PULLMAN, Wash.-Sinister forces are at work in North Dakota. At least that was the claim of the state's former lieutenant governor, whose paranoid fears were right out of the eighteenth century.

Taking a leaf from a political playbook as old as the American Republic, then-Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley dismissed the Standing Rock Sioux opposition to the planned oil pipeline in that state as the work of ominous powers. "The Native Americans are being used, absolutely being used," Wrigley told reporters Dec. 8, "by these outside agitators."

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His statement could just have easily have been made in 1786 as 2016.

Dismissing the Standing Rock Sioux as dupes is a strategy intended to discredit the grounds of their opposition, while also undermining their efforts to form a broader coalition for political mobilization against the North Dakota pipeline.

We've been here before.

Though separated by over two centuries, the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies oppose the irresponsible exploitation of natural resources for profit in much the same way as Native groups in the early American Republic opposed the appropriation of their homelands for commercial farming.

Now and then, government officials deployed the language of paternalism to delegitimize the political position of American Indians as mere puppets of outside interests. Sadly, it remains a remarkably useful tactic for government officials to avoid taking American Indians seriously.

In the 1780s and 1790s, a pan-Indian confederacy brought together Iroquois, Shawnees, Objiwes and many others to oppose the military conquest and economic exploitation of Native homelands in the Ohio River Valley.

American officials didn't have to look far to identify who was responsible for mobilizing the Indian confederacy against the Empire of Liberty: America's former colonial masters, the British.

In the eyes of President George Washington and Secretary of War Henry Dearborn, Native Americans should have known better. They should rejoice in their "civilization" by joining in the effort to transform the future states of the Midwest into regions of commercial agriculture, rather than stubbornly sticking with the losing side of history by continuing to hunt and engage in less exhaustive farming.

The British in Canada had pulled the wool over the Indian confederates' eyes, they reasoned. The American Indian arguments about tribal sovereignty were, therefore, not worth debating.

At the dawn of the nineteenth century, Thomas Jefferson, too, gladly joined in blaming the United States' perfidious neighbors to the north for the rise of a nativist movement led by the Shawnee Prophet Tenskwatawa and his brother Tecumseh.

Despite the land grabs perpetrated by territorial governors in Michigan and Indiana (by a young William Henry Harrison, later ninth president of the United States), it was British schemes to weaken the American Republic that lay behind American Indian opposition, not any legitimate concern for their well-being and survival.

Gov. Harrison dismissed Tenskwatawa's efforts to oppose the abuse of alcohol in Native American communities and the piecemeal land sales that were carving up Native homelands as a smokescreen to obscure an insidious British plot to recolonize the United States.

If there is one thing the comparison between the early American Republic and present-day politics teaches us, it is to be deeply suspicious when politicians try to discredit American Indians by claiming that they are being manipulated by outside forces - whether rival empires or environmental special interest groups.

Effective political opposition involves building coalitions. Washington, Jefferson and others recognized this when they were determined to isolate American Indians from building alliances with the governments of British Canada and Spanish Louisiana at a time when Native peoples were not citizens of the United States.

Wrigley's statement was aimed toward the same ends: depicting American Indians as at best naïve, or at worse, traitors to the public good.

In either case, his dismissal of the Standing Rock Sioux works to absolve his government from taking the protesters' arguments seriously.

If the government of North Dakota still believes that we live in a fact-based world, why don't they abandon their efforts to find a straw man to blame for the pipeline protect and simply refute the arguments presented by the Standing Rock Sioux and their supporters?

Rather, it seems that when he was in office, then-Lt. Gov. Wrigley preferred to suppress debate by embracing the bad-faith strategies pursued over two centuries of U.S. Indian


Hatter is an assistant professor of early American history at Washington State University.