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The Loving Contagion of Courage: Veterans Standing for Standing Rock

More than 2,000 veterans are massing in Standing Rock to defend the Water Protectors facing eviction.

In spite of freezing weather and orders from the North Dakota governor to curtail emergency medical services to Standing Rock and deem people’s mere presence there illegal, thousands of veterans are coming to take part in a massive, peaceful operation December 4-7 at Standing Rock, the site of ongoing Indigenous resistance to the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline (DAPL).

At this point, 2,000 veterans from Veterans for Peace and Veterans Standing for Standing Rock have registered to take part in this operation, and more are continuing to sign up. I am one of them. Together we will help the Water Protectors and give them a break from the brutality they have suffered. Initially drawn together by Army veteran Wesley Clark, Jr., and former Marine Michael Wood, Veterans Standing for Standing Rock has circulated its invitation far and wide since early November, calling for veterans to “assemble as a peaceful, unarmed militia” and “defend the water protectors from assault and intimidation at the hands of the militarized police force and DAPL security.”

In what appears to be a counter-move in response to this impending mobilization of veterans, the Army Corps of Engineers, which has the power to disallow DAPL from crossing the river, gave an eviction notice on November 25 to the tribal chair to have all the campers at the main oceti sakowin camp move to 40 acres on Corps of Engineers land on the other side of the cannonball river.

The order document is full of obvious contradictions. For example, it expresses a “sincere” concern about the ability of emergency services to take care of those in the camp, but the Corps has done nothing to order DAPL to remove barriers on the short route to Mandan and Bismarck that have forced emergency services to go nearly two hours out of their way to get from Standing Rock to a hospital.

The Corps has decreed that the thousands of campers who have set up elaborate survival systems and dwellings will be arrested for trespass if they have not left the encampment by December 5. Meanwhile, no such eviction has been given to the pipeline workers who appear to be violating the Army’s order to halt work. Is it a coincidence this eviction is planned for the first day of the Veterans Standing for Standing Rock action?

Standing Rock Tribal Chair Dave Archambault has already expressed regret and disappointment in response to the eviction notice and has said it will be met with an even stronger resolve. Meanwhile, our Veterans for Peace and Veterans Standing for Standing Rock are conferring this weekend to strategize possible modifications to some original plans. As was always the case, any response is all about peaceful, courageous resistance to an illegal, immoral and unnecessary pipeline with significant risks to local and global life systems.

Wesley Clark and the other organizers of the Veterans Standing for Standing Rock operation are carriers of the highly contagious emotion we call “courage.” After serving a stint as a peacetime Army officer, Wesley Clark, Jr., wanted to re-enlist for the Iraq war after 9/11. His famous father, General Wesley Clark, Sr., wisely talked him out of it. General Clark understood that the war was a mistake. Wesley Clark, Jr., is now full throttle for his new mission at Standing Rock. Even after his father cautioned him about the risks of this planned peaceful civil disobedience, Wesley Clark, Jr., was not deterred.

Although he may have some Osage ancestry, Wesley Clark, Jr., has had little exposure to the ways of “Indians.” However, when Standing Rock tribal elder Phyllis Young explained the history of Standing Rock’s conflict with DAPL and its global importance, he had a transformational epiphany. Young met Wesley Clark, Jr., in Washington, D.C., where they were both working on renewable energy ideas. When she talked about the courageous commitment of the Native people to “all their relations,” he said a memory from his early childhood about the idea that “what you do to your brother you do to me” suddenly fanned the simmering “fire in his heart.” Almost to tears, he told me during a recent phone conversation that he is no longer an atheist. He said he has understood for the first time that the Great Mysterious (he used the word “God”) has taken his hand and is guiding him. With his military background and his respect for veterans, he feels that organizing and leading veterans to stop the abuse of the Water Protectors at Standing Rock is his destiny.

As I wrote in a previous Truthout article this past Veteran’s Day, Indians honor veterans not for participating in wars per se, but for their learned wisdom about the sacredness of life. We respect veterans for their willingness to serve as protectors, even if this is not what they wind up doing in their various deployments. Veterans have a great potential for understanding that everything is related and sacred, even the “enemy.” Ultimately, the virtue Indians revere in the veteran who has willed herself or himself to be available to die for others is courage.

Michael Wood — another co-organizer of Veterans Standing for Standing Rock and former Marine who is also a retired Baltimore police officer fighting for police reform — refers to this operation as “the bravery business.” Both Clark and Wood are willing to take a live round to stop the human-caused destruction that threatens all life on this planet. That they would connect with the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota with such courage is no coincidence.

