A New Song: Joining Hands with La Oroya, Peru and Standing Rock, ND

By Rev. Ellie Stock | Joining Hands Peru Partnership, Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy
Teepee at the Oceti Sakowin Camp, Standing Rock, ND. Photo Credit: Ellie Stock

Teepee at the Oceti Sakowin Camp, Standing Rock, ND. Photo Credit: Ellie Stock

It is a long story…

It all began with a song…in Girl Scout Camp…many moons ago…when I was seven,”Land of the Silver Birch, Home of the Beaver“, an adapted Native Canadian tune and Canadian folk song where the singer/story-teller extols the beauty of his homeland—the water, mountains, land, creatures, and deep longing to return to that home. It combined the love and heartbeat of creation with the rhythm and adapted musicality of Native tradition. Singing it at nightly campfires, hearing the melody wafting over the hills, and singing it to the trees as I walked the root-veined woodland trails engrained it into my being and began a life-long entwinement with and respect for Native or Indigenous traditions and love for creation.

Also, at that time, I discovered in the Girl Scout song book, another song whose melody continued to haunt me, “The Dakota Hymn,” “Dakota Odowan 141,” as it is now known in the Native American Hymn book. It also paints the picture of God’s magnificent creation and the gifts of life.

Fast forward a few decades to 1963 when, as a college student, I spent a summer as a Volunteer in Mission (as we were called in those days) studying and being part of a work camp in Plainview, Texas, “on the other side of the tracks,” in a migrant workers community. As the Civil Rights movement was growing momentum in the south, we learned the song, “We Shall Overcome”. Afterwards, my parents picked me up, and we travelled through New Mexico and Arizona with our Mission Yearbook of Prayer, visiting Native American churches, missions and cultural sites and events. The expansive wonder and beauty of the west was like being in another country.

In 1965, I had the wonderful opportunity to be a Volunteer in Mission during a summer ecumenical, international work camp in Peru, studying and working in the Indigenous area of the high Andes north of Cuzco, the ancient Incan capital. There again, I was captured by the beautiful but sometimes eerie melodies of the Quechua Huayno hymns and songs, as well as the beauty of the mountains, waters, creatures, and people of Peru. I also learned of the hardships and injustices they encountered as they sought to eek out a livelihood. I left, thinking I would return to work someday, perhaps as a “missionary” or something else. I graduated from college, then seminary, married and became a pastor, deciding the local congregation was the real base for mission.

In the 1970s, my husband and I travelled to the Southwest with our Mission Yearbook of Prayer, and then to the Northwest, including Native American reservations and sites in North and South Dakota, once again discovering the beauty of the vast open spaces of the Plains as well as the tragic history that attempted to “civilize”, “Christianize”, assimilate, relocate, contain or annihilate the Native American population. Shortly afterward, a group we worked with began facilitating a community development program in Cannon Ball on the Sioux Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. I wrote words to the tune of the Dakota Hymn that was sung in Cannon Ball.

In 1983, I did return to another region of Peru as part of a work camp and medical team. Also, in the 1980s, we shared Thanksgiving Celebrations and attended POW WOWS at Singing Winds, the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center in Pittsburgh. In the 1990s I led presbytery mission education trips to the Southwest and Alaska—meeting, worshipping, and feasting with our Native American brothers and sisters, immersed in their culture and awesome creation, hearing their stories, experiencing their incredible gifts and challenges. Around that time I submitted some original songs to the PC(USA) Hymnal Committee and also suggested that “The Dakota Hymn” be included. The original songs were politely rejected but, fortunately, the Dakota Hymn was included; and it remains in the new Glory to God hymn book.

In 2001, after moving to St Louis in the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy, I became part of the Joining Hands Peru Partnership, an initiative of the Hunger Program of the PC(USA), which seeks to address root causes of poverty and hunger through education, networking, and advocacy. Since then, I have been working with the partnership and many church and other networks to address issues of contamination caused by a U.S.-based metallurgical complex in the Andes community of La Oroya, Peru where 97% of the children are severely poisoned by lead and other heavy metals. The same company’s smelter poisoned a community within our presbytery boundaries. I have returned several times to Peru, meeting, worshipping and breaking bread with Peruvian friends and colleagues, sometimes in awe of the beauty of the Andes mountains, but also experiencing the underlying ecological devastation that has contaminated their land, water, vegetation, animals, and bodies; melted their glaciers; and undermined their livelihood and food security. This is just one community in Peru affected by the resource extraction industry and one of thousands across the world adversely affected, especially indigenous communities and communities of color. Joining Hands seeks to “join hands” with and connect the dots among these communities.

To accomplish this more effectively, in 2015 the Joining Hands Partnership created three cross- partnership Tables and webinars which focus on Trade Justice, Food and Land, and Resource Extraction and Climate Issues, the latter of which I was invited to convene. The first webinars focused on resource extraction issues in Peru, Bolivia, Cameroon and Congo where we have partnerships and also Ecuador. Trying to connect the dots or join hands with the communities in the U.S struggling with the same issues, the November 2 webinar focused on the Water Protectors in Standing Rock, where, protecting their land and water from the encroaching Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL)—the “Black Snake”— their song, as in Bolivia (El Agua es Vida) and so many other places, is Water Is Life ~ Mni Wiconi! Presenters for the webinar were The Rev. Irvin Porter, Associate in the Office for Intercultural and Native American Ministries (who, since then visited Standing Rock), and The Rev. Paul Henschen, Coordinator for the Northern Plains Presbyterians for Earth Care Team who had visited and taken supplies to Standing Rock. We had returned to Standing Rock in 2004 and 2006, following the Lewis and Clark Trail, but were just as interested in the Native American sites, history and cultural centers along the way. We were reminded again that the Lewis and Clark Expedition would not have been accomplished without the Native Americans who helped them. But now, Standing Rock was ground zero for Native American Tribes and people globally who felt the call to protect the Earth.

