|Water is life. Without water there could be no life. --Justin Rowland, Wounded Knee|
Water Is Life: An Interview with Cheryl Angel--by Awakin Call Editors, Jan 07, 2018
Cheryl Angel is an indigenous leader, wise (Sioux) Lakota elder woman, mother of five children, and lifelong devoted water protector who helped initiate and maintain the Standing Rock camp since April 2016, and who was vital in the nonviolent resistance to the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines. Her voice among the water protectors is one of integrating deep prayer with nonviolent direct action, guiding two women-led actions at Standing Rock. A spiritual activist from the Sicangu (Rosebud) tribe -- one of the seven tribes that conform the Lakota/Nakota/Dakota People in the Great Plains of North America -- Cheryl moves from a deep space of love and nonviolence as guided by her ancestors and Lakota traditions and ways of being. What follows is the edited transcript of an Awakin Call with Cheryl Angel. You can listen to the full recording of the call here.
Colleen Choi: I first met Cheryl when we were doing a walk to the Turtle Island. It was a youth-led action and we were making a human medicine wheel And I just saw this woman running back and forth, serving the youth, making sure everyone was safe, amongst 600 people. And at one point we met, and she just had so much warmth and kindness to her. And she smiled and said, “Do you want to live with me?” And I was like, “Yeah!” So that was the start of it. And she has stood up against two pipelines. Standing Rock is the second one. Her real-life mission is to spread the message that ‘Water is Life’ and to protect water. How she does that is in ceremony. At camp, we start and end in ceremony. And so both of us felt it appropriate that since this call is also a ceremony, I’d love for Cheryl to start it.
Cheryl Angel: Thank you for that introduction, both of you. I’m humbled. I'm standing here with you and I want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing this space with me, so I can share a message that's going to benefit people and begin a healing for the people, to change how we relate to the earth, how we treat the earth, and how we can make a stand and recognize that it is a stand that needs to be made, by anybody who is standing on the earth, drinking water. So I would like to start with this song, because that's how we start ceremony. It's not a very long song, and I'll just sing one phrase, instead of the normal -- we usually do everything four times. [Cheryl sings].
Colleen: Thank you, Cheryl!
Cheryl: You’re very welcome. Thank you!
Colleen: After that beautiful opening, it brings to heart the question of where your deep spirituality comes from, how was it planted in you so deeply?
Cheryl: There are so many people that I would like to say thank you to, that made this life possible. But it was the people who I really got to just watch, how they lived their life, and hear their story about their life, and that's how I got to where I’m at. It was by watching other people around me, and listening to their story and understanding their relationship to the earth.
When I was born, it was a very traumatic event. My mother had lost a son, a full-term baby in childbirth; they saved her life, but she had heart disease so they told her to come back and they would have this heart surgery for her. Back in those days, they called it open heart surgery, and the only place it was done was in Omaha, Nebraska, in a heart facility there.
So she went back home. Her and my dad were deeply affected by the loss of their son and when it was time for her to go back and get prepared to have this open-heart surgery, she was pregnant. And they told her you need to abort this child, your heart is so bad, you will both die. There's no way we can guarantee either one of your safety. And so she went home and she told my dad, and then they decided together that they were going to use prayer and they were going to pray that both of us would survive. And that's what they did -- they prayed and they prayed and they prayed, and then when she was having labor, she went back to the hospital. But they had already known that she was in danger, it was a high-risk pregnancy, so when they got there, they called the heart doctors and they called everybody who was on staff that could possibly save her and me, and they did --they saved both of us. I was born and she didn't die, but she was so weak that she was immediately transferred. They had to make a spot for her in Omaha so that she could have this heart surgery.
In the meantime, my dad took me home to the Badlands in South Dakota where I got to meet my grandmother. It was there I started learning about nature. She spoke Lakota to me. I was in a crib, way out in the middle of the grasslands, in a cabin. So the window was open and I learned from a very small age about being alone, because it was me, her and my dad. And my first recollection of life is the smell of Spring and rain coming through that window. Because I was born in the winter time, but I can remember Spring coming -- that essence, and seeing the grass blow in the wind, it looked to me like waterways, but they were gold, and for me they were so soothing. And my dad worked out in the field, so they had devised a plan on how to take care of me and it involved this bell.
