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here is a joke that everyone in Indian Country became Facebook friends during the Standing Rock uprising in 2016; a very Indigenous thing happened: we made and remade relations. The connections, much like the movement itself, however, resonated well beyond just Indigenous peoples and those beautiful camps at the confluence of the Missouri and CannonBall rivers. If we weren’t at camp, a teach-in, or solidarity rally or event, we were glued to Twitter or Facebook for the latest update. If we didn’t cry after getting sprayed with CS and tear gasses — chemical weapons — on the frontlines, we cried as we watched livestreams of our friends and relatives get pummeled by an endless barrage of intensified police cruelty when we were in the comforts of our homes or workplaces. It was an election year. There was a misplaced hope in the Obama administration, the first Black President of the United States, that the barrage of weapons, arrests, attack dogs, and militarized police — in other words, the twenty-first-century Indian war — would disturb his conscience. It didn’t. And this made a lot of us pragmatically bitter about the possibilities of tepid reform and electoral politics, if we hadn’t already been.
The twenty-first century Indian war certainly disturbed the world and those who gave their lives to fulfill the profound duties of a Water Protector, which has become the iconic symbol of today’s climate justice movement and so much more. I witnessed the bravery and sacrifice of Water Protectors at Standing Rock and beyond. I saw one get gunned down during the protest of a colonizer statue here in Albuquerque. He put his body between a white supremacist gunman and a group of young people — he protected, and he survived. Some succumbed to the psychological and spiritual wounds they carried after they left the camps. Some were imprisoned or wound up on the next frontline. I saw Water Protectors fight fascists in the streets of Seattle and burn down the Third Precinct in Minneapolis as payback for the killing of George Floyd and the daily terror police inflicted on Black life. To this day, I walk the streets with Water Protectors to feed and clothe our relatives, not for charity but solidarity. The spirit of Mni Wiconi — Water is Life — and the #NoDAPL movement lives on. In many ways, it has grown.
It's impossible for me, and many of us, to separate ourselves from the work we do. The bourgeois notions of scholarly “objectivity” sound eerily similar to the false notion that there are “two sides” to every story; or, Indigenous history — that is, the Indigenous story — is seen as a subgenre of the “real” history of the “real” nation: the United States. There are no rewards in the conservative field of US history — which practices both a methodological and political conservativism — for Indigenous history that actively attempts to provincialize the nation-state and is accountable to its own theories and methods. Indigenous scholars, especially students, thank me privately for Our History Is the Future, explaining similar predicaments I found myself in as a graduate student in history: the isolation and alienation from a field that is supposed to be your “home.” It’s hard to make a home, to paraphrase Kim TallBear, in a white supremacist empire, especially in a field created to valorize it and that today seeks the “inclusion” of Indigenous and marginalized voices when it itself has scarcely been accountable to Indigenous histories, let alone Indigenous nations. It’s one thing to write about history, it’s another to live it and make it as Water Protectors have. That is one reason why this review forum is featured in this venue and not elsewhere.
The most important reason such an amazing group of colleagues have been brought together, however, is because of a dear comrade, Charmaine Chua, whom I first met in Minneapolis at the 2017 Abolition Convergence. For her work, I am forever grateful. Pilamayaye ota for bringing this forum together and for your generosity and patience.
Spivak once famously asked: “Can the subaltern speak?” Perhaps Spivak asked the wrong question. In my dear friend Shiri Pasternak’s reading of my book, she asks: “Can the colonizer listen?” There is a short answer and a long explanation to that question. “I have a tin ear,” said Justice Allan McEachern of the British Columbia Superior Court when Mary Johnson attempted to explain the Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en nations’ deep connection to their territory through a beautiful song. That was 1997 for the Delgamuukw decision. From 2008 to 2015, Canada “listened” to Indigenous survivors of residential schools as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Canada has since become a “sorry” state; in 2017, a tearful Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized and promised healing. This year, a militarized RCMP tore through a barricade at Unist’ot’en. As they crossed the bridge, they were surrounded by red dresses to symbolize the murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls whose cases they refused to investigate or may have had a hand in. Police proceeded to raid the Healing Centre, in the pathway of the Coastal GasLink pipeline. The Centre reconnects Indigenous people experiencing violence and trauma — for certain a holdover from residential schools and much more — back to the land and then Wet’suwet’en Nation. In other words, “reconciliation” would happen on Canada’s terms. And it cannot listen if healing gets in the way of a pipeline or mandates the return of land.
So, like at Standing Rock in 2016, Indigenous people are forced to create a different language. The Dakota Access Pipeline and the police may not have understood the daily healing prayers in the camp, but they understood the shutting down a work site for a day, property destruction, and that Indigenous people stand in the way of profits.
What do Natives want? “Just land back,” Denzel Sutherland-Wilson of the Gitxsan Nation said in a YouTube video posted after the eviction of Coastal GasLink Pipeline workers from Wet’suwet’en territory earlier this year. My friend Mike Fabris writes about the necessity of accessible language that doesn’t obfuscate or confuse. I appreciate these insights and would like to expand on his observation, as it pertains to the stated goals of Our History Is the Future and my stance towards the politics of knowledge production. Fabris argues that an academic audience might have trouble accessing the book’s more subtle insights since the theory is shown through history versus through the act of telling. I agree with this framing, while also noting that #LandBack symbolizes an unequivocal aspiration. There is nothing subtle about it. But yet there is an explanation that deserves attention: Indigenous movements and frontlines produce the most advanced revolutionary theory that often gets taken up in academic spaces. I situate myself as a movement intellectual, someone who actively participates in social movements, learns from them, and produces knowledges for and about them. There is something profoundly different than producing knowledge and writing for academic spaces. A movement aspires to reach the broadest audience possible to get across its message. So the scholarship reflects it. It doesn’t, however, lose sharpness. And, as Ruthie Gilmore notes, there is a big difference between analytical sharpness and narrowness. The latter seems to be affected most by the disciplinary nature of the academy, a limited not liberatory function.
