The veterans have traveled from all over the United States to protect the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and its supporters from ongoing police violence as the water protectors maintain their peaceful stand against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
"I felt it was our duty to come and stand in front of the guns and the mace and the water and the threat that they pose to these people," Navy veteran Anthony Murtha, who traveled to North Dakota from Detroit, told Reuters.
The Indigenous activists have welcomed the veterans, who have served the United States in wars going back to WWII. One veteran is 95, according to action organizers. The veterans plan to act as unarmed "human shields" for the Indigenous activists.
"It's symbolic for people who stood up for this nation's freedom to stand up for the first inhabitants of this nation," said Dave Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, to Reuters Saturday.
A global unified prayer action on behalf of the Indigenous water protectors, led at the Oceti Sakowin camp by Dr. Cornel West, took place Sunday morning as the veterans streamed into the camp. West traveled to Standing Rock with representatives from the Nation Nurses United (NNU) union on Saturday.
The Oceti Sakowin camp said that 208 groups around the world took part in what the camp described as "the most peaceful form of action."
West also spoke to the Indigenous water protectors late Saturday, expressing solidarity with the Indigenous people "here and around the world" in their struggle against the "forces trying to crush spirit, land, person, baby, woman, child."
"We will do it together," West said. "Water is life."
Veterans, reporters, and Indigenous activists shared photos and videos of the ongoing arrival of the over 3,000 veterans:
— Antonia Gonzales (@antoniajen14) December 4, 2016
— Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiGabbard) December 4, 2016
One veteran posting to social media also described the full extent of the police and security presence as "surreal"—but the water protectors' solidarity as "beyond beautiful":
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The arrival of the veterans—and the accompanying mainstream media attention—may have catalyzed a slight shift in relations with police, as a meeting Thursday between Indigenous leaders, one of the veteran organizers, and law enforcement resulted in a "tentative agreement" that the police would retreat from the blockaded Backwater Bridge near the Oceti Sakowin camp. The move would put more space between the water protectors and the militarized police force.
However, the police also claimed that violent instigators had infiltrated the camp, but refused to name them. "Law enforcement has stated that there are known infiltrators in our camp but refuse to tell us who they are," Kandi Mossett of the Indigenous Environmental Network said in a statement. "This is counterproductive to de-escalating the situation as we cannot work to remove these individuals from camp."
Mossett further noted that "law enforcement has agreed to move the barricade back as long as we comply with their requests to stay off the bridge. This accomplishes nothing besides setting up a trap that entices potential infiltrators or aggressors to go on the bridge."
"Taxpayers continue to pay for the police force and Army National Guard to protect the Dakota Access Pipeline," Mosset added. "It would be fine if the law enforcement would operate within the laws and hold this company accountable for their countless violations and attacks on us but instead they continue to protect a private corporation.”
Watch Indigenous Rising Media's video of that meeting here:
And on Saturday, the police suggested that the veterans traveling Standing Rock may be suffering from PTSD and could be "triggered" into violence by Indigenous water protectors. The charge incensed many activists and allies, who pointed out that the main traumatic force in the camp has been police brutality and violence against the water protectors.
"The twisted irony of police fretting over vet PTSD when police themselves have given frontline water protectors PTSD," tweeted Lakota Sioux writer Ruth Hopkins.
Veterans and water protectors strongly maintain their commitment to peace. Yet many observers still fear the activists will suffer violence at the hands of police—particularly as Monday is the deadline for the protest camp evacuation orders from North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The police brutality has long concerned Amnesty International, which has had humanitarian observers on the ground for the past several weeks. The rights group sent an open letter (pdf) Saturday to President Barack Obama demanding action on behalf of the water protectors.
"Under international law, the government is obligated to respect and facilitate the right to peaceful protest, not treat people as enemies on a battlefield," said Zeke Johnson, managing director of the Individuals at Risk program at Amnesty International. "These abuses must be stopped, the Department of Justice must investigate and the evacuation orders must be rescinded."
Moreover, added Johnson, "President Obama must ensure that construction fully stops, that no drilling under the Missouri River takes place, and that the rights of Indigenous People are respected, protected and fulfilled."