This bell was hung outside the cabin and it was tied to a string, and I was inside the cabin in a crib, and so when I needed attention, I would grab the string and pull on it. And the bell would ring and at first, my grandmother would come in from outside and take care of me. And then she passed after that first winter. And so that second winter, I was alone and by that Spring, I could walk around. So I would ring this bell, and this horse would come and tend to me.
My first babysitter was literally a horse, and my horse was like a mother, she would tend to me best she could and then if she couldn't console me, she would run to the fields and look for my dad and bring him back, and he would take care of me. So my first experiences were having the wind come in that window, watching all the seasons change from the window, having an animal soothe and take care of me.
Eventually, my mom was released from the hospital when I was about 2 and I returned to my family. And it was hard for me because I was the outsider. I wasn't this brand new baby that people wrapped their arms around on my mom's side, I had many older siblings and I was the youngest. So, I was like the neighbor's kid or the cousin or the niece, who was brought home one day and they said, "Here's your sister." And everybody looked at me like, "Really, that's our sister?".
Thankfully, we moved back to the reservation. I met my mom's elders. And they took pity on me, they could see that I was the youngest and that I was alone, and they told me stories of when they were on horseback, how they crossed rivers, where they would set up a camp. Stories of what happened along the way as they were moving camp. This is people who were born in the 1800s and they wanted to share these stories. So they told a lot of stories, including how they treated animals. How people got their names from animals. The relationships with the winds. The winds have names. The plants have names and purposes and duty. The Plant Nation is a Healing Nation. We need to protect the land so that our environments become healthy, because that's how you cure a community -- by keeping the land healthy, by caring for the plants and using them as medicine, being one with Nature. That's what I was taught when I was little. That's why I want to protect water. That's my life calling because water sustains all life, starting with the Plant Nation then moving onto all the animals, than humans. We can't live without water. Nothing can. So that's my basis for loving the world and protecting the water.
Colleen: This deep connection with animals and with water -- what inspired you to fight against two pipelines and devote all of your being to this?
Cheryl: I went to school on the reservation and graduated from a tribal college in South Dakota and then I got married. I left the reservation and met other tribal people in other places. Powerful women indigenous speakers who talked about the sacredness of life, and that's the one thing that has kept me alive and has kept me in ceremony in a sacred spot.
My mom passed away before she got to see my children. That was a big heartache for me. And when I looked around me, everybody had uncles, aunties, grandmas, grandpas. And because my mom's family had lost two generations of women, I didn't have aunties or grandmas. So all these other people came in. When I heard people talking about the power of women and the power of life, I listened intently to their message because I could feel it. And I had these children that depended solely on me for everything. And that's how our world is. Our world depends upon us to protect it and if we protect the world, it will protect us.
My children kept me sober. I was scared of what would happen, if I left them and went drinking with my friends. This fear for their safety and of them being too far from me, that's what kept me sane and sober. This love I had for my kids. If they were somewhere else, I was in fear for their safety. There are abuses in homes all over the planet. Children are being neglected. They are not being fed. Parents have to leave them, sometimes with strangers, in order to work and to make money for that family. That's the climate we live in and sometimes it turns out terrible. So this fear that something would happen to my children kept them close to me, and not having anyone else to support me kept me on top of my game, just so I could make sure they had food, water and clothing. We were a tight-knit circle.
And then there's this thing that happened -- the Oglala Aquifer was underneath our reservation, and most of Nebraska, but when that pipeline was going to be built, it was going to be close to that aquifer and on our tribal land. So we put up a camp right there, and we were going to say ‘Not on our land, not on our aquifer’ because we understand the sacredness of life. At that time, our tribe was sending out messages and letting everybody know, because we have ceremonies every summer to celebrate life and how sacred water is and it can't be contaminated, and this pipeline was a threat to that. Not just for us, but all the people in Nebraska, the farmers and the animals.
