America’s Origin Story Is a Myth

Nick Estes

The foundational myths of the United States celebrate the conquest of the frontier as the creation of a nation founded on principles of equality. Nick Estes thinks it’s time Americans grappled with the truth.

An Oglala Lakota delegation that includes Red Cloud, whose war against the US government led to the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

Interview by
Daniel Denvir

The liberal story of the United States is that we’re a nation of immigrants. The indigenous story is that the country was founded as a nation of settler colonialists. For most of US history, maintaining overwhelming white settlement to ensure indigenous dispossession was official policy.

In Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler even praised American immigration law for its racial exclusions, favorably comparing the United States to what he framed as a racially defiled Latin America.

In an interview with Daniel Denvir on the Jacobin Radio podcast the Dig, Nick Estes discusses his book, Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance. He talks through nineteenth-century smallpox epidemics, massacres at the hands of the US military, the genocide of the buffalo, and the caging of indigenous people on the reservation system.

The conversation also delves into the twentieth century, highlighting how the US government dammed the Missouri River to control flooding and create white farmland. In doing so, the government flooded massive expanses of indigenous land. This action was part of a broader pattern of settler colonialism characterized by horrific violence, including the near elimination of the buffalo, confinement on reservations, and the domination and exploitation of natural resources. These measures aimed to address not just the presence of indigenous people but also the existence of a larger complex relationship between indigenous people and the land and water and animals. The history of resisting this capitalist and colonialist dispossession, however, endures.

Imperialist Expansion and Annexation

Daniel Denvir

You write that the mobilization against the Dakota Access Pipeline marked a “historic resistance and resurgent indigenous histories not seen for generations, if ever.” Explain what the movement at Standing Rock was about, and why you assign it such an important role in the long sweep of indigenous history.

Nick Estes

Standing Rock was two things. First, it was a movement within a moment of history, but it was also a moment within a longer movement of history. It emerged at the tail end of [Barack] Obama’s presidency, coinciding with the peak of the North American oil boom. Standing Rock was both a unique event and part of ongoing, historic resistance.

Standing Rock is seen as kind of this moment of exceptional indigenous resistance, but if we look at it within a longer context — even just within a decade — it was part of a series of historic fights. This includes opposition in the Alberta tar sands region against the extraction of oil sands and the creation of new pipeline infrastructure, such as the Keystone XL pipeline, leading into the Bakken oil boom, which really took off in 2007 and 2008.

There was an infrastructure in place of indigenous peoples making alliances along these pipeline routes. In that sense, it’s a moment within a larger movement of history. The longer sweep of this history is comprised of two centuries of indigenous resistance going back to the first time we encountered Lewis and Clark on the Missouri River in 1804, all the way through the Plains Indian Wars of the nineteenth century; the damming of the river in the twentieth century; the rise of Red Power; and then the North American oil boom.

There are four invasions, so to speak, that I trace, and the first is the fur trade beginning at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, leading into the second, the expansion of the transcontinental railroad. The third is the slaughter of the buffalo in the mid–nineteenth century, and the damming of the river in the mid–twentieth century. The fourth invasion is the North American oil boom.

And so Standing Rock is, in my opinion, one of those high points of resistance and the coalescence of not just disparate forces that are in the climate justice movement, but the coalescence of history itself on that land and on that river. The reason why Standing Rock is important is that we think of imperialism often in the context of overseas empire.

I was in conversation with a lot of anti-imperialist scholars such as Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Manu Karuka, author of Empire’s Tracks. And Manu Karuka is clear about this — he calls it territorial imperialism. And I think if we think about it in that context, we can understand settler colonialism as imperialist expansion and annexation. And thus we can think about indigenous resistance as the first kind of anti-imperialist resistance in North America.

Daniel Denvir

Settler colonialism, you write, is a project that’s fundamentally about replacement and genocide. A perverse irony of this is that these are the very features of settler colonialism that naturalize and legitimate settler colonialism by making the settlement of the United States, or elsewhere, seem normal and inevitable.

Why is it crucial to analyze and confront both capitalism and colonialism, considering the intertwined social, economic, and ecological threats that we face today, beyond just understanding their violent historical foundations?

Nick Estes

Oftentimes, settler colonialism is historicized as something that happened in the past, where I think a lot of scholars and activists and organizers are really making interventions into that conversation is to think about settler colonialism as an ongoing project that is also incomplete — because if it was a complete project, and if it was fulfilled, then why would you still need to expropriate indigenous land bases?

And why would we still be fighting forces of capitalism embodied within the infrastructures of oil pipelines or sites of extraction, such as the Alberta tar sands? In many ways, the coalescence of forces at Standing Rock was really just kind of an echo of past indigenous resistance.

The concept of climate change and even the term “Anthropocene,” though I’m very critical of it, suggests we’re all undergoing a radical global transformation. Indigenous people and indigenous histories play an important role in this context because they embody the perspective of postapocalyptic nations.

We’ve undergone several rounds of genocide — and that genocide isn’t just for indigenous people; it’s not just anthropocentric. In the context of settler colonialism, oftentimes we think of genocide as targeting humans alone, but as we can see, and as I try to detail in my book, it’s not an anthropocentric project, it also targets nonhumans, and we can see that specifically in the clear example of the buffalo nations.

It’s not just some kind of ahistorical or mystical reading of history to say that indigenous peoples have relations with the nonhuman world. Often, when this point is made — there’s this kind of flute music that begins playing — we call it the “Indian flute music syndrome.”

You can be talking about the most urgent political tasks that we’re facing as indigenous people, — overcoming climate change — and people are floored by it. And then you start playing indigenous flute music. And it’s as if they just didn’t hear anything else that happened before that. So there’s a tendency to look at these relations with the nonhuman world in a mystical or ahistorical or metaphysical way, which in many ways is a part of the erasure and the racialization of indigenous people.

It creates this kind of ethno-othering, where we just become ethnographic subjects. We try to refuse ethnographic framing to say that we don’t need to make these spiritual connections to water to say that we as human beings have a right to clean drinking water. That should just be the framework that we’re using.

Because we’re not legible in that framework — we’re not legible in the human rights framework in the United States — we tend to get collapsed into this kind of spiritual connection to the land and to the water. And that’s why the urgent task of our present is to look at history within a materialist framework — the historical materialism of [Karl] Marx and [Friedrich] Engels — to understand that our sources of water, food, our relationship with the land, fundamentally determines our quality of life as indigenous peoples. Why should recognizing this fundamental truth be considered radical?

Gendered Violence

Daniel Denvir

This discussion highlights how indigenous spirituality is often misconstrued through a racialized lens, particularly regarding indigenous relationships with nonhuman nature. This overlooks the tangible, material relationships indigenous peoples have with the environment. You write that nineteenth-century river trade forts — “man forts” — were, in a sense, the first part of an extractive model that is today replicated in the fracking boom. This model combines violence against the earth with violence against women, creating these sharp dichotomies between human and nonhuman nature, on the one hand, and between genders, as well.

Explain the argument that you’re making about colonialist and capitalist approaches to land, to nonhuman nature, and to gender, and how this has repeatedly played out for and been resisted by the Oceti Sakowin.

Nick Estes

I am a big fan of Silvia Federici and her book Caliban and the Witch. Most people talk about the first part of that book, but they don’t talk about the other part. The part of the book that she’s really known for discusses enclosures in Europe and the targeting of peasant women’s political authority within communal European society and the proletarianization of the European peasantry into the capitalist system. The part doesn’t get talked about, however, is the Caliban part — the other part of that title, which is about the same processes happening in the Americas with the discovery of the “New World” by European explorers and the penetration of capitalism into what is ostensibly a non-capitalist indigenous society. I think there’s a romanticization of indigenous people — and even contemporary communal society — as being “socialist” or “communist.”

But I would say that they are socialist or communist, not as a direct rebuttal to capitalism, but rather due to the absence of capitalism. The profit motive didn’t exist naturally. Looking at the Northern Plains in this way, we can see that capitalism penetrates new territory — especially indigenous territory — with violence, and that violence is very gendered.

