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April 24, 2017, 12:00 AM

Letter of Support and Respect for Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism

[Note: This is a copy of a letter written by Karen Van Fossan, Bismanuu Minister, to the UUA Board of Trustees in response to a request by Lena Gardner of Black Lives of UU]

April 20, 2017

Dear UUA Board,

As the UU minister in closest proximity to Standing Rock during the worldwide DAPL resistance, I was called, along with my passionate congregation, into solidarity and ally-ship beyond my imagining. In the beginning of the water protector movement, I found myself saying, again and again, “Standing Rock is the center of the world right now, and in Bismarck, North Dakota, we have the honor of being perched at the center of the world.”

Thanks to the spiritual and embodied support from UUs around world – including the UUA board – we showed up. That matters, and I remain deeply grateful to you for all the ways you have affirmed that it matters, not the least of which is granting our congregation the true honor of the Courageous Love Award.

I won’t get into the story of our solidarity with Standing Rock and Oceti Sakowin camp here, since many of you know it well. What you may not know is how significantly our solidarity was influenced by Black Lives of UU and, in particular, Lena Gardner. Lena and I graduated from seminary together in 2015. By the time we set up camp together (along with Nora Rasman) at Oceti Sakowin in the fall of 2016, Lena had become the first executive director of BLUU, and I had accepted my first ministry position with the UU congregation in Bismarck, North Dakota, my home church.

According to my families’ oral histories, I am of Dutch, Swiss, German, Scottish, Irish, and “Sioux” origins. I come mostly from people who are of colonizing cultures, while a few of my ancestors also experienced colonization. I am a white, Midwestern woman who understands that white supremacy and colonization are the single greatest causes of injustice on this continent (at least) – and also believes that people and cultures who colonize and brutalize others are themselves in a state of spiritual brokenness.

I am keenly aware of the spiritual brokenness of my culture(s) and my people(s). This brokenness presents challenges in any effort to relate across cultures, especially with anyone who comes from cultures that have experienced white brutality over time – which is just about everyone.

This challenge has everything to do with why I have drawn from BLUU workshops, BLUU writings, and personal conversations with Lena Gardner for insights into how to be a real ally, rather than a colonist wishing to be an ally. From BLUU and its executive director, I have learned three key things:

1) Follow. Trust people of color whom you trust to know the ways out of white supremacy and colonialism better than you do. Indigenous people have been resisting colonialism for over 500 years and have an accumulated wisdom about doing so. The simple (and not so simple) act of taking the lead from people of color is already an act of decolonization. Thanks to this insight from BLUU, I learned to encourage my congregants who are not Native – and myself – to presume no leadership at camp, volunteer in the kitchen or children’s library, for instance, pray quietly at the sacred fire, participate without ego at camp meetings, and draw minimal attention to ourselves. For these reasons, we had a felt sense of camp life, as well as a basis for genuine relationships, when camp coordinators began to speak of the need for interfaith prayer experiences – and partnerships in bringing these about.

2) Be there. Put ourselves and our bodies in the places where resistance is needed, as guided by people of color. If indigenous people are being arrested for putting up tipis on 1851 treaty land, which the authorities claim is the private property of Energy Transfer Partners – go there. If indigenous people have planned a rally in front of the Army Corps of Engineers building, and you are asked to add a prayer as the only non-Native faith leader in attendance – pray there. If indigenous friends ask you to sponsor a local event of solidarity with the Native Nations March in Washington, DC, so local Native people don’t have to absorb all the front-line racism – be there. Then understand that you will begin to experience a version of the racism and colonialism that white people typically escape. This does not make you a hero, please understand. But it does make you a human being.

3) Expect mistakes. When we, as white people, come from a culture that confuses might with strength, individualism with freedom, and brokenness with wholeness, we are likely to get befuddled when faced with people who know brokenness for what it is. I don’t mean that people of color are cursed with perfection, never make mistakes, and never face brokenness – or that white people are devoid of wholeness. I do mean that people of color generally have more to teach us about decolonizing our own minds and actions than the other way around. This means we are learning, and we can’t yet know what we haven’t yet learned. Just as we were once convinced the sun revolved around the earth, we sometimes catch ourselves – or more painfully get caught by others – acting out of colonizing paradigms we didn’t even know had laid claim to our minds. I recently had a difficult exchange with an indigenous friend who made it clear that I don’t share as much about my UU tradition with him as he shares about his Lakota tradition with me. I could call this humility, but I’ve come to see it as a colonized/colonizing humility, in which I presume what I have to offer isn’t as interesting – because it’s just so normal to Western thought. In fact, I have no doubt made any number of mistakes in crafting this letter, and I only hope that I will have learned more by the time I write again.

