Why I Kneeled Before Standing Rock Elders and Asked For Forgiveness
Everything seemed to be converging on Standing Rock on Dec. 4. Thousands of veterans were scheduled to arrive the next day at this remote, frozen outpost—along with a blizzard. The Army Corps of Engineers had recently ordered the eviction of Oceti Sakowin, the largest of the water protectors’ camps, saying the thousands camped there would have to vacate by Dec. 5. The governor ordered an emergency evacuation, and the county sheriff threatened to issue $1,000 fines to anyone caught delivering food, firewood, and other support needed to keep the camp alive.
At least for the moment, there was celebration.
And it was on the afternoon of Dec. 4 that word arrived: The Obama administration had refused the final permit for the Dakota Access pipeline. The Army Corps of Engineers said it would first consider other routes, require an environmental impact statement, and consult with the Sioux tribes. So, at least for the moment, there was celebration: dancing, singing, fireworks.
Reasons for the timing of that announcement are not clear. It might have been because tensions were too high. Perhaps 4,000 veterans joining thousands of Native water protectors and their allies was just too much.
Veterans in the blizzard. Photo by Michael Running Wolf.
The next day, some veterans participated in a formal “forgiveness ceremony,” which began with an emotional plea to the tribe for forgiveness by former Army Lt. Wesley Clark Jr., son of Gen. Wesley Clark, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO.
“Many of us, me particularly, are from the units that have hurt you over the many years. 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. Then we took still more land and then we took your children and … we tried to eliminate your language that God gave you, and the Creator gave you. We didn’t respect you, we polluted your Earth, 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.”
Clark made these remarks head bowed, kneeling before the elders. Chief Leonard Crow Dog put his hand on Clark’s head. A moment of forgiveness followed by tears and embraces.
Clark, along with Michael A. Wood Jr., a former Baltimore police officer and Marine Corps veteran, had organized the deployment that formed Veterans Stand for Standing Rock. YES! Editor at Large Sarah van Gelder interviewed Clark this week about why he called on veterans to come to Standing Rock and what moved him to apologize.
Sarah van Gelder: What made you decide to call on veterans to join with you?
Wesley Clark Jr.: I reached out to lawyers, I reached out to politicians, I reached out to members of the press. I got the Young Turks to send Jordan [Chariton] out there in October. I did everything I could to try to help this tribe. Nothing would happen. And so I was like, fuck it man, I have to go out there.
I called Michael Wood Jr., he was like, “Hell yeah, I’m down for it.” We put out an operations order, a call [to veterans] on Twitter and on Facebook. I don’t have any experience in any kind of activism or fundraising or anything. By around the middle of November I think we’d only raised $3,000 and had 50 people going. I thought maybe if we were lucky we might be able to get 500.
The concept that I had in my head was that we’d simply outmaneuver the police, get across the river and then surround the pipeline. That was always the concept of the operation in my head. But at the same time I always wanted to start it with what the tribe calls a “Wiping the Tears Ceremony.” First of all, I have PTSD and most of the guys out there with me do. So I thought it was very important to kind of spiritually cleanse us and prepare us for what I expected to be harsh tactics and beatings and jailing from the security forces.
van Gelder: You had made a very clear statement that this would be a nonviolent action. What made you decide to make that so clear?
Clark: If you want to effect change in the world, it has to come through nonviolence and forgiveness. It’s the only way.
“If you want to effect change in the world, it has to come through nonviolence and forgiveness.”
You can look at history for examples. If somebody starts a violent revolution, they have less than a 5 percent chance of succeeding. And at the end of it, all they’ve inherited is a broken country full of death and bitterness and distrust. But through nonviolent action—the kind we saw in Czechoslovakia in 1989 and in the Philippines long ago—you actually have a greater than 50 percent chance of success. So it’s not just a moral imperative but a strategic one as well, that’s backed up by history.
van Gelder: So what was it like for you when you realized that instead of a few dozen, or a few hundred veterans joining you that you were going to have thousands?