The arrival of the river trade marks the arrival of the first Europeans who come entirely as groups of men. We understand what the word “man camps” means that it’s often associated with extractive industries and the oil and gas industry. They’re transient temporary settlements — often near indigenous reservations or indigenous communities — and they prey on indigenous women. They exploit the jurisdictional patchwork of indigenous reservation land — which is federal, state, and tribal — because we often don’t have the ability to prosecute nonnatives.

You can see evidence in popular culture, such as the movie The Revenant. Hugh Glass, who was a real historical figure, is played by Leonardo DiCaprio. In the movie, he kind of goes native, so to speak, though that whole part is completely fictionalized. He never had indigenous children as far as we know. But what the director does depict with great historical accuracy is the immense amount of violence and militarization of the river trade and the fur trade.

For example, in the final scene, Hugh Glass is coming to settle accounts with the people who left him to die after he got mauled by the bear. He approaches this river trade fort run by French traders and English traders and some American traders. And outside of that trade fort, he sees Indigenous men and Indigenous children and women kind of begging. He also sees indigenous women being bought and sold like chattel inside the forts themselves.

What this tells us is that gender violence was one of the key tools of colonialism at that time. The fur trade was as much a trade in furs as it was a trade in flesh. But that’s often not how the era is historically depicted. To my mind, it’s such a travesty, and I’m not an eighteenth-century or nineteenth-century historian. It’s not what I trained in. It’s not what I specialize in. So when I went back and read the historiography of that time period, I was appalled because they were making excuses. They were saying in these instances of clearly documented rape — within trader’s journals and within the primary documents — historians were saying, well, you know, it was a different time, so we can’t really call it rape. To me, that was such an oversight on part of how we understand that time period. History may not repeat itself, but there certainly are echoes of that history in the present time. We can see that in the new rounds of accumulation.

The first round of accumulation was the river trade. The second round of accumulation was the advance of what we now know as kind of classic settler colonialism and the privatization of land, often using rail lines or transportation routes to penetrate indigenous territories that were marked by trade forts and military forts and outposts. We can look at the landscape where I’m from and see that Indian reservation headquarters are typically named after the fort that was there.

Standing Rock is Fort Yates. That’s the headquarters. Crow Creek, where I have family, which is right across the river from Lower Brule, is called Fort Thompson. The pier, across from our state capital in South Dakota, is Fort Pier — you know, the Anglicized version of “Pierre.” We can look at the landscape as very much militarized in that context.

The third round of accumulation would be the creation of the dams, which was implemented by a branch of the US military, which is the Army Corps of Engineers. The penetration of capital goes in hand in hand with the state; the state is the handmaiden of capital in that sense. To go back to the fur trade forts — and the way that traders used indigenous women’s bodies to gain access to new markets — this period has been described in Indigenous history as creating “middle grounds” in which native people and settlers or traders negotiated invasion or negotiated settlement. They weren’t partners necessarily, but they were kind of equals, and one didn’t overpower the other.

I think that’s a false rendering of history because we didn’t send traders into European societies and marry only European women. It’s such a bizarre framework. It erases the entire context of encroaching settler colonialism and the subordination of indigenous nations into settler-colonialist capitalist market relations.

The Destruction of Dams

Daniel Denvir

In the 1860s, the United States destroyed ten to fifteen million buffalo in less than two decades, almost eliminating a population that once stood at twenty-five to thirty million. This era marked the allotment, privatization, decollectivization, and denationalization of native land. And then in the twentieth century, the flooding of the Missouri River over huge swaths of reservation land. You cite the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) 1946 Missouri River Basin Investigation, which made this all abundantly clear.

The report found that native people depended upon “free goods of nature,” and that dispossessing them of land via flooding would force them “into seeking cash incomes to make up for the substantial portion of income now represented by their use of natural resources of their present environment.”

The head of the BIA at the time, Dillon Myer, a man who had been in charge of Japanese internment during World War II, said that it was “the starting point to more assimilation and integration, away from a narrow and inbred way of life that was customary of reservation living.”

What role did the destruction of the possibility of subsistence, time and again, play in this multifront genocide? And how did native people resist over time?

Nick Estes

The question of food has played an important role for specifically the Lakota and Dakota people. The 1862 US-Dakota War, in what was then Minnesota Territory, coinciding with the Civil War, began when several Dakota men were starving because they had their rations cut. They went into a white settler’s farm and stole chicken eggs. They ended up killing most of the settler family and it sparked this larger confrontation. So that war began around food and starvation.

This early contestation wasn’t just about a clash of civilizations or a clash of cultures as we’re often told — it was about how we subsist. How do we physically reproduce ourselves on the land? And so, when we signed our treaties with the United States government, that was one of the first things that we talked about.

Yes, there were some elements of the reservation communities that wanted to begin adopting more agriculture into their lifestyles, but by and large they wanted to retain hunting rights. But those indigenous communities that were along the Missouri River had a mixed economy of subsistence. They had large cattle herds from which they could make money while at the same time subsisting off the land itself. With the creation of the Pick-Sloan dams — from that report that you were reading — 75 percent of the wildlife and 90 percent of commercial timber was destroyed when they flooded the land.

That is something we have not actually physically recovered from, as nations on the river itself. There are many wild plants and animals that have never fully returned or have never been fully restored. That’s something that we’re talking about in the context of food sovereignty. We do manage buffalo herds, even though they were nearly extinct because of the mass slaughter and buffalo genocide.

But we are managing our own buffalo herds and we are managing our own indigenous lands. And we’re trying to recuperate what would be called a subsistence economy because we are entirely dependent, not just on rations and commodities, as we call them, but we’re entirely dependent on the cash economy. In many ways, the creation of the Pick-Sloan dams coalesced with termination and federal relocation policies at the time.

If you read those reports, these Bureau of Indian Affairs anthropologists and policymakers and people like Dillon S. Myer, whom you just quoted, you see these dams as a physical means to implement termination. The dams flooded a lot of reservation headquarters, they flooded the Lower Brule headquarters, they flooded the headquarters for the Crow Creek reservation, they flooded Yankton’s headquarters, they flooded Cheyenne River’s headquarters. Luckily, most of Standing Rock’s headquarters were saved, but the headquarters up in Fort Berthold were destroyed as well.

The plan was, well, since we’ve taken the central location of these indigenous nations away from them, now they’re going to have to relocate those services off the reservation. That will be part of this relocation plan to move indigenous people off the land and move them into surrounding border towns.

Chamberlain is where I was born and raised. Chamberlain is representative of the paradox of relocation. It’s like the paradox of Israeli settler colonialism — they want indigenous land, they want Palestinian land, but they don’t want indigenous people, and they don’t want Palestinians.

The failure of the termination project and the failure of the relocation project was the pure bigotry of South Dakota saying, “We don’t really want to fully integrate these people into our public school system, into our welfare system. We don’t want to take on that burden. We want the land, but we don’t want indigenous people.”

Addressing the concept of subsistence within the Oceti Sakowin territory, specifically the great Sioux reservation, which is the western half of South Dakota, raises essential questions. What are we going to do? What does a decolonial future look like?

Oftentimes there’s this question around land: Who owns it? What are they doing with it? Who profits from it? Somebody like Ted Turner owns 200,000 acres of our treaty land. That acreage is actually larger than our nation as the Lower Brunswick tribe. It’s larger than a lot of our smaller indigenous nations.

And so when we talk about decolonization — when we talk about land restoration — yes, we are talking about what the Army Corps of Engineers has taken of our shoreline, but we’re also talking about these settler families that have historically lived within our territories. We’re not talking about kicking people out of their homes, you know, but we are talking about changing that relationship to land.

Slavery and the Question of Land

Daniel Denvir

A revealing irony is that the supposed inviolability of private property rights — private land rights didn’t and don’t protect ordinary settlers from corporate power. Energy companies and the like have always exercised a higher form of property rights. Ordinary white settlers were promised this dream of white egalitarianism but what was actually taking place, beneath the mystifications of racial capitalism, was the concentration of land and wealth in the hands of the few.

