History & the Standing Rock Saga

Against the Current, No. 203, November/December 2019

Brian Ward

Our History is the Future:
Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline,
and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance
By Nick Estes
Verso, 2019, 320 pages. $26.95 paperback.

NICK ESTES IS a revolutionary and co­founder of the Native liberation organization The Red Nation, and is a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe. Estes begins Our History is the Future with a sketch of what the Standing Rock fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) looked like at the confluence of the Missouri and Cannonball Rivers in North Dakota.

The Standing Rock Indian Reservation is home to the Hunkpapa Lakota, who are part of the Oceti Sakowin, the seven nations of the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota (dubbed by the United States as “The Great Sioux Nation”). The largest single act of Indigenous resistance in the United States since the 1970s occurred at Standing Rock from April 2016 to February 2017.

Energy Transfer Partners, a natural gas company, was ramming DAPL through Oceti Sakowin treaty territory on a 1,712-mile course from the Bakken oil fields to Illinois, crossing both the Missouri and the Mississippi Rivers along the way.

Originally the pipeline was planned to go north of North Dakota’s majority-white capital city, but outcry in Bismarck led the company to redirect the pipeline underneath the Missouri River a half-mile from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

Though the new plan would impact the tribe, there was no consultation or discussion about the plan. The Fort Laramie Treaties of 1851 and 1868 were supposed to protect these lands, but once again the United States was violating them.

In response to the redirected pipeline path, tribal members formed a small organized resistance camp called Sacred Stone Spiritual Camp on a member’s land. The camp quickly outgrew the space and a new encampment was developed on Army Corps of Engineer lands that had been stolen from the Oceti Sakowin. The growing camp came to be called the Oceti Sakowin — an assertion of Indigenous history and resistance to the oppression by the United States.

As solidarity came from other Indigenous nations and non-Natives, the encampment hosted more than 10,000 people, making it the 10th largest city in North Dakota. Protestors called themselves water protectors and adopted the slogan mni wiconi, Lakota for “water is life.” The struggle for clean water was not only for Standing Rock, but for everyone down river as well.

Ultimately, this grassroots struggle forced the Obama administration to put a temporary halt on DAPL. Although Trump quickly reversed that decision once in office, the power of the water protectors cannot be denied. They have lit a fire that has ignited a level of Indigenous resistance not seen in decades.

Legacy of Resistance

Our History is the Future is a must read for anyone who is interested in understanding the encampment at Standing Rock and how it is connected to centuries of resistance by Indigenous people. When Estes refers to traditions of Indigenous resistance, he looks beyond what is normally understood as “Indigenous.” He explains:

“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. Such collective experiences build up over time and are grounded in specific Indigenous territories and nations. ”

Estes covers a lot in a short number of pages and connects history to current struggles. What is most fascinating is that he goes beyond the typical coverage of Indigenous history — resistance during the “Indian Wars” in the mid to late 1800s and the Red Power movement in the 1970s — and covers everything from the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), to the Army Corps of Engineers’ dam project on the Missouri, to how Indigenous people have connected to the international community.

Estes effortlessly convinces the reader how each piece of history is tied to the same string as the next. Estes combines the best of Indigenous historical analysis, putting past movements into a modern, historical materialist framework. He veers away from liberal commentaries that often tokenize Native people as being mystically connected to the earth; rather, Estes shows the reader how Indigenous nations materially connect to the human and nonhuman world and have organized themselves into powerful forces throughout U.S. history.

The United States and American capitalism were founded on two major pillars: the ideology of white supremacy, which forced hundreds of thousands of Africans into slavery in this country, and settler colonialism, which involved the displacement of the Indigenous population to make way for both settlement and privatization of land. Without these two elements, American capitalism would not look the way it does today.

Throughout the book Estes connects the Indigenous struggle to other struggles: the fight against police violence toward African Americans, U.S. imperialism, the struggle for Palestinian liberation, and the climate justice movement. In fact, Estes sees Indigenous people as a crucial lynchpin to many of these fights.

Estes identifies settler colonialism and capitalism — two deeply intertwined aspects of U.S. history — as the oppressive systems that have fueled Indigenous resistance. Estes links those historical origins to present-day realities in his definition of settler colonialism,  the specific form of colonialism whereby an imperial power seizes Native territory, eliminates the original people by force, and resettles the land with a foreign, invading population.

