Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

April 16, 2015

UNM Indigenous Peoples Resistance and Resilience Day

Bianca Cowboy

It's a Good Day to Celebrate Indigenous Peoples' Resistance and Resilience at the University of New Mexico and Beyond

By Rachel R. Felix and M. L. Cook
Censored News
On March 4, 2015, the Associated Students of the University of New Mexico (ASUNM), the undergraduate student body government, resolved to observe an official "Indigenous Peoples' Resistance and Resilience Day." The resolution abolishes Columbus Day, a holiday that is neither observed nor acknowledged by official University of New Mexico (UNM) calendars. The resolution to create and observe an official campus holiday for Indigenous People was introduced by Senator Bianca Cowboy, and was formed as a result of organized efforts undertaken by eighteen organizational sponsors listed on the resolution.(3) It was supported by various Indigenous student groups, allies,(4) and countless individuals who spoke in support of the resolution including the community sponsor, Red Nation.(5)

The Native American Law Students Association from the University of New Mexico School of Law expressed support for the effort to abolish Columbus Day in a letter dated February 25, 2015, to ASUNM before the resolution passed: "The Native American Law Students Association supports Bianca Cowboy's proposal … Indigenous Peoples and their homelands were not "discovered" by Columbus. Thousands of Indigenous Peoples and their cultures were present long before Columbus sailed the ocean blue."(6) Additionally, UNM Graduate and Professional Students Association Councilor Valentine A. Fisher introduced an identical resolution for Indigenous Resistance and Resolution to the UNM Graduate and Professional Student Association (GPSA), which is currently making its way through GPSA's legislative processes and will be presented at the GPSA Council meeting on May 2, 2015.(7)

Much of the controversy in re-naming Indigenous Peoples' Day, and the abolishment of Columbus Day, surrounded the added terms "resistance" and "resilience." ASUNM Senator Alex Cervantes stated in an email to Campus Reform, "some believed that the wrongs against Indigenous Peoples were so egregious that they should continue to be emphasized through a more specific and deliberate name …."(8) Cervantes proposed a generalized shortened name for the holiday, "Indigenous Peoples' Day." Cervantes, along with a minority of students, seemed to believe that the terms resistance and resilience connote an on-going feud or negative aggression, which may not be inclusive of all viewpoints and may interfere with the broader notions of peace, unification, or diversity. This view, while celebrating Indigenous People generally, fails to acknowledge or address the truth about Indigenous Peoples' experiences of injustice as well as the historic and continued struggle to survive, adapt and overcome conditions imposed by colonization, discrimination, exploitation and violence. Indigenous People continue to overcome such obstacles through resistance and resilience today. ASUNM Senator Rebecca Hampton stated her support for the resolution by adding the controversial terms at the ASUNM full Senate hearing saying, "there is nothing wrong with resisting oppression …."(9) Many students discussed their personal experiences as Indigenous individuals and acknowledged that the terms had to do with the survival of culture and identity, as well as resisting colonialism, racism, and assimilation.

The words resistance and resilience carry profound meanings for proponents of the resolution, not only because such words emphasize the egregious wrongs committed against Indigenous People historically, but because these terms recognize the ongoing and current struggle to maintain Indigenous identities(10)against a backdrop of human rights violations. The themes of resistance and rebellion are woven into the fabric of American history, inextricably tied to America's colonial past and present. The United States of America, as a relatively new political entity and nation, is founded upon such principles going back to the American Revolution. The theme of resistance is also woven into internal Indigenous history. From the time of Columbus, "[f]ive centuries later that resistance remains, in various forms, throughout North and South and Central America, as it does among Indigenous Peoples in other lands that have suffered from the Westerners' furious wrath."(11)

The ecological definition of the word "resilience" is defined as, "the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks."(12)This definition applies globally to the resilience of Indigenous tribes today in the aftermath of suffering at the hands of European settlers. Resiliency accurately describes tribes' universal struggle to retain language, customary law, cultural practices and systems of governance. By resisting Western influence in creative, non-aggressive, and non-violent ways, tribes remain resilient and tribal governments have been able to adapt to change while maintaining custom and Indigenous laws within legal infrastructures.

