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Veteran Wesley Clark Jr: Why I Knelt Before Standing Rock Elders and Asked for Forgiveness

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Veteran Wesley Clark Jr: Why I Knelt Before Standing Rock Elders and Asked for Forgiveness
Wesley Clark Jr. during forgiveness ceremony. Photo credit:
Joe Zummo

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!

Wesley Clark Jr. during forgiveness ceremony.Joe Zummo

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.

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.

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 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.

Reposted with permission from our media associate YES! Magazine.

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