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Activists protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline are confronted by law enforcement officers at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota.

Law Enforcement is Still Used as a Colonial Tool In Indian Country

Leaked documents reveal coordination between big business and law enforcement to break up last year’s protests at Standing Rock.

The general public became aware of the Standing Rock Sioux’s fight to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline last fall when, week after week, videos surfaced showing protesters being attacked by dogs, sprayed with water hoses and pelted with an arsenal of rubber bullets, bean bag pellets, and long-range sound devices that blast “powerful deterrent tones.”

This commentary was published in partnership with The Guardian.

Rumored among activists but unknown to the public and much of the press, law enforcement had another tool up its sleeve that has only recently been revealed: an international private security company that infiltrated protest camps, monitored activists and waged an anti-protest messaging campaign via social media.

An ongoing multi-part investigation by The Intercept has brought to light the work of TigerSwan, the security firm held on retainer by Energy Transfer Partners, the owners of the pipeline. Documents obtained by The Intercept reveal that TigerSwan operatives monitored the movements of activists—online and physically with drones and a small detail assigned to follow movement leaders. Additionally, they provided local and federal law enforcement agencies with daily “intelligence updates” on the protests — all while likening protesters to “jihadist” fighters and describing protest camps as a “battlefield.”

Such coordination between big business and law enforcement should raise alarms regarding the state of our democracy. But it should also highlight the ongoing fight for sovereignty over Native lands and the continued use of law enforcement as a colonial tool in Indian Country.

The technology TigerSwan used at Standing Rock may be state of the art, but the use of policing to suppress indigenous protest and violate indigenous rights is as old as the United States itself. Indeed, law enforcement officers have long served as the shock troops of colonization and, throughout history, were deployed to suppress indigenous sovereignty and open up indigenous lands to settlement and extraction.

The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, an agreement between United States government commissioners and representatives of eight native nations, acknowledged land between the Missouri and Arkansas Rivers as Indian territory. The largest portion of this territory, from the Heart River in the north to the North Platte River in the south, and the Powder River in the west to the Missouri River in the east, was promised to the Sioux nation of Lakota and Dakota peoples. A subsequent treaty in 1868 further supported Sioux claim to the land. The United States government has never fully respected those treaties, however, allowing settlers to encroach on the land in the years that followed, even using the military to clear Native nations from the area.

Seeking recourse, the Sioux Nation sued the U.S. government in 1978, claiming that the Fifth Amendment rights of the Sioux to just compensation had not been honored in the taking of their land. The case went all the way up to the Supreme Court, and the court ruled in 1980 that the U.S. government violated the 1868 treaty in its later taking of Sioux lands. Given the nature of the claim, the court did not rule, however, that the land be returned to the Sioux.

Instead, the court awarded the Sioux $102 million, but the Sioux refused to accept the money, insisting that their land was not for sale. The judgment awarded by the court now totals more than $1 billion.

When activists at Standing Rock took their stand last fall, they were not just protesting, but reasserting their sovereign right to control developments that cross and have an impact on land they still recognize as theirs, a claim backed by historic treaties and the Supreme Court. When they asserted that right, their actions were suppressed and criminalized.

It’s a dynamic echoed throughout American history. Beginning under former President Andrew Jackson, the U.S. government displaced and subsumed the sovereign legal authority of Native nations. From that point onward, frontier warfare between settlers and indigenous peoples was often recast as policing. For example, when the Dakota — the ancestors of the protesters at Standing Rock — went to war with the United States in 1862, their military action was treated as a criminal act rather than an act of war by one sovereign against another.

Ultimately, former President Abraham Lincoln ordered the hanging of 38 Dakota warriors by reframing them as criminals, guilty of murder and robbery instead of enemy combatants — who could not be executed according to international law even then. The execution of those warriors remains the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

Last year's protests at Standing Rock centered in large part on the same issues. So, while many Americans may have viewed the conflict at Standing Rock as a fight for democracy and civil rights, the protesters and many Native Americans understood it to be one regarding legal jurisdiction and authority over land and resources — made all the more pressing by the presence of non-Native law enforcement and private security.

Non-Native law enforcement’s position in this struggle has remained the same as it has been for centuries: a tool to force private and government interests through treaty-protected lands. The Intercept's reporting reveals that this time around, big business used law enforcement to portray the Standing Rock activists’ defense of their enduring rights to their homelands as criminal. This, according to authorities, gave police and private security cause to clear the peaceful protest camps in the path of the pipeline.

In light of these revelations, politicians and concerned citizens should not only call for greater oversight of the police and more robust protections for people exercising their democratic rights. They must also imagine a world where the authority and jurisdiction of the first nations of this land are protected and upheld. They must imagine a world where Standing Rock polices the pipelines coming through their lands and waters, and not the other way around.

Julian Brave NoiseCat (Secwepemc/St’at’imc) is a writer currently reporting from across Turtle Island with generous support from the CBC’s Indigenous Fellowship and High Country News’ Diverse Western Voices Award. He is a graduate of Columbia University and received a Clarendon Scholarship to study global and imperial history at the University of Oxford.