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n Canada, we had a national scandal throughout the winter of 2019 when former Minister of Justice, Jody Wilson-Raybould exposed the Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for applying internal pressure on her to dismiss bribery charges against a domestic engineering company operating in Libya. Our feminist unicorn of a Prime Minister – the “weeper in Chief” as he is sometimes known for his emotional outbursts (for example, at the announcement of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on residential schools in Canada) – was in a lot of hot water. Not only because meddling in the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice is extremely unethical, but because Justin Trudeau is a Prime Minister who has repeatedly stated that Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples is the most important relationship to him and to the country. Former Minister Wilson-Raybould is an Indigenous woman of the Kwakwaka’wakw nation.
A Twitter hashtag was born: “IStandWithJody.” Following her disclosure of this inappropriate pressure and interference, Ms. Jody Wilson-Raybould was demoted to Minister of Veteran Affairs, then kicked out of Cabinet altogether. There is obviously a lot of consternation in Indian Country about Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s eviction. In her remarks to the Justice Committee struck to investigate her allegations, she stated: “I come from a long line of matriarchs and I am a truth teller in accordance with the laws and traditions of our Big House – this is who I am and who I will always be.” As more and more rounds of questions went beyond the pre-arranged time limit, and as the public worried about the gruelling stamina that would be needed to proceed, Salish people brushed it off: “If they are trying to wear her down, they have never been to ceremonies in our lodges, which can go all night.”
Commentators continued to focus on her Indigenous identity in the bribery dispute concerning the engineering firm SNC Lavalin, often framing the fallout around the powerful image of an Indigenous women speaking truth to power, in this case, to the most influential white man in the country. This man, of course, also happened to be the son of former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, whom her own father, Bill Wilson, debated in the House of Commons on the meaning of Indigenous rights during the famous constitutional talks of the 1980s.
Unfortunately, Ms. Wilson-Raybould did not stake her truth-telling to a controversial piece of legislation called the Indigenous Rights and Recognition Framework that almost sparked a second Idle No More movement across Canada. The legislation was heading towards potentially subordinating Indigenous rights under Crown jurisdiction through new legal and policy mechanisms. Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Prime Minister Trudeau were promoting and rolling out this massive framework together. Upon resignation, the former Minister of Justice did make sideways remarks questioning the sincerity of the government on Indigenous issues, inferring that process had soured.
I do hope these disagreements on the Indigenous rights framework come out, eventually. But I couldn’t help but see another historical pattern unfolding between an Indigenous woman and a white man in the scandal, which is the white man saying: “Get in the way of my money and I will destroy you.” SNC-Lavalin meant to the Liberal Government 7,000 jobs; countless kickbacks; Quebec votes in the upcoming federal election needed to tie up another Liberal victory. Among the other projects SNC-Lavalin is invested in domestically are the Site C dam in northern British Columbia, which is contentious and protested by many local First Nations people, and the Muskrat Falls dam in Labrador, consented by the Innu Nation leadership, but vigorously opposed by many downstream Indigenous peoples and supporters. There is an endless complication to Jody Wilson-Raybould’s role as Minister of Justice within a federal government that colonized her people.
All of this was unfolding as I read Nick Estes’ book, especially where he highlights the extraordinary role played by Indigenous women in defending the Oceti Sacowin Nation. Our History is the Future is a deeply engaging book that threads together a number of crucial historical purposive forces that are otherwise left out in many histories of Indigenous peoples, especially those not told by Indigenous peoples themselves: that is the way Indigenous lands are linked to broader national political economies; the way Indigenous peoples must navigate the impacts of colonialism on their governance systems and leadership; the way Indigenous life is sown on the loom of Indigenous women and their leadership; the way that structural violence – the worst, most violent, and genocidal kind – can be survived, and not only survived, but that life can thrive and lead society out of catastrophe. This is a book about what history does.
Estes’ book captures these complexities from within the heart of a resistance movement. In an amazing passage, he describes the anticipation for a meeting in 2014 between Energy Transfer Partners and the Standing Rock Sioux. Wasté Win Young says, “I struggled with this last night… Do we want to tell something so important and sacred to us to a pipeline company?” What she grapples with is how to intervene in white settler history (the history of so-called winners and heroes) with the truth about what happened, without subjecting that truth to further desecration. Estes writes: “Descendants of those who survived a genocidal campaign were sitting in the room, face to face with the very people who would two years later bring a whole new wave of chaos and violence” (43). This incredible passage, where time exists in a circle of the ever-present history, references the aftermath of the 1862 Dakota uprising when the United States (US) punished survivors of the Whitestone Hill Massacre, gunning down more than 400 Lakotas and Dakotas on a buffalo hunt.
As a historical work, this passage captures the important labor of this book: the decision to evoke the genocide in order to mark its continuities, to honour ancestors in the room, to describe a legacy of pain and loss through senseless wars of destruction, to address his “sixteen-year old self who needed theory as a weapon and history as a guide growing up in white supremacist border towns like Chamberlain, South Dakota” (259). This book is also for allies, but it is nonetheless weighed against the white man’s ability to hear, as I will describe below. This is a caution to those of us who are non-Indigenous, privileged to hear the voices of those who have survived genocide and carry the mirrors of American and Canadian society in their scars. If we can hear the story, we can face the future of necessary struggle as real partners.
