“I prefer someone who burns the flag and then wraps themselves up in the Constitution over someone who burns the Constitution and then wraps themselves up in the flag.” ― Molly Ivins
I am on my way to Standing Rock, North Dakota. I wrote this in the days leading up to the "deployment" by a couple thousand veterans to the area to help protect the water and help protect the water protectors. I wanted to share my thoughts about why I went.
First. It wasn't an easy decision. I had heard about the event a few weeks before deciding to sign up, but thought that perhaps it wasn't for me. I had already been to the area a couple of times.
The first time I went was in August with my Dad. We had been talking about the events out there at breakfast as I was visiting one weekend. He wanted to go and help. I said I kinda wanted to do the same. By lunch we were on the road to North Dakota from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, because that's how our family rolls. Adventure? Let's go! Pre-planning? Not a requirement for adventure! We got out there and Dad bought about a thousand dollars worth of gear that the Red Warrior Camp had on their "wish list". We drove it back from the Bismarck/Mandan area on an alternate route, as the local Morton County Sheriff had set up a military grade roadblock about twenty miles north of the protest site. We had passed through the blockade as we went north, and the officers there told us that if we were bringing supplies back to camp, we'd have to reroute an extra twenty miles out of the way, ostensibly for the protection of the water protectors. Apparently drivers in the area didn't know how to slow down when they saw something in the road, like say, a protestor. Anyway, our first visit out there surprised us, because we had never seen such blatant disregard for rights as we saw from Morton County that day. What we weren't surprised by was the openness and generosity we were greeted with at the camp. Contrary to what the "authorities" we're saying, I felt safe and welcomed as I walked around the camp. I talked with many people, even interviewed some with my IPad, and was never once given a stern look or a harsh word. In fact, the only thing I was given was fry bread to take back and share with Dad.
We witnessed the formation of the Oceti Sakowin camp. It was the first time the seven tribes of the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota people's had gathered since the Battle of the Greasy Grass, known to US history as the Battle of Little Bighorn. We listened to speakers tell about that history, and this history that was being made. We heard time and time again that everyone gathered was there to participate in peaceful, non-violent direct action. Several days before our arrival, water protectors had fastened themselves to construction machines to slow the progress of the pipeline. To be honest, we were pretty much tourists that time. The camp only numbered a few hundred. There were wide open spaces between campsites, and we weren't entirely sure what to do to help, so we just tried to keep out of the way. It was a remarkable experience though, and we made some friends and had a good time. When we left, all of the supplies that we had donated had been passed out to the people staying, and we wished we could do more. A couple of days after we left, the protectors were attacked by DAPL security guards using poorly trained attack dogs.
Dad was going to come on the second trip in October, but he was under the weather, and didn't think it a good idea to go spread a cold around the camp. So I went alone, armed with a van full of donations from many people, and a contact at the camp now called Oceti Sakowin. Red Warrior camp is still there, and is comprised of tribes other than the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota. This proved to be a VERY different experience. It was still wonderful, but the camp had grown to over a thousand people. It was more organized than before, with different tents set up for communications and non-violent direct action (NVDA) training. There were more kitchens set up to feed whoever was in their area. Security was tighter and more organized as well. I was meeting up with the Oglala band of Lakota's, as I have gotten to know more and more Oglala's in my trips to Pine Ridge. After unloading the supplies I had brought, I talked with my new friends about what needs were topping the list as winter was approaching. The camp had received a shipment of logs, but there was a lack of chainsaws to make it into firewood. Dad stepped up again when I told him about it, and soon I was on my way to Bismarck with another guy to get a load of wood from the city landfill, and buy a chainsaw for the Oglala camp.
On that trip, I also dug post holes for the expansion of the Oglala Kitchen, which was serving more and more camp members as the days went by. I was much less tourist, and much more support worker. It was cold, but not uncomfortably so, and the times we weren't working were spent talking and laughing. My friend Joe scored a hotel room on my last night there, and since he knew I had been sleeping in the van, he offered the tipi he was staying in for lodging for me that night. I readily accepted, and spent my first night ever in a tipi. I'll admit, I was pretty geeked about it. Even though it's essentially a tent surrounding a campfire, it was still a unique experience for me. All of the romanticized stories from childhood about the plains Indians came back to me, and I sent a quick prayer to the 12 year of me that had always dreamed of doing this.
