What can we learn from the Indigenous peoples’ movement at Standing Rock?

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Nivedita Nath

Nivedita Nath is a PhD candidate in history. She is broadly interested in using history as a tool for imagining pluralistic, collective futures. Her thesis examines modern imaginaries of the Himalayas, and seeks to critique upper-caste 'Hindu' conceptions of 'nature'.

Notes on Nick Estes’s masterful new study of the movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline- ‘Our History is the Future’


The movement against the 3.8 billion dollar Dakota Access Pipeline, built to transport oil extracted at Fort Berthold Indian Reservation through North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois, was undoubtedly historic. The event also resonated with resistance movements led by Indigenous communities across the world against the occupation of their ancestral land—including that in India led by Adivasis/Tribals. At the heart of the movement were camps set up through April 2016 – February 2017 near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. And at the heart of the largest of these camps was a striking display of solidarity- a procession of 300 Indigenous national flags.The Native American led movement against the pipeline found allies in the Black Lives Matter campaign, Palestinian justice organizations and U.S. military veterans, among others. The #NoDAPL movement was both a response to unsustainable carbon infrastructures (between 2008 and 2016, US domestic crude oil production increased by 88 percent), and a reassertion of Native American visions of emancipation.

Nick Estes, the Indigenous scholar and author of the inspiring new book Our History is the Future, points out that the Dakota Access Pipeline not only encroached upon what should be legally recognized as Indigenous land, but by cutting under the MniSose (Missouri River) it further threatened the water supply of the Standing Rock Reservation. While the U.S. domestic oil boom to some extent offset the effects of the 2009 economic crisis, it was ‘Indigenous lives, lands, waters and air’ that were once again sacrificed to help ‘pull settler economies out of the gutter.’ The Indigenous nations that had gathered in #NoDAPL camps, in some cases for the first time in seven generations, had assembled to protect the MniSose River, who they respect as their relative. Estes’ illuminating work situates this movement, and its clarion call of MniWiconi (‘water is life’), within the long history of Indigenous resistance to settler colonialism.

“Standing Rock, North Dakota Water Protectors – #NoDAPL movement” (Image courtesy: The Fader)

As a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and as an activist, Nick Estes is not your average armchair historian. As the title suggests, the book goes beyond the mandate of conventional histories which merely seek to understand the present through the study of the past. Continuing a tradition of radical Indigenous praxis, Estes instead uses history to disrupt and transform the present. His is a revolutionary history written in all three tenses; an honoring of past struggles through the re-articulation of intergenerational visions of emancipatory futures. Estes’s book, then, is not merely limited to a history of Native American struggles. Indeed, it also portrays a manifesto for international resistance crafted to address the burning problems of climate change and global inequality.

To tell the history of the United States from the standpoint of Native Americans is to soak the glories of the nation-state in a brutal record of bloodshed. It involves narrating how a week before signing the Emancipation Proclamation— a presidential  executive order that legally freed African-American slaves in southern United States in 1863— President Abraham Lincoln ordered the largest mass execution in US history. On December 26, 1862, thirty-eight Dakota men were hanged as retribution for legitimate native resistance in the US-Dakota War. It involves acknowledging that President Jefferson’s ‘Empire of Liberty— the idea that the US has the responsibility to spread freedom around the world—was founded upon the expansion of plantation slavery and Indigenous dispossession. It involves recounting how from 1883 to 1935 native nations, bereft of their lands and confined onto reservations, were banned from practicing their culture. Yet, Estes does not simply present a revisionist history of the United States. He refuses the reductionist treatment of Indigenous peoples as victims consigned to a future scripted by their colonizers.

Thus, an honest reading of Estes’s clarion call for international solidarity must force us savarnas to question our own problematic histories as oppressors. And as Estes’s work demonstrates, the best way for the oppressor to understand his/her own structures of domination is to listen to the voice of the oppressed.

Estes begins with the provocation that ‘indigenous peoples are central subjects of modern world history.’ In doing so, he implies that Indigenous history in the US starts with recognizing Indigenous peoples as sovereign nations. Unlike mainstream histories, Indigenous history encompasses the other-than-human because native life-worlds are centered on relationality. So, Estes beautifully interweaves the story of the OcetiSakowin (a confederation of Dakota, Nakota and Lakota speaking nations) with the inextricable stories of the MniSose River and the Buffalo Nation. He goes on to relate how the colonial conquest of territory, and concomitant notions of private property, aimed to undo such webs of relations which had rooted Indigenous peoples to? their lands.

