The months-long demonstrations over the Dakota Access Pipeline reached a new level of violence the week before Thanksgiving.
Even prior to that, deputies shipped in from the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office had swung batons to hit protesters in the head. On an earlier day, protesters had been mauled by attack dogs at the command of security hired by Energy Transfer Partners, the private company building the oil pipeline that runs next to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in western North Dakota.
Video footage of that use of force has been particularly disturbing to veterans trained in the proper use of military equipment. Some 2,000 veterans from all over the country will reinforce protesters at Standing Rock this weekend.
Lucas Bratvold of Bemidji, a former Air Force staff sergeant, has been deployed to the Yokota Air Base in Japan, the Balad Air Base in Iraq, and the Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. On Saturday, he’ll join fellow veterans in Cannon Ball, North Dakota.
Bratvold says when he saw reporter Erin Schrode knocked off her feet by a rubber bullet mid-interview in early November, he was furious.
“That would never apply when I was in the Air Force,” he says. “You can’t shoot somebody in the back when they’re not threatening you, when they’re not even looking at you.”
He believes videos from Standing Rock clearly show police mishandling their weapons by shooting nonlethal rounds at too close a range, or launching tear gas canisters headlong into crowds instead of lobbing them up into the air so the chemicals mist down.
Bratvold hopes that if police and Energy Transfer guards use the same tactics against military veterans, who want to serve as human shields for the Sioux and other Native Americans protesting, the whole country will protest.
“I wanted to serve so a positive light would be shed on other Native Americans, bring honor to our people so that in the future people will realize how much Natives have done for this country, and treat us better,” he says. “So I’m glad we’re going. We have a duty to protect people, because nobody ever released us from that oath.”
Native Americans comprise 1.4 percent of the United States population, but 1.7 percent of the military. Natives serve at a higher rate than any other ethnic group.
The reasons for that are just as typical as Natives’ propensity for environmentalism, says Kyle Hill of Minneapolis, formerly of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians in North Dakota, and the Army National Guard.
Natives are a relational people, he says. They relate to the earth and water, and name their family clans for the wildlife of their ancestral homes. The need to be a part of something bigger than themselves while defending their land makes them particularly amenable to the idea of enlisting in the military.
“The politics behind the pipeline are so strongly rooted in this idea of conservative values and patriotism, and I think the irony is that you then have Native Americans, this community that’s sacrificed and served so proudly for this nation. Teasing apart the thinking of that makes it a really huge moment. Are they gonna shoot rubber bullets at veterans?”
Hill, a psychologist with Johns Hopkins University’s Center for American Indian Health, expects that many veterans converging at Standing Rock will have seen combat, and may suffer from PTSD. He hopes the Morton County Sheriff’s Department gives that some thought.
In any case, Hill says his job will be to look after fellow veterans, as well as other protesters who have faced violence.
Kay Carlson of St. Paul, the ride-sharing coordinator for Minnesotan veterans bound for Standing Rock, will head a roster of about 50 this weekend. Most are non-Native, "white-as-day" military men and women like her, who were disturbed by the escalating crackdowns against protesters.
"At the end of the day, the number one reason why I'm self deploying as a veteran is the simple fact that everybody is getting hurt over DAPL, and only the corporation is gaining," Carlson says. "I've just had it, pretty much. These people, they've been here since the beginning and they've constantly been abused and shat on."
Carlson left high school and enlisted at 17, spending a year in Iraq shuttling people from one camp to another while dodging IEDs. Camping in the extreme cold won't be a problem, she says, nor facing rubber bullets. Veterans in her convoy are going equipped with gas masks, bullet proof vests, hockey shoulder pads, helmets, and homemade riot shields.
"In my dreams, we'll probably just walk up there and they'll start walking away," Carlson says. "But realistically, with their past actions, I think we're gonna probably get shown the worst side of Morton County law enforcement."