Evaluating the Ethical Dimensions of Indigenous Civil Resistance

This essay was written for a class that Gabe took called Ethical Leadership at his UW in London Study Abroad Program. 

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the below topics.

By Gabe Sanders


Nonviolence is different from pacifism. Whereas pacifism demands that we abstain from violence on the basis of principle—namely, that it is never justified to resolve conflict by violent or forceful means—nonviolence encompasses both the principled and tactical reliance on peaceful methods of spurring change. As such, the definition of nonviolence has distinctive ethical dimensions. An activist who employs nonviolence out of a sense of duty acts in accordance with deontology—the theory that rules and obligations are the basis of morality—while another, who uses it exclusively as a means of achieving their goal, adheres to the ends-focused tenets of consequentialism. Alternatively, while nonviolence was not one of Aristotle’s cardinal virtues, the Jainist, Hindu, and Buddhist faiths consider ahimsa (the Sanskrit word for nonviolence) to be deeply virtuous, aligning the practice with a third normative theoretical framework, virtue ethics.

Several era-defining crusades of the 20th century, including the movements for civil rights in the United States (US) and independence in India, demonstrated the potential for nonviolent resistance to blend the theories of deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics into a single template for activism. However, there have also emerged recent movements aimed at defending the land and human rights of Native American peoples, which have exercised nonviolent protest without ever explicitly referencing the concept of nonviolence, nor any of the aforementioned philosophies. These indigenous-led movements beg the question: Which normative ethical theory, if any, provides the most suitable lens for understanding the nonviolent activism of indigenous leaders? Examining two case studies in Native American environmental activism—one campaign spearheaded by the Lenca peoples of Honduras, the other by the Sioux tribes of the American Midwest—this paper will argue that, contrary to the patronizing belief that native peoples are innately pacifist or docile, nonviolence serves a chiefly strategic purpose among many indigenous activists and is thus, in these instances, most compatible with consequentialism.

The Agua Zarca Dam

In 1993, Berta Cáceres—a 22-year-old Lenca woman, who belonged to the largest tribal group in Honduras—co-founded a coalition called Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras (COPINH).[1] A vehement opponent of the deforestation that had been caused by illegal logging operations, which were simultaneously threatening the natural resources of indigenous populations, Cáceres had built COPINH as a mechanism for defending the environmental and human rights of her people. Violations thereof were a perpetual feature of Honduran governance, and the 2009 coup d’état that forcibly removed a democratically elected president, who had been favorable toward COPINH, indicated respect for indigenous rights was a far cry from assured.[2] Indeed, this ouster triggered a series of authoritarian regimes that were utterly disinterested in the concerns of native communities. Taking advantage of the opportunity for an unfettered incursion on tribal lands, two hydroelectric companies, DESA and Sinohydro, initiated construction on a hydroelectric dam (known as the Agua Zarca Dam) along the sacred Río Gualcarque—a river that the Lenca relied upon for food, water, and medicine. In response, Cáceres launched a multi-faceted resistance effort that involved COPINH-backed activists forming a human blockade, which stood strong for more than a year and remained peaceful in the face of violent repression, torture, and even murder.[3] This powerful demonstration of civil resistance, which eventually succeeded in quashing construction plans, was intrinsically (albeit implicitly) tied to ethics.

The motivations behind Cáceres’ use of nonviolence can be gleaned, in part, from an assessment of the rhetoric she used to fuel this grassroots movement. Her 2015 speech (delivered in Spanish) accepting the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, for instance, ostensibly links COPINH’s nonviolent method of protest to all three normative ethical approaches. In her three-minute monologue, Cáceres urges the audience to remain steadfast in their “commitment to continue protecting our waters, the rivers, our shared resources… as well as our rights as a people,” which conveys an unmistakably deontological sense of duty to advocate for environmental conservation and against human rights violations. She also articulates her tribe’s “world view… [that] the Lenca people are ancestral guardians of the rivers,” demonstrating a reverence for the example set by forebears that is characteristic of most indigenous teachings. This emulation of tribal ancestors is consistent with virtue ethics, which ambiguously argues that the most moral course of action adheres to “that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it.”[4] [5] [6] Finally, Cáceres communicates the imminence of the situation, pleading for “humankind” to “wake up” and recognize that “[w]e are out of time,” or bear the consequences of inaction: that “Mother Earth [remain] militarized, fenced-in, poisoned, a place where basic rights are systematically violated.”[7] Despite referencing rights once again, this plea is manifestly abiding by consequentialism, as it suggests that the outcomes of complacency and even lethargic action are driving her belief that active resistance engenders the most good.

