For Memorial Day this year, my children traveled to South Dakota. The Badlands and Black Hills are not particularly festive “Memorial Day” places to visit. Mount Rushmore is "patriotic", and in its' creation, the makers desecrated Sacred Lakota land. I didn’t tell my folks not to bring the kids there, but I prepared them for the visit, nonetheless, because for me, getting up close and personal with the history is important. They know the story of the Sacred Land, the treaties, the gold miners, the dishonor of the treaties, the conflicts and wars and the desecration of the land.
I ordered a bunch of books from the library, but most of them came too late for us to study about the Native history of the South Dakota, but it’s never too late to learn history, so we will study when they get home.
As I’ve been reflecting on the history and meaning of this holiday, I think about honoring all those who gave their life for this country. It does not have to be limited to military personnel, because there are so many people who were killed for this country, the United States of America, the stolen lands called Turtle Island by Native and Indigenous tribes.
The history of this holiday includes honoring both Confederate and Union soldiers. As times change, so too, do holidays. And now Memorial Day is a day that we, in theory, honor those fallen for this country.
But how many of us bring flowers to cemeteries? How many of us speak the names of our ancestors, friends who have fallen for this country? To me, this holiday is about marking the beginning of summer, and that’s what it’s been my whole life.
If you agree with me that one thing that country needs is a culture shift, then how can we reclaim this holiday to give renewed life and meaning to it? To honor the integrity and diversity of what it means to “die for one’s country”.
We cannot do this without acknowledging the ways military personnel serve and have served. In our country, the draft has been a contentious issue for a few decades. Before the Cold War, men signed up readily or were drafted into service. Certainly some of them served with resentment and regret, with hearts heavy about the work they were asked to do. In Cold War things changed. With media expansion and so much privilege, with the questionable ethics about entering a war as an aggressor rather than defense, with education flourishing, men did not want to fight that war. How many of those men died fighting a war that they didn’t believe in? How many man died feeling the shame of the atrocities they were part of? We honor them all.
Times have changed again. We have not needed a draft for these endless wars in the middle east because we have what I call an economic draft. Military spending has skyrocketed; the oligarchy (aka. politicians) are offering people who are underclass, many of them Black and Hispanic, a pathway to education and “success”. “In the same year, blacks made up 17% of the DOD active-duty military – somewhat higher than their share of the U.S. population ages 18 to 44 (13%). Blacks have consistently been represented in greater shares among enlisted personnel (19% in 2015) than among the commissioned officers (9%).” From pewresearch.org. Today I honor that the choice to not serve has become a privilege for some, while for others risking their lives for their country is an economic decision, a way to become more liberated from the chains of oppression. This is wrong, but I honor those who fell while in service in this way.
In addition to service men and women, I honor the Native and Indigenous people who have given their lives to protect this Sacred Land, their homeland. I honor all those men and women who risked their lives to protect their lands at Little Bighorn, at Wounded Knee, and at Standing Rock. While nobody gave their life at Standing Rock, many of us were wondering, when it will happen. And a man was killed at another pipeline for working to protect the land. I honor Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, who died in service to this land, on which our country is built.
I also honor people who died working for justice, a core value of this country, which has been replaced with false justice for the white, the rich and the mighty. I honor Martin Luther King, Jr., John W Stevens, Harvey Milk, and Anna Mae Aquash.
I honor journalists who were murdered in their service of country, in service of truth, another value under attack.
I honor slaves who died building this country against their will.
The list could go on and on. There are so many people who have died for this country who can be honored and remembered on Memorial Day.
A very powerful way for me to resist is to reclaim. To reclaim words, to reclaim values, to reclaim integrity. It’s time to reclaim our collective story. In school we are taught so many lies about war. We were taught that we entered WWII to save the jews - Wrong!. We are taught so many incomplete truths about our history; our White-Washed telling of the story of South Dakota.
It’s time to let go of the shame, hiding behind lies and incomplete truths is serving nobody. We are not protecting our dead with lies. They need no protection. Nobody who died for this country deserves shame, no matter how unjust, unrighteous, illegal and inhumane the war.
All warriors need to be honored. Warriors from Wounded Knee and Little Big Horn, Warriors from Pearl Harbor and Normandy, Warriors from the Gulf War and the never-ending wars in the Middle East, Black Men and Women (and other POC) killed in the War on Drugs.
So, today, I resist the limitations of this holiday and I resist the cultural tendency to make this holiday about drinking and BBQing. As my children return from their trip to South Dakota, I am reading the children’s books about Sitting Bull and Black Elk. I honor their memories, and I honor the continuing struggle of Native people who have died and continue to die while protecting their ancestral homeland, Turtle Island, from further desecration. I honor the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women who died for being Indigenous, for being of the people who care for the Earth. I honor all the warriors of this country, those who fought with dignity and integrity, and those who committed atrocious acts of violence. I forgive all those who hurt others in their work of defending the Sacred.