Conflict resolution

Indigenous reconciliation: making peace with the past

Injustices of the past continue to affect people in indigenous communities today. Franki Cookney investigates how Standing Rock has brought efforts towards reconciliation with indigenous groups to the world’s attention

Beds and food were running scarce, a blizzard was approaching and the wind chill factor was minus 40 as thousands of US veterans travelled to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in South Dakota in December last year. They were answering a call to protect their fellow Americans, and ended up taking part in a reconciliation ceremony in which they apologised for a long history of US violence against indigenous people.

Their plan was to give respite to the Native Americans protesting against plans for the Dakota Access pipeline, and to shield indigenous activists from attacks by a militarised police force. Conditions at the camp were becoming more and more difficult when the news came that the pipeline – which protesters say would contaminate their water supply and threaten sacred land – had been halted. With president-elect Trump a month away from being inaugurated, protesters suspected the triumph could be short-lived. Nevertheless, thousands of people were arriving to stand in solidarity. It seemed both a positive moment for the campaign and something of a landmark for indigenous relations across the US.

On 5 December, 2016, the veterans and their Sioux hosts came together in a ceremony of reconciliation. Led by Wes Clark Junior, former army lieutenant and son of general Wesley Clark, who was himself a former supreme allied commander of NATO, the veterans dropped to their knees, heads bowed, and asked the tribal elders for forgiveness. Clark candidly listed the wrongs inflicted on the Native Americans.

Veterans listen to Ivan Looking Horse during a healing ceremony at Standing Rock. Credit: Stephanie Keith/Reuters

“We didn’t respect you, we polluted your earth, we’ve hurt you in so many ways but we’ve come to say that we are sorry. We are at your service and we beg for your forgiveness,” he said. The ceremony was an ad hoc affair, recalls veteran Kevin Basl, but none the less poignant for it.

“The Sioux passed around eagle feathers and said we were now tied to the land and obligated to protect it,” he says.

Basl was a radar commander in the US army between 2003 and 2008, during which time he served two tours in Iraq. He is now a writer and member of the Iraq Veterans Against the War group. He went to Standing Rock because, after leaving the army, he felt very disillusioned about his time there. Having joined up to ‘do good’, he didn’t feel he had been able to. Of his time at Standing Rock he says: “There, instead of helping military contractors make money, I felt like I was finally serving the people.”

He says the ceremony was fairly spontaneous. “I heard about it through word of mouth on the camp. I didn’t know whether to believe it but we followed our instincts and went along anyway. I was exhausted, but the emotional weight and significance of the event kept me riveted. The Native Americans receiving the apology made rounds to hug every veteran.”

Maria Michael, a Lakota leader, embraces US army veteran Tatiana McLee. Credit: Helen H. Richardson/Getty Images

But was the ceremony a token gesture, or a real step forward for peace, forgiveness and reconciliation?

Writer and artist Pat McCabe is a Navajo, or Diné, activist from New Mexico, US. She believes the events at Standing Rock represent a moment of genuine progress. “The veterans’ apology brought up so much emotion. It was a clear example of stepping outside the usual way of seeing things,” she says.

“Alongside that, the way that [US TV host] Lawrence O’Donnell started to comment on Standing Rock in news reports was very moving. He discussed US history in a way that a Native person could…