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Veteran's Day at Standing Rock: Perhaps Not What You Think

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Yesterday, November 10th was the birthday of the U.S. 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. Like the the marine-turned-avatar in James Cameron's famous movie said, "You never lose the attitude." 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.

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drunk again at work : u.s. flag hung upside down, lower market street, san francisco (2013)
drunk again at work : u.s. flag hung upside down, lower market street, san francisco (2013)
(Image by torbakhopper)
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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 Očhe'thi akówiŋ (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." I know this position will not be widely endorsed today. As in the movie, the transformed character that resulted from immersion into the fictional Indigenous world of Pandora was seen as a traitor.

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Although many will see me similarly after reading what I say here it will not be those who are here at Standing Rock. 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 bee 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 U.S. and Canada have always had a special respect for its "warriors." When Viet Nam 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 Viet Nam era that held the soldier responsible was written and performed by an Indigenous entertainer. 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;

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You're the one who gives his body

As a weapon of the war-

And without you all this killing can't go on."

From Universal Soldier. Buffy St. Marie (1962)

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Wahinkpe Topa (Four Arrows) is faculty at Fielding Graduate University and was formerly Dean of Education at Oglala Lakota College and a tenured professor at Northern Arizona University. Named by AERO as one of 27 educational visionaries, he is the author of 20 acclaimed books on wellness, critical education and Indigenous worldview such as his most recent (more...)
 

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