Act: Inspiration

Why Indigenous Civil Resistance has a Unique Power

August 2, 2017

Published in collaboration with the Peace Science Digest, which summarizes and reflects on current academic research in the field of peace and conflict studies.

2016 saw the emergence of a powerful movement against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, or DAPL, through land vital to Native communities, especially the Standing Rock Sioux. For non-Native people who have not been paying attention to indigenous rights struggles over the past several decades, the #NoDAPL movement may have served as a wake-up call to some of the injustices still confronting these communities. For others, as Tom Hastings points out in “Turtle Island 2016 Civil Resistance Snapshot,” in the Journal for the Study of Peace and Conflict, #NoDAPL is simply another in a long line of civil resistance struggles Native communities have mobilized, often successfully, to claim their rights. He highlights this recent history of Native American and First Nations civil resistance movements on Turtle Island — the name, from Lenape mythology, that refers to the landmass others call North America — and takes stock of their characteristics, challenges and successes, arguing that nonviolent resistance has been a more effective strategy than violent resistance in defending Native peoples and their “lifeways.”

Hastings begins with the fact that, unlike other identity groups struggling for justice in the United States or Canada, indigenous groups can claim sovereign rights as nations with their own governance structures — which also means that activists often mobilize in tandem with, as opposed to against, their tribal governments. Practically speaking, this fact provides indigenous activists with an additional tool in their activist toolbox: the nation-to-nation treaties previously negotiated with the settler governments of the United States and Canada. Hastings notes that occasionally simply mentioning the existence of a treaty, and the fact that “tribal lawyers are standing by,” has been enough for action to be taken in favor of Native communities. In other cases, of course, the process is not so easy, but the existence of treaties as legal documents to which the federal government must be held accountable helps enormously. For instance, Hastings recounts an incident in 1974 when two brothers from the Anishinaabe nation, upon realizing that they had treaty rights to do so, “purposefully and openly fished on off-reservation waters” and presented a copy of the treaty to the game warden who came to arrest them. The matter was taken up in the courts, who ultimately ruled in their favor. But although they had established their legal right to fish in these off-reservation waters, they still faced the wrath of angry mobs who met them with racial slurs and sometimes even violence as they were trying to fish.

Hastings himself, along with other allies with the organization Witness for Peace, would, in the late 1980s/early 1990s, accompany them to the fishing spot as a protective presence. Eventually, media attention, which highlighted the contrast between the nonviolent Anishinaabe people simply fishing and the “inebriated racists” trying to stop them, shifted the opinion of the public and ultimately government officials in favor of treaty rights. This case draws out a number of elements of Native civil resistance that Hastings explores throughout the article, in addition to treaty rights leverage: the strategic importance of nonviolent discipline, the power of media in shaping the outcome, the key supportive role that can be played by non-Native allies (as well as by indigenous allies globally), and the ultimate need for broader public education and opinion change on Native history, rights and struggles.

Beyond treaty rights (mostly regarding access to resources on land ceded in treaties — sometimes with dubious levels of consent — to which tribes have historical ties), Hastings mentions mobilization around a range of other issues: environmental protection, tribal health care, law enforcement, borders/boundaries, tribal dignity, consultation (on various policies affecting tribes), and basic sovereignty. Of these, he pays special attention to anti-nuclear and anti-pipeline (environmental) activism against attempts to store nuclear waste and extract or transport oil close to Native communities, noting how these movements have become “more effective at drawing [in] coalition partners and using their special sovereignty statuses to wield power disproportionate to their populations.”

Throughout the article, the complex and multi-faceted nature of Native identity — and its relation to various forms of resistance — emerges as a common theme. First, Hastings brings attention to the importance of national (e.g., Sioux) and band (e.g., Brule Sioux) identities as opposed to the blanket identity of “Native American” or “First Nation,” which he says is more often used by non-Native people than by indigenous people themselves. He does, however, note the way in which a pan-Native American identity developed to some degree in the United States (through the emergence of American Indian Movement activism in the late 1960s and1970s) whereas it did not in Canada. Finally, he highlights the emergence of a complicated warrior identity, both in relation to participation in the U.S. military — often in the name of and to gain status for their tribal nations rather than out of allegiance to an oppressive federal government — and in relation to longstanding anti-settler resistance, including the resistance of nonviolent “warriors.”

Contemporary relevance

From April 2016 until late February 2017, enduring a fierce winter, Standing Rock Sioux water protectors and their allies created an encampment where they gathered and prayed to resist the proposed construction nearby of the Dakota Access Pipeline under the Missouri River and across their sacred sites. The encampment and its acts of civil disobedience drew widespread media attention and support but also brought repressive responses from local police and private security companies. Although President Obama temporarily halted construction in light of the Standing Rock people’s concerns, President Trump has since reinstated the project, and the camp has been dismantled. This article helps to situate the so-called #NoDAPL movement in the broader context and history of settler colonialism, broken treaties, exploitation and persistent indigenous civil resistance in North America. Understanding construction of the pipeline as part of this continuum of oppression, displacement and trust-violation endows the resistance movement with greater meaning — a movement that needs to be seen not as an over-reaction to an isolated incident but as a justified response to a steady onslaught of injustices.

More broadly, this history focuses attention on the widespread modes of domination by which some groups of human beings interact with both other groups of human beings and the natural world — instrumentalizing both for self-centered gain with no regard for indigenous self-determination or ecological balance. It is becoming abundantly clear that such practices are neither socially nor environmentally sustainable. As climate change becomes a clear and present danger, non-Native folks have much to learn — and fast — from resistance movements and lifeways of indigenous peoples about how to live sustainably without obliterating the world or one another.

Practical implications

For indigenous activists, this research highlights the importance of maintaining nonviolent discipline, while also thinking strategically about both the use of media and collaboration with global and local allies to facilitate shifts in public opinion and create broad-based movements that will be more resilient and have greater impact. For non-Native allies, this research reminds activists of the broader historical context informing indigenous struggles and what that means for the significance of a specific movement itself but also for the role of settler allies in that movement — those who benefit in many ways from the forms of exploitation that have deprived Native communities of their livelihoods and sacred places but who also have access to particular forms of leverage that can put pressure on those spear-heading that exploitation and dispossession today. For instance, allies of #NoDAPL can go right to the source and move their personal savings out of banks financing the DAPL project and into local banks or community credit unions that are not. Going a step further, they can mobilize their employers and cities to do the same.

More broadly, non-Native allies can educate their families, friends, and communities on the historical and contemporary injustices facing Native communities so that indigenous civil resistance movements can be met with even greater empathy and support. Finally, activists should continue to draw out the connections between local struggles like #NoDAPL and the broader global climate justice movement; the former grounds and gives a human face to an issue as daunting as energy consumption and climate change, while the latter provides #NoDAPL and other such movements with additional urgency and wider relevance that can galvanize broader publicity and mobilization.


Teaser photo credit: By Doc Searls from Santa Barbara, USA – 2009_01_27_bos-sfo_506Uploaded by PDTillman, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Molly Wallace

Molly Wallace is Contributing Editor at the Peace Science Digest and Visiting Scholar in Portland State University’s Conflict Resolution Program. Her new book, Security without Weapons: Rethinking Violence, Nonviolent Action, and Civilian Protection, explores nonviolent alternatives for civilian protection in war zones—and particularly the unarmed civilian peacekeeping work of Nonviolent Peaceforce in Sri Lanka. She earned her Ph.D. in Political Science at Brown University and previously taught in the International Affairs and Political Science Programs at the University of New Hampshire and Brown University.

Tags: climate justice movement, indigenous social movements