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Arts & Life

New Standing Rock Veteran Cemetery Is A Place Of Ceremony

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Lee Strubinger
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SDPB

The All Nations Veteran Cemetery has been open in the Standing Rock Reservation for several months.

The land offers burial sites for any veteran and offers native veterans a tribute to their cultural legacies. It will offer ceremonies and traditions that the federal government tried to ban for generations.

The All Nations Veterans Cemetery near McLaughlin offers a final resting place filled with ritual and symbols. At the entrance, visitors pass under three logs set up as a tripod. The image – a huge tipi on the windswept prairie.

Manaja Hill is the acting cemetery manager and a veteran service officer for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's Veterans Affairs. He says the tipi symbolizes home.

“The home belongs to mom,” Hill says. “She’s the owner of everything else that comes into the home. So, in my thought pattern, when our soldiers come here to be buried they come through the entry of mom’s home and then come back to lay to rest for eternity.”

The idea for a veteran’s cemetery in Standing Rock was born more than 30 years ago. Five years ago, then- Tribal Chairman David Archambeau II made the cemetery a priority. After applying to the Veterans Administration, and transferring tribal owned land into trust status, the tribe went to work with architects and construction crews.

The cemetery is an effigy of the American Bison. Curved rows of cherry and plum trees are planted in the shape of buffalo horns. A ceremonial shelter to the west marks the start of the buffalo beard, and the medicine wheel with flags in the center is the animal’s face.

Manaja Hill says he anticipated pushback from the federal government, but it accepted and paid for everything.

He says the design phase took place during the pipeline protests in 2016, which brought a spotlight to the reservation. Holding a map of the cemetery, Hill says something unintended happened.

“If you turn it this way, that’s actually a water bird,” Hill says. The buffalo beard becomes the head and beak, the horns transform into wings, and the military service wall appears as tail feathers.

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“The buffalo effigy and the water bird are there. It’s about what kept us here and sustained us over the centuries,” Hill says.

The cemetery is full of cultural symbols. Manaja Hill says it’s also a place for traditional ceremony. He says some of the rituals are designed to help warriors and soldiers deal with what’s now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“We were a warrior society, the horse society," Hill says. "The ceremonies we had were to deal with that. Anybody whose been in that warrior capacity, they’re going to benefit from it because that’s what it was designed to help.”

Staff is expected to put up sweat lodge on the cemetery grounds in the spring.. The All Nations Veterans Cemetery also includes an area for a tradition known as a scaffold burial. After death, a body was placed on a wooden platform several feet off the ground.

Hill says the tradition has been slowly lost over time. Many other traditions were once forbidden by the U.S. government.

In 1978, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act reintroduced traditional native practices that had outlawed.

United States Veteran Affairs Secretary Robert Wilke says it’s very important to meet all spiritual needs  for veterans.

“Spiritual well being for the veteran and that veteran’s family is just as important as the technical competence of our nurses and doctors,” Wilke says. “In my travels around the west I’ve made sure there is provision for Native American veterans to experience what their ancestors have experienced. That is just as vital as anything we provide. I’m very happy that those traditions can be carried out on VA property.”

Wilke says growing up in southwestern Oklahoma, around the Chickasaw, Choctaw and Cherokee nations, helped to shape his perspective.

But there is still important work to do to reclaim some of the traditional ways. Manaja Hill acknowledges he’s not sure about the details of a scaffold burial.

“We’ve got to have people who know about that, they’ve got to let us know how it’s done," Hill says. "My job was to create the controversy of ‘How is this done?’ That causes other people to come."

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Still, the cemetery must adhere to VA policy. He says a body must be buried in two containers, so a traditional scaffold burial won’t allow for that. There is some concern over respecting indigenous traditions and keeping them authentic, while satisfying modern regulations.

Manaja Hill hopes a scaffold area will bring meaning.

“If somebody is to be buried in a buffalo robe, let’s say, we can probably wrap them in that buffalo robe and put them up there for a few hours or a day or so and then bring them down and put them in a coffin and into a crypt,” Hill says.

Hill hopes the scaffold area provides a healing for those who lost a loved one, by evoking the past while adhering to current regulations.

"I think there’s a lot in our ceremonies and a lot in our teachings that we’ve forgotten, if we can bring those back and actually live them again," Hill says.

Hill says he hopes the cemetery can be a bridge to bring the past into a present that belongs to the people.