By Moriah Hope
"The greatest power we've ever had as a species is in our unity. In it, we can build pyramids or cities; we can stop pipelines or adorn the streets with prayer ties.”
- Adam Elfers
Graphics by: Allie Frederick & Shaunti LallyiAm
Music’s journey across the timeline of humanity has evolved, shifted and transformed just like every other aspect of life. Still, something about it has remained constant. Music has always brought people together for a greater unified purpose. In light of current revolutionary uprisings, lets bring our attention to the juncture of music and activism.
Advocacy for social reform through sound has inspired many to make changes in their lives and to, perhaps, even join movements on the front lines of social justice.
This season we have the privilege of interviewing Adam Elfers, a poet, musician and leader currently involved with several movements to empower the voice of the people.
Adam recently joined the ‘Up To Us’ Caravan, a diverse group of protestors and activists who journeyed across the country to peacefully protest at the Democratic National Convention. Up To Us assembled just three short weeks prior to the DNC, formed by actress & activist Shailene Woodley, Ann Kleinhenz, and their incredible team.
What started as a political march transformed into an entire movement dedicated to heralding peace for our time. Their website, www.uptous.net, proudly shares their mission to “organize, activate, and educate communities on how to become compassionate, loving, engaged leaders whom are willing to stand up in the face of adversity to demand dynamic change.”
Following the DNC, Adam and others with the caravan forged on together to support Standing Rock Sioux Native Americans who have been gathering signatures for months to stop the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline on reservation land in North Dakota. The oil development poses a tremendous threat to the Missouri River, which provides drinking water for roughly 17 million people. The youth of Standing Rock reservation literally ran on foot from North Dakota to Washington, D.C. to deliver the signatures. Despite their efforts, construction began illegally on site and Adam Elfers joined the Standing Rock Natives to protect the land with their customary approach: ceremonial song & prayer.
There is so much to be said about Up To Us and the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) protests. I invite you to visit rezpectourwater.com to learn more about why it is important that we come together to stop the building of the DAPL and uptous.net to learn more about how to get involved in different action networks across the globe.
“When times are tough, Sing. When the sea is smooth, Sing…
In life you will love and lose many things, but never ever let go of your song…in truth it’s your song that attracts your tribe…“ -Adam Elfers, The Gathering
Shakti Yogi Journal: First, tell our readers a bit about yourself and your project, “The Gathering.”
Adam Elfers: Hey. My name is Adam Elfers and my purpose on this planet is to inspire and connect people. As a community builder, I use music as an instrument to create connection, dialogue and authentic exchange amongst communities.
The Gathering is a ever-evolving culmination of 12 years of exploration and discovery surrounding music as an instrument of social change and community building. Through The Gathering and related projects, we have built thousands of low-cost and recycled instruments, conducted musical empowerment programs in parks, prisons, schools, festivals, and composed and performed original works across the US and abroad.
SYJ: How would you say The Gathering is contributing to the transformation of humanity through music?
AE: The Gathering provides a soundtrack for the major paradigm shift happening right now in every major sphere of human cultural expression. This is the shift from I to we, from individual to collective.
In terms of our work, this means our musical and creative process is fundamentally inclusive. Beginners and masters, first timers and Grammy award-winners are put side by side in the process of co-creation. Long before there were ever arena stages and stadium lights, there were fires and song circles, rituals, ceremonies and rites. This ancient history is laid out eloquently in Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy.”
SYJ: In your eyes, what is the most significant benefit to being so inclusive?
AE: The greatest power we’ve ever had as a species is in our unity. In it, we can build pyramids or cities; we can stop pipelines or adorn the streets with prayer ties. What we do with that collective power is our choice, but there is nothing more powerful than a unified collective.
Through communal music making we are brining together the disparate and eclectic voices of humanity to unite in a greater chorus, a more resonant symphony. We are providing the general public a window through which to reconnection to the transcendental power of unity. It’s no question that, when the voices of the planet unite in a unified chorus, our song can change the world.
SYJ: The Up To Us caravan first convened around the idea of a political revolution and has now transformed into a more personal revolution of the human spirit; a movement designed to bring peace to disruptions occurring across the globe. What were your intentions in joining the caravan? Did your intentions change along the way?
