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Hari Rai at Standing Rock

Excerpts from A Straw-Bale Schoolhouse at Standing Rock interview with Hari Rai Khalsa by Chris Rurik
Friday, December 2, 2016

I interviewed Hari Rai Kaur in Boulder on a Tuesday in mid-November. She and her sister, Sahib Simran Kaur, and cousin, Guru Amrit Marshall, were chatting and passing around ginger tea in the apartment of friends when I arrived. They were on their way back to Santa Fe after five days at Standing Rock, much of which they spent building a straw-bale schoolhouse.

Why did you go to Standing Rock?

It's tricky for me to answer because it's almost like, why wouldn't I go to Standing Rock? There are multiple things at stake there. Some people are going because of the environmental issues. Some people have seen oil spills and know the damage they can do. For me it was really about indigenous rights and the way Native Americans have been treated in this country.

What did you see when you pulled into the camp?

Going up there I was bracing myself for a tough, bleak environment. I didn't know what to expect, but I had read a lot of pieces on the Internet. I knew the camp had had an influx of people coming in, especially white people, not really pulling their weight, who were just there to see what it's all about, or who had this weird tourism mentality and just wanted to see a Lakota ceremony or something.

We were really conscious on the way up that we were there to help. We didn't want to use up any resources. We brought all our own food and water plus extra to donate and share. We didn't know what to expect, so we were braced to show up, be invisible, help on the sidelines until it was time to leave, then get out of there without being much of a fuss.

What we found was completely different than what we were preparing for. Those are uplifting, prayerful camps up there. What they're doing more than anything is praying for the water, keeping a positive vibration, holding the space for this situation to go well. Everyone is helping each other. Everyone is coming together. I wouldn't say it feels optimistic, but it feels energetically hopeful, like everyone's working toward something they really believe in.

What is the purpose of Sacred Stone camp?

It was the first camp to be established, but now it is mainly a support camp. Oceti Sakowin is the largest camp where most of the action and organization goes on. There is also a frontlines camp, which moves with the front line. Sacred Stone is a pretty high turnover camp. You have a lot of people coming in for one or two days, helping, then leaving. By Day Three we were the veterans in our neighborhood.

Any stories you want to tell?

I had a moment up there. There were so many prayers going into the river it was like, I don't see how this project can go forward. I think they're going to try to drill under the river and the machines are going to break. Then they're going to fix the machines and the police are going to say, actually we don't want to do this and put down their badges. There's so, so, so much positive energy going into that river.

I went to a ceremony one morning, one of the few that is open to visitors. It was a women’s water ceremony and was basically a whole bunch of women going down to the river and blessing the water.

You know the Disney Hercules movie? It's this hilarious thing that came into my mind in the middle of the ceremony, but it seemed accurate to me even if the source is a little cheesy. There's this scene in Hercules where the girl has gone down to Hades, and he's trying to rescue her, and he has to jump into the river of spirits and save her. No one's ever done that before. There are these Fates, and they have these scissors, and when they cut your string of life that's it for you. He's swimming through the river of spirits and trying to reach her. He's aging as he goes because he's in this river of death.

In the shot you see the scissors coming toward his string of life. This is when he's about to turn into a god. This old crone is shaking her scissors, and they're going toward his little string, and he's swimming. He finally catches the girl and gets out of the river just at the moment the fate cuts down on the string. But she can't cut it. It's suddenly turned from a string into a solid gold band. Her scissors don't work on it.

As we're in the middle of this ceremony I thought, that's pretty much what we're doing to this river. I was imagining the river as this solid golden thread. I know it seems like just a river on the surface, but I don't see how anything can cut through it. That's the water of life. It's unbreakable.

I was feeling really optimistic after that ceremony.

Do you feel like this is a good figurehead for the Indigenous Rights Movement?

I am certainly not a spokesperson for that movement, but I do think Standing Rock has been incredible for multiple reasons. One, the fact that it's over a pipeline brings in a lot of people who maybe haven't been aware of Native American issues but know about climate issues and know about pipeline issues.

