“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. And we took still more land. And then we took your children. And then we tried to take your language. We tried to eliminate your language, that God gave you and that the creator gave you. We didn’t respect you. We polluted your earth. We’ve hurt you in so many ways. And we’ve come to say that we are sorry, we are at your service, and we beg for your forgiveness.” –Wes Clark Jr.
Never has a veteran’s service so stirred my soul and brought me closer to tears. As a pacifist, most military services leave me in a state of sorrow over our national faith in and of violence. Yet Monday’s veterans’ ceremony at Standing Rock has brought me a profound sense of hope for humanity and our future, and erased the last remnants of doubt I had about their mission.
I was ashamed of myself for feeling doubt in the first place. When I first learned that a large group of veterans were going to peacefully protect the water protectors at Standing Rock, I was grateful and hopeful that their presence would do some tangible good. I was especially moved that they were committed to serving the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in whatever capacity they were told to do so, without violence. They were ready to be the front lines of defense and obey those who had been historically forced at gunpoint to follow the orders of the U.S. armed forces, without recourse to weapons. Those trained in war were dedicated to keeping the months-long nonviolent action peaceful. And yet a part of me initially refrained from joy.
In spite of my gratitude for the veterans’ service, I was struck by an irony. The question that troubled me was, how much would our nation’s glorification of our own violence play a role in the outcome of this peaceful action? It matters because our praise of veterans can stifle our critiques of our wars and perpetuate ignorance and denial of the devastation that our government has caused and continues to cause. I believe in honoring the good intention so many soldiers have while insisting that there are better ways to serve and protect. The water protectors at Standing Rock model those better ways, protecting water and therefore life for all while refusing to cause harm. They epitomize courage and self-sacrifice, many leaving jobs and families to be with the camp, and have suffered brutality at the hands of law enforcement and private security without retaliation. Would the denial of the final easement for the Dakota Access Pipeline be achieved only when their peaceful tactics were backed up by those who had fought and killed on behalf of the United States? As grateful as I was for the veterans, what did that say about our nation?
Yet despite my concerns, Monday’s ceremony gives me more hope and joy than I could ever have imagined. The veterans’ nonviolent presence and act of humility subverted our nation’s culture of violence from within. Where most military services revel in glory, these soldiers bowed in contrition. Pride gave way to humility and repentance. Apologizing for centuries of marginalization and genocide, for atrocities not just of the past but of the present, the soldiers offered themselves in service to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. The veterans’ acknowledgment of and repentance from the horrors that the United States has inflicted on the indigenous people of this land was a victory for humanity. Not only was the humanity of indigenous tribes fully acknowledged by the representatives of a government that once denied it, but humanity was symbolically restored to a nation that had cast it aside with inhumane acts of colonization and genocide.
Members of armed forces that once felt a duty to protect white, non-natives from indigenous tribes pledged themselves in protection to indigenous tribes. This is a historic move in the right direction. But the circle of inclusion must broaden still further. The act of veterans acknowledging the wrongs the United States has committed against one nation can pave the way for all of us to acknowledge the harm we have committed against every nation where we have waged war. Acknowledging the injustice of our violence in this instance opens us to questioning violence in every instance. When those of us with white privilege shake off our denial and acknowledge what we have done as illegal immigrants to the natives of this land, who are we to demonize immigrants and refugees? When we acknowledge what we have done and continue to do to the indigenous people on our own land for oil, how can we keep up the pretense of spreading liberty and democracy as we fight for oil and resources in other lands?
Increasingly, we must to come together, as the veterans and other supporters have done with the tribes at Standing Rock. The tribes themselves represent hundreds of indigenous sovereign nations who put old conflicts aside to protect the land and water. We must recognize what they have recognized, which is that our greatest threat lies not in other people but in forces of greed and domination and their destruction not only of people, but of the planet that is home to us all. When we treat others as enemies and seek to destroy them, we inevitably destroy our own souls. While we trample over people for control of their land and resources, we not only grieve our mother earth, we sicken her nearly to death. And every act of violence perpetuates more violence, eroding our ability to come together and heal her, as well as our ability to heal ourselves and each other.
Bowing in humility, begging forgiveness, and making reparations is the strongest, bravest thing anyone can do, and it is imperative for us to follow the lead of the Standing Rock veterans and do so. Just as our soldiers have been on the front lines of our nation’s violence, for which we must all take responsibility, on Monday the Standing Rock veterans were on the front lines of our nation’s repentance. In doing so, they served and protected us all from the true danger that threatens us – not enemies but the enmity itself. We must continue this repentance until we turn our culture of violence to a culture of mercy and come together as one human race to meet the challenges of climate change and heal our ailing mother earth together.
And while our soldiers can lead us all in repentance, the indigenous peoples of the world can lead us in peacemaking, teaching us to live in harmony not only with each other but with the land. They have shown their nonviolent commitment to protecting the land and water not only for themselves, but for everyone, now and in future generations. They have done so with fortitude in the midst of cruelty and hope in the midst of betrayal. The rest of us have much to learn from them.
Image: Screenshot from Youtube: “‘We beg for your forgiveness.’ Veterans to Native elders in Standing Rock ceremony” by Cloud Writer