When the Lakota agreed to treaties with the US State, for instance, their leaders insisted that ‘the country of the buffalo was the country of the Lakotas.’ “We told them that the buffalo must have their country and the Lakotas must have their buffalo” (109). Aware of the material dependence of Indigenous nations on the buffalo, the US embarked upon a program of mass slaughter. “Taking only the hides, white hunters not only left buffalo carcasses to rot on the plains, but also poisoned them with strychnine to kill off coyotes, wolves, and other scavengers- and sometimes starving Native peoples,” Estes writes. In these ways, he makes a radical departure from mainstream historical analyses. In his account, Native Americans emerge as insightful and visionary critics of empire.

Estes’ understanding of the ‘American’ nation-state from an Indigenous standpoint should inspire us savarna students and citizens to reevaluate the record of the Indian nation-state. We must also learn to re-read the map of the subcontinent; we must learn to pronounce place-names in Adivasi languages. Indeed, we must learn to admit to the ongoing internal colonization of sovereign lands of many Indigenous communities in Central India, the North-East and elsewhere. As savarna citizens we look fondly upon the record of the Indian freedom struggle, yet brazenly overlook the pioneering resistance of Adivasi leaders such as Tilka Manjhi, Phulo and Jhano Murmu against colonial rule and for the autonomy of their land. While some among us ‘research’ Adivasi communities, we nevertheless remain complicit in the processes that deny the ‘Indigenous’ identity to Adivasi/tribal communities and their claims to ancestral lands.

Thus, an honest reading of Estes’s clarion call for international solidarity must force us savarnas to question our own problematic histories as oppressors. And as Estes’s work demonstrates, the best way for the oppressor to understand his/her own structures of domination is to listen to the voice of the oppressed.

Know your Wasicu

Hollywood’s stock image of the violent Indian warrior illustrates the imperial attempt to disavow colonial crimes by portraying the victim as the aggressor. Such tropes disintegrate in the face of the bitter reality of the rape and destruction of Indian peoples by white settlers from the early fur trade to repeated violations of post-war treaties.For the OcetiSakowin, Estes writes, the native term of insult wasicuor ‘fat taker’, usually applied to people who behave selfishly, “became synonymous with the United States, a nation that behaved as if it had no relatives” (97).Each iteration of Indigenous resistance articulated an incisive critique of settler colonialism and imperialism.

Estes explains how colonial violence, far from being an aberration, continues to be structural. For instance, the submergence of Indigenous lands during dam construction in the 1940s proved how the protection of white property is weighted above communal native economies. Similarly, the Army Corps of Engineers routed the Dakota Access Pipeline to minimize its impact on the white dominated town of Bismarck. In the 1970s Native women activists formed the organization—Women of All Red Nations. They observed how women bear the disproportionate burdens of settler colonialism through sexual violence, forced sterilization and malnutrition among their children.

Native American internationalism was not just about the liberation of Native Americans but was also informed by an understanding that US counter insurgency strategies deployed abroad in the Philippines, Vietnam and Latin America were first exercised on Indigenous nations. In 1974 a historic meeting of native nations at Standing Rock highlighted interconnections between the Native American fight for land and anti-imperial agitations involving land in Africa, the Middle East and Ireland. More recent displacements by oil industries and pipelines in Canada and the United States have led to a resurgence of such structural violence. Unarmed protestors at Standing Rock endured brutal violence, including dog attacks and rubber bullets, from police and private security contractors. The #MMIWG movement (for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls) has drawn attention to the fact that wherever the tar sands oil industry goes, it takes with it “heightened rates of missing and murdered Indigenous Two-Spirits, women and girls.”

#NoDAPL and All Our Futures

A series of pipelines snaking out of the Alberta tar sands, prominently the Keystone XL and Enbridge Line 9 pipelines, now threaten Indigenous communities across North America as well as the future of the planet. Bill McKibben—American environmentalist, and writer who has written extensively on the impact of global warming—observes that if Canada’s tar sands oil extraction continues apace it alone would swallow “one-third of the remaining carbon budget between us and the 1.5 degree rise in temperature the planet drew as a red line in Paris.”Estes’s ancestors had predicted this bleak future where the ZuzecaSapa (the Black Snake) would extend across the land “imperiling all life, beginning with the water”. We learn from Estes that though the “prophecy foreshadows doom, it also foreshadows historic resistance.”