My father was also a decorated combat veteran. He flew 35 missions in B-24s as a bombardier/navigator in WWII, crash-landing twice. I used to sneak readings of his always hidden combat diary, before it was lost in a flood to the Mississippi River. He wrote about the bloody red “blood popsicles” hanging from fuselage ledges and the loss of so many of his friends. Nonetheless, I joined the Marines during the Vietnam war. I was commissioned after Quantico and then entered the aviation program at Pensacola. Blindly gung-ho and ignoring the “hippie” protestors on TV, one night in a bar a South Vietnamese officer I was working with got drunk enough to tell me about what the US was doing to his country. I just barely stopped myself from punching him when I saw the look in his eyes. He was telling the truth. At that moment I joined the anti-war movement and used my grandfather’s political connections to gain an honorable discharge just before a possible court martial. Many years later, I cofounded the Northern Arizona chapter of Veterans for Peace. Dad was against the war himself and supported me. Six years after my discharge, however, he died at age 52 of post-traumatic-stress-related alcoholism.

The courage recognized in many veterans seems inherent in all Indigenous peoples who have managed to follow traditional ways. This is why especially courageous veterans seem to get along so well with American Indians. In the Indigenous worldview that guided all of us for 99 percent of human history, generosity is the ultimate expression of courage and fearlessness. (The latter phenomenon comes after courage prompts resolute action and one “trusts the universe” without further need for maintaining courage per se.) Martin Brokenleg talks about this when referring to educational programs for youth at risk when he says, “The highest expression of courage is attained when children learn to show compassion for others and to give a higher priority to relationships rather than possessions.”

I first learned this from wild Bureau of Land Management mustangs I trained in the 1970s. When wild horses that are not violently broken submit to being handled, it is both the generosity of the animals and their respect for the generosity of the handler that overcome their fears. I have often believed that the amazing relationship between the Lakota and the horse is related to this phenomenon. Indeed, woohitika (courage) is a cardinal virtue in Lakota philosophy and almost always refers to taking care of others. Similarly, in the Anishinaabe language, aakode’win literally means the state of having a fearless heart and doing what is right, even when the consequences are unpleasant or dangerous.

In my latest book, Point of Departure: Returning to Our More Authentic Worldview for Education and Survival, I talk about the natural legacy of courage and fearlessness that is in all of our potentialities and how it has been stifled by the dominant worldview. It is no coincidence that Indigenous peoples who have managed to hold on to this legacy of Nature are on the front lines around the globe in the stand against destroyers of Mother Earth. It has taken courage and fearlessness to hold onto Indigenous ways against all odds. In spite of being less than 6 percent of the world population, Indigenous peoples hold 20 percent of the planet’s land mass, harboring 80 percent of the remaining biodiversity.

Of course, they continue to pay a great price. In most countries, those hired to stop Indigenous environmental and water protectors don’t use rubber bullets. At least 185 confirmed activists were killed in 2015 alone. In her Truthout article, Alycee Lane reminds us that what we will be up against in the December veterans deployment is not just a corporation and its unawakened accomplices but also the global energy behind colonization itself. The colonizers of all kinds will fight the Indians because the pipeline project actually requires the exploitation of other than whites. She continues:

Ultimately, “climate change” must be a commitment to undertake a radical politics of decoloniality — to dismantle the murderous, nihilistic colonial power matrix against which the Sioux are courageously fighting and which is assailing Indigenous communities wherever fossil fuel exists, all the while driving millions of life forms to extinction.

The Indians at Standing Rock from the hundreds of tribes there know this, of course. Most have struggled their entire lives against such colonization and the historical trauma from previous generations is in their DNA. Yet they also have amazing courage and fearlessness in their blood. When I was sitting around a fire for a safety meeting with 14 medics at Standing Rock a couple of weeks ago, one of the medics passionately revealed why courage and fearlessness are vital for such a radical “decoloniality.” He looked around and asked, “How many Natives are here in this group?” There were only two others, in addition to him. He nodded, then slowly talked about the importance of helping one another out on the forthcoming action “no matter what.” Then, as he proceeded to talk about the great difficulties of his life as an American Indian growing up in a foster family in an urban setting, he talked about the courage to survive and to be there for others. He spoke with such emotion and passion that everyone was spellbound. Looking at the dedicated and courageous EMTs volunteering their time, he thanked them but predicted that the Indians would be the ones to run toward the bullets. “This is what we must do to save our living waters for future generations,” he concluded.

We do not know yet what will happen next week when the Veterans Standing for Standing Rock are engaged in their operations. We do not know if there will be a forceful eviction or how peaceful actions will occur strategically. We do not know what strategy DAPL will employ or how they will instruct their state and government allies. We do not know the effects of weather or what will happen after the Veterans Standing for Standing Rock and large numbers of people return to their homes. Whatever will happen will require the utmost in loving courage and fearlessness on the part of the Water Protectors. Send them your prayers, and please also send prayers that our brothers and sisters who are in the National Guard and the police departments will catch this spirit of loving courage. We must pray that these officers, who are in danger of conducting more terrorism, will instead set down their weapons to join us all in remembering who we really are, as we transition away from the dominant worldview and toward a worldview of interconnectedness.

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