The Indigenous Revolution

Standing Rock points the way forward for indigenous people and the Left.

An anti–Dakota Access Pipeline protester in Cannonball, ND. Desiree Kane / Flickr

On a July morning, the cedar bow of our massive dugout canoe, the Swissaloh from Squaxin Island, heaved and fought through the monstrous wake of a stadium-sized container ship.

Surging waves pushed our nose straight up toward the sky. The behemoth sounded its foghorn, announcing delivery of the day’s shipment to the settlers of Puget Sound.

My dad braced his foot against mine. Behind us, our skipper called out, “Ten more power pulls Squaxin Island!” The bow of the Swissaloh crashed into a trough between waves as we pulled through the Salish waters in unison. “One, two, three . . .”

Within minutes, the turbulence was behind us. But today and into the future, the radical potential embodied in our presence on waters and lands stolen from us by armed settlers abides.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Coast Salish nations, whose canoes long navigated these seas, used the 1854 Medicine Creek Treaty to reassert their inherent and treaty rights to fish across ancestral territories. That episode of the Red Power movement, known as the Fish Wars, coincided with a global surge throughout the Fourth World — the indigenous nations that persist across continents, in the states that colonists claimed and never left.

With some imagination and purpose, we the Squaxin Island pullers might have used that moment to reignite the Fourth World’s fight against a global political economy that continues to dispossess, impoverish, and police indigenous people and nations. We could have stopped that ship. We could have said: “Not on our land. Not today.”

But our indigenous moment of action was not yet at hand.

We broke into the St’at’imc “Constitution Song,” a mash-up of hand game songs and protest chants sung at demonstrations in British Columbia for decades:

Hey ya ho, hey ya hey yo ho

Hey ya ho, hey ya hey yo ho

Ya hey ya ha, hey ya hey ya ho

Ya hey ya ho, hey ya ho,

Seattle is all Indian land!

America is all Indian land!

Canada is all Indian land!

Ya hey ya ho, hey ya ho.

The View From Standing Rock

On October 27, police clad in riot gear sweep through a camp of indigenous water protectors along the banks of the Missouri and Cannonball rivers, just north of the present-day boundary of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.

This community, alive with song, dance, and prayer, is the last line of defense against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), a nearly 1,200-mile-long pipe that will carry Bakken crude from North Dakota’s fracking fields to Illinois. Their rallying cry is “Mni Wiconi,” Lakota for “Water is Life.”

A group of water protectors gather in prayer along the banks of the Cannonball River. Police descend a hill to the riverbank, and unleash clouds of pepper spray and a hail of rubber bullets and beanbag rounds.

Meanwhile, a standoff unfolds next to Backwater Bridge on North Dakota’s Highway 1806. Unarmed protectors hold hands. Thirty yards up the road, two columns of over one hundred law enforcement officers flanked by armored personnel carriers, Humvees, and a high-frequency sound cannon assemble in attack formation.

Hundreds of miles around, stretching across present-day South Dakota, Nebraska, and Wyoming, lies the territory of the Oceti Sakowin, or Great Sioux Nation, guaranteed to the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota people under the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty. This ocean of grass is the site of some of the nation’s most iconic conflicts: Red Cloud’s War of 1866–8 and the Great Sioux War of 1876, the Fetterman Fight in 1866 and the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, Wounded Knee in 1890 and its liberation in 1973.

The police, batons drawn, march lockstep toward the protesters. America’s frontier legend, diligently recounted to every American child in every American classroom for well over a century, is poised for replay.

The next evening, the cowboys are gloating. They have rounded up 139 protesters. The charges? Engaging in a riot, plus conspiracy to endanger by fire and explosion.

North Dakota governor Jack Dalrymple declares that the police have successfully cleared out the camp. “Our state highways and county highways and private property is not the place to carry out a peaceful protest,” he tells the press. He says nothing about treaty lands legally claimed and defended by a sovereign indigenous nation.

