North Dakota – At Standing Rock, so much was not what it seemed from the distance of news headlines and reports. Up close, one could see the ideological tension in romanticized groups where some are driven by moral imperatives and others by personal glory. A hidden truth about the rank and file of the U.S. military was also laid bare. There are many untold contradictions behind the drama that unfolded at Standing Rock. Although this remains a people’s struggle against the capitalist interests of a corporate military state, there are moral inconsistencies that bear telling.
Water Protectors vs DAPL
In April, a small group of Lakota Sioux gathered in a prayer protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) as its construction progressed toward the Missouri and Oahe rivers, threatening the only water source of the Sioux Nation in North Dakota and cities downstream. They came to protect the water and their call for solidarity reached far around the world. Within weeks, the water protectors grew into a coalition of over 300 Native American tribes and received solidarity from individuals, nations, and organizations around the world. Millions of dollars were raised for the encampment, called Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fire of the Sioux Nation), which reached as many as 14,000 individuals. Energy Transfer Partners (ETS) tried to remove the water protectors, resorting to attack dogs and later to spraying people with water cannons in subzero weather. But the Sioux and their friends remained in an inspiring people’s struggle against big oil’s death trample through our planet. Many echoed the sentiments of Russell Eagle Bear, of the Rosebud Sioux, “I’ve waited my whole life for this.” He explained that he has yearned to see such tribal unity, mass resurrection of native traditions, and collective stand against the U.S. corporate government’s uninterrupted rape of the natural world for profit.
The standoff gained new momentum when contingencies of U.S. Military veterans began to arrive. Forming an army of veterans in solidarity with Standing Rock was the brainchild of Michael Wood and Wesley Clark, Jr. They, too, had raised a large amount of money (over $1.13 million as of writing this) for the effort. I came with a group of veterans who left from New York City on December 2nd and arrived at Cannonball 35 hours later. Hundreds more arrived from more parts of the country, reaching up to 4000, according to some reports.
A day before a major blizzard came through, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it would deny the necessary easement for ETP to continue the pipeline construction under the Missouri River. Euphoria and victory celebrations reverberated from the camp through social media and news headlines. But for many on the ground, a different narrative began to crystalize.
Dissent and Frustration Among Veterans
While social media and news reports gave the impression of orchestrated marches by the veterans, the reality was far more chaotic, uncertain, and at times frightening. In fact, the conflicting instructions and lack of organization by the leadership of the veteran’s group prevented a large proportion of them from actually reaching the camp. Instead, they were shuffled by an absent leadership from one town to another, for training or events that never took place. We were housed in gymnasiums between Eagle Butte, Fort Yates, and Cannonball, and some of us had to be moved more than once in the span of three days. Most echoed the sentiments of Marine Sergeant Jessica Palmadessa who described the veteran’s deployment as “a dog and pony show.”
The veterans who went to the camp generally did so of their own accord, deciding to break away from the group as frustrations began to mount. “I didn’t come to cook and clean in a gym for vets, even though I don’t mind it. I came to stand with Native Americans, whether cooking and cleaning in their kitchens, fighting on the front line, or whatever they wanted me to do!” said Tamara Gabbard, veteran Sergeant in the Army National Guard.
So they did just that. They just left, packed into the back of pickup or UHaul trucks or hitchhiked to the camp in sub-zero, low visibility conditions to get to Oceti Sakowin camp. There they found ways to be useful, whether marching with other water protectors to the bridge, helping in the kitchens or engaging in prayer around the Sacred Fire.
Stranded Vets, Left To Their Own Devices
Veterans who continued to trust that organized directives would come through from their leadership never actually made it out of gymnasiums, with the exception of one trip to the casino where a ceremony of gratitude was expected to take place by tribal elders at 8am, which was to be followed shortly after by a drive to a camp, where a full day of action was to take place. Everyone was up, dressed, fed and watered by 06:30, and made it to the casino shortly after 07:00. We arrived only to realize that no one at the casino knew anything about the ceremony. Finally, around noon, something was cobbled together and tribal elders began showing up. It was not clear whether they knew anything about it prior to that morning, but it nonetheless turned out to be a very moving ceremony. Many people cried as the elders spoke of their struggles and what solidarity meant to them. At one point, a group of veterans bowed before the elders in apology for the sins of their government and society that all but eradicated First Americans.
