The last time Native Americans gathered and the nation noticed was in 1973. That February, after members of the Oglala Sioux tribe failed to impeach their chairman on charges of corruption, they, with leaders of the American Indian Movement, occupied the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota. It was a final act in the movement’s years-long campaign to compel the federal government to honor tribal treaty rights. Already, Native Americans had occupied Alcatraz Island, in a largely symbolic attempt to reclaim it, and Mt. Rushmore, which had been part of the Great Sioux Reservation until Congress redrew its borders. But at Wounded Knee the movement found its symbolic apex: the U.S. Marshals surrounded the occupiers, evoking the start of the massacre that had killed more than a hundred and fifty Lakota people in 1890. Over months, the standoff escalated. Officers manned roadblocks in armored personnel carriers, and neighboring states lent their National Guards. Both sides traded gunfire. The first man shot was a marshal, who survived but was paralyzed from the waist down. The second was a Cherokee man, who died. The third was Lawrence Lamont, an Oglala Lakota, whose death was the beginning of the end of the occupation.
There are echoes of Wounded Knee in the conflict that has sprung up near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, in North Dakota. Since midsummer, thousands of Native Americans have gathered at the confluence of the Missouri and Cannonball Rivers to protest the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline, which would cut just north of the reservation border, crossing sacred sites and imperilling Standing Rock’s water supply in the event of a rupture. In July, the tribe filed a lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that approved the project, arguing that it had failed to consult with the tribe as required by federal law. While the suit has played out in court, the protesters have said that they will stay until the pipeline is stopped, through winter if they must.