The news of Rev. Gordon Straw’s illness and abrupt passing has utterly devastated not only my home institution, the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, but much of it’s parent denomination as well – The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. A member of the Brothertown Indian Nation, Gordon had long been a leader and advocate for some of the most neglected yet vibrant voices in the church – those among the Native community and lay leaders. In honor of his passing, We Talk. We Listen. has reposted a reflection he wrote for our blog at the height of the conflict at Standing Rock. Centering around Dakota concept of metakuye oyasin, Straw speaks of how its insights go far beyond Standing Rock. These words are a classic expression of this wonderful man in all of his aspects – professor, husband and father, mentor, friend, and fellow worker in the vineyard – and we are proud to share them again in tribute.
You are missed, Gordon – and we’ll be keeping an eye on your loved ones.
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
Just say the name, “Standing Rock,” in a crowd and see what happens.
There are not many people in this country, perhaps the world, who haven’t heard that name and has already painted a picture in their minds of what that name signifies. But, do we really know what “Standing Rock” is? My guess is that each person you ask will have a different answer to the question. The most obvious difference in answers are found in opposing parties: the water protectors, the oil protectors, the Standing Rock Nation, Energy Transfer Partners and all the financial investors in the project, etc. These differences seem insurmountable and most likely they are. These differences are buttressed by decades (even centuries) of distrust, anger, hatred, and completely disparate worldviews. But, if there is to be any hope for a nonviolent resolution that most people can accept, these differences can’t be insurmountable. These are not the only differences of opinion or strategy about this phenomenon called “Standing Rock.”
There are differences of vision within the larger, binary parties of “for” and “against” the Dakota Access Pipe Line (DAPL), too.
Within the “pro-DAPL” party, there are different views: those who are directly connected to the project and looking to profit from it; tribes who are “pro-oil”, but are appalled at the violent, disproportionate use of violent force against another sovereign native nation; much of the federal government who seem to be in favor of the pipeline, but want the route altered to honor the sovereignty of the Standing Rock Nation; law enforcement officers or entities who disagree over the use of force and what appears to be a “bending of the rules” regarding basic human and civil rights; church members who are divided over whether the biblical principles of justice and the preferential option for the poor and disadvantaged (not just Natives) take precedence over the economic context in western North Dakota, which is heavily dependent upon the oil industry.
Within the “anti-DAPL” party, there are different views: the Standing Rock Nation, whose lands and access to clean water are directly impacted by the pipe line; the environmental groups who want the whole project ended, at all costs; there are groups of activists who are focused more on the actual conflict and not on the issues of the conflict, and any number of “well-meaning” people who just want to help the Indians and don’t understand why Chairman David Archambault III is asking them to go home, not understanding the basic premises of tribal sovereignty. Now, I will admit immediately that listing out these differing positions is not comprehensive, are broad generalizations, and are probably not all that helpful at getting at the nuances of this phenomenon we call “Standing Rock.”
But, here’s the thing: if we can’t ALL stand with the Standing Rock Nation in some way, this will not end well for most, perhaps all.
What “standing with Standing Rock” means specifically is that we stand in solidarity with the Standing Rock Nation by honoring their inherent right to govern themselves and to take hold of their own destiny. So, when Chairman Archambault asks people in the camps to go home for the winter, we stand with Standing Rock by going home without second guessing the wisdom of that decision. It is not ours to make. When the Standing Rock Nation insists that the federal government and corporate interests honor the boundaries of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty as sovereign territory of the Sioux Nation, we stand with them. It also means, specifically, that we stand with the Standing Rock Nation and all other nations in declaring that Water is Life. No amount of tainting the earth’s fresh water supply with oil or chemicals is acceptable. Our nation’s dependence upon fossil fuels (that’s each and every one of us, folks) is threatening our Mother, the Earth, especially the waterways which bring life.