The Indians refuse to recede. Felony charges are later dropped. With each show of police force, more protectors pour into camps already more than five thousand strong. Within weeks, the largest bank in Norway pulls its assets from the project. Pundits call on President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton to speak out against the pipeline. The New York Times editorial board insists that the pipeline be rerouted.

For the first time since the Occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973, an international audience is hearing and responding to the grievances of America’s first people.

The cowboys may have outgunned the unarmed Indians, but they are being outwitted, outflanked, and out-strategized by a massive, transnational, indigenous-led movement. Facebook Live is their primary media channel, but stories about the water protectors are jumping across the divide from social to mainstream media, appearing in the New York Times and on CNN and Saturday Night Live. Support is growing.

Indians are broadening the frontier of political possibility. Their assertion of sovereignty — against a pipeline and for basic human rights, including water that sustains life — is the way forward. The Fourth World, too long ignored, is defining a “Fourth Way” for the Left.

The Dance With the State

The next day, the standoff resumes. But this time, law enforcement faces dozens of indigenous women moving to the healing rhythms of the jingle dress dance. With each step, the governor’s decision to send one hundred National Guardsmen to quash the peaceful protectors looks more and more preposterous.

The jingle dress originated with the Oceti Sakowin’s ancestral enemies to the east, the Ojibwe, who call the dance ziibaaska ‘iganagooday. According to oral traditions from the Mille Lacs and Whitefish Bay Ojibwe, a father dreamed the dance would cure his ailing daughter and their community of Spanish influenza.

The dance emerged just as Washington lawmakers enacted the Dance Order of 1921, which banned ritualistic dance on reservations. This attack on culture built on the Dawes Act of 1887, which partitioned and privatized reservation lands. In flagrant violation of the prohibition, and as the American and Canadian governments ripped indigenous children from their families and cultures to send them to boarding and residential schools, the jingle dress dance spread across the United States and Canada. Today, it is one of the most popular, moving, and dignified women’s dances on the contemporary powwow circuit.

On Oceti Sakowin territory, the jingle dress is a symbol both of women’s strength and of solidarity with ancient enemies uniting for a common cause.

The jingle dress dancers illuminate Maori feminist historian Aroha Harris’s theory and metaphor of the “dance with the state” — the push and pull of indigenous peoples’ resistance to state efforts to eliminate, dispossess, and assimilate them. Harris references the Haka, a Maori dance used to intimidate enemies and welcome guests, as a metaphor for the ways that Maori have effectively resisted, manipulated, and sidestepped the state over time.

The Haka, which is emblematic of anti-imperialism, is all over Facebook, offered up by Maori communities in solidarity with the Mni Wiconi cause. Maori have even composed a special Haka for Standing Rock.

Many Americans, Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders believe that indigenous people are long gone and defeated. Inheritors of the imperial myth of “Manifest Destiny,” they presume the colonizers’ victory was inevitable and even predetermined. This racist myth has led empires and states to underestimate indigenous power.

Global histories of indigenous resistance, survival, and resurgence tell another story. On these Oceti Sakowin plains in 1876, a cocksure General Custer rushed into the Battle of the Little Bighorn only to be soundly defeated by allied Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho forces. Dalrymple appears poised to repeat Custer’s mistake.

Countless indigenous communities, nations, and confederacies from the Americas to Australasia, and South Africa to Siberia, including Aboriginal Australians, Apache, Arapaho, Cherokee, Cheyenne, Chukchi, Comanche, Cree, Creek, Diné, Hawaiian, Haudenosaunee, Kiowa, Maori, Modoc, Nez Perce, Pueblo, Salish, Sauk, Seminole, Shawnee, Tasmans, Tlingit, Ute, Xhosa, Yakima, Zulu, and others have resisted imperial powers and industrial states and prevailed.

Before defeating Custer, the Oceti Sakowin had a long history of settler handling. In 1862, the Dakota pushed thousands of settlers off the Minnesota frontier. Six years later, the Lakota defeated the United States Army in Red Cloud’s War.

