latest from the magazine
latest journal issue
In Our History Is The Future, Estes provides a rich history of Indigenous political struggle, touching on specific debates concerning Indigenous and Oceti Sakowin historiography. At the same time, Estes makes a variety of broad interventions I think are very relevant to those of us working within Geography and Indigenous Studies. This book shows the strengths of making transdisciplinary interventions, explicitly putting academic work in conversation with the theoretical and political questions that Indigenous activists, organizers, and community advocates are regularly grappling with outside of the university context.
The Politics of Accessible Academic Writing
The first aspect of this book I wish to address is its relative accessibility and the positive political implications of the stylistic choices the author makes. I say ‘relative’ because I think many of us steeped in years of academic norms of writing might not always be the best judges of what constitutes ‘accessible’, but think I can fairly say this book is accessibly written relative to many other works within and around Indigenous Studies. From what I understand, the relative accessibility of this book is in part a function of the conditions under which it was written: in most instances, academics write their dissertation first, which tend to be written for a much more specialized audience, and then need to substantially edit their dissertation if their objective is to write a book that is accessible to a wider audience. In terms of a book written for popular education, it is a very positive thing that Our History was written before Estes completed the dissertation version, not because a more accessible tone and structure is positive for stylistic reasons, but for political ones. Rather than making more work for the non-academic readership, Estes’ approach to writing this book might mean it is actually the academic audience that might struggle with accessing some of its more subtle interventions, as he avoids weighing down his writing with excessive signposting, footnotes, and explicit demarcations of the theoretical debates in and around Indigenous Studies he engages throughout the book. Estes’ doesn’t just state his political and theoretical interventions, but enacts them in his approach to writing this book, an example of “don’t explain, show” at its finest.
Indigenous understandings of time, place and space (Our land is our future)
The most direct intervention of Estes’ book is its Oceti Sakowin approach to history. In contrast to settler conceptions of linear time, Estes argues “Indigenous notions of time consider the present to be structured entirely by our past and by our ancestors. There is no separation between past and present, meaning that an alternative future is also determined by our understanding of our past” (p. 14). Elsewhere, he emphasises how the book is “less a story about objects, individuals and ideas than it is a history of relationships” (p. 21 emphasis in original). However, Estes goes well beyond merely theorizing or proclaiming a specifically Oceti Sakowin understanding of time and historical development. Instead, he directly applies this understanding to the approach and structure of the book. At the macro-level, the book is still ordered chronologically, but within each chapter Estes routinely discusses the relationships and connections that link a variety of times and scales, thus rupturing a merely linear unfolding of history. This is especially true in the chapter focused on the Oceti Sakowin camp: here, Estes goes back and forth between multiple chronologies, illuminating the threads that connect the camp’s history to past events within the same territory. In some places, Estes clearly ties the threads together for us, such as the parallels between early settler colonial trading posts and contemporary man camps, or the similar tactics of repression settler colonial states used against #nodapl movement activists, Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, and protesters in Ferguson opposing the rampant murder of Black people by police. Elsewhere, the threads are left there as an invitation to the audience to (hopefully) weave them together ourselves. Our History provides a political and theoretical education while also simultaneously pushing the reader to do their own intellectual work in making the connections between different social movements; this makes for good writing, good theorizing, but most importantly, a solid revolutionary approach to pedagogy.
I also appreciate how the Oceti Sakowin understanding of history that Estes deploys here is more than strictly an intervention within History, but one that upsets and disrupts academic disciplinary boundaries in productive ways. Our History is guided by an understanding of time that does not abstract its analysis from the places and spaces within which these histories unfold, providing a profoundly spatial reading of historical experiences. As the book makes explicit, this different understanding of time is inseparable from specifically Indigenous notions of space and place. Estes explores the political implications of different histories, but also the spatial ones: struggles for indigenous decolonization call forth specific relationships with land, relationships which may not be constant and static through past present and future, but certainly relationships that challenge a linear conception of history. The Oceti Sakowin lands and waters Estes discusses do not just constitute the backdrop or setting for the stories he shares here, but have agency. For Indigenous people they contain power, the potential for creation, and (when wielded by colonial actors) the power to destroy.
