Full Circle in the Americas: Indigenous Resistance and Resurgence in the 21st Century

For the second year in a row, Albuquerque, New Mexico, celebrated Indigenous People’s Day instead of Columbus Day. And like last year, marchers organized by the Red Nation and allies took to the streets to demand justice and uphold Indigenous liberation.

On Monday, October 10, about 200 people marched through downtown Albuquerque chanting and carrying signs and banners that variously proclaimed “We stand with Standing Rock! #No DAPL,” Standing Rock: Today’s Wounded Knee“, “The Revolution will be Indigenized” and “Abolish the Entrada. The Reconquista was not bloodless!,” a reference to the annual Santa Fe Fiesta’s annual celebration of Spanish conquistador Juan de Onate’s reoccupation of Santa Fe in 1692 after the Pueblo Revolt of twelve years earlier.

As the crowd surged into the crispness of an early evening under a beautiful autumn sky, a chorus of voices rang out with the demand “Free Peltier!” An American Indian Movement (AIM) activist imprisoned for decades, Leonard Peltier was found guilty of the 1975 murder of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, a conviction supporters contend is a frame-up. But in a growing movement sweeping Indian Country and beyond, supporters are calling on President Obama to grant Peltier executive clemency before his presidency ends next January. To get their message across, some of the Albuquerque demonstrators wore black t-shirts imprinted with the words and numbers:

“Clemency Now
Call the White House

A counter-campaign waged by the FBI Agents Association and other supporters of slain FBI agents Jack Coler and Ron Williams is urging President Obama not to grant Peltier clemency. The Duke City marchers paused at the steps of the Albuquerque Police Department, currently under scrutiny by a court-ordered, independent monitor after a 2014 Department of Justice investigation found a pattern of excessive deadly force. Sporting a red banana across her face, a woman attired in a camouflage shirt over a black dress asked the crowd why she was masked.

“It’s because the Indian wars in the U.S. never ended,” she answered her own question, condemning “the police state” for attacking water protectors at North Dakota’s Lakota Standing Rock Reservation attempting to stop the nearly 1,200 mile-long Dakota Access Pipeline that’s slated to transport fracked oil upstream from Lakota land and down a Midwestern corridor.

“They can’t escape the creator and the powerful truth that each and every one of you are powerful people,” the masked woman thundered, leading the crowd in chants of “Water is life!” “Water is Life.”

Two immediate issues predominated at this year’s Albuquerque Indigenous People’s Day action: Freedom for Leonard Peltier and support for the battle of the Lakota people at Standing Rock to protect their water sources. During the march and subsequent rally at Albuquerque’s Civic Plaza, a diverse crowd also heard about the Palestinian struggle, listened to speakers and poetry and perused literature tables.

Formed in 2014, the Red Nation distributed a manifesto and 10-point program for Native liberation. Among other points, the group calls for the end of U.S. government and corporate domination of Indigenous land and resources, the elimination of racist imagery,  the eradication of capitalism and colonialism and a halt to violence against Native women, including the murder and disappearance of large numbers of Indigenous women and young girls in Canada since 1980.

The Red Nation also demands the reinstatement of treaty-making in the United States, which ended in 1871. “We demand that treaty rights and indigenous rights be applied and upheld both on-and-off reservations and federal trust land. All of North America, the Western Hemisphere and the Pacific is Indigenous land,” the group writes. “Our rights do not begin or end at imposed imperial borders we did not create nor give our consent to. Rights shall be enforced pursuant to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and the historical and political doctrines of specific Tribes.”

Dr. Jennifer Denetdale, University of New Mexico professor of American Studies and a member of the official Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, captured the mood of the evening.

“All over the Americas, we see our Indigenous people rising, resist and stand our ground. Our struggles are more than 500 years old,” the Dine (Navajo) academic and activist said. “Today we remember our ancestors. We remember the sacrifice of Larry Casuse (killed by police during a 1973 standoff and protest against alcohol poisoning of Native Americans in Gallup, New Mexico). We call on the U.S. to obey its own laws and protect its Indigenous people…you are the faces of what Indigenous resurgence looks like.”

The New Mexico event was among many in the United States and in the Americas this month that are highlighting Indigenous struggles. On October 10, five people were injured when the hit-and-run driver of a truck slammed into an Abolish KKKolumbus Day rally in Reno, Nevada, journalist Brenda Norrell’s Censored News reported.

In Mexico, Indigenous movements press forward on different fronts in the fall of 2016. For instance, Chihuahua’s Raramuris struggle to preserve their land base from encroachments by drug lords, miners, cattle grazers and tourist developers, while Indigenous communities in Guerrero and Oaxaca fight new mines, insist on autonomy in political and justice system affairs, demand the return of the 43 forcibly disappeared Ayotzinapa college students, and call for the release of imprisoned Guerrero community police members Arturo Campos, Gonzalo Molina and Samuel Ramirez.