Nick Estes

Absolutely. Land is wealth in this country. Native people, and even black people, are racialized according to land.

Daniel Denvir

How did these different relationships to the land inform Indigenous and settler identities. On the one hand, the system has fundamentally been about relationships with the land in terms of facilitating the settler-colonial order of domination, its racialized hierarchies, and the raw materiality of acquiring its land base. But at the same time, this sort of ideology of civilizational differences often was exposed as a thin pretext for the material interests at play.

If you look at the so-called five civilized tribes in the Southeast, like the Cherokee, who became sedentary farmers and ran cotton plantations that used enslaved labor, they were still moved, and violently. What does that reveal about the relationship between the land ideology of settler colonialism and its material reality?

Nick Estes

The context of the removal of the five “civilized” tribes from the southeastern United States to the West is really important. That also was about westward expansion. It was about securing access to gold mines in places like Georgia, but it was also about the seizure of property. When [Andrew] Jackson, and then [Martin] Van Buren, removed the five “civilized” tribes from the southeastern part of the United States, settlers literally just moved into these communities and took over these plantations.

The Cherokee nation is really fascinating too, because at that time they had their own written newspaper. They had their own tricameral legislature. They had their own separation of powers. They had their own judges. They were sending a lot of the children of these slave owning elites to places like Harvard. They were getting education. They had their own lawyers. For all intents and purposes, they were a “civilized” nation. But nonetheless, they weren’t citizens of a settler nation.

So as much as they enacted forms of “civilization,” they could never fully achieve a settler identity or equality under US federal law. While the foundation of federal Indian law is codified within the Marshall trilogy, nonetheless, those Supreme court decisions by John Marshall relegate indigenous peoples almost as outside of settler citizenship.

Johnson v. McIntosh is an important Supreme Court decision. I detail it in the book because it designates indigenous nations as domestic dependent nations. What people don’t understand — and why you can’t just read settler colonialism within the legal framework — is that the United States at that time was just a small cluster of colonies hugging the Atlantic seaboard. And yet that law was applied to all indigenous nations after the fact, even though we had nothing to do with that Supreme Court decision.

The question of slavery attends the question of land — we can’t talk about settler colonialism without talking about the institution of slavery because black slavery specifically was the engine of westward expansion, both in an economic sense, but also in a political sense.

When we look at westward expansion and the addition of states and territories, there was the question of free state versus slave state. Texas couldn’t become a state until Oregon Territory had organized into a state. And to organize Oregon Territory into a state you had to annihilate all the indigenous people there, or at least subdue them.

However, Texas also saw indigenous wars against the Comanche Nation — against a lot of the plains tribes down there, the Kiowa as well. And even the expulsion and removal of the Kickapoo who were in the Ohio River Valley, but because they were fleeing westward expansion are now in Mexico.

We can think of westward expansion in the context of slavery. That’s one aspect. But then after the Emancipation Proclamation and the conclusion of the bloody Civil War, we also have the occupation of the South to enforce Reconstruction. Once the Northern capitalists lost interest in overseeing Reconstruction in the South, that army was withdrawn. But that army didn’t just disappear. It went westward.

Richard Henry Pratt, who was the architect of the Carlisle Industrial Indian Boarding School, developed his concept of Indigenous assimilation while commanding units of mixed freed black slaves and Indian scouts during punitive campaigns against the Kiowa and Comanche in Southern Texas. Carlisle Barracks, one of the oldest military outposts in the United States, was transformed into an Indian boarding school — the first to go there were the Lakota people.

In 1879, we were considered the most militant and hostile indigenous nation to the United States. And so, they took our children — specifically in Rosebud and Pine Ridge — to essentially hold them hostage. That’s not hyperbole; that’s actually the language that they used.

And we see that going back to the British colonists in New England — capturing Pequot children and holding them hostage for the good behavior of their people. It served as both an assimilative gift of civilization and as a coercive measure against their leadership. Richard Henry Pratt, in all his benevolence, rejected biological racism. He didn’t believe that black people are biologically inferior to white people or that indigenous people were inferior to white people. But he did subscribe to a form of social and civilizational chauvinism, meaning that what made black people more susceptible to settler citizenship or incorporation into the United States was the fact that they had experienced natal alienation.

They lost their culture, their land base; their families were completely utterly destroyed. Pratt looked at that as a positive model for Indigenous people: to say, we need to take them from their families, isolate them from their nations, and that’s the only way they can successfully become productive citizens of the United States. It really boils down to the land; they were taking these children, not because they wanted to give us civilization — most of the children that went to boarding schools never graduated. So, what was the purpose? The purpose was to force our leadership to sign over land. This strategy culminated in the 1887 resistance to allotment and the eventual signing of the Great Sioux Agreement in 1889, which opened up nine million acres of our land. This created what we now know as the modern reservations in West River, South Dakota.

The Myth of the Uninhabited West

Daniel Denvir

You make an interesting distinction between two different settler orientations to indigenous land. On the one hand, the land has been targeted because it’s valuable for farming or for gold in the Black Hills. But then, with the flooding of the Missouri, you write, “Our lands and lives were targeted not because they held precious resources or labor to be extracted. In fact, the opposite was true. Our lands and lives were targeted and held value because they could be wasted, submerged, destroyed.”

Explain your argument, and what this reveals about settler colonialism and capitalism in light of this dynamic of seizing land either for profit or for waste in the pursuit of profit elsewhere.

Nick Estes

Richard Nixon created the term “national sacrifice zone” when he was talking about uranium mining in the West to fuel US economic and military interests. The idea was that we had to sacrifice these areas in the West — what a lot of people call flyover country. We can think about that concept in the context of a lot of different US presidents. Teddy Roosevelt created the modern national park system. To do so he had to ideologically put native people out of existence — the fact that there were Shoshone people still living there on the land in Yellowstone National Park.

If we look at a lot of the photography of the Western landscape — like the work of Ansel Adams — or Western landscape art, it often depicts an empty, barren land. The story was of an endless supply of land. If we look at the artwork on US passports as US citizens, it’s typically about our national monuments, and many of them are natural — they’re landscapes. This plays a very important ideological function, and it does a lot of political work. It describes the West as this kind of open landscape, free of indigenous people, free of any kind of people. If there’s nobody living on the land or if it’s not being used, then it could be settled. It could be reserved for white tourists to go visit or it could be wasted.

All of these factors play an important role in how we understand the West. The Pick-Sloan dams weren’t built downriver of major white settlements. They had strategically located each of these dams on Indian reservations. The Missouri River Basin States Authority created maps. And on those maps, they showed the boundaries of the states themselves. But what they didn’t show was the Indian reservations where they were going to build these dams.

It was determined before the Flood Control Act of 1944 was passed by Congress — these dams would be built on Indian reservations. Dams are very destructive. Dams throughout the world — dams that are being built in places like China and India — are not being built next to major metropolitan areas.

They’re building dams in rural spaces where they often think life is cheaper. Life can be easily relocated, and the land isn’t much use. This has been an important part of the racialization of native people — that we’re “nomadic.” Thus our removal is made much easier.

I want to push back on some notions here about Lakota people specifically. Yes, we did follow the buffalo herds. Yes, we were people who traveled quite frequently. Yet if we look at the names that we called ourselves, like Miniconjou, which means plants by the water, it suggests that we have a different relationship to the land.

And we weren’t just aimlessly roaming across the plains. Plants by the water, Miniconjou, those people typically lived by the river, and set up seasonal camps where they grew corn. And if you know anything about corn, corn requires a lot of intensive care — it requires human intervention. It can’t grow wild.

There are a lot of plants and vegetables that we did harvest from the wild, but there were a lot of domesticated plants that we use, such as corn, beans, and squash. I don’t want to glorify that transition to the reservation period and a more sedentary life.

The reservation period was horrific. A lot of people starved. A lot of people died. But nonetheless, the transition to a sedentary life was much easier because we had the agricultural knowledge. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, 80 percent of indigenous nations in the Western Hemisphere had some form of agriculture.

