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5.5: Social Change and Resistance

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    Historical Resistance of American Indians

    I am a red man. If the Great Spirit had desired me to be a white man he would have made me so in the first place. Now we are poor but we are free. No white man controls our footsteps. If we must die, we die defending our rights. - Sitting Bull, Hunkpapa Sioux

    In November 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant had a "high-level" meeting with General William T. Sherman representing the U. S. Army and Secretary Columbus Delano representing the Indian Bureau within the Department of the Interior (Anderson, 1996). At this meeting, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was asked to "step aside" and allow the army to resolve the "problem" with Sioux Indians. An ultimatum was then given to the Sioux in the Black Hills to report to a reservation by January 31, 1876 or be punished. Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse refused to comply and utilized a contingent of Cheyenne, Lakota, Oglala and other Sioux people to resist resulting in pushing back General George Crook and eventually killing General George A. Custer in the Battle of Little Big Horn. Although the mostly Sioux group of American Indian warriors won the battle, the U. S. Army continued their directive against Native Americans which resulted in the death of Crazy Horse in 1877 while Sitting Bull and his people escaped to Canada (Anderson, 1996).

    Picture of Sitting Bull.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Sitting Bull, 1885. Image portrays the Hunkpapa Sioux warrior holding a traditional pipe. (CC PDM 1.0; David F. Barry via Wikimedia)

    Another example of resistance was embodied by Geronimo, a Chiricahua Apache subchief to Chief Cochise. Geronimo has been described as, "one of the finest fighting men who ever lived...he outwitted, outfought, and made fools of thousands of U. S. troops under the leadership of the ablest 'Indian fighters' of the period" (Coffer, 1979). In 1886, Geronimo surrendered to General Nelson Miles, and he was sent to prison along with 750 other Apaches, of which some of the Apaches imprisoned were scouts for the U. S. Army that had assisted with Geronimo's capture (Coffer, 1979).

    Red Power Movement and Activism

    In the 1960's and 1970's, Native American folks became more socially and politically active generally around issues of self-determination and American Indian identification and cultural revival (Coffer, 1979; Nagel, 1996). According to Joanne Nagel,

    the transformations of identity and culture that mark late twentieth-century American Indian ethnicity were forged in the crucible of Red Power. Red Power activism was the progenitor of an American Indian ethnic rebirth (Nagel, 1996).

    Prior to the development of the American Indian Movement (AIM), Native American activists used non-violent civil disobedience tactics from the Civil Rights Movement to organize "fish-ins" primarily in the states of Washington and Oregon. Nagel writes, "a fish-in involved, quite simply, illegal fishing in bodies of water (rivers, streams, lakes, coastal waters) from which Indigenous fishermen were legally restricted or banned despite their claims to treaty rights" (Nagel, 1996). Some of these fish-ins generated mass arrests and even violent confrontations, but the courts eventually ruled in favor of American Indians' treaty rights to fish in bodies of water (Healey & O'Brien, 2015).

    In July 1968, AIM was organized in Minneapolis, comprising over twenty American Indian organizations from that city. Although AIM first began challenging police brutality and discrimination against American Indians within the criminal justice system in Minneapolis, it expanded its reach to the West Coast by helping to organize the occupation of Alcatraz Island in November 1969 (Coffer, 1979). A group of eighty-nine Native Americans calling themselves "Indians of All Tribes" occupied the unused federal property of Alcatraz and claimed it as "right of discovery" and offered a purchase price of $24 for Alcatraz Island (Nagel, 1996; History is a Weapon). By June 1971, federal agents retook Alcatraz Island and AIM sought out other protest actions.