As an Indigenous scholar, Estes’ attention to our relationships with land and non-human beings is perhaps unsurprising, but for someone trained as an historian I think it is quite exemplary of what it means to be an Indigenous scholar writing within and against the academy. All too often, I worry that as Indigenous intellectuals struggling to assert ourselves within academic institutions, we still end up bound by the limitations of our own disciplines, whether it is brilliant enunciations within Geography of spatial relationships that uncritically reify the dominant settler colonial system, or within History that uncritically reify notions of time, or vice versa.
Indigenous materialism and the ‘more-than spiritual’ nature of our own forms of Knowledge
Conditions of Indigenous existence, however, are not constant within the same time and space.
Though settler colonialism has a relatively consistent logic, it is also iterative, with new cycles of dispossession building upon the structures, strategies, tactics, and spatio-legal regimes of previous rounds (Hunt, 2017). Describing traditions of Indigenous resistance and its steady accumulation, Estes writes: “as colonialism changes throughout time, so too does resistance to it” (p. 21). Estes doesn’t shy away from addressing the material constraints put on our attempts to assert Indigenous nationhood, where some strategies of dispossession, such as flooding of Indigenous territory, have permanently destroyed particular relationships with land, water, and the various beings sustained within them. As Estes points out, cultural revitalization then is not something we can always assert by sampling ‘being,’ but must address and/or challenge these material and political realities. At the same time, Estes’ book serves to evoke an Indigenous approach to materialism that is more than happy to address Indigenous intellectual traditions that are regularly relegated as predominantly ‘spiritual.’ Whether it is Oceti Sakowin creation stories, or the Ghost Dance movement during the late 19th century, Estes respectfully engages and interprets these in terms of the specific conditions from which they arose and the ‘more-than-spiritual’ implications of these immensely important aspects of our cultures and worldviews.
Similarly, as Estes discusses throughout the book, settler colonialism isn’t necessarily grounded in an ignorance towards Indigenous forms of knowledge and relationships with land and non-human beings. Rather, understanding these relationships has often constituted a form of intelligence used in campaigns of war and genocide against Indigenous nations. So, while this may not have been an explicit intervention, I believe Estes’ book speaks to the limits of initiatives for ‘inclusion’ and/or ‘reconciliation’ of Indigenous Knowledge within and outside of academia. It isn’t that settler colonial states, institutions and actors are necessarily ignorant to our unique ontologies and their inherent relationships: rather, they just don’t care. Or, at worse, when it comes to Oceti Sakowin, Blackfoot, and other nations for whom relationships with buffalo were traditionally central to our existence, settler colonizers are willing and able to use this knowledge against us. As Indigenous scholars, then, I hope this can assist in making sure we are being self-critical when (and how) we consider the forms of knowledge we choose to share within academia.
Internationalism and Native American / Indigenous Studies?
My final comments are specific to Estes’ discussions of Indigenous internationalism. Rather than further discuss what he writes, I want to briefly discuss some ways this ethic could be further drawn from, specifically within the context of those of us who engage in intellectual and political work inside what is currently Canada. As Estes points out, Indigenous internationalism has a long and rich history. Yet, when it comes to contemporary Native American / Indigenous scholarship, I wonder if we could do more to both draw from and build upon these traditions of internationalism. As Indigenous scholars, how often are we allowing the literal and figurative borders drawn over our territories to constrain our political and theoretical conversations? I pose this question for all of us as Indigenous scholars to consider, but of course also invite Estes to reflect on and consider this in his own work.
