In this monthly series, Father Jack Wall offers a unique perspective on Catholicism in America.
Recently a group of young Native Americans on Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota did the improbable: They made the world stop and listen.
On the sheer power of a sense of purpose, they formed a movement. Made up of a ragtag ensemble of youth — most under age 25 and many in deep personal pain — they came together because they cared about the environmental and cultural fate of their homeland.
The group, primarily Lakota, were sounding the horn about the Dakota Access pipeline that would tunnel under the Missouri River, their main water source, and pass through sacred burial grounds.
In December 2016 there was a temporary halt in construction. But by February that ban was lifted and the onsite camps that had been home to the youth and their followers, totaling more than 10,000, were cleared.
One may agree or disagree with the issue the Lakota took their stance on, but perhaps there is something that matters more — we saw young people take stunningly bold and heartfelt action.
Their actions said loud and clear that they care. During that pipeline standoff, they cared about their future. They cared about their community and its traditions. They organized a peaceful resistance. They showed compassion. They formed prayer circles. They built friendships. They disallowed alcohol, drugs and weapons on the premises. They forgave.
They may have had a few missteps along the way, but deep within themselves, they found the power to affirm hope and create change.
At Standing Rock, we saw hope.
At Catholic Extension, we are hope seekers. We are always looking for the flickers of light. We look for people who can see that we are more than our circumstances, that God is calling us to something larger that will make our fragile, frayed, disengaged lives better.
We understand that what drives hope is faith and even in Native American communities, who face so many challenges, we have found channels of hope and people of faith who have experienced that faith can upturn any and every sense of hopelessness.
For example, at St. Francis Mission on Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, we are honored to walk with beacons of hope such as its director, Jesuit Father John Hatcher; Geraldine Provencial, who heads addiction and recovery ministries, and Ben Black Bear Jr., who has been a deacon for 40 years, preserving Lakota culture. In Montana, we work with Father Ed Kohler, pastor of Little Flower Church on the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning. Each one is changing the life trajectory of many Native Americans.
On the Native American lands nationwide, we need a movement of faith that inspires hope and ignites change.
At Standing Rock, we saw individuals who believe that the world can be different. We saw young people energized and empowered.
At Catholic Extension, we live for these sparks of passion. We know these sparks often get clouded by the struggles of everyday life, but when people are open to God’s invitation to build a better world, we see a place to help. We know that faith is taking root.
Let us not miss the enormity of what happened at Standing Rock when young people formed the International Indigenous Youth Council and more than 500 Indian tribes and other allies joined them: In a culture where the elders typically lead, the youth took the initiative. In a place where it is so easy to become dispirited, they were electrified. While the hurts of several centuries are very real, they found healing.
One young participant told ABC News, “As an indigenous person you sometimes feel that nobody sees you…, that people don’t want you around. You feel like if you disappeared, everybody would be happy. It feels good to be acknowledged as a human being.”
Standing Rock was transformative. How powerful it would be if this energy could now be directed to other challenges these young people face — substance abuse, violence and suicide — that also call for massive transformation.
Catholics are an “Easter people.” We believe in transformation and new life and that faith is the basis for these seismic changes.
At Catholic Extension, we see how faith communities connect hurting and seemingly powerless people and help them create change. Faith communities raise the human dignity and sustainability of civil society. They restore and rehabilitate.
Faith communities ground hope and propel change.
The youth of Standing Rock stood up. Let’s help keep them standing.