    A sign from the Alcatraz Island Occupation.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Alcatraz Island Occupation sign with writing "Indians Welcome." (CC BY 3.0; Loco Steve via Wikimedia)

    Another notable Red Power activist event was the "Trail of Broken Treaties" that took place 1972. Again, AIM helped to organize an automobile caravan of hundreds of American Indians that started in October of 1972 from the west (Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles) to arrive in the BIA building in Washington, D. C. (Coffer, 1979; Nagel, 1996). While this event received media coverage given the November 1972 election coverage already in Washington, D. C., the demands made by American Indians were not met. It is important to note that more contemporary Native American resistance and activism stems from panethnicity, which is cooperation and unity among different ethnic groups. Two centuries prior, Tecumseh (1768-1813) a leader/prophet of the Shawnee Nation, envisioned a pan-Indian, Red Nation, united against the land encroachment by Euro-Americans, though his vision was never realized. For American Indians, panethnicity manifests as Pan-Indian and/or supratribal identity and solidarity, rather than on specific tribal identification. Given that the Native American population has become more urban and dispersed away from reservations and/or original tribal lands, supratribal ethnicity increased, but is "by no means an argument for the disappearance of tribe as a central component of Indian ethnicity" (Nagel, 1996).

    AIM continued their activism, but shifted their focus onto Wounded Knee in 1973. As Joane Nagel (1996) explains,

    the conflict at Wounded Knee, a small town on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, involved a dispute within Pine Ridge's Oglala Lakota (Sioux) tribe over the controversial tribal chairman, Richard Wilson. Wilson was viewed as a corrupt puppet of the BIA by some segments of the tribe, including those associated with AIM. An effort to impeach Wilson resulted in a division of the tribe into two opposing camps. These groups eventually armed themselves and entered into a two-and-one half-month-long siege.

    The outcome of the occupation (Wounded Knee II), was that two FBI agents were killed but countless American Indians were killed: “Just another dead Indian.” Moreover, Richard Wilson remained in office while the AIM members involved in the siege faced the threat of litigation, exile, and even prison (Nagel, 1996). Gladys Bissonette, Oglala Lakota Nation, involved member of Wounded Knee II and AIM wrote the following about the occupation,

    this was one of the greatest things that ever happened in my life. And although today is our last day here, I still feel like I'll always be here because this is part of my home...I hope that the Indians, at least throughout the Pine Ridge Reservation, unite and stand up together, hold hands and never forget Wounded Knee. We didn't have anything here, we didn't have anything to eat. But we had one thing--that was unity and friendship amongst 64 different tribes...I have never seen anything like this (Ward, 2013).

    The visibility of Wounded Knee II and the plight of AI/AN peoples in general, was bolstered by Marlon Brando's refusal to accept his Academy Award for Best Actor in person, in which he sent Sacheen Littlefeather, an Apache actress, in his place.

    Global Resistance

    The current dominant global political and legal order, invented in Europe, is state-centric and has since spread everywhere to create the discrete borders that mark the geopolitical world map most use today. Putting an end to decades of brutal violence and endemic conflict throughout Europe, the 1648 Peace of Westphalia cemented the total and enduring notion of state sovereignty, which is classically defined as supreme legal authority (d'Errico, n. d.). Europe’s response to anarchy, conflict and disorder among nations (or peoples) was thus the creation of a system of inter-state relations bolstered by states mutually recognizing one another’s sovereign authority. Indigenous understandings of international relations differ from inter-state approaches, particularly when it comes to the ways that Indigenous peoples renew and act on their sacred commitments and interdependencies with the natural world. Assertions of Indigenous resurgence, which entails reclaiming and regenerating relationships with lands, cultures and communities, promote positive, alternative visions of the international order, challenging the dominant inter-state model.

    The concept of state sovereignty fuelled modern state-building strategies and, almost without exception, led to the destruction of Indigenous nations. Each state tries to build a vision of a common people sharing a culture, values, history, language, currency (and so on) through education, military conquest and other state-driven initiatives. This is often called a national identity, and is associated with ideas like patriotism and nationalism. Indigenous encounters with European empires saw them time and again face a stark choice (if the choice was even put to them at all): assimilate to the new settler colonial order being imposed over them and their lands or face dislocation – even genocide. As George Manuel and Michael Posluns (1974) point out, the colonial system is always a way of gaining control over another people for the sake of what the colonial power has determined to be "the common good." People can only become convinced of the common good when their own capacity to imagine ways in which they can govern themselves has been destroyed.