The “Dangers” of Wilderness

Daniel Denvir

And yet this myth of total nomadism was key to justifying indigenous dispossession. The McIntosh decision — the 1823 Supreme Court decision authored by the famous chief justice John Marshall — uses this kind of logic to basically declare the legitimacy of US dispossession by virtue of conqueror’s rights.

Nick Estes

Even today, modern Indian water law is based on those precepts of “civilization,” of agriculture. When a state decides that it wants to assert water rights over a river, oftentimes they’ll take this to court, and it’s adjudicated, and it’s called quantification.

And what quantification means for indigenous people is how we use our water. What counts under federal Indian water law is water used for the purposes of civilization, because according to the federal government, that’s why we signed treaties and that’s why we were put on reservations — to become civilized Indians. And that form of civilization was agriculture.

It’s really important to remember that this is not just some kind of benign racist thing — it’s actually codified in the law, and it actually determines how much sovereignty we have over our own natural resources such as water.

Daniel Denvir

And this is all an echo of Chief Justice Marshall writing that natives were “fierce savages whose occupation was war and whose subsistence was drawn chiefly from the forest. To leave them in possession of their country was to leave the country a wilderness.”

Nick Estes

Marshall was drawing from papal bulls and what is now understood as the doctrine of discovery. When Columbus, who, to his dying day, believed that he landed in India and not the Americas, he was authorized by the Spanish crown to conquer or to claim this land and its people in the name of that crown, and he was authorized to do so by the Vatican. And they created these edicts such as the papal bulls. You can read them — they’re online. These became the basis for not just federal Indian law, but also international law.

The debates of [Francisco de] Vitoria that were happening in the mid-1500s were around whether or not indigenous people were humans. Ultimately, they decided that we were partially human. So, the Spanish had to convert us or at least offer conversion before they killed us. Nonetheless, this has been codified within federal Indian law in the United States. And so in the chapter that you’re quoting — that quote from John Marshall — who’s being quoted by Judge [Warren K.] Urbom in a federal court decision about whether or not the United States has jurisdiction in Sioux Territory.

The law that is being cited is based on these papal bulls that were passed at the end of the fifteenth century and into the sixteenth century. These are very old, very problematic, and flawed conceptions of indigenous people — very dehumanizing in many ways. But this is the basis of federal Indian law. It’s very conservative, and it’s not conservative in the political sense. It’s conservative in the sense that it draws upon these backward notions of indigenous people.

When a lot of our political issues get tied up in the courts, this is the basis that federal judges are required to draw from — this precedent of Indian law. And it often works against us. Sometimes it works in our favor, but oftentimes it works against us. And until it’s repealed at a federal level, we’re still going to be encountering the papal bulls of the fifteenth century. And as far as I know, the Vatican, for all of its problems, doesn’t accept these as valid today.

Daniel Denvir

I want to pause here to discuss the centrality of treaties in native politics, particularly the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty in the case of the Oceti Sakowin. What did and do treaties mean to the settler government? And what did they do and mean to native nations?

Nick Estes

I’ll answer the second part of that question first. The United States has had a monopoly on interpretation of the treaties it signed with us, but a treaty has to be equally interpreted by all parties. Our treaties have been imbricated into federal court systems — imbricated into congressional law.

But our interpretation of those treaties is that they form our original agreement with the United States government. The 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty is very foundational in who we are as Indigenous people, as Lakota people specifically, and Dakota and Nakota people.

Daniel Denvir

And it was signed after a rather successful round of armed resistance on the part of native peoples: when a group under Crazy Horse’s leadership destroyed an entire unit, the United States was forced to come to the table.

Nick Estes

That was what they called Red Cloud’s War. Red Cloud was one of the main treaty signers. He was one of the main treaty negotiators. There was an internal debate among our nations as to what to do about the United States government. We understood that the United States was militarily, economically, and politically weakened by the Civil War. And our debate was about whether or not we should actually wipe out most of the white settlements in our homelands and wipe out all of the forts. We did wipe out a lot of the forts in the western frontier of our territory because they were interfering with our access to the buffalo herds.

But we chose the path of diplomacy. And I think that speaks volumes. We had an upper hand in that region — not across North America in general — but in that region we couldn’t be defeated. And so we drew the United States to the negotiating table.

There’s a lot of debate about whether or not we fully understood what was being presented to us because we couldn’t read what was on the paper, but we have our own oral traditions. And oftentimes you’ll go to cultural events around our nation, on the reservation powwows. At gatherings — political gatherings, et cetera — they will talk about the treaties, and there’s such an in-depth knowledge of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. It is cited verbatim — from memory — about what is in that treaty and what was promised to us.

Red Cloud understood, for example, that the hunting territory of our nation, which was about thirty to thirty-five million acres, was something that was reserved specifically for the buffalo nation. In that way, we were signing that treaty on behalf of a nonhuman nation — to protect them.

Daniel Denvir

And these are expansive hunting grounds in the Powder River Basin.

Nick Estes

The Powder River Basin going up to the Heart River in the area between what is now Standing Rock and Mandan, North Dakota. This hunting territory plays an important role because the treaty says “so long as the buffalo shall roam to justify the chase” or something along those lines. That’s an important clause of the treaty because, if there are no buffalo, then there’s no hunting territory.

Initially, some of the treaty negotiators were hesitant to include such a clause, as it granted such expansive territory. How are we going to reign in the militant bands that decide not to live on reservations? And the answer to that was, well, we kill the buffalo.

Buffalo Annihilation

Daniel Denvir

It seems like one question might be not whether native people understood the treaty they were signing because they couldn’t read the text, but whether they could imagine that the US government would interpret that clause in such a twisted way as to justify the unthinkable: the apocalyptic destruction of the Buffalo.

Nick Estes

It’s something that I’ve pondered over. I could write a whole book on just that and our oral interpretations of that treaty and of that clause. If you look at Red Cloud’s testimony — when he resigned as the leader of the Pine Ridge agency — he cites that clause specifically. And he says something along the lines of “The Lakotas need the buffalo and the buffalo need the Lakotas and without our hunting territory, we are no longer Lakota people.” I’m not trying to paint Red Cloud as a tragic figure, but there was a huge amount of loss, not just on the human side, but on the nonhuman side as well in that particular moment in time.

The reason why something like the Ghost Dance caught on was because it wasn’t just about the return of indigenous life — it was about the return of nonhuman life. There were Ghost Dance songs that were songs for the buffalo and the return of the buffalo.

There were also songs for the return of the bear — the plains bear that had been almost utterly annihilated. Many of our last names — the names of the people who still have those really old, traditional last names — are names like Bull Bear. There are names like Spotted Tail, Black Elk, names that suggest that we had a relationship — a profound relationship — to these nonhuman relatives.

When we’re advocating for the restoration of our treaty lands, we also are advocating for the restoration of our treaty relatives, so to speak — those nonhuman nations who signed that treaty. Buffalo herds require an expansive territory. Our reservations are so fractionated and so fenced off and so small that we can’t really facilitate the mass reintroduction of buffalo herds unless we take out fences and we open up a common pasture.

We’ve signed about thirty-five treaties with the United States. The first was in 1805, and the last was in 1868. Three years later, of course, treaty making was abolished. The first thing that most of these treaties establish is that the United States is the sole sovereign in the region, and that we will only negotiate with the United States.

The first treaties essentially boxed out other European powers — the French and the British and even the Spanish. Later on, the 1851 treaty at Fort Laramie brought together tens of thousands of indigenous people on the plains. The treaty was described by the US government as a brokered peace among warring factions. If an issue arose over hunting grounds, the United States would be the one who negotiated or mediated that conflict. It established the US government as the protectorate of these indigenous nations.

And the 1868 treaty is particularly fascinating for its broad recognition of indigenous rights, specifically for the Lakota people, defining the territory, resources, and protections provided by the government. For example, it designates the western half of what is now South Dakota as the permanent home of the Sioux Nation of Indians.

