A Half-Millennium of Indigenous Resistance Continues

The indigenous uprising at Standing Rock was far from an isolated incident on that native land, as historian Nick Estes shows in a new book. It is the site of hundreds of years of anticolonial struggle.

A Native American activist rides along a ridge which overlooks Oceti Sakowin Camp on the edge of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation on December 4, 2016 outside Cannon Ball, North Dakota. Scott Olson / Getty

Nick Estes is part of a long line of indigenous historians, intellectuals, and resisters who use “theory as a weapon and history as a guide” to inform the struggles of the present. His grandparents fought the devastating construction of the Pick-Sloan dams in the 1950s and ’60s (which flooded over two hundred thousand acres on the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River reservations), and two of his grandfathers wrote histories of their Lower Brule Tribe of the Lakota nation, Make Way for the Brules (1963) and Kul-WicasaOyate (1971).

Building on their work, in Our History is the Future, Estes outlines four pivotal moments in the assault on indigenous people and their resistance against it: the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fur trade, the consolidation of the reservation system and annihilation of the buffalo in the nineteenth century, the mass destruction of the Pick-Sloan dams, and the North American oil booms of the twenty-first century. In beautiful stories describing the relationships between people, nations, animals, and the Earth, Estes makes a series of theoretical contributions that point to the kinds of knowledge and social movements that can dismantle capitalism’s constant and destructive drive toward accumulation at all costs. Estes offers materialist solutions to the understanding and overturning capitalism and settler colonialism.

Indigenous prophecy, Estes argues, is revolutionary theory. Our History is the Future describes, for example, the Ghost Dance begun by the Paiute prophet Wovoka in the 1880s and incorporated by the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota tribes of the Oceti Sakowin confederation. At that time, most native groups had been pushed onto reservations, and around 90 percent of their populations had died. The US Army had nearly exterminated the buffalo. Native children languished in boarding schools, subject to intense corporal punishment and starvation, stolen from their families, robbed of their languages, had their hair cut, and were alienated from their cultures. To native peoples, the settler-colonial project had become apocalyptic.

In this context, participation in the Ghost Dance ceremony, in which groups of people communed with ancestors for days at a time, quickly gained widespread participation. The Ghost Dance imagined a future in which the colonialists were swept from North America by a large natural cataclysm, and Lakota ancestors and a vibrant buffalo nation returned to live in harmony.

To protect Unci Maka, Grandmother Earth, Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples will have to turn back the forces destroying the earth- capitalism and colonialism. But prophets and prophecies do not predict the future, nor are they mystical, ahistorical occurrences. They are simply diagnoses of the times in which we live, and visions of what must be done to get free.

The Ghost Dance encouraged nonrecognition of reservation rules and authority, urged children to run away from boarding schools, the rejection of allotments, establishment of resistance camps, and occasional theft of provisions from reservation authorities and white settlers. The United States sent nearly half of its standing army to destroy the Ghost Dancers because of the danger of their vision, which was “folding the remembered experience of a precolonial freedom into an anti-colonial future.” The infamous massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 was the US Army’s attempt to extinguish that vision. Our History is the Future attempts to harness prophecy for today’s struggles.

If prophecy is theory, indigenous feminism, based on the idea that that what befalls the land befalls indigenous women’s bodies, and vice versa, is one of the central theoretical tenets of the book. “Man camps” in extractive zones, like the Bakken Shale region and in the Greater Chaco area of Navajo Nation, where oil and gas workers live in pop-up trailer camps the size of many towns in the Interior West, are dangerous for native women today; high concentrations of male oil workers who (temporarily) make relatively high wages are infamous for attracting drug trafficking, promoting dangerous and exploitative sex trade practices, and sexual assault.

Their jobs are dependent on trashing the land to which they have no connection. They treat women’s bodies as similarly disposable.

Most often it has taken campaigns led by native women like activists with the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women to call attention to the sexual violence and disappearances that are an inevitable effect of the extractive industry. Estes draws a direct connection between this current phenomenon and the heart of the colonial project: stripping indigenous women of power and taking their bodies by force.

