On a cold January afternoon in eastern Oregon, Ammon Bundy smiled from beneath his brown cowboy hat at a young, bespectacled reporter before explaining why he and his men had seized a federal building while armed with rifles. “The people need to be in control of their own land and not… have a people… three thousand miles away dictating how their own land works,” Bundy said. He was of course referring to the federal government, which controls and manages up to 80 percent of the land and natural resources in some Western states.
Bundy’s occupation stands in stark contrast to the one unfolding in North Dakota at this very moment.
There, hundreds of Lakota activists and their allies have blocked the path of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which, if built, would cross the Missouri River just miles above the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The pipeline jeopardizes not only the residents’ drinking water, but the water upon which millions of Midwesterners rely. Organizers insist that new protesters enter the site unarmed.
These two occupations participate in long-standing traditions of citizen engagement with and resistance to the American government. Bundy claimed that he was standing up for farmers and ranchers who were tired of federal intervention.
But the region’s history tells a different story: white settlers have almost always welcomed the state, relying on it to clear the land of the indigenous peoples who lived there.
The Second Sagebrush Rebellion
Bundy’s occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge consciously imitated other protests that have unfolded over the past forty years. During the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and 1980s, many ranchers demanded greater local control over land resources. And just two years before the Oregon standoff, his father, Cliven, faced down federal agents during a dispute in Nevada.
But what happened in Oregon revealed that the Bundy family’s objection to government intervention isn’t shared by other Westerners, nor does it reflect the region’s history.
Ammon Bundy displayed confidence in his men and certainty in his righteousness. But others weren’t convinced. For all his talk of honoring the people’s rights, the community he invaded didn’t want him or his fellow occupiers. And for all his talk of tyranny and noble rebellion, federal agents kept their distance.
Bundy himself expressed surprise at how easy it had been to take the compound in the first place: “The doors were open.” Apparently, the federal government did not think it necessary to fortify a bird sanctuary. And for all his talk of a popular uprising, no reinforcements arrived. When his men issued a public call for supplies, people started mailing them boxes of sex toys.
The rebels’ cause was rooted in historical fiction. Bundy’s argument that “the federal government did not have the right to be here” could not be more historically inaccurate or ironic. Historians of the American West have long established that the government created the region as we know it. No other place in the United States had so much active federal involvement.
As Howard Lamar notes in Dakota Territory, 1861-1889: A Study of Frontier Politics, Washington exerted tremendous control over the Western territories before they achieved statehood. In a land of brutal winters, grasshopper plagues, and deadly Indian wars, settlement would have collapsed without subsidies, land grants, infrastructure, and military aid.
As a result, many Westerners insisted on more government intervention, not less, when times were tough.
This pattern continued even after statehood. The Populist Movement of the 1890s called for active federal engagement that would break the railroad companies’ financial grip, invest in education, modernize the post office, and support small farmers. Although the Western Populists failed to achieve national success, they had a profound impact on the Progressive Era, when the government intensified its efforts to improve standards of living across the board.
Further, the West’s volatile ecology — which produced two great boom and bust cycles — necessitated government activism.
The first cycle came in the 1880s, when the cattle industry expanded so quickly that massive herds severely depleted the grasslands. Already stressed from a lack of resources, cattle died in droves during the brutal winter of 1886–87. Some companies lost up to 85 percent of their livestock.
The vacuum they left opened the door for farmers, who transformed vast tracts of land into wheat fields. But they too pushed the land to its breaking point. In tearing up the natural grasses and replacing them with crops — up to 90 percent, in some places — the farmers freed the topsoil and helped create the Dust Bowl, the seemingly apocalyptic event that arrived with the Great Depression.
The issue that motivated January’s Oregon occupation — federal control of land — grew out of this tumultuous environmental history. Clearly, the government had to do more than build infrastructure and provide services; it also had to proactively prevent environmental disasters from repeating themselves.
The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, which ended homesteading and formalized federal control of unsettled Western lands, expanded the government’s role in stabilizing land use. Ranchers were allowed to graze and water their stock after purchasing the necessary permits. Some ranchers, like the Bundy family, refused to comply.
It must have been difficult for ranchers to look out at seemingly untouched land and hold back. The West has always appeared in the American imagination as a wide-open space where you can strike gold if you’re up for the risk.
And so Cliven Bundy ignored the permit rules and allowed his cattle to graze on federal land, while his neighbors paid their dues. He racked up more than one million dollars in fees and fines, and when the federal government pressed the case, he and his supporters stood up to the Bureau of Land Management.
Two years later, when Oregon ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond were convicted of arson following their own run-ins with government agents, Cliven’s son responded. Ammon Bundy rounded up his comrades, picked up his gun, and drove to Oregon.
The Lakota occupation of the pipeline route is part of a longer and more violent history.
In the eighteenth century, the Lakota people transformed themselves into one of the continent’s great powers. When they adopted Spanish horses and focused their energy on the great bison herds, they also developed formidable military skills. Lakota hunters became feared warriors.