Daniel Denvir

How did the era of mass armed resistance in the nineteenth century come to an end and how did it lead to a shift in the dominant mode of settler-colonialist domination from military repression to a system of carceral control that created the modern reservations? It became a system defined by reservation police, boarding schools, missionaries, all together aimed at breaking cultural, political, and kinship institutions.

Nick Estes

The transition from armed resistance to one of reservation life was a very traumatic one for us. It’s marked by the 1876 Battle of Greasy Grass when we wiped out the Seventh Cavalry — [George Armstrong] Custer’s so-called last stand. It was the centennial celebration of the United States birthday and the Declaration of Independence.

And I feel like Custer aimed for a big win before the centennial celebration on July 4th, which was almost a week after he was killed at the Battle of Little Bighorn, as the US government calls it. At this time, it wasn’t just militant bands of the Lakotas who were still waging armed resistance. A lot of reservation-based people would slip away from the reservation system and join up to live like free Lakota people, and to hunt and follow the buffalo, and to live under the leadership of people who had never signed treaties with the United States government.

After the Battle of Little Bighorn at Greasy Grass, there was an understanding that we had done something that was going to reap a lot of consequences for our people. And so the bands scattered. Some of them went north to Canada to seek protection under the British crown — Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were there for a while. Others went back to the reservation life.

It’s not as if we were defeated and then decided militant armed resistance was no longer viable. It was because we realized that we couldn’t fight anymore. The US military couldn’t defeat us, yes, but they could take away our food sources and they could take away our children and they could take away all the things that we held sacred to our communities and our families. The surrendering was a military surrender in many ways, but it’s important to note that it didn’t happen after a major defeat.

While I don’t really get into this in my book, I highly recommend that people read The Politics of Hallowed Ground by Mario Gonzalez and Elizabeth Cook-Lynn. The work discusses the killing of our pony herds. They wiped them out because they understood the pony was a tool for mobilization. We could leave the reservation — we could escape, we could continue to hunt.

They wiped out the pony herds. They implemented a reservation pass system, which essentially barred us from leaving the agency to visit another agency without the permission of the Indian agent at the time.

A lot of these Indian agents weren’t just technocrats or bureaucrats. A lot of them had investments in the fur trade. A lot of them had investments in the killing of buffalo. Some of them even had stakes in mines in the Black Hills. Even the Catholic priests that were out there had stakes in mines in the Black Hills. They were benefiting financially. At the same time, you had the implementation of the civilization regulations. Which essentially disallowed dancing, ceremonial feasts, large public gatherings, giveaways, and also the Sun Dance.

The Sun Dance was one of our most sacred and most powerful ceremonies. It brought together the entire nation. But these kinds of cultural events were banned because they were where we organized politically.

So the transition from armed resistance to the carceral reservation system was a very violent one. It entailed the destruction of our pony herds. It entailed the turning in of our rifles. And oftentimes it wasn’t just rifles for killing human beings — it was rifles for hunting — and it made us dependent on the reservation system itself.

The reservations weren’t just physically coercive — it was almost impossible to leave them because we had to get our food sources from the rations that were being handed out there. The civilization regulations — implemented around 1885 — were incredibly important. They were only repealed in 1935 with the Indian Reorganization Act. They helped facilitate the taking of children to be put into boarding schools, and the banning and the outlawing of our language and our religious practices. It wasn’t until 1978 that indigenous languages and religious practices were “legalized.”

Still to this day, our Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB) cards, issued by the US government, contain a notable detail. The first four numbers correspond to the prisoner of war camp to which our ancestors were assigned. For example, my card begins with numbers that signify the specific camp allocated to the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe. It’s a system in which each tribe is associated with a unique number that links back to their historical assignment to a prisoner of war camp.

It’s how people became enrolled as “citizens” — what we now know as citizens of tribal nations. But they were also enrolled according to allotment. The letter “U” on my card means that I’m unallotted. I don’t have indigenous land on the reservation. Other people are “A” allottees who are descendants of people who were allocated land through the allotment system.

To this day, we live with that carceral system. It’s embedded in who we are as tribal citizens of our own nations. But it’s also embedded in our relationship to the land base that we come from.

So the reservation period hasn’t ended. Even though we’re allowed to leave the reservation today, many of those punitive policies persist. The allotment era may have ended in 1935, but the aftereffects of those policies exist to this day. The lasting legal and political justifications for the reservation system that went into creating these laws haven’t been entirely undone.

Prophets of Resistance

Daniel Denvir

I want to talk about the other side of this legacy, the legacy of resistance.

The first big moment of resistance after the end of mass armed struggle in the 1880s was the Ghost Dance. It prophesied that a messiah would destroy the colonial world and reinstate the indigenous one. You write that boarding school–educated students, people with a foot in both worlds, were key to facilitating its dissemination. What was the Ghost Dance and what conditions led to its emergence?

Why did the United States see it as such a threat that they ended it by massacring Ghost Dancers at Wounded Knee and by killing Sitting Bull? And looking back, what is its place in this longer trajectory of indigenous resistance?

Nick Estes

Paiute prophet Wovoka was the first to envision the Ghost Dance. I’m not an expert on Paiute history, but there are many stories about him and how he came to these visions. I would take a materialist approach to history and say that many of his visions arose from the conditions in which he and his people lived during the reservation period.

Examining these prophet-inspired or prophecy-inspired movements among indigenous peoples reveals a pattern of response to specific social conditions. For instance, in the Ohio Valley, Tenskwatawa and his brother Tecumseh created Prophetstown. Together they united disparate indigenous nations into a kind of political confederacy to push back against the westward expansion of the United States into the Ohio River Valley. But Tenskwatawa’s vision and prophecy was very much a response to the specific social conditions of that particular time.

There may be a kind of esoteric spiritual element to it, but I think it’s more important to look at those kinds of material conditions that led to these kinds of uprisings. The Ghost Dance was another iteration of these sorts of prophecy-inspired movements.

Wovoka envisioned an indigenous future in which the colonial relation was abolished — indigenous people would go back to living the way they had, or at least return to a more just and equal realm. And the funny thing about it, and most people don’t talk about this, is that there were non-Indigenous people who participated in the Ghost Dance as well, specifically in Ute and Paiute territory.

The way it proliferated for Lakota people was when Lakota leaders traveled to Pyramid Lake, Nevada, where Wovoka was living. They traveled by train. They actually received permission from the Indian agent and passes to travel by train. This was a thoroughly modern affair. They weren’t riding by horseback through the desert on a horse with no name — they were riding the train on a modern transportation system. And so, they went to visit Wovoka and he instructed them how to perform the dance and the reason why they needed to perform the dance.

When they returned to the Pine Ridge and Rosebud agencies, boarding school–educated Lakota people there transcribed the prophecy into both Lakota and in English. James Mooney’s investigation of the Ghost Dance notes that they sent out these transcriptions as letters.

James Mooney was an ethnographer — an agent of empire — hired by the United States to investigate the root causes of the Ghost Dance. And his book on the Ghost Dance laid out what has now become the standard interpretation of the Ghost Dance movement itself. Its problems lie within James Mooney himself as an agent of empire.

He was a lawyer who was kind of an armchair ethnographer, as many ethnographers and anthropologists were at the time. He traveled out west and collected oral interviews. He visited multiple indigenous nations. Most of his focus was on the Lakota and Dakota interpretations of the Ghost Dance, which he says we misinterpreted. But boarding school–educated Lakota played a crucial role in the movement’s spread to different indigenous reservations.

The movement represented a thoroughly modern anti-colonial resistance. It wasn’t what James Mooney saw as a millenarian religious revitalization movement that believed in an apocalypse. Rather, it leveraged the prevailing conditions of reservation life and utilized tools introduced by colonizers, such as writing and speaking in English, to spread its message.

People were Ghost Dancing in the sense that they were withdrawing and refusing to participate in the reservation economies and reservation political life. They were no longer asking permission from the Indian agent to do things — to hold dances.