Songs were sung in native languages accompanied by handheld drums. Although I couldn't understand most of the words, the meanings were still pretty clear. Prayer songs. Thanks giving songs. Songs about history, and songs of the history being made. I fell asleep to a rising moon and shouts of "Water is Life!" And "Mni Wiconi!" Echoing across the camp. Shortly after I left that time, the "authorities" moved two big military trucks up to block the road to the protest site. There was another clash, the vehicles were burned. Many arrested and hurt by the police.
When I got back from the second trip, I figured my time out there was done. I had been there to sight-see and experience and learn for myself. Then I had been there to work and support. Our budget was shot. My wife, Saint that she is, was still on board with me fundraising from home to get hotel rooms for those in need as winter set in. But I think we both figured that I'd stay home now. It's a native led movement, and my money would be better spent supporting from home. After the disastrous embarassment that was our Presidential Election, I was certain that Standing Rock was not a place I'd go again for a long time. It took a few days for me to get over the disgust I felt at having a man like that as the leader of my country. Too much of what he stands for goes against everything I believe is good about the USA. I have serious misgivings about the direction the country will take, but I'll save those for another post. Suffice to say, my hope for this country sagged to the lowest it has ever been in my life.
I had heard rumors about veterans gathering at Standing Rock, but had no thoughts about joining it, as I had already been there. I went to a march in Winona MN. It was well organized. We marched with our signs. We chanted the slogans of the #noDAPL movement. We were mostly well received, only being flipped the bird a few times. That day there were similar marches held in over three hundred other cities and towns across the country to show our solidarity with Standing Rock.
As I drove home that night I thought to myself, that's it. That's all I can do for Standing Rock right now. It's time to focus on what to do about the next four years.
Then one night, some of the water protectors crossed a bridge where the burned vehicles were to clear the road. They had moved one of the trucks when they were met with police in riot gear and attacked. Since my second visit, DAPL had constructed a drill pad to drill under the river, and surrounded it with huge hesco barriers and razor wire. It looked like a little fort sitting out by the river. After the burned truck incident, the "authorities" moved the second truck and set up a concrete barricade across the road and ditches, and covered it with razor wire as well. This was done just past a river crossing called Backwater Bridge, so now, upon crossing said bridge, one is met with a concrete road barrier corral topped with military razor wire. Well, the next night the protectors went up to the barricade to pray. This time they were attacked by water hoses in sub freezing temperatures, 40mm rubber bullets, tear gas, and flash bangs. Many, many people were injured, and one woman had her arm nearly blown off by a tear gas grenade that had been modified to explode rather than just release the gas contained within. I was sickened while I watched it happening live. I felt helpless and angry. I couldn't believe anyone would have authorized using fire hoses on people in freezing conditions.
To my utter astonishment and disbelief, I watched as the "authorities" held press conferences to justify their actions that night. I listened to how they felt threatened by the "protestors" as they chanted and pounded drums, or verbally assaulted the officers on the other side of the barricade. Apparently someone also threw a rock. So they felt justified hosing people down and shooting them with rubber bullets. Gassing them, and even laughing and praising each other on making "good shots" with their 40mm guns.
Since the election, there has been an undeniable upsurge in what can only be described as hate crimes against non-white, non-Christian citizens in this country. I am not the first to point out the similarities between pre-WWII Germany and where our country is right now. I keep hearing people say "But he doesn't want to kill millions of Jews or anything! Just give him a chance!" Well, I gave him a chance. He is building his administration to include neo-nazi's and climate change deniers. Public education opponents in charge of the Education department. Oppressive, violent cops in charge of Homeland Security. It's a very dangerous threat that people are not taking seriously.
And then I thought about history.
Our country was built on the genocide of the native population. The whitewashed version of history that we grew up learning includes valiant Cowboys and soldiers taming the frontier and destroying the savage Indians. In reality, WE were the invaders. THEY were defending their homes, their cultures, their way of life. We justified it by saying that since they weren't Christians, it was ok to kill them and move them. The tribes farther east are all but extinct today. Languages and cultures gone forever.
Then I thought about history again.
The 12 year old in me that read about the plains wars. Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. Red Cloud, Gall, and Custer. I grew up learning in school that what the Indians did was bad, because all we wanted was to expand the country and live in peace. There was never a native voice in opposition to that narrative.
We weren't told the stories of how scheming white men went and met with the leaders of the tribes in Fort Laramie and agreed to let the Sioux have a "Great Sioux Nation" of their own, as long as we could bypass it safely to get to the gold fields of California.
There was never a chapter about how Red Cloud actually defeated the US and closed several forts along the Bozeman trail. Or how he forced another treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868 outlining where white people could and could not be pertaining to their nation.
