[News] Indigenous Resistance Is Post-Apocalyptic, with Nick Estes

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Aug 2 12:59:33 EDT 2019


  Indigenous Resistance Is Post-Apocalyptic, with Nick Estes

Nick Serpe - July 31, 2019

Nick Estes discusses the deep historical roots of the convergence at 
Standing Rock, why Indigenous peoples have taken a leading role in the 
climate justice movement, and why decolonization must be part of any 
left-wing agenda.

/Booked <https://www.dissentmagazine.org/tag/booked> is a series of 
interviews about new books//. For this edition, senior editor Nick Serpe 
spoke with Nick Estes, author of /Our History Is the Future: Standing 
Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of 
Indigenous Resistance 
published in May by Verso Books. Estes is also the co-editor, with 
Jaskiran Dhillon, of /Standing with Standing Rock: Voices from the 
#NoDAPL Movement 
out this August from the University of Minnesota Press./

In /Our History Is the Future/, Nick Estes, a citizen of the Lower Brule 
Sioux Tribe, uses the occasion of the 2016–2017 grassroots movement 
against the Dakota Access Pipeline—the largest Indigenous-led protest 
movement in North America in the twenty-first century—to look at the 
longer history of resistance to settler colonialism by the Oceti Sakowin 
(or “Seven Council Fires,” often referred to by the settler-originated 
name “Great Sioux Nation”). While the movement against that pipeline now 
also lies in the past, Estes explains how it continues to feed movements 
in motion today. In this interview, he also outlines what climate 
justice activists can learn from Indigenous political struggle, and why 
decolonization must be an essential part of any serious left-wing 
agenda, in the United States and beyond.

*Nick Serpe*: In /Our History is the Future/ you cover a number of 
episodes in the history of the Oceti Sakowin that connect a long 
tradition of resistance to settler colonialism to the fight against the 
Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016. Why is it important to think 
historically about Indigenous resistance today, and what was so 
significant about #NoDAPL, the convergence at Standing Rock, even if the 
pipeline was eventually authorized and completed?

*Nick Estes*: U.S. history typically dates anything about Indigenous 
people as happening in the nineteenth century or before. There is not a 
sense of a continuity from the nineteenth to twentieth century. But in 
my research, for example, I found a key link that carried 
nineteenth-century resistance into the twentieth-century movements. The 
Indian Wars are seen as beginning and ending in one century but not 
continuing on with the implementation of the reservation system and then 
onward to the construction of the dams in the middle of the twentieth 
century. A decade after the Wounded Knee Massacre [in 1890], Indigenous 
resistance efforts attempted to bring forward their treaty claims to a 
world forum at the League of Nations—that’s huge. Often times we say 
that Indigenous resistance faded after the massacre, alongside Fredrick 
Jackson Turner’s frontier. That’s more of a trope of U.S. history than 
reality. When I was told those oral histories it was like this through 
line that tells a different story than tragic defeat. James Mooney’s 
book, /The Ghost**Dance Religion/, for example, misinterpreted the Ghost 
Dance as a millenarian revivalist movement, as more akin to 
Christianity. In his account and in popular understanding, our 
resistance died at Wounded Knee. But it didn’t die.

This history makes Standing Rock simultaneously exceptional and not 
exceptional. As an organizer and an intellectual, I think there is 
purchase to that kind of thinking: not just thinking about your movement 
as doing something new but as a continuation. Standing Rock was a 
reiteration our traditions of resistance: the unification of grassroots 
movements with tribal councils, the treaty councils, the reunification 
of our Seven Nations, the Oceti Sakowin. Alongside all of these, you saw 
the best of our diplomatic tradition—“Lakota” means friend and 
ally—that’s one of our primary tools of resistance. It was a convergence 
of all of those elements—that’s why Standing Rock was a certain kind of 
historical turning point, not just for us as Oceti Sakowin but for the 
Indigenous movement in America.

*Serpe*: For many, #NoDAPL was their first encounter with the term 
“water protector.” Many were using an old concept, Mni Wiconi, “water is 
life,” as a rallying cry. Beyond the obvious fact that water is 
essential to life,  why did water figure so centrally in the fight 
against the pipeline? How does that relate to the historic relationship 
between the people who have lived on that land and colonial settlement 
around the Missouri River?

