Colson: A national apology at Standing Rock, only a century or two late
It wasn’t anything like the Battle of the Greasy Grass in 1876, but earlier this month a couple of Sioux Nation tribes, backed by a symbolic army of their fellow Native Americans and sympathetic whites, once again proved that persistence has its rewards.
Following centuries of propaganda proclaiming that our (meaning European invaders) takeover of the lands, now known as the United States of America, was our right as granted by our Christian god, a group of U.S. military veterans have acknowledged that it was not our right at all, but was a heinous thing for which they apologized on bended knee.
The Sioux leaders acknowledged the apology and forgave the soldiers for the deeds of their ancestors, although I’m sure they would have rather heard those same words from the lips of the Great Father in Washington, D.C. (as they once called the president).
Oh, right, some may not recognize that name, Battle of the Greasy Grass, as referring to the fight between the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry (the hapless bunch of soldiers led by Gen. George Armstrong Custer) and tribes of the Cheyenne, Arapaho and Lakota Sioux Indian nations.
That’s what the tribes themselves call the fight, which also is known as the Battle of the Little Big Horn and Custer’s Last Stand, although more than 250 white men besides the general perished there.
Anyway, the 1876 fight was a bloody affair, in which the arrogant and apparently somewhat dumb Custer led his troops into an area in central Montana and got them all killed by a combined army of red men from different native nations.
The more recent confrontation between the tribes and the U.S. government, of course, happened in the area around the Standing Rock reservation at the boundary of North and South Dakota. There, just this month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it would not grant a permit to an energy corporation to run an oil pipeline under Missouri River reservoir adjacent to Sioux lands. At least, the permit is on hold for now, though the future remains anything but certain for the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes whose water comes from the Missouri River.
The entire and very complicated story behind the Standing Rock protests and the Corps’ decision can be found just about everywhere on the internet, and I’m not about to get into all that here and now.
Instead, I want to focus on the low-key but emotionally and culturally explosive moment between Sioux spiritual leaders and representatives of the Sioux tribe’s implacable historical foe, the U.S. Army.
Leading the band of soldiers — made up of men and women of different creeds and races — was Wes Clark Jr., whose father once was the Supreme Commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) and a candidate for the presidency of the U.S.
The younger Clark, according to a profile posted on Wikipedia, is a screenwriter and “activist” who on Dec. 5 told the online publication Salon that he and his father are “diametrically opposed” in their views of what has been happening at Standing Rock.
He also said that, though he enlisted in the military after college, he is now adamantly opposed to this country’s knee-jerk habit of military response to all sorts of incidents around the globe.
Plus, he told Salon, he believes our country has only a short time to reverse its depletion of natural resources here and around the world and forestall a global environmental catastrophe that could mean the end of humanity as we have known it.
It was on the morning of Dec. 5, which had been advertised as the day that the Corps wanted protesters to clear out of the Oceti Sakowin camp. That camp had become the focus of the overall protest involving thousands, including a couple thousand military veterans who had arrived in support of the Standing Rock “water protectors” trying to stave off pollution of their drinking water and desecration of Sioux sacred sites by the drilling company.
According to news stories about the meeting, roughly a dozen veterans stood before several spiritual leaders of the Sioux nation and apologized for everything the U.S. military had done to harm the Native American population over the centuries.
Interestingly, the meeting took place on Custer’s 177th birthday, and a little more than five months after the 140th anniversary of the battle where Custer met his end on June 25, 1876.
“We came. We fought you. We took your land. We signed treaties that we broke,” said Clark, organizer of Veterans Stand with Standing Rock, after noting that some of the veterans present had served in the same military units that had fought during the Indian Wars. At the time, Clark was wearing the same uniform that had been worn by the 7th Cavalry at Little Big Horn.
“We stole minerals from your sacred hills,” Clark continued, according to published reports. “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. … We didn’t respect you. We polluted your earth; we’ve hurt you in so many ways.”
Then Clark reportedly took off his hat, dark blue with gold braid, and lowered to one knee, as did the veterans behind him.
“We’ve come to say that we are sorry,” he said, bowing his head. “We are at your service, and we beg for your forgiveness.”
To watch it on video is a highly emotional experience. I can only imagine what it was like to be there and witnessing, first-hand, this historic gathering of once-sworn enemies.
It is encouraging to think that this gathering marked the end of the struggle by the tribes to keep the energy industry from polluting their drinking water and further desecrating their sacred sites.
Unfortunately for all of us, such may not be the case, as our nation continues its pell-mell onslaught against the natural environment, against people of color everywhere and against its own interests.
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The COVID-19 pandemic has caused untold amounts of suffering and disruption, and we’ll probably tell those stories for the rest of our lives.