The phrase "resistance and resilience" describes the strength and active efforts of Indigenous Peoples to survive while remaining distinct as the first sovereign nations to exist in America. Indigenous nations in the Americas endured immense suffering as a result of European settlers' genocidal tactics, employed to eliminate, annihilate, patronize, and erase Indigenous Peoples' cultures for purposes of stealing land and resources in order to accommodate settlement; these strategies are marked by the arrival of Columbus in the New World.(13) The acts of genocide committed against Indigenous People by Columbus and his colonial progeny "took a little longer, about the span of a single human generation, but what happened on Hispaniola was the equivalent of more than fifty Hiroshimas. And Hispaniola was only the beginning."(14) Resistance and resilience describes a reality for many Indigenous People of the Americas. This way of life was created and forced on Indigenous People through contact with Europeans.

Since Columbus arrived in the New World, Indigenous Peoples in the Americas have had a long, rich history of revolution and resistance against Europeans' efforts to colonize, assimilate, and deploy military tactics that result in either genocide or ethnocide. These acts of "rebellion" were ways that Indigenous People responded to the violent tactics employed by European military forces that strategically degraded, debased, humiliated, enslaved, and dehumanized Indigenous Peoples. Europeans did this by taking land, displacing children, and forcing Native People to assimilate into the dominant European culture. Although "resistance" connotes fighting, the term accurately describes the pursuit of freedom and rights that Native People have died fighting to protect. This is a fight that continues today as Indigenous People are patronized in the streets,(15) in the courts,(16) and in the international arena.

One of the first recorded Indigenous uprisings against European settlers in the New World was the Taíno Rebellion of 1519-1533. This rebellion was led by an Indigenous Taíno man enslaved by Columbus named Enriquillo.(17) Enriquillo was one of the first Indigenous persons in the New World to formally receive an education, speak out, and complain about human rights violations to the governor and court systems established in Espaniola.(18) After Enriquillo's concerns were repeatedly ignored by the Spanish government, he began to rebel against Spanish rule and returned to a purely Indigenous way of life Raising a powerful army by stealing armor and weapons from the Spanish, he protected Indigenous women, children, and elders by hiding them from the Spanish army.(19) Like Enriquillo's acts, "rebellion" or "resistance" usually describe instances when Native People were empowered to return to their own customary ways of life and fought to protect what was most dear to them, their relatives, language and cultural values. Acts of Indigenous resistance, however, can also be catalysts for peace making. As a result of Enriquillo's rebellion, one of the first peace treaties was signed between two separate sovereign nations recognized in the New World: an Indigenous tribe and a European country.(20)

One of the very first Indigenous revolts in North America against Europeans occurred in New Mexico with the Pueblo Revolt or Popé's Rebellion in 1680.(21)Observing a holiday that recognizes the history of Indigenous Peoples' resistance also memorializes Popé, the brave San Juan Pueblo holy man, who drove the Spanish completely from New Mexico after numerous human rights violations were committed by the Spanish against the Pueblo Peoples. The Spanish were driven from New Mexico until 1692, when they returned and initiated a non-violent re-conquest by signing peace agreements with the Pueblo tribes of New Mexico. Today, a total of 22 Indian tribes, including Pueblos, Navajos (Diné) and Apache, are located in New Mexico.(22)

Instances of tribal revolt and resistance in New Mexico against both Spanish and American settlers' assertions of dominance prove that tribes have actively asserted their right to remain sovereign and distinct from European settlers, an effort for which many tribes have paid dearly. As a result of Diné resistance, the American military starved the Diné by burning crops and sheep, terrorized women, children, and elders and destroyed their livelihoods. The American military forced the Diné to march 300 miles to internment camps in Ft. Sumner, New Mexico during The Long Walk.(23) This march was an effort to colonize, civilize, assimilate, and break the Diné People, whose strength and resilience in health, population, economics and warfare had once prospered unmatched by any tribe in New Mexico. It has been told that the U.S. government offered the Diné a new home in Oklahoma, but the Diné leaders continued to resist removal. These brave leaders held their ground, and fought to return home. Their resistance paid off, and the return home to traditional lands was a provision negotiated into the 1868 treaty between the Navajo Nation and the U.S. Government.(24)