At the same time, this is the largest coming-together of Native American tribes in a long time. There are several tribes coming together here who have not been allies in a long time.

I honestly believe that no matter how the rest of this struggle plays out, the number of people that have mobilized over this has created an unstoppable force that's going to keep going forward. I really hope it's going to manifest into more awareness about how deplorably awful the treatment of Native Americans has been in this country, a country that (I might point out) has no real right to exist in the first place. But it’s going to take all of us continuing to work toward that progress and awareness, and not getting distracted back to our own little bubbles.

Do you see parallels between either the Sikh experience in America or Sikh belief systems and what the Standing Rock Sioux are doing?

Sikhism was founded on equality and has always been big on equality. Equality of practice, equality of belief. Everybody's paths are equal and everyone should have the right to practice them.

Guru Nanak, the original teacher for Sikhism, basically went around saying that Muslims and Hindus were worshipping the same fundamental divinity. There might be different ways of phrasing it, different ways of viewing it, but it's all ultimately the same. There's no reason to be fighting about it. That’s the fundamental principle of Sikhism: that God or divinity or infinity of the universe or whatever you want to call it is in everyone, is in everything.

In a way I do see it as a part of our history and duty as Sikhs to rise up for this sort of injustice. Part of being a Sikh is being willing to stand up for anyone who needs it, to stand up when something sacred needs defending. I think that's where I see the strongest connection.

And this issue of protecting the water is entirely beyond religion or belief in my opinion. There is no one on earth who should not worship water. We are what, seventy percent water? The surface of the earth is also around 70%. One of the battle cries—not battle cries; it's a peaceful movement—one of the mottos for the Standing Rock movement is "Water is life." That's not just a platitude you paint on a sign. Water is life. Everything about life is from water. Water is what sustains us. Water is what sustains everything we live on.

It seems like such a no-brainer to honor and respect water. Not everyone has an explicit ceremonial aspect to that reverence, but that just comes down to semantics. Respect for water should not be a group-by-group issue. We may not have specific practices around water in Sikhism, but we understand respect.

Did you feel any obligation as a Sikh to bridge to the oil company and try to include their semantics or motivations in this?

That’s a big teaching within the movement at Standing Rock. At every single ceremony they're praying for the water, they're praying for the water protectors, and they're also praying for DAPL [Dakota Access Pipeline] and the people who are building the pipeline. There is no division in terms of humanity. They're still people. They're still creatures of Earth. They're still people of water as well.

I heard many people up there say how those pipeline builders and oil company magnates need those prayers more than any of us, because they're the ones who have forgotten how important water is, have forgotten how sacred it is, have lost that connection with the land. In the end that’s the real tragedy.

There’s a lot of greed that goes into these pipelines. It's all about wanting more, wanting money, not feeling enough. I think it's important to have compassion for what creates that mentality in someone, what makes you so hungry for money that you forget where all this life comes from, so needing power and control that you forget to see your fellow humans as sacred beings.

There's a Yogi Bhajan quote. He said, "If you can't see God in all, you can't see God at all." I think that’s a really important aspect of it: remembering that it's not us against them. It might seem like that with the way it’s playing out on the ground, but we're all in this together. Everyone wants a good life. Everyone wants water. Everyone needs water.

Update 1/27/17: 

Although the camps have gone through many changes since this interview and the weather no longer permits visitors, the movement at Standing Rock is still very much alive and active. Despite being up against a new government administration with a much stronger enthusiasm for oil, they have no intention of going anywhere. Join the Khalsa for Standing Rock Facebook group to stay up to date and get involved.

Hari Rai is the writer behind Radiation World, a post-apocalyptic comedy podcast currently in its second season.

[The entire interview was published in Garo, an online outpost of the Rocky Mountain Land Library, publishing short stories, artwork, essays, interviews, poetry and other work that connects people to the land and each other.]