Transnational extractive projects like the tar sands pipelines, or even Adani’s coal mines in Australia and India, call for international solidarities and collective resistance. Our History is the Future shows how #NoDAPLand the long history of Indigenous internationalism can provide a template for ongoing environmental struggles. This rich legacy of Indigenous environmental activism has inspired advocates for the Green New Deal, notably Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who was inspired by her experiences at Standing Rock. Such solidarities should arguably enjoin Indian environmentalists and climate change activists to not only align with but further look to Adivasi activists for leadership.

“After years of resistance, in 2013, twelve Dongria Kondh village councils—after the supreme court of India ordered for a referendum—unanimously rejected the mining proposal by British company, Vedanta. Considered as one of the most important events in contemporary Adivasi movements in India, it exemplified indigenous resistance against occupation of sacred and ancestral land.” (Image courtesy: banktrack)

Estes relates how “#NoDAPL offered a brief vision of what a future premised on Indigenous justice would look like.” The camps at Standing Rock provided free education, free healthcare, free food, free legal aid, as well as a sense of community and safety. Furthermore, women and gender non-conforming Two-Spirited people often assumed leadership roles in the camps. As an ephemeral enactment of the possibilities of indigenous futures that can only fully come to fruition in the absence of empire, #NoDAPLin some ways harkens back to Estes’s reading of the Ghost Dance.

While Indian Indigenous communities are fighting their own autonomous battles like Standing Rock, how can savarna citizens (such as myself) be more sensitive and responsive listeners to Adivasi voices in the past, present and the future? How have we been complicit in the arguably colonial depredations of our post-colonial nation-state? And how can we relinquish unmerited, unwarranted privileges so that we may be better relatives to those of other castes, classes, genders, and species?

Popular histories associate the Ghost Dance with the U.S. military’s massacre of 270-300 dancers at Wounded Knee Creek in 1890. Yet, the “Ghost Dance, in the revolutionary sense, was about life, not death”, Estes writes. The Ghost Dance prophecy took shape when Indigenous peoples had been broken up and left “disarmed, hungry, horseless, confined to concentration camps…their children stolen from them” and put into boarding schools. It was this climate of a ‘wretched present’ that breathed fire into the dream of the Ghost Dance prophecy. “The Ghost Dance prophecy envisioned the end of the present world through the settlers’ erasure from the earth, and the return of human and nonhuman relations that had been vanquished by colonialism.” (122) Estes powerfully argues that the Ghost Dance should be interpreted as a future-oriented ‘resistance movement’ involving tactics that defied the crippling restrictions of reservation life.

It is Estes’s masterful transmutation of traumatic history into revolutionary promise and his alchemical conversion of poison into medicine that is perhaps his most invaluable contribution. His evocation of Indigenous political imaginaries offers staggering political possibilities that surpass standard leftist projects. Troubling modernity’s obsession with the present, Indigenous resistance is “animated by our ancestors’ refusal to be forgotten”, he writes. “Indigenous revolutionaries are the ancestors from the before and before and the already forthcoming.” In the era of climate change and ecocide, we (savarna/ settler citizens) feel the pressing need for human concern towards nonhumans now more than ever before. Estes reminds us that Indigenous (and indeed Adivasi) politics has always articulated this concern. “There is a capaciousness to Indigenous kinship that goes beyond the human and that fundamentally differs from the heteronuclear family or biological family.” It is in light of these insights that we must consider the call of MniWiconi—water is life.

There are many more points of interest in Our History is the Future that this review has failed to capture. This includes detailed and insightful analyses of U.S. violations of Indigenous treaty rights, and the Red Power Movement—led by Native American youth during 1960s to demand self-determination for Native Americans in the United States. Estes’s chapter on the trajectory of Indigenous internationalism, which culminated in the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, is particularly indispensable. Estes’s work should raise pertinent questions for the (South Asian) Indian reader as well. While Indian Indigenous communities are fighting their own autonomous battles like Standing Rock, how can savarna citizens (such as myself) be more sensitive and responsive listeners to Adivasi voices in the past, present and the future? How have we been complicit in the arguably colonial depredations of our post-colonial nation-state? And how can we relinquish unmerited, unwarranted privileges so that we may be better relatives to those of other castes, classes, genders, and species? These questions should ideally carry an urgency that goes beyond banalities of political correctness or token activism. As Estes demonstrates, Indigenous resistance is not simply about the “continued existence of Indigenous life on this earth” but “also the continued existence of life on this earth.”

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Nivedita Nath

Nivedita Nath is a PhD candidate in history. She is broadly interested in using history as a tool for imagining pluralistic, collective futures. Her thesis examines modern imaginaries of the Himalayas, and seeks to critique upper-caste 'Hindu' conceptions of 'nature'.

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