I recognize that not all cultures are alike, that BLUU doesn’t presume to represent the particular cultural practices of Native people, for instance, and that there are lessons to learn from Oceti Sakowin camp which make it unique from the Black Lives Matter movement. At the same time, I will say unequivocally that the quality of leadership of BLUU has everything to do with the quality of showing up that UUs have done at Standing Rock.

I would like to thank you again for your support of BLUU and of UUs, including Native UUs, who are in solidarity with Native people here. I was in the audience at the 2016 General Assembly when we raised more funds than we ever could have imagined for BLUU. It’s no wonder to me that the UUA board did not need to deliberate long on the decision to raise additional millions for BLUU. The momentum from UUs across the continent was palpable. The moment had arrived.

We responded to that moment. We responded to the Standing Rock moment.

May we continue to respond – wherever the center of the world may be.


Rev. Karen Van Fossan
Minister, Bismarck-Mandan UU Fellowship & Church



October 17, 2016, 12:00 AM

Oceti Sakowin Camp & Sacred Stone Camp News Archive

[In 2016 and 2017, this congregation actively worked in solidarity with the efforts of Standing Rock. Below is an archive of news and information sent to members and friends.]

AFL-CIO Consitituency Groups Stand with Standing Rock:

Standing Rock Tribal Chairman David Archambault speaks in Geneva, Switzerland to UN Human Rights Comission:

How can you support Standing Rock? Read this!:

Task Force to investigate clash between Water Protectors and Dakota Access private security September 3, in which dogs were used against Water Protectors:

Clay Jenkinson on Native American Sovereignty:

Museum Officials and Archaeologists Against Dakota Access Pipeline:

Tribes unite against Dakota Access:

Dakota Access Land Purchase of Cannonball Ranch may violate ND's anti-corporate farming law:

Camps' Plans for a Dakota winter:

Twenty-one water protectors arrested Wednesday:

Technology to detect pipeline leaks often fails:

Five things every non-native needs to consider before visiting Standing Rock:

How you can support Standing Rock:

The Power of the Standing Rock Water Protectors:

Rediscovering Native American Roots at Water Protector Camps:

US Court of Appeals Rules Against Standing Rock:

Members of Congress send letter to President Obama to stop DAPL:

Gubanatorial Candidates' Positions on DAPL:

Injunction lifted; work continues on private lands:

27 Arrested on Indigenous Peoples Day:

Five senators call on President Obama to halt Dakota Access Pipeline:

Increased militarization of Law Enforcement: between ND Attorney General & Dakota Access

Not all law enforcement agencies support this militarization:

Ties between ND Attorney General and Dakota Access:

Rolling Stone piece on arrest of Amy Goodman of Democracy Now:

Standing Rock Camps are a city of 4000, with growing infratstructure:

Amy Goodman broadcasts from Morton County , where she has returned to face charges stemming from live reporting of peaceful protest:

Standing Rock Tribal Chairman says talks underway about moving Oceti Sakowin camp to tribally owned land:

National media takes notice of the gathering of hundreds of tribal nations standing together against DAPL:

Water Protectors have International Support:

Judge rejects charges against journalist Amy Goodman:

Some felony charges dropped against Water Protectors:

Excessive reaction by law enforcement: Water Protectors strip-searched, jailed for days on minor charges:

Winona Laduke and Tara Houska on indigenous resistance to DAPL:

The secret strength of Standing Rock:

Protectors arrested on minor charges strip-searched:

Daughter of Sacred Stone Camp Founder arrested, strip-searched and left naked in cell overnight:

Film Crew claims disputed:

Attorney for Civil Liberties Defense Center interviewed about legal and law enforcement in the noDAPL movement:

