A Look at Nonviolent Protests by Indigenous People Throughout History

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

By Catherine Myers

Throughout the history of the United States, the rights and land of indigenous people have been overlooked, disrespected, and mistreated by the American government. Many have thus resorted to nonviolent protests in order to enact change to protect Indigenous people.

An example of this resistance was the protests at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline which would disturb ancestral burial grounds and introduce poisonous chemicals into the surrounding water supply.[1] Members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe stated that they were not consulted about the route of the pipeline.[2] In protest, the tribe organized runs, horseback rides, and marches.[3] As construction started, protesters marched to the workers and some chained themselves to the equipment to prevent bulldozing. Supporters gathered around a group of elders performing “encouragement songs” to ensure that the protest stayed peaceful.[4] Police met protesters with a variety of harmful techniques including pepper spray, teargas grenades, stinger rounds, and more.[5] However… protestors remained peaceful in the face of violence showing that peaceful methods of protest can still enact change.

Historically, one of the first protests against the federal occupation of Native American land was the occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco in 1969. 90 people occupied the island for 19 months and demanded that the island be given back to the American Indians and given funding to make the island habitable. Occupying native territory that has been taken over by the federal government has been a popular nonviolent way of protesting. Protesters have occupied famous landmarks such as Mount Rushmore, Plymouth Rock, Wounded Knee, and more.[6] In addition, in October 2021, hundreds of protesters rallied in front of the White House to “demand that Joe Biden stop approving fossil fuel projects and declare the climate crisis a national emergency” due to the immense destruction of indigenous land that past projects have caused.[7] Protesters sprayed the slogan “Expect Us” on a statue of Andrew Jackson, who is known for his violent and aggressive attempts at stealing indigenous land and causing mass displacement of indigenous people.[8]

In addition to the protests against the federal government’s occupation of native territory, in 1992, the National Coalition of Racism in Sports and Media was founded by Native American leaders in an effort to rid racist mascots and logos in sports. One example is the former Washington Redskins changing their name to the Washington Commanders in an effort to get rid of racist and offensive team names in the NFL and other sports leagues.

Internationally, indigenous people protested in the summer of 2022 against the Ecuadorian government’s lack of acknowledgment of collective rights for indigenous people, the lowering of prices for essential items like food, access to education, health care, and job opportunities, and the reversal of mining and oil extraction that has harmed ancestral communities and their land.[9] This is not the first time activists have organized protests in Ecuador, as the country has seen recurring protests in 2015, 2019, and 2020.[10] These protests blocked roads as they marched to the capitol in Quito. Feeling the stress from the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise in prices, many were not able to pay their debts.[11] Eventually, the protestors and the government both signed an agreement where the government would lower the cost of fuel, resulting in the end of the seventeen-day demonstration.[12]

In 2020, indigenous activists in Colombia protested against the large amounts of violence they have endured from the government.[13] The movement, coined “minga indígena,” protests against the loss of life, property, and peace that indigenous Colombians have been forced to suffer through. Criminal groups have taken over areas where the government was said to rebuild essential services.[14] This has left many to face rates of violence that threaten their safety and well-being. In protest, activists demanded a meeting with President Iván Duque, yet he sent a representative to meet with them in the areas with the largest rate of violence.[15] Unfortunately, little improvements have been made as the indigenous protestors continue to fight for their rights to safety and sovereignty in the face of continuous violence against their community.

In 2021 in Canada, thousands marched in mourning of the discovery of the thousands of indigenous children killed in the country’s residential school system.[16] Speakers and singers came to pay tribute to the children on a day called “Canada Day.”[17] The protesters marched as a way to seek accountability from the Canadian government for their past mistakes and their involvement in these deaths. The federal government has allocated funds for identifying remains, but it will likely be years before these efforts are finished.[18]

In essence, indigenous people all throughout North and South America have been using nonviolent protests to bring attention and awareness to the treatment the federal government has subjected them to throughout history. By using their voice and actions to defend their rights and land, they have effectively made the federal government listen to their complaints in order for them to receive, at a minimum, fair treatment. Nonviolent protest has been and continues to be, an effective way for minorities to express their discontent, frustration, and anger towards the federal government.

Image of crowd of people protesting.
Indigenous people and supporters protest against a pipeline planning to invade sacred burial grounds in North Dakota.[19]

[1]Stand with Standing Rock,” American Civil Liberties Union, April 20th 2023.

[2] Rebecca Hersher, “Key Moments in the Dakota Access Pipeline Fight,” National Public Radio, February 22th, 2017.

[3]Treaties Still Matter: The Dakota Access Pipeline,” National Museum of the American Indian, April 27th, 2023.

[4] Sandy Tolan, “After Violent Clashes, Native American Protesters Vow to Continue Their Fight Against the Dakota Access Pipeline,” Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, October 29th, 2016.

[5] Julia Carrie Wong and Sam Levin, “Standing Rock Protesters Hold Out Against Extraordinary Police Violence,” The Guardian, November 29th, 2016.

[6] Laura Cooper, “Native American Activism: 1960s to Present,” Zinn Education Project, 2016.

[7] Maya Yang, “Indigenous Protesters Urge Biden to Stop Approving Fossil Fuel Projects,” The Guardian, October 11th, 2021.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Tamara Taraciuk Broner and Martina Rapido Ragozzino, “Ecuador’s Recurrent Cycle of Violence over Indigenous Rights,” Human Rights Watch, August 13, 2022.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Kimberly Brown, “‘We Can’t Get By’: Indigenous People Keep Up Protests in Ecuador,” Aljazeera, June 24th 2022.

[12] Leo Sands, “Ecuador Protests: Indigenous Leaders Agree to Call Off Strikes,” British Broadcasting Corporation, July 1st 2022.

[13] Julie Turkewitz and Sofía Villamil, “Indigenous Colombians, Facing New Wave of Brutality, Demand Government Action,” The New York Times, October 24, 2020.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Sheena Goodyear and Sarah Jackson, “Organizer Leading Canada Day Protest in Montreal says she’s ‘Never Seen Anything So Amazing,’” CBC Radio, July 1st, 2021.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ian Auste, “How Thousands of Indigenous Children Vanished in Canada,” The New York Times, June 7th, 2021.

[19] Joe Friesen, “Indigenous People Face Racist Backlash Over Pipeline Protest,” The Globe and Mail, February 28th, 2020.