Notes from the Split Rock Prayer Camp in Mahwah, New Jersey

October 30th, 2016:

Here I am driving to the Split Rock Prayer Camp to be held in Ramapough Sacred Prayer Land in Mahwah, New Jersey. It is Sunday plus an exquisite sunny day during this late Autumn time where trees have already started teaching the impermanence of time to the attentive ones. The night before a kind friend shared this online pamphlet about the Split Rock Prayer Camp.  A ground prayer was to be held in solidarity with Standing Rock and to continue action against the A.I.M. pipeline. To be honest I had no idea about the A.I.M pipeline, over the past few weeks I have only been learning about the North Dakota Access Pipeline so my perception had let A.I.M. escape. It is only now as I am writing these random notes on the laptop about the Split Rock Prayer Camp that I had finally learned a few things about the A.I.M. pipeline.

The A.I.M. stands for Algonquin Incremental Market expansion project which is a network of pipelines that is set to deliver fracked natural gas from the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania to satisfy the growing thirst for energy in the northeastern states of New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Connecticut. This is a joint project run by the Texas based company Spectra and its subsidiary Algonquin. As this project is nearly reaching its completion stage, safety and environmental concerns are pushing many activists and local residents to stand up against this controversial A.I.M. pipeline. One of the key issues is that this pipeline has been built close to the old Indian Point Nuclear facility in New York… What? A pipeline close to a nuclear facility? Is this market-induced stupidity? Or if you want to make it sound better, short-term efficiency? Or the bolder non-bullshit version – corporate greed, selfishness and the ignorance of the fact that everything yes everything and all sentient and non-sentient beings are interdependent whether our egotistical conceptions of self want it or not…

As I drive my mind wonders whether there would be a parking area next to this event. Do I have to park in a random parking lot close to Ramapo College and walk to 95 Halifax Road? I wonder if people will stare at me bringing this car that runs of gasoline to an event that protests against the North Dakota Access Pipeline… What a contradiction… Should I have taken an Uber ride to the place instead? But how about the rumors that I heard about Uber’s exploitative company policies… I don’t know wait Uber cars also run on gasoline maybe I should take a train ah I never took a train to Mahwah… Would I have to go to NYC first in order to catch some train to Mahwah? I am already in New Jersey… it’s a thirty minute car ride so I finally decided to take the car that runs on fossil fuels…

Yea I got lost driving towards Mahwah. I took several wrong exits but I finally reached the place. I drove past the Ramapo Athletic Center, crossed a little bridge with a sign “This is a private area” and then saw how one of the organizers was directing different cars to park in rows in this state park area. Oh there are parking spaces for the car… I tried to erase part of the guilt for driving to this event. I guess intention counts right? Also we are so ingrained in this oil-gushing system that it is almost impossible to get out from… No as of now my present selfish self and pampered body cannot live in a world without oil. Let’s hope that one day or maybe the next generations might become able to do so…

I park the car and put my camera bag slung across my body. I looked around and it seemed like the event didn’t start yet… no there wasn’t a big crowd gathered in a single place so I walked around the area. It was by the river and there were ducks swimming in there. I wondered if I should take my camera right away and snap some photos. I was hesitant to do so because an unmindful photographer can cause more harm than benefit the people he or she attempts to portray. No I didn’t snatch out my potential colonial camera… Only with permission from the person or group to be depicted that I will decide to do so. So I decided to walk the area and actually be here… I see the traditional tents also knows as “tipis” or “tepees”. As I continued strolling the area, I see how there were several families gathered close to the area where the prayer circle was going to be held.

Walking around the area, I started noticing the beauty of the falling trees, the beauty of the moment, the beauty of the people gathered thus I rejoiced. What a rare and special moment… Then somehow I was greeted by two of the people camping here and organizing this prayer ceremony. One middle aged man with a big smile introduced himself as one of the chief-organizers of the camp. I greeted him. He said if there are any questions I could feel free to ask. I gathered some courage and decided to ask him,

“Can I take photos here?” The chief replied with a smile, “Yes you can but if you are taking those close-up portraits just make sure you ask people’s permission first because of their cultural beliefs… I am one of those people…” “Yes, true that. Thank you.” As I chatted with the chief, a thin, gentle, elderly lady joined the conversation. She was a white ally and kindness emanated from her. From my past experiences interacting with elderly white ladies in the suburban upper-middle class town I am staying in New Jersey, I often found these interactions to be quite artificial and forced. There was a slight condescending tone in the way they said “Excuse me” or “Thank you” in the public library or the supermarket. Sometimes I would wonder why maybe it is because of my appearance as a “poor”’ Chinese boy in their eyes… But this lady emanated inner-peace and gentleness… A conversation sparked between the lady and the chief about the location in which this sacred camp was held. The chief pointed beyond the hills and said “Wall Street is right there!” My mind wondered oh Wall Street where all those banks are located… Citibank, TD Bank… Are the headquarters of these banks located in Wall Street? Protest actions should be held in front of these banks because these two banks are part of a major coalition of international banking institutions funding the North Dakota Access Pipeline… Plus Bank of America which I am one of their customers perhaps I should do something about it and other banks such as Credit Agricole, Royal Bank of Scotland, ICBC London, Bank of Tokyo… the list goes on according to Bill McKibben in his inspiring article “A Strategy to Stop Funding Behind the Dakota Access Pipeline published in Yes! Magazine.