Starting with the fur trade in the eighteenth century, indigenous women were captured and used by white traders to get access to their kin networks for the purposes of their trade networks. But while their bodies were used for access to markets, indigenous women were systematically stripped of political power and authority by the fact that colonial authorities only recognized males in the realm of diplomacy and negotiation. Political authority that women held in Oceti Sakowin societies had to be stripped from them in order for the colonial project to succeed.

All of Estes’s theoretical contributions have practical implications for today’s anticapitalist struggles. In resisting the “good Indian, bad Indian” narrative, Estes helps the reader to understand that any movement will employ a multiplicity of tactics. An example is the story of the relationship between Tasunka Witko (Crazy Horse) and his uncle, Sinte Gleska (Spotted Tail). Spotted Tail has come to symbolize the diplomatic tendency among indigenous peoples (the “good Indian”), whereas Crazy Horse has come to symbolize armed resistance (“bad Indian”).

In reality, though, both Crazy Horse and Spotted Tail engaged in armed resistance at different points and were committed to defending their land and people, and non-human relations. Most importantly, they treated each other as “good relatives,” recognizing that their bonds were more important than any tactical differences.

Today’s Water Protectors, the movement activists like those in Standing Rock who participate in direct action to stop extraction, in Estes’s narrative, are part of a long line of anticolonial defenders of the Earth and healthy human relationships. He explains the tradition of indigenous internationalism, in which confederations of indigenous nations (the Oceti Sakowin Nation of the Seven Council Fires, for example) were built to achieve common goals even before colonial contact. Other confederations, like Tecumseh’s United Indian Nations in the Ohio River Valley, and treaty councils, democratic and kinship-based power structures, came together to resist the reservation system by any means necessary.

In the 1920s, the Society of American Indians published the American Indian Magazine and attempted to create the first transcontinental anticolonial movement by building coalitions of leaders from various indigenous nations and petitioning the US government for recognition of nineteenth-century treaties that the colonial authorities were violating and ignoring. These activists laid the groundwork for Red Power activists of the 1960s and ’70s, particularly the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the International Indian Treaty Council, who also used existing treaties like the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty as the basis for their claims of sovereignty, and their petitions for redress of grievances to both the United States government and international bodies.

A high-water mark of this later Red Power movement was a June 1974 Treaty gathering of five thousand people from ninety-seven indigenous nations at Standing Rock. At this gathering, the indigenous movement in the United States claimed its important place in the global anticolonial movement burgeoning across the Middle East and Africa.

Reading Estes’s book, one is struck by the incredible significance of the place of Standing Rock and the lands of seven nations of the Oceti Sakowin confederation overall. In indigenous-led organizing spaces, I’ve encountered much frustration with the fact that many environmentalists think the 2016 mass resistance at Standing Rock was the beginning of something totally new. That resistance camp was an important turning point.

But on the lands of what is now known as South and North Dakota, Custer was defeated at the Battle of Greasy Grass (1876), soldiers attempted but failed to kill the Ghost Dance at the massacre of Wounded Knee (1890), the Army Corps of Engineers laid the groundwork in the 1950s for the massive North American oil boom of the next century through the largest destruction of native land to date with the construction of the Pick-Sloan dams, AIM’s Battle of Wounded Knee (1973), the international treaty gathering of 1974, and then the latest battle at Standing Rock all happened.

And none of that even accounts for the daily, quiet resistance (such as the everyday learning at Survival Schools and native-language immersion efforts) that continues without interruption. When viewed from the lens of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, these lands do seem to be one of the cosmological centers of resistance to the colonial project.

Today’s Water Defenders, like their predecessors, imagine a different type of future. In this future, Estes “defines freedom not as the absence of settler colonialism, but as the amplified presence of Indigenous life and just relations with human and non-human relatives, and with the earth.” Estes’s book, written for an audience of indigenous people and hopeful revolutionaries, people like his “sixteen year old self” — a young, indigenous, rebellious spirit growing up in a poor neighborhood in the racist border town of Chamberlain, South Dakota — much more successfully and concretely makes the past relevant to today’s struggles for liberation and helps us to imagine what that liberation might look like.