Standing Rock’s men at war

By challenging our myths of the West and its warriors, Native men find their voice.


Riders from the Standing Rock, Rosebud and Lower Brule Lakota reservations came together on horseback in August to face off with a police line that had formed between protesters and the entrance to the Dakota Access Pipeline construction site.
Daniella Zalcman

Alone inside a teepee one night, I stoked the embers of a dying fire, my mind searching for a common thread through the moments that had defined my time at the Standing Rock camps. Quietly, a man with military service in his past and American Indian heritage settled onto a nearby chair, and then, as if sensing my thoughts, asked me if I knew how to beat a warrior. I stared at the fire and shook my head. He said, “Come to him in peace.”

With those words, he had captured the quiet war underway on the plains of North Dakota. It was an unannounced battle, waged by some of the men who had traveled to the camp — warriors — publicly and within the spirit, as they confronted the legacy of the American frontier battles and genocides that had cast the mold of the American man and charted the course of the nation.

The most evident sign of such battles occurred two days earlier, on Dec. 5, when Wes Clark Jr. and a dozen other veterans announced themselves as the “conscience of the nation” before a group of Sioux spiritual leaders. Clark, the son and namesake of U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark, the former supreme allied commander of NATO, had donned a hat and jacket, deep blue with gold braid, the uniform of George Custer’s 7th Cavalry, which fought the Sioux in the 19th century. On bended knee, Clark removed his hat and bowed his head before Leonard Crow Dog, a Lakota medicine man. And then he begged for forgiveness for the atrocities committed by the U.S. military and the nation, for the theft of Native American land and children, the desecration of sacred sites and the destruction of Native American languages.

The forgiveness ceremony seemed fitting within the massive and historic opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline, which had been rerouted from the mostly white city of Bismarck, and now threatened the water source and sacred sites of the Standing Rock Sioux. With the pipeline project, American Indian tribes and their supporters reckon with forces much like those that were behind the creation of the modern American West — banks, corporations, the government and troops representing their interests — working in concert to extract and exploit in the name of prosperity.

With those forces came cultural messages about men in the West, messages that seemingly confronted Sonny Ironclad, a 25-year-old member of the Standing Rock Sioux, when he and other young Native American men on horseback rode from camp to a nearby bridge, the front line, where law enforcement constructed a barricade. The police become visibly nervous, he told me. “They think we’re dangerous; we’re just on horses. We don’t have weapons. They have weapons.” Ironclad stroked his mare and chuckled.

In the Western myth, men conquer and exploit. At Standing Rock, men spoke of finding family. “Everybody treated us differently off the reservation,” Ironclad said, greeting new friends walking by. The camp had drawn representatives of 300 American Indian tribes. It had grown with the arrival of whites, African-Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans. “I have found another part of my family I have never known,” he said. In the spirit of a Lakota tradition of Hunka, he embraced tribal members from all over the world as family. And, he said, after his former co-worker, a white man, visited him at the camp, he was no longer just a best friend, he was a brother.

At daybreak, as the sky turned silvery blue, men found a place of prayer in the water ceremony celebrated by women. At the ceremonial fire in the center of camp, women distributed water in small cups, tiny reminders of material life. The crowd then moved through the camp and down to the snow-covered banks of the Cannonball River. We pinched off some tobacco and, one by one, approached the iced-over river with our offerings. Before us, standing shoulder to shoulder, the men lined the rocky, icy stairs, each with his hands outstretched, giving of himself as support, as part of the prayer. The men asked for nothing, not gratitude or even acknowledgment. Some said, “Good morning.” Later, I overheard a man express wonder and joy at supporting women simply by being present. It was not their physical strength that was valued, or their help, but their presence — an act of giving by being. From the river, I climbed the snowy bank, returning to the camp to the sound of “The Star-Spangled Banner” played on a bugle.

With Standing Rock comes a response and another chapter to the 19th century formation of the nation, when the “Indian wars” became symbolic of the United States’ greatness, morally and economically, and of a promised future. In The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, Richard Slotkin writes that Custer’s march into the Great Plains was saddled with the pressing political and social needs of the time. Custer’s “triumph over the savages of the plains would not only end the Indian wars, it would point a stern lesson to the other forces within the Metropolis — disorderly ‘tramps,’ immigrant laborers, recalcitrant blacks about the will and capacity of the republic to punish its enemies and vindicate its moral and political authority.” Custer’s defeat, however, did nothing to diminish the nation’s intent to impose order on the unruly and marginalized.

Standing Rock summoned warriors who detected that legacy in law enforcement’s use of water cannons and attack dogs. “The way they were treating people was horrible,” said 33-year-old Issac Segura, as he gazed from a snowy embankment not far from where the clashes took place. Segura and his friend, Eric Flores, battle brothers from Iraq, had watched the videos of the clashes back in Chicago; both men called the images tragic. Flores organized a team and rounded up supplies, and the men set off for Standing Rock.

As always, there are cowards among men, men who replicate the frontier ideology that produced the pipeline they traveled to oppose. I found one such man at the medic tent, pouring hot tea into his thermos. I asked him where I could find toe warmers, which work better than the foot warmers I packed. He pointed to the door of a yurt, then, as he prepared to leave, added: “You were supposed to bring your own.”

“And who are you?” I retorted. “Someone who brought his own,” the man said, as he walked away with someone else’s tea. In him, I observed his forefathers, men who built their fortunes by seizing the riches of others.

From Standing Rock emerges a redefinition of the warrior. Chris Hardeen, a 27-year-old Navajo and veteran of the Marines, joined the military searching for the road to becoming a warrior. But it had been a false start. He had become a “warrior for the government,” he said. Soon after a deployment, questions rushed at him, and the absence of purpose became clear. He had set aside himself, his identity, to fulfill a false warrior ideal, and was left with a sense of what he described as “longing.”

But through prayer and speaking with elders, he said, he had learned that “it is the true warrior that’s within us that’s starting to come out.” His warrior life is now spiritual, blessed.


Maria Michael, a Lakota elder from San Francisco, left, talks with U.S. Army veteran Tatiana McLee, right, during a forgiveness ceremony at the Prairie Knights Casino and Resort on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in December. The ceremony was held to give veterans an opportunity to atone for centuries of military actions conducted against Native Americans.
Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images

On the day I prepared to leave, inside the enormous Dome at the camp, Candi Brings Plenty, an Oglala Lakota tribal member, urged departing visitors to support the Standing Rock struggle by looking within themselves. She asked visitors to do something that American culture has discouraged since the “Indian wars,” to shift the gaze from the external boundaries to the internal, as a true warrior would. “You get to a place and it’s unknown,” she said. “You can choose to be brave, you can choose the unknown.”

In Standing Rock, I confronted the split image of the world I knew and the one I was taught. In the images of unarmed Sioux men on horseback riding up to the front line, I was reminded of men I have loved and respected, men who measure their worth by serving their communities and families. In them, the warrior becomes life-giver. But in the United States, there is no escaping a shared frontier mythology that brands non-white men as natural-born threats. And that message is embedded in the genetic code of this nation.

Standing Rock represented a challenge to the collective belief, my personal belief, that the code is inalterable. I had come to understand that the peace my friend in the teepee referred to wasn’t the absence of violence. It is the journey, the home that Ironclad mentioned, that Hardeen seeks, the one that Brings Plenty asks us all to take. When Clark apologized to the Sioux, Crow Dog’s response carried the weight and wisdom of this understanding. “Let me say a few words of accepting forgiveness,” he said. “World. Peace.”

Michelle García reports from New York, Mexico and points between. She is working on a narrative nonfiction book about the West, Texas, masculinity and myth. 

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