Rev. Karen Van Fossan is a beloved family matriarch, prison abolitionist minister, and author of a memoir (Skinner House Books, October 2023). A compassionate listener and charismatic speaker, she is also in demand as a presenter, conversation partner, and spiritual director.
In 2021, Karen was one of hundreds of Water Protectors arrested and jailed for peacefully resisting the Line 3 Pipeline on Anishinaabe and Dakota lands in northern Minnesota. After a year of hearings and postponements, Karen's charges were dropped "without prejudice," which is confusing language that essentially means the prosecutor can bring the charges back if they so choose.
Karen was inspired and challenged to take this action after years of involvement in the Lakota/Dakota-led resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) near Standing Rock. As a member of the NoDAPL Political Prisoners Support Committee, as well as support committees for specific political prisoners, she has become a dedicated prison abolitionist.
Thanks to the wisdom of many people who have been incarcerated, including a number of loved ones, she has come to understand that prisons create the very traumas they claim to address, all while exacerbating pre-existing traumas.
Through the generosity of Water Protectors of many cultural identities (some of whom are featured in the Testimonials section of this site), she has learned much about what it means to be an ally and accomplice in Indigenous-led movements, including the importance of listening, risking, finding your culture, and continuing to show up, particularly after making a mistake. This ongoing process of learning and unlearning has become central to her ministry and life.
Here are a few awards that reflect this commitment to justice:
Arc of Justice Award for advancement of human rights in North Dakota, ND Human Rights Coalition, 2013
Courageous Love Award for demonstrating courageous social justice leadership, Unitarian Universalist Association, 2017
Love Without Fear Award for service to survivors of violence, Abused Adult Resource Center, Bismarck, ND, 2007
O. Eugene Pickett Award for exemplifying social justice leadership as a small congregation, Unitarian Universalist Association, 2018
Prairie Peacemaker Award for extraordinary contributions to a culture of peace, ND Peace Coalition, 2007
Karen Van Fossan's Words
Karen also shares embodied writing as a lifegiving art. Her memoir, A Fire at the Center: Solidarity, Whiteness, and Becoming a Water Protector, is forthcoming from Skinner House Books in October 2023.
Karen is also working on a collaborative multimedia project called My Incarcerated Loved Ones, as well as a young adult novel on a similar theme.
Soon, she and James "Angry Bird" White, prisoner of war from the pipeline conflict at Standing Rock, plan to collaborate on a collection of his life stories.
"Food, Sweetheart," about loving beyond bloodlines, can be read online in Northern Narratives 2022, page 278.
"The Incarcerated Body and Mutual Liberation," about political prisoners from the Dakota Access Pipeline resistance, can be read online in the Racial Justice issue of On Second Thought, published by Humanities North Dakota in August 2020.
"Magic Pizza Box: On Being Human," about the meaning of life inside and outside psychiatric treatment, can be read online in Northern Narratives 2020, page 39.
"If You Love the Earth with One Hand," a poem about embracing climate anxiety, published in Vol. 5 of Cairns: The Unity Church Journal of the Arts, can be ordered online by those who are comfortable using Amazon.
"Dragon Salve," a poem about sacred blood, published in In the Spirit of We'Moon, Celebrating 30 Years, can be ordered online through Mother Tongue Ink.
Bush Artist Fellowship for playwriting, Archibald Bush Foundation, 2007
Emily Award for excellence in writing for children, University of North Dakota Children’s Writers Conference, 2013
Reviewers' Words about Karen's Words
"An outstanding creative writer." -- Susan Campbell Bartoletti, author of Newbery Honor winner Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow
"The world does indeed seem more peaceful." -- Chicago Tribune
“A living example of the Gandhian philosophy." -- Rae Abileah, former national coordinator, CODEPINK Women for Peace