*Estes*: The invaders came by water, on ships or upstream on the 
Missouri River, the Mni Sose. Our first encounter with the colonizer was 
mediated by the use of water as a highway, as a means of travel. Our 
first relationship with the United States government was mediated by the 
control over a water source. It wasn’t just about drinking water, which 
is important, or watering animals or plants. Water is life in the sense 
that mobility is life. It gave the ability to move and to travel, to 
hunt and fish. That first relationship with the United States was also 
inherently a military encounter, so we called them Mílahaŋska, which 
means “long knives,” because of the sabers they carried. Later on came 
fur traders in militarized units, the vanguards of capitalism, then the 
Army Corps of Engineers, who eventually determined the path that the 
Dakota Access Pipeline would take.

In that sense, “water protector” is related to the first encounter with 
Lewis and Clark in 1804. We are still defending our rights to this 
water, which were codified in our treaties and agreements with the 
United States, made under our authority of the pipe, or the Canupa as we 
call it, and which the United States continually refuses to uphold. But 
those covenants go back further to our original agreements with the 
nonhuman world, with the White Buffalo Calf Woman who brought us into 
correct relations with the water, the land, and the animals. We call her 
Pte Skan Win, the primary prophet of Lakota people who brought us our 
spiritual teachings and values. Mni Wiconi precedes all of that.

At the same time, when we say something like “water is life” or “water 
protectors,” why should we as Indigenous people have to perform a kind 
of spiritual connection with water? It should be enough to say that 
every group of people on this planet has a basic human right to water. 
And access to water is an issue of class: in Johannesburg, Delhi, Flint, 
Michigan, and Standing Rock.. If we look at the major water consumers in 
the Northern Plains, they’re fracking rigs, which access to millions of 
gallons of fresh water every day for free, while simultaneously 
polluting millions of gallons of fresh water, and irrigation for 
large-scale industrial agriculture production. They aren’t drawing water 
from the river itself but from the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest 
underground aquifers in the world. It is currently being depleted though 
overuse and misuse.

Some of the poorest people in North America are taking on some of the 
most powerful interests over the question of access to clean drinking 
water. That is going to continue to define struggles over resources for 
generations as climate change intensifies. Even the Department of 
Defense has identified water as a key strategic interest and called 
climate change a “threat multiplier” that will increase or intensify the 
conflict over resources, domestically and at the international level. 
The threat for them is climate refugees: millions of people fleeing 
their homelands because of human-induced—or rather 
capitalist-induced—climate change.

So “water protector” has a meaning that goes beyond what is 
categorically seen as Indigenous. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, for example, 
or anybody who crossed the security barrier at the Oceti Sakowin camp or 
at Sacred Stone became a water protector in that moment. “Water 
protector,” the slogan “water is life,” were popularized by Standing 
Rock, and they’ve become icons of this generation’s climate justice 

That’s a lesson we should be taking in discussions of the Green New 
Deal—that the most spectacular, popular climate justice movement in 
recent memory, which I would say spring-boarded the Green New Deal, was 
Indigenous-led. It continues to be Indigenous-led. So why isn’t 
decolonization part of the agenda? I think there is a miscalculation 
that everyday Americans can’t hold the complexity of this nation, the 
fact that it is a settler-colonial nation, in their mind while at the 
same time understanding that decolonization can be implemented in almost 
any progressive struggle.

*Serpe:* In the book, you consistently take prophecy, tradition, and 
different epistemologies seriously, but the book is still rooted in a 
materialist analysis of history and the current moment. Why is it 
important to bring these analyses together? How you do this without 
being dismissive or condescending on the one hand, and without 
mystifying or romanticizing something that has to do with people’s 
everyday lives on the other?

*Estes*: Indigenous studies has proposed and resolved certain questions 
in the four decades of its existence, including the idea that Indigenous 
perspectives are valid and in some ways superior to colonizers’ 
perspectives on our history—and that Indigenous peoples have the right 
to tell their own stories according to their own traditions. I think 
that’s really important. What I’ve learned from my own study, especially 
books like Engels’s /The Origin of Family, Private Property, and the 
State/—there are problems with the book, but it also shows how 
Indigenous history can teach us that capitalism is neither inevitable 
nor natural. It shows that there were non-capitalist societies, 
non-capitalist nations, non-capitalist civilizations, that had advanced, 
and that were knocked off of their developmental trajectory by colonialism.

