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What Non-Indigenous People Can Learn From Chiefs' Anti-Oil Sands Efforts

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Earlier this summer it filled my heart with pride and joy to watch my good friend Chief Rueben George, stand before the sacred tree in the Arbor of a Sun Dance ceremony in Lakota territory, South Dakota and read a declaration of indigenous spiritual leaders against tar sands pipelines and tankers.

Rueben and I met a couple years ago as allies working to stop Houston-based oil giant Kinder Morgan, from building a new pipeline that would bring over 400 oil tankers a year into Vancouver's Burrard Inlet. Rueben's people, the Tsleil-Waututh Nation (which means people of the inlet), have been the stewards of Burrard Inlet since time immemorial.

We have become good friends over the last couple years and my life has been so enriched by opportunities, such as taking part in ceremony, and learning of ancient stories and teaching. In the last year I have taken on the role of fire keeper for Rueben's sweat lodge, a huge honour. Our friendship now led me, a white Jewish guy with roots in Eastern Europe born in Vancouver, to join Rueben on a trip to the Lakota Nations territory and a powerful, sacred ceremony.

Before we started the trip, Rueben asked our friend Josh, an environmental lawyer, to draft something for the spiritual leaders to sign that would be like the Save the Fraser Declaration — a statement of sovereign authority for indigenous people to protect their land and water.

En route, Rueben's two children both shared their thoughts and feelings about the declaration, as did our other traveling companions, all participants in Rueben's sweat lodge ceremonies back home. After our long journey, we finally arrived at Crow Dog's Paradise, located on the Lakota Reservation in Rosebud, S.D.

Crow Dog's Paradise is a magical place. The sacred tree is covered in colourful prayer ties dancing in the wind. Bright dragonflies paint the air. The sound of the drums resonates deep inside your body. The sunrises turn the clouds into a pink gateway over the arbor's east gate. Spectacular rainbows follow the overpowering thunder and lightning of summer storms. All of this is home to Chief Leonard Crow Dog, a powerful spiritual leader and activist who has touched the lives of many, many people. Perhaps it should not be surprising that this place is so special, as the area is not far from where the legendary Crazy Horse once lived, hunted and did battle.

Crow Dog can trace his lineage back to a long line of Lakota medicine men. As the medicine man for the American Indian Movement, he played a critical role in bringing back traditional ceremonies that had almost been lost. He was part of the seven-month occupation of Wounded Knee in 1967, and many other actions in the fight for the sovereignty and strength of the Native American people. It was Crow Dog that made Rueben a Sundance Chief and this year was his 17th year in a row dancing in the sacred ceremony.

After the declaration was drafted there was a process of consulting with Chief Crow Dog and the other chiefs to revise the text. I will never forget the smile on Rueben's six-foot-five, 15-year-old son Cedar's face one day as he giggled and said, "They just called for all the chiefs and Ben West ... you better run".

At first I didn't believe him because Cedar often gets me good with his practical jokes. I hadn't heard the announcement, but after I realized he wasn't joking I ran across the camp barefoot and then awkwardly sat down behind Rueben at this meeting of larger-than-life spiritual leaders as they discussed the declaration.

Cedar and I spent several afternoons driving back and forth to use the wi-fi in a nearby grocery store and the printer in a small town library in Mission, S.D., working on drafts and revisions to share with the Sun Dance chiefs. Later, Cedar and I were off across state lines into Valentine, Neb. for one final print run on the weekend when the library was closed. We found an embroidery shop that was open and they were nice enough to print a big version of the declaration to be signed by the leaders.

At last, the declaration was complete. It was a hot, dry day in the Arbor at the Sun Dance ceremony. Everyone listened silently as Rueben spoke, standing under the cedar bough roofs of the outer circle of the Arbor during a break between rounds of the ceremony. Over 600 people danced in the hot sun as part of Chief Leonard Crow Dog's Sun Dance ceremony this year, supported by thousands of others from across North America. Rueben has a rare ability to touch the hearts and minds of people, and when he finished reading all in attendance erupted with support. These chiefs and supporters had come from all the way from South America to Alaska. They lined up close to the west door of the arbor, all wearing stunning ceremonial regalia. They signed the declaration on Chief Leonard Crow Dog's desk as he watched and smiled approvingly.

Now half a year later Rueben was back in South Dakota last week taking his resolution to a gathering he organized along with Chief Phil Lane Jr. and others called "Gathering to Protect the Sacred." They were joined by native Americans and First Nations fighting the Keystone XL pipeline proposal and others fighting the Enbridge and Kinder Morgan pipelines. This time I wasn't able to join Ruben in person but I loved watching the live stream and blog from the event and on his new website, ProtectTheSacred.org.

I feel strongly that as non-indigenous people living here in what we now call North America that we all have a lot to learn from those that were here long before we were. Working together, we need to find ways to heal from the history of colonialism and find new ways to work together to make healthy alternatives to dangerous tar sands oil, a reality. There are very real energy, housing and transportation solutions already readily available.

As a fitting next step in this process I am excited to pass on the news that the Tsleil-Waututh people are organizing a two-day conference on April 18 and 19 entitled "Transitioning From Oil Dependency" with the support of local municipalities and environmental groups.

I sincerely hope that these challenges that we collectively face can provide an opportunity for cultural exchange, healing, empowerment and a clear pathway to move forward together.