More than 80 Water Protectors Arrested:

Police beat & pepper spray Water Protectors during prayerful protest:

More than 120 arrested during weekend actions:

Standing Rock Tribal Chairman's statement on weekend arrests:

Citing 1851 Treaty, Water Protectors Expand Frontline on treaty land:

The secret strength of Standing Rock:

What is happening in North Dakota is so fundamentally and so thoroughly un-American (note UU Minister Karen Van Fossan, member Liz Loos & friend Gretchen Bederman in photo at rally):

Militarized Police Cracking Down on Water Protectors:

Video of action on October 22, when 123 Water Protectors were arrested:

More than 140 arrested in miltarized police raid on treaty camp:

Militarized response of law enforcement to occupation of treaty lands:

Standing Rock Tribal Chair asks Department of Justice to investigate use of force against water protectors:

Amy Goodman on why the Standing Rock stand-off is only getting worse:

Why Dakota is the new Keystone:

Native rights and the noDAPL fight:

The injustice of DAPL:

Dakota Access security worker with assault rifle removed from protest area by BIA officers:

Amnesty International & United Nations Sending Observers to Standing Rock Camps: Observers 

Suspicious fire near Oceti Sakowin Camp:

Understanding the Water Protectors by looking at history:

Obama says pipeline could be re-routed:

Clergy gather in support of prayerful movement:

The Standing Rock victory you didn't hear about:

New York Times Editorial: Time to Move the Pipeline:

Why do we punish Dakota pipeline protestors but exonerate the Bundys:

DAPL push to finish the pipeline:

Army Corps of Engineers renews call for DAPL to stop construction:

Rancher that claims livestock killings has history with law enforcement and founder of Sacred Stone Camp:

These maps fill the gaps on DAPL:

Army Corps wants more review and consultation before issuing final permit: and

UN Observers Monitoring Human Rights Abuses:

Burial grounds at center of confrontations is known historical site:

Understanding more about 1851 Treaty relevance in DAPL fight:

Police attack unarmed water protectors with rubber bullets, water cannons and pepper spray:

Water cannons fired at water protectors in freezing temperatures:

UN officials denounce "inhuman" treatment of water protecors:

A few weeks old, but a good resource for contacting people responsible for sending militarized police to Standing Rock:

Army Corps of Engineers issues eviction notice for Oceti Sakowin:

Standing Rock Tribal Chairman Archambault's Statement on Army Corps Decision:

A Dakota's Pipeline Last Stand:

North Dakota officials hope to quell protests with fines:

ND Governor issues evacuation order for Oceti Sakowin:

Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault speaks at public forum sponsored by Dakota Resource Council:

Morton County Sheriff sued for excessive force in dealing with Water Protectors:

The many ways to help Standing Rock:

Army Corps of Engineers Denies Easement to Dakota Access to Cross Lake Oahe:

Decision comes during Interfaith Day of Prayer:

A new way of seeing us, by UU visiting minister Patty WIllis:

Veterns Beg Forgiveness at Standing Rock:

Why the rule of law is a powerful idea for Standing Rock:

Feds withheld key documents from Standing Rock Tribe:

Water Protector who disarmed Dakota Access infiltrator put on Morton County most wanted list:

Standing Rock: Good tidings of great joy:

The conflicts along 1,172 miles of Dakota Access Pipeline:

Indigenous activists at Standing Rock told a deep true story:

March 3, 2014, 12:00 AM

Thinking about injustice

[Author unknown]

Recently, I happened to listen to a conversation that got me to thinking about injustice. The conversation began with a woman describing how her child was not able to find some birthday gifts that he was given the day before. Understandably, the parent, as well as child, were upset about the missing gifts, and others who were part of the conversation became upset as well.

The conversation soon turned to a particular boy who was accused by the adults as having stolen the gifts. The adults then began to belittle this boy, his siblings, as well as his mother.  From what I heard of the conversation, there was no evidence that the accused child had actually taken anything.  It seemed that he was being accused because of who he was, not what he might have done.  The child was branded as a thief, and the adults speculated that he would therefore be punished by God and may very well end up in prison, implying that he deserved both of those consequences.