Notably, in this speech and elsewhere, Cáceres does not impart an obligation to abstain from using force, nor does she imply that the Lenca ancestors would view nonviolence as a fundamental virtue. Instead, she intimates that there is a stringent obligation to pursue the objective for which her predecessors have honorably fought and died: to ensure that sacred tribal land and natural resources are preserved and accessible to indigenous peoples. In effect, Cáceres is arguing that there is a virtuous duty to focus on the ends rather than the means. Thus, while deontology and virtue ethics likely played important roles in impelling her to fight for environmental justice, they are doubtful to have inspired her reliance on nonviolent methods. We can, however, infer that consequentialist considerations were entering her judgement about which strategies would be most effective. For instance, as part of their multifaceted approach to resistance, Cáceres and COPINH filed complaints at the local, national, and international level. Had activists on the front lines been returning the fire of law enforcement officials, they might have been less sympathetic to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, which COPINH implored to intervene.[8] Cáceres was unquestionably aware that, even if these individual pleas fell on deaf ears, the image of a peaceful chain of human beings, standing as the only barrier between a sacred river and a corporate dam operation, would garner enough global attention to apply pressure on DESA and Sinhoydro to abandon their profit-driven project. Nonviolence, for Cáceres, served the same tactical purpose as COPINH; it was a tool for defending the environmental and human rights of the Lenca people.

The Black Snake

Much like the Agua Zarca Dam, a 2014 plan to build nearly 2,000 miles of underground oil pipeline through four Midwestern US states would also be met with strong yet peaceful opposition from indigenous locals. The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), or as tribal leader dubbed it, The Black Snake, was a multi-billion-dollar project that was launched by a Texas-based natural gas transport company without consulting the North Dakota Standing Rock Sioux Nation.[9] Running beneath the Missouri River, as well as several spiritual sites near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, DAPL posed unambiguous threats to the water supply of Lakota peoples and the preservation of sacred tribal lands. Leading the fight to block construction were Sioux women, who represented their tribes before the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, where they alleged numerous violations of longstanding treaties. Relying on a similar strategy to Cáceres and COPINH, the “Women of Standing Rock” also organized a peaceful camp directly on the construction site, obstructing the path of the pipeline. Members of hundreds of tribal nations traveled across the country to stand in fearless solidarity with Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux activists, and the stark contrast between the civility of their disobedience and the brutality of law enforcement’s response was captured by unnerving footage and photographs. Once again, the ethical dimensions of this dispute were readily apparent.

On the construction site in Standing Rock, North Dakota, as well as in the UN Geneva Office, the words and traditions of Lakota activists spoke volumes. Several protestors pledged to “pray in front of the bulldozers,” should construction continue, instantiating the commitment of these activists to defending their land, while still devoting themselves to the peaceful practice of prayer.[10] This dutiful display of deontological ethics, unlike in the case of Berta Cáceres, relates directly to the selection of nonviolent means to the end of preventing environmental destruction. By the same token, the Sioux peoples are known to pass from generation to generation the Seven Sacred Teachings, which instill the values of respect, bravery, and love (among others)—three values that lend themselves to both the practice of nonviolence and the theory of virtue ethics.[11] At first glance, this suggests that either deontology or virtue ethics, or a combination of both, could be well-suited to form a theoretical basis on which Sioux tribes chose to peacefully oppose DAPL; however, the normative moral approach with the strongest claim to influence over the employment of civil disobedience, in this case, remains consequentialism.

