I paused in writing about that trip, because I went back after New Year’s with one other return vet and a new crew, and interviewed key people in the movement, attended a tumultuous tribal council meeting, drove six hours south to Pine Ridge with someone who lives there, and visited Wounded Knee with a prominent AIM member who was in the 1973 standoff.
Which is to say I’m wading around in impressions like a traveler blinded in a blizzard. I was caught in a blizzard. But I plan to finish what I started writing about VSFSR, which may have been the first time the “cavalry” rode in to try to help the Indians.
To recap: The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, whose reservation south of Bismarck, North Dakota, lies along the path of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), has been working for months with a growing number of allies to halt construction, over stated concerns for clean water and sacred sites. Underlying these are more ancient and just-as-justified concerns for sovereignty and self-determination.
Wes Clark, Jr., son of the former Supreme Allied Commander Europe of NATO, and Michael A. Wood, Jr., organized VSFSR. Clark says he got the idea after former Standing Rock tribal council member Phyllis Young, a beautifully well-spoken woman, contacted his father about DAPL, and the younger Clark couldn’t find anyone to help, so he thought of US veterans. It was a weird notion that happened to work this time in aid of a peaceful solution, but I fear it’ll have its counterparts in rage one day soon. As many as 4,000 veterans “self-deployed” for Clark and Wood’s call, volunteering to serve, if necessary, as human shields for the native water protectors, as they prefer to be called. There were comparisons with Coxey’s Army and the Bonus Army, but those movements were about pay and jobs for those veterans. VSFSR meant other, various, things to today’s vets, including perhaps a desire to serve again in some concrete way as well as make a symbolic gesture at this time in our history.
VSFSR had the potential, I believe, to be one of the most violent incidents in domestic history. Two weeks earlier, on the night of November 20, North Dakota law enforcement used a water cannon, mace, tear gas, rubber bullets, and concussion grenades against some 400 people on the Backwater Bridge, between the main protest camp, Oceti Sakowin, and the drill pad. Videos of it went viral and reinforced other media, such as footage from a September 3 clash in which unlicensed security guards let dogs loose on a crowd.
These and other scenes, with their concertina wire and ghastly klieg lights, up-armored Humvees and converted hippie buses, riot gear and traditional Oglala dress, warrior horses and helicopters, tipis and army tents, dogs and high-tech weaponry like the LRAD, all set on the landscape of the Great Plains, captured people’s imaginations. The scenes felt like some alternate-history movie or time-traveler’s tale. It didn’t seem like America, many said—and this caused outrage. The number of veterans registering for VSFSR swelled rapidly from an initial few hundred, and after organizers cut off applications at 2,000, more committed to come on their own.
On November 25, a District Commander of the Army Corps of Engineers issued a warning that everyone on “Corps-managed land” (which included Oceti Sakowin) had to be gone by December 5. “This decision is necessary to protect the general public from the violent confrontations between protestors and law enforcement officials that have occurred in this area,” the order said in part.
The timing of it was very odd, since everyone knew December 5 was set to be the biggest day for VSFSR. There had been earlier threats by the governor of blockades and fines for providing supplies to the camp, but those were rescinded for no reasons made clear, and people began to stream in, as if to a trap that would be sprung on the fifth. If the order was enforced, it would pit state and local law enforcement, the National Guard, and private security forces (advised by TigerSwan) against many thousands of Native Americans and their allies, including thousands of American vets, native and nonnative alike. I sat at home, watching in disbelief. Each side went forward aggressively for a couple of days, apparently in hopes the other would blink. North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple and the Corps backed off first, saying as early as November 28, after a “broad backlash,” that there would be no forcible removal of people from the camps.
What’s more, on December 4, with a stream of cars, trucks, and tour buses filled with still-arriving veterans stretching to the hilly horizon, the Corps denied the easement for the pipeline, pending further study, which was taken as a temporary victory for the tribe and the #NoDAPL movement. Then a blizzard descended the next morning, the fifth, and Standing Rock Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault spread the word that it was the wish of the tribal council, the Cannon Ball district, and elders that everyone leave the camps, which had become a burden on tribal resources, as well as a flood hazard come spring.
So there was no large-scale violence when the vets went to Standing Rock in December, but on the ground the way it didn’t happen was both interesting and felt like a happy accident. The Stand for Standing Rock/Mni Wiconi movement has spread, and its narrative of peace and prayer amplified.
There’s something significant in this movement—not the least because it feels like part to the whole of our national discord, which is both foundational and contemporary. No matter how far you’re willing to walk back the argument that something has gone wrong in our society, it serves as marker. In it I see factions within factions, contradictory political impulses, hopes, ambitions, and anger over roles played. Somehow by this messiness it met with fragile success, and there’s a growing belief that no matter what happens (the pipeline will likely go through), the movement should stand as a model for future resistance.
By the time of my second visit at the start of January, Oceti Sakowin had been renamed Oceti Oyate and had shrunk to maybe 500 people. (One of the interesting things about this movement is its lack of data; no one seems to know populations of the camps, or how much was spent on firewood or waste removal, or how many tons of food were donated to the cause.) On January 24 Donald Trump signed an executive action to advance both DAPL and the Keystone XL. On January 31, Senator Hoeven and Representative Cramer (both R-ND) announced that the Acting Secretary of the Army had directed the Corps to issue the final easement for DAPL.
“It’s time to get to work and finish this important piece of energy infrastructure enhancing America’s energy security and putting North Dakotans and Americans back to work.” Cramer said. “President Trump has proven to be a man of action and I am grateful for his commitment to this and other critical infrastructure projects so vital to our nation.”
Native activists immediately put out a call for help. Tuesday night LaDonna Tamakawastewin Allard, who founded the first water protectors’ camp, Sacred Stone, said in a group appeal on Facebook, “Now is the time. Now is the moment. This is the final hour. We are asking, if you are coming to stand, you need to come stand now.”
As I write this Wednesday afternoon, a fledgling camp on higher ground, meant as replacement for Oceti, has just been raided by law enforcement. Early reports indicate as many as 76 arrests, including Chase Iron Eyes, a prominent figure at Standing Rock and a lawyer, founder of the Lakota People’s Law Project, and a former Democratic candidate for Congress. I interviewed him in January and was impressed. Recently he called for his “beloved veterans” to return to Standing Rock, and today, as law enforcement cleared the bridge barricade and the raid began, with an LRAD and MRAP in attendance, he begged for now-absent media to cover what was about to happen. “This is the next four years, you guys,” he said. “We’ve got to be ready.”
The question is who would come, who could come, who had the resources to come—again. Even Dave Archambault, speaking for the tribe, apparently doesn’t publicly support those who’ve ignored his requests to pack up and go home.
The original incarnation of VSFSR fell apart before the event was even over, with many complaints over leadership and finances. I’ll get into some of that in future posts. But its offshoot, Veterans Stand, still has an interest and its members are raising new funds. A spokesman told CNBC a few days ago, “We are committed to the people of Standing Rock, we are committed to nonviolence, and we will do everything within our power to ensure that the environment and human life are respected. That pipeline will not get completed. Not on our watch.” We’ll see.