Clark: Staggering. It was absolutely mind-blowing. Never expected it. That got us panicked on how quickly we could get supplies out there.
I didn’t even believe it when I saw it. A close friend of mine is a human resources person. She said listen, if people say they’re coming online, expect maybe two-thirds of them to show up. Four thousand showed up!
van Gelder: Once you were there, a lot of unexpected things happened: the weather, the announcement that the Army Corps of Engineers was not immediately going to give the permit. How did that affect what actually happened with your group.
Clark: It changed everything. I expected to be either in the hospital or in jail by the end of the day on the 5th. But on the 4th, once they made the announcement, the elders said, Listen we know you have all this stuff planned but we want just peace and prayer. I saw they 100 percent had the right idea. I simply followed their lead.
van Gelder: What else did folks do once they were there. Were there also some actions taking place?
Clark: Very few. The directives from the elders were pretty clear. There were paid infiltrators, we believe, both in the camp and that had come into our own group that were managed by the private security firms that work for DAPL. The view I got from the elders was that what [the infiltrators] wanted was violence at the bridge and on the front line, which they could then call a riot. We believe they had a financial incentive to make it violent, so the best thing to do was peace and prayer and keep distance from the security forces. And don’t forget, by causing problems up there—and violence—and then leaving shortly after, we would have left the tribe to deal with all the ugly fallout from it.
Wesley Clark Jr. during forgiveness ceremony. Photo by Joe Zummo.
van Gelder: Can you describe what it was like for you to conduct that forgiveness ceremony. What was going through your mind and heart?
Clark: We had initially thought we’d divide everyone up into platoons and companies and have it be super organized. But then once you got on the ground, the whole thing was kind of a self-organizing entity. People simply took charge. It was great to see. I never considered myself to be the ultimate leader of this thing. I wanted to build something where everyone could be a leader and backing off to a large extent to let people do their thing.
When we got there that morning. We didn’t know where we were going to stand, we didn’t know how the ceremony was going to go, we didn’t know how long it was going to last, we didn’t know who was going to speak.
At the last minute, the tribe told us to form everyone up in a horseshoe around us. Literally, on the spot, figuring stuff out with no idea what the ceremony was going to be or what I was going to say. And then I just stood there at attention for two hours as speaker after speaker … The only thing running through my mind was please God don’t let there be another speaker because I hadn’t had anything to eat, I hadn’t had anything to drink. I was going off an hour of sleep, maybe, standing there for what felt like two hours, I was afraid I was going to pass out.
And then when it started I just stepped forward and opened my mouth.
Everybody who’s non-Native and is willing to apologize for what the U.S. government has done to these people, raise your hand. And some people just got up and joined on their own.
van Gelder: It’s interesting to hear that you didn’t know what you were going to say because you listed very specific, very powerful sources of trauma and deep hardship. You listed them so eloquently and succinctly. What were you drawing from?
Clark: How could I not? On Saturday night, we had a gathering out at Sitting Bull College with about 400-500 of the vets, and tribal elders spoke. And whenever they get up to speak, they name off what’s happened. They let people know, this is what happened.
It was the same thing during the ceremony. Each elder who got up and spoke did it. The past is very fresh because it affects their day-to-day lives today. They are still trying to recover culturally and economically in every way.
“We’re all going to be called upon to make sure that we maintain a civil lawful society that’s moving toward a goal of greater good.”
You have to understand the history of this tribe. They originally had a bunch of rich, fertile bottom land on this reservation up until post-World War II. When the Army Corps of Engineers using the power of eminent domain came in and seized hundreds of thousands of acres from three separate reservations. It was all that rich, fertile bottom land. And they moved people up onto this clay rocky soil that they couldn’t make a living off of, that they couldn’t feed themselves off of. This happened between 1948 and 1963 when the dam opened. Since the dam opened, it’s made over $9.6 billion in electrical revenues and is listed by the Army Corps of Engineers as providing $150 million in economic benefit to the surrounding region, and the tribes don’t get any of that money even though it’s their farmland that’s flooded beneath it.
van Gelder: You spoke some very powerful truths during the ceremony. You kneeled in front of the elders. Describe what that experience was like.
