal physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
I know that my people who have been in boarding school have a hard time telling their stories. I shared my story and put it on video, and a lot of people encouraged me to do it because I kept telling my story. This way many people can see it and they can deal with their story to heal from the past, to forgive the abuse that was done to us in boarding school because if we don’t heal, the intergenerational trauma will continue. We will pass our trauma to our children and to the generations to come, if we do not heal physically, emotionally and spiritually.
I used to think, “I'm a Christian, so everything is okay with me now”. I soon found out that I was carrying around a lot of negative baggage. A whole lot of abuse from my boarding school years stayed with me, even after I got married. I carried all that and even passed it down to my children. I treated my kids the way I was brought up in the boarding school, without love and care. And that's what I mean when I talk about the intergenerational trauma. Without knowing what we are doing, we are passing it to our children.
I praise Jesus for giving me a dream that helped me to heal and to walk in beauty.
I had a hard time forgiving what was done to me at residential school. I spent time praying, crying, and talking to my family, I also had some friends (members of the DOCD task force) who prayed for me. I praise Jesus for giving me a dream that helped me to heal and to walk in beauty. Once I had that dream it felt like all the weight, my load, my burdens fell of off me. I'm not perfect but I continue to forgive. That is my walk now with Jesus, my Savior and Lord. He is everything to me and I feel His presence when I stuggle. I am taking my boarding school story on the road pretty soon, I've already been invited to speak and show the video I have made.
How do you think ordinary people could repent of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and take steps in a better direction?
I think it is hard to change. It’s hard to repent for what your ancestors have done because of the DOCD and how it was put in place to get rid of us as Indigenous peoples, as Native Americans who were on these lands way before anyone came over the waters. We are still experiencing what has happened to our Native American people in the past generations, the US government tried to wipe us off the face of the earth. Christians have a lot to repent for. They especially need to rethink the idea that their ancestors did these things, but since they themselves didn’t do it, they have nothing to apologize for. Their ancestors avoided putting accurate history into the books for education of our children. That's why many people don't know anything about the Native Americans. It’s really important that we talk about how Native Americans are looked down on in our churches, especially. The CRC denomination needs to work on this.
It’s really important that we talk about how Native Americans are looked down on in our churches.
Just recently a lady told me that she read my story and she said, "I felt like I was reading my own story.” She went to the boarding school in Rehoboth. I know that Christian Indian Center had a struggle in the beginning of ministry, my older sister was involved with it when it started in 1958. There are a lot of negative, belittling ways white people worked with us and still do, but we survived it all.
But I am also glad that there were Christians who had a heart for Native American people. And that is why we are still in ministry today to our people. It was because of Christians like that that I stayed in the church. I don't want to be CRC, but I am. I'm still in ministry to my people, the Native Americans. We are not concerned with numbers anymore and we are not an organized CRC church. We want a Native American pastor and we have not got one for a long time now.
This month on Do Justice we are working to unlearn the Doctrine of Discovery together through our series "In 1492, Indigenous peoples discovered Columbus". Welcome to the series! To see other posts in the series and make sure you don't miss a post, visit this page.
[Image: United Methodist Church]