Soon after the conclusion of the ceremony, it became clear that we were going to be stranded at the casino, as a snow storm was moving in and driving conditions were too hazardous. There was only a concrete floor in an indoor pavilion where people could sleep. There were no sleeping bags either. All rooms were sold out. Only Michael Wood and Wesley Clark had rooms at the casino. They had booked them in advance, as they were not staying with the veterans they called up.
A few casino patrons offered to share their rooms, but overall the situation seemed untenable, particularly as alcohol was more abundant than food, or so it seemed. A handful of us decided to brave the weather in a 4-wheel truck to get back to Fort Yates. Except in movies, I have never seen such white-out conditions, nor known such cold or wind power. Cars with flashing hazard lights littered the sides of the road and we stopped at each, but there were no passengers inside. People here know to immediately get to the nearest shelter, and homes keep their lights on precisely to guide those who become stranded.
We made it to Fort Yates where our cots and sleeping bags were a more welcome sight than they would be under normal circumstances. There were already over 160 veterans there. Food was low and more evacuees were expected. The veterans were clearly on their own.
Meanwhile, their leadership continued to post on social media from the casino. At one point, Wesley Clark tweeted that mercenaries from Gulf States were hiding in the casino to assassinate him. That tweet elicited a collective eye roll at Fort Yates. “He’s probably drunk,” someone said. But later, in a letter of apology for the “errors in [his] attempt at leadership,” Wesley Clark assured the vets that he drank no alcohol, but was rather very sleep deprived as he spent inordinate time “in a diplomatic role between the multiple factions and interests.”
A Miracle Unfolds at Fort Yates
As the vets realized no one was looking out for them, something of a miracle began to unfold at Fort Yates. Retired Chief Warrant Officer Clark Brown immediately took charge. He was an enlisted Army Ranger, Officer in the Night Stalker 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, Airborne, where he was a pilot for 19 years of his 22-year service. Within an hour, he had organized a chain of command, established work stations for the kitchen, registration, medics, counseling/morale, communications, clean up, bathrooms, and more. As a member of the Lenape Nation on the east coast and adopted son of the Lakota Sioux, Clark also had some connections that helped him secure food from local businesses. Then he sent out out crews into the storm with heavy four wheelers to gather whatever they could of food and supplies, most of which he paid for from his own money (which he expects will be reimbursed from the raised funds).
Several vets had brought their dogs and one of them, Titan, was dying with kidney failure. Individuals took shifts sitting with Titan to offer comfort and sometimes give water through a syringe. Although the gym had a few shower stalls, we all smelled and a plumbing problem in the men’s bathroom threatened to add a sewage problem to our predicament. This was an example of issues that Clark dealt with. He managed it all, with help from willing volunteers, of course, and pulled it off without a hitch, with the exception of a minor scuffle between two women who disagreed on how to treat Titan in his final hours.
They even baked a cake and had a birthday party for Dakota, a local boy who turned 12 years old. He and his brother had been staying at Fort Yates with us while their parents helped collect gear and supplies for the veterans. Clark walked them home every evening. And on the afternoon of his birthday, Dakota not only got a party, but a full military promotion ceremony, with a uniform, honorary rank, and drills and salutes I did not understand. Dakota was clearly overjoyed.
To the delight of the stranded at Fort Yates, local Native American veterans came to share sacred songs and tribal dances. Those who did not have a duty passed the time playing cards, talking, or reading.
PTSD “Powder Keg”
But there were yet more layers. This was not a big party or lemon-come-lemonade story. It was a gym full of frustrated veterans with high levels of PTSD. Master Sergeant Butch Patch said, “it could be a powder keg when you have that much PTSD in one room.” From where he was sitting, Butch watched as one man brought a pill to another who sat quietly alone. “He knew the signs and went over to take care of him. The guy might have just run out of his meds. Folks just take care of each other.”
Some spoke openly about their PTSD, and one night, I saw what it looks like to be haunted by memories that live in your body, waiting to be activated by sound or light or smell. Jessica Palmadessa slept on a cot next to me in the “comm station,” which was the gym utility room where were were surrounded by electrical panels and boilers. Some time in the middle of the night someone pushed at the door, knocking over a piece of wood that landed with a loud thud on the ground. Jessica shot up in a visceral, confused scream that at first terrified me. She was inconsolable for a time after, until finally she gathered her wits and calmed. Later, when she gave me permission to tell this story, she told me that she had been sexually assaulted in her sleep while in the military.
