Over 530 years of struggle and solidarity: Indigenous resistance in the U.S.

Source: Manuel Ceneta (Associated Press)

None of us are free until all of us are free!

By Camille Landry (National Co-Coordinator)

Any analysis that originates in the United States claiming to accurately and fairly address issues pertaining to the human rights of Indigenous people must begin with the acknowledgement that we occupy land that is the ancestral home of Indigenous peoples, stolen from them at gunpoint, watered with their blood and tears. We therefore stand in solidarity with Indigenous peoples’ struggles for justice and human rights, in this hemisphere and throughout the world. We pay respect to the people, past and present, who have resisted oppression in all its forms. We declare that their struggle is our struggle, for none of us are free unless all of us are free.

Capitalism cannot be separated from the exploitation, enslavement and dispossession of the Indigenous and African peoples. The very existence of the United States of America as a sovereign nation is rooted in these heinous acts. Without the theft of land and its resources; the forced removal, murder and subjugation of Indigenous people; and the stolen labor represented by centuries of slavery, sharecropping and Jim Crow exploitation; the United States would not and could not be the largest economy on the planet. The $20.94 trillion annual GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of the United States was paid for in Indigenous and African blood and suffering.

Yet the people resist, despite the enormous disparities in power, in finances, in military might, in cultural and religious and other institutional measures of oppression.

Advertisement from 1911 offering “allotted Indian land” for sale.

Indigenous resistance can be summed up as Indigenous communities asserting and protecting their human and treaty rights while powerful white citizens, with the backing and authority of the state, attempt to stop them. This has not changed much since the appearance of European colonists on these shores. From Columbus’ genocidal encounters with the Taino people and subsequent centuries of settler colonialism (a type of colonialism in which the Indigenous peoples of a colonized region are displaced by settlers who permanently form a society there) to officials of North Dakota deploying tear gas and water hoses upon countless Lakota people and their allies peacefully gathered in the freezing winter weather to protect their land and water, European presence in the Americas has been deadly to the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island, Abya Yala and the Caribbean region.

Struggles for human rights

The destruction wrought by diseases, wars, genocidal violence, enslavement, forced relocations, the destruction of food sources and subsequent starvation, the devastation of ways of life, declining birth rates, forced sterilization, removal of children and other factors in the Indigenous Holocaust between 1492-1900 destroyed more than 12 million Indigenous lives in what is today the United States.

Indigenous peoples of the Americas have experienced many different forms of domination and continue to resist them through a wide range of decolonizing processes that are commonly misidentified, ignored or misstated by U.S. political and social analysts. Indigenous peoples’ legitimate concerns about structural inequality and oppression have been cast as cultural or ethnic issues rather than as intrinsic elements of an economic, social, institutional, legal and governmental system whose very origins are rooted in the removal of Indigenous peoples from their land and the commission of genocide against them.

Indigenous peoples are members of nations that existed long before the United States and other nation-states in this hemisphere existed. Yet Indigenous peoples in many instances do not even get to define membership in their own nations. They are forced into a servile position under the thumb of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other federal entities that control many of their affairs. Of the thousands of Indigenous nations that existed in what is now the United States prior to contact with European settler colonists, a mere 573 are currently recognized by the U.S. government. Tribes that are not recognized by the federal government can own land as a corporate entity, but the federal government will not put these lands into trust for the tribe. They do not have nonprofit status. Their members are not eligible for health services, scholarships, or whatever meager benefits that accrue to “recognized” tribes.

Source: Sam Hillard and Dan Irwin (Louisiana State University and Southern Illinois University)

Some 368 treaties, many dating back to colonial times, dictate the relationship between Indigenous nations and state, local and federal governments. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, “tribes possess all powers of self-government except those relinquished under treaty with the United States, those that Congress has expressly extinguished, and those that federal courts have ruled are subject to existing federal law or are inconsistent with overriding national policies.” The entire history of Indigenous people and federal and state governments is filled with treaty violations and the “extinguishment” of Indigenous rights in the courts and legislative bodies of this nation. These violations began during the colonial period and still persist today.

Even when Indigenous nations win in the courts, such as the landmark McGirt vs. Oklahoma decision, federal, state and local governments go to great lengths to counter those victories. In July 2020 the United States Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that a large chunk of eastern Oklahoma remains an American Indian reservation. The decision meant that Oklahoma prosecutors lack the authority to pursue criminal cases against Indigenous defendants in parts of Oklahoma that include most of Tulsa, the state’s second-largest city. The McGirt decision also potentially affects land ownership, taxation and other issues. State and local governments in Oklahoma and the federal government, including agencies like the FBI, are fighting mightily to overturn the McGirt ruling. The Indigenous nations of eastern Oklahoma are fighting harder to enforce the treaties that were signed with the blood of their peoples. 