    Speaking to Indigenous battles over state-building efforts that alienate Indigenous peoples from their lands and resources, Manuela Picq (2015) suggests that Indigenous perspectives offer three specific challenges to the state-centric perspective. First, they challenge the state’s ultimate authority by asserting their authority over their nations, lands/waters, and the natural world. Second, they expose the colonial foundations of the state-centric system by highlighting Indigenous views that both challenge and sit outside the dominant system. In other words, states as we know them owe their existence to processes of colonization and settlement rooted in cultural imperialism, violence, destruction, genocide, and ultimately the eradication of Indigenous identities and relationships to the land if not the eradication of the peoples themselves. Third, Indigenous peoples’ world views and practices challenge us to imagine what it might be like to share power within and think beyond state borders and the prevailing global state system. The children's book, Encounter, similarly offers an opportunity for readers to imagine a world not marred by colonialism - if our past were different.

    A book titled Encounter, authored by Indigenous woman Brittany Luby and based on the real journal kept by French explorer Jacques Cartier in 1534, imagines a first meeting between a French sailor and a Stadaconan fisher.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Encounter book, authored by Indigenous woman Brittany Luby and based on the real journal kept by French explorer Jacques Cartier in 1534, imagines a first meeting between a French sailor and a Stadaconan fisher. Encounter invites readers to reckon with the past, and to welcome, together, a future that is yet unchartered, not marred by colonialism. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Janét Hund)

    The principle of self-determination has provided stateless Indigenous nations with ways to attempt to (re)assert and (re)claim their authority. Self-determination provides an avenue for Indigenous peoples to create political entities that can be recognized by the international community. The process is based on the idea that people should be free to form their own governments and control their own affairs – something central to the ethics and legality underpinning the United Nations. Indigenous claims of this nature have gained significant traction over the past century, especially post-1945 when decolonization, the physical and ideological actions and/or movements of a colony gaining its independence and becoming an autonomous former colony, became a key international process. The sources of self-determining authority are admittedly a source of contention. For Indigenous nations it emanates from complex relationships with their homelands, waters, sacred living histories, animal nations, plant nations, ceremonies, languages and the natural world. The sources of self-determining authority for states are much different, originating from colonial policies. For instance, the Doctrine of Discovery, dating back to the fifteenth century, espouses that land occupied by non-Christians could be legally "discovered" and claimed as territory owned by the Crown. Other invented political and legal constructs have also become embedded within state legal histories and practices, shaping international practices that deny alternative Indigenous conceptions of relations between nations.

    One example of the tension between state sovereignty and Indigenous self-determination can be seen in the story of Cayuga (current day New York) chief Deskaheh’s European visit, first to the United Kingdom in 1921 and then to the League of Nations in 1923. In his capacity as the Speaker of the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), he felt compelled to make the long trans-Atlantic journey as conflicts between the Haudenosaunee and Canadian peoples had reached an impasse. He felt it unjust that his people were being imprisoned for protesting the Canadian state’s imposition of its self-declared sovereignty over their lands, claiming it to be tantamount to an invasion and stating that "we are determined to live the free people that we were born" (League of Nations, 1923). The lands were, and still are, subject to treaties expressing an alternative vision of shared authority over shared lands and mutual respect between peoples as equal nations cooperatively governing the same territory – an idea that is largely antithetical to the Westphalian vision of exclusive territorial authority by one people. However, Chief Deskaheh’s appeals fell on deaf ears in both London and Geneva as the states concerned refused to interfere in the domestic affairs of one of their peers, namely Canada (Corntassel, 2008). He eventually left Europe empty-handed, dying soon after in 1925 in New York state, exiled from his homeland that had by then been all but overrun by the Canadian settler state.

    Some progress has been made since Chief Deskaheh’s time and now appears in prominent places. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) urges states to recognize that

    Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development (United Nations General Assembly, 2007).

