Reprinted from Reader Supported News
For 40 years now, Leonard Peltier, leader of the American Indian Movement (AIM), has been imprisoned as a result of the armed raid by the federal government on Indian land at the historic Wounded Knee in 1973. Bill Means, veteran of the Vietnam War and the standoff at Wounded Knee, said, "The Feds didn't serve us coffee and pizzas. They came heavily armed, ready to do battle, and opened fire before they asked the first question." Means is a co-founder, along with Leonard Peltier, of AIM, and is now on the board of the International Indian Treaty Council.
"The laws are recast and enforced in order to suppress any type of minority movement," said Means, "to shift all the power of recognition to the white community. So that when the posse comitatus or bunch of racist ranchers take over a piece of land, they do it in the name of their country, and they become immune to the criminal laws of the United States."
Means reflected on how this scenario might have played out quite differently, if it had been AIM that decided to lead an armed takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. "We know exactly what they'd do. We experienced that back in 1973," Means told me in a January radio interview. "We were immediately surrounded by over seven or eight federal jurisdictions: FBI, U.S. marshals, U.S. Border Patrol, BIA police. I'm missing a few, but you can understand the type of response we get as Indian people."
Far from the history of his ancestors, who walked across the Bering Straits many thousands of years ago to discover North America, these descendants of white culture are "violent newcomers," Means said. "These are modern-day colonizers. I mean, we already went through this era of homesteading which was, you know, back in the days of 1887 or so. So this is a scary type of uplift in the posse comitatus-type people. I experienced this, as well, back in Wisconsin."
"It was 1987 when I moved here to the Twin Cities," said the Native American leader. "There was a struggle for fishing rights going on. And that's where we were surrounded, again, by law enforcement and vigilantes who were trying to stop our people from fishing, which is a tradition that goes back thousands of years. They actually made a social event out of it, where they would go every weekend, get drunk, and harass the Indian fishermen and women. That was just back in the 80s. And, of course, Wounded Knee in the 70s. Now what's going on over there is being condoned and almost celebrated, and these people are being portrayed as heroes for standing up to the federal government. But, in fact, when we try to defend our land, and our fishing rights, hunting rights, what do we get? We get the opposite. We get the rednecks, we get the racists, we get the crooked politicians, who are all stepping forward to be a part of this action against Indian people. So we have a complete, shall we say, contradiction from the response of law enforcement. When they're white, they are alright. If they're Indian, if they're Black Lives Matter, then it's a whole other process."
Confederate Flags Over Indian Land
Morningstar is a Native American activist and a member of the International Indian Treaty Council. She is also a member of the Pit River Tribe in Southern Oregon. Her tribe shares a boundary with the Paiute, whose land has been "occupied again by armed white people," this time white ranchers and cattlemen, she says, claiming "sovereignty" over land that has been inhabited by these tribes for thousands of years.
"It's really laughable that these armed militia have come in and are claiming that they're the original caretakers of the land," she said in an interview on January 20th. "We see it so much within these rural communities. They've really appropriated the language of sovereignty and caretaking. I live in a very rural community where there are a number of cattle ranchers. And they have stated, 'We're the caretakers here. It's our sovereign right to be here. This is our land.'"
To Morningstar and the people she stands for, Ammon Bundy and his brother Ryan are not heroes. They have zero claim to the land and present "a direct threat" to the local Native American community. She herself has often felt directly threatened while walking in isolated parts of the countryside.
"It's not a very welcoming atmosphere," said Morningstar, "as I do wear my sweatshirt that says 'Got Land?' on the front, and 'I'm thinking Indian' on the back. And I don't get a very warm response. Confederate flags are very common, the state of Jefferson flags. But these are tribal lands. We've been here since time immemorial. And so when the lands were homesteaded, when they were opened up for cattle ranchers, and for farmers, that wasn't the beginning of U.S. history. We've existed for many thousands of years and so it's very much a concern with the Bundy group and their supporters as well."
Morningstar is deeply troubled by the takeover of the Malheur Refuge area, which she said contains sacred burial grounds of their ancient ancestors, and extensive personal records about the community and its people. She bristles at the claim by the Bundy brothers that they are acting on behalf of everyone in the area, including the Native American tribes. "They are absolutely not acting on behalf of the local tribes within the area," she said unequivocally. "The Paiute have 420 members enrolled, half of whom live on and near the reservation. And so they have essentially taken over the bird refuge. The main concern right now is that there are over 4,000 artifacts. There are maps within the BLM offices. These are maps that are not disclosed to the public, and so we're hearing stories now of the militia members, Bundy's faction, you know, going through personnel files of the staff members there, many of which include tribal members. They have access to this classified material, and to the 4,000 artifacts."
Morningstar added that her concern is not only with the potential damage the armed ranchers might do inside the formal structures of the refuge, but with what they have already done as a result of their driving large herds of cattle over sacred Indian land. "When it comes to sacred place protection, it's definitely an issue, because the cattle are consistently stepping over sacred sites and burials," she said. "They are contaminating our springs, our waterways, our creeks. They're inside the rivers and stream ways. We're having to do a lot of restoration work along the creek ways because we have cattle that are just pushing the soil and dirt into the water."
The affected tribes have reached out directly to law enforcement and to the Feds, but unlike Wounded Knee in 1973, said Morningstar, when the government responded with massive firepower on the same day as the takeover, here the Feds have been slow to act. "The tribe is working directly with BLM and with law enforcement on it," she said, "but they are very slow to respond, and there's irony, of course. When the Wounded Knee takeover took place in 1973, the very same day there was response. There was paramilitary response from the U.S. government. We all know that there were tankers that were brought in. There were air bombings that occurred. And the fact that this takeover has been going on for over three weeks now, and the Feds are taking this 'let's sit back and wait' approach, is very concerning."
The Danns and the Bundys: The Racist Double Standard at Ruby Valley
In the mid-nineties, there was a similar standoff between Native Americans and federal authorities over grazing rights in Nevada. But as Bill Means is quick to point out, in rural Nevada where this played out, the Native Americans were on solid legal grounds and took the Feds to court. "They stood behind the rule of law, as Indian people, when they took action," said Means. "Indian people stood behind the rule of law, and they were violently attacked."
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