What the Mothers of Standing Rock Taught Me About Protest and Prayer

by Zaeli Kane December 30, 2016

Silhouette of woman's head

With one eye brown and the other green, Kayla could’ve been a character from a story I wrote in childhood. Her way of life certainly echoed that of my imagined heroines: she, along with her husband and five home-birthed children, has lived off the grid and among the elements for the last 11 years.

Last week, I sat on a rug in their enchanting self-made teepee, sipping tea and firing questions about the logistics of migratory motherhood. She graciously explained her family’s approach to bathing, bedtime, and potty training. The answers were so simple, so common sense, I may as well have asked her how she puts on a hat.

It’s easy to get caught up in convenience. All the technology I’m privileged to access can, if I’m not careful, trick me into believing I need it. There’s much to be said for taking slower paths when it’s an option; what manual labor costs in time is rivaled by a wealth of sensual experience.

Kayla’s kids are growing up with a much more vivid childhood than she or I did, buffered from nature as we were by glass and cement. They appreciate a hundred things a day that I don’t even notice, including the specific taste of water as it varies from well to well.

One of thousands of “water protectors,” Kayla is camping to resist the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which infringes on the rights of the Standing Rock Sioux. I went to the site in North Dakota planning to document conflict at the front lines, but found myself drawn instead to the “rainbow tribe” set up by and in solidarity with the Lakota people. Indigenous activists and allies have come from all corners, drawing attention to the conflict through civil disobedience. But while drama is useful to attract the media (ahem), the biggest story isn’t what they’re protesting. It’s what they’re proposing.

The mothers and grandmothers I met at Standing Rock – many with small children or babies in tow – weren’t there to obstruct anything so much as model an alternate way of being. Already embracing austerity, their life choices aren’t dictated by threats of eviction. Knowing how to make shelter has freed them from the mainstream’s signature anxiety.

Their kids also show a distinct levity. They appear free to explore, knowing every adult looks out for them in a community of co-operation. They don’t depend on toys to be entertained, seeing everything on Earth as an item of interest, a tool, a thing to name and learn from and care for.

The protest of these children’s mothers is much more than an objection to one risky pipeline placement or one bruised treaty. It’s the protest of a lifestyle that rends people apart from their habitat and medicates that wounding with status and stuff. It’s a reminder that, in the end, our happiness comes down to a short list of very simple things.

So what advice did these women have for the mothers who reel in anxiety over the direction of the world their children will inherit? How might the average American woman build a tribe around herself in a realistic way?

The most common answer truly surprised me: pray together.

I admit this triggered some uncomfortable feelings at first. I don’t know what advice I was expecting, but I thought it would be bold, active – something about women rising up and kicking ass. My baggage with religion had put the idea of prayer in a box of passivity, of wishful, even delusional thinking.

But the inner cynic that dismissed prayer as “just talking to yourself” soon filled her mouth with humble pie. Is prayer just talking to yourself? Technically we can never know, so here’s a better question: What if it is?

We all talk to ourselves all the time, though not always aware of the messages being transmitted. Whereas these women set aside a few moments among each day’s interactions to consciously decide what they want to say, to themselves and the world. They held hands and declared themselves sisters of the same source – the Earth if nothing else. They recognized the equal value of all their children and their shared desires for health and happiness.

In prayer they acknowledge their struggles, undercutting the desire to judge each other or hide behind careful projections of idyllic lives. In prayer they focused on their gratitude for the forces keeping them alive – soil, air, fire, water, and the magic of knowing and being known.

Far from a quaint tic or an avoidance of action, these mothers taught me that group prayer is a social technology. At its best, it can provide the emotional infrastructure needed by individuals to work together while remaining free. It does so by keeping them connected, equal, self-aware – related and relating.

So it’s sort of beside the point whether a god is listening. What matters most is people are listening, taking the time to hear the silent speeches of their hearts and those of their neighbors.

Through prayer these peaceful warriors choose to reset the tone when vibes begin to clash. Washing away cynicism, defensiveness, and separation, it reveals underneath a natural desire to be humane. And aside from whatever happens with the pipeline, this is the victory I witnessed at Standing Rock: people practicing true self-governance, understanding that elected officials are ultimately not the ones who dictate how we behave.

Understanding, also, that those with the most influence on our future are the people socializing its children. Parents, teachers, role models – we shape the next generations of leaders and of followers.

So whether we raise them in a teepee on the front lines or in a high rise downtown, let’s make our protest by modeling peace.

Zaeli Kane


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