Making NativeLivesMatter

Brian Ward and Ragina Johnson explain how the same institutions being protested by the Black Lives Matter movement have a long history of oppressing American Indians.

Allen Locke, murdered by police days after attending a Native Lives Matter protest in Rapid CityAllen Locke, murdered by police days after attending a Native Lives Matter protest in Rapid City

STUDENTS FROM the American Horse School, located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, were invited to Rapid City, South Dakota, to watch the Rush, a minor league hockey team. At the game, the Lakota students were subjected to racial slurs by a handful of fans in a corporate suite, who told them "to go back to the rez" and poured beer on them.

This incident may sound like something out of the history books, but it happened just a few weeks ago, in late January. Racism against American Indians is alive and well.

The Black Lives Matter movement has pushed U.S. society to recognize the racist legacy built into its very foundations. Actions by protesters in Ferguson, New York City and around the country have brought the issue to the front doorstep of U.S. political leaders.

Many liberal and conservative commentators have proclaimed the U.S. to be a "post-racial" society after the election of an African American president. Obviously, readers of this website are not fooled by such rhetoric. We know African Americans continue to face brutality and death at the hands of police and vigilantes, along with continued economic discrimination and inequality, from soaring unemployment and poverty rates to substandard housing.

Native Americans, though a significantly smaller percentage of the population than African Americans, also face racial profiling and police brutality around the country, especially in the Western states.

The incident at the Rapid City Rush game is just one example of the daily racism experienced by Natives. For that reason, many Natives have been inspired by the Black Lives Movement to take up slogan Native Lives Matter and build a new movement. One of the first Native Lives Matter protests took place on December 19 in Rapid City to demand fair treatment by police and to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Allen Locke attended the protest. The next day, he was killed by Rapid City police. Locke's wife Celeste Two Crows had called the cops, wanting Alan out the house until he was sober, but police reacted with deadly force. She told Al Jazeera that her husband was not threatening her or the officers when they shot him five times.

Not surprisingly, when the police investigated the case, they determined their officers did nothing wrong.

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THE HISTORY of police murders of Native Americans is a long one. Sitting Bull, one of the leaders of the famous Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, was arrested and killed by Indian Police officials. Today, Native Americans only represent 0.8 percent of the population, but are 1.9 percent of those killed by police, according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

Much like African Americans, Native Americans are disproportionately represented in the prison population, especially in states with a significant Native population. In South Dakota, for example, where Natives are 8 percent of the population, they make up 29 percent of the prison population.

Unemployment rates among Native Americans reach as high as 90 percent on some Indian reservations. Nationally, Natives have a jobless rate that is twice that of the white population--similar to African Americans. Roughly 25 percent of American Indians and Alaskan Natives live below the poverty line. On some reservations, the poverty rate is as high as 50 percent.

Racial profiling toward Natives is still prevalent in many Western states. In the Great Plains and Southwest, which have large Indian reservations, license plates identify drivers who are from a reservation. In South Dakota, those living on Indian reservations have license plates that start with the number 6.

Unlike the slogan "All Lives Matter" which aims to obscure the fact that Blacks and people of color generally face disproportionate violence at the hands of the police, the slogan "Native Lives Matter" focuses on the brutal history of this country which was built on the paired horrors of the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans and how that history lives on for both groups through structural racism and inequality. And it points toward a common determination to stand up against violence and hate.

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NATIVE AMERICANS have faced oppression and discrimination since the first Europeans came to this continent.

After the U.S. won independence from England, the seizure of Native land--and the violence necessary for this theft--was the backbone of the new country's capitalist development and expansion. To enforce these land seizures, the use of the military and the later development of an Indian Police force were necessary to keep indigenous peoples who survived the hundreds of wars on them in line.

The modern police force in the U.S. has its roots in tracking fugitive slaves and breaking strikes and workers' protests, but also in the hunting down of Native peoples who refused to be rounded up into reservations. The Texas Rangers were the most famous of these vigilante groups--they were known for defeating the Comanche, Kiowa and Apache peoples in the Southwest.

