Reeling from the latest barrage of globally catastrophic images—my mind gravitates to that startling and necessary image—beamed to us from Standing Rock.
It is the image of a U.S. veteran named Wesley Clark, Jr kneeling down, with veterans of various American combat units standing behind him—offering his formal apology to Lakota Medicine Man Leonard Crow Dog.
Who ever thought we would see this in our life time?
In his fine L.A.Times front page feature, reporter Sandy Tolan describes the veterans’ forgiveness ceremony: “Clark, organizer of Veterans Stand with Standing Rock, noted that some of the veterans had served in the same military units that had fought during the Indian Wars. He wore the blue jacket and hat of the 19th century 7th Cavalry, evoking the 140 year old memory of Gen. George Armstrong Custer. As it happened, he spoke on Custer’s birthday, Dec 5.
‘We stole minerals from your sacred hills. We blasted the faces of our president 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.’
He removed his hat, dark blue with a gold braid, and lowered himself 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.’”
You can’t smell the smoke from the sacred bundle of cedar, sage and sweetgrass while watching this scene on YouTube. But you can intuit the gentle weight of Leonard Crow Dog’s large hand placed on Clark’s head.
Tolan writes, “Someone let out a ululating cry, and fellow Sioux spiritual leaders offered prayers and songs of cleansing and forgiveness. Hardened veterans wept openly…. Then Clark and the other veterans, their faces twisted with emotion, began to embrace their Native American hosts. It was apparent that the former service members received far more in the forgiveness than they gave in supplies and the goodwill they brought with them.”
The veterans’ assembly at Standing Rock is a ‘gesture in the world’ in an age of symbolic gestures. A counter-image to the Morton County sheriffs in riot gear, wielding the infamous water cannons they used against peaceful demonstrators.
In her book, A Human Being Died Last Night, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela—the only psychologist on South Africa’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission- lays out what an apology must contain in order for its words to “perform.” The one who apologizes must name the deed, acknowledge wrongdoing and recognize the pain of the victims. The apology must be unconditional. She points out how the victims hold a particular power in this dynamic: they can give or deny forgiveness. “They hold the key to what the perpetrator so desires — to rejoin the realm of moral humanity.”
These are veterans brave enough to bend on one knee, willing to ask forgiveness of the Sioux, on behalf of our government, on behalf of all U.S. citizens– for all the ways we have harmed them. Those veterans participated in this Ceremony of Forgiveness to rejoin a human realm from which they felt excluded. They did it for themselves. And they did it for all of us.
I write this on the somber eve before tomorrow’s meeting of the Electoral College. Regardless of the petitions we’ve signed, the phone calls we’ve made, the emails we’ve sent, the outrage about the election that we’ve expressed— we’re not likely to stop the juggernaut. We’ll likely see the outcome we’re dreading come to pass.
In the late 19th century, philosopher William James called for “the moral equivalent of war.” He was asking, “How can we get the United States to have a great moral cause, that can unite us to do marvelous things?” As we gird ourselves for the weeks and months ahead, well need these symbolic gestures to guide us as we embark on our own “moral equivalent to war,” as citizen-activists. It may not be exactly what William James had in mind, but in opposition to the ransacking of democratic values by the Trump administration, oh yes, we will be united.
I’ll keep the images from Standing Rock close at hand, deep in my heart: the soldier bending his knee; the old man placing his hand on the young man’s bowed head, the undeniable presence of a terrible history, the unearthly yet human sound of those joyous ululations.