    There is also momentum within the United Nations to support what many consider the heart of self-determination – namely, an Indigenous veto over all matters affecting them, their communities and their territories. On the surface, the Declaration seems to secure for Indigenous nations powers previously extended only to states. As white Face (2013) points out, conspiring states refused to adopt it until it included limiting language that eventually made its way into Article 46, which states that "nothing in this declaration may be interpreted … or construed as authorizing or encouraging any action which would dismember or impair, totally or in part, the territorial integrity or political unity of sovereign and independent states" (United Nations General Assembly, 2007). Article 46 can be seen as perpetuating the above-mentioned Doctrine of Discovery or at least its impacts despite its formal repudiation in 2012. Unfortunately, the legal fictions of the Doctrine of Discovery via Article 46 of the UNDRIP as well as other inter-state legal instruments continue to impact Indigenous nations in profound and destructive ways that undermine their self-determining authority (Miller et al., 2010; United Nations General Assembly, 2010).

    Indigenous self-determination movements mount a more robust and fundamental challenge to the system itself. Even if most Indigenous nations do not seek its wholesale elimination, they strive for ways of being included on their own terms that tend to reject the Westphalian idea of state sovereignty. Given that there are approximately 5,000 Indigenous nations throughout the world, there are many ways of asserting self-determining authority. Many Indigenous alternatives even reject the very idea that there should be a robust set of overarching principles that govern relations between peoples, arguing that we should be tolerant of a plurality of approaches to promoting peace among peoples and with the environments that sustain us.

    Protest for Tribal Sovereignty
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): "Tribal Sovereignty." Woman holds sign which reads "Tribal Sovereignty - It's the Law." (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; Ian Sane via Flickr)

    There is an emerging scholarship on Indigenous international relations that challenges state-centric expressions of sovereignty and self-determination. As Anishinaabe scholar Hayden King (2015) states, "in our political world views the state and sovereignty melt away." Indigenous nations have expressed solidarity with one another through the establishment of new confederacies, treaties and agreements that promote peace, friendship and new strategic alliances. Indigenous international relations are enduring and sacred, and making treaties with foreign countries has not prevented Indigenous nations from continuing their own diplomatic relations with one another. For example, the Treaty of Peace, Respect, and Responsibility between the Heiltsuk Nation and the Haida Nation (both in current day Western Canada) was the first peace treaty between these two nations since the 1850's and was premised on the assumption that "there are greater troubles facing our lands and waters and depletion of resources generated from forces outside of our nations" (Crist, 2014). This treaty was enacted between the two Indigenous nations through a potlatch ceremony and sought to challenge a common threat posed by the state-sanctioned commercial herring fishery in Heiltsuk waters.


    In 2014, another historic treaty was initiated between Indigenous nations living along the medicine line (the United States-Canada border). Iiniiwa, which is the Blackfoot name for bison, have a deep, longstanding relationship with the land, people and cultural practices of prairie ecosystems. When discussing the role of the bison on their homelands, Blackfoot scholar Leroy Little Bear (2014) pointed out that acting as a natural bio-engineer in prairie landscapes, they shaped plant communities, transported and recycled nutrients, created habitat variability that benefited grassland birds, insects and small mammals, and provided abundant food resources for grizzly bears, wolves and humans.

    Unfortunately, the widespread slaughter of bison in the nineteenth century led to the deterioration of the prairie ecosystems and with this the health and wellbeing of Blackfoot people. The decimation of the bison also impacted the cultural practices of the region’s Indigenous peoples, which has prompted the need for community-led action to restore the iiniiwa to Indigenous homelands.