Another example of Indigenous resistance took place six years before the Navajo Nation treaty was signed. In 1862 a United States military commission tried 400 Dakota men and sentenced 303 of those men to die after the Dakota were defeated in war. Ultimately, "after an official review of the trials, the sentences of thirty-eight were confirmed, and on, December 26, 1862, these thirty-eight were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota, in the largest mass execution in American history … Many wars took place between the Americans and members of the Indian nations, but in no others did the United States apply criminal sanctions to punish those defeated in war."(25)

A third instance of Indigenous resistance occurred a few years after the Dakota War, in 1875. This was the infamous taking of Paha Sapa, or the Black Hills,(26)from the Sioux Nation, one of many "ripe and rank case[s] of dishonorable dealings"(27) between the United States and Indigenous tribes.(28) After breaking many treaties with the Sioux, the United States Army stripped the Sioux of their treaty-protected hunting rights, branded Sioux men, women and children as "hostiles" to be shot on sight, and "deprived [the Sioux] of their weapons and horses, leaving them completely dependent for survival on rations provided by the Government."(29) Under such horrific circumstances in 1877, Tašúnke Witkó,(30)"His Horses Are Spirited,"(31) often translated as "His Horse is Crazy,"(32) or Crazy Horse (renowned Sioux leader recently added to the Mt. Rushmore monument(33) agreed to surrender to United States troops with the following statement:

"I love [and] desire to protect [my People]… I am afraid, if we go to the agency… they will starve us… the government has not kept its promises… in their treaty with my People, [the government] also promised us protection from invasion by white People upon our hunting grounds which have not been sold; but instead of … protect[ing] us, the army has come to our own country and has massacred us in our own homes… The government has simply cheated the Indians out of their lands, because it does not give them the goods which have been bought with our own money, in payment for the lands… [and] when our People refused to sell… the government sends the army … to kill us, and take the lands anyhow.

The army officers say the Indians are bad because we defend our homes. If an Indian was as bad as the army officers are, he would be put to death by his own People…[and] would not be considered fit to live. Our People have always done as we agreed, that you know, and the government has not done as it agreed, that you [also] know… because we desire to keep this little tract of land for our own home as we have no other place to go the government has sent its army to kill us … they tell us they want to civilize us. They lie; they want to kill us … they sneak upon us when we are asleep. I only wish we had the power to civilize them. We would certainly do so; but we would do it fairly, we would not kill their women and children … if we gave them a home to live in … they would be safe … We would not go there the next day and kill them all, as they do with us ….

You have rightly said, it is only a question of [time] until we shall be compelled to submit to the superior power or be killed; but, for my own part, I should rather die fighting – like a man – for what belongs to us. As to my desires, and I speak for my People, they are to live on the plains and in the mountains, and by the chase, as did our ancestors before us. I have fought only in defense of our home, defending the lives of our women and little children, and that on the ground which belongs to us … [I] see the truth … sooner or later we will be compelled to either place ourselves at the mercy of [the United States] however unjust, or have all our women and children slain in their beds. I love my women and children, and for their safety – and that alone – only hoping that they shall not be starved to death, I shall go with you and surrender. But I want you to stay with me until we can reach the agency, to protect us from attack by a thousand Devils before we have a chance to surrender."(34)

The words of Tašúnke Witkó demonstrate that Native Peoples' "resistance" is actually an act of self-preservation. It is a deep and profound love for the wellbeing and the lives of their clan, their kin, and their people and their inextricable relationship to the territories, spaces, and geographic localities they traditionally owned. Chief Crazy Horse "was assassinated by the United States Army shortly after he surrendered."(35) The Great Sioux Nation continues to carry on his legacy and have stood strong in their demands for the return of the sacred Black Hills. Even though the federal government has offered to purchase the Black Hills for $106 million,(36) the Sioux Nation has refused to accept a single dime from the United States in exchange for the sacred Paha Sapa. Giving up the Black Hills would be to sell the soul, spirit, and heart of the Sioux People, and "facilitating the return of the Paha Sapa is not going to be an easy task, but it is … a necessary one; for there is no other course of action capable of escaping the dual evils of environmental colonialism and ethnocide."(37) The Great Sioux Nation remains resilient, like so many tribes that have suffered destruction of their livelihoods and terrible injustices in their battle to re-claim sacred sites and homelands, which represent their identity as Indigenous Peoples.