The attempt of Indigenous studies is, very much in the line with the 
thinking of African Marxist revolutionary Amílcar Cabral, to “return to 
the source.” He’s not saying return to a mystical Indigenous past. What 
he’s saying is to return to that path of social development that we were 
once on, to take our experience as colonized people as well as this 
non-capitalist, anti-colonial, anti-capitalist core of Indigenous 
history, combine them and use those tools to view our history. We live 
in a capitalist society and we can’t extricate ourselves from that, but 
at the same time we have remnants of a non-capitalist way of viewing the 
world. And it is grounded in our relationships.

This is a huge word in Indigenous studies right now—relationality—that I 
think has become mystified. We’re not the Na’vi of /Avatar/ running 
around plugging our brains into trees trying to download data. I go back 
to the buffalo, because buffalo relations really represent the form of 
relationality that we had with animals. It wasn’t just this mystical 
kind of thing where we were communing with them outside of history. They 
represented a source of life for us in the sense that without the 
buffalo, we wouldn’t be the Lakota people, by mere fact that we wouldn’t 
have a food source.

Our relationship with the buffalo wasn’t just one-way; they weren’t just 
providing for us. We managed those herds; we cleared out the land for 
pasture. We would burn it, to clear the landscape to ensure the survival 
of the buffalo nations. That is a very material relationship. There is 
reverence in our stories and our songs [for the buffalo], but I think 
those cultural protocols were created to prevent us from 
over-exploitation and from throwing out of balance that relationship.

The same could be said with water. We didn’t use water for 
hydroelectricity. We had our own technologies, but it wasn’t the same in 
the sense of thinking of nature as a dead object that could be 
commodified. I don’t want to romanticize us as Indigenous people, but we 
did have a certain kind of relationship that wasn’t perfect but was an 
attempt to seek correct relations with the non-human world. I don’t 
think it’s the solution, but it’s a kernel of a larger solution to the 
current catastrophe that we’re facing with climate change. Indigenous 
people have a lot to say and an important role to play in how we address 
these issues.

*Serpe*:  I was really struck by one particular essay in /Standing with 
Standing Rock/ by Elizabeth Ellis, where she sounds an optimistic note 
about the fire lit by the fight against Dakota Access Pipeline. She 
writes: “This fight forced non-Indigenous Americans to acknowledge not 
just the existence of real, modern, Native Americans but also that 
unresolved treaty claims and U.S. colonization of Indigenous peoples and 
lands are very current problems. Furthermore, the conversations about 
water rights, self-determination, police violence, and racism that the 
#NoDAPL movement fostered have also forged a new intersectional platform 
that applies Indigenous perspectives of settler-colonial nationalism to 
critique oppression across the United States.” I wanted to ask you, as 
an organizer, about developments in Indigenous movement politics in the 
years since Standing Rock. But I also want to hear what you think about 
how seriously this budding North American left takes the issue of 
decolonization. Are there encouraging signs of coalition building, 
solidarity? What work remains to be done?

*Estes*: Everyone can point to Standing Rock, but they can’t really 
point to what’s happened after Standing Rock. When Indigenous politics 
enter the mainstream discussion, it’s often facilitated by white 
racism—whether it’s Elizabeth Warren’s DNA claims or the 
MAGA-hat-wearing Catholic school boys taunting an Indigenous elder on 
the National Mall. People have those images in their minds, but they 
can’t tell you the backstory behind it. They can’t tell you that the 
incident on the National Mall was part of a very large Indigenous-led 
march to remember missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW). Or the 
fact that, as explained on Rebecca Nagle’s /This Land /podcast, there’s 
a longstanding tradition of white Oklahomans who are white supremacists 
claiming to be Indigenous or part of the Cherokee nation to take Native 
land. The media want these juicy topics, but they remove the historical 

That Elizabeth Ellis quote is spot on. I think it reflects across all 
the contributors to /Standing with Standing Rock/. Many of them are 
still on the front lines or have been on the front lines, battling 
extractive industries, battling for LGBTQ and Two Spirit rights in 
Indigenous communities and the mainstream, fighting for MMIW, fighting 
police violence to this day. Some of them are back home creating 
community gardens for people to use. It didn’t stop at Standing Rock, it 
continues. Just because you don’t see what’s going on doesn’t mean it 
isn’t going on.

There is a critical approach that we can to take to this movement. I’ve 
been asking myself this question for the last three years: why didn’t 
Standing Rock arise into a broader national or international movement 
with clear political demands? Instead, we’ve seen the outcome of 
Standing Rock as getting several Native congresswomen elected. Which is 
good: it shows that people aren’t all buying the Trump moment, that in 
this moment of white backlash you can get two Indigenous women elected 
to Congress who are liberals—I wouldn’t say they’re leftists!—with a 
host of other congresswomen who are somewhat leftist. That’s a huge 
deal, but that was not the desired outcome of Standing Rock.

