On the same day that the seven armed occupiers of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon were acquitted of all charges, 141 people were arrested in their ongoing protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline a few states away.
The juxtaposition of Thursday’s events has left some activists, legal experts, and native Americans frustrated over what they see as unfair treatment. While the two situations differ, the feeling of injustice comes mainly from how the native protesters were treated, since the majority of them, observers say, are unarmed – but still faced SWAT trucks and riot gear.
"I’m struggling as an attorney to see an equitable system when you have armed criminals … who have seized public property for months [acquitted of their charges]," says Anthony Broadman, an attorney who represents tribal governments in public affairs, in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor. "On the other hand I wake up and see pictures of dogs with bloody mouths and state-sponsored suppression of peaceful, unarmed environmental protests. As an attorney, it is really troubling to not see a double standard."
That feeling of injustice has helped bring the movement for native American land rights to public awareness. Natives have been protesting since the 1960s, usually with little to show for it, after generations of failed treaties between tribes and the government that have led to the loss of land, sacred sites, and clean water.
As the losses mount, so does the frustration, says Mr. Broadman. "Tribes and native people have been fighting to protect their land and themselves using civil disobedience for decades in the modern era," Mr. Broadman says.
When the occupiers of the refuge led by Ammon Bundy claimed earlier this year that Western lands under the federal government should be given to ranchers, some native American tribes were furious: Those were the lands that harbor their artifacts and sacred burial grounds that were taken away from them decades ago, with minimal compensation to the tribe members.
"We don't claim to be victims, but we were," Jarvis Kennedy, councilman with the Burns Paiute Tribe in Harney County, Ore., where the refuge is, told NPR after the verdict. "What if I did that with my native brothers and sisters, and we went and occupied something, do you think we'd be let running around free, going in and out of it? … No, we'd be locked down."
They also saw the occupiers vandalizing their sacred areas, trampling burial sites, and shooting ancient petroglyphs, they told reporters.
As Kirk Siegler from NPR reported, tribes in Nevada are pushing for the creation of a permanent monument in an area around the land used by Ammon Bundy’s father that is home to many ancient tribal artifacts, including petroglyphs carved into rocks. Another coalition of tribes in Utah is trying to do the same with the Bears Ears land in southern Utah.
The Burns Paiute Tribe has fought for years to gain additional compensation from the government over the land where the refuge lies, reports The Oregonian. The land was seized from the tribe in 1879 and members received less than $900 each, nine decades later. They hope that recent public awareness will revive the cause again.
"I figured, maybe this is a good time to raise the issue one last time," said tribal member Fred Townsend.
In North Dakota, thousands of native people, especially those from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, with support from natives and non-natives around the world, have been camping out since late August. They are protesting against an oil pipeline being built through what they claim as their land but which officials claim as private land – and polluting their water supplies.
"I was there last week. It’s a peaceful protest, and the reaction they’ve gotten from the Dakota law enforcement has been shameful," Broadman says.
"How do I advise any non-majority group about peaceful protests and opposition … when [Bundy and his allies] can take up arms against the United States and nothing happens?” he asks.