And so when the camp was set up, I learned everything about water protection and how to fight a pipeline. It was called the Rosebud Tribe Spiritual Camp. I moved out there because I felt the calling and my son went out there and I had my first grandson out there. And I wanted water for him, to be able to play in the creeks and streams that I played in. I wanted the water to be clean for him. That water was in danger. That's why I ended up out there and my son ended up out there.
Then I had a revelation. I saw this thing happen right in front of my eyes. I don't know how to explain it. We had been absent from our homes and so we went shopping. And as I went through the door pushing the cart, I saw this image of my grandson hanging by his arm from the trunk of the car, and I blinked my eyes and my heart jumped and I started running. And then I looked right in front of me and there's the car and my grandson isn't hanging from his arm, and I am thinking, “What was that?” But as soon as I got halfway between this door and the car, the cart slipped -- my grandson stuck his arm out to grab onto something, and he grabbed the car and my daughter-in-law slammed the trunk, so he was hanging there. And I'd seen it, just seconds before. We popped open the trunk. He was bleeding, his fingers were bent in the wrong direction, and I was thinking that he needs to get to a hospital.
The only thing we had with us was water, so I grabbed the water and started praying. And I said, "Creator, please don't let my grandson lose his hand because men can't work without their hands. They need their hands to take care of the people." I poured this water into the palm of his hands, because that's all that I could do. And then his hand began to look normal. So I wrapped it up, gave him to his mom and we were ready to go and then he started screaming again. So I jumped back out and started praying again and poured till there was no more water left, and by then his fingers were straight, they were still puffy and colored but they looked normal-sized again. So I carefully wrapped them up and gave him to his mom.
We had spent all our money. But he was still in pain and screaming that he was in pain. So we drove to McDonald's and grabbed all of the change out of the car and bought him an ice cream cone and a cup of ice water. And I put his hands in that ice-water and we drove to the hospital. He wanted to pull his hand out of the cup, so we unwrapped that little cloth, and he wasn’t even two years old, he showed his hand to me and there was his hand, and his fingers weren’t bent and the swelling was gone and they weren’t scraped and bruised any more. And when I saw that, I was so thankful. I started crying and I made a pledge then and there. I said, “Creator, Thank you, Thank you.” And I said I would protect water to the end of my days, even if it took my life, because I had been shown that water can heal.
So I know the power of water because I’ve seen it with my own two eyes. It heals. But we have to protect it - we can’t let it be contaminated. We can’t let pipelines threaten our water supply. We need to drink that, the Plant Nation needs that, the Animal Nation needs that. For me, it’s a common sense statement, but our spirits need to rise up and protect that water. It needs to be a spiritual movement. We need to get on that front line and not be afraid to stand there, until we can ensure that our water is protected for life. So I do this for life basically.
Colleen: I remember I met both of your children -- Happi and Elias and I remember hearing the story of how Happi was one of the first ones to lock himself to the machine at Standing Rock. Can you share more about that and what you went through as a mother, not just a water-protector?
Cheryl: Happi came to the Rosebud Spiritual Camp in the Spring of the second year and at that time, it was cold and our resources were being drained and people were tired and they were going to temporarily close the camp, until Spring was done.
We had people from about 100 different countries coming to that camp, to pledge their support for the camp. These people were still coming, so I didn't want the camp to close down, because I wanted to let them know that it doesn't matter what, we will be there to receive you, and we will be there to give you the information you need, to stand up and protect your water. So I made a pledge -- I said I'll go out there in the middle of nowhere and take care of the camp; you don't have to use any resources, except keep the electricity and water on.
And so I did, and I had Happi go out there with me. That was his first experience at the camp. It was a solitary one. He was out there. He'd be out there, then I'd be in town, then I'd be up out there, but there was somebody always at camp. And then, sure enough, more people came and then we didn't have to be out there by ourselves. And that was his experience until the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) started up, and then I asked him again, to come with me.
Before we went to the camp, he went to the training on how to take care of horses -- horse-handling training. So a week of training, then at the end of the week, I think they went on a ten mile trail ride. And then we went to another horse camp with the Nakoto horses. And they taught him how to handle a wild horse. In three days, with love and spiritual intent, these horses will communicate with you, and they understand what it is you're asking of them, as long as you treat them honorably and honestly, because they can read your intent. That's how smart these horses are. So he was there for a week -- they tell you how horses are, so you can change your behavior, because horses don't have to change. Humans have to change how they treat horses. So that was what the training was for. We both went. And then from there we went to another gathering. We went to a spiritual sundance gathering. And then from there we went to another ceremony. So for four weeks, we were preparing to get to Standing Rock and when we got there, I left them there.