There’s oil flowing through that pipeline, and there’s talk of actually 
expanding its capacity. But it’s not just about pipelines. People think 
that’s all that Indigenous people do is just try to stop pipelines. 
That’s a tactic among a host of strategies, long-term strategies, for 
restoring the Missouri River basin watershed, asserting our sovereignty 
in connection to those lands as well, to the point where corporations 
and the United States government won’t be able to just willy-nilly 
trespass through our land anymore. While there hasn’t been a coalescence 
of a long-term, larger movement, there has been a lot of long-term 
thinking and planning. It’s still very diverse and scattered right now.

The second question that you have was about the left. To be honest, the 
left has failed to take seriously settler colonialism, and not just 
Indigenous decolonization but decolonization in general as a platform. 
I’ve had a lot of discussions with leftists, socialists, progressive 
trade unions. People are genuinely interested; they’re not hostile to it 
automatically. I think it’s just that how we define class in this 
country, by traditional or historical elements of the left, essentially 
erases Indigenous people because it prioritizes the needs of settler 
society over Indigenous nationhood. They’re often framed as competing 
systems. We’ve seen a lot of socialists and leftists asking about 
Indigenous reparations, which is funny because there’s never been an 
overarching demand by Indigenous people /for /reparations. [The demand 
is for] land return. Anishinaabe scholar and intellectual Leanne Simpson 
said it best (I’m going to paraphrase her): settler society always asks 
us for solutions to these problems, but they don’t like our answers, 
because they’re really hard. It gets to the root of this society. It 
would be like going back to the nineteenth century and advocating for 
class struggle without talking about the abolition of slavery. It would 
be absurd!

The last two centuries have been defined by unrestrained, 
settler-colonial land grabs. Just in the last couple years, the Trump 
administration has opened up millions and millions of acres of “public” 
lands—even that name itself erases indigeneity—for exploitation, the 
extraction of oil and gas, mining, and so on. Everyone thinks that the 
major land grabs happened in the nineteenth century—but, in fact, the 
land grabs are still going on today. These extractive industries are 
linked from the Bakken region to the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, and 
Indigenous peoples have been making that connection for years. Because 
of Indigenous movements, now people are finally paying attention.

Naomi Klein says the Green New Deal is a kind of a laundry list of 
progressive movements, linking housing rights, rights to green jobs, and 
so on, to climate justice—well, if every progressive movement can be 
linked to climate justice, why can’t every progressive movement be 
linked to decolonization as well? That’s my role as an organizer. I’m 
trying to bring into conversation these various social forces that are 
advancing things like the Green New Deal to make decolonization a 
primary form of class struggle in the United States.

Most people think that decolonization would mean getting kicked off the 
land, or that Indigenous people would do to them what they did to 
Indigenous people in the past. It’s a failure to imagine what a just 
future could look like. But it’s also a failure to critically understand 
who owns the land in the United States and what the land is used for. 
Upward of 96 percent of agricultural lands are owned by white people, 
not Indigenous people. But these aren’t just mom-and-pop farms out in 
rural South Dakota or Wyoming. These are large-scale industrial 
agricultural operations with thousands and thousands of acres of land. 
Ted Turner, the media mogul, owns 200,000 acres of our treaty territory 
alone. He has the largest privately owned buffalo herd in the world. 
Worldwide, he owns 2 million acres of land. Why is it that a single 
white man can own that much land?

When we’re talking about land restoration, we’re talking about the 
so-called federal public lands of the United States, but also about 
these large landholding capitalists. This is a conversation that we have 
to have in North America: who owns the land? What is our relationship to 
it? And what should that relationship look like in a future decolonized 
society? We understand as Indigenous people that we have to work with 
non-Indigenous people out of mere survival. Decolonization isn’t an 
Indian problem. It’s everybody’s problem.