This acknowledgement of settler society’s inability to hear is so prevalent, it forms a part of Lakota “traditions” of resistance. Back at the Standing Rock camp in the present day, following a particularly cruel and heartless confiscation and desecration of sacred objects, Estes describes how “it was decided to ceremonially burn the urine-soaked remnants, [so] an Ihan-kton-wan elder gathered young Water Protectors around a fire. She was dressed in the regalia she wore the day of the raid [several days earlier]. Hundreds of copper pennies hung by red ribbons from her dark blue trade cloth dress. She told of her ancestors who were killed during the 1862 US-Dakota War. Evicted from their homelands, they fled to present-day Standing Rock, crossing the Missouri River not far from the location of Oceti Sakowin Camp, after US cavalrymen massacred Dakotas and Lakotas in the Whitestone Hill buffalo hunt camp. This was, to the day, exactly 150 years before DAPL private security unleashed attack dogs on unarmed Water Protectors at a nearby pipeline construction site” (130). The US Calvary also imprisoned dozens of Dakota men at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, and as they led them to the gallows the guards heaped their sacred medicine bundles in a pile and lit them afire. It was the same week Lincoln signed the Emancipation Declaration. Estes explains, “The copper pennies hanging from the elder’s regalia had holes drilled into Lincoln’s ears with red ribbon threaded through. ‘He didn’t listen,’ she said of the Great Emancipator, ‘so we opened his ears.’”
Each year, I do a unit on the role of art in the ideological formation of settler nations. I show the endlessly reproduced images of Custer’s Last Stand – his brave posture centred in each of these paintings – and then we learn the truth about the so-called “Great Sioux Wars.” These wars were a genocidal attack on sovereign nations who were fighting to protect their homelands. We look at the ledger drawings by acclaimed artist Red Horse, a Minneconjou Lakota Sioux warrior who fought against Custer and the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in June 1876. And then we trace the story to Standing Rock and the NODAPL camps.
The ledger drawings must stand up to 150,000 lithographs that were printed of John Mulvany’s painting, which hung in saloons throughout the country. It is among the most iconic images in American history and it was a salve on the damaged pride of Americans who were shocked to lose so dramatically and so often in the Sioux wars. Students read Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian, where he objects to the way that Custer made it into all the history books, yet the heroes defending their lands have been ridiculed as crazy seditionists. He writes, “The sad truth is that, within the public sphere, within the collective consciousness of the general populace, most of the history of Indians in North America has been forgotten, and what we are left with is a series of historical artifacts and, more importantly, a series of entertainments… In the end, who really needs the whole of Native history when we can watch the movie? (20).
Here in Estes’ book, we have a powerful antidote to edu-tainment that neatly packages time into eras, disconnected from one another, and cordoned miraculously off from the ideological air we all breathe today. Instead, we have geographical transformation, material accumulation, physical violence, and epistemic conflict. After the Battle of Greasy Grass, Estes describes – echoing again the signification of listening – how Lakota women “used awls to carve holes in Custer’s ears so he would hear better in the afterlife.” He describes a prayer song led by an elder who reminds the younger ones that “the tears flowing from their eyes were their ‘ancestors speaking through them,’ and that they were not tears of trauma but of liberation. ‘We survived genocide after genocide.’” History is hearing these stories and reclaiming its heroes.
This emphasis on ears reminded me of a story told during the Delgamuukw v. British Columbia (1997) testimony in the lands now known as British Columbia. Seventy-one hereditary Houses of the Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en Nations brought forth an assertion of jurisdiction and ownership of their forested, mountained, and sweet coldwater lands in the northwest of the province. When the Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en went to court to assert their unceded Aboriginal title to the land, one witness Mary Johnson took the stand to show her belonging to the land within their Indigenous legal order. The Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en share in common the use of songs, among other practices, to demonstrate responsibility for particular territories.
So Mary Johnson sings a song about a place – it’s a sad song, because it involves 2 sisters many years ago who witness their brother dying of starvation. Then the sisters hear the beating of a grouse’s wings and know that they are mating, and they will return repeatedly to the place they mated, so the sisters lie in wait. The first sister attempts to catch the grouse on his return and fails, but when the grouse returns again, she catches it and they eat. But then they remember the death of their brother and begin to cry, and they write him a song of lament. Mary Johnson sings the song of lament in the courtroom. But the application of the rules of evidence are deeply entrenched in Western notions of truth and ideas about governance, ownership, and property. Justice McEachern of the BC Superior Court says: “It’s not going to do you any good to sing it to me. I have a tin ear.”
Recognizing his disability, the Gitxsan raised a totem pole the following year telling the story of the trial, carving the likeness of McEachern with, of course, a tin ear.
Estes describes Indigenous resistance in the vein of such traditions. He writes, “A tradition is usually defined as a static or unchanging practice. This view often suggests that Indigenous culture or tradition doesn’t change over time—that Indigenous people are trapped in the past and thus have no future. But as colonialism changes throughout time, so too does resistance to it. By drawing upon earlier struggles and incorporating elements of them into their own experience, each generation continues to build dynamic and vital traditions of resistance.” Estes demonstrates in Our History is the Future that this adaption involves rebuilding the Oceti Sakowin nation through the violent disorders of settler colonialism: reshaping around infrastructures of water supply and the sacrifice zones of Lakota lands; the extractive wealth of gold in the Black Hills; the accumulative imperative of a capitalist society in constant crisis, constantly looking to fix capital through expansion and intensification of resource markets, such as hydrocarbons.
This work is not only the strengthening of the nation but about a constant confrontation with the tin ears who refuse to hear of the Lakota’s governance authority. The Lakota Nation, as Nick describes, can be decentralized, but must come together around significant matters that concern all the affected communities or tribes. DAPL was once such moment in a long line. There will be many more and the time has come, if we are not already, to stand with them.
Shiri Pasternak is Assistant Professor in Criminology at Ryerson University in Toronto. She joined the faculty in July 2017. She is the author of Grounded Authority: the Algonquins of Barriere Lake Against the State, (University of Minnesota Press, 2017), reviewed here.