Land Returned, Pipelines Shutdown, Racist Logos Dropped: Indigenous People are Winning

In this time of massive change, as Black-led movements are dramatically shifting how this country grapples with our white supremacist roots and what future we are fighting for, Indigenous communities have achieved major wins for sovereignty and dignity that are the culmination of decades of organizing. These victories in the last two weeks highlight the power of long-haul organizing where each movement win opens up possibilities for the next. It also powerfully demonstrates that when the Black-led movement starts winning, all movements start winning.

On July 9th, the Supreme Court ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma affirmed that half of Oklahoma is Indigenous land, under the juristiction of the Muscogee, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole Nations. In the long Indigenous struggle for justice, this case might be one of the most important legal precedents of all time. Judge Roberts wrote (in the dissenting opinion) an apt description of why this win is so monumental for Indigenous sovereignty: “the decision today creates significant uncertainty for the state’s continuing authority over any area that touches Indian affairs, ranging from zoning and taxation to family and environmental law.” Exactly.

 When Indigenous-led movements win, all climate justice movements win. Indigenous nations, as sovereign nations with legal rights to land, have a unique position to be able to fight for environmental protection and against pipelines and other oil and gas infrastructure. The victory in Oklahoma is highly significant for future fights against oil and gas infrastructure where the government usurps indigenous sovereignty to push through oil and gas pipelines.

On July 6th, separate court cases shut down the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Keystone XL pipeline. While the specific court cases that have stopped DAPL and Keystone XL are not about Indigenous challenges, the organizing and legal challenges brought by Indigenous nations against each pipeline have been a major source of the delays, by increasing costs, and increasing uncertainty over the future fate of the projects. Even if these particular court cases are reversed, each time these two major pipelines are delayed, with ever increasing costs of court cases, further environmental reviews, etc., it means that investors in future pipelines will be more wary.

Take for example the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which was shut down on the same day as the DAPL and Keystone XL decisions were released. The two energy companies building the pipeline said that the costs had almost doubled because of lawsuits, and cited recent developments that “have created an unacceptable layer of uncertainty and anticipated delays” as their reason for shutting it down. Indigenous resistance has created the “unacceptable layer of uncertainty.”

Major wins are happening in the cultural arena as well. The current Black-led uprisings are forcing this country to reckon with its long history of white supremacy, leading to the toppling of statues of enslavers and confederate generals and also leaders who played particularly egregious roles in the genocide of indigenous people, including Christopher Columbus, Junipero Serra, Juan de Onate, and Andrew Jackson.

After almost a century of Indigenous organizing and pressure for the Washington r-skins to change their name, the team finally caved on Monday, announcing it will drop the racist slur and logo. This is a sudden reversal after the owner of the team has declared for years that he will “NEVER” (he specified that in all caps) change the name. Logos and racist names are part of the project of erasing Indigenous people. Fighting for name and logo changes is about flipping the script on erasure; it is a demand for dignity. 

On July 3rd, Indigenous land defenders and allies took action on Lakota land to disrupt Trump’s 4th of July rally at Mount Rushmore, where the faces of genocidal presidents are carved into one of the most sacred places for the Lakota nation. In the words of Indigenous historian Nick Estes “the Black Hills, or what we know as He Sápa, is the cultural kind of center of our universe as Lakota people, but more than 50 different Indigenous nations actually have origin stories or ties or spiritual connections to the Black Hills. And the Lakota people, as well as the Cheyenne and Arapaho people, when they signed the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, became the caretakers of that land.” The action at Mt. Rushmore was a defense of Native sovereignty, a demand for recognition of the true history of that place, and a continuation of the demand for the return of stolen land.

“We let the world know and reminded the world who the rightful owners of the Black Hills are– the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ. We made it clear that the President of the United States was not welcome in our territory, without the free prior and informed consent of our People and of our Tribal leaders.”
– Nick Tilsen, founder of the NDN Collective

NDN Collective President and CEO Nick Tilsen was among 20 Land Defenders arrested while protesting Trump’s visit to Mount Rushmore. After being detained for three days, he shared this statement. Click here for transcript.

The state is coming down with a heavy hand as it did at Standing Rock. Tilsen is facing outrageous trumped up charges that if convicted could face between 12-15 years in prison for his organizing work. Going after organizers and movement leaders through the racist judicial system has long been a strategy of the very system of white supremacy we are working to dismantle. And Indigenous people between the ages of 15 and 64 are incarcerated at 10 times the rate of white people in South Dakota.

It is our responsibility to stand with those who are targeted and we must organize to protect Tilsen and other Indigenous and Black leaders who are taking bold action to dismantle white supremacy. Donate today to the Black Hills Legal Defense Fund to support the defense of protests at the Black Hills.

We are inspired by the Indigenous movement’s steadfast organizing over decades and moved to see their wins propelled forward by the Black-led uprising against white supremacy.