Historical resistance

Indigenous resistance during the period prior to the United States’ War of Independence was persistent and found Indigenous peoples resisting colonialism through large and small episodes of armed conflict. After the war, the new U.S. government’s dealings with Indigenous nations resulted in multiple conflicts; murderous actions including deliberate infection of Native people with diseases to which they had no immunity; plus a host of skirmishes, wars, broken treaties and broken promises. In its early years the U.S. government recognized the tribal governments as sovereign nations and negotiated treaties with them for land, water and other rights. Many of these treaties were ratified at gunpoint, with the government resorting to military action, kidnapping, mass incarceration and mass murder to force tribal leaders to sign them.

One such treaty, the Greenville Treaty of 1795, was forced upon Indigenous peoples after they lost a war. It resulted in their removal from what is now Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan and most of Ohio. Later, the War of 1812 demolished remaining Indigenous resistance in the northeastern portion of the USA.

As U.S. expansion pushed west from the original 13 states, conflicts with Indigenous peoples escalated. Using tactics similar to those that justified slavery based upon the declaration that African people were inferior and subhuman, concepts such as Manifest Destiny proclaimed that the United States is destined by God to expand its dominion and spread its form of government and capitalism across the entire North American continent and beyond, negating the personhood and human rights of the land’s original inhabitants. 

Source: Nicholas Pfosi (Reuters)

Indigenous peoples were declared to be fundamentally inferior and uncivilized, mere obstacles standing in the way of the “proper and appropriate” exploitation of the vast land and resources that European settlers found when they landed on these shores. They claimed that the land and its bounty were being wasted by “lazy Indians” – people who did not believe in land ownership, in exploitation or despoilment of the land, or in the brutal and punitive social and moral codes of conduct exemplified by the U.S. government, white settlers and their churches.

Indigenous nations formed alliances to negotiate with and ultimately fight the encroachment of European settlers on their lands. They were met with overwhelming genocidal resistance. Beginning around 1811, Tecumseh, a Shawnee chief, and his brother Tenskwatawa tried to unite Indigenous peoples east of the Mississippi into a giant confederacy. The two men believed that if the Indigenous nations banded together and refused to sell land to European settlers they could hold back American settlement.

These efforts were met by further wars, genocidal actions, land grabs and treaty violations. In 1830 President Andrew Jackson oversaw the passage of the Indian Removal Act, which gave the U.S. government the power to force Indigenous people from their lands in the southeastern U.S. and force-march them to Indian territory in what is now the eastern portion of the State of Oklahoma. These removals – 11 in all, of entire nations of people – came to be known as the Trail of Tears, in which thousands of people were forcibly marched for four months during a bitter winter, drenched springtime and burning summers, resulting in the deaths and injury of around 4,000 people – and that figure is widely believed to be under-reported.

During the early 19th century Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa encouraged their people to renounce European ways and return to their traditional lifestyles, free of dependence upon settlers and their goods and money. The governor of Indiana, William Henry Harrison, led thousands of soldiers to Tecumseh’s village. Fighting broke out but neither side won a decisive victory. Harrison then claimed that his men had found British weapons in the Indigenous camp. This caused a national uproar that ultimately led to the War of 1812. Tecumseh and his brother sided with the British in the war and later fled to Canada, thus ending their dream of an alliance of the tribes in the northeast that could counter the settlement of their lands by European colonialists. 

Artist: Dignidad Rebelde

Massacres of Indigenous people by the U.S. Army began during the colonial period and persisted well into the 19th century. General George Armstrong Custer rode to fame for slaughtering infants, women, children and men of the Lakota Sioux Nation at Wounded Knee in 1890. In an act of supreme resistance in 1876, Buffalo Calf Road Woman, a Cheyenne warrior, knocked Custer from his horse and killed him as he attacked a Lakota village. Her actions exemplify the continuous, tenacious resistance of Indigenous people to oppression by the government and by individuals. The massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho people by the U.S. Army on November 29, 1864 in Colorado Territory is one of many acts of genocide. This was lauded as progress by the U.S. government, despite the fact that children, women and the elderly comprised the majority of deaths.

The resistance to these actions did not consist only of self defense. The telling, retelling and holding-to-account of this government by people of good conscience is a major form of resistance.