Dancing itself was illegal. So the very nature of the Ghost Dance was illegal because we weren’t allowed to dance. They would often withdraw from the agency towns and go out into these remote parts of the reservation and hold these dances — often in secret, but most often in public. Were they armed? Absolutely. This was a very violent time. The Indian policy at the time had created what was called the Indian police to essentially enforce the reservation order to prevent people from dancing, to prevent people from leaving the reservation.

And what made this particularly nefarious was that it split up families, because boarding school–educated children would get recruited to the Indian Police and then be required to arrest their grandmother or grandfather for participating in a ceremony.

Ghost Dance Massacres

Daniel Denvir

And this is not so long after the final moments of mass armed conflict and armed resistance — Custer was sent in to enforce a federal decree that native people either had to immediately return to the reservations or be considered hostile.

Nick Estes

We also have to consider that 1889 was the year that North Dakota and South Dakota achieved statehood, and as part of the conditions set forth in their enabling acts — common to most Western states admitted into the Union — they were required to forego interference with indigenous people and indigenous nations. This was done to maintain the federal government’s exclusive jurisdiction over indigenous affairs.

South Dakota, establishing statehood, understood that the western half of its territory was carved up by large land-based tribes, and it wanted access to that territory. So as much as the repression of the Ghost Stance was initiated at the federal level, the rallying against Ghost Dancers really began at the local level with these white settlers. Places like Rapid City organized what were called cowboy militias, which were like armed vigilante groups that would go around and kill native people.

They massacred seventy-five native people who had left the reservation. This was all leading up to the Wounded Knee Massacre in the state of South Dakota. This was against the backdrop of the land boom in South Dakota upon its achieving statehood — white settlers were essentially squatting on indigenous land and near reservations.

There are a lot of towns in the western half of South Dakota where, if you ask some of these old landowners to produce the original title to the land, they can’t. They’re still eating away at reservation territory.

At the time, a lot of people weren’t getting their rations. So, they were going out and killing settlers’ cattle to eat, to prevent starvation. This was the context. It was a very tense moment. At the local level, white settlers were petitioning state governments to do something, and state governments were petitioning the federal government to do something.

So, they created a mass scare — very similar to what happened at Standing Rock. This caused the armament of the settler militias, such as the cowboy militia that was created in Rapid City. And their stance was, “if you don’t do something, we’re going to do something.” And so, the federal government deployed half of its standing army against starving, horseless, and unarmed people.

A lot of these Ghost Dancers, were they armed? Yes, but they weren’t armed in the sense that they could take over and have an armed revolution. They were protesting in the best way they knew how against the conditions that they were facing on the reservation — and yet they represented a political threat to the order of things.

The idea spread that if these Indians didn’t come under control, it could potentially lead to armed conflict with the white settlers that were surrounding the reservation. Spotted Elk — also known as Si Tanka or Bigfoot — fled from Cheyenne River and camped with Sitting Bull in December at that time.

And he had led a group of Ghost Dancers, which was primarily comprised of women and children and elders. There were a handful of men — but it definitely wasn’t a “war party” as it was called later on by the military that was deployed against them. They went to Standing Rock. They stayed near Sitting Bull’s encampment.

Sitting Bull was awakened one morning by Indian police who essentially assassinated him in his own house in front of his children. There was a scuffle, some Indian police got killed, and some of Sitting Bull’s followers got killed. The incident alarmed Si Tanka, or Bigfoot, prompting him to leave the reservation really quickly, without sufficient provisions. At the time, it was cold and Si Tanka had developed pneumonia, so he had to be carried by a horse-drawn wagon. They fled to Red Cloud’s agency to seek sanctuary.

As they traveled southwards to the Red Cloud agency, they were stopped at a place called Wounded Knee Creek, where they set up camp. There was a lot of confusion about why they were there, because it hadn’t been communicated to a lot of the military folks that were there.

Custer’s regiment, the 7th Cavalry, was deployed at that encampment to put them under armed guard. There’s a lot of questions about what happened that morning. An interesting fact about the day of the massacre was that it was actually 60 degrees — it was a very warm day.

The Cavalry came down and asked Bigfoot’s people to turn over their weapons — their hatchets — and to surrender themselves. There’s confusion over who fired the first shot. The widely accepted version is that a man who was deaf refused to give his hunting rifle over to the soldiers who were trying to confiscate it.

People who are part of the Lakota warrior tradition don’t own anything except for their weapons. To take a man’s weapon, even if he didn’t use it to kill other human beings, and even if it was just used for hunting, was to take away everything of that person, of that man.

So, he refused to give it over. He only spoke in signs. What was happening hadn’t been communicated to him. And his gun went off. And thus began the massacre of around three hundred Lakota people, primarily Miniconjou, at Wounded Knee. To this day, the military recognizes it as a battle. There is a battle banner of Wounded Knee that the military still flies — the 7th Cavalry still has the battle banner.

Eighteen of those soldiers were granted medals of honor — legitimating their actions as an engagement against an armed group of people. But the interesting thing about all this, and I document this in the book, is that it didn’t end there. A lot of the Ghost Dancers — the Oglala Ghost Dancers in Red Cloud’s agency — fled to a place called the stronghold in the Badlands.

People like Plenty Horses and Crow Dog, a former Indian police officer from Rosebud who became disillusioned with reservation life, went back to being Lakota people, speaking only Lakota, and wearing their hair long. They joined the Ghost Dance resistance, which evolved into a more armed resistance. Some churches burned down, and some settlers fled because their cattle were killed. But, by and large, most of the leadership didn’t want any more bloodshed after all of these people had been killed.

Lieutenant Edward Casey was dispatched to bring in this hostile group of Ghost Dancers in the stronghold. Plenty Horses, after being taken away from his family and educated at Carlisle Indian School, returned to the reservation to find that his acquired skills, such as blacksmithing, were incredibly useless. There were no jobs. There was no shop. The enforced cutting of his hair and the dressing as a white man caused him great humiliation and alienated him from his own family. And so, he had joined this resistance movement in the stronghold.

In a defiant act, when Lieutenant Edward Casey arrived to meet with the Ghost Dancers, Plenty Horses approached him from behind — when he was mounted on his horse — and shot him in the back of the head and killed him.

Plenty Horses was subsequently arrested. However, during his trial for the murder of Edward Casey, the court determined that a state of war existed at the time, which meant that he couldn’t be charged with murder. This ruling implicitly acknowledged that if Plenty Horses were guilty of murder, then the actions at Wounded Knee Massacre would have been acts of murder as well.

Accordingly, the legacy of the Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee is very important for Lakota people. It’s a strong marker for us as a transition, beyond the reservation period toward a phase characterized by political repression, particularly against reservation leadership.

This period saw the emergence of the first treaty councils, which operated clandestinely, alongside cultural and spiritual societies that also went underground. This shift was driven by the fear of experiencing the same kind of repression that happened at Wounded Knee. The aftermath of these events was very traumatic. Nonetheless, the spirit of the Ghost Dance itself lived on.

Capitalism vs. Interdependence

Daniel Denvir

I want to talk more about the destruction of indigenous relationships with land and with nonhuman nature. In Lakota and Dakota cosmology, the buffalo are a nation, and so is the Missouri River. You write, “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.”

Explain how Oceti Sakowin kinship relationships function, not only between humans of various sorts, but also with other nonhuman entities — land, water, creatures. What sorts of lessons might this kinship model hold, especially for this current moment where we live under a dominant system and ideology that devalues nature as a waste dump, in part by invisibilizing the very real and intimate relationships that do exist between humans?

Nick Estes

To begin to answer that question, we have to talk about the concept of Wolakota, which, if you look up the definition in the Lakota language dictionary, is the translation for “treaties.” It’s taken on that meaning. But the term asks, what is it to live a good life as a Lakota person? It’s associated with peace, with harmony and good relations. Wolakota as a concept actually began before paper treaties — before colonization and European invasion.

And it began with P’te Sanwi, which is the White Buffalo Calf Woman. She was our primary prophet. She brought us into correct relations with the human and nonhuman world and, essentially, she made the Lakota people, as the story goes.