All of this was said in front of the child who was missing his gifts, and it appeared that perhaps the adults felt that their accusations would somehow comfort the child whose gifts had gone missing.  I was saddened by their attempt to cheer up one child by impugning and calling for punishment of another.  I could not see how one person could be comforted by the idea of someone else suffering.  

So why do I relate this story?  Because it brought forth for me many feelings about how religion has been used over the ages to justify unjust behavior.  Perhaps in the mind of the adults, the accused boy had sinned somehow (perhaps not by stealing, but because he came from a “bad” family) and therefore should be punished by God.  Therefore, they were justified in condemning a child, because God would condemn the child as well.  Instead, it seems to me that the adults were using religion as a “quick fix.”  They could hide behind the punishment ideology without claiming it as their own.  They wouldn’t have to actually think about their actions or their feelings because how they felt could be justified by their religious beliefs.    

Extreme reactions are not unique to any one group of people. This type of behavior is something we can see throughout all of humanity. Its prevalence, however, does not justify this behavior as appropriate.  We all have our own problems; we are all flawed. Yet if we focus on others in negative ways, we do not have to confront ourselves or our own flaws.  –And it is bad enough when the extreme reactions involve other adults; it is inexcusable when a child is attacked in this manner.  And I cannot help but wonder what “lessons” were learned by the child who was missing his gifts. 

February 20, 2014, 12:00 AM

Valentine's Day

[Author unknown]

"Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage." ~ Lao Tzu

As Valentine's Day comes once again, talk of love is easy to find. Flowers and candy are sped through the streets, deliverers trying to find the intended destinations. Restaurants prepare for an influx of couples, while social networking and other websites prepare for the inevitable posts about how Valentine's Day is just a scam created by corporations to bleed America dry. 

It was not until around 1375 that Valentine's Day began to be associated with love, as it is today. Geoffrey Chaucer, the famed English poet who was known to take liberties when it came to history, may have been the one to create the holiday, as we know it today. In his work, "Parliament of Foules," Chaucer wrote, "For this was sent on Saint Valentine's day/ when every foul comes there to choose his mate." With those words, he linked a tradition of courtly love with the celebration of St. Valentine, and we have been following suit ever since.

While the holiday may feel corrupted in some ways, the meaning behind it is universal. It is a day to focus on love, regardless of one's relationship status. It is a day to step out, and take a stand. Whether that be simply voicing the love one has for their significant other, or coming out in support of the marginalized. Maybe it is just something in between.

Lao Tzu is right though. Deeply loving another gives one courage. Valentine's Day then can serve as a day to also examine who we love deeply, and what we can do for them to make this a better world; how we can take a stand along side them. It serves as a day to focus that courage one has, and move forward with justice. Because regardless of who we love, if there is injustice in this world, it effects us all. 

October 30, 2013, 12:00 AM

Thoughts on Leith, ND and white supremacy

[In 2013, members of this congregation joined other North Dakotans to protest the attempted takeover of the village of Leith, ND by white supremacists. Author of this entry is unknown.]


Where in the the world is Leith, North Dakota? I've traveled considerably in the state and I could not have said - until the tiny community became a household word in ND as a result of a newer resident who was buying up lots in town and, as we sadly learned, planning to invite others who believe as he does to come and live there also. He is identified as a 'white supremacist' in most of the stories.

So then we knew where Leith was, and we were more than unhappy, appalled, at what could happen there. But not much seemed to happen for some months.

Then a interesting confluence of events occurred.

On the eve of a history conference in Bismarck focused on civil rights and featuring a speaker who was one of the nine black students who integrated Little Rock Central High School in 1957, it was announced that the national leader of a white supremacist organization would visit Leith to support the man who had moved there previously.

A protest was planned. Residents of Leith asked for support. Two young men, former North Dakotans, I understand, began an online organizing project to bring people to Leith on the day of the visit.

The Friday before, I attended the presentation of the documentary film The Road to Little Rock. It focuses on Judge Ronald Davies of Fargo and the role he played in ruling to enforce the Supreme Court order to integrate the school. And while Davies was a key figure, the story is really about the beyond belief courage of the nine young black people who made it all real.