There are countless other stories of Indigenous resistance to settler colonialism in the early years of this country. They were all met with gruesome brutality. Even after the vast majority of Indigenous people had been remanded to reservations or tribal lands, the war against Native people continued in the form of child removal in which Indigenous children, some as young as two or three years of age, were forcibly removed from their families and sent to brutal “Indian Schools,” whose motto was “kill the Indian and save the man.” They lived with great privation, cruel punishment and a lack of adequate medical care and were force fed a curriculum that focused on separating them from their culture and instilling shame and disdain toward their own people. The Indian Schools, run by the federal and state governments and various Christian sects, oversaw the systematic eradication of their imprisoned students’ native languages, cultures and, not incidentally, their power. 

Indigenous people did not universally gain U.S. citizenship and the right to vote until the Snyder Act of 1924 admitted them to full U.S. citizenship. Though the 15th Amendment, passed in 1870, granted all U.S. citizens the right to vote regardless of race, it wasn’t until the Snyder Act that Indigenous peoples could enjoy the rights granted by this amendment. Today Indigenous communities suffer from the same type of voter suppression that disenfranchises millions of other BIPOC people.  

Modern-day resistance

In “Indian Country,” very little has changed. Indigenous peoples fall victim to the vestiges of settler colonialism in many different ways. Native Americans have the highest poverty rate among all minority groups. The national poverty rate for Native Americans was 25.4%, while the Black or African American poverty rate was 20.8% and the Hispanic poverty rate was 17.6%.

The United States Census Bureau states, “at 71.8 years, American Indian and Alaska Native individuals have the lowest life expectancy compared with other races and ethnicities.” The rates of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, stroke, diabetes, cancer and other maladies are far higher in Indigenous people than in any other group. Substance abuse disorder, depression, suicidality and other mental health disorders exist at high rates in Indigenous communities. And Native Americans are the group most likely to be murdered by police.

Indigenous nations have protested their oppression through the courts and in state legislatures, for which they were often met with brutality and little in the name of progress. Nevertheless, the American Indian Movement (AIM) has persisted in its struggle for human rights and justice.

The American Indian Movement (AIM)

Source: Darryl Dyck (Canadian Press)

In 1964 and again in November 1969 Indigenous activists used wooden boats to occupy Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay with the intention of turning it into a cultural center and university. They proclaimed that the island was perfect for Indigenous occupation because, like other lands their people had been relegated to, Alcatraz was barren; would grow no crops nor support hunting grounds; had no transportation, medical care, educational facilities or other institutions that support people’s well being; and was thus obviously meant to house Indigenous peoples. Their occupation lasted for 19 months and brought national and international attention to the oppression of Indigenous peoples.

In 1970, members of AIM and United American Indians occupied Mount Rushmore to reclaim the sacred land that had been promised in perpetuity to the Oceti Sakowin (The Great Sioux Nation) in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie.

On November 26, 1970, AIM activists occupied Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts and declared a National Day of Mourning on the very site that saw the beginning of British settler colonialism.

Assistant U.S. Attorney General is escorted into Wounded Knee by Native Americans of AIM on March 13, 1973. (Source: Associated Press)

One of the most famous resistance actions was the 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973, led by members of AIM, on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation. AIM members converged on the village where General George A. Custer perpetrated the Wounded Knee Massacre upon helpless people. Activist leader Leonard Peltier still languishes today in a federal penitentiary for his actions at Wounded Knee. Federal officials have refused him compassionate release despite his advanced age and compromised health.

The Longest Walk was the last major event of the Red Power movement. In 1978, several hundred Indigenous activists and supporters marched for five months from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. to protest threats to tribal lands and water rights.

These and many other symbolic actions served to bring the systemic and persistent violations of Indigenous peoples’ human rights into the public sphere.

Cultural resistance

Artist: T.C. Cannon, “Two Guns Arikara.” (1973/1977)

One of the main forms of Indigenous resistance in 21st century USA is cultural. Indigenous people have organized and worked to regain their languages, customs and ways of living in a way that is sometimes a direct antidote to an oppressive capitalist system. Artists such as T.C. Cannon, a painter from Oklahoma, presented Indigenous people in a way that eschewed tokenism and emphasized the power and persistence of his people. His portrait “Two Guns Arikara” is one such image.