Jakeet Singh’s insightful critique of my usage of terms like freedom, shows the problem of translation that happens between academic and movement spaces. I remember sitting in a tipi with my friend and relative Lewis Grassrope in October 2016. I asked him, what do you want? He thought about the question and answered with one word: freedom. He paused and clarified, “freedom to be Lakota, to speak our own language, to live without fear in our own homelands.” Freedom here is both affirmative (freedom to speak your language and exist) and negative (freedom from fear). There is no parallel word for freedom in Lakota, only the aspiration for Wolakota — or peace — or perhaps Lakol Wicoun — to live and be Lakota. While that may not have been a universal aspiration — to be Lakota — for all Water Protectors (many of whom were not Indigenous), it was nonetheless universalized through the Lakota phrase Mni Wiconi — water is life. I also remember reading Angela Y. Davis’s Freedom Is a Constant Struggle while the uprising was taking place. In the book, Davis locates freedom as a place, much like Ruthie Gilmore, in movements themselves: the very conditions that create freedom for the humble people of the earth, which grow from the ground up and are not bestowed up on the people by benevolent forces of the state.
Freedom in the final chapter of Our History Is the Future is the camps themselves that existed both spatially and temporally, which provided for the basic needs of Water Protectors such as free food, healthcare, legal aid, and shelter. The camps reflected a world people aspired to live in. There is an incalculable psychological effect of experiencing real people power in moments uprising, protest, or taking to the streets. Madonna Thunderhawk, who founded the American Indian Movement We Will Remember Survival School for Indigenous youth, once described “feeling freedom for the first time” at Wounded Knee in 1973. Countless young people experienced that same sense of freedom for the first time at the #NoDAPL camps. DAPL and the Army Corps of Engineers may have taken our land to build the pipeline, but they cannot take away that experience which ripples outwards in time to help us locate freedom in the past and in the future.
But Singh is correct in his caution of terms like freedom. The term decolonization, for example, because of cooptation, has nearly been emptied of its original intent and meaning. It has been made into a metaphor for anything other than getting land back; or, more recently, it has become a euphemism for diversity and inclusion. Despite their ambiguity and distortions, however, I take still seriously the project of decolonization and freedom struggles, because, like the land itself, we have to struggle over meaning, a struggle that isn’t reducible to abstract ideals as a means to an end but have become life or death. And we cannot cede the monopoly of definition of terms like freedom to the colonizer; freedom must be reclaimed. Land back means freedom.
My dear comrade Majerle Lister comments on the spatial aspects of Our History Is the Future, specifically noting how “the camps became a space delinked from the geography of empire and a space where Indigenous life ways and values could thrive in the present.” Lister notes that this project isn’t confined to what could be categorically defined as just Indigenous. (Fabris also points out the danger of Indigenous movements that eschew internationalist engagements with other movements and struggles.) There is a longer history of Indigenous internationalism that is explicitly anti-imperialist. While, indeed, this included communing and making relations with the nonhuman and other-than-human world, imperialism itself is an anthropocentric process derived from capitalist exploitation of oppressor nations over oppressed nations. Indigenous peoples of the Global North have a special responsibility: we are within the imperialist nations of the north but we are not entirely of them. Therefore, it would be irresponsible to ignore the movements of the south. It is important to note that the most advanced environmental movement coalesced in Bolivia, under the Indigenous leadership of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS in Spanish) and Evo Morales. Many liberal environmentalists held their noses as MAS faced a rightwing military coup last November, citing the movements’ failure to live up to their ideals of decolonization and environmentalism. What was also overthrown was not just an Indigenous administration, but the most revolutionary Indigenous environmental document: the 2010 Peoples’ Accords of Cochabamba.
The Indigenous Andean cosmovision of Vivir Bien, or “Living Well,” and Pachamama, or “Mother Earth,” are central to understanding the People’s Accords. Living well is not anthropocentric, or focused solely on human relations; it is earth-centric, focusing on the whole. It understands that capitalist domination over nature is patriarchal, and that over-consumption, which is driven by the First World, is not the solution but the problem. If all of humanity consumed as much as the average US citizen, we would need four earths to sustain it. We only have one planet to share, and just relations with the natural world are impossible without just, equitable relations among humanity first.
This is the kind of internationalism Indigenous people had in mind when the camps at Standing Rock were first created: just relations. But we have to ask ourselves why this revolutionary vision is not included in proposals for the Green New Deal or one of the many environmental proposals coming out of First World think tanks? Surely, the Water Protectors paved the way for us to even consider Green New Deal legislation, and surely Indigenous Bolivians fought for all of us when they were thirteen years in power. But why is it easier to propose green techno fixes but not land back to the original caretakers? A new world and a way out of climate catastrophe cannot be won through more solar energy or wind turbines. For the earth to live, we have to find ways to overturn the settler colonial system in its entirety, and that includes ending white supremacy, undoing colonial capitalist relations, and centering caretaking relations by giving back the land.
A burning cop car or a burning police station are unambiguous in their message and in their aspirations for a just world; they cannot be coopted by the status quo just like land back to its caretakers cannot be put into practice by the settler state. This is spirit of the Water Protector, the possibilities I tried to capture in Our History Is the Future: the courage to struggle, and the courage to win.
Nick Estes (Lower Brule Sioux Tribe) is a historian, journalist, and an Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico. He is the host of the Red Nation Podcast.
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