I had to work for a month -- I was up at Pe’Sla taking care of these horses. One of the promises that I have to keep in having these horses is to have a four day ceremony with them every single month, and I take new people to them. So I was doing that and Happi was at the camp.
And then I got a text message early in the morning, and someone said to me, "If that was my son, I would be crying." And I was thinking, "What are they talking about?" It was someone from camp. So I drove up on the hill, at Pe'Sla, where I could get a signal and be with the horses, and then I just got tons of images. People started sending me things. And there was a live feed going on and there was my son locked onto one of those excavation equipments and they were singing songs for him. And he was singing "Mni Wiconi” [Lakota for ‘Water is Life’]. So I spent maybe five hours up on that hill. I would be scared, and then I would pray, and then I would say, "Creator." And Creator would let me know everything's going to be ok.
And then a lawyer called me. And then people from the camps are calling me directly. And they started giving me updates. But it was so emotional for me. I just cried my heart out, because I thought they were going to rip off his arms. Or they were going to saw them off. But Creator, every time I asked him for help, he would calm me down. I would let all of that fear go away in prayer and then I would be calm again. And so at one point, I was so excited and I was so worried, I started the car, and I was going to leave. I was 5 hours away from camp. I put the car in drive, stepped on the gas. Bam! I heard this really loud noise, and I thought it was my radiator, but it wasn't. I had a blowout in my front tire. I ran over a rock. And so from that point on, I was stuck there.
People came and supported him. And from that moment on, and that was on August 31st, because of the live streams and because of the Facebook videos, that action woke up all of the activists who were protecting water for decades. Because the clean water act -- that came from activists. So these activists were all busy protecting water in their own little groups. But when that video went out, they coalesced. They all decided -- we are going to Standing Rock, and we're going to help them protect the water because they're calling us. So on that day, a message was sent all over Facebook and all the water activists showed up. They started coming in droves. So that was the beginning of the message that was sent out to the world. We're serious. We will do whatever we need to do. If we have to put our lives on the line, we will do that. And when he was on the line, I was so afraid for his life, that I just prayed and cried.
After he was jailed, they were having a candlelight vigil outside the jail chanting, "Release Happi." They did release him. After Happi was taken down and he was safe, I prayed, "Creator, you have given me so much and you answered my prayers. I'm not going to ask for anything else today." Then I started my car, and then remembered the flat! I didn't even want to pray for help, because I had given my word that I wasn't going to ask for any more help. And I was going to be happy with that day, the way it ended.
And so I sat there and I was trying to devise this plan, because once I left that spot, I wouldn't have phone service. And then I could hear a car coming and I looked around, and sure enough, on the next hill over was a vehicle coming down. But the road it was on turned left and would go farther away from me, so I was thinking, "I wonder if I should jump out and holler?" And I said, "No, I'll just wait to see what happens." And that truck pulled up right behind me, and it was a water protector from the Keystone KXL camp -- one of the main protectors showed up, out of nowhere. And he pulled up beside me and he says, "Cheryl, what are you doing out here?"
I wanted to say that you have answered my prayer but I didn’t say that because I had taken a vow that day that I wasn’t going to ask for anything else. So he said it instead! He said, "Looks like I'm here to answer your prayer!" And he was totally right. He had answered a sub-conscious prayer. I knew I needed help, but I wasn't going to ask Creator and I wasn't going to pray for helpers. It was my need certainly. But it was the prayers of all the people who have ever prayed for those who need help and who feel like there isn't a way to turn. It's all those prayers because I was out there and I didn't know which way to go and I did need help. And lo and behold, the pickup pulls up and a water-protector jumps out and says "Sure, I'll change your tyre. No problem!" So, that's why I have such a deep faith...