In Michoacan, more than 40 Purepecha communities demanded last month that the state legislature recognize the legality of community policing systems predating the Spanish conquest, La Jornada reported. The Purepecha demand grows out of the 2011 uprising in the community of Cheran, where residents organized to halt logging linked to organized crime and expelled the municipal government and police they charged with corruption. Subsequently, the people of Cheran have conducted local government functions and provided security in accordance with Indigenous uses and customs.

If preserving clean water was the clarion call of the Standing Rock movement in North Dakota, saving forests was the spark that lit the Purepecha movement in Michoacan. In the southern Mexican border state of Chiapas, the National Indigenous Congress (CNI) celebrated its 20th anniversary this week. Formed after the 1994 New Year’s Day armed uprising of the Mayan-based Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) (on the very day that the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect), the CNI unites Mexican Indigenous communities around common goals of environmental defense, self-determination, autonomy and respect for the still-unfulfilled San Andres accords negotiated between the Mexican government and the EZLN.

The CNI “has given apparently isolated struggles a national horizon and an axis of action that goes beyond their local character,” wrote La Jornada’s Luis Hernandez Navarro in an October 11 column. According to Hernandez, Mexico’s Indigenous movements express their voices and objectives in the suites as well as in the streets, achieving victories in the Mexican Supreme Court and international institutions including the United Nations, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the International Labor Organization.

“But beyond the judicial terrain, communities resist by means of direct action,” Hernandez wrote. “They impede dispossession by mobilizing, blocking roads, stopping pillages cold, defending themselves and conducting work stoppages like the farmworkers of San Quintin (Baja California)…” At the beginning of the CNI’s 20th anniversary meet, the ELZN delivered a communique that was posted on the Mexican alternative news website Deinformemonos.org. “To speak among ourselves as original peoples is more necessary now than ever, because the destruction of Mother Earth that the capitalists are doing is growing and this means we too will be destroyed,” EZLN Comandante Moises was quoted.

“We have seen friends die for defending their lands. We have seen them criminalized or jailed,” Rocio Moreno a CNI member from the Coca community of Jalisco state told Desinformemonos.org. “Although today there is a war against the original peoples, just like 20 years ago, we have also seen the peoples recover their lands and their freedom…”

In Albuquerque, meanwhile, the 2016 Indigenous People’s Day rally dissected issues still very much alive after succeeding centuries of Spanish, Mexican and U.S. conquest and colonization, centered now as then on control and exploitation of land, water and resources. A message was read from veteran Dine activist John Redhouse, who expressed regret at not being able to be in attendance.

A pioneering researcher and theorist of energy resource colonialism in the U.S. Southwest, Redhouse weaved together the struggle of Amazonian peoples in South America against resource extractors with movements to the north, couching conflicts in a historical context of land dispossession and episodes like “America’s first concentration camp” at Ft. Sumner, New Mexico, where thousands of Dine and Mescalero Apaches were forcibly relocated and confined from 1863 to 1868.   On balance, Redhouse was upbeat about current developments, praising the “steady progress we are along on our road to liberation” in the Americas, north to south.

Dine Norman Brown delivered a message of “thanks” and “love” from Leonard Peltier, who at 72 years of age is ailing after more than 40 years of incarceration. As a teenager, Brown worked with Peltier at the Jumping Bull camp on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, where a deadly shootout between AIM and the FBI occurred on June 26, 1975.

“I was part of the resistance group. I was the youngest fighter there,” Brown told the rally. FBI agents Coler and Williams were killed that day along with 18-year old AIM member Joe Stuntz.  AIM members Dino Butler and Robert Robideau were later acquitted for the killings for which Peltier was ultimately convicted, but no one has ever been held accountable for Joe Stuntz’s slaying. Decades later, Brown described June 26 as a “horrifying day” that resulted in the loss of three “beautiful lives.” Expressing no enmity toward FBI agents, Brown said the real problem was U.S. government policy that keeps the people down.

“Nothing has changed in 41 years. We’re still fighting, and I want to thank our young people. I know you will continue the fight…, Brown said. “The only enemies we have is the unjust policy subjugating our people on the reservations. We want treaty rights…”

Brown refuted portrayals of Peltier as a “thug” and a “criminal,” adding “I knew Leonard. He was a good man…he stood up for his people.” The Jumping Bull camp firefight occurred in the context of extreme violence and repression that clobbered the Pine Ridge Reservation following the 1973 armed occupation by AIM members and traditional Oglala Lakotas of Wounded Knee, site of the 1890 massacre of hundreds of Lakota men, women and children by the U.S. Seventh Cavalry.