Retribution followed many indigenous victories. In California, entire communities were hunted like animals. After taking dozens of Dakota men as prisoners of war following the uprising of 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed an order to execute thirty-eight of them — the largest mass execution in American history. Later in 1890, the United States Army gunned down three hundred Lakota at Wounded Knee.

This history continues to devastate. Indigenous people remain the poorest of the poor and the most likely to be killed by law enforcement. Four of the fifteen most impoverished counties in the United States include Lakota reservations in South Dakota. The two poorest, Oglala Lakota and Todd County, lie entirely within the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations, where half of all residents live in poverty. In Ziebach County, which includes parts of the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River reservations, 45 percent of the population lives at or below the poverty line.

Elsewhere in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, indigenous people are among the poorest, most oppressed, and least visible. They are overrepresented in prisons and underrepresented in universities. Their economic realities are bleak. Their pain is intergenerational.

In short, colonialism endures.

Yet these same communities are uniquely positioned to resist unjust systems and force them to retreat. We must hold these two seemingly contradictory realities of devastation and resilience in our minds at the same time. The Fourth World lives in devastation. The Fourth World is unconquered and on the rise.

Since the 1970s, indigenous people in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have danced impressive victories. They have compelled states to forego assimilationist policies like the involuntary removal of indigenous children to abusive residential schools and the relocation of indigenous workers to cities. Overtly coercive policies have been slowly and steadily replaced with policies that recognize indigenous rights to land, jurisdiction, and sovereignty. Gains are limited, but they are still gains.

At certain times over the past thirty years, indigenous claims have prevented corporations from exploiting natural resources. In New Zealand in the 1980s, Maori claims under the Treaty of Waitangi stopped a state drive to privatize fisheries and hydroelectric power. In Canada and Australia, from the 1990s to the present, aboriginal claims have increased risk for prospective investors in extractive industries.

But the dance with the state can be perilous. In recent decades, some indigenous groups mistook neoliberals who denounced “big government” for allies. They accepted land claims settlements, treaty agreements, and business deals that enabled states to slash social services for the most vulnerable while restructuring indigenous communities as junior corporate partners in the global economy.

As Trump prepares to take power in the US and Brexit changes the economic calculus in Britain and across the world, it is clear that the dance with the state is entering a new age.

The New Colonialism

The new age has precedents.

Any Howard Zinn reader knows that the United States is built on stolen land with stolen labor. However, this is an observation too imprecise to help us understand and predict the trajectory of a global political economy steered and shaped by the likes of Trump and Nigel Farage. If you squint hard enough, Jack Dalrymple might look like a young George Custer, but that does not make him so.

To prevail, indigenous people and the Left must fully understand the precise ways that emerging systems will dispossess indigenous communities. In the nineteenth century, the United States Army incarcerated indigenous people on reservations, claimed land for homesteaders, protected prospectors, and cleared the way for railroad barons. In the 1960s, a different set of historical, political, and economic forces erected the Lake Oahe Dam on the Missouri River, flooding two hundred thousand acres of the Standing Rock reservation to provide power to suburban homeowners.

Today, the drive for independence from OPEC sees a solution in hydraulic fracturing technology. North American oil fields and infrastructure are funded by a financial system that encourages speculation, drives massive inequality, and fails to account for costs associated with human and environmental risks — passing these very real risks and consequences on to communities, workers, and indigenous nations. Inherently unaccountable capitalists are paid big money for being even more unaccountable, and indigenous dispossession continues on new frontiers.

Preliminary post-election forecasts indicate that Trump’s victory and Brexit will redirect capital back toward the American West and the British Commonwealth.

In particular, Trump — a DAPL investor himself — will expedite completion of DAPL and similar projects. He will push to reopen and complete the Keystone XL Pipeline. If he keeps his campaign promises, he will support infrastructure projects and extractive industries, including coal and fracking, in indigenous homelands across the American hinterlands.