Unlike other forms of colonialism in which the colonizers rule from afar and sometimes leave, settler colonialism attempts to permanently and completely replace Natives with a settler population.

The process is never complete, and the colonial state’s methods for gaining access to new territories change over time, evolving from a program of outright extermination to one of making Indigenous peoples “racial minorities” and “domestic dependent nations” within their own lands, and of sacrificing Indigenous lands for resource extraction.

This definition is important in order to understand the debate on the left about whether the United States is still a settler colony. Some theorists argue that a settler colony is a system where the non-Native population is the driving force of displacement and has a material interest in displacing Indigenous people, and therefore is incapable of standing up for Indigenous rights.

This was without a doubt true for the United States up until the mid to late 1800s, exemplified by pieces of legislation such as the Homestead Act and the Dawes Act (both of which took Indigenous land and parceled it out to non-Native settlers to entice them westward).

Estes, however, looks at settler colonialism in a more nuanced way, one interconnected with capitalism and imperialism, changing throughout history in a process that is still happening today. In his analysis, “settlers” can encompass individuals benefiting from the displacement of Indigenous people and corporations like Energy Transfer Partners, pushing DAPL through Native land.

This framework is complementary to Marx’s analysis of capitalism, centering the exploitation of the land and labor. Settler colonialism and its ideological companion manifest destiny are baked into the development of the United States, much like slavery and racism, and cannot be extracted without overhauling the entire system.

Estes details examples of what settler colonialism looks like in the modern era in his chapter “Flood,” covering the development of the Pick-Sloan Act that ordered the construction of six dams on the Missouri River between 1946 and 1966. It was designed to help prevent flooding in non-Native communities and to employ veterans returning from World War II. The project flooded many Indigenous nations’ land and displaced one-third of the residents across five reservations.

These infrastructure projects were connected to the newly established termination policy, which aimed to force Indigenous people off reservations into cities in order to achieve “the total liquidation of Indigenous political authority.” The Bureau of Indian Affairs linked the two directly, saying that flooding and displacement would “force [Indians] into seeking cash income to make up for substantial portion of income now represented in their use of natural resources of their present environment.”

Entering the capitalist economy would be a necessity, since the Missouri River Basin Investigation, a two-year fact-finding mission in 1946, stated that prior to the flooding most Indigenous communities in the area relied on the “free goods of Nature,” such as hunting, trapping, and gathering. When Estes refers to the ongoing settler colonial project, this is what that means.

Looking Toward Liberation

In the final chapter, Estes explains what “Liberation” might look like. Here he returns to the Oceti Sakowin encampment where, despite its shortcomings, “[f]ree food, free education, free health care, free legal aid, a strong sense of community, safety, and security were guaranteed for all.”

He continues: “Capitalism is not merely an economic system, but also a social system. And it was here abundantly evident that Indigenous social systems offered a radically different way of relating to other people and the world.” Solidarity, Estes writes, is an essential component of these radically different systems:

“Non-Natives believe that somehow Indigenous people will do to settlers what they did to them. But the opposite is true. The example of the Black Hills Alliance in the previous chapter demonstrates that when Indigenous and poor settlers organize around treaty rights, they can beat multinational energy corporations and take control of their lives. The same happened during the 2013 protests to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline and the 2016 efforts at Standing Rock to defeat the Dakota Access Pipeline. Although both projects remain active, a diversity of forces, from environmentalist groups, to farmers and ranchers, to labor unions — what Zoltan Grossman calls ‘unlikely alliance’ — have put up significant obstacles.”

The brief victory at Standing Rock and Keystone XL would not have been possible without solidarity. Unlike in the past, the non-Indigenous working class no longer has an interest in the dispossession of Native land and would benefit from Native liberation; the same energy companies that are breaking treaty rights are the companies exploiting workers. In turn, Indigenous liberation will not be possible without “emancipation” from capital:

“Mni Wiconi — water is life — exists outside the logic of capitalism. Whereas past revolutionary struggles have strived for emancipation of labor from capital, we are challenged not just to imagine, but to demand the emancipation of earth from capital. For the earth to live, capitalism must die.”

I would argue that the future Estes is looking toward is a socialist society that puts forward Indigenous self-determination and liberation and counters racism, white supremacy, settler colonialism, imperialism and capitalism — a society centered around an Indigenous and Marxist understanding of how democratic communal relations and control of the earth is the only way forward for all.

November-December 2019, ATC 203

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