The need to constantly reinvigorate our understandings of internationalism is something I have also encountered in the realm of political organizing. In my experience, there is a tendency among Indigenous activists and organizers to normalize certain kinds of international collaborations between Indigenous nations, such as the incredibly inspiring alliance between the various First Nations that collectively signed on to the Save the Fraser Declaration to voice their opposition the Enbridge Northern gateway pipeline project (“Safe the Fraser Declaration,” 2012). At the same time, attempts by some Indigenous activists to forge other kinds of internationalist collaborations are often dismissed in the name of ‘focusing on our own people,’ such as the lack of concern towards the struggles of Indigenous people in the global south, or refusing to ally with Palestinian activists over fears of ‘hijacking our movements.’
Taking up Estes’ call for an Indigenous politics of decolonial internationalism should therefore also mean greater attention to the experiences of Nations not within the same colonial borders. It is true that the different structures of, for example, the US and Canadian political and legal systems means that some experiences and political strategies are distinct. At the same time, both the Canadian and US settler states are built over vast geographic spaces encompassing the territories of hundreds of Indigenous nations, meaning the differences within these borders are often just as great as the similarities across the Canada /US border.
I will end with two examples, in the spirit of deepening an Indigenous internationalism within our research. First, through his analysis of Indigenous experience in Rapid City and border towns like Chamberlain, Estes provides ways that an ethic of Indigenous Internationalism can meaningfully inform discussions ‘up here’ about urban Indigeneity. Despite the recent growth in research in Geography and other disciplines on Urban Indigenous communities within what is currently Canada, most of this work is focused on the largest urban centers like Winnipeg, Vancouver, and Edmonton. And yet a significant number of Indigenous people that comprise the majority of ‘urban Indigenous / off-reserve’ people don’t live in major cities, but small towns in and around reserves, often a function of housing shortages on-reserve or the legacy of gendered discrimination under the Indian Act. Those of us concerned with the experiences of ‘urban’ Indigenous people in Canada, can therefore learn much from Estes, and other scholar activists like Melanie Yazzie (Yazzie, 2014), doing work on the experiences of Indigenous people in US border towns, as their work can challenge our own spatial assumptions about what constitutes ‘urban Indigenous experience.’
Second, I was especially interested in Estes’ discussion of the Winters Doctrine, which at first glance is strictly an American legal doctrine. However, my own community, the Piikani Nation of what is currently Southern Alberta, attempted to use the Winters Doctrine in the late 1980s as a means to assert our water rights and challenge the construction of the Oldman River Dam. Estes’ critical evaluation of the Winters Doctrine is immediately relevant here, as he illuminates the challenges with Indigenous people using a court case grounded in blatantly assimilationist policies as a means to assert limited treaty claims to water rights within colonial jurisdiction. Estes’ work thus directly speaks to my own research on the specific challenges the Piikani Nation faced in trying to challenge the Oldman River Dam within Canadian provincial and federal courts, providing an almost-oddly specific example of how important it is to extend our understandings of Indigenous internationalism in ways that don’t reify settler colonial borders.
Hunt, D., 2017. Personal Correspondence.
Save the Fraser Declaration, 2012. https://savethefraser.ca/fraser_declaration.pdf
Hunt, D., 2017. Personal Correspondence.
Yazzie, M.K., 2014. Border Town, USA: Brutal violence in border towns linked to colonization. Indian Country Today Media Network. https://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2014/08/22/violence-common-sense-natives-living-border-town-usa-156532
Yazzie, M.K., 2014. Border Town, USA: Brutal violence in border towns linked to colonization. Indian Country Today Media Network.
Michael Fabris is a PhD candidate with the University of British Columbia Department of Geography, where he will continue on as Assistant Professor starting in 2021. As an Indigenous geographer, affiliated with the Piikani Nation (Blackfoot), Michael’s research focuses on processes of dispossession in settler colonial contexts, and the Indigenous social movements that seek to challenge these processes by reasserting Indigenous land relationships through their own forms of governance and legal jurisdiction.