    On 23 September 2014, eight Indigenous nations (the Blackfoot Nation, Blood Tribe, Siksika Nation, Piikani Nation, the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre Tribes of Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of Fort Peck Indian Reservation, the Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Indian Reservation, and the Tsuu T’ina Nation) gathered in Blackfoot territory near Browning, Montana to sign the historic Buffalo Treaty. It involved Indigenous nations on both sides of the medicine line and called for the return of iiniiwa to the prairie ecosystems. Given that it was the first cross-border Indigenous treaty signed in over 150 years, the Buffalo Treaty was also a way of renewing and regenerating old alliances. It outlined several community-led goals, including engaging tribes and First Nations in continuing dialogue on iiniiwa conservation; uniting the political power of the tribes and First Nations of the Northern Great Plains; advancing an international call for the restoration of the iiniiwa; engaging youth in the treaty process and strengthening and renewing ancient cultural and spiritual relationships with iiniiwa and grasslands in the Northern Great Plains.

    As an example of Indigenous international relations, the above-mentioned treaty provisions demonstrate the sacred nature of treaty-making as a way for Indigenous nations "to extend their relationships of connection to all of the different peoples of the world" (Williams, 1997). In addition to having Indigenous nations as signatories, the Buffalo Treaty also outlines a vision for the involvement of federal, state and provincial governments, as well as farmers, ranchers and conservation groups in the restoration of iiniiwa to Indigenous homelands. As individual Indigenous nations, these communities would have a limited ability to promote iiniiwa restoration. However, with a unified vision, they collectively exerted their self-determining authority to facilitate the return of iiniiwa to some 6.3 million acres of their homelands.

    The Buffalo Treaty is also a living document that requires periodic renewal and re-interpretation. Two years after the Treaty was signed, the number of signatories had gone from eight to 21. In September 2016, signatories held a pipe ceremony in Banff National Park to honor the planned reintroduction of sixteen iiniiwa to the area. In addition to restoring the buffalo population, signatories called on the Government of Alberta in Canada to change the name of Tunnel Mountain in Banff to Sacred Buffalo Guardian Mountain. The vision for the regeneration and perpetuation of iiniiwa also entails changing the landscape to reflect the places where the iiniiwa live. New forms of Indigenous treaty-making reflect the complex diplomacies and spiritual re-awakenings that constitute Indigenous inter-national relations.

    Current Issues and Continued Social Change

    Contemporary examples of Native American resistance and activism, in particular the opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline, are further discussed in Chapter 11.4. There are a few current issues impacting American Indians that require further attention. The first is the rise of missing and murdered Indigenous women and Two-Spirit in the United States and Canada, where British Columbia's Highway 16 referred to as the "Highway of Tears" (Palacios, 2016). According to Carolyn Smith-Morris, "Native American women are murdered and sexually assaulted at rates high as 10 times the average in certain counties in the United States—crimes overwhelmingly committed by individuals outside the Native American community" (Smith-Morris, 2020). Given the importance and now greater visibility of this issue, President Donald J. Trump signed Executive Order 13898 in November 26, 2019. This Executive Order established a task force that would focus on missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives (Operation Lady Justice).

    Video \(\PageIndex{5}\): Wind River. This drama film portrays the coverup of the death of an Indigenous woman, Natalie, near the big oil and pipeline construction on Wind River reservation (Wyoming). (Close-captioning and other YouTube settings will appear once the video starts.) (Fair Use: KinoCheck via YouTube)

    The second and even more current issue impacting American Indians is the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the Native American population. According to a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, "Although non-Hispanic American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) persons account for 0.7% of the U.S. population (based on 2018 U. S. Census), a recent analysis reported that 1.3% of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) cases reported to CDC with known race and ethnicity were among AI/AN persons" (Hatcher, et al., 2020). Similarly, Kizzie Wade (2020) reports that Native Americans are 3.5 times more likely that whites to be diagnosed with COVID-19, as some Indigenous communities such as the Navajo/Dine have been ravaged by the pandemic. In contrast, standing on the shoulders of Wilma Mankiller, champion of social welfare for her people, the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma has practiced impressive public health care and tribal leadership, experiencing low incidence of COVID-19. Since the pandemic is an ongoing situation, more information and data is being collected to assess the full impact of coronavirus on AI/AN populations. It is clear more research is needed to analyze how class stratification, access to healthcare, and other institutional issues contribute to the disparate COVID-19 effects on Indigenous populations.

    Contributors and Attributions

    Works Cited

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