Today, tribes express resistance by incorporating tribal values, customs, and lifestyles into their own laws. "Tribal courts must … use the tribal legal system and its substantive law to resist the imposition of dominant values and law, and find solutions that come from the tribe's own values and beliefs."(38) In Office of Navajo Nation President & Vice-President v. Navajo Nation Council,(39) the Navajo Nation Supreme Court took judicial notice of Indigenous customary law and responded to preposterous, or "sad"(40) claims by Council leaders that "there is nothing Indigenous about the three-branch government, and … traditional laws of the Navajo People have no relevance in modern governance."(41) Defending the Diné government's creation of the three-branch system, the Navajo Nation Supreme Court struck back at the Council leaders: "we take judicial notice that the Navajo People have long resisted the imposition of a written Constitution in the mold of the U.S. Constitution …."(42)

Navajo Nation case law maintains key distinctions between their own government based on Diné fundamental law, and that of the American government, which is based on "Anglo fundamental law" or the Constitution and principles of United States case law precedents. The Navajo Nation is an example of the ways in which a tribe as a whole resists American dominance by establishing its right to incorporate tribal custom and using Diné Fundamental law, which is grounded in a philosophical concept distinct from that of the Anglo-American tradition:

As a tribal Nation, we have asserted our inherent sovereignty—our historical sovereignty, our language, culture, our value system, and our legal heritage based on unwritten Fundamental Laws that form the very foundation of who we are as Diné … We have said before that participatory democracy does not come from the non-Navajo nor does it come from the Council. It comes from a deeper, more profound system of governance: the Navajo People's traditional communal governance, rooted in the Diné Life Way … The ideal Navajo Nation government is not one that is governed by perfect individuals, but which is oriented toward the public interest and recognizes fully that the power to govern comes from the People, Hózhóójí dóó Hashkéeji.(43)

The Taíno, the Pueblos, the Sioux Nation and the Diné are only a few examples of historical and recent ways tribes have exercised resistance and resilience by rising up, negotiating peace, and refusing to surrender homelands and sacred sites. These activities speak the truth about human rights violations, while maintaining and exercising sovereign power. In the United States, Indigenous People are the most regulated class of People in America; no other group has a whole section of the United States Code dedicated to them. They have survived the devastating inhumane impact and substandard conditions imposed on them by a long history of American Federal Indian Policy, including removal,(44)reservations,(45) allotment,(46) tribal reorganization,(47) termination,(48)relocation,(49) assimilation,(50) institutionalization,(51) and various other government actions or omissions that cause marginalization and harm to Indigenous People.

Indigenous People have long employed methods of self-defense, urgent action, and resistance because it is only through such acts that Indigenous cultures and knowledge can have a place to thrive and a chance to be resilient for centuries to come. Today, Indigenous tribes find themselves in a new federal policy era of self-determination and self-governance(52) while dealing with struggles to re-claim homelands, sacred sites, and displaced identities.(53) The present time calls for an end to failed federal solutions, which can only be achieved by eliminating racist attitudes of the past that ignore the trauma, suffering, pain, histories, and voices of Indigenous People.(54) While it is difficult to undo the harms committed in the past, now is the perfect time for the process of healing and justice for Indigenous Peoples. The legacy, knowledge, and strengths of Indigenous People deserve to be celebrated not only by commemorating a holiday in New Mexico, but by acknowledgment, respect, and celebration of the existence and rights of Indigenous Peoples the world over. 

1. Rachel R Felix: University of New Mexico School of Law, Juris Doctorate Candidate, Class of 2016, enrolled member of the Navajo Nation.
2. M. L. Cook: University of New Mexico School of Law, Juris Doctorate Candidate, Class of 2015, enrolled member of the Navajo Nation.