Many Indian agents, who ruled reservations with an iron fist, took it upon themselves to transfer their position from the cavalry into the Indian police forces, which were funded by Congress, starting in 1878. The agents often hired Natives to police their own reservations.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is quite blunt about purpose of Indian Police:

Duties of the Indian police included arresting and turning back intruders, removing squatters' stakes, driving out cattle, horse or timber thieves, escorting survey parties, serving as guards at ration and annuity distributions, protecting agency buildings and other property, returning truants to school, stopping bootleggers, making arrests for disorderly conduct, drunkenness, wife-beating and theft, serving as couriers, keeping agents informed of births and deaths and notifying agents of any strangers. (emphasis added)

The fear of the police and military was key to maintaining control of Native nations that became more and more impoverished due to structural and economic racism alongside continued treaty violations.

Many Natives were forced to move off reservations into cities, only to find that the jobs promised by the U.S. government during "relocation" didn't exist, and that they were now aggressively patrolled by urban police.

As police harassment and brutality increased, organizations such as the militant American Indian Movement (AIM) were founded to combat dehumanizing harassment and racial profiling. The first march that AIM organized in 1968 was against police brutality toward Natives in Minneapolis.

At the time, Minneapolis' prison population was 70 percent American Indian, though they made up 10 percent of the city's population. AIM invigorated a whole generation to stand up to the police and for American Indian rights.

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TODAY, THE police are still being used for a purpose they always have: to suppress Native rights so that the capitalist class can gobble up more Native resources. The police protect the land that the U.S. government stole in the past and keep Indians in line so that the government can go after more vital natural resources that still lie under Native lands.

Today, the U.S. economy has expanded in large part through a boom in fossil fuel extraction. This expansion of the polluting energy industry threatens all of our abilities to live on this planet in a healthy environment, while also attacking the sovereignty and rights of Native American tribes and First Nations.

South Dakota is home to the Black Hills, which are sacred to many indigenous communities--including the Lakota. The Black Hills have been the battleground against mining and resource extraction for almost 150 years, from gold in 1871 to uranium in 1977 to oil and gas today.

Chinese energy corporations are currently attempting to gain fracking permits "to extract water from the Madison Aquifer and Inyan Kara formation, totaling about 12,960,000 gallons a day, 94 billion gallons of water for the projected 20-year lifetime of the project," according to one newspaper report.

Rapid City, one of the places where Native Lives Matter movement has been growing and where Allen Locke was murdered, is situated right next to the Black Hills.

The plunder of Native lands by U.S. and foreign corporations is far from over, and this never-ending theft can't be separated from the oppression Native people face by the police and the U.S. state.

Madonna Thunder Hawk is a member of the Oohenumpa band of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, a leader in the American Indian Movement (AIM), a co-founder of the American Indian organization Women of All Red Nations, and an organizer and tribal liaison of the Lakota Law Project. She explained in an interview how a new generation is starting to connect the dots:

Young people are making the connections. You have the pipeline struggle and Black Lives Matter, and it's not like we have to wait for the media to say something about what is going on. The information is getting out there through social media. The younger generation in South Dakota put together a demo in Rapid City with Ferguson. These struggles are happening all over this country.

People understand police violence and murders are happening all over the country. It's got to be a nationwide change. It can't be just local areas.

Just as the Black Lives Matter movement is pointing to the structural and systematic nature of racism against African Americans, we need to look at how this country's political and economic system has treated Native peoples historically, and the ways it continues to do today.

More importantly, we can see how these two movements can unite to fight a sick system. Thomas Pierce and Dave Ortiz point out that this is the ruling class' biggest fear:

When you look at the cases of Latinos with indigenous heritage and indigenous North Americans, you will see that the United States is still at war with indigenous people. In the jails of Minnesota, South Dakota, Montana and most of Indian Country, indigenous people are incarcerated at almost three times the amount of the white population. There has been civil unrest. There have been lawsuits filed. Many protests have been carried out in Oklahoma. Yet the nation's media is focused elsewhere. Is it because they are afraid of what will happen if American Indians, African Americans, Latinos and working class whites rise up against this unjust system? Yes!