The concurrent events of the Dakota Access Pipeline protest and Malheur National Wildlife Refuge verdict on Oct. 27, 2016, shed light on our country’s history of scrappy rebel underdogs, land disputes, and inequality.
On the same day Native American protesters in North Dakota were attacked by police armed with LRAD sound cannons for standing up to a private oil corporation, a group of insurgent ranchers calling themselves Citizens for Constitutional Freedom (C4CF) were acquitted on federal charges after taking up arms and occupying government property in Oregon.
These two different groups of people each fought back against some incarnation of The Man, but with very different results.
To understand the irony of this, let’s take a step-by-step look at the motivations for, and responses to, each occupation.
The inciting incident of both occupations was a dispute over land rights — each with its own unique and complicated history.
The occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was a retaliation for what the ranchers saw as unfair charges in an arson case — not a contestation of guilt, but a protest that the government shouldn’t have re-jailed the arsonists because of its own minimum-sentencing error. (The arsonists, however, rejected the Malheur occupation.)
The conflict with the Standing Rock Sioux of North Dakota has to do with an in-progress oil pipeline that could threaten the water supply for thousands of people. It also risks desecrating sacred tribal sites that they argued should have been protected by an oft-ignored treaty from 1851.
Religious freedom is a tenet of American culture, and the actions of both groups were certainly influenced by their religious affiliations.
The Standing Rock Sioux and other Native American tribes that joined in their protest also engaged in religious practices, such as prayer circles and ceremonial pipes. Unfortunately, authorities allegedly interpreted these rituals as threats on more than one occasion.
The tribes in North Dakota employed various means of nonviolent protest. C4CF, on the other hand, didn’t hesitate to escalate the situation with firearms — and, sadly, they were treated more civilly than the tribes.
Oregon authorities even offered to protect C4CF if they left the wildlife refuge.
Bundy met on numerous occasions with both local sheriffs and FBI agents looking to negotiate a cease-fire or a peaceful transfer of power. During the occupation, militants were allowed to come and go from the refuge and even held a press conference on the premises.
It was several weeks before federal agents put a plan into action to arrest any of the C4CF occupiers. No shots were fired, and no force was used from Jan. 4 through Jan. 26, 2016, when LaVoy Finicum was shot and killed (the circumstances of which are still unclear).
The Native American protesters, on the other hand, endured repeated assaults from public and private police forces as they pursued legal action.
While some members of the tribes tried to settle the dispute in court, others attempted to stand their ground at the actual site where the company behind the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, continued demolition and construction despite the requests from several federal organizations to stop. Several sacred sites were destroyed in the process.
North Dakota state authorities stripped the tribes of water and other emergency relief aids. On numerous occasions, tribal members were pepper-sprayed and threatened with assault by private security armed with attack dogs. Horses were killed, people were injured and shot with rubber bullets, and hundreds were arrested — including several journalists, one of whom is facing felony charges and up to 45 years in prison.
C4CF was in direct conflict with the government. The Standing Rock Sioux, a sovereign nation, was fighting a private corporation and the public authorities who took its side.
Whether one agrees with the Bundy clan or not, there is certainly an established history of people battling government tyranny. And whether they win or lose, the consequences tend to be significant.
The situation in North Dakota, however, is a harrowing example of special interests taking precedence, where state authorities are used as the enforcers of a private company against the people.
If that scares you, well, it should. A group of armed rebels rising up against the state is very different from marginalized people trying to stop a for-profit company from further hurting them.
The Native Americans took a stand when diplomacy failed and were bullied just as they’ve been throughout history. But the white guys who aimed guns at the government walked away scot-free.
In his testimony, Bundy invoked some familiar rhetoric. “It’s for my children, grandchildren,” he said. “Everything comes from the Earth, and if [the government] can get control of the resources, they can get control of the people.”
That’s not so different from the language Native Americans have used time and time again to assert and defend their ancestral homes.
Whatever claims might be valid in their grievances, Bundy and his fellow Malheur mutineers still enjoy the perks of white privilege.
Meanwhile, Native Americans continue to suffer, fighting the exact same fight that they’ve been fighting for hundreds of years against a system that still won’t bestow the same freedoms on them.
That’s not the same at all.