THE BLOG
09/05/2016 09:15 am ET | Updated Sep 05, 2016

Standing Rock And The Forgotten History Of Native American Activism

Don Wilkie via Getty Images

For the last few months, members of North Dakota's Standing Rock Sioux tribe and allies from numerous other Native American tribes have protested the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a multi-billion dollar oil pipeline that would span four Western states and affect native communities and land in many ways. The community of protesters represents the largest gathering of Native Americans in more than a century, yet it has been largely ignored by the mainstream American media. (The protest's significant social media presence might make it seem to some of us as if it's receiving such attention, but outside of that bubble of insiders there has been shockingly little national coverage.)

The absence of Standing Rock from our collective conversations is troubling on its own terms, as this is a huge and compelling American story. It's also a story that links to many other significant issues: from debates over energy policy to the movement against police brutality, the history of Native American sovereignty and land rights to 21st century social media and hashtag activism.

Yet by minimizing and ignoring the protests, we're also replicating longstanding national narratives of native communities as "vanishing Americans," tragic victims of oppression with no real voice, agency, or presence. And we're likewise forgetting the alternative, vital histories of Native American resistance, protest, and activism through which native communities have responded to and often changed those darkest histories.

Both of those troubling trends can be traced back to the early 19th century era of President Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal policy. The horrific Trail of Tears that was that policy's most destructive result is perhaps the most frequently taught and remembered Native American history. Yet far less well remembered are the 1829 and 1830 Cherokee Memorials, collaboratively authored texts addressed directly to Congress through which the tribe responded to the removal policy with a stunning combination of legal and constitutional, historical and political, and rhetorical and emotional appeals. While the Memorials did not succeed in halting the tribe's removal, they nonetheless comprise a vital moment and model of American protest and activism.

The same era also witnessed an equally inspiring and more successful moment of resistance: the Mashpee Revolt of 1833-1834. The Cape Cod (Massachusetts) tribe had been dealing with its own version of illegal white intrusions and settlements on their land, and with the help of the fiery native preacher, orator, and activist William Apess, the Mashpee fought back. Apess and tribal leaders drafted a formal resolution of protest, one quite parallel to (and perhaps even partially inspired by) the Cherokee Memorials; the document and the tribe's subsequent protests gained the attention of Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and other sympathetic allies, and aided by their advocacy the tribe secured the state's recognition of its right to self-governance within a new "Indian District of Mashpee."

Our collective memories of Native Americans in the late 19th century, when they exist at all, similarly tend to focus on the most destructive and tragic histories: the Indian Wars and the final surrenders of leaders such as Geronimo and Chief Joseph; the horrors of the Wounded Knee massacre; the rise of the interconnected reservation and reform school systems. Those dark American histories certainly demand even fuller remembrance and engagement than we've yet given them.

Yet this was the same period in which Ponca chief Standing Bear and other members of the Nebraska tribe took part in an extensive speaking tour to argue for their tribal rights, culminating in Standing Bear's stunning legal victory in 1879's Standing Bear v. Crook, a case which established Native American personhood under the law. This was also the period in which Paiute chief and author Sarah Winnemucca resisted her tribe's removal through a combination of legal petitions, written activism, and land occupation, helping return many Paiutes to their Oregon homelands.

The legacies of the Cherokees and Apess, of Standing Bear and Winnemucca, echo into our present moment. The construction of pipelines on native land can and must be read as yet another oppressive, destructive history unfolding against native communities. Yet once again those dark histories have produced inspiring acts of resistance and protest. When the Senate voted against authorizing construction of the Keystone Pipeline in November 2014, Lakota activist Grey Graycloud led a chant of celebration, a singular moment that illustrates the ongoing efforts by tribes in both the U.S. and Canada to protest and stop the pipeline.

Today, we see an even more collective and organized communal protest unfolding in Standing Rock. It's quite possible that the Dakota Access Pipeline will be built nonetheless--the dark histories have too often overcome inspiring activisms. History tells us with certainty that more violence and discrimination will be directed at these native protesters and their allies. Yet what we cannot and must not do is extend and complement those oppressions by repeating our history of minimizing and ignoring Native American protest and activism. And if focusing our collective attention on Standing Rock helps us likewise remember those longstanding legacies of resistance, all the better.

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