At the ceremony in the casino, a tribal elder spoke of the high levels of trauma in the room – all of it inflicted by the U.S. Government in one way or another on native peoples and veterans alike. Two Sioux medicine persons, who identified themselves simply as Frances and Lawrence, gave some of the veterans spiritual medicine, with wheel pouches that contained prayers. When Clark Brown took charge of taking care of everyone at Fort Yates, one of his first directives was that everyone look out for each other. His leadership on site took something that was potentially very volatile – a couple hundred of vets with PTSD in one space with insufficient food and water in the midst of a snow storm – and created a harmonious atmosphere, studded with a birthday party, song, games and deep conversations.
The vets were very welcoming of me, even though I am a civilian, or “civi” as they say. It was inspiring to watch they way they immediately coalesced as a family, however dysfunctional. I liked them very much, and I had to keep reminding myself that many, perhaps most, were killers. At a minimum, they had made possible the dismantling and decimation of whole nations around the world. It was difficult to reconcile the genuine affection I felt with the knowledge that these were folks who had chosen loyalty to a flag instead of life. Yet, being at Standing Rock, they were making a very different choice now.
I was not shy about my own politics and soon found that many wanted to talk with me, knowing that I have no love for the military. In two separate conversations, I admitted that I thought patriotism was a social disease. One person paused to take in the idea and then she agreed. The other got tears in his eyes, lowered his head and took off his hat awkwardly, said “you’re right,” then walked off. He hugged and thanked me later, but didn’t say why.
What I learned is that most of these men and women have been broken in one way or another by the military. Many enlisted to have a better life. Some for a scholarship. Some because it was their only option. Some to escape toxic homes. They never questioned that they were the good guys. Nearly all believed that U.S. adventures abroad were guided by a moral compass and ideals of freedom, until they arrived and learned otherwise. “Once you’re in and you see how much you’ve been lied to, all you can do is try to stay alive and keep your buddies alive,” said one navy veteran who did not want to be identified. “By the time you start to understand that you might be the bad guys, you’re already fighting for your own survival and you do whatever you have to do to stay alive and keep your buddies alive until you can get the hell out.”
I heard different versions of that same narrative from others. When they left the military, some decided to immerse themselves in current affairs, history, resistance and social justice struggles around the world. Sam, a veteran who appeared to be in his twenties, had taken up the Palestinian cause. “It’s one of the most important struggles today,” he said, showing me the Palestinian flag set as the background photo on his mobile. Others are simply trying to contend with nightmares that haunt them in waking and sleeping hours. John, a veteran of multiple wars, went to live in the woods with his dogs, to “get my head straight,” he said. He travels and sets up his yurt wherever he wants. Here, his yurt was the medics station. Most vets just resumed their lives as best as they could, not giving further thought to the nagging sense that their lives were used as cannon fodder to enrich a ruling elite.
So, when the call was put out for veterans to join Native American water protectors in the blizzard conditions of North Dakota, they did not hesitate to act. Everyone came with a story and a life put on hold, galvanized by a sense of purpose and righteous defiance. At first, most echoed what one veteran told me, “I came to uphold my duty to protect Americans for all enemies, foreign and domestic; and ETP is a domestic enemy of the people.” But in the intimacy that comes from trying to survive a storm in an unfamiliar place, the language changed, and it became clear that this mission was more about redemption for so many of them. “I want to be on the right side of history this time,” one veteran told me. And another, who was retired from the military, “I want to finally do something to protect the American people. I don’t think I’ve never done that in all my years of service.”
“Forked Tongues” All Around
When the news of the Army Corps’ decision came, tribal Chairman Dave Archambault declared victory and told everyone to “go home.” While some did just that, many refused to leave, staying put despite severe weather. Ladonna Bravebull Allard, who founded Sacred Stone, the first of several spiritual camps of the water protectors, insisted that Archambault did not speak for the them. She said, “We don’t go nowhere.” Social media posts and other messages from activists warned that ETP could start construction as soon as people leave because it’s cheaper for them to pay fines than incur the cost of further delays.
During the ceremony at the casino, Sioux Elder Crow Dog reminded all in attendance that the U.S. Government has always spoken to Native Americans “with forked tongues.” He warned that the battle was not over and there was much work still to be done. Indeed, within hours of the Army Corps’ decision, North Dakota Congressman Kevin Cramer vowed to fight to reverse the decision, insisting that he will work with Trump’s incoming administration to put the pipeline back on track.