Their smaller group sizes and mobility also meant that they avoided the worst outbreaks of disease, which decimated their native rivals and allowed them to expand. By the American Civil War, the Lakota had secured a vast tract of land, including the best hunting grounds. They defended their hard-won empire with their lives.
Between 1866 and 1868, the United States military suffered a series of humiliating defeats as they tried to defend railroad workers and settlers from Lakota warriors. Red Cloud, a leader of the Oglala Lakota, forced the military off the tribe’s land and burned their forts as they left. The conflict ended with the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, which promised the Lakota undisturbed control over nearly half of present-day South Dakota.
When the United States Army illegally invaded the Black Hills — both a spiritual center and a crucial source of food for the Lakota — in search of gold, another war erupted, with yet another stunning defeat for the American military. Americans call that 1876 defeat the Battle of Little Bighorn; the Lakota call it Greasy Grass, or, simply, Victory Day.
But the Lakota could not sustain their victories, not just against the United States military, but also against industrial hunters, who nearly exterminated the bison herds that once numbered at an estimated thirty million. Forced to give up the hunt and accept the corrupt reservation system, many Lakota nearly starved.
A Lakota Winter Count from that time depicts a man so hungry that he traded his horse for a bag of flour. In a cruel irony, one of the few ways that Lakota people could make money was by collecting the thousands of remaining bison skulls on the plains and selling them to fertilizer companies.
The Ghost Dance — a religious movement that predicted the removal of white intruders and the return of the bison herds — emerged from this desperation. Government officials with no experience and little interest in learning about these so-called savages believed that the movement presaged another war. They called in the Army, which sent a full one third of its fighting men to disarm the Lakota.
The 1890 massacre known as Wounded Knee had a predictable but no less devastating result. The Army killed upwards of 230 Lakota people, including women and children. One woman ran three miles before a cavalryman shot her in the back.
From Wounded Knee onwards, the Lakota, and indeed Native Americans throughout the nation, have engaged in an endless struggle to protect their land, resources, and people. They fought the federal government’s efforts to dismantle reservations, during which the government sold off supposedly surplus Indian land to white settlers for pennies on the dollar. This practice continued until 1934.
They have also had to fight to prevent their land from becoming a dumping ground for America’s refuse. Most notably, the Navajo have suffered the terrible effects of nuclear waste.
These issues came to a head in the 1970s, when the American Indian Movement, drawing on the language of Black Power and a heritage of resistance, occupied Wounded Knee and Alcatraz and brought national attention to the reservations’ plight.
The Dakota Access protesters have rooted themselves in this history, in the dual legacies of strength and subjugation. They see the pipeline as neither an aberration nor a singular event, but as a continuation of a brutal colonial history.
Their protest began in January, when North Dakota approved the Dakota Access Pipeline. Residents of the Standing Rock Reservation immediately petitioned the US Army Corps of Engineers to deny the pipeline’s final permit, citing both broken treaty promises and the potential risks to their water supply.
Close to two hundred thousand people signed the petition, including celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, Jason Momoa, and Shailene Woodley, who joined the occupation last week. Officials at the Department of the Interior, Environmental Protection Agency, and Advisory Council on Historic Preservation also voiced their concerns.
In April, Lakota activists established a camp near the construction site to monitor pipeline workers, who began preparations before receiving formal approval.
Despite the protesters’ quick action, the pipeline moved forward. In July, while a group of Lakota youth were running from Standing Rock to Washington, DC to deliver the petition, the Army Corps of Engineers approved the permit.
In mid-August, when the construction process began in earnest, activists blocked the route. At first, a sizable police and security presence allowed construction to proceed. The activists on the frontlines requested support, and in contrast to the Bundy occupation, their allies answered the call.
What started as a small camp of a few dozen protesters has expanded to hold hundreds. Counting the surrounding area and satellite camps, that number could reach the thousands.
On Tuesday, Morton County sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier ordered pipeline workers to stop, citing concerns for everyone’s safety. But the following day, a federal court instituted a restraining order that will force the activists to clear the pipeline’s path. While protests will most likely continue, they will now take place off-site.
In the resource wars of the American West, the government has rarely taken Native Americans’ side. Yet myths can be stronger than reality. The people who most benefited from state intervention now claim that the West was won by rugged individualists freed from governmental control.
Many of them deny that Native Americans faced violence and displacement, but were rather the ungrateful recipients of civilization. The Lakota, for their part, cannot afford this kind of historical amnesia.
The occupation in Oregon crumbled after just forty days when law enforcement agents shot and killed a man who pulled a gun on them. The remaining protesters surrendered to authorities, sacrificing their freedom in a struggle against imagined tyranny.
The Lakota, on other hand, are resisting a real and all too familiar danger. Their numbers grow every day. And, unlike the standoff in Oregon, almost no major national news outlets are covering the story. This too participates in a great American tradition: the true fight against oppression is the one nobody notices.