Colleen: Speaking of prayer, what is this constant thread of prayer that guides you, and this light inside of you that brings you to lead 800 people in a march, or do something small -- like help someone or something. I just feel that every single thing you do, regardless of what it is, it has this same feeling - a very 'careful' feeling.
Cheryl: Uhmm..I think it was because I didn't have that big support system of mom and dad and uncle and aunt and grandpa and grandma. But when we were little kids, we would go down to the creeks. Before we left, we were told "Don't forget! You are from Two-Kettle. Don't forget that when you are with each other, you have to take care of each other. And when one of you is in trouble, all of you have to help that person. If one of you wants to do something wrong, all of you have to stop them from doing that wrong thing. If one of you is doing something that might put all of you in danger, then all of you have to stop that from happening, because you have to depend upon yourself and take care of each other when you are in this group."
So that's what we did. Those were our basic rules and everyday we were reminded. And then there's the other talk which was -- "If you ever think you are alone, you are not! You are never ever alone. Creator's always there, there's animals there, there's land there, water there, plantation. You are never ever alone. So ask for what it is that you need because you are never ever alone." I grew up alone. But I remembered what they said -- Creator would always be there to help me. And so, I learnt how to pray even in the most difficult, painful, life-threatening moments of my life. Because my life -- I have been kidnapped, people have tried to kill me on more than one occasion -- it was people who said they loved me, and that was the part that literally just broke my heart -- but I was always praying.
In those times of danger, those times when I was being assaulted, when I was being beaten, I would always remember my mom and I would think, "If today's the day I'm going to die, then I'm going to go to my mom in a peaceful way. I'm not going to be screaming and crying and begging for my life." I'm going to stand there in prayer, because Creator is with me, will always be with me. And so that time of my life eventually passed. I wasn't in danger anymore and I found safety. But it was in prayer. And I would always pray, "Creator, take me someplace good where I can serve, or I can do something good." No matter how hard my life was, that was my prayer. Because as humans, that's basically what we are meant to be for one another. We are meant to create safe spaces for one another and protect those safe spaces and we are meant to serve one another in the best way that we can. So that has been my daily prayer for decades. Whenever I am in doubt, whenever I am fearful, and especially every morning, I pray.
Colleen: What I found so inspiring is when you talked about the Nagi, the seventh direction and your relationship and all of our relationships with the Nagi. Can you explain that more?
Cheryl: We pray to the four directions (west, north, east, south) and then we pray to the Creator, our Father above. Then the land, our Mother below. And then we pray to the seventh direction, which is our internal spirit that is connected to Creator. That is our Nagi. When we allow our Nagi to lead us -- because it is connected to Creator -- there isn't anyplace bad it will take us. That was my prayer because when I say, "Creator, take me someplace good", I am directing my internal spirit - my Nagi - to follow where Creator tells me to go. Our Nagi speaks to us and we just don't listen to it. Men call it a gut feeling. For women, they call it intuition. So this Nagi is the power that we have that we all need to grow, so our spirit can lead us easier.
We believe freedom is having the choice of a job, getting a job, living in rich community, doing the work that we do and maybe driving a car and owning a home. We all think that is freedom. But the real freedom is a spiritual freedom that can let all of that go, and do good things. Do really good things that are spirit-led. They can still involve all those things, but the spirit has to take them to that spot and they have to connect with that spirit and talk to that spirit and recognize it. Because we want it to grow. That is why as Lakota, we have all these ceremonies. They are for our Nagi. They are to keep us on the right path. So we always talk about the "Red Road" and the "Black Road" and we need to be on the "Red Road". Not the "Black Road" because that is filled with fear and suffering.
Colleen: What really moved me at Standing Rock was it was very matriarchal, which is something I had not experienced before. I would love to hear about what women mean to Mother Earth in your culture and as a powerful indigenous leader. How do you see women leading today?
Cheryl: Women have been leading for a very long time. Because, first of all, we are Creators of life. Just like Mother Earth is a Creator of life and a nurturer of life and water is a sustainer of life. Women, we bring life to this world and as such, we are water-carriers. We carry life in water. Just like the Earth does. The Earth sustains this whole planet with water. So, we are an extension of that. We embody, symbolically and physically, an Earth. So, we stand upon the Earth as water-protectors because that is our job. We are water-carriers and we are water-protectors. So that's as simply as I can say that.