But there were other forked tongues. In early September, Dave Archambault told KFYR-TV local station that he is not interested in rerouting the pipeline or finding alternative transport for crude oil. Rather, he said he wants to see alternative and renewable sources of energy. However, less than three months later, in an interview with Canadian Broadcasting Corporation immediately after the Army Corps denied the easement, Archambault said he did not wish to stop pipelines, including DAPL. He said, “What I’m asking is to reroute this pipeline off treaty lands or if if you’re going to continue infrastructure projects like this, give us an opportunity to give consent.”
To most people hearing those words, it seemed like Archambault used the water protectors not to actually protect the water, but to demand a place at tables of power where corporate decisions are made and people are made rich. Activists questioned how rerouting the pipeline could be a victory when the goal was to stop it entirely. Canadian vet Chris Shaw, who first saw the CBC interview, was appalled. Dave Kelser, Army Intelligence veteran and current national park ranger said, “I didn’t come here to help grease Archambault’s palms.”
Then there were the men who collected over a million dollars, brought a few thousand veterans to Standing Rock and essentially abandoned them, knowing a blizzard was eminent. Clark Brown was generous at first, saying “I believe Mr [Wesley] Clark and Michael Wood were ill prepared to execute this operation. There was a lack of foresight on their part.” Then he added, “They utilized the presence of vets for their personal gain.” When asked that that gain might be, he said, “maybe fame and financial gain.” He said they spent no time with “their troops,” which was something I observed, too. But, “they continued as if they were running the show,” he said.
When the storm broke and we started to find our way out, the NYC group remained stranded as the chartered bus had broken down. I had been able to get to Bismarck airport with a few others, where I had a six hour wait for my flight. When we heard that my group might still be stuck at Fort Yates as yet another storm was approaching, we got to work trying to get them out of there. Eventually I found myself on the phone with Michael Wood. He said, “it’s not my problem. The chartered bus will get to them eventually.” He was not concerned that it could take days and resented the suggestion that it was his responsibility to help find a solution, particularly as Jessica Palmadessa’s anxiety was in full swing by that point. When I suggested renting vans to get them to the airport and getting them tickets to go home, he thought it was a good idea and said he would absolutely pay for it. It didn’t come to that, however. A bus showed up to take them to Eagle Butte, where they were better supplied to wait out the storm, and their chartered bus showed up a few hours later to head back to NYC. Clark Brown and Elizabeth, his second in command, both self-appointed, refused to leave until everyone was safely out.
Contours Of A Great Society
Every struggle gets streaked with opportunism and hypocrisy, and Standing Rock is no exception. But the big picture remained unchanged. Ordinary people risked their lives, day after day for months, using only their bodies and prayer to stand in the path of capitalism’s death trample through our planet. Unarmed and unprotected, they faced off with our corporate military state’s unrelenting pollution of air, soil and water. No matter what happened – and all that happened should be told – it was an example of epic collective heroism and courage. Being at Oceti Sakowin encampment or with the veterans in a gym, it was easy to see the contours of what a great society could look like. People lived communally. Sharing and gratitude were the principle driving forces. The unspoken understanding was that everyone there must be taken care of, and everyone must work or contribute as their abilities allow. Violence, weapons, drugs and alcohol were forbidden.
The struggle at Standing Rock is a palpable pulse of humanity’s growing anxiety over the degradation of the natural world. It is a warning from the people that we are growing intolerant of those who will decimate whole nations of animals, birds, fish, insects and humans for an uptick in stock prices, executive bonuses, or lucrative contracts.
Unfettered capitalism has been a virulent metastasis that scorches the earth wherever it passes, leaving less and less to sustain life. The most vulnerable suffer the consequences first, whether from changing climates that bring floods, melting ice caps, heat waves and other disasters brought by climate change; or from the suffocating ashes of wars that bring whole nations to their knees for the financial gains of a ruling elite whose fortunes are never enough.
Now, the unarmed protestors and protectors who oppose them are not alone. A people’s army of veterans is forming. They have vowed to regroup with better organization, accountability, and ideological analysis to continue what they started. In the final analysis, the overarching narrative and bottom line of Standing Rock is that we hold Earth, our small and vulnerable planet, in trust for future generations of all living creatures. It is not ours to pillage and leave to rot. And the subtext of this truism is that moral clarity is not the exclusive purview of victims or any particular racial or cultural groups. Rather, it is an available and viable option to every individual.