A day after the webinar, 524 representatives of many faith communities, including the PC(USA) responded to a call to go to Standing Rock. While there, they ceremonially burned copies of the 1400s Doctrine of Discovery which gave papal and governmental permission and commission to European explorers to conquer and take over lands and peoples in the “New World”. This doctrine has been used as recently as 2006 by the U.S Supreme Court to deny land to the Oneida Indians. In June 2016, the 222nd PC(USA) General Assembly passed two overtures which affect the 95 Native American Presbyterian congregations: 1) An apology to Native Americans for their church’s involvement and administration of boarding schools during the late 19th and early 20th centuries whose purpose was the “civilization” of Native American children. 2) A repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery. At some time during the visit, the clergy sang “The Dakota Hymn.”

A week later, my husband, another Joining Hands colleague, and I travelled to Standing Rock to support their Ancient but true story they are proclaiming to the Global Community: Mother Earth is our common home, and we are called by the Great Spirit God to live in harmony with and protect this Sacred Space. This Ancient Story is emerging to become the New Story of our times and their song, our New Song. We walked through the camps: the Sacred Stones Spirit Camp, the Sicangu (Rosebud) Camp, and the Oceti Sakowin Camp/Red Warriors (the largest gathering of Native American tribes in 150 years since the Battle of Greasy Grass [Little Big Horn]), which were prayerful and peaceful with intentional, committed Water Protectors, resolved to protect their land and water, ceremonial and burial grounds. They have endured the militarized force of water cannons in sub-freezing weather, concussion grenades, rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray, attack dogs, over 500 arrests, holding cages, and strip searches and now face winter’s fierce wind, snow and freezing temperatures blanketing the camps and eviction. The pipeline was originally to cross the Missouri River north of Bismarck, but citizens there complained it could damage their land and water, so it was re-routed to go by Standing Rock Land, which, by the 1851 and 1868 Treaties of Fort Laramie (broken by the U.S. Government), are still Sioux Territory.

Rev. Ellie Stock visiting with Rev. Sidney Bird in 2015. Photo courtesy of Rev. Ellie Stock

Rev. Ellie Stock visiting with Rev. Sidney Bird in 2015. Photo courtesy of Rev. Ellie Stock

On our way to Standing Rock, on the Santee Sioux Reservation of Flandreau, SD, we visited with 97 winters-old PC(USA) minister The Rev. Sidney H. Byrd. I learned he had translated all seven verses of the “Dakota Hymn” (in the UCC hymnal) that is different from Frazier’s paraphrased version in most hymnbooks. So, in 2015, I sought to locate him and eventually, through correspondence, received his translation as well as some history about the Dakota Hymn. During our visit he shared this story. In 1862, during the Civil War, settlers in Minnesota headed west, encroaching on Sioux land, pushing them against the Minnesota River. Deprived of hunting grounds and food rations promised by the U.S. Government, they were starving; and their efforts to find food and protect their land led to a conflict with settlers that escalated into a six-weeks’ war that killed hundreds on both sides. Four hundred Sioux were rounded up, imprisoned, given five-minute mock trials with no defense, and condemned to die. A missionary intervened on their behalf with President Lincoln who commuted all but 38 of the death sentences. On December 26, in Mankato, Minnesota, the Dakota 38, as they are now known, walked to the gallows, singing, as a song of victory and praise, The Dakota Hymn. Sid Byrd’s great grandfather was one of the 400, whose death sentence was commuted.

Not completely tongue-in-cheek, Sid says, Our Native Peoples made some regrettable mistakes:

  1. We should have made some strict immigration laws and enforced them when the poor, homeless pilgrims arrived on our shores.
  2. We should have conducted an environmental impact study before we extended our welcome.
  3. We should have left well enough alone that first terrible winter. Instead we started our first welfare program. We took care of them and taught them how to survive.
  4. We should have insisted they learn our languages instead of English only.


Watch the 2011 Video interview of Sidney Byrd.

Watch the full YouTube Movie on the Dakota 38 (including interviews with Sidney Byrd).

For the last five years, since retirement, my husband and I have been involved with the Presbyterians for Earth Care Program—greening local congregations through worship, education, building, food and outreach, also connecting the outreach part with the Joining Hands Partnerships and Standing Rock. We started a presbytery team to share this model with congregations, often leading worship where we sing, to the accompaniment of a Native American drum, The Dakota Hymn.

The name Standing Rock comes from a rock, now underwater as a result of five dams constructed upstream on the Missouri in the 1950s, flooding thousands of acres of their land. The story the Sioux tell is that this sacred rock depicts a mother holding a baby—perhaps a good metaphor for Standing Rock holding the Earth in its care, or maybe Mother Earth holding us in her care.

Advent begins with the song of another Mother-to-be and child she holds in her heart and womb—Mary’s song, echoing from the prophet Isaiah and later repeated by Jesus:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

For God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…

He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty…

And so the journey continues with an Ancient Story made new and a New song reverberating around the world, a song filled with the love of creation and longing to return to a restored earth home. So, with La Oroya, Peru; Oruro, Bolivia; Standing Rock, ND; and communities across the world, I join Mary and the hearts and hands of millions who proclaim with the Psalmist “The Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” and sing Water Is Life ~ Mini Wiconi!

Read more about Presbyterian engagement on Standing Rock


Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.