At the same time, a conservative Supreme Court, an Interior Department led by Sarah Palin or oil baron Lucas Forrest, and a Justice Department led by Jeff Sessions means limited but hard-won Native rights will be rolled back. If this gang of reactionary appointees can’t figure out how to dismantle complex legal precedents, they can just cut funding to essential services like housing, schools, and health care that are already woefully underfunded, putting tribes in a stranglehold of austerity. Native resistance will be policed by Orwellian surveillance systems finely tuned by the Obama administration. Militarized law enforcement will find reinforcements in the booming private security and prison industries.

Surveillance, state law enforcement, and private security will drive mass arrests, as we’re seeing at Standing Rock. Law enforcement will have more power than ever to quash protesters and silence dissent.

In the former British Wests of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, where the right-wing populist revolution has yet to take hold in the same way, suppression of indigenous resistance may be less visibly coercive — perhaps with the exception of skyrocketing policing, incarceration, and deaths-in-custody of indigenous people, particularly Aboriginal Australians (the “most imprisoned people in the world”).

Politicians in the Commonwealth will look to roll back or restructure indigenous rights won over the last three decades in ways that are favorable to capital.

Governments, like Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in Canada, are already abandoning campaign promises to indigenous people, opting instead to grab land and resources (as seen in the ham-fisted effort to force through the Site C Dam against indigenous opposition). Trudeau’s minister of natural resources has already stated that Canada will no longer ask First Nations for consent before going forward with lucrative natural resource projects like Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Expansion project and Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipelines.

In Australia, the government is steamrolling the Wangan and Jagalingou peoples’ Native Title claims in order to move forward with the massive Carmichael Coalmine in Queensland.

With the Commonwealth clamoring to cash in on opportunities created by Brexit, new free trade deals with the United Kingdom will be struck, resuscitating and rebuilding the capital networks of the former British Empire, previously weakened by globalization and the European Single Market. The Tory dream of a revived Anglosphere, long derided as fanciful, nostalgic, and bad business by Liberals, may even emerge as a legitimate principle and framework of international relations and trade. It will compete with increasingly powerful Chinese and Indian capital throughout the Commonwealth, as already witnessed in the Canadian tar sands, Australian coalmines, and New Zealand real estate and dairy.

Combined with the rise of China and India, this will bring new waves of exploitive capital into indigenous homelands, along with increased policing and the dismantling of indigenous rights.

Renewed colonial and capitalist pressure on indigenous people means that the Fourth World’s adversarial relationship with the state will become more central to the struggle to transform political and economic systems for all. If the history of the indigenous dance with the state is any indication, the Fourth World will suffer tremendously while at the same time standing athwart the forces of capitalism and exploitation.

The Left must stand with the Fourth World in our collective struggle.

The Fourth World and a Fourth Way

On November 14, the Army Corps of Engineers temporarily halted DAPL’s progress, stating that “the history of the Great Sioux Nation’s dispossessions of lands” and the United States’ “government-to-government” relationship with indigenous nations demanded that the route of the proposed pipeline be reassessed. The Army told Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the company building DAPL, that construction beneath the Missouri River required explicit approval, and asked the Standing Rock Sioux to negotiate conditions for the pipeline to cross tribal territory. Faced with a momentary victory for Standing Rock, Kelcy Warren, Dallas billionaire and CEO of ETP, denounced the decision as “motivated purely by politics at the expense of a company that has done nothing but play by the rules.”

Warren was right. Had it not been for thousands of people mobilizing behind an indigenous-led coalition, DAPL would have been business as usual. ETP would have desecrated the graves of Standing Rock ancestors unimpeded. Workers, lured by relatively high wages, would have taken on toxic and insecure work. The tribe’s hunting and fishing grounds would have been jeopardized, and if the pipeline leaked, Standing Rock and its downstream communities would have been poisoned. Environmental degradation and runaway climate change would have pressed ahead unabated. Carbon dependency would have become even more deeply engrained in our political economy. Eventually, ETP and their investors would have cashed out, and future generations would have been robbed.

And all of this still will happen if President Obama doesn’t heed the water protectors and instead sides with ETP.