AE: Mm. Yes. I joined the Up To Us Caravan because I believe passionately in the spirit of social change that is alive in our world today. The call join Up To Us with The Gathering it felt so resonant. So much of my life has been about exploring the interface between music and social change, and this felt like such a great opportunity.
As far as the progression of my intention, I feel Up To Us was born in the spirit of keeping the Bernie Sanders movement alive, which is, in my eyes, the movement of the will and spirit of real people; a grassroots, for the people by the people kind of thing. Initially, I was inspired by visions that Up To Us might form into a massive social movement with a political face or candidate.
However, as we went on to met so many inspiring, passionate people engaged in social transformation in their own communities, my view began to change. With every new city we passed through, we saw more and more people literally leaving their whole lives behind to jump on a bus or van with a duffle bag, a bundle of sage and a burning prayer for a better life- not just for themselves, but for all people. It was in the eyes of these courageous love warriors that I began to see the true spirit of what Up To Us is about, which is community. It’s about connecting the activated change agents from city to city and around the world. It’s about meeting the people making this movement move, laying out all of our individual pieces on the collective table until we see the bigger picture.
SYJ: And through the eyes of Up To Us, what is that bigger picture?
AE: We all hold a unique gift, a talent, a passion. With our powers combined, we can turn a ripple into a tsunami. Through understanding that we each hold an important piece to a larger puzzle, we are empowered to work together. “We Are In This Together”— that is the Up To Us mantra and it holds a lot of truth. We can be the change & we can co-create a world in which we are proud to raise our children. But we must work together. We are all life-artists and this world is our collaborative masterpiece. In that sense, it truly is UP TO US.
SYJ: At the DNC I saw first-hand many forms of aggressive protest. In highly intense atmospheres, how have you witnessed music unite the people and calm the space?
Adam: We definitely have had front row seats in witnessing the transformative power of music. The Gathering’s presence at the DNC was a great example of that. The night that several Sanders’ delegates walked out of the DNC there were massive protests. At one point, thousands of protestors were marching through the streets in step with hundreds of riot officers on all sides. It was very intense. We decided it was our calling as sound healers to do something to calm the space. What happened next was extraordinary.
We lit a few dozen white candles, walking slowly in between the riot officers and protestors as we hummed, a simple, unifying melody alongside acoustic guitar. The humming kept cycling around as more and more people joined. Someone spread a tapestry on the street and right there, a prayer altar was made.
SYJ: And what happened after the altar was prepared?
AE: People came up to it during our hymn, got down on their knees, prayed and left burning candles right there in the middle of the street. One by one these candles grew into a little colony, sending prayers born from song for a new world and a new future. There were people from all cultural and religious backgrounds. On the street was laid a flag. Placed around it were ‘Black Lives Matter’ & ‘Respect Palestine’ pins.
The next day, when police formed a blockade at the DNC, the Up To US crew was called in to help alleviate the tension. Police literally parted their human wall to let us through, and together we quelled the situation by singing, humming and sharing our peaceful presence. Music is alchemy; it always has been and always will be.
SYJ: Considering the crass manipulation of information we have all seen at the hand of mainstream media, is there anything about the DAPL protest in particular that has been twisted by the media, that you feel needs to be clarified?
AE: Yes. Independent media and social media are so crucial. Think about it…right now, in this very moment, you carry the power to transform an isolated, singular incident into a global solidarity movement- in seconds. Never before have we carried such power in our hands…Wow!
Now as far as media manipulation and disinformation goes- just a few things…
The water protectors’ resistance movement against the DAPL is a peaceful movement. It was founded on prayer and is conducted through daily prayer. There was a press release in Bismarck justifying a “state of emergency,” referring to guns or pipe bombs at the reservation. I personally spent two weeks in those camps and to anyone who has stepped foot on those grounds, clearly that claim is totally bogus. It is a fear tactic being used to justify the painting the water protectors in a radical and hostile light. If you really stop to think about it, how radical is it to stand and protect a natural resource that every living being depends on to survive on this planet? Mothers and fathers from every sphere of life, no matter how “liberal” or “conservative,” are united in the need for healthy, clean drinking water.