In a documentary on the prominent role of women at Standing Rock, one indigenous leader reminded her fellow organizers that they faced a total of “51 pipelines, and this Dakota Access is a strategic one—we need to stop this one”; another explained that “what it all comes down to is wanting clean drinking water for our children”; many agreed that “the battle [had] just begun.”[12] These statements are indicative of an overarching focus on the tactical advantages of civil resistance, as well as the intended results. Perhaps the most explicit articulation of this consequentialist reasoning for utilizing nonviolence is attributable to the Standing Rock Sioux Nation citizen Brenda White Bull, who in her passionate 2017 address to the UN argued that “[w]e are more powerful than their militarized police forces and guns because we are armed with prayer.”[13] This assertion that the practice of peaceful tribal customs can be thought of as a weapon reveals that, while their actions may very well be virtuous and rooted in a sense of duty to tradition, Lakota leaders are thinking of prayer as a tool with which they might win the aforementioned “battle.” In fact, as a military veteran herself and a direct descendant of the great Lakota warrior Sitting Bull, Brenda White Bull’s own background is evidence that the Sioux reliance on nonviolent tactics to combat DAPL was largely an objective-oriented approach. The Lakota are widely known for their hunting and warrior culture, having historically demonstrated a willingness to deploy violent force when tribal leaders deem it necessary. It is thus logical to conclude that tribal leaders, in the effort to impede DAPL construction, fundamentally viewed peaceful protest as the most effective method of achieving their goal.


For indigenous opponents of the Agua Zarca Dam and DAPL, the choice of whether to join forces and mount a resistance effort was no moral dilemma. Tribal standards, ancestral teachings, and communal obligations dictated that actively combatting the desecration of indigenous land and rights was compulsory. As such, the theoretical undercurrents of deontology and virtue ethics were unquestionably at work in both cases. That being said, this paper has made the case that consequentialism provides the best lens for understanding the impetus behind the two movements’ parallel tactical approaches. As evidenced by the rhetoric and actions of leaders like Berta Cáceres and Brenda White Bull, nonviolence can be a profoundly practical tool—a means to an end. Considering that civil resistance was not the only weapon at their disposal, the decision between violent and nonviolent means could certainly be framed as an ethical dilemma, perhaps between what is right in the short and long terms. Taking up arms would allow individuals enduring institutional oppression to defend their rights with justified reciprocal force, but the greater military capacity of the aggressor might render such a rebellion short-lived. Remaining peaceful, on the other hand, would accentuate the moral bankruptcy of corporate and governmental agencies before the eyes of world but follow the slow path to change. Pragmatism, not pacifism (or normative ethics, for that matter), guided their adoption of the latter strategy—simultaneously dismantling common misconceptions about the strategy of nonviolence and essence of indigeneity.

[1] Alina Maschirow, “The Story of Berta Cáceres: How Her Fight for Indigenous, Environmental and Gender Rights Cost Her Her Life,” The Beam (blog), accessed July 16, 2021.

[2] Nina Lakhani, “Berta Cáceres’s Name Was on Honduran Military Hitlist, Says Former Soldier,” The Guardian, June 21, 2016, sec. World news.

[3] Nina Lakhani, Who Killed Berta Caceres?: The Murder of an Indigenous Defender and the Race to Save the Planet (Verso Books, 2020).

[4] Berta Caceres Acceptance Speech, 2015 Goldman Prize Ceremony, accessed July 14, 2021.

[5] Berta Caceres Acceptance Speech, 2015 Goldman Prize Ceremony.

[6] Rushworth M. Kidder, How Good People Make Tough Choices Rev Ed: Resolving the Dilemmas of Ethical Living (HarperCollins, 2009), 71.

[7] Berta Caceres Acceptance Speech, 2015 Goldman Prize Ceremony.

[8] Lakhani, Who Killed Berta Caceres?

[9]Standing Rock: A Case Study in Civil Disobedience,” accessed April 20, 2023.

[10] End of the Line: The Women of Standing Rock (Pearl Means, Sophia Ehrnrooth, Shannon Kring, 2021).

[11] Dave Bouchard, The Seven Sacred Teachings of White Buffalo Calf Woman (Crow Cottage Publishing, 2009).

[12] End of the Line: The Women of Standing Rock

[13] Descendant of Sitting Bull Speaks at UN about Fight against Dakota Access and State Violence, 2017.