Transcript: Our History Is the Future with Nick Estes29 Jun 2019
Our History is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance
DD:Nick Estes, welcome to The Dig.
Nick Estes:Thanks for having me.
DD:You write that the mobilization against the Dakota Access Pipeline marked an “historic resistance in resurgent Indigenous histories, not seen for generations, if ever.” To open this interview, 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.
NE: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. And what I mean by that is that Standing Rock occurred at a time at the tail end of Obama’s presidency and at the height of the North American oil boom, in the sense that there had been historic resistance leading up to Standing Rock. And so, in many ways, Standing Rock is seen as this moment of exceptional Indigenous resistance. But if we look at it within a longer context, even just within a decade, there was historic resistance in the Alberta Tar Sands region around 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. So there was an infrastructure in place of Indigenous peoples making alliances along these pipeline routes. So in that sense, it’s a longer moment within a longer movement of history. And the longer movement of history is 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 19th century, the damming of the river in the 20th century, the rise of Red Power, and then the North American oil boom. There are foreign invasions, so to speak, that I trace. And the first one would be the fur trade, beginning at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, going into the expansion of the Transcontinental Railroad, the slaughter of the buffalo in the mid-19th century, to the damming of the river in the mid-20th century, to the fourth invasion, which would be 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, and I was really in conversation with a lot of anti-imperialist scholars such as Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Manu Karuka, who has a recent book out called. And Manu Karuka is much more clear about this, in the sense that he calls it territorial imperialism. And I think if we think about it in that context, we can actually think about settler colonialism as imperialist expansion and annexation. And thus, we can think about Indigenous resistance as the first anti-imperialist resistance in North America.
DD:Another question along those lines, to set up some context; settler colonialism, you write, “is a project that’s fundamentally about replacement and genocide.” And a sort of perverse irony of this is that these are the very features of settler colonialism that, in turn, naturalize and legitimate settler colonialism by making the settlement of the United States, or elsewhere, seem normal and inevitable, pushing the bloody foundational moments into the background. Explain why an analysis of, and also struggle against, not only capitalism, but also colonialism, is necessary, not only historically, but also in the present, given the complex and intertwined social, economic, and ecological threats that we face today.
NE:Oftentimes, settler colonialism is historicized as something that happened in the past. Where I think a lot of scholars, 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 these forces of capitalism embodied within the infrastructures of oil pipelines or sites of extraction, such as the Alberta Tar Sands? And so, in many ways, the coalescence of forces at Standing Rock really are an echo of past Indigenous resistance. And if we can think about this notion of climate change and even––I hate to use the word the Anthropocene; I’m very critical of that. But I think this idea that we are undergoing this radical transformation globally and we’re all experiencing it. I think where Indigenous people and Indigenous history play an important role is to say that we are post-apocalyptic 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 tried to detail in my book, it’s not an anthropocentric project and it also targets non-humans and we can see that specifically, in a clear example, with 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 non-human world. I think there’s a tendency when we say that that there’s this kind of flute music that begins playing and obscures–– 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 non-human world in this mystical or ahistorical or metaphysical way, which actually, in many ways, is 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 that ethnographic framing and 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. Since we’re not legible in that framework, and we’re not legible in that human rights-based framework in the United States, we tend to get collapsed into this spiritual connection to the land and to the water. And so that’s why the urgent task of our present is to look at history within a materialist framework and, as Marx and Engels call, historical materialism. And to say that where we get our water, where we get our food, and our relationship with the land fundamentally determines the quality of life that we live, or the quality of life that we don’t live, as Indigenous peoples. And it’s a radical thing to say, but why is that radical?
DD:That’s such an important point––that there’s this entire racialized vision of Indigenous spirituality when talking about Indigenous relationships with non-human nature. But it’s a very fundamentally material set of relationships. And going back to the 19th century, you write that river trade forts were, in a sense, the first man camps, part of an extractive model that is today replicated in the fracking boom. And you wrote that this model combines violence against the earth with violence against women, creating these sharp dichotomies between human and non-human 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 non-human nature, and to gender, and how this has repeatedly played out for and been resisted by the Oceti Sakowin and their own set of relationships which, as you just pointed out, are not only symbolic but deeply material with non-human nature, land, and gender.