SYJ: What is the result of this misrepresentation? You and I know that the resistance is loving and non-violent, but the average American probably doesn’t.
AE: It makes sense that the media would paint this movement in a radical, unsettling way- it advances the corporate agenda to capitalize off natural resources. If the world knew the truth, that these “protestors” are all ordinary people like us, willing to make great sacrifices to protect the future of our children and the planet, the whole world would stand in solidarity with the water protectors and this pipeline would be shut down. Luckily, we all have the power to reframe, re-educate, and tell that story. Everyday we can tell the stories that move us. That’s the power of social media. Stories move the world, and we are all storytellers. Technology is a huge gift of our times, and it is our responsibility to use it consciously.
SYJ: I’ve been following your posts as you’ve been standing with the water protectors against the pipeline for 3 weeks. How have ceremonial prayer and indigenous song made an impact in your experience standing on the front lines?
AE: Well, the threads of prayer and ceremony have been woven throughout almost every aspect of the DAPL resistance movement. On the first day of the resistance, we woke up to the circling heart pulse of the ceremonial frame drum. We gathered at the entrance gates slated for pipeline construction and prayed. Men and women offered themselves up for arrest in front of their children with prayers for clean water and brighter futures. We flooded the streets with hundreds stopping traffic for the sacred march to the “chanupa” (sacred tobacco pipe) ceremony.
The day of the federal court hearing, a bald eagle and spotted eagle were set free in ceremony. There were sweat lodges every evening back at the camp. This is a movement powered by prayer. This is a movement enshrined in ceremony. It demands respect.
SYJ: What has this prayerful form of protest at Standing Rock afforded the Water Is Life movement that violent protest could not?
AE: The natives of the Oceti Sakowin reminded us of this ancient truth: “All of our life is a ceremony.” At Standing Rock, ceremonial prayer and song are present through every breath, every facet of the movement from the river ceremonies to the police barricades. Resistance can be dignified. It’s a righteous path. It’s authentic and soulful, and tactically it’s brilliant. It’s hard for the police or any law enforcement officers to cuff and cart away grown men and women in midst of ceremony.. It’s the most beautiful and powerful thing I’ve ever seen. This movement IS ceremony as a way of life.
SYJ: How have the many police officers and construction workers responded to this peaceful, prayerful protest?
AE: Like all people, the police definitely responded differently based on the energy in which the protests were carried out. During the first few days, which were more heated, the police responded a bit more aggressively. As days went on, the actions of the protestors became more thoughtful, rooted in prayer and peaceful ceremony. With those changes we saw equivalent changes in the police force. Police on the front lines shed a few tears during the pleads of mothers to stop the pipeline. Officers removed their hats during prayer songs.
SYJ: Wow, what a powerful reminder of the Golden Rule of reciprocity. Did any officers join the song and dance? What shifted?
AE: In the morning, protestors shook hands with the police. In the evening, outside a Bismarck press conference where hundreds held a giant sign saying “we are unarmed,” one officer was spotted doing a “round dance” with the natives, a symbolic gesture of unity. When you carry out resistance for a truly worthy and sacred cause, like protecting water, and your actions are carried out in a dignified way, even those who are ‘supposed’ to be against you, secretly, in the deep recesses of their hearts and minds, empathize with you. That’s why we saw the police shed tears and join in the round dance. Peaceful protest is the heart and soul of this movement.
SYJ: Give us a taste of the fruitful lessons and wisdom bestowed upon you through this journey. I recently read one of your heartfelt posts saying you’ve learned more in these 3 weeks than you have in your whole life.
AE: Wow. That’s a big one. You know, growing up in a suburban setting, I am constantly realizing what a sheltered life I’ve lived. Being with the natives around Standing Rock, seeing over 400 tribes from across the country come together in unity for the first time in hundreds of years, being exposed to the languages, stories and ceremonies of those cultures daily, was like living in another place and time. It’s difficult to put into words, but here are a few things:
-Connection to the Earth. The native people speak about the earth as if it is a living organism, as if they can feel her breathe, speak, and suffer. Many are willing to give their bodies and their lives to protect our mother Earth. It is a fundamental and indispensible connection we are missing in this culture. To feel or witness this connection is remarkable, humbling and heroic.