3. ASUNM Resolution 7s, 2015 Spring.
4. Including but not limited to Senator Udell Calzadillas Chavez, Senator Rebecca Hampton, Senator Tori Pryor, Kiva Club, Native American Studies Indigenous Research Group (NASIRG), Native American Law Students Association, Raza Graduate Student Association, American Studies Graduate Student Association, Chicana and Chicano Studies Student Org, CAMPerinos, UNM Dream Team, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán de UNM, Students for Justice in Palestine, Students Organizing Actions for Peace, Lambda Theta Phi Fraternity Inc, Red Student Faction, Powerful Movement of Educated Sisters, Black Student Union, Food Justice Initiative, (S) (A) (E), Muslim Student Association.
6. Letter from Concetta R. Tsosie de Haro, NALSA President 2014-2015, "To Whom It May Concern" or ASUNM (Feb. 25, 2015) (on file with the Native American Law Students Association).
9. Statements by Rebecca Hampton at ASUNM Full Senate Meeting on May 4, 2015 – Lobo Room, Student Union, University of New Mexico.
11. David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World (1992).
12. Walker, B., Holling, C. S., Carpenter, S. R., Kinzig, A. (2004). "Resilience, adaptability and transformability in social–ecological systems". Ecology and Society 9 (2): 5.
14. David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World (1992).
16. Matthew L.M. Fletcher, The Iron Cold of the Marshall Trilogy, 82 N.D. L. Rev. 627 at 651 (2006). ( "In [Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, 30 U.S. at 17], the Chief Justice denigrates Indian tribes a great deal: "[T]hey are in a state of pupilage. Their relation to the United States resembles that of a ward to his guardian." In this opinion, Indian tribes appear to be dependent in large extent to the United States. Justice Johnson, in his Cherokee Nation concurring opinion, avoided the guardian-ward dichotomy and used the term "master and conqueror" in reference to the United States. In Justice Johnson's view, Indian tribes existed in a state of "feudal dependence" to the United States in other words, complete and utter dependence on the order of slaves or serfs.").
19. Id.
24. Treaty between the United States and the Navajo Tribe, June 1, 1868, 15 Stat. 667.
25. Carol Chomsky, Stanford Law Review, Vol. 43, No. 1 (Nov., 1990), pp. 13-98.
27. United States v. Sioux Nation, 448 U.S. 371, 388.
28. Lavelle, John. (2001). "Rescuing Paha Sapa". 5 Great Plains Nat. Resources J. 48-49.
29. Id.
31. Russell Means, Reel Injuns (Sept. 10, 2009). ("He was a great horse trainer, and all this horses had spirit. You could just see them prancing….").
32. Id.
34. Sioux Nation, 448 U.S. at 379 (footnote omitted). Hans, supra note 18, at 532-34 (Historian Fred Hans quoting speech of Oglala Lakota Chief Crazy Horse, Apr. 27, 1877), quoted in Lavelle, John. (2001). "Rescuing Paha Sapa". 5 Great Plains Nat. Resources J. 48-49 (footnote 34).
35. Id.
36. United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, 448 U.S. 371 (1980).
37. Lavelle, John. (2001). "Rescuing Paha Sapa". 5 Great Plains Nat. Resources J. 100.
38. Sedillo Lopez, Antoinette. (2000). "Evolving Indigenous Law: Navajo Marriage-Cultural Traditions". Arizona Journal of International and Comparative Law 17(2): 288-289.
39. Office of Navajo Nation President & Vice-President v. Navajo Nation Council, 2010 WL 2163198 (Navajo May 28, 2010) opinion supplemented on denial of reconsideration, Office of Navajo Nation President & Vice-President v. Navajo Nation Council, 2010 WL 2834409 (Navajo July 16, 2010).
40. Id.
41. Id.
42. Id.
43. Id.
48. P.L. 280.
53. See generally, current protests against closure of forced aboriginal lands including sacred Mauna Kea ; San Francisco Peaks.
54. Rick McCafferty, Rx: The Quiet Revolution, PBS (April 2, 2015) at 1:18:36 ("They stripped us of our culture… when I was abused I was told not to talk about it. Men don't cry, men don't ask for help…well those are lies. Men do cry why do we have tears? … trauma in a person's life. I was holding in all that anger, hate, resentment… it was eating me away. Just look at the rate our people are committing suicide, the domestic violence that's in the communities. We have to talk about it… As an adult I learned to talk about my story. When your spirit hangs on to the lie that 'I can't amount to anything. I will not succeed. I'm no good. I can't do anything right' … those that were told to you, your spirit and your heart grabs onto that and you hold on to it and you believe it and you walk it out in life. I carried that and when I carried it in my spirit, I gave it to my children… but our spirit is supposed to be free and be full of love and joy and compassion and be able to help our community grow into the next generation.").

Michelle Cook
University of New Mexico School of Law
J.D Candidate 2015

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