ETP spent $1.2 million over the last five years paying politicians to legislate in its favor. Warren personally donated $103,000 to the Trump campaign. But when indigenous people organized, turning to direct action and the law to pressure elected officials and government systems, they wrested power from ETP’s hands.

DAPL is just one chapter in a much longer story of indigenous resistance to, and victories against, pipelines across North America. In 2015, the Obama administration nixed the Keystone XL Pipeline, yielding to pressure from the Cowboy Indian Alliance. In Minnesota, Enbridge shelved plans for the Sandpiper pipeline, after encountering tribal opposition. The Unist’ot’en camp in northern British Columbia has held out against numerous proposed pipelines through their territory, building a space where indigenous sovereignty stands tall on lands defined by industry as an “energy corridor.”

The American and Canadian oil industries are more vulnerable than we realize. Fracked oil from the Bakken and Tar Sands is expensive to extract and refine. Meanwhile, OPEC is pumping at breakneck speed, driving down global oil prices. Oil infrastructure is costly, not only for indigenous people, workers, and the environment, but for investors too. Canadian oil producers have sold crude at a loss. The North Dakota and Tar Sands oil booms have busted. Indigenous opposition to pipelines through their territories has made investors uneasy.

ETP was concerned that their $3.7 billion pipeline would be cancelled. Just this week, Warren used another one of his companies, Sunoco, to buy ETP for $20 billion in order to cut his losses. The move will lower profits for shareholders of ETP in order to protect profits for Energy Transfer Equities (ETE), the DAPL umbrella company in which Warren owns more than 10 percent of shares. Simply put, in the face of massive opposition, the Dallas billionaire reshuffled his companies at shareholders’ expense in order to safeguard and grow his own vast fortune.

The show of force against indigenous protesters, however brutal, is an act of desperation to protect his infinitely deep pockets. If DAPL is not moving oil by the New Year, shipping contractors can cancel their transportation agreements. Warren’s time is running out.

Standing Rock, on the other hand, is the future. Populism is killing the “Third Way” politics advocated by Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and their equivalents around the world. This is the Fourth Way.

The Fourth Way will harness the power and strategic location of indigenous people, exploiting pressure points beyond the workplace to oppose and transform unjust, unequal, and undemocratic systems.

Movements working to reshape infrastructure, environmental policy, financial systems, policing, and work will be of particular importance to indigenous people. Fossil fuel divestment and the “Keep It in the Ground” movement can weaken and even undermine companies seeking to exploit fossil fuels on indigenous lands. Regulations that dismantle financial instruments and policies that profit from natural resource speculation could divert and damage returns on capital flows. The abolition of mass incarceration would loosen the death grip of prisons and police on indigenous communities. Unions can turn individual workers into collective forces of resistance, helping drive up costs for developers and protect laborers from unsafe working conditions. Long-term efforts to reimagine work through full automation and a universal basic income could prevent laborers from having to seek such dangerous work in the first place.

As Standing Rock has shown, indigenous nations that use their unique standing to advocate for viable alternatives to unjust systems will gain supporters. Our traditional territories encompass the rivers, mountains, and forests that capital exploits with abandon. Our resistance — to the pipelines, bulldozers, and mines that cut through our lands and communities — has greater potential than yet realized. Ours is a powerful voice envisioning a more harmonious and sustainable relationship with the natural world rooted in the resurgence of indigenous sovereignty.

As long as indigenous people continue to make this argument, we are positioned to win policies, court decisions, and international agreements that protect and enlarge our sovereignty and jurisdiction. As our jurisdiction and sovereignty grow, we will have more power to stop, reroute, and transform carbon-based, capitalist, and colonial infrastructure. When the Justice Department halted construction of DAPL in October, they also said they would begin looking into Free Prior Informed Consent legislation. This is a minimal first step, and we must hold them to it.