“Is this an elevated area?” asked the lady to the chief. He replied, “No, when Hurricane Sandy hit a few years ago the river bank swelled up and all my ancestors were under the water…” Some people near the tipi were calling for the chief so he excused himself. I tried to continue the conversation with the lady, “Are you part of any organization?” She said no but she was taking part of the efforts in sending small donations and supplies to the Standing Rock Camp. Then our conversation flowed to Ithaca where I went for college the Cayuga lake the vegan restaurant Moosewood and how she had purchased the recipe books of this restaurant. I looked up to the area where the prayer was going to be held and noticed how people started gathering there so I started slowly walking towards it.

People started gathering around the prayer circle. The circle was marked by sacred wooden statues… There must be a specific name for these but my lack of knowledge makes me unable to name these. The people gathered were of so many different backgrounds… If you drag the critical conversation towards the culturally constructed not biological concept of Race, there were Native Americans,Black, White, Latino, Asian and of Mixed race… Though different in external appearance in essence our purpose here was not so different – to show solidarity to the Standing Rock camp and oppose the A.I.M. pipeline.

The prayer circle was about to start. One of the organizers of the camp voiced to the crowd how people should line up to get smudged before going inside the prayer circle. An Elder was already inside the circle conducting the ritual close to the fire in the center of the circle. I went to join the queue for smudging. This is a ritual in which the smoke of sacred herbs and incense is used to purify and cleanse negative energies and states of mind. After being smudged people started lining up to later form a ritual circle. After most of the people were purified by smoke, an Elder stood in the middle of the circle and started the ceremony. He provided with some background knowledge to the people unfamiliar with prayer circles.

“The circle flows clockwise and we must keep the energy flowing this way. We must leave the East gate open so that our ancestors may join us.  People can exit through the west gate. Remember to go clockwise.”

The prayer circle started. A group of Elders started playing sacred music close to the center of the circle. The ritual proceeded with prayers and blessings and sending positive energy for the people in the Standing Rock camp – the frontlines in the battle for the right to Water. After the first prayers were conducted, an Elder was invited to the center of the circle. She was an Elder from the First Nations in Quebec. She was going to lead the water ceremony. The Elder started with a story about how she learned the water prayer. I will not tell the story because I am not sure if it is appropriate for me to re-tell her story hence I choose not to do so. Then the Elder continued on how traditionally men performed the Fire rituals and the women performed the Water rituals. The Elder taught us a key insight,

“The North Dakota Access Pipeline is not really about the oil but about the right to Water! The Water element is in crisis!”

The Elder started with the sacred water song. As she sang, she faced the four directions and after the song was over… A large eagle or hawk hovered above us; it let out a warm cry and flew in a few circles before it flew away. I look around and noticed how people in the prayer circle were as surprised and amazed as I was… I wonder if this was some positive sign… The ritual continued with a bucket of river water being brought up to her and she blessed it. She said, “Before exiting the circle, people could drink from this water.” Then she voiced out to the women in the circle, “Whoever wants to learn the water song, come and join me by the river.” Most of the women in the group left the circle and went to join the Elder. Before they stepped out from the circle from the West gate, the women drank from the blessed water with a small dried gourd-like recipient. The circle felt quite empty after the women left…they made up about 70% of the prayer group… The group of male Elders started performing sacred songs with their musical instruments.

Not knowing what to do and looking around, my eyes focused on the dancing ritual Fire. How beautiful it was… How I wished that one day I could be brave and strong like this Fire… Throughout my childhood growing up as a Chinese boy in Portugal I was often targeted as the non-masculine boy of the classroom the sensitive one the weak Chinese boy who had good grades and always tried to be nice and please others I was the perfect target for bullying… Rain clouds thickened and it started to get dark the wind started blowing and blowing it ignited the Fire… The power of the adverse wind ignited the Fire… Perhaps hardships and suffering also makes a person braver and stronger… I overheard a brother next to me conversing to another brother how he was from Bolivia and how camping here was very healing for him because he dealt with displacement from a very early age… The sacred Fire grew stronger and stronger with the wind…

Is this the Fire of revolution? Mind wondered whether the state of global Bullying of the weak by the powerful is going to get worse and worse… The sacred Fire will continue resisting and growing stronger and stronger… Then I started wondering whether the NODAPL movement was my fight, my struggle. Fool of course it is… can we exist without Water? However there are many global frontlines… The Standing Rock is as important as the fight happening in Morocco before COP 22… which is as important as the fight by the Brazilian high school students occupying their schools in protest against the austerity measures of the newly right-wing government… which is as important as the protests against police’s widespread and brutal killings of Black people…all are my brothers and sisters…

The Fire becomes stronger and stronger… Mind reflects… whatever frontline I choose to join in the end it is all about an ongoing battle against the Colonization of the Mind… Since the beginning of times, peoples’ minds have been Colonized by the oppressive systems dictated by the powerful to exploit the weak… the true Revolution is the De-Colonization of the Mind. After all the word revolution signifies Revolution because of the Mind that perceives it as such… If I somehow manage to free this Mind perhaps the external shackles that bound me shall disappear accordingly… However I can’t De-Colonize this mind by sitting on my ass… It is only through an active struggle effort compassion and wisdom that the Mind can De-Colonize itself…

Rain starts falling…

Should I run away to my car? No let’s just enjoy the moment… All brothers in the circle share the joy of feeling the rain cleansing body and mind washing all the negativity away… With a smile I join the queue to drink the blessed river water from the bucket before exiting through the West gate. One by one we drink the water… I look at the Fire and an Elder was standing there holding an umbrella to keep it alive and burning… Then another Elder came next to the water bucket holding an umbrella and a big smile… I drank the water and slowly strolled back to the car… Should I go home now? No I waited and the rain stopped ten minutes later…

They say everything becomes more beautiful after the Rain so I finally took out the camera, walked around and clicked a few photos…

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