Activist Roberto Mendoza, a Mvskoke Creek man living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, talked about his earlier actions of resistance, including helping to organize the Alcatraz occupation, and being a leader of the San Francisco Bay Area AIM. “Those actions, although they served to call attention to the atrocities that are still being committed against our people, did not change anything much,” Mr. Mendoza said. He explained that the Wounded Knee action was an armed rebellion in which a lot of people got killed. He decided to stop directly confronting U.S. power from a military basis and to start building communities that stand in clear opposition to capitalist and imperialist principles. His group, Cooperation Tulsa, is a coalition of Indigenous, Black, Latine and poor white people that operates on a collective, consensus model. They grow and distribute food, build housing for unsheltered people, collect and give away clothing and household goods and engage in other activities that serve the people’s needs. “The most important thing we’re doing is teaching Indigenous values,” Mendoza told us. He explained:

“We show people how to live without being capitalists, without exploiting other people or the Earth itself. We stress cooperation vs. competition. Community instead of individualism. Respect for the land. Giving back to the land in some way. And in doing this, we start chipping away at the oppressive system that robs all of us of our humanity.”

Standing Rock, one of the greatest acts of Indigenous resistance in this century, was an example of Indigenous values acting counter to capitalist exploitation. Mendoza explains:

“We not only stood in opposition to a pipeline that threatened our health and safety; we created a community in that place that was based upon a consensus model of decision making, which is the way our nations worked before colonization. Everyone worked, according to their talents and abilities. We provided our own food, shelter, medical care and entertainment. We made sure that nobody did without those things. We created a community for everyone there, of all races. And we stopped the pipeline for a while and made sure that the entire world knew how vicious, damaging and wrong it was for the government to build it across Native land.”

Standing Rock. Source: Rob Wilson

Rejecting tokenization 

Few things are as demeaning as having yourself, your culture and your ancestors treated as tokens and exploited for the amusement and profit of others. This is the case when it comes to Indigenous peoples. The use of sacred or culturally significant names, images and features for sports teams, school mascots and tourist attractions is a profound insult to the people whose very lives are being misused in this way. The ultimate irony may be the use of Indigenous nations’ names for U.S. military hardware used to wreak death and destruction upon other oppressed people. Tomahawk missiles, Apache, Cheyenne, Lakota, Chinook and other helicopters are just a few examples. The U.S. military has named at least 20 aircraft, helicopters and missiles after Indigenous nations and symbols.

Although Indigenous people have struggled for years to end the use of their symbols and names as school and sports mascots, there is considerable pushback. Many of the names remain, and many people persist in using “dead names” despite new, non-offensive names having replaced them. How many Washingtonians still refer to “The (Red)Skins” instead of calling them The Commanders? How many young children still stick fake feathers in their hair and stomp around church gymnasiums all over the U.S., whooping and making tomahawk chop movements, as part of Boy Scout rituals? How many Indigenous children are forced to sit quietly in schools where their ancestors are reduced to a cartoon on a flag that’s waved during ball games and school assemblies?

The irony of misusing Indigenous people and symbols is sometimes overwhelming. The State Capitol building in Oklahoma features a statue of a Seminole man who is ostensibly guarding the state where his people and thousands of others were marched at gunpoint and made to occupy the lands of other Indigenous people during the Indian Removal of the 19th century.  

The continued honoring of Columbus in official government circles and civic celebrations in the United States and elsewhere is in reality celebrating the genocide of Indigenous peoples.

Indigenous peoples’ resistance to this form of disrespect and cultural appropriation is far more than a matter of political correctness. It is essential to the process of recognizing the fundamental human and civil rights of the people from whom this land was taken.

Movement for missing and murdered Indigenous peoples 

One of the worst vestiges of settler colonialism is the ongoing violence perpetrated upon Indigenous peoples, particularly women, two-spirit people and young girls. This constitutes an epidemic of violence against Indigenous women in Canada, the United States and Latin America. They are murdered at a rate more than 10 times higher than any other demographic group. The FBI’s National Crime Information Center reported 5,203 missing Indigenous girls and women in 2021 – disappearing at a rate equal to more than two and a half times their estimated share of the U.S. population. Indigenous women are at least two times more likely to be victims of rape compared to white women. Indigenous groups place that number far higher. This violence is partially due to the fact that non-Indigenous people cannot be prosecuted by tribal governments for crimes committed on tribal land, and local and state governments often choose not to prosecute perpetrators of violence upon Indigenous people.

Source: Kris Nagel (North Coast Journal)

Around 2016, Indigenous communities started organizing around the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous peoples. They started using the acronym MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women), and staging protests, die-ins and sit-ins at state capitols and law enforcement offices. They demanded that unsolved cases be followed up on and that laws be changed to prohibit prosecution of non-Native people by tribal courts. Much of this work was carried out by Indigenous women and two-spirit people.

