Mount Rushmore under construction
On Monday, December 5, Native Americans at Standing Rock conducted a sacred forgiveness ceremony with hundreds of U.S. veterans, giving the vets an opportunity to atone for military actions conducted against Native Peoples throughout history.
In accepting forgiveness, Wes Clark Jr., the son of retired U.S. Army general and former supreme commander at NATO, Wesley Clark Sr., stated “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 faces of our presidents onto your sacred mountain ... we took your children and then we tried to take your language … 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.”
Meanwhile, the pipeline builders say they will continue and that the Army Corps recent decision to stop the pipeline’s progress is just a “formality.” It is also no secret that President Elect Trump has been an investor in the pipeline and in companies that will benefit from its building. He has said that he supports the project.
Among the veterans at Standing Rock Monday was Bill Means, a Vietnam vet who returned from fighting a bloody U.S. war of aggression overseas to take on the U.S. government at Wounded Knee. Bill Means is a founding member of the International Indian Treaty Council and co-founder of the American Indian Movement (AIM). Means is a key adviser to the Standing Rock Tribe on their resistance to the pipeline. I spoke with him shortly after he met with the Standing Rock leaders this week about future strategies for the tribe on its continuing resistance to the pipeline.
Q: Bill Means, it is good to speak with you again. I want to ask you about the Army Corps decision, but let’s talk for a moment about the profound significance of thousands of vets converging on Standing Rock. I believe you were in Vietnam with Wesley Clark, Sr. Here you have his son asking for forgiveness.
Bill Means: I feel a brotherhood to those veterans. I was there in Vietnam representing the United States, but one of the things that was beautiful about coming home from that terrible war was that our people still honored us, not because we fought for America but because we fought for the honor of our people. When I returned from Vietnam my cousin gave me an Indian name, my friend gave me a horse, and I was welcomed back to the community with open arms. I think that helped us in our healing from what they now call post traumatic stress.
I feel proud that these young men decided to come to Standing Rock, and stand with the Oceti Sakowin Camp which in itself was a tremendous show of support. I saw at least ten, twelve charter buses just in one area, filled with veterans. Some of them had their wives, or some were women veterans, some were men from different wars.
I met a farmer from Iowa, a World War II veteran, who said he had to join the fight against this black snake, this pipeline, because the corporations had taken his land under what they call eminent domain. He told me,
“Years ago they had taken some of my father’s land. But it was for a highway, they took some school or churches. But now, they’re taking our land for private corporations, for corporate America. ... So, I found out what it is to be an American Indian.”
Q: The Army Corps says they’re going to do further research and, essentially, find another place for the pipeline. I’d like to get your initial response to the decision, and your thoughts on where the struggle goes from here.
Means: I feel as though we’ve been fighting this fight for a long time, as American Indians, since 1492, we’ve had to fight for every little inch of land that we retain today. And we’ve lost a lot of people along the way. But this is one of those times when generations stand up for what they believe. And it’s a massive international, national, local solidarity.
Not very many times in my lifetime have I been part of such a beautiful, non-violent movement. I remember back in the days of Martin Luther King, when I was first went to college, many African Americans criticized Dr. King because they didn’t believe that a peaceful response to violence was the way to go. They felt like Malcolm X, one of the great leaders who said “By any means necessary. If a white man hits me in the head, I’m going to hit him back.”
We kind of faced that here. We had a tremendous amount of old AIMsters, people who had experienced Wounded Knee, and also young people that had only heard about it. And they didn’t like the idea of standing on prayer. They wanted to attack, and they didn’t care if they lost their lives, many of them.
But clearer heads prevailed. The traditional people spoke and said,
“This is a different time now. We want to use prayer. We want to use the idea of nonviolence because our sacred water is involved and we’re using it in ceremonies to try to turn the tide with prayer; we have to honor that and remain peaceful, and not get violent.”
But it was hard to hold back the young troops. They were like a bunch of young colts, ready to charge.
I think that was a difficult part of this movement back in our day in the 1960s. The idea of using prayer and non-violence as a weapon was kind of mind blowing, even to the police. They didn’t know how to respond. And so they incited violence, and even used deadly force, including military-type weapons, and dogs on our people. Not unlike ole Bull Connor who stopped people crossing a bridge with dogs.
That frontier mentality is still here, that feeling that anybody that supports Indian people or environmental issues must be a criminal. Some of the politicians even called us terrorists, even though we’re peaceful. They didn’t know how to respond to non-violence, only with violence. And so they brought their dogs, and they brought their smoke grenades, and they brought their rubber bullets, and they brought their tear gas...
Q: . . . and cages
Means:. . . and they brought this look of hatred in their eyes, that we’ve felt for many, many centuries. So I think this is a very profound lesson for our people, that again we faced these things but together with peoples from all walks of life we attained a small, temporary victory.
Q: So where do we go from here?
Means: Well, I think we have to honor the wishes of the Standing Rock people. I’ve talked to Mr. Archambault, both the father and the son, who's the president of the tribe, and they asked that people return home to their own communities. To take what they learned here at Standing Rock, to take that medicine feeling of camaraderie, of sacredness, of learning things you learn about how Lakota people look at the elements, that protect our people, like water, like the land. Take what you learned and go back to your community, and in some way teach that to your family, to your church, to whomever that you can reach.
Because this isn’t going to be the last time. They may be called back later. But there is legal strategy in place. There are cases to be fought and won in the courts. And so I think, you know, Standing Rock people have borne the burden of this whole action, and the disruption of their communities, which they supported, almost wholeheartedly, with very little dissent. But yet it is time to honor their wishes, they would like to have their community back, from the people. They would like to start to normalize what little they have left, in terms of they’re making it through the winter.
You know the winter is not as big a deal as everybody says, because Lakota people have been surviving this region since time immemorial. It’s tough, yes, but we can survive the winter. That’s not the issue. The issue is that we all have a home.
Also, all these issues are almost in every state. In fact the girl who had her arm almost blown off was part of a pipeline fight centered around Boston, Massachusetts. She was showing the type of solidarity that we need now to expand this movement. The Navajo Nation, they need help. You know, out west in California there’s drought and so water becomes one of the main issues out there in the west. These people all need help.
And through our experiences at Standing Rock we have built expertise. Who do we call when we want to get the media? Well, we met some guys who came all the way from Berkeley, California—KPFA—let’s give them a call. We need to take what people have learned and put it into active use.
So let's look and honor what the Standing Rock people say; they’re saying that we love you, we thank you, we honor you, and it’s time that we move on and go home.
Dennis Bernstein is an investigative reporter and host of the Flashpoints program on Pacifica Radio.