Longstanding alliances with progressive parties and politicians are key to our success. In the United States, Native people have worked with Democratic elected officials like Bernie Sanders and Raúl Grijalva to advance bills like the Save Oak Flat Act, which aimed to stop an international mining conglomerate from exploiting an Apache sacred site in Arizona. In Canada, First Nations have supported the New Democratic Party. In New Zealand, the Maori Rātana religious and political movement has an alliance with the Labour Party that stretches back to the 1930s. Some indigenous leaders, such as outspoken Aboriginal Australian leader Pat Dodson, a Labour senator for Western Australia, have won prominent positions in these parties.

This does not mean, of course, that we should pay deference to elected officials. In 2014, Obama became one of the first sitting presidents to visit an Indian reservation when he travelled to Standing Rock. His visit was historically symbolic and emotionally important, but if Obama fails to stop DAPL, indigenous people should renounce him. Politicians are helpful when they change policies and outcomes. We cannot and should not settle for symbolic victories.

If there is to be an enduring indigenous-left coalition, the Left must support indigenous demands for land, jurisdiction, and sovereignty. At their core, these demands undermine the imperial cut-and-paste model of the nation-state, stretching from Hobbes to the present, which insists that there is room for just one sovereign entity in the state apparatus. Thomas Piketty’s call for a global wealth tax implies an international governance structure to levy such a tax. He pushes us to think beyond the state. Similarly, indigenous demands for lands, jurisdiction, and sovereignty imply that we must think beneath it.

As the Fourth World continues to push states to recognize our inherent, constitutional, and treaty rights as sovereign nations, the Left cannot remain neutral. To remain neutral is to perpetuate a long history of colonization. To remain neutral is to lose a valuable, organized, and powerful ally.

Struggle Without End

On November 15, more than 1,500 protesters gathered in Foley Square in Manhattan. With songs and chants of “Water is life,” we expressed our solidarity with Standing Rock, and sent a strong message to Obama and the Army Corps of Engineers, whose offices lie just across the street: rescind DAPL. We were just a fraction of the thousands who came together in cities across the country that day.

Marching into the street, a few dozen of us locked arms, sat down and stopped traffic in an act of civil disobedience. We refused to move. We became the bodies blocking the behemoth.

Police corralled us. An automated announcement warned us that we faced imminent arrest if we refused to move. The machine blared louder and louder: “you are unlawfully in the roadway and blocking vehicular traffic . . .” We responded with even louder chants and songs to drown out the machine. The officers tightened their ranks and arrested us one by one.

In jail, I was surprised to learn that I was just one of two indigenous arrestees. The radical potential of July’s canoe journey had spread farther and wider than anything we’d imagined just a few months earlier.

We can still stop the Dakota Access pipeline. The police may turn water cannons on us, assault and maim us, and lock us up, but we own the momentum. And even if we fail to defeat this pipeline, we will have prevailed in many battles along the way, and we can still win the long war.

As we seek a way forward amid an ascendant right, the Fourth World has opened up a new window of political possibility. The Left must stand with them and start stitching their successful formula for resistance and transformation together with movements for economic, racial, environmental, gender, and sexual justice into a winning coalition.

This is, and always has been, a long and difficult struggle of incremental victories and defeats. For the first people of this continent, it has raged for centuries. It is, as the late Maori intellectual and activist Ranginui Walker put it in Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou, a “Struggle Without End.” The title of Walker’s book refers to the legendary words of Rewi Maniapoto, a Maori King Movement leader, who responded to a call to surrender at the Battle of Orakau in 1864, with these immortal lines:

“Ka whawhai tonu matou, Ake! Ake! Ake!” We will fight on, forever and ever and ever.

As we fight on, the songs and dances of our indigenous resistance find new steps, new verses, and new voices.

Hey ya ho, hey ya hey yo ho

Hey ya ho, hey ya hey yo ho

Ya hey ya ha, hey ya hey ya ho

Ya hey ya ho, hey ya ho,

Get your pipelines the fuck off our land!

We kicked your ass at the Sacred Stone camp!

We will fight and we will win!

Ya hey ya ho, hey ya ho.