When I joined the Marines 40 years ago, I took a vow to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” That’s why I drove from the suburbs of Minneapolis to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation this weekend to join other military veterans in protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.
For the past few months, I have watched from afar as para-militarized police forces from nine states have targeted peaceful protesters at Standing Rock with tear gas, freezing water, rubber bullets, concussion grenades, and other life-threatening crowd control weapons.
The Standing Rock Sioux understandably don’t want an oil pipeline so close to the source of their drinking water and don’t want it to cross through their sacred ancestral lands. They and their supporters have every right to protest this, and the way they were treated really bothered me. It really looked to me like the government of North Dakota felt like they could do whatever they wanted because these people are Native Americans, and I don’t approve of that.
So when I heard that military veterans were planning to go to Standing Rock to join the protesters at their camp this weekend, I went to my local thrift shop to stock up on winter gear, packed up my pick-up truck, and drove west.
At the thrift store, the cashier told me I wasn’t the only one who had come in last week in search of winter gear for Standing Rock. A customer had come in just a couple of hours earlier to do the same. And she herself was planning to go to Standing Rock for the weekend.
I left early Saturday morning and drove to Eagle Butte, South Dakota, about an hour and a half south of Standing Rock where the Cheyenne Sioux had created a rally point and provided protesters with warm places to sleep and eat hot food. There were about 500 vets there, from all over the country — California, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Tennessee and West Virginia — and from all walks of life. There were men, women, farmers, students, IT professionals, and preachers, some young, some old. There was even a 97-year-old woman who served as a nurse in World War II.
The Sioux served us buffalo stew, and the tribal elders briefed us on the weather and what to expect when we got there. There were vets from Florida and Georgia who weren’t used to the cold, and at Standing Rock, the temperature at this time of year can be below zero. They explained where we could find shelter from the cold and that there would be a medic tent and first aid station (also staffed by vets) should anyone be injured by rubber bullets, concussion grenades, or tear gas. And they reiterated the importance of keeping the protest peaceful and suggested that if we were to get agitated, we could partake of a tribal remedy and chew on a piece of bitter root, which the Sioux believe can relieve high blood pressure and other ailments.
The elders said that there were some 11,000 protesters at the camp and urged us to leave our cars at Eagle Butte and take one of the many buses to the Standing Rock encampment. As we slept on cots, buses came and went all night. I got up at 5 a.m. and headed out to Standing Rock around 7:30. I arrived just before midday. The Sioux thanked us for coming, assigned us to tents, and directed us to set up not at the main entrance to the camp but at an unguarded area from which the camp was still accessible. There were rumors that agitators had been sent into the camp to disrupt the peaceful protest, and the tribe thought we vets would be a good deterrent.
We built a fire, kept lookout along the camp perimeter, and helped the Sioux build additional shelters for protesters. And then something amazing started happening. The police started backing down. In the face of such an impressive veteran presence, law enforcement vehicles began leaving. Then, a little after 4 p.m., an announcement came over the speakers. The Department of the Army halted the project.
Celebratory whooping erupted from within the camp. Tribal members paraded through the camp on horseback, beating drums and gathering around a fire at the center of the camp. The tribe began singing — but it wasn’t like a party. It was spiritual. A Native American vet explained that the tribe was thanking the great spirit. People lined up along the main avenue — we called it Flag Avenue — and linked arms.
While my fellow vets and I were happy, we were still nervous. There are still a lot of uncertainties surrounding the Army’s decision. There were rumors that the Dakota Pipeline might attempt to drill on Monday anyway and just pay any fines that might be levied against them. Some of us wondered if maybe the Department of the Army and the Dakota Pipeline struck a deal with the incoming Trump administration. Maybe they wanted to trick us into leaving so that they could go ahead building the pipeline.
Initially, I thought I would stay for a few more days, but it soon became clear that we weren’t needed in such massive numbers. I’m 59, and at Standing Rock I met a new generation of vets, strong young men and women who assured me that it was time to pass the torch. I decided to head home, but many of the younger vets stayed behind. I felt comfortable leaving the protest in their hands, but I will be back — and so will many others — if we are needed.
Tom Petersen is retired air traffic controller from Minneapolis. He served in the Marines from 1976 – 1980.