We were told that the Constitution of the United States was this amazing document, spelling out the course our country would take and enshrining our highest laws and ideals, but we never went too in depth into it.
If we had, perhaps there would be more people familiar with Article Six, Clause Two, which states that "This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding. "
All treaties made...shall be the supreme law of the land. That judges would be bound by the Constitution to obey those treaties, regardless of other laws that states may put in place.
If we had studied the treaties a bit more closely, perhaps we would have seen that the land that DAPL has been burying pipeline in actually belongs to the Great Sioux Nation according to the Ft. Laramie Treaty of 1851.
If we had been a bit more honest about our own history, perhaps we would have pointed out that the Great Sioux Nation was whittled down by deceit, trickery, theft, and the mindset that "White and Might make Right". So much so as to lead to the reservation boundaries of today. Boundaries that have been in place so long that our short term collective memory conveniently forgets that we completely broke the treaties we signed with the Sioux a hundred and fifty or sixty years back. It is the very same people claiming to want a Constitutionally based government that are looking the other way and whistling happy tunes when the treaties are brought up.
"Well...it's been that way for so long, what could we possibly do about it now?"
"We HAD to take control of those lands because, FLOOD CONTROL!"
"Nobody seemed to mind at the time."
I awoke one morning the day before Thanksgiving with a sick feeling in my stomach. I had seen the call for Veterans for Standing Rock on my Facebook feed. At the time, there were about five hundred signed up. I took an oath when I joined the Marines. I swore to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, from all enemies, foreign and domestic. I swore an oath, that so help me God, I would do what it took to defend that document and the people it serves. At the time I joined, that meant going to fight Iraqi's overseas. Even though the war ended before I was dropped to my unit, I still stood by that oath. I was ready to go wherever they sent me. To fight and kill and maybe die for the Constitution and the people it serves. And on this morning I realized, the threat to the Constitution is happening right now. In North Dakota. In the policies and actions of the incoming administration. In the eyes of his supporters that are claiming America for whites and Christians and straight people and men.
This is the threat to our Constitution. Threats made to the 1st Amendment. The 5th Amendment. The 8th Amendment. The threat of overlooking articles for convenience. The threat that the "authorities" can pick and choose which parts best serve them, and which ones they can ignore.
In North Dakota, right now, the "authorities" have declared a "State of Emergency" so that they can deny freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement on public lands. The Corps of Engineers has assumed jurisdiction over lands that BY TREATY belong to the Sioux. The state government has made declarations to make sure they won't be accountable for accidents, injuries or deaths on those lands, and that make it "legal" for them to deny services such as police, fire and EMS to the people there.
And I think of history again. When the tribes were scattered all across the plains in the midst of a hard winter. When they were given notice by the US Government that all Indians had to go to the reservations or be considered hostile. They were given a date to report to the reservations that guaranteed they wouldn't make it in time. Some of the tribes didn't even get the message delivered until after the date had passed. So they were hunted, killed and herded like animals, because the "authorities" gave themselves permission to do so.
Apparently our current leaders didn't learn from history, because we are repeating it. The "authorities" are doing whatever they can to give themselves permission to ensure the completion of the pipeline. There have been lawsuits. There have been clashes. There have been locals pissed off about "outside agitators" saying that they should go away and leave North Dakota business to North Dakotans. You know what? When a group wants to exclude outsiders from getting involved, it's usually because there's a reason for outsiders to get involved. They don't want outsiders to see them forcing another treaty violation on the Standing Rock tribe. They don't want the hassle of acknowledging the long tradition of taking whatever they want from the Indians while flying under the radar of public opinion.
But what it comes down to is actually quite clear. Our Constitution says that the treaties we make with other nations are the supreme law of the land. The Treaty of 1851 says that DAPL is building on land belonging to the Great Sioux Nation.
I think of history again.
If I had been alive and in a position to do something about the massacre at Sand Creek, would I have done anything? If I had been at Wounded Knee, what would I have done? If I had been able to see what the unscrupulous politicians were doing when they broke treaties for convenience, would I have spoken up?
Part of the trick about thinking about history is putting yourself in their shoes. Wondering how and what could have been done to create a different outcome. We learn lessons from history.
If you're the captain of a passenger liner ship and someone says there are icebergs ahead, perhaps it would be in everyones best interests if you slowed the ship down.
If you create safer working environments, fewer employees will be killed in accidents.
