“Fall in!” came the command from the front of the Sitting Bull College auditorium Saturday night, and as hundreds of my fellow veterans and I took our places in formation, I fervently hoped that we weren’t about to witness the end of a peaceful movement.
When I first saw the news that thousands of veterans were being called to “deploy” to Standing Rock, North Dakota, my heart began to beat faster for two conflicting reasons: first, the call to duty, which elicits a visceral reaction from any current or former member of the military; and second, the belief that a militarized response to the indigenous tribes’ call for help was the wrong response. The fact that the media seemed all too eager to cover a group of uniformed soldiers marching into battle, while consistently ignoring all the veterans who’d already been selflessly working at Standing Rock for months, made me wonder if the real motivation for covering this “deployment” was not to promote the ongoing peaceful demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline, but to beat the drums of war.
Like the Standing Rock leaders, and many of my veteran friends, I saw no use for violence in this mission, and was hesitant to join the ranks of those who might be looking for a fight. But after consulting with fellow members of Iraq Veterans Against the War, who’d been working on the ground with the Indigenous Youth Council and Indigenous Peoples Power Project for several weeks, I decided to be present at the encampment, not as a militarized veteran, but as one who has seen war and wishes it on no other person. This, I was told, was the best way to serve the Water Protectors. Peace and life, not war and death, was our purpose. How this would be communicated to thousands of incoming veterans, though, I had no clue.
One of the first things told to a newcomer at Oceti Sakowin Camp is that this is a ceremonial camp – a sacred place of peace and prayer. This idea of ceremony was vastly different from the one I’d known in the military, where I witnessed and participated in countless ceremonies for a plethora of purposes: promotions, awards, changes of command, retirements, deployments, homecomings, commemorations – basically, any occasion that required more than a casual nod or pat on the back. Each one was tedious, and although each contained its own symbolic gestures, most were primarily rote affairs requiring long speeches written by the presiding officers’ public relations staff. By contrast, every action taken in the Water Protectors’ camp was considered to be an act of ceremony in which all were invited to participate and find meaning. I couldn’t help but wonder how these two cultures could possibly combine. Saturday night in the auditorium, my questions began to be answered.
The Native woman who called us to formation introduced herself as the sergeant major of the Veterans Stand for Standing Rock contingency. She told us we’d be taking our orders from her – and that she was taking her orders from the elders. She had my attention.
“We thank you for answering the call to come here and support Mni Wiconi,” she said, referring to the Lakota phrase meaning “Water Is Life,” the rallying cry for the Water Protectors. “Now I’m going to tell you how you’re going to do that. Here are your orders.” I braced myself. Would we be storming the hill and taking the bridge? Would we be human shields? I took a deep breath and prepared myself for the worst.
“There will be no direct actions this weekend,” the sergeant major announced, and my heart skipped a beat as the crowd began to murmur. What was that she’d said? “I repeat, there will be no direct actions this weekend. Your orders are to remain peaceful and prayerful.”
As she introduced the next speakers – not the white male leaders of the veterans’ contingency, but first the tribal elders, primarily women – I felt a sense of deep relief sweeping over me, along with an understanding of what was taking place: We weren’t called here to be soldiers. We were called here to be warriors. And warriors, according to the elders, sought not to go to war, but to avoid it at all costs. By cloaking the request for peace and prayer in a top-down command, the elders had found a way to effectively communicate this message. And as we soon discovered, there was still much more to be said.
“The veterans think they’re coming to protect us,” said Faith Spotted Eagle, one of the elders, speaking to a group of volunteers before the arrival of the masses. “But they’re not coming to protect us. They’re coming to be healed.”
Healing was the next item of business. Before leaving this place, we were told, all the veterans would be invited to take part in a Forgiveness Ceremony, during which we would have the opportunity to acknowledge war crimes and wrong actions taken against Native tribes by the United States military, and realign our loyalty to the First Nations. We would be given the chance to make our mission one of service, not of violence, and in this way, we’d be taking an historic step to combine forces in the most powerful way – by uniting in peace.
There were a few veterans, I noticed, who balked at this notion, muttering that this wasn’t why they’d come to Standing Rock, but they were a small minority. There was one who tried to rally dissenters and storm the hill on his own later that night, and he was immediately stopped. For the most part, I could tell my sense of relief was shared by my sisters- and brothers-in-arms. We didn’t want to go back to war. The next day, when the announcement came that the easement for continued drilling had been denied to Energy Transfer Partners, we celebrated this small, temporary victory having been achieved without violent resistance.
Two days later, the time came to ceremonially ask forgiveness, and we embraced it, along with the accepting arms of our Native hosts. Lined up in formation beside hundreds of veterans, I was blown away by the generosity of the indigenous people of this land as they moved through our ranks, offering handshakes and hugs to each and every one of us who’d made the journey to Standing Rock. They thanked us for being there, and all I could say in response was, “No … thank YOU.” One of the Native women who embraced me, looked into my eyes before moving along and said, “I hope you find peace.” This, after all, was why we’d come.
As the Forgiveness Ceremony ended, the winter storm that had been brewing kicked up into a full-bodied blizzard. We had all gathered for the event indoors at the reservation’s casino pavilion, and most had intended to head back to the camp or leave for home afterward. But it quickly became clear that driving even a short distance would be unsafe, so nearly a thousand of us veterans (both Native and non-Native), along with the elders and many of the other Water Protectors, found ourselves snowed in. There were nowhere near enough rooms for everyone, so people camped out in the hallways and pavilion, with many opting to stake out places in the smoky bar – solidarity drinking, I told myself after a few whiskeys, as we all made friends and many hugs were exchanged.
By the next day, the casino’s food supplies began to run low, and the bar had been depleted of alcohol. The weather hadn’t cleared, and those who’d remained at the camp in dangerous conditions had begun to make their way to the casino for safety, moving the camp’s supplies to the pavilion. The elders sat at the front of the room, and Native drumming circles were set up to continue the ceremonial spirit of the Oceti Sakowin camp, while people milled around the pavilion, chatting with each other and members of the media who’d also been stranded. Periodically, the elders would quiet the room and address all of us gathered there, and instead of wandering aimlessly around the casino, I hunkered down to listen.
“There is a difference between a soldier and a warrior,” one of the elders said. “A soldier follows orders, but a warrior follows the heart. A warrior sees war only as a last resort.”
“We are not at war here,” Faith Spotted Eagle emphasized to us. “They are at war. We are in ceremony.”
If there’s one thing I’ve taken away from nearly two weeks with the Standing Rock Sioux, it’s that forgiveness and compassion have more power to heal than war and militarism have power to harm. A soldier seeks war, but a warrior seeks peace, and I may have been a soldier once, but now I have a responsibility to be a warrior. If the DAPL doesn’t succeed, another threat will arise to take its place. Standing beside the Natives of this country, along with so many others who answered the Water Protectors’ call, I know that the struggle we’re in will continue, but it won’t be a war. It will be – as it always has been – a ceremony.