Matriarch is an organization led by Indigenous women who share a common goal and commitment to empower other Indigenous women through education, community building and direct services to create positive change within their communities. Matriarch unifies women from many different Indigenous nations and is creating the kind of power base that is increasing Indigenous representation in government and fostering real change. Sarah Adams-Cornell, one of the founding members of Matriarch, says:

“By empowering Indigenous women, we also empower our children and build leaders within our homes and communities. This leadership has a positive impact upon Indigenous lives, creates stronger communities and decreases rates of violence and abuse.”

Solidarity with anti-colonial movements

The Black Lives Matter movement

Source: Annette Bernhardt (Flickr)

Indigenous peoples joined with African Americans and others to protest the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black and Brown people at the hands of police. This echoes the roles that many Indigenous communities have historically played in giving shelter and citizenship to enslaved African people who managed to escape bondage – which was not only a humanitarian act but also an act of resistance to the intersected wrongs of colonialism and slavery.

Indigenous people are murdered by police at a rate higher than any other ethnic group, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In streets throughout the land, Indigenous and Black people joined forces to demand an end to the extrajudicial murders of Native and African people by law enforcement.

Border wall resistance

Indigenous communities have been greatly affected by U.S. efforts to close the southern border. For many tribal nations, the border cut through their communities, isolating people who had been one united group by proclaiming that those north of the border were “Americans,” while those south of the border were “Mexicans.” From the California coast to the Gulf of Mexico and the Texas border, those imaginary lines drawn by European settlers have contributed to the oppression of Indigenous peoples who have occupied that land for thousands of years. As a result, many Indigenous communities have joined the struggle against militarization of the border and the border wall.

Source: Megan Jelinger (Getty Images)

In 2021, demonstrators from the O’odham Anti-Border Collective and Defend O’odham Jewed, a network of Akimel O’odham, Tohono O’odham and Hia-Ced O’odham activists, were at the center of recent demonstrations that blocked border wall construction on ancestral tribal land across Central and Southern Arizona. The border wall would have blocked springs that are a rare source of fresh water in the Arizona desert. In other actions, Indigenous peoples living near the border also engage in rescue efforts for people crossing the border, such as providing water, shelter and transportation.

Defenders of the Earth

In fact, Indigenous resistors have been at the forefront of the struggle to protect the environment. From battles against pipelines to protests of offshore oil rigs and Cancer Alley petrochemical plants, Indigenous resistors have led the way. In the process of defending the planet, these activists have created alliances, forged political and social bonds, gained political power and changed the dialogue about the environment, economy and political processes, all while struggling against entrenched racism and the crushing forms of neglect and abuse heaped upon them by a system that values them only as tourist attractions. Indigenous peoples have protested pipelines; mining; drilling; mountaintop removal; encroachments on waterways and wetlands; degradation of air, soil and water quality; destruction of habitats; and the endangerment of many species, including our own. 

Source: Jolanda Kirpensteijn

Ongoing resistance

There are many ways to evince a warrior spirit. Taking up arms to defend your people and land is certainly one. The warrior spirits of ancient and contemporary Indigenous peoples take many forms. Resistance against oppression and efforts to create a more just and equitable world, and the defense and preservation of that world and all of its inhabitants, is a supreme act of resistance. 

The acts of protecting, preserving, and passing on to future generations the languages, spirituality, and cultures of their peoples are acts of resistance. The struggle to end the tokenization of their peoples as mascots and tourist attractions is an act of resistance. The act of building businesses that funnel money into Indigenous families, communities, and nations is an act of resistance.

Source: Josue Foto (Amplifier)

The act of joining in solidarity with Indigenous peoples across borders and throughout this hemisphere and the world is an act of resistance. The act of recognizing their common oppression with other BIPOC people in this nation and globally is an act of resistance.

The act of building political power and autonomy by tribal governments and growing participation in local, state and federal governments is an act of resistance. The act of creating schools that teach and nurture their young in the ways of their ancestors and providing them with the tools for success in contemporary life are acts of resistance.

The countless acts of resistance to oppression are acts of resistance. The acts of fierce and steadfast resistance to the destruction of our environment are acts of resistance.

The simple act of thriving, growing, becoming strong and living despite 530 years of genocidal oppression being committed against Indigenous peoples is resistance in its most profound and abiding form. Indigenous resistance started with the first incursions of settler colonists in this hemisphere. It will persist as long as oppression, degradation and exploitation of the planet and its inhabitants continue.

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This article is part of a series in AFGJ’s Human Rights in the United States: 2022 Report

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