“Keep and Bear Arms”: How the 2nd Amendment Justified Violence Against Native Americans

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This Summer’s shootings in the cities of Buffalo, Uvalde, and Tulsa unearth a clear reality: We are suffering as a country. Yet, the right to bear arms in the United States continues to be a rallying cry for independence and freedom — covering up a history of gun-related aggression, hostility, and violence towards black and brown peoples across the Americas, and specifically against Native Americans.

During the U.S. “Westward Expansion,” gun violence towards Native Americans was justified (made legal) by the government’s advancement of the right to bear arms. We must not let the 2nd Amendment’s destruction of Native American nations and culture be forgotten.

When the 2nd Amendment was drafted, the U.S. had recently gained independence from Britain. The colonies desired to expand – geographically, politically, and economically. “Everything in U.S. history is about the land…how it became a commodity (real estate) broken into pieces to be bought and sold on the market.”[i] Among other things, creating a new nation freed the brand-new United States of America from the treaties and agreements the United Kingdom had previously made with Native Nations.

For the Native Nations living within and west of the existing 13 colonies, “manifest destiny meant the destruction of our towns, fields and food supplies.”[ii] We recognize the origins of this cultural oppression, from the Northwest Ordinance (1789) which resulted in the U.S. taking lands from Indian tribes,[iii] to Red Cloud’s War (1866) where the U.S. attacked our relative, the Buffalo.[iv] These actions were all justified by virtue of the constitutionally-enshrined 2nd Amendment.

The principal language of the 2nd Amendment is well-known:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

To this day, scholars continue to debate the meaning of the phrase, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms,” and its relationship to the “security of a free State.” Was the intention for self-defense or collective defense? If collective defense, then Tribal use of weapons and the use of arms by militia would both fall under that category. As it happens, the courts have consistently reinforced the self-defense interpretation of the clause.

“‘Indians are monolithically portrayed as a force to defend against and therefore implicitly lack a right to self-defense in their own right.’ That right was reserved for the colonists.”


As recently as 2008, the Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia v. Heller[v] struck down Washington D.C.’s handgun ban, asserting that the ban infringed on the 2nd Amendment protection of an individual’s right to keep and bear arms based on the need for individual self-defense.  As law professor Ann Tweedy writes in the Journal of Constitutional Law, the Heller case assumes that “Indian tribes were one of the paramount reasons that colonists and early Americans needed to engage in self-defense generally, and needed guns specifically.”[vi] Referring to Justice Stephen Breyer’s dissent in Heller, Tweedy writes that “Indians are monolithically portrayed as a force to defend against and therefore implicitly lack a right to self-defense in their own right.” That right was reserved for the colonists.

At the dawn of America, the 2nd Amendment gave colonists and settlers the individual right to bear arms in order to “defend” themselves by visiting violence against Native Nations as they spread ever-further into our lands. Today, that same right lets individual Americans purchase weapons that are more destructive than their 18th century counterparts, inflicting violence at a scale previously unimaginable.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Through the legislative process, and by exercising our right to vote, we can do something about it. And in so doing, perhaps we can bring peace to over 400 years of pain that has been brought by the barrel of a gun.


The Standing Rock (“SAGE”) Renewable Energy Power Authority acts as a Public Power Authority (PPA) that will control and operate all the energy production assets within the reservation. SAGE institutionalizes the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s involvement in renewable energy projects, facilitates agreements with third-party entities, and holds Standing Rock’s equity interest. SAGE is an acronym that means “Strategic Advancement Goals for the Environment.”

Learn more at www.SAGESRST.com

[i] Dunbar-Ortiz, R. (2014). An indigenous peoples’ history of the United States. Beacon. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/237686/an-indigenous-peoples-history-of-the-united-states-by-roxanne-dunbar-ortiz/9780807057834/excerpt

[ii] Kaplan, Robert D. (2005). Imperial Giants: The American Military on the Ground. Random House.

[iii] National Institutes of Health. (n.d.). The Northwest Ordinance Guarantees Tribal Land Rights – timeline – native voices. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved June 7, 2022, from https://www.nlm.nih.gov/nativevoices/timeline/241.html

[iv] Lakota People’s Law Project [@lakotalaw] (2022, June 2). When the United States could not defeat our ancestors in combat, they began to attack our relative, the Buffalo. Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/p/CeT-kSiMCwG/

[v] Supreme Court of the United States. (2007). Retrieved June 7, 2022, from https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/07pdf/07-290.pdf

[vi] Tweedy, Ann E. (2011). “Hostile Indian Tribes . . . Outlaws, Wolves, . . . Bears . . . Grizzlies And Things Like That?” How the Second Amendment and Supreme Court Precedent Target Tribal Self-Defense. Journal of Constitutional Law, 13(3), p. 696. https://scholarship.law.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1086&context=jcl

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