The Never-Ending Indian Wars

This article appeared in Yes! magazine in 2017. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

The world has been shocked by North Dakota’s violent, militarized reaction to 
the oil pipeline resistance at Standing Rock. For the better part of a year, people watched via social media, then increasingly with conventional media, as heavily armed law enforcement officers and private security agents used dogs, rubber bullets, mace, tear gas, batons, and water cannons deployed in sub-freezing temperatures to attack unarmed civilians. 

A volunteer medical team of doctors, nurses, EMTs, homeopathic physicians, herbalists and others cared for the many hundreds of injured. More than 100 were hospitalized, and more than 700 were arrested as they protested the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Standing Rock may have revealed this violence to a new generation of observers, but for Native people, the brutality is nothing new, says Wendsler Nosie Sr., San Carlos Apache leader of Apache Stronghold, a group that seeks to prevent mining from obliterating Oak Flat, a tribal sacred site. “Federal and state involvement with us has always been military, from the days when we Native people were prisoners of war until this very day,” says Nosie.

The force used against unarmed civilians was extreme, even by military wartime standards. The concussion grenades that have allegedly caused some of the most serious wounds in North Dakota were banned in Iraq, U.S. Army veteran Griz Grzywa said an interview at Standing Rock. Grzywa served as a Ranger for 15 years, including one tour of duty in Somalia and three tours in Iraq. He went to Standing Rock in December 2016 to help shield the demonstrators from harm. “They are using a level of force against women and children here that our military would hesitate to use,” he said.

The second half of the 20th century saw many examples of state-sanctioned violence toward Natives. During the 1960s and 1970s, unarmed members of Northwest tribes were shot at, clubbed, gassed, and arrested—notably at Frank’s Landing, in Washington state—while seeking recognition of treaty-guaranteed fishing rights. For decades, law enforcement officers have roughed up and arrested protesters from Pine Ridge Indian Reservation as they try to shut down the town of Whiteclay, Nebraska. With about a dozen residents, the town exists almost exclusively to bootleg alcohol onto the dry reservation, setting off a cascade of physical and social ills and crime.

Just under 10 years ago, South Dakota sent its entire on-call contingent of highway patrol to help local police make arrests on the Yankton Sioux Reservation. Tribal members and others were demonstrating peacefully against a concentrated animal feeding operation that was being constructed on their homeland against their wishes. In Montana in 2012, after Northern Cheyenne spiritual teacher Mark Wandering became lead plaintiff in a voting-rights lawsuit, police traffic stops of Native people in the area spiked.

Natives are not just stopped by police; they are killed by law enforcement at a higher rate than any other group, according to Mike Males, senior research fellow at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. In April 2016, Claremont Graduate University scholars Roger Chin, Jean Schroedel, and Lily Rowen announced research showing that in six states—Mississippi, South Dakota, Idaho, Washington, Alaska, and North Dakota—death rates for Native Americans were higher than for any other group. 

“The violence toward us is embedded in our history,” says Nosie. “When we started the Oak Flat encampment, right away military-type planes began flying overhead.” 

Meanwhile, both houses of the North Dakota legislature have passed bills that make it easy to redefine a protest as a riot, increase criminal penalties for ”rioting,” and—astonishingly—allow ordinary citizens to injure or even kill protesters. If the last measure is signed into law, motorists who “negligently” hurt or kill anyone obstructing traffic “would not be held liable for any damages.” Bill co-sponsors were frank about it being a response to constituents who oppose the anti-DAPL movement.

North Dakota civil rights attorney and former U.S. attorney Tim Purdon, of the firm Robins Kaplan, calls the bill a “new low” that ”sends a message that we are going to dehumanize those with whom we disagree.” Purdon says the bill also has unintended consequences, since it allows anyone driving negligently—while under the influence of alcohol or texting, for example—to kill or maim with impunity.

All of these measures are meant to send a message, said Nosie: “We did it to you before, and we can do it again.”

Text c. Stephanie Woodard; photograph at top of Standing Rock in December 2016 c. Joseph Zummo; archival photograph at bottom of the Wounded Knee massacre, Pine Ridge, December 1890.

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