If a state governor, a local sheriff, and an Army officer are doing everything in their power to silence an already marginalized people, and deprive them of basic human needs in order to force their capitulation, then you stand against that.
This thing has been played out in books and movies for generations. Greedy governor invested in oil pushes natives off their land for profit. Small town Sheriff with YUGE ego and power tripping sets his deputies off to harass and abuse the locals standing up for what's right. Army breaking treaty and imposing its will on Indians because it has might on its side. Rebels vs. the Empire. Na'vi against corporate greed. Just about every episode of 'The A-Team'.
Only this is happening IN REAL LIFE!!!
I woke up that morning and the Marine in me woke at the same time. The one that took the oath. The one that believes in the potential for good this country has. The one who acknowledges the historically crappy things we've done, and wants to rectify those mistakes and move forward into a better future for ALL Americans. The Marine in me woke up and said, "This is history happening. This is all of those historical atrocities you've read about and been angry about. This is an event happening RIGHT NOW that people not yet born will look back on and say 'If I were there, I would have ...'. This is a domestic threat to YOUR Constitution. WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?"
And I felt sick. Because I knew that I had to go with the veterans to Standing Rock. I am well aware that I am past my prime physically as a Marine. I'm also signed up to be a medic, and it's been awhile since I've run a call. I don't want to spend long hours in bitterly cold weather. I certainly don't want to do that under threat of getting hosed down, or tear gassed, or shot by anything. I don't want to work another traumatic injury and deal wth the blood and smells and sights.
I want to stay in my comfy chair in my warm house. I want to make some of Karen's hot chocolate with the clean water we have on tap. I want to keep posting and writing about how I Stand with Standing Rock, and how and why others should as well. I want to kiss my kids each morning before school and tuck them in at night. I want to cuddle with my beautiful wife in our snug, cozy, king sized bed. All of these things are why I got out of the Marine Corps in the first place. I loved my time in, but it was time to move on and let others answer the call.
But there's nobody to call in this case. 911 gets you to the Morton County Sheriff, who has already determined that you aren't worth helping if you're going to interfere with his pipeline. Going up the chain of command gets you a governor in bed with the oil company, Senators more concerned about keeping their seat than doing what's right. A current president who wants to "let things play out", and an incoming president who is invested in the very things destroying the planet.
As I write this, a few days before deploying in my own country, I am feeling a bit hopeless. Even if a couple thousand vets shut down construction for awhile, there's every reason to believe the pipeline will eventually get finished. Chances of winning this battle are slim.
But the war is just. The fight for a better future for my kids and my grandkids is imperative. I don't want to go. I would have rather spent the money I just used buying a gas mask and body armor and trauma supplies and extreme cold weather gear on a trip to Disney World,or a new drone, or a TV to replace the one that broke last month. I'd rather my wife not have to worry about our budget, or the possibility of me being arrested, injured or killed. I'd rather see all of my Standing Rock friends on a beach in Hawaii where we could just chill and relax. I don't WANT to go.
But I MUST go. I swore an oath that did not expire when my contract was up. I trained both as a Marine and as a medic so that I could SERVE those in need. To stand up for those that couldn't. To stand against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
Well. The "authorities" only have authority given by We the People. It is my duty as a citizen, as a medic, and as a Marine to stand up against that "authority" when it chooses corporate interests over the interests of the citizens. I do not accept or acknowledge their authority to put themselves above the law and deny rights to the people of this country. It is my duty to do what I can, how I can, to the best of my ability, to put a stop to abuse of power. It is the duty of every American to want to make right what is wrong. Even when those wrongs are uncomfortable and hard to face. Otherwise this country will not stand. It won't be worth fighting for.
We cannot continue to proclaim ourselves a Land of the Free if we take the freedoms of some.
We cannot continue to call ourselves the Home of the Brave if we can't find the courage to stand up for what is right.
We cannot continue to believe in a land with liberty and justice for all when our leaders give themselves permission to take liberty and deny freedom to the citizens.
We cannot pick and choose what parts of our founding documents we want to adhere to and still claim any moral or ethical values.
So...yeah. I'm going to Standing Rock with the other vets. Because we took an oath to protect something bigger than ourselves. Bigger than the flag. Bigger than the political parties. Bigger than any one citizen, from the President on down.
I am putting my money and my body where my mouth is. I am, as I was when I was a young, tough Marine, praying for peace, but prepared for war.
I'm going because it is the right thing to do, even though it is the hard thing to do.
If not me...who?
If not now...when?