NE:I am a big fan of Silvia Federici and her book,. Most people talk about one part of that book, but they don’t talk about the other part of that book. And the one part of the book that she’s really known for is the enclosures in Europe and the targeting specifically of Indigenous women’s political authority within communal European society, peasant women specifically, and the proletarianization of the European peasantry into the capitalist system. The one part that often doesn’t get talked about is the Caliban part. The other part of that title, which is 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 arguably or ostensibly a non-capitalist Indigenous society. And so in one sense I think there’s a romanticization of Indigenous people, and even peasant communal society, as being “socialist” or “communist.” But I would say that they are socialist or communist, not in opposition to capitalism, but in the absence of capitalism. There wasn’t this profit motive that naturally existed. And so, 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. With the arrival of the river trade forts, you have the arrival of the first Europeans, who come entirely as groups of men. We understand what the word “man camps” means. And it’s often associated with extractive industries and the oil and gas industry, where they’re kind of transient, temporary settlements, often near Indigenous reservations or Indigenous communities, where they prey on Indigenous women and they exploit the jurisdictional patchwork of Indigenous reservation land (which is federal, state, and tribal), because we don’t have the ability to prosecute non-Natives oftentimes on reservations. But if we look historically, man camps were the first river trade forts and the outposts in our territory. And you can see that in evidence in popular culture, such as in the movie The Revenant, where you have Hugh Glass, who is a real historical figure played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who we kind of joke around as “Dances With Bears” and he “goes Native,” so to speak. And that whole part is completely fictionalized. He never had Indigenous children as far as we know. But nonetheless what is very historically accurate, and what the director depicts 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. And he approaches this river trade fort where there are French traders, English traders, and some American traders. And outside of that trade fort he sees Indigenous men, Indigenous children, and women begging. And also he sees Indigenous women being bought and sold like chattel inside the forts themselves. And so 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. And it’s often not how that historiography depicts that time period. To my mind, it’s such a travesty and, to be honest, I’m not an 18th century or 19th century historian. It’s not what I am trained in. It’s not what I specialize in. So when I went back and read the historiography of that time period I was actually appalled because they were making excuses. They were saying, in these instances of clear documented rape within traders’ journals and within the primary documents, these 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. It’s not to say that history repeats itself, but there certainly are echoes of that history in the present time. So we can see that 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 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, military forts, and outposts. So we can look on the landscape where I’m from and you can see that Indian Reservation headquarters are typically named after the fort that was there. So Standing Rock is Fort Yates; that’s the headquarter. Crow Creek, where I have family from, 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 Pierre, the Anglicized version of Pierre. We can look at the landscape as very much militarized in that context. And, thinking about the third round of accumulation, which would be the creation of the dams, which was implemented by a branch of the U.S. military, which is the Army Corps of Engineers. So thinking about this, and the penetration of capital, and how it goes hand-in-hand with the state, and the state is the handmaiden of capital in that sense. To just go back to the fur trade forts and the way that traders used Indigenous women’s bodies to gain access to new markets, there’s this thesis that’s been promoted within Indigenous history to say that the fur trade era created “middle grounds” in which Native people and settlers or traders negotiated invasion or negotiated settlement and that they weren’t partners necessarily, but they were kind of equals and one didn’t overpower the other. And I think that’s a false rendering of history because we didn’t send traders into European societies and married only European women. It’s such a bizarre framework.
DD:That erases the entire context of encroaching settler colonialism and the subordination of Indigenous nations into settler colonialist capitalist market relations.
NE: Absolutely, and it also erases intent. Why were these people going to this place to begin with? You know, if we look at rivers as the original highways West, all roads in our region lead to Saint Louis, which was a military outpost. It’s where the army of the West was sent following reconstruction, following the Civil War. It was where Custer was stationed. It was where all of these Civil War veterans went. But it was also a place where you had French aristocracy, who had made riches off of the fur trade, who established themselves there. Walter Johnson, he’s a historian friend of mine, is doing a new book on this longer history of St. Louis leading up to the killing of Mike Brown. But if you look at St. Louis in that context, it was the epicenter of the fur trade, it became the epicenter of the westward military expeditions and campaigns to take care of the Indian problem once and for all through the Indian Wars, and then it became a trade route