Cannonball River, ND—When veterans Wes Clark Jr. and Michael Wood Jr. sent out the call for U.S. military veterans to deploy to Standing Rock, they felt confident they could muster at least 2,000 people.
More than 4,000 vets showed up, despite a raging blizzard and –27 degree temperatures.
They were everywhere, from the banks of the Cannonball River to the militarized police barricade on Highway 1806, to the Oceti Sakowin camp. Working together, Veterans Stand for Standing Rock, Veterans for Peace and Iraq Veterans Against the War came to serve and protect some 15,000 people who had come from all over the world to support Standing Rock.
After North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple threatened to cut off supplies and evacuate water protectors during the first major blizzard of the season, many veterans spoke out against the violence, racism and injustice directed at Lakota people trying to protect burial grounds and their water supply.
“I’m doing this because I signed up in 2000 to serve my people,” said veteran Brandee Paisano. “I signed an oath to protect and serve my country against enemies both foreign and domestic, and to fight for the Constitutional rights of our people.”
The state has no jurisdiction on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land, but Dalrymple’s statement fueled pushback from veterans who view it as another attack on the Constitutional rights of Lakota and American citizens.
Army veteran and peace activist Clark Jr., who served as First Lieutenant in the Seventh Cavalry, and Wood Jr., a retired Baltimore cop and Marine veteran and activist, had another reason for coming: They planned to ask for forgiveness from the Lakota people for the atrocities committed by armed forces of the United States military.
On December 5—the birthday of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, who led the Battle of Little Bighorn against Lakota and Cheyenne warriors—Clark and a dozen members of United States military branches got down on bended knee to beg forgiveness from the Lakota people.
In the presence of hundreds of veterans and Lakota medicine people, elders and leaders, Clark donned the uniform of the Seventh Cavalry and spoke of the history of his unit. With tears in his eyes, 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 faced 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 your 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.”
Chief Leonard Crow Dog, a Lakota medicine man from Rosebud, S.D., held his hand over Clark’s head as he made a prayer to cleanse and forgive the officers kneeling before him. Many veterans in the room cried during the ceremony, acknowledging the long history of warfare against “first Americans” seeking to protect their homelands.
Among those who spoke and accepted the apology were 19th Generation Keeper of the White Buffalo Calf Pipe Chief Arvol Looking Horse, elders Faith Spotted Eagle, Phyllis Young, Paula Horne, Jon Eagle Sr. and several other Lakota leaders. Ivan Looking Horse sang a prayer song as veterans lined up to hug and shake hands in an emotional moment 140 years in the making.
Chief Crow Dog told the crowd that “we do not own the land, the land owns us,” and urged world peace.
“I did it because I saw people in pain, and I hate seeing injustice,” said Clark, son of retired four-star General Wesley Clark. “I hate to see people have to accept injustice and saying you’re crazy if you want to do something about it. It’s easy to fix things. People just have to understand what the truth is and act on it.
“There’s no reason anyone who lives in the United States should be treated the way Native Americans have been treated. It’s evil. It’s wrong and part of the pattern of colonialism. All the decisions are made thousands of miles away and the all the money goes to people thousands of miles away,” he added.
“The Dakota Access pipeline is going to make money at the expense of the health and lives of people who live here. That’s how it worked 500 years ago and that’s how it works today. They want to get Indians off the land, and for what? So they can destroy it for money.
“I’m on a mission to tell people that if we don’t do anything to seriously reduce hydrocarbon emissions in the next eight years, there is nothing that is going to stop the extinction of the human race,” Clark continued.
“I can promise you that in the next 12 months we are going to destroy the hydrocarbon industry. I don’t mean trying to damage anything—we are just going to tell people the truth about what it’s doing to them. We have less than eight years to get this country and most countries to zero or negative carbon emissions, he said.“I have 11- and 12-year sons, and I’m not going to let them die so some SOB can put money in his pocket. Think about this very pipeline: There’s a man who has more than a billion dollars, and he feels he needs more. And he needs to hurt people to get it. He’s had dogs attack people, he’s had people put in jail and taken their freedom away. He’s disrespected them, and for what? If you can’t live off a billion dollars, then how much is enough?”
Phyllis Young, a Standing Rock Sioux representative, said, “The black snake has never stopped. If they didn’t stop at desecrating our graves of our ancestors, they’ll stop at nothing. We are a peaceful movement, but we may have to make a move to protect our territory.”
“Today was a day of remembrance. It’s very powerful for the military to intersect with Oceti Sakowin, the Seven Council Fires of the Lakota, as part of our historical healing journey,” said Spotted Eagle, an elder and grandmother who counsels veterans with PTSD as part of her work. “Our people carry intergenerational trauma and there’s much work to be done. I feel protected and honored to work with our warriors and veterans, and we’re thankful they came to stand with us.”
Clark pledged to return to Standing Rock in service to the people and when he does, he’ll go through another ceremony. Phyllis Young plans to adopt him as a son in the traditional Lakota Hunka ceremony. Explaining that he had given away all the gifts he brought, Clark told Young he was very honored by the gesture and gave her the key to his Southern California home, saying his relatives are always welcome.