Ceremony of Forgiveness/ Night before the Electoral College


Reeling from the latest barrage of globally catastrophic images—my mind gravitates to that startling and necessary image—beamed to us from Standing Rock.

It is the image of a U.S. veteran named Wesley Clark, Jr kneeling down, with veterans of various American combat units standing behind him—offering his formal apology to Lakota Medicine Man Leonard Crow Dog.

Who ever thought we would see this in our life time?

In his fine L.A.Times front page feature, reporter Sandy Tolan describes the veterans’ forgiveness ceremony: “Clark, organizer of Veterans Stand with Standing Rock, noted that some of the veterans had served in the same military units that had fought during the Indian Wars. He wore the blue jacket and hat of the 19th century 7th Cavalry, evoking the 140 year old memory of Gen. George Armstrong Custer. As it happened, he spoke on Custer’s birthday, Dec 5.

‘We stole minerals from your sacred hills. We blasted the faces of our president onto your sacred mountain. Then we took still more land, and then we took your children and we tried to eliminate your language.. We didn’t respect you. We polluted your Earth, we’ve hurt you in so many ways.’

He removed his hat, dark blue with a gold braid, and lowered himself to one knee, as did the veterans behind him. ‘We’ve come to say that we are sorry,’ he said, bowing his head. ‘We are at your service, and we beg for your forgiveness.’”

You can’t smell the smoke from the sacred bundle of cedar, sage and sweetgrass while watching this scene on YouTube. But you can intuit the gentle weight of Leonard Crow Dog’s large hand placed on Clark’s head.

Tolan writes, “Someone let out a ululating cry, and fellow Sioux spiritual leaders offered prayers and songs of cleansing and forgiveness. Hardened veterans wept openly…. Then Clark and the other veterans, their faces twisted with emotion, began to embrace their Native American hosts. It was apparent that the former service members received far more in the forgiveness than they gave in supplies and the goodwill they brought with them.”

The veterans’ assembly at Standing Rock is a ‘gesture in the world’ in an age of symbolic gestures. A counter-image to the Morton County sheriffs in riot gear, wielding the infamous water cannons they used against peaceful demonstrators.

In her book, A Human Being Died Last Night, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela—the only psychologist on South Africa’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission- lays out what an apology must contain in order for its words to “perform.” The one who apologizes must name the deed, acknowledge wrongdoing and recognize the pain of the victims. The apology must be unconditional. She points out how the victims hold a particular power in this dynamic: they can give or deny forgiveness. “They hold the key to what the perpetrator so desires — to rejoin the realm of moral humanity.”

These are veterans brave enough to bend on one knee, willing to ask forgiveness of the Sioux, on behalf of our government, on behalf of all U.S. citizens– for all the ways we have harmed them. Those veterans participated in this Ceremony of Forgiveness to rejoin a human realm from which they felt excluded. They did it for themselves. And they did it for all of us.


I write this on the somber eve before tomorrow’s meeting of the Electoral College. Regardless of the petitions we’ve signed, the phone calls we’ve made, the emails we’ve sent, the outrage about the election that we’ve expressed— we’re not likely to stop the juggernaut. We’ll likely see the outcome we’re dreading come to pass.

In the late 19th century, philosopher William James called for “the moral equivalent of war.” He was asking, “How can we get the United States to have a great moral cause, that can unite us to do marvelous things?” As we gird ourselves for the weeks and months ahead, well need these symbolic gestures to guide us as we embark on our own “moral equivalent to war,” as citizen-activists. It may not be exactly what William James had in mind, but in opposition to the ransacking of democratic values by the Trump administration, oh yes, we will be united.

I’ll keep the images from Standing Rock close at hand, deep in my heart: the soldier bending his knee; the old man placing his hand on the young man’s bowed head, the undeniable presence of a terrible history, the unearthly yet human sound of those joyous ululations.

8 Responses to “Ceremony of Forgiveness/ Night before the Electoral College”

  1. Petrine Day Mitchum Says:

    Thank you dear Louise.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Laura Sindell Says:

    dearest Louise,

    Your writing this evening has given me something steady to hold on to. Necessary thoughts for the hour, you and William James.

    love, Laura


    Liked by 1 person

  3. So beautiful my dear, and heart wrenching and omigod, what will the future bring.XXXXX

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jack Mayer Says:

    Dear Louise,

    I was moved to tears by your blog, Ceremony of Forgiveness/Night Before the Electoral College.

    I want to share with you the words I shared with my community in Middlebury, Vermont after our Havurah sanctuary was blighted by swastikas drawn on our door just after the election. The entire community was moved to solidarity by this violation. A sabbath service was organized with our area clergy sharing at our sanctuary. Representatives of area churches and congregations stood together to recite the blessing over the Torah reading.

    Here’s what I said to this standing room only community – an excerpt from my book LIFE IN A JAR: THE IRENA SENDLER PROJECT: ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ “There’s a Native American story,” Mr. C. said, “about a boy who came to his grandfather angry at a friend who had done him an injustice. The grandfather said that he too had felt great anger for those who had taken so much from him and his people. But, he explained, hate wears you down and does not hurt your enemy. It’s like taking poison and wishing your enemy would die.

    “The boy didn’t understand until his grandfather said it was as if there were two wolves that lived inside him who fought each other for his soul. One wolf was vengeful and angry, the other forgiving and kind. The boy asked, ‘Which one wins, Grandfather?’

    “The old man smiled and said, ‘The one I feed.’”


    Mr. Trump, we are the civil opposition. We stand with those who will be threatened or injured, including our warming Planet Earth. We are forgiving and kind, but we are persistent and indomitable. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

    Thank you, Louise for your articulate decency and love, Best, Jack Mayer Middlebury, Vermont >


  5. Susan Banyas Says:

    Thank you Louise. Your godson Quincy headed to Standing Rock today with caravan to drop off supplies. Prayers to all the Protectors of earth and love. They are fighting the moral war out there on the plains. May we all learn and grow from these examples of forgiveness and strength during this epic battle ahead.


  6. Bette Levy Says:



  7. A card from ever-wise Ursula Le Guin, which arrived last week, in celebration of the upcoming Solstice, confirms what you say, Louise: “As for the political situation,” she writes, ” I cling to Standing Rock as a guide to all of us, ‘this is the way to go, to be.’ ” She ends her card with, “Let nothing you dismay.” Not, “Let you not be dismayed”—which is rather impossible in these times—but much more importantly, “Let nothing you dismay.” I find the distinction so relevant, and so beautiful. Something to think on.


  8. The deepest courage is to recognize our implication in the fate of the other. So difficult and so necessary. Thank you Louise for focussing us on this imperative.


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