But there are ceremonies. There are water ceremonies that we conducted over and over at Standing Rock, and are conducting everywhere on the globe. Every town we pray with water, because water heals. Water is an essential connector of all life.
There’s a way of instruction and leadership in our tribes, and it has to do with Creation stories and the rules of the men and the women. So in the beginning there was just one Creator. One immense, one energy, Creator. But eventually Creator wanted someone else to share that power. So he opened himself up, but once he did that, there was no stopping the flow from him. At the end of this flow of all of his energies, he was hard and he was brittle. But he was surrounded by all of the power that was originally within him; it was now without him. And he looked at this hard brittle thing and he had pity on it, and then it spoke and it said, “I’m bleeding to death here. I’m a rock!” And immediately he responded, and he created the sun, and then pretty soon she was baking on one side and freezing on the other, and so he created the moon and all the stars. And she was still dry and brittle, and then he created the rain. But the whole way I’m telling this story is really simple. And the way we rule our family lives and our society, is the way the story was told. There was only one thing in the beginning and from that one thing, came two things, a female and a masculine essence. That’s how we run our families. The women are in charge of saying what’s needed and the men are in charge of protecting and providing for the women.
For example, at Standing Rock, there was a man who had been infiltrating the camps and had brought a rifle. So when the raid came, they could say the camp had a weapon. He was driving on the road to get to camp and was identified as an outsider who had a weapon. So people got on the road and tried to stop him but he just plowed through them. We radioed that he was coming down the road, so they put the cars up on the road. Then he tried to swerve and go down into a ditch but a security vehicle chased him down and rammed his car off the road, so he had to get out. And he grabbed his gun and ran. In one of the videos, you can see him running with the rifle, and the women saying, “Don’t let him go. Surround him. Stop him.” So the men that heard that call -- they ran after him with no weapons, with open hands and surrounded him. And he was in the river, and one of them approached him with no weapons or anything and had his hands up and told him to not harm people. And to let go of that gun. Eventually he was disarmed and he was taken into custody. But the whole power of that incident was the women saying, “Don’t let him leave. Surround him.” And the men responded. There were many stories of direct action when the women said “Stop” or “Stand” or “Move” or “Help”.
The most inspiring thing I ever saw happen at Standing Rock happened the night when we were being water-cannoned. I was in ceremony and on the front line, but I wasn’t in front of the tank. I was singing and I told them (the police) that we would find them new jobs and to have faith in us. And that they were our family, and I wanted them to join us and be water protectors, because we needed them. So while they were shooting at us, I was out there praying and delivering this message. And we were standing in peace.
Colleen: In below freezing temperatures, I’d like to add
Cheryl: Oh, yeah. It was like a war zone. But that is where prayer is needed. It’s needed on the front lines and for the people with weapons, to know that we’re their family. They are shooting their family and there is an alternative way. So that’s why I am always on the front line because that’s where the prayer and the ceremony is needed. On this night they had soaked everybody, and everybody was freezing to death. But the story I wanted to talk about -- they had started this fire because people were soaking wet and the fire was to warm the people and I walked over to it.
By that time, I had been knocked down by the water-cannon, my shoes were full of water, and my feet were freezing. I walked over and one guy said, “Can I help you?” And I said, “Can you take off my shoes?” They were pouring the water out of one shoe, when the water-cannon hit us. They were trying to put out the fire. So all the men stood up like a shield and I’m not kidding -- they were blasted for more than a minute, till they couldn’t stand up any more. And the water hit the flames and steam came up and there was me and this one guy who was still standing from Sacred Stone and this shiny thing flew by, and I reached over and grabbed it. And I said, “Will this protect the fire?” And he said, “Only if we hold it up like a shield.” So we knelt down and held it up and they were trying to knock us down. They had the water right on our backs, but we still knelt there in front of the fire and we held up the shield and they were pushing us closer to the fire and it was hissing and giving off steam and we couldn’t see anything and we couldn't breathe anymore, so we both got up.