Clark: I had no idea what was going to happen. I knew I should probably take my hat off. I didn’t know Crow Dog was going to lay his hand on my head. I’m glad he did. It felt wonderful. It felt healing. It felt good, in the truest sense of the word.
van Gelder: Afterward, there people were shaking hands and embracing throughout the venue.
Clark: Yeah, I loved it. That was one of my favorite parts of the day. It was just the most wonderful feeling in the world to feel so much love and acceptance between so many people in one place. To really feel that it was healing people, spiritually, emotionally.
van Gelder: Did any of the other veterans who came with you talk about what the experience was like for them?
Clark: They were all pulled there by a real strong spiritual force. We all felt it. We felt it on the drive out there. We felt it while we were there. We felt it during that ceremony.
van Gelder: In terms of the decision on the pipeline, what difference do you think it made that so many veterans had been on their way already?
Clark: I think they aided it. I think the real sacrifice was laid down by all the people from the tribes and civilians and White allies and Brown allies and Black allies and everyone else who went out there before we got there. They’re the ones who really paid the price. They were the ones who were beaten, hosed down, maced, attacked, and in many instances charged by a law enforcement organization working against the interests of the American people and for private corporations
“If I could live every day of my life like I did that time out there, I’d die the happiest man on Earth.”
I hope, first of all, that it never gets built. I hope the need to get an environmental impact statement will slow the process long enough that it never gets built.
van Gelder: Would the veterans come back if it looked like drilling was going to begin?
Clark: I hope so.
van Gelder: This comes at a time when this country is going through a massive shift from an Obama administration to a Trump administration and in many other respects as well. How do you see your role at Standing Rock intersecting with these other big shifts that are happening in the country?
Clark: I think we’re all going to be needed in a lot of ways. We’re all going to be called upon to make sure that we maintain a civil lawful society that’s moving toward a goal of greater good instead of the personal profit of a few who already have way more than they need in life.
van Gelder: I also heard after you all were at Standing Rock that there was talk of doing other kinds of actions, including in Flint, Michigan.
Clark: Yes, Michael [former U.S. Marine Michael Wood Jr.] will be leading that one with Veterans Stand. That will be a different kind of thing. My concept of that operation is that they will replace plumbing in individual houses there just using the manpower. I don’t know when that will happen. I will help him any way he needs it. I don’t have the money to go there, I don’t know how I’ll get there or when it will happen, but I’ll somehow find a way.
van Gelder: Do you have views on other things Veterans Stand might do?
Clark: That’s up to all these individual veterans groups. What I hope that we would do is that we would protect the Constitution. That we would ensure that people would have freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, religious liberty, and that we’d respect our treaty obligations, that we would respect the individual rights of every American regardless of their background or political affiliations.
van Gelder: Do you think there’s a danger of having a group of people who are militarily trained and who have an autonomous vision of what they should do that’s not part of the civilian power structure?
Clark: As long as people are practicing nonviolence, I don’t think there’s a problem at all.
van Gelder: You had mentioned that you had been not very religious or spiritual for some time and that this was sort of a wake-up call spiritually as well.
Clark: If I could live every day of my life like I did that time out there, I’d die the happiest man on Earth. It felt like I lived 10 lifetimes in the week I was at Standing Rock, and I wish every person in the world could have that feeling. There’s nothing special about me. Anyone could do what I did. It was being flipped on like a light switch.
Sarah van Gelder is a co-founder and columnist at YES!, founder of PeoplesHub, and author of The Revolution Where You Live: Stories from a 12,000-Mile Journey Through a New America.