There is an important concept in the Dakota language and culture, metakuye oyasin (meh-TAH-kway oh-AH-see). The common English translation is “all my relatives” or “all my relations.” This phrase is used at the end of prayers, much like our use of the word, “amen.” The concept is a recognition that every aspect of existence is connected to every other aspect of existence, because all things have a single origin, the Creator. It’s not merely an acknowledgment that everything has an existence. It is a declaration that I am connected to everything that exists. I cannot do anything that does not affect ALL my relatives. I cannot pretend that I am not connected to the people, things or forces that I do not want to recognize or even that I hate. We are all related, period. Similar to Martin Luther’s notion of “neighbor,” this extends to all of Creation, not just those closest to us. For the Dakota, it doesn’t even end at the distinction between conscious/not conscious. I am related to all humans, all the members of: the winged nation, the plant nation, the buffalo nation, etc., etc. I am related to the wind and the rain, the sun and the moon, the seven sacred directions, and the forces that move the planets and stars.
It literally takes ALL of us, creatures of the Great Mystery, to stand with the Standing Rock Nation, to stand with the people of Aleppo, with the unemployed and the uninsured, the disabled and the disaffected- with ALL my relatives. This is the intention of the Creator, that we stand with each other for the benefit of each other. There is no other reality, but this earthly reality. Even if you could build a spaceship, as some Westerners seem to think will make a difference, it would be the same reality. Metakuye oyasin is a recognition that I am one part of the great Web of life that rests in the Creator.
A while back, at a theological conference that brought Lutherans from the Western hemisphere together, I shared the podium with one of my relatives and mentor in things spiritual. Albert White Hat, Sr. was a greatly respected Lakota spiritual elder of the Lakota people on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota. He was a professor of Lakota language at Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud Reservation. He led a handful of Lakota elders who re-formed the Lakota language to restore much of the original meaning of the language, which had been lost through translation into English by the White missionaries. By chance (not really, in the native world, there is no such thing as a coincidence), I gave my presentation first. I spoke about the beauty of the concept of “metakuye oyasin.” How it binds all creatures together in a harmony of relationships. As a Christian theologian, I identified this as the work of the Holy Spirit. For 45 minutes I spoke on this theme. The group took a short break, then Albert got up. He thanked me profusely for my presentation, then said, “But, you’ve got “metakuye oyasin” all wrong.
Albert went on to explain what “metakuye oyasin” means to the people of the Great Sioux Nation, which include both the Rosebud and the Standing Rock Reservations. He explained that by virtue of our creation by the Great Mystery, the Creator of all things, each individual creature has the power to make one of two choices: to bring life or to bring destruction. “That is what binds all creatures,” he said. It isn’t a neat, abstract, “kumbaya” notion of “we all live in harmony and isn’t that great?” Metakuye oyasin is the understanding that each of us, at each point in our lives, has the power to choose to bring life to the world around us or to choose to bring destruction to the world around us.
“It is that simple,” he said.
Simple, yes; Simplistic, definitely, no.
Applying “metakuye oyasin” to your life today is about understanding the power you have, not only for your life, but for the life of the whole world. You have the power to choose self-interest, greed, parochialism, xenophobia, hatred and distrust of others (including your enemies), and the attitude that none of the things that are happening in our communities, our nation, or in the world apply to you. In that case you have chosen to bring destruction: of the earth, of relationships, of community. You also have the power to choose the common good, generosity, respect for all others (including your enemies), tolerance, love, and the attitude that everything that happens in my community, my nation, or in the world is directly connected to me. In that case, you chose to bring life.
No matter where you stand on any particular issue in your world today, including the issue of protecting the water and sacred lands of the Standing Rock people, you must take a stand.
You have no option.
No option other than to choose either life or destruction of life. Standing with Standing Rock, indeed, takes all of us. Metakuye oyasin.
“Standing Rock may be the new Selma.” – Presiding Bishop of the Michael Curry Episcopal Church
The Rev. Gordon Straw brought years of experience in organizational development, development of lay ministry leaders, and experience and commitment to intercultural competency to his work for the church – culminating is his appointment to the Cornelsen Chair for Spiritual Formation at the Lutheran School of Theology (LSTC) in the Spring of 2017. Gordon is an enrolled member of the Brothertown Indian Nation. Prior to his work at LSTC he was in charge of Lay Schools for Ministry in the ELCA as well as functioned as their Director for American Indian/Alaska Native ministries . Gordon is survived by his wife Evelyn Soto and their daughter Amanda, a recent graduate of DePauw University.