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Growing Up Part-Time Indian Revisted, Part 4

December 23, 2013

I have been arrested seven times. Many people who know me–especially my students–find that hard to believe. Mind you, I have never been convicted, but it remains something of which I am very proud. This is due to the fact that my arrests were all for the crime of civil disobedience.

I don’t claim to be their equals, but I embrace the fact that I am associated with the thought and actions of Thoreau, Gandhi, King, the Danes during the Second World War, and the Polish Solidarity movement. I would like to say that my actions of myself and those I stood with made just as much of a difference, but I know that’s not true. I do think, however, that our actions had something to do with the fact there has not been an explosion at the Nevada Test Site since 1992.

There are many stories of my arrests, but I am going to tell this one, as I think carries with it extremes: an extreme miscarriage of justice, and an extreme response to those who wished to peacefully prevent it.

My Uncle Chester was a cattle farmer. He was more than that, of course–like many Baby Boomer American Indians, he fought in Vietnam. The military recruiters did a good job of reaching out to young men on Indian reservations during the 1960’s, convincing them that they were going to rise the defense of indigenous people (the South Vietnamese) against an invading colonial army (the North Vietnamese). A chance to be a warrior, like their ancestors. Many young men were seduced by this pitch–particularly in light of the fact that had few other job opportunities on the reservation. So why not? Chester was one of those who decided to join.

There is a long history of civil disobedience at the Nevada Test Site

There is a long history of civil disobedience at the Nevada Test Site

One day he was hurt in what he described as a covert mission into enemy territory, and a rather inconvenient chunk of shrapnel ended up in his leg. He was patched up, and honorably discharged, but since his mission was secret, he was never given a purple heart, and was declined the pension for soldiers wounded in combat. This may seem difficult to believe, but when you speak to American Indian men who were wounded in Vietnam, they have a very similar story. This makes me doubt this was a coincidence.

Chester, though, had put all that behind him, and a successful cattle ranch that he loved to run. Then one day, federal agents cited him for the crime of “overgrazing on federal land”–a crime that only applies to those who lease land for their livestock. The law specifically states that reservation Indians are exempt from this law, but it was being invoked against him. He was slapped with a staggering fine which he could not pay. So, all of his cattle was confiscated–which we have always suspected was the real reason for his arrest. Some much larger cattle rancher with political influence pulled strings to shut down his operation. The feds, though, weren’t satisfied with this. They announced the value of his cattle did not equal the value of the fine, and if he couldn’t pay, he would be incarcerated.

So many of us decided that would never happen. The day that he was going to be arrested, we were going to put ourselves between the federal agents and Uncle Chester. They were going to have to go through us to get to him. There were about two hundred of us–we locked arms and made a circle around Chester’s cottage.

Facing us were two FBI Agents, a battalion of mercenaries, two divisions of the Nevada National Guard, several tanks and military helicopters, not to mention two San Francisco Fire Department hook and ladder trucks, and several empty school busses. We didn’t know what was about to happen, but we knew it was going to be ugly.

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