They thought they had put it out -- we couldn’t see anything. But I could hear a woman saying, “Gather dry wood.” So men ran over to the fire, pulled the logs out of the fire, and there were glowing embers. And already there was a new pile of wood, and they went running with these logs. When the wind hit them, they were like matchsticks. Boom, boom, boom, I saw fire! And they stuck them into the dry wood that she had been calling for, and within a matter of 3 minutes, it was another huge fire blazing. And it was a woman who led that action.
And so the people went to that fire and of course, they are smart and they had put it just right out of the range of where the water can't put out that fire. That was amazing, that was the most miraculous thing I had ever seen. It was from the woman's voice, so as women, our power is recognizing the needs of the family and of the community and we need to remember that and honor our men because those are the ones who respond and those are the ones who provide and protect.
Rahul: Cheryl, thank you so much for sharing that story on the power of women and community. I know Pancho was interested in asking about the connection between nonviolence and Gandhi, and your tradition of standing up from a similar space -- can you talk a little about that?
Cheryl: That is a deep question and a very important one. People have to reform and understand the power that they wield, and they are not going to be able to do that, until they recognize their Nagi. That is their spirit. Spirits are part of creator. There are millions of Nagis out there, so they can actually unite, and it is hard to describe. But, for example, when we had our women-led silent march on the bridge, I talked about creating this space and holding this space, that the women need to have the space where our spirits could sit in peace and meditate for peace and protection. But in order for us to hold that spiritual space, we needed the men to be called upon to protect us and they have to have their Nagis in the right space.
For most people who are meditating, if they meditate into that place where you understand where you’re going to stand, no one is going to move you. This satyagraha, this force is already within us, but we don’t recognize it or empower this spiritual force, and that’s what creates change in human beings. When we recognize just how more powerful we are, and how more powerful we can be when we are united, it’s amazing. People call it a love force and and I guess that's a good way to put it because it's the love for peace and love for the safety of your fellow man, and the commonality to share whatever knowledge we have.
Pancho: If you were able to tell a message to the water protectors of the world and the land-protectors of the Earth right now, what would you tell them?
Cheryl: I would tell them that they're halfway to where they're need to be and I'm halfway to where I need to be too. Whenever activists who have been actively protecting the land and tribal territories and their own communities across the globe become spiritual, they move from just being an activist to a spiritual activist. And when people who lead in prayer -- I’m going to call them spiritualists because there are so many inter-denominational faiths on this planet, but whenever they use their prayer and their spiritualism and move that into becoming an activist who will stand in a nonviolent manner, then we have everything. Those are the two things that we need because that's what I saw as the dividing line in Standing Rock.
We have all the activists -- they've been actively protecting in all kinds of ways, anyway that they could think of, except spiritually, and then we have all the spiritualists who are protecting the planet with prayers, for tens of thousands of years with their prayers, but they haven't been active -- so when you get them both together, to stand together, then you have all of the power that you need to stop anything, and that's what is happening.
Spiritualist are becoming activists and activists are becoming spiritualists and that group of people are leading in non-violent, direct action, standing up in prayer to stop the destruction of our planet because that's what's happening. They're destroying our water. Our water is in danger and they're taking away land that tribal people have used to maintain their sovereignty, to feed themselves, to clothe themselves, to shelter themselves. That's the most powerful movement, it's the most natural movement on the planet.
My message is you've got to have faith, continue standing in a nonviolent manner and put the call out. So Standing Rock right now, all the messengers have been deployed, they're all running to different parts of the globe, within the country and they're saying “Stand up! Stand up, wherever you're standing!” because the land that you are standing on -- that was where our tribe lived and they lived in harmony with nature. Honor that tribe, recognize, find out who that tribe is, go to them and say we're here, we'll stand with you to protect this land, protect this water, because now we're the new occupants, that's our responsibility. That's the message that needs to go out there -- wherever you're standing, protect that water, protect that land and it doesn't matter what faith you are, what color you are, if you have feet on the ground and you drink water, then you protect that land and that water.
Victoria: Thank you, Cheryl. I am so moved to hear you call on the women to speak what's needed, to protect the land and the water. From your perspective, where are the spiritual activists most needed now, this summer?