In his remarks that evening, Dr. Terence Roberts spoke calmly yet passionately about the experience. One phrase that stayed with me was his reference to 'putting fear in your pocket.' I decided then that we had to go to Leith.

Interestingly, Sunday morning's Parade magazine included an interview with Tom Hanks and the captain of a freighter who was held hostage by pirates for 5 days before being rescued by Navy SEALS. Tom Hanks is playing the role in a movie. In the interview, Captain Phillips also talked about fear and commented that in such a situation you have to let your fear sit with you. It is there, and it has to be acknowledged, but one can't let it be paralyzing.

So, I have to be clear and completely transparent here. Nothing in my life has been even remotely as fear inducing as what these men have experienced. And my imagination is not equal to thinking of any situation I could ever face that might reach the level of those faced by either of these brave men.

I did not feel fearful or even worried as we set off for Leith on Sunday. Stephen and me, Don, Lisa, Molly. I was not worried as we arrived, in spite of the significant law enforcement presence and the information as we came to the turn off to the town that all other roads were blocked. There was one way in and one way out. I was not worried as we parked and passed through the gate that had been installed at the south end of the street. I was not worried as we walked past the dilapidated buildings, down the rutted dirt road that passes for the main street of Leith to join the growing group of protestors. Official estimates said there were 350 people in Leith that day. The atmosphere seemed strained, but restrained.

The sight of colorful flags along a side lane and more along the west side of the street struck at my senses and made me very sad, as they included the swastika symbol known mostly as the emblem of the Nazi party in World War II Germany. The other prominent sign / message was 'Anti-racism is code for anti-white.' 

Highway Patrol and other law enforcement lined the west side of the street. Those of us 'protesting' were kept to the east side of the street. The man's home was on the west side. There were many more of us than of them.

I had moments of uncertainty - probably the greatest when I saw the group of black clad men with face covering helmets marching in military fashion from a side lane into the main street only to stand there. And stand there. And stand there. After a bit, Molly walked off that way and ascertained that they were, indeed, law enforcement. We learned later they were HP riot squad - I was relieved to know they were not part of the hate group. That would have worried me.

Which brings me to the conflict I had with the way the day played out. While it was peaceful, there were at times, very non-peaceful names and comments being hurled at the white supremacist people. It seemed clear there were a few in the crowd who were ready - perhaps eager - for engagement and physical confrontation. Wearing, as we were, our Standing on the side of Love shirts, it was hard for me to reconcile the anger and vitriol with why I had come. It seems to me, if we meet hate and discrimination with more of the same, we are brought down; we do not maintain our integrity and our purpose; we lose sight of our first principle - the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Because even though I may abhor everything they stand for and believe, I must acknowledge their humanity, their inherent worth and dignity as human beings. Even in the the face of their denying it to others. Especially in the face of their denying it to others?

And so, the afternoon passed. In many ways a typical late summer day on the northern prairie. Some sun, some clouds, a steady breeze. People hoping to change the world...

Leaving felt quite anti-climactic. Not because I wanted something to happen and it didn't but because what did happen didn't feel done right or complete. It was good to demonstrate that we are not in favor of racism, hatred, or discrimination.

I would have wished for some sort of a more positive message to the day, however. For those of us on the east side of the street to have connected with each other, to share stories about why we came, to honor each other's inherent worth and dignity, to discover a deeper, richer understanding of our common interests, and to actively engage in the quest for peace, with justice, equity and compassion.

Epilogue: Two additional observations...

First - In one or another or the news reports about the discussion at the town hall meeting (which I did not attend), I noted the group's statement that they are not 'white supremacists' but rather, 'white civil rights activists' - advancing and protecting the rights of white people as other organizations do for people of color. This worries me. We live in a sound bite society where research and thoughtful reflection are increasingly rare, and where people may have limited understanding of history and, being assaulted by loud voices proclaiming something often enough that it begins to sound true, could start to believe that by raising up those who have been oppressed, others must be oppressed in their stead. In my view, we must recognize that if one among us is not doing well, none of us can do well.

Second - I note in his own words, the comment of the new Leith resident in response to the crowd of protesters, "They’re loud, so what? They’re literally not human to me,” he said. “I feel good.”

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