The Military Veterans at Standing Rock and the History Made There

Chaplains at the gathering of veterans with Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.
Chaplains at the gathering of veterans with Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.

On the last weekend before Eviction Day, Monday, Dec. 5th, the Standing Rock Water Protectors were preparing for a dangerous showdown made more ominous by the anticipated arrival of a brutal blizzard on Monday. Many in the camps were already living with the traumas of previous violence: attack dogs, tear gas, rubber bullets, flashbang grenades, and water cannons in freezing weather. The Sioux Council of Elders sent out calls for help.

In response, two thousand military veterans, organized as Veterans Standing for Standing Rock, deployed to be non-violent human shields, and another couple of thousand veterans with groups such as Veterans for Peace brought the total to over four thousand.

The Council of Elders also asked for chaplains to care for the veterans and 35 of us answered that call. Rector John Floberg of St. James Episcopal in Cannon Ball, ND, a military veteran himself, hosted us, and, with his deep knowledge of the local community and his faith-based organizing on behalf of the Lakota, he was our best informant about the dynamics of the camps and the context of what was happening.

Michael Pipkin, a Navy chaplain for 8 years, led the team; and, among his many preparations, he wrote ahead to various law enforcement authorities to remind them of the neutrality and protected status of chaplains under the Geneva Conventions, which included our obligation to minister to everyone experiencing trauma. We wore special red ski hats with “Chaplain” printed on the front so we could be easily identified.

In two days, the explosion of the size of Oceti Sakowin Camp was visible by the hour. On Sunday, the encampments had tripled to 20,000 people, according to internal counts. Many of the enthusiastic new arrivals had little awareness of the dangers of death from hypothermia, prolonged exposure to toxins, and untreated injuries. With authorities denying emergency help, calling 911 was not an option. And if the roads were closed, available medical help for a population nearly the size of the fifth largest town in North Dakota would have been a handful of warming tents and the several hundred medics on site—who had no prescription drugs.

Each of the chaplains had to discern where we could work: at the veterans’ direct action with the medics who wait nearby to tend to the wounded; at the ambulances as patient advocates to travel to the hospital; at the hospital to receive the wounded; or in the medic area to comfort the traumatized. Where were we able to serve?

However, in a shocking moment Sunday at 3 pm, we were suddenly spared those choices. The jubilation that erupted from the many hundreds gathered at the Sacred Fire that afternoon was impelled partly by sheer relief. It was also, of course, the joy of a heartening victory in the midst of a dismal post-election season of discouraging news.

But for the thousands from Indian Country, it was far more—a crucial historical moment. It stopped the trajectory of 140 years of sordid history at Standing Rock begun with the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876 and the subsequent assassination of Sitting Bull in 1890. One of the Sioux Council of Elders, Phyllis Young, was at Wounded Knee in 1973, and in 2007, she traveled to Washington DC with Russell Means and other Lakota leaders to notify the State Department that the Lakota Nation had seceded from the U.S. Elder Young was among the Lakota leaders who said they would not forget that history, but they forgave the U.S. She declared that the enmity between the U.S. and the Lakota people was ended and that we had all become one people.

Some of the veterans were disappointed. Having given years of their lives to their country and seeing their country let people down, they wanted to protect and defend the Water Protectors. They had already made significant contributions by helping out in the camps all weekend, but having come because they felt they did not have the luxury of not caring or staying home, they were prepared to right a wrong with the skills of their military experience, the fear control, courage, and situational awareness, which would be used non-violently for good, an important way many atone for moral injury.

The veterans made their own history on Monday, however. Eviction Day, Dec. 5, was also the birthday of General Custer, leader of the Seventh Cavalry at Little Bighorn. Led by Wesley Clark, Jr., wearing the uniform of the Seventh Cavalry in which he served as a First Lieutenant, a group of veterans apologized to the Lakota. Clark said:

Many of us, me particularly, are from the units that have hurt you over the many years. We came. We fought you. We took your land. We signed treaties that we broke. We stole minerals from your sacred hills. We blasted the faces of our presidents onto your sacred mountain. Then we took still more land and then we took your children and then we tried to make you speak our language and we tried to eliminate your language that God gave you, and the Creator gave you. We didn’t respect you, we polluted your Earth, we’ve hurt you in so many ways but we’ve come to say that we are sorry. We are at your service and we beg for your forgiveness.

Following upon previous apologies at Standing Rock by churches for their role in colonization and genocide, the veterans’ apology carried deep freight. They knelt before the elders, who, in remembrance, told about the history of suffering of their people. Then, Leonard Crow Dog, on behalf of the Council, accepted the apology. Phyllis Young noted that she would sponsor Clark’s adoption into her community. After elders gave forgiveness, the Native American veterans were invited to walk through the ranks of the other veterans and to offer forgiveness so they could become one group. The tears and hugs were moving to witness and to receive.

Standing Rock was not a protest, but was far more, and some unique elements made a difference in the kind of action it was:

  • Sioux Culture: Native Americans led the work, and held a daily orientation for newcomers about how to enter the community. Everyone was expected to respect Native cultural values, such as humility, decolonized behavior, non-violence, hospitality, and care for others. Enactments of western arrogance were not tolerated. It got messy at times, but it decentered white privilege and, at times, male privilege.
  • Military Veterans: They amassed a sizeable force ready to respect the principles of non-violence and be a shield against the National Guard and Army Corps of Engineers in which many of them had once served. Though small in actual numbers, Native Americans, especially women, have the highest rate of military service of all other ethnic groups, and veterans were welcome and honored at Standing Rock. They were accompanied by chaplains who represented care for all on all sides.
  • Wise Leadership: The Council of Elders honored the young people who had begun the protest with gratitude and respect, and led with a mature, steady presence that modeled concerned about the well being of the land, the Water Protectors, and their communities and families. When chaos ensued, having their steady leadership was important.
  • Prayer: The work of the Water Protectors in all its dimensions was understood as sustained, intense, prolonged, committed, persistent, and courageous Prayer. This meant a serious sense of purpose but also some humor and, in the intensity, a clear sense of larger purpose for everything we did. As an elder reminded us, we do not own the land, it owns us.

A hundred and forty years of enmity was at stake in the eight months of struggle at Standing Rock, and I hope what happened is not coopted by white environmentalists as their victory.

The outcome was a small victory in the long struggle to stop climate change, with much more to come, and the encampments have dug in for the brutal winter in the face of uncertainty about the long term future of the pipeline. But whatever happens, Rector Floberg, who, after a very long emotionally demanding day on Sunday, appeared in the darkened church hall as the chaplains were preparing to sleep to give us a powerful sermon. He told us the White House had called to thank him for his work and affirm the decision was real and legitimate. He told us what the decision meant to the Lakota, how significant and powerful the forgiveness of the U.S. was by leaders such as Phyllis Young, and how we were moving forward more united in the many years of struggles to come.

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