Putting the Oregon Standoff in Perspective: America's History of Protest and Its Ironies

01/06/2016 01:42 pm ET Updated Jan 06, 2017
Revolution, people protest against government, man fighting for rights, silhouettes of hands up in the sky, threat of war
Revolution, people protest against government, man fighting for rights, silhouettes of hands up in the sky, threat of war

When scores of ranchers donning cowboy hats and rifles began their occupation of a remote outpost in Oregon last Saturday, it was by no means the first time in American history that a group of armed men and women had staged a dramatic occupation out West and made demands of the federal government.

The men who recently barricaded themselves in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge -- a federal building near Burns, Oregon -- are there, they say, because they must take a stand against the numerous "atrocities," committed against them by the federal government. The rancher's primary concern? That the government has been stealing land that is rightfully theirs.

And, nearly 43 years ago, almost to the month, there was another major occupation against federal land theft out West. In this case over 200 American Indian activists, Oglala Lakota as well as members of the American Indian Movement (AIM), took over Wounded Knee, South Dakota in February, 1973. Their occupation would last 71 days.

This is where similarities between the two most newsworthy protests against the federal government end. Nevertheless, fleshing out the differences between these two events -- differences not just in what led to them, but also in how the media, politicians, and even law enforcement, responded to each -- is useful.

As we continue to find ourselves inundated with news coverage of Ammon and Ryan Bundy and their band of Oregon rebels, we could use some perspective and a closer, comparative, look at Wounded Knee gives us just that. Indeed any examination of that 1973 uprising illustrates very clearly not only that the occupation still unfolding in Oregon will not be ended easily, but also that its very raison d'etre is, at best, ironic.

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Back in 1973 there were many Oglala Lakota living on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation near the Nebraska border. These men and women were, and had been, deeply angry at the federal government thanks to countless injustices -- legal, physical, and spiritual-- they had experienced at its hands. The many outrages these Indians had endured, acts now well-corroborated by historians, legal theorists, and countless agencies and organizations, weren't new to the Lakota, but in 1973, on the heels of a most heady era of civil rights activism, they seemed ripe for remedy. And the town of Wounded Knee--the hallowed site a U.S. government massacre of more than 200 Lakota men, women, and children in 1890, seemed the perfect place now to demand justice from the Feds.

The Lakota had tried to be heard in other ways. One of their most pressing recent concerns had been the way in which their tribal chairman, Richard Wilson, was selling tribal lands off to ranchers for a pittance, as well as to leasing areas of the Pine Ridge Reservation to private companies, rather than improving conditions for Pine Ridge's residents. Wilson was a good friend to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in Washington, and Lakota elders and youth alike not only distrusted him--believing him to be a corrupt tool of the BIA--but they greatly feared him as well. Wilson had its own private militia called the Guardians of the Oglala Nation (known by all as the GOONs) that he called on whenever he wanted to silence his enemies. Enemies were anyone who criticized his decisions such as those related to his land deals. And so the Lakota had tried to deal with Wilson, and with the suffering they were experiencing on the Reservation, through the system. Notably, by February of 1973 they had filed over 150 civil rights complaints, but had received little satisfaction.

It was in that context that the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization (OSCRO) at Pine Ridge decided to invite activists from the American Indian Movement (AIM) to meet them in Wounded Knee as a sign of solidarity and to discuss strategy.

When the members AIM arrived at Wounded Knee, scores of U.S. Marshals were already on the scene and, according to AIM "within hours police had set up roadblocks, cordoned off the area and began arresting people leaving town." Soon surrounded by federal law enforcement, OSCRO and AIM decided to take a stand--to occupy Wounded Knee until their demands for better treatment by the federal government were met. They were armed and ready to stay until their demands were met. One of the most important of these was that U.S. officials agree finally to abide by the terms of a treaty that they themselves had negotiated -- the Sioux Treaty of 1868.

Today the men occupying the wildlife refuge in Oregon are also armed and are also ready to stay until their demands are met. They too insist that the U.S. government has trampled on their rights. Ammon Bundy not only claims that ranchers like him are persecuted by the federal government --for example in the criminal justice system -- but also that the Feds have literally stolen from them. And like the Oglala Lakota, the members of his group, Bundy says, simply want to "reclaim their resources."

These men, however, have nothing in common with those who occupied Wounded Knee.

For starters, Ammon Bundy's group has no evidence of being persecuted by the federal government. Unlike the Oglala Lakota who were indeed routinely criminalized both on and off the reservation, white ranchers have rarely ended up institutionalized, contained, or imprisoned. Yes, two of Bundy's group have recently been ordered to Federal prison (because, according to the Department of Justice they had set a fire that raged out of control on public land in order to cover up illegal poaching). And yes, Ammon's Bundy's father, Cliven Bundy, has also run afoul of the Feds -- ending up in his own protracted standoff with them. In this case, as well, though, the issue wasn't the federal government proactively criminalizing one of America's white ranchers. Bundy had refused to pay grazing fees for his cattle--cattle that had been feeding on public lands for 20 years. A court had demanded that he remove his cattle from federal lands back in 1998, but he chose to ignore that order.

