“We've just received the sacred white elk ceremonial dress from Jumping Buffalo in the Dakotas,” says Priestess Ava Park of the Goddess Temple of Orange County, as she begins to open the Priority Mail package with a letter opener on Friday. “This was sent to us in exchange for $2,500 for firewood. We did send the money, we knew that ing Buffalo] was as good as his word, and he was. We sent the money in advance of the dress … and so we open it now.”
Park struggles a bit, joking about how tightly wrapped the box is, yet she's careful to protect its contents: the late Annie Sharpfish's dress, hand-sewn by her in the 1980s. “We do not consider ourselves to be the owners of this dress,” the priestess continues. “We will keep this dress for as long as it feels proper to do so, as long as we can raise money, as long as we can help the people. We will carefully mount this dress in a museum exhibit and we shall do all we can to help the indigenous peoples of the Dakotas in their struggle for justice. Let it be so. It is so.”
Then she holds up the dress. It's exquisite in its simplicity: timeless, flawless, with the cut work, curved lines, and fringe finely crafted and in perfect balance.
A longtime Orange County activist who is the “centerholder” for the Goddess Temple of OC and Museum of Woman, Park was put in contact with Jumping Buffalo by members of her circle who are at Standing Rock right now. Stunned at the notion that Jumping Buffalo and his family were willing to sell their grandmother's heirloom to buy firewood to warm 20,000 protesters, Park put the word out and donations big and small rushed in, exceeding the $2,500 goal. Within 24 hours she had wired the funds to Jumping Buffalo, with the assurance the dress will be returned to his family whenever they wish. Of all the artifacts that could have been offered for firewood money, the priestess is bemused that it was a dress that has made its way to a women's museum.
While we talk, the priestess receives several texts from Standing Rock. She reads aloud, editing as she goes: “Blizzard. Storm rolling in. People are cold…. More than just a war zone, it's a spiritual war zone. While people are generally kind and willing to help there are tensions, interpersonal and racial … There are pipeline informants in camp, there's a feeling of hyper-vigilance and suspicion.” Her compatriots are there, helping with trauma care and food prep and however they are able.
The Goddess Temple has a long-standing relationship with OC’s Acjachemen Nation. Every year, ceremonial leader Reverend Adelia Sandoval comes to the temple the Sunday before Columbus to bless the tribe’s spirit statue on the Temple's Mother Earth altar, next to which Sharpfish's dress will be displayed in a shadowbox along with updates from the protest, which scored a major victory after the Army Corp of Engineers announced yesterday it planned to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline from cutting through tribal land. Park considers the halt “A partial victory to celebrate … at this time.” She will remain vigilant, “Sometimes they will 'give' a seeming victory as a tactic to end a protest, then everybody breaks up, goes home and then they quietly reverse it later … And no one has the energy anymore to rise up again. So I am not really celebrating yet … But positively affirming that the pipeline will indeed be halted.”
While women’s spirituality and empowerment are central to the Temple's mission, its primary focus right now is on the protest in the Dakotas. “Only if all the American public stands behind Standing Rock,” says Park. “Only when the people who are warm, safe and dry pray, send money, call congress” will the protest keep going through the winter or come to a successful resolution for the water protectors.
The Santa Ana winds gust fiercely outside, “blowing away the patriarchy,” Park says with a half-smile, adding, “Trump may be its rock bottom.” She isn't rattled at his election, saying until things get really bad, you don't get the “clarity to focus on what you want to put energy on to co-create something better.” Militant during the Animal Rights movement, back when the Weekly named her Orange County Citizen of the Year in 1998, Park has been arrested many times. Her advice to protesters, especially when facing a show of force as are those at Standing Rock, is to “stay absolutely calm, it’s not a place for emotional [reactions]; think, be careful, don’t let yourself go to their level. Protest must be rooted in love, justice and peace.”
On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the Temple was holding a prayer circle for those at Standing Rock when a call came from Jumping Buffalo. Put on speakerphone, he told them, “this situation … I don't know how long it will last. But your prayers exist for eternity.”
Resistance takes on many forms, adapting to oppression as readily as superbugs adapt to antibiotics. “Just because we cannot do everything, doesn't mean we should do nothing!” says Park, who is at once resolute and calm. The latest incarnation of resistance at the Goddess Temple of OC takes the shape of a dress in support of the water protectors at Standing Rock. The exhibit will be unveiled early next year. In the meantime, donations for firewood keep coming in via the Temple's website.
Museum of Woman and Goddess Temple of Orange County, 17905 Sky Park Circle, Irvine, (714) 392-0558; goddesstempleoc.org.