- By Levi Rickert
OPINION. Not long ago, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans' eyes were focused on a presidential visit to Mount Rushmore on July 3. President Trump went to the Black Hills, where Mount Rushmore is located, to celebrate America’s 244th birthday.
The presidential pre-Independence Day show was met with hundreds of American Indian protesters, who said the president was not welcome on their territory. At least a dozen individuals were arrested that night.
It seemed like the start of a bad month for Indian Country.
But not longer after, three things happened that turned the tide in favor of American Indians’ efforts in their long fight against social injustice. On July 6, a federal judge ruled in favor of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and ordered Energy Transfer to close down its Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) by August 5. Three days later, on July 9, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Muscogee (Creek) Tribe in McGirt v. Oklahoma and finally, on July 13, the National Football League’s Washington franchise announced it will retire the offensive and racist name it has carried for 87 years.
Any one of these three victories on their own are significant to Indian Country. However, it is important to recognize that these three victories did not occur overnight, nor did they happen by accident. The victories came because of hard work in the court system and through protests outside of football stadiums and along the Missouri River at Standing Rock.
Social justice does not just happen by chance or accident. Social justice does not come by being in the right place at the right time. These three victories happened because of strong advocacy and strong action by American Indians at many levels. While protests are criticized in some circles, taking to the streets has an undeniably impact, amplifying the message of injustice and the calls for change.
In the case of the Dakota Access pipeline victory, the price was paid by protests along the Missouri River at Standing Rock where over the course of almost a year, tens of thousands of American Indians, who became known as Water Protectors, showed their opposition against the injustice of the DAPL — the “black snake” — being placed near Sioux ancestral territory and water. The mantra for the water protectors at Standing Rock became Mní Wičóni. Water is Life.
The Standing Rock movement began in April 2016. As it slowly gained national attention, non-Natives began to take notice. As the resistance efforts continued and more people came and went to the various camps at Standing Rock, the Obama administration’s U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced on Dec. 1, 2016 that they would not grant the DAPL an easement permit to cross the Missouri River near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.
Six weeks later, newly-inaugurated President Donald Trump reversed the Obama-era order and ordered the Corps to expedite a permit as soon as possible through a presidential memorandum. The DAPL was completed and was allowed to carry oil with a few leaks along the way.
However, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s lawsuit continued in the court system, which finally resulted in the July 6 decision –– a major victory in favor of American Indians’ tribal lands and resources.
The Supreme Court’s decision on the McGirt v. Oklahoma case on July 9 reaffirmed that Congress had never disestablished the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s 1866 reservation boundaries, which consists of a large swath of eastern Oklahoma.
After the historic decision, Native News Online spoke to Robert Anderson (Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe), a professor and director of the Native American Law Center at the University of Washington School of Law. He also teaches at Harvard Law School.
“I think that Justice [Neil] Gorsuch joining the four so-called liberals on the court to support Indian rights in yet another case is really a huge victory, not just for the Creek Nation, but for Indian Country in general. He has demonstrated since he's been on the court that he understands federal Indian law in a way that recognizes what tribes and their attorneys have argued for many years –– that the promises made by the federal government to tribes are to be kept, and that while Congress has the authority to change the terms of Indian rights, it has to do so explicitly. So, it's a real big deal.”
This Supreme Court victory for Indian Country was the result of hard work by a strong legal team working tirelessly to hold the United States to its treaty obligations.
“In this case, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation had to fight long and hard to protect their homelands, which were promised in their treaty agreements with the United States. In holding the federal government to its treaty obligations, the U.S. Supreme Court put to rest what never should have been at question,” John Echohawk, executive director of the Native American Relief Fund, said in response to the decision.
Last Monday’s announcement by the Washington NFL team that they will be retiring the name which is considered racist by many after 87 years was a victory that was decades in the making. One more time, it proved the resiliency and determination of American Indians.
In 1992, Bill Means (Oglala Lakota), Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne & Hodulgee Muscogee), Vine Deloria, Jr. (Standing Rock Sioux) and other prominent Indigenous leaders filed a lawsuit calling on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to cancel the six existing trademark registrations of the Washington NFL franchise’s name. Harjo et al v. Pro Football, Inc., was a landmark lawsuit, and in 1999 a three-judge panel of the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board ruled unanimously against the team and in favor of the plaintiffs.
The Washington franchise appealed the ruling and a federal district judge overturned the trademark experts’ decision. The case dragged on for another 10 years with legal actions and appeals that reached all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the franchise.
However, public pressure by Native people across Indian Country persisted and fueled by recent attention to racial injustice that has been brought to light by the Black Lives Matter movement, corporate sponsors of the team finally agreed that it was time for change: the name had to go. The persistence of American Indians prevailed.
While we celebrate these three victories, we also know that we, as American Indians, still have many other challenges to overcome and battles to win. We need to remain strong in the fight against injustice and keep the faith.
The remarks of Congressman and civil rights champion John Lewis, who passed away on Friday night, are even more relevant now: "Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”