Winter counts are pictographic depictions of monumental events that took place during the four seasons. They were typically recorded during the winter, and then retold during the winter, hence the name. A notable entry in these records was the first treaty made with nonhuman entities, which included the elk nation, the buffalo nation, the wolf nation — the animal nations that lived on our lands — and brought us back into correct relationships with them. Included in this pictograph is a picture of water.

There’s a constellation associated with the buffalo nation. The constellation is called Tamni, which means “her water” and it’s a word for womb, reflecting a connection with this sort of biological or anthropocentric notion of our relationship to water in the sense that everyone is born in water.

That’s the original pictograph. Ironically, the white anthropologist who collected his winter count never explained what these earlier pictographs meant. Through interpretations by Lakota oral historians, we now know that this is one of the first documentations of when we became Lakota people as we know it today.

Fast forward to the nineteenth century, when we began making treaties with the United States. Article 11 of the Fort Laramie Treaty States something to the effect of, “so long as the buffalo shall roam to justify the chase” we shall have this hunting territory.

It was a very expansive hunting territory. It nearly doubled our treaty territory from the reservation — which was about thirty-two million acres — to the hunting territory, which is about thirty-five million acres. That hunting territory is trespassed by the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The legal foundation for this hunting territory is outlined in the 1868 treaty, emphasizing the tribe’s right to sustain itself through hunting or harvesting from the nonhuman world. The treaty spells out a direct relationship not just to the nonhuman world, in this case the buffalo nation — it spells out a relationship to the land.

If there are no longer buffalo roaming that territory, then we no longer have rights to use it and to hunt in that territory. The United States has interpreted that particular article as: if there are no buffalo, then there are no hunting grounds, and then there is no hunting territory. And so, to kill a buffalo literally translated into the taking of land.

The cultural aspect of that is that some of the buffalo hunters who came into the region were European aristocracy. They didn’t just come into our region; they came to all of the West and the Great Plains area. These hunters, often accompanied by US military guides, participated in expeditions, which were often called “war parties” or “the slaying of red skins.”

And that was associated with the taking of scalps off of the mutilated corpses of slain native people. They would also take hides and leave the carcasses to rot — sometimes they would poison the carcasses with strychnine to get rid of scavengers and the predatory animals such as coyotes and wolves.

There is this esoteric and spiritual connection to the buffalo nation that goes back into our history, emblematized by the White Buffalo Woman. But there is also a direct material connection to the Buffalo — this can be seen in the legal, political connection that is codified within the treaties themselves.

When Red Cloud, Pia Luta, the leader of the Oglala, abdicated his leadership in the Pine Ridge reservation, he said that we were told that the land of the Lakotas was the land of the buffalo. “The buffalo shall have their land, so that they shall roam, and the Lakotas shall have their buffalo.” It wasn’t some kind of mystical, ahistorical relationship that he was articulating. He was talking about Article 11 in the treaty — that it was not just a protection of our hunting territory, but it was a protection of the buffalo nation itself, and that extends to the protection of water. When we look at the treaty, not only does it talk about where we’re going to get our food, such as hunting and agriculture, but it also asks about how our territorial boundaries are defined by water.

Nonhuman Nature

Daniel Denvir

Could you say more about this explicit naming of these very concrete and material relationships with nonhuman nature, and what lessons, at the risk of romanticizing indigenous knowledge, we might learn as so much of humanity remains in such intense denial of our relationship to nonhuman nature that we risk rendering much of the earth uninhabitable.

Nick Estes

Robert Williams is a native lawyer and jurist. He’s written extensively on how the legal canon has essentially bifurcated humans from “nature.” And that’s just one example in one institution of Western and capitalist society where that bifurcation functions.

He also points out that most indigenous people, prior to European invasion, had no Cartesian split between human and nonhuman. For example, as I just explained, there was no delineation between nations — human nations and nonhuman nations. They were all nations of people, essentially, that had equal rights and compacts and agreements.

The UN [United Nations] identifies at least a quarter of the world’s land area as being traditionally owned or occupied or managed by Indigenous peoples and local communities who have distinct connections, whether they’re cultural, spiritual, or political, to their homelands and bioregions.

Daniel Denvir

The breaking up and privatization of the land is critical to the story of settler colonialism that you tell. There was raw genocidal dispossession. There was the treaty system and its rampant violation by the United States. And there was the confinement of native people to reservations. And then, on the other end of this process, there was this concerted effort to recruit white settlers, including powerful laws like the 1862 Homestead Act, which transferred huge amount of land to settlers, and the 1887 Dawes Act, which privatized native land so that it could be sold to settlers.

Explain this history and what it reveals about, one, the relationship between settler colonialism and land, and two, between the settler-colonialist state and capitalism.

Nick Estes

First of all, just to kind of build off what we have been talking about, settler colonialism isn’t just an anthropocentric process, meaning that it’s not just about dispossessing or eliminating human people or human nations. It’s also about eliminating indigenous people’s relations with the land and with other-than-humans. Whereas other genocides have had a beginning and an end, the current one against Indigenous people and Indigenous land and relations has a beginning but no end. And it can be tracked specifically through land policy, as you just pointed out.

For example, the Homestead Act was a way, as people like Greg Grandin have argued, to create a pressure valve to open up the West in order to relieve the tensions arising from the expansion of slavery and its inherent contradictions in the South and in the East. The act aimed to prevent outright class war amongst white settlers themselves.

President John Quincy Adams once remarked that there’s one thing that all European Americans can unite around, and that’s the killing of Indians — a statement highlighting the destructive underpinnings of westward expansion. Jodi Byrd in her book, The Transit of Empire, talks about the paradigmatic Indianness in which settler colonialism creates the figure of the Indian to be destroyed and to dispossess. This manifests through the ways in which empire expands — not just within a territorial context but within an economic context. And it boils down to land, within North America specifically and within North American settler colonialism.

The Homestead Act opens up land. Very cheap land. For white settlers. And railroad companies played a major role in this. They have what are called colonization offices, specifically in the Nordic European countries to recruit poor folks to put them out as cannon fodder on the western frontier.

To occupy these places near railroads or near infrastructure is to create towns, essentially. The Homestead Act is a series of acts. The Desert Lands Act, which comes much later, provides federal subsidies to improve the land and provide irrigation.

There is a lot of public investment in creating value on this land, primarily through agriculture. And agriculture is an interesting form of settler colonialism because it’s considered permanent. It’s something that destroys the indigenous flora and fauna. It isn’t just about eliminating native humans, it’s also about eliminating native nonhuman life as well, including plants and animals.

Over time, it eats away at these territories, not just in a legal and political sense, but in an agricultural sense — entire species of plants and animals are being replaced by domesticated agriculture. We can look today at the effects of that. When you look at our homelands, as on the reservation, you’re surrounded by food production.

You’re surrounded by a food factory that’s producing corn, soybeans, and beef — but you can’t find a fresh tomato on the reservation. And it’s not these mom and pop, American Gothic landowners who are going out in the morning and milking the cows with their bare hands. These are amalgamated land enterprises. They’re large agricultural companies such as Monsanto and Cargill who have eaten up these parcels of land and drastically reduced the need for labor through mechanization.

This shift — especially in the rural areas of the Great Plains — has led to a lot of white flight. Many of the families who are descendants of the original settlers are leaving because the idea of the idyllic farming family is no longer economically sustainable.

However, they’re not leaving empty-handed; they’re selling land for which their ancestors paid bottom dollar. There’s an intergenerational inherited value for a lot of these settler families.

If we talk about the wealth gap, we can look at slavery and discuss this ongoing conversation around reparations. Well, when we look at a lot of these early slave plantations, most European people had time to go to school and to learn and to become diplomats because there were people taking care of their children.

There were people who were washing their clothes. There were people who were growing their plants. There were people who were feeding them — and that all went uncompensated. And that formed the bedrock for the accumulation of wealth. And it passed on intergenerationally through stolen labor.

Disease and Surveillance

Daniel Denvir

I want to talk about another form of violence that was central to the genocide of indigenous nations, smallpox, which absolutely devastated nations, killing 80 to 90 percent in some cases. Is there a way to theorize disease, in this case smallpox, politically, as a component of settler-colonialist genocide — beyond the narrow confines of individual human intentionality?