*Serpe*: In /Our History Is the Future/, you write: “Each struggle had 
adopted essential features of previous traditions of Indigenous 
resistance, while creating new tactics and visions to address the 
present reality, and, consequently, projected Indigenous liberation into 
the future. Trauma played a major role. But if we oversimplify 
Indigenous peoples as perpetually wounded, we cannot possibly understand 
how they formed kinship bonds and constantly recreated and kept intact 
families, communities, and governance structures while surviving as 
fugitives and prisoners of a settler state and as conspirators against 
empire; how they loved, cried, laughed, imagined, dreamed, and defended 
themselves; or how they remain, to this day, the first sovereigns of 
this land and the oldest political authority.” These days there’s a lot 
of discussion about “climate despair,” or “eco-anxiety,”—a sort of 
traumatic encounter with the serious challenges right now to life on 
this planet, so I wanted to ask you about the long-term resilience of 
front-line communities facing violence and overwhelming political odds. 
How do you maintain a capacity to fight for a better life even in times 
of relative apparent quiescence, or when the balance of forces seems to 
be way out of favor? With so many people feeling overwhelmed by the 
scale of climate change, what can we learn from movements that coalesce 
around place, community, threats to everyday life?

*Estes*: Indigenous people are post-apocalyptic. In some cases, we have 
undergone several apocalypses. For my community alone, it was the 
destruction of the buffalo herds, the destruction of our animal 
relatives on the land, the destruction of our animal nations in the 
nineteenth century, of our river homelands in the twentieth century. I 
don’t want to universalize that experience; it was very unique to us as 
nations. But if there is something you can learn from Indigenous people, 
it’s what it’s like to live in a post-apocalyptic society.

One of the positive meanings of the title of the book, /Our History Is 
the Future/, is that in times of great turmoil and destruction, people 
didn’t just stop being humans. They didn’t just give up. And while we 
think of resistance in many ways as a kind of act of defiance that’s 
spectacular and militant, it also happens in everyday realities, in how 
we keep alive these stories. People still had children in times of 
destruction. People still raised families. They did their best to keep 
alive the nation through genocide.

The passage you read is a critique of a trend in Indigenous studies and 
Indigenous organizing circles to focus on trauma and healing at the 
individual level. It’s not that people shouldn’t focus on trauma and 
healing, but that it’s been mobilized in this neoliberal moment to say 
that, once the individual heals, they’ll be able to go out and be a 
productive person in society. That becomes the horizon of struggle: 
healing at the site of the individual. The horizon of struggle is no 
longer liberation. I think it’s telling in this particular moment that 
healing and trauma discourse becomes almost an obstacle we have to 
overcome. It’s a tool of governance in many ways.

Just look at what’s happening in Canada with the reconciliation process. 
How messed up is it that the very perpetrators of that violence are now 
the ones who are going to remediate that violence, provide the care for 
those victims of violence? Hey, I’m sorry we kidnapped all of your 
children, sent them to residential schools, killed a lot of them, raped 
a lot of them, abused a lot of them. Now we’re going to say sorry, but 
instead of actually giving back land or giving back the resources for 
you to build yourselves as nations, we’re just going to provide the 
social services for you to get the help that you need from us. It’s this 
mentality of crying on the shoulder of the man who stole your land.

That’s reflected in the climate justice movement. We see the future in 
very bleak and pessimistic terms—that there is no future. That’s the 
perfect articulation of capitalism. Frederick Jameson, wrote that “It’s 
easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of 
capitalism.” That’s very much our moment right now.

I don’t want to minimize those feelings, but at the same time I believe 
fundamentally in revolutionary optimism, which carried these traditions 
from absolute genocide and horror and the Wounded Knee Massacre to 
Standing Rock, which was also absolute horror in many ways. There were 
people who kept that fire alive. That’s the job of revolutionaries in 
history; we’re cheerleaders of the movement, and we have a backward- and 
forward-facing perspective. We’re trying to study our movements to see 
how these ideas stayed alive, for example, when COINTELPRO infiltrated 
the Red Power movement and destroyed it. They went international—took 
these ideas into the international realm. It was a survival mechanism 
that sustained us to the next movement.

The climate justice movement is very diverse, and it’s all over the 
place. If there’s one thing I can offer, it’s to say: we know what it’s 
like to undergo apocalypse. Our worlds have been destroyed in many ways, 
and we’re trying to rebuild them, reclaim them, and reestablish correct 
relations. The severity of the situation shouldn’t undermine the 
willingness to act. Not to act, to succumb to a kind of paralysis, of 
inaction, is itself an action. Not doing anything is doing something. 
Howard Zinn said it best: you can’t be neutral on a moving train.


*Nick Estes *is an assistant professor of American Studies at the 
University of New Mexico.

*Nick Serpe *is a senior editor at /Dissent/.

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