The conflict pitted AIM and Lakota traditionalists against an officially recognized tribal government headed by Richard Wilson, whom opponents accused of operating like a dictator and negotiating land transfers behind the community’s back.

Backed by Washington, Wilson maintained a security force literally called GOON, the acronym for Guardians of the Oglala Nation. Among the works that document the political violence on Pine Ridge between 1973 and 1976 are Roberto Maestas’ and Bruce Johansen’s book Washichu (1979) and Rex Weyler’s Blood of the Land: The Government and Corporate War against the American Indian Movement (1984).

Both books cite a conservative number of 61 homicides spread over three years on the small reservation, with most of the victims associated with AIM or traditional Lakotas. Maestas and Johansen calculated the homicide rate on Pine Ridge at 170 per 100,000 people, comparing the death toll to the U.S. rate of 9.7 per murders 100,000 people in 1974. The two authors likened the intensity of the violence on Pine Ridge to the aftermath of the U.S.-backed military coup that overthrew elected socialist President Salvador Allende of Chile on September 11, 1973.

Whereas Wounded Knee ’73 was the galvanizer of an earlier generation of youthful Red Power activists, Standing Rock 2016 is the defining moment of a new generation.

“I’ve never been more proud of being Native American, but I’ve never been more scared of being Native American,” the UNM Kiva Club’s Demetrius Johnson said at the Albuquerque Indigenous People’s Day demonstration. Johnson, who recently spent four days at Standing Rock, said he and his group were followed around and surveilled for a couple of days by a pair of strange white men. The UNM engineering student described a police encirclement of the water protectors’ camp not unlike the military-police siege of Wounded Knee ’73, but this time with an array of modern technology including drones.

In recent weeks, dozens of people have been arrested in the vicinity of the camp;    in one instance, attack dogs were unleashed on peaceful campers by private security guards.  Despite the government’s show-of-force, thousands of people from hundreds of Indigenous nations across the Americas and the world have traveled to Standing Rock to support the tribe in the biggest such gathering in recent memory.

Apart from a historic display of Indigenous unity, Standing Rock has emerged as ground zero of the movement against the continued exploitation of fossil fuels and a transition to clean energy.

“Incredibly powerful” and virtually beyond words is how Ahjani described her recent experience at Standing Rock. “I can say I came back and I’d never be the same,” the young woman told FNS. Standing Rock was such a serendipitous moment, Ahjani said, she and her friends from New Mexico’s Jemez Pueblo organized a new group, the Pueblo Action Alliance, not only to support Standing Rock but to defend water and the environment at home as well. “It’s to protect water..their water and everybody’s water,” she said.

Reconnecting Indigenous peoples once linked by ancient trade routes has been a major accomplishment of the Standing Rock movement so far, Ahjani said. “Thanks to the Internet we’re connected again. We’re brothers and sisters,” she added.

Burque’s Indigenous People’s Day rally was the occasion for the public unveiling of another new group- the reborn Albuquerque AIM chapter. Immediately following the announcement, young people and elders alike crowded around drums on the Civic Plaza and sang the old AIM song.

Sam Gardipe worked with Albuquerque’s AIM chapter back in the 1970s before it faded away. Gardipe told FNS  that burning issues including dissatisfaction over the management of the Albuquerque Indian Center and the Gathering of Nations, North America’s largest pow wow held in Albuquerque every April, as well as renewed violence against Native Americans, prompted discussion among community members that resulted in the decision to revive an AIM chapter.

Gardipe said today’s tactics will be different than those of the past. “The days of occupying buildings and carrying weapons are over,” Gardipe reflected, saying a revived movement will concentrate on winning over “hearts and minds.”

Gardipe added that he and others were struck by outbreaks of violence against the homeless population and the brutal murders last year of two Dine men, Allison Gorman and Kee Thompson, who were trying to sleep outside one evening on Albuquerque’s West Side. For their roles in the vicious slayings, two teens were sentenced to lengthy prison terms, while a third awaits sentencing, according to the Albuquerque Journal.   

For Gardipe, the attack recalled a 1974 murder spree in Farmington, New Mexico, when three white teens were arrested for brutally killing three Dine men.  The longtime activist posed a question that all might well ponder: “Why do we have stuff like that going on in the 21st century?”

For background and ongoing coverage of the Standing Rock and other contemporary Native struggles:  http://bsnorrell.blogspot.com/

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwestern United States, the border region and Mexico. He is a regular contributor to CounterPunch and the Americas Program.