-Prayer- sunrise, mid-day, sunset and bed. All of life is a prayer. All of life is a ceremony. I’ve never been around people who prayed so much, so deeply, whose prayers were so righteously rooted in the earth and the health of all living beings. Again, humbling and beautiful.
-Sacrifice. There is this notion of sacrifice- offering of oneself to something greater- to the creator, the people, the movement. The sweat lodge, the sun dance and even standing at the front lines to prevent bulldozers from entering sacred ancestral sites are all acts of sacrifice. We sacrifice to honor the balance of life, the sacred interplay between give and take. One fulfills these sacrifices as an honorable offering to Spirit and to one’s people, as a service to the generations to come.
-Leadership. The greatest leaders are the most devout servants; the ones willing to wake up earliest, get their hands the dirtiest, stand on the front lines and offer themselves in service to the people. They are not controlling or superior to the common people- they are the ones most devout servants with the deepest integrity in their actions. That’s how they earn their respect. Not by bullying those they are leading, but by living a life of integrity and service.
-Backwards World. It’s one thing to have the idea that our world is backwards. It’s another thing to watch it all unfold before your own eyes- to witness sacred ancestral lands being invaded by corporations, whose questionable actions are being protected by the police and fortified through legislation (mass restraining order passed 8-16 to prevent peaceful protest from slowing down pipeline construction.)
SYJ: As you witnessed the corporations invaded Standing Rock, what else did you see that was backwards? How do we take this concept of “backwards world” and learn from it?
AE: It’s one thing to know that this backwards power-struggle is happening, and another to literally watch and feel its effects on the land and such beautiful, spiritual people.
To have the U.S. Military- federal agents, FBI agents, military drones- monitoring this dignified, spiritual, heart-centric movement to protect the water on this planet is utterly shocking and eye opening. When we can no longer rely on the government and its perverted laws to protect our families and our land, WE must rise in dignity as the true protectors of this planet. It’s true what they say: “We are not protestors; we are water protectors.” I think we’re all kind of wondering when the world will wake up and see that.
We can’t drink oil.
“Water is life.”
SYJ: Can you share with us some chants or lyrics that have been circulating the protests at Standing Rock?
AE: Sure. All chants come from the Oceti Sakowin Youth Runners. They literally ran from Cannonball North Dakota to Washington D.C collecting 140,000 signatures opposing the pipeline to hand deliver to the White House. These are a few of the most common chants, all in call & response style:
For Our Brothers & Our Sisters
For Our People, For One Nation
For Life, For Life, For Life
(This was used during the Youth Runner’s run across country. When on the ground, the word “run” is replaced with “stand.”)
Respect Our Water
Respect Our Land
Honor Our Treaties
Honor Our Rights
Standin’ on the front lines
To protect against the pipeline
This is the healing of the nations
To protect the water sacred
For the next 7 generations…
(This chant by The Gathering was performed in the NYC ‘Rezpect Our Water’ rally.)
What do we do when our Land is under attack – Stand Up Fight Back
What do we do when our Water is under attack – Stand Up Fight Back
What do we do when our People are under attack – Stand Up Fight Back
What do we do when our Lives are under attack – Stand Up Fight Back
Mni Wiconi; Water is Life
(This is the slogan of the movement. It translates roughly to “water is life” or “water is sacred.”)
Though this chant isn’t exclusive to the Standing Rock movement, they are loving it there. It’s the chorus of a OneTribe song that repeats over and over:
“We are in this Together” &
“One People, One Nation, One Tribe
One People, One, One Family.”
Its message is very unifying, and very true- we are in this together. We all need water to survive. Mni Wiconi. Water is Life.
SYJ: Adam, thank you so much for showing up for the waters, the Native people and communities across the globe. It’s crucial at this time for us to stand up for the land and raise the voices of all people. We see you, and we honor your work. How can our readers stay in touch with your project, ‘The Gathering’?
AE: Thank you. You can follow my adventures in music, community, and sacred activism through my personal page at: www.facebook.com/kalumfatukay
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