Nick Estes

The communities that were hardest hit by smallpox epidemics had the closest relationships, so to speak, to European traders. The Mandan, Arikara, and Hidatsa, sedentary river communities along the Missouri River basin, developed strong trade relations, first with the French, followed by the British, occasionally the Spanish, and, later, the United States.

As a result of those relationships, they had increased proximity to disease. It’s not necessarily accurate to say that it was purposely spread so much, as it was facilitated by trade itself. For instance, during the 1837 epidemics, one of the most devastating outbreaks on the Northern Plains, the disease was disseminated via steamship.

Traders on the ship had knowingly harbored an individual who was suffering from symptoms. But smallpox is interesting because after one acquires it, there may be a three- or four-day period where they feel absolutely fine. And then later on — days or sometimes even a week later — they develop really intense symptoms, which include fevers and pustules.

But the period between when it’s contagious and not is hard to determine. It was very much exacerbated and intensified by the fur trade itself. While we can’t necessarily pin it on intentionality — spreading disease to decimate populations — it’s clear that trade contributed to its intensification. It was knowingly spread in certain instances, not to kill off indigenous people, but to ensure profit making continued without hindrance. The decision to prioritize profit over human lives led to situations where infected individuals were kept aboard trade or steamships to safeguard profit quotas.

Daniel Denvir

You write that “today’s state violence and surveillance against water protectors is a continuation of the Indian wars of the nineteenth century.” You write that those Indian wars have also been a model for US empire abroad. How does the history of indigenous genocide and dispossession blur the distinction between domestic policies and international empire building in the context of American empire?

Nick Estes

In 1997, Miguel Alfonso Martínez, then Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples, did a study on treaties, agreements, and various compacts between Indigenous peoples and colonizing nation-states. One of his conclusions was that treaties are proof of international relationships between Indigenous people and colonizing powers.

And if they are proof of international relationships, what good does it do to reproduce the domestication of native nations within those colonial states? Why not challenge this domestication process and argue for genuine international relationships? For indigenous people in North America, counterinsurgency — the waging of war of irregular wars against civilian populations — serves as a method of domestication, framing indigenous peoples as external threats while simultaneously attempting to internalize them within the nation-state itself. This approach is unevenly applied across space and time and varies by context, but nonetheless we can see similar patterns emerge.

For example, the Pawnee Nation never fought against the United States, but nevertheless suffered almost an 80 percent population decline in the nineteenth century. And why is that? It wasn’t because of direct military confrontation. It was the reservation system itself — and the imposed starvation conditions of the reservation system — that actually killed off the majority of this population.

I would say that that was a form of counterinsurgency. The first boarding schools were created at one of the country’s oldest military barracks in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. It’s no coincidence that the founder of the first boarding school was also an accomplished Indian fighter as well as a Civil War veteran.

The Indian fighters of the late nineteenth century were Civil War veterans who went on to command troops of mixed freed slaves alongside Indian scouts alongside white settlers against hostile Indian nations in the West. After the so-called Indian wars were “won,” those same commanders, those same generals, went on to fight in places like Cuba, or in some cases, if they lived long enough, Nicaragua.

The overseas imperial project was literally seen as an extension of the Indian wars. The involvement of these veterans in both domestic campaigns against Indigenous peoples and foreign imperial projects underscores the view of overseas expansion as a natural extension of the frontier.

The notion of the frontier’s closure was once mythologized as a definitive end to a chapter of American history. But a look at the institution of the United States military reveals a continuous transition, from one war to the next.

The military historian John Grenier has explored how the first Indian wars laid the groundwork for modern tactics of counterinsurgency — this is now part of the curriculum at West Point. These tactics come up in the question of international law. How do you wage war against people who are not considered human? In the past, they were not considered human, but now in the present, they’re not considered state actors. They’re “nonstate enemy combatants,” such as the “terrorist” opponents encountered in the war on terror.

There’s a direct lineage traced by the institution of the US military, back to its first enemies of empire, which were indigenous peoples.

Marxism: A Study of Power

Daniel Denvir

In one passage of your book, you allude to Marx, writing, “While traditional historians merely interpret the past, radical indigenous knowledge keepers aim to change the colonial present and to imagine a decolonial future by reconnecting to indigenous places and histories.”

How has Marxism informed your analysis? How do you relate a system of knowledge forged amid the birth of the European working class to indigenous American forms of knowledge? And finally, what do both forms of knowledge, together and in dialogue with one another, offer for this broader project of anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist liberation?

Nick Estes

When I first read Capital, I was really bored by the first half of it. I wasn’t engaged until the latter quarter of the book where he begins talking about colonialism. This framework, emerging from European working-class ideology, was incomplete. Marx was creating a project that was incomplete, and he knew it was incomplete — it was full of all these holes.

It doesn’t make his project any less important. He’s talking about the expansion of capitalist markets abroad, what we now know as colonialism and imperialism. Fundamentally, he’s examining what he calls primitive accumulation. There’s been a lot written on it and I think it’s been overtheorized in many ways. Primitive accumulation is essentially expropriation, and expropriation is a building block for settler-colonial societies.

It has a beginning, but it doesn’t have an end. There are just different forms of expropriation and different rounds of expropriation. Whether it’s the construction of oil pipelines or the mining of gold or the taking of land — it’s a form of expropriation. These acts of expropriation are key to integrating and defining racialized groups within the capitalist framework.

Marxism is fundamentally a study of power because it centers class and class is about power. In a settler-colonial society, power relations are structured — not to be too reductive — between the binary of the settler and the native.

I read people like Emma Goldman and [Peter] Kropotkin. Yes, I really loved Kropotkin, especially the concepts of mutual aid and his study of natural societies and, specifically, his critique of Social Darwinism. I read Marx when I was in college. I read the Communist Manifesto and it spoke to me in many ways, not just because of its analytical power, but because of the way it argued for organizing society from the ground up.

Exploring anti-colonial literature led me to discover that many of my favorite authors, notably [Frantz] Fanon, were Marxists. This explained how somebody who was a descendant of a slave from the Caribbean could become an anti-colonial revolutionary in Algeria — it was because of the principles of internationalism and the recognition of anti-colonial struggle as a global movement.

And it primarily circulated through these Marxists — through left, socialist, and communist traditions. The problem with Marxism in the United States is that it has ignored one of the fundamental contradictions of capitalism and imperialism, and that is what we now know as settler colonialism.

Reading the theories of settler colonialism reveals hints of Marxist analysis. Marx was a student of history, and I became a historian, not to glorify the past but to understand the present and what is required to undo the nightmarish present. By thinking about these histories, not in an idealistic way, but in a very concrete and material way, we can think about the project that confronts us with decolonization. However, within indigenous studies itself, there is an anti-communist and anti-Marxist tradition, especially in North America.

Conversely, places like Bolivia have developed indigenous socialist and left traditions, significantly advancing many of Marx’s theories. Similarly, in Peru, José Carlos Mariátegui contemplated national liberation within an indigenous context and on an international scale. And indigenous Marxists of the past, such as Archie Phinney, a Nez Perce anthropologist trained by Franz Boas, who studied Soviet indigenous policies in the Soviet Union in 1936–1937, have made significant contributions.

Phinney’s scholarship remains largely unrecognized due to a prevalent anti-Marxist sentiment, not just within indigenous studies but within the US academy. Phinney, a founder of the National Congress of American Indians, represents a crucial part of our heritage as indigenous people that remains underexplored.

We are missing so much in our own tradition as indigenous people by not looking at this. History shows that the most successful national liberation movements had some version of Marxism or some version of socialism as their vision for the future society that they were working toward. I think we would be remiss, and we would engage in a form of US exceptionalism, to say we’re somehow not a part of that history. Or, similarly, to try to understand the mechanics of decolonial thought and decolonial practice as removed from places like Africa and Asia. Such a stance is a disservice to our political and intellectual understanding.