Yesterday, November 10, was the birthday of the US Marine Corps. Today is Veteran’s Day. These back-to-back days are filling me with mixed emotions. On the one hand, there is a sense of pride and a continuing sense of loyalty to the Corps. On the other hand, there is the knowledge that the Marine Corps mostly works for the corporations and always has, just like the National Guard is now working for Energy Transfer Partners here at Standing Rock. General Smedley Butler, the late Marine Corps Commandant and two-time congressional medal of honor winner, documents this in his book War is a Racket.
When I pray on finding truth from the knowledge and the feelings I have, I understand why I can say we should stop thanking our veterans for their service and instead solicit them and their wisdom to be leaders in the peace movement. It is not a coincidence that the Veterans for Peace flag marks the major veteran’s presence at Očhéthi Šakówiŋ (the main camp here at Standing Rock that is named for the even Council Fires of the seven nations).
In Indian country, a veteran is understood as someone who truly understands how sacred all of life is, including the life of an “enemy.” Indigenous veterans suffer from post-trauma stress the same as non-Indians but we seem to be more able to acknowledge that our “service to the country” did not really serve the higher good. It did not protect our communities and our nation as we had been led to believe.
I think this may be more difficult for non-Indians to admit because they often do not have the strong respect of their community. Such an admission that might minimize the reasons for their great sacrifices can be too painful, and the inner realization of this is often responsible for the many suicides each day of our veterans.
Of course there are many non-Indians who have taken this position. Most of the Vets for Peace chapters were founded by them. (I co-founded the Northern Arizona chapter with an American WWII veteran and a Dutch officer who served in the underground during the Nazi occupation of Holland.)
The Lakota/Dakota/Nakota and most other First Nations throughout the US and Canada have always had a special respect for their “warriors.” When Vietnam vets came home to their Native communities, they were deeply honored, unlike what happened to many non-Indian veterans. Historically, the Lakota tribes had a number of warrior societies, like the Cante’tinza (Strong Heart) or the Toka’la (Fox-like). Each were known to have special warrior skills and members from these social groups were used as Aki’cita (Those with skills, discipline and responsibility for protecting the community). This is how Standing Rock elders use the veterans who are here. For example, they are used to supervise the young people who guard the entrance to camps. Some who are still young and fit are used as scouts to learn the status of pipeline construction. There is also an expectation that they will be consulted for direct “arrestable” actions.
It is not a coincidence that one of the most famous songs coming out of the Vietnam era that held the soldier responsible was written and performed by an Indigenous entertainer. In 1962, the Piapot Plains Cree performer, Buffie St. Marie wrote “The Universal Soldier” with the courage and wisdom to say that the soldier’s participation in military actions motivated by and in behalf of corporate greed are to be challenged, not honored:
You’re the one who must decide,
Who’s to live and who’s to die;
You’re the one who gives his body
As a weapon of the war —
And without you all this killing can’t go on.
I sadly remember the several young Oglala Marines I “sent off” during ceremonies when I lived and worked on the Pine Ridge Reservation. I was asked to do so as a prayerful honoring of the boys. Although I had mixed emotions the whole time, I could not reject the requests. Recruiters promised one youth he could return for ceremonies if he was stateside but when they requested time to come back, he denied. The youth went AWOL and would later be arrested by the military police).
When I was asked by Rick Two Dogs to raise the four American flags around the Sun Dance grounds for my first Sun Dance, I nervously told him of my own reservations about honoring a government/nation that continued to conduct illegal wars and continued to practice genocide on our people, he spoke with the spirits who told him we could raise them upside down. All the flags throughout the Standing Rock camps are upside down in recognition of this universal indication of distress.
On this Veteran’s Day, I hope we can remember the responsibility and courage each of us have in us to reject the orders of our corporate sponsored government. When I look at the National Guard in full military attire facing our young people in prayer at Standing Rock, I cannot help but think that the best way to stop this pipeline is to get all the soldiers and police to simply refuse their orders.
And if our new Commander and Chief, the man who said torture is a good thing and whose violence-promoting campaign brought him to office, creates more unjust wars than we already have, I hope we can in mass make the sacrifices necessary in resisting or refusing to go. Meanwhile, instead of thanking our veterans for their service and promoting the pro-military propaganda, let’s honor them by asking them to protect our relations, including the water, from assault because they deeply know how sacred life really is.