Equally important, when ranchers holed up in Burns, Oregon today try to justify their protest by claiming that the federal government has been stealing their land, they have little history to support them and, worse, they have waded into a deeply problematic, indeed deeply ironic, territory. These ranchers have seriously misunderstood American history--their own and that of the federal government's.

The only reason why white ranchers have any land to run their cattle on today -- whether it is land that they hold a deed to, or land that they are now defending against federal seizure under imminent domain, or public land that they currently use to feed their livestock -- was stolen from the American Indians. Even the land they now occupy in Burns, Oregon was stolen -in this case from the Burns Paiute tribe. And so, one might actually argue that any land owned by any white rancher today is in his possession thanks to, not in spite of, the long arm of the federal government. If these ranchers knew American history, they would know that it was the feds removal of Indian tribes, and its policies that gave countless acres of land to whites, such as the Homestead Act, that made whites ranchers in the first place.

Interestingly, however, even though the standoff in Oregon today has little historical justification, it has not netted anywhere near the same public or governmental hostility that the standoff at Wounded Knee did back in 1973.

Whereas Americans this week read headlines announcing the takeover of the wildlife refuge in Oregon such as "In Oregon, frustration over federal land rights has been building for years", or "Why an Armed Group Occupied US Land in Oregon," back in February of 1973 they were sent a far different message about what had led to the stand-off at Wounded Knee. In fact, while newspapers and online outlets today have been devoting considerable energy to investigating whether the Oregon ranchers might have legitimate grievances, the headlines back in 1973 screamed, "Wounded Knee Falls to Rampaging Indians," and read, "History in Reverse: Wounded Knee Post Attacked by Indians."

And politicians have also been remarkably open at least to the principles espoused by Oregon's recent rebels. To be sure most elected officials would prefer to steer clear of any discussion of their occupation--especially GOP politicians whom many have just assumed the rebels would support in any general election--but some have been quite sympathetic. While Senator Marc Rubio made clear that protestors should not break the law, he also stated that he firmly agreed ""that there is too much federal control over land, especially out in the western part of the United States. There are states, for example, like Nevada that are dominated by the federal government in terms of landholding."

Those occupying Wounded Knee, however, were considered by America's elected officials to be nothing more than "'terrorists' and 'hoodlums,'" who stood for little that was legitimate. Indeed, according to then-South Dakota governor Richard Kneip, a Democrat, AIM activists were simply about "'creating a climate of fear, hatred, and reprisals.'" Nixon administration officials fully agreed, referring to AIM activists as "incendiary extremists," and as Indians who "in a perverse way, want a massacre."

That the stand-off today in Burns, Oregon is seen in very different terms than had been Wounded Knee, even with recent national hysteria about gun-violence and terrorism, is clear not only in how the media and politicians have responded to this dramatic event, but also in how federal law enforcement has.

Although there has been virtually no military and very little law enforcement presence in Oregon since Saturday--indeed the plan so far has just been to "monitor the situation," and simply to ask the protestors to leave--from the moment that they began assembling at Wounded Knee, Indian civil rights activists were outnumbered by heavily armed law enforcement personnel from United States Marshals Service, the FBI, the ATF, and other state and local agencies. According to Wounded Knee scholar John Sayer, "The equipment maintained by the military while in use during the siege included fifteen armored personnel carriers, clothing, rifles, grenade launchers, flares, and 133,000 rounds of ammunition, for a total cost, including the use of maintenance personnel from the National Guard of five states and pilot and planes for aerial photographs, of over half a million dollars."

But while teasing out the differences between these protests--their very different historical origins as well as the very different way in which they have been received and responded to--gives us much food for thought, it tells us little about how this latest occupation will end or what its legacy will be.

Remarkably, the protest at Wounded Knee did not end in a bloodbath as it well might have--particularly given the massacre that had taken place at Attica just a few years earlier when overzealous law enforcement officers ended a protest there. Two protesters were shot by law enforcement at Wounded Knee, and one federal agent was also direly wounded, but it could have been much worse. The White House was definitely considering retaking Wounded Knee with force. Ultimately, however, both AIM and the federal authorities reached an agreement to disarm and to end the standoff. To get AIM to surrender the federal government had agreed to conduct a thorough investigation into the demands and grievances that had been articulated in their protest.

Although this did not happen--instead, hundreds of American Indians were indicted in Federal Court, many of others were charged in state and tribal court, for their role in the occupation--the protest at Wounded Knee nevertheless left a powerful legacy.

But the lesson that Americans should have taken from that powerful gathering of the Oglala Lakota and AIM back in 1973 -- that the land most Americans live on land today was in fact stolen from the Indians to their great detriment, and to the great advantage of non-Indians (particularly to ranchers in states like Nevada or Oregon), is being obscured by the recent occupation in Burns, Oregon.

And, because the men holding the wildlife refuge haven't been stolen from, and thus are not due reparations, there is little that the federal government can give them to end this standoff.

And so we must just wait and wonder how the very last sentence of this very latest chapter of American protest history against the federal government will be written.