Cheryl: You know every congregation needs a spirit-led movement to protect the land and water. Every congregation, every community -- that's where it's happening. Last week, just a few days ago, I was in D.C. at the Union Theological Seminary and I gave a short speech on the rituals and ceremonies that are needed in water protection and environmental activism.
And we created the ceremony that morning. We had almost 100 different interfaiths there in New York City, and we put flowers in a circle, the petals, and we put food in center and we circled around there. I sang. We all prayed for the water. Later on that week, everybody had found passages from their belief-systems that supported love and protection of the earth. So in every congregation, the ‘ministers’ need to recognize that in their scriptures it says protect the land and the water. Because it's always been there. The religious movements have always been instructed to protect their land and the water but they just haven't done it. If you wish, you can contact the Union Theological Seminary and ask for the scriptures and you can pass them right along to your pastor and say that you need to be a spiritual activist.
Rahul: I love that. From a purely pragmatic perspective, the pipeline ended up getting built at Standing Rock. So what was the lesson in all of the prayers and ceremonies. What happened there?
Cheryl: The lesson is to continue to pray, to continue to stand. This is what it is, right, when it comes down to it -- one man cannot dictate over the entire country. We need the entire country to stand up and show him the wrongs of his thinking. That pipeline is proof that we’re insane as a government because we're going to put in instruments that can literally damage drinking water for millions of people. So that plan was basically for money. The Bakken oil fields where all of this oil is coming out of, they’re nearly dry, so that pipeline was never ever needed. It was just needed so somebody could make some money, so we're up against a money institution.
And we're consumers, we're capitalists -- that's how we were raised. But we can change that by changing our behavior. I'm on a goal -- in five years, 50% of all fossil fuel usage will be gone. I'll probably be reducing more than that; I think I'm already at 50% from a year ago. I don't use fossil fuels as much as I used to, but we have to change our behavior and stop being consumerist and insist on a better product, insist on green energy, and refuse to use fossil fuels because if nobody buys that, then nobody's going to want to sell it.
Rahul: One final question I would like to close with is, how can we, the broader ServiceSpace community, support your work?
Cheryl: I feel like my work is really, really small and I feel like the people are really, really huge and I need to get out there and continue telling all the spiritual people to become activists because there's millions of people praying for Standing Rock. Those millions of people that are praying, they need to stand up and become active. They need to be on that front line of prayer and do it in a nonviolent way because that's the power that we need.
I travel all over the place, wherever people call, wherever they want to stand up in defense of running water. I made a vow to protect water for my life, so I will do my best to get to where I am called to talk, to lead, and just to stand there; even if it's doing dishes, I'll do dishes. Wherever I am needed, I will go. I do have an account for travel which is firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm going to be honest and tell you that my strength not only comes from Creator, but it comes from this herd of horses that was gifted to me. I pray with these horses and I have a relationship with these horses, and somehow I need to support them. It takes money to support horses. We just had three new foals and they're my new family, so I have to work to support them and provide a safe place for them to live. So if someone wants to support my work, they can donate to my PayPal, because yes, I do need money to survive just like everybody else.
And prayers -- please continue praying. Create your own water ceremony and your own prayer, down at your own river that needs healing. Do it in front of a building where the key people are. Do it to the E.P.A. Anywhere there's water being drawn, go there and have water ceremony. Invite all the people who pray to come stand with you. Anywhere, because water is everywhere, and it's being drained everywhere, so start your own ritual -- gather your own people and pray.
Rahul: Thank you, Cheryl!
This interview was edited by Gayathri Ramachandran. Awakin Calls is a weekly interview series and community podcast that highlights the work and inner journeys of individuals who are transforming our world in large and small ways. Each call features a moderated conversation with a unique guest. Past interviewees include a calligraphy artist, a path-breaking neurosurgeon, an evolution biologist, an influential product designer, a global leader in restorative justice, an animal communicator, a pioneering entrepreneur and venture capitalist, and a socially conscious hip-hop rapper. Awakin Calls are ad-free, available at no charge, and an all-volunteer-run offering of ServiceSpace, a global platform founded on the principle of "Change Yourself.
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