Standing Rock is on many minds lately, but, this month, Catholic Sisters did more than send their thoughts to North Dakota. Two weekends ago, eight Catholic Dominican Sisters ventured to Standing Rock to stand in solidarity with the water protectors there.

Dominican Sister of Blauvelt Ceil Lavan, OP was one of the eight. Sister Ceil had worked with Native Americans in one of her previous ministries in Chicago, and she calls the experience eye-opening.

Sister Ceil Lavan

“I worked in Chicago about twenty-five years ago, and there was a large indigenous population there,” Sister Ceil shares. “One young Cherokee woman opened my eyes to understand what has been happening to indigenous people.”

At Standing Rock, Sister Ceil saw first-hand that their plight continues today. 

Hundreds of Native Americans who self-identify as Water Protectors have left their reservation to come stay at Standing Rock, where they protest against a proposed oil pipeline that would run near their reservation and endanger both their sacred sites and water supply to millions of Americans.¹

The issue is about Native American lands, but also everyone’s land, and everyone’s water.

“Indigenous people remind us that, in the 1800s, a treaty of the Sioux with the United States Government determined that no one could use that land without the permission of the Sioux nation,” Sister Ceil says.

According to Sister Ceil, that treaty has long been disregarded. After Bismarck first fought the pipeline, it was moved to the sacred lands of Sioux, which contains burial sites.

“Part of the issue is that we don’t want pipeline— it’s a danger to all of us as it could harm the water going under Missouri River, which is the source of water for 20,000,000 people,” Sister Ceil says. “But it’s also about the support of the sovereignty of indigenous people. We want indigenous peoples’ rights and beliefs to be respected.”

Sister Ceil went to North Dakota “just as a presence” to show solidarity with the native people. Upon arriving, she was shocked at the conditions she found. The Water Protectors at Standing Rock, which consist of Native Americans and others who are in solidarity with them, are outside all day in freezing cold and wind. Different tents offer food, prayer services, even educational sessions. There are also protests; during Sister Ceil’s time at Standing Rock, she stood on the side of the highway with signs to cheer on over two-hundred cars driving to an anti-pipeline demonstration near Bismarck.

Dominican Sisters at Standing Rock

Sister Ceil was deeply touched by the community she experienced at Standing Rock; she notes that everyone took care of each other, and everything was done in the “context of prayer.” But, Sister also saw violence.

Military police overlook Standing Rock via a nearby hills; drones and helicopters are constantly overhead. Moreover, Sister saw Water Protectors attacked with pepper spray, mace, and sometimes even put in dog kennels.

For Dominican Sister of Hope Bette Ann Jaster, OP the violence is, unfortunately, no surprise. Although Sister Bette Ann wasn’t able to go to Standing Rock, she is active in resisting Spectra’s AIM Pipeline in New York. Sister Bette Ann spent last night facilitating a prayer vigil at Mariandale for all who were injured at Standing Rock. Among them is a thirteen-year-old whose face was injured, a Native American elder who is near death, and Sophia Wilansky, who was wounded at Standing Rock by a grenade thrown by police.

Sister Bette Ann Jaster

“On Sunday, Sophia was carrying water to frontlines for relief for the people there,” Sister Bette Ann paraphrases. “She was shot in the arm by a percussion grenade. Her arm exploded, and she was sent to the hospital in Minnesota.”

Sister Bette Ann organized the vigil for the same time as Sophia’s surgery in Minnesota.

“The purpose is to be in solidarity with her and with the bigger vigil for at the hospital she’s in,” Sister explains. “We’re sending healing energy for her body, her soul, and her spirit.”

The current situation at Standing Rock is bleak, but Sisters Bette Ann and Ceil are more energized than ever. As for next steps, they’d like President Obama to call a halt to the construction of both the DAPL pipeline and Spectra’s AIM pipeline. They’d like to see recognition of the rights of Native Americans. And they are calling for an international commitment to renewable energy.

Yes, renewable energy might require a rethinking of jobs and and even economy. But, in these sisters’ view, the restructuring would be well worth it.

“We support wind power, solar power, hydro power, and geothermal natural heat,” Sister Ceil says. “We don’t want new pipelines; we don’t support pipelines that ship fracked gas or crude oil around the country. We want renewable energy.”

As Sister Ceil puts it, it’s all part of her greater Dominican call to justice.