Rethinking Our Takes on Memorial Day: Hecel Lena Oyate Ki Nipi Kte

I’m very grateful for some of my friends today as I glance through social media. Too often, on holidays connected to military service, my Facebook and Twitter feeds are full of either all out celebration of service or anti-military angst. I understand both, but appreciate neither. To celebrate without also questioning what we’ve done to those who’ve served, or what they were commanded to do in our names, is unacceptable. But I am likewise averse to simply writing these days off with condemnation. To do so overlooks the complexities of surviving the oppressions of this society, and it erases a hard reality – that there are times when being of this society turns us all into something that we probably shouldn’t be.

With the consequences of military service in a time of perpetual war being so severe, I understand why people are protective of those who serve and those who have died. It is in our nature to defend and justify the actions of those we love and respect, and it is in our nature to assign meaning to loss. We want to believe in people and we want to believe that bad things happen for a reason. So, as a country, we tie ribbons around tragedies, and build heroes out the wreckage of the harm we cause. We throw confetti, and never address what warfare really looks like – the inhumanity it produces amongst our young, the rapes, the torture, the indiscriminant transformation of life to rubble, the ongoing tradition of decimating people of color for the sake of financial resources.

I don’t respect why we gloss over any of it, but I understand why it happens.

The other side is a bit harder for me to process, honestly. It’s always hard for me to process the vilification of the oppressed, and many, many people who enlist in the military are coming from a very oppressed place. Indigenous people in the United States, for example, are not only the most likely to be killed by law enforcement, and the most likely to commit suicide at a young age, but also the most likely to enlist in the military. The reasons why are both simple and complicated. Our reservations are not havens of opportunity. Just as the military vacuums up young people in depressed urban areas, it also sweeps up our Indigenous children. But there is, of course, more to our rate of enlistment than a lack of opportunity, because in truth, Indigenous people have a long history of rising to the fight. Standing up and offering to march into the fray is part of who we are, and that willingness is deeply embedded in many of our cultures.

Officials have said that if all races had enlisted during WWII at the same rate as the Indigenous, there would have been no draft. Think about that for a moment. Think about what was done to our people, and what they were still willing to give, and all that we might learn from examining the reasons why.

I remember being told, when I was younger that Indigenous men who returned from wars they fought in on behalf of the United States were often greeted with the same songs and celebrations that had greeted our Indigenous warriors when they were fighting on behalf of their own nations. Some of the women who were builders of community questioned this. The Lakota had long chanted “Hecel lena oyate ki nipi kte” for their departing warriors – it was a rallying cry reminding all that danger is faced, risks are taken, and lives are lost “so that the people may live.”

So that our people may live.

Obviously, there is a disconnect between those words and what it means to send people of color who have been starved of hope and opportunity to a foreign land to kill other people of color for the sake of the empire and its alliances. Women who recognized that disconnect wanted to reclaim those words for their attempts to heal their communities, both physically and spiritually, and they have. These words are now deeply connected to community efforts to treat the afflictions that literally take our lives. In a world built on your destruction and disposability, resilience is resistance.

As we challenge the narrative of days that elevate military service, we should remember those women and their work. I appreciate that some people post more thoughtfully than others, and I think challenging people to support our troops by refusing to send them into another pointless war is definitely a cut above most online discourse about days like today. But it’s not enough. We must be the builders of a different culture. We must address the lack of opportunity, the hopelessness, and the search for purpose and meaning experienced by those who are brutalized from birth in this country. We must address the humanity of those who are weaponized if we ever hope to dismantle the machine. We must do the difficult work of understanding one another, and seeing both the good and the harm that feed into the tragedy of so many oppressed people enlisting to violently serve the oppressor.

I realize these thoughts won’t be popular with everyone. I myself have a father I greatly respect – a proud Indigenous man who enlisted to serve in Vietnam. I do not think poorly of him, and I respect a number of the values that led him to that decision, but I want a world where men and women like him don’t serve this government. To get there, we need to understand why people make these decisions, and we need to re-center our conversations around the places that those harms begin. We need to remember that these are our people, regardless of what we think of these horrible wars.

We need to remember one another’s humanity.

Today, my heart goes out to everyone who sought opportunity, shelter, or purpose in a machine that was only meant to grind people like themselves under. If you have been trained to love and respect that mechanism, I love you no less for that. I understand that it is built to ensure that you are broken and rebuilt into a person who will pledge allegiance unfailingly, and I consider that a great harm and am sorry you experienced it, even if you are not. And if you did things, in the service of that mechanism, things that you struggle with or that haunt you, know that we all survive harm and cause harm, and are scarred by both. We overcome the recreation of those harms in other areas of our lives by coming to grips with the reasons these things happened, and addressing causation at the root. You can do this, if you choose to. You have a home amongst those who are challenging these structures, should you want it. Organizations like Veterans for Peace welcome those who are struggling with these issues, but so do people like me, who are simply building in community, around issues we care about, and learning to live with our own scars.

I too have harmed. I too have survived. And I am constantly learning and relearning not to re-weaponize the tools of survival that applied in some spaces, but that have no place in the life I want to live or the world I want to build. Please know that the places you’ve been, and the things that you have done and seen, are not the totality of who you are. There are other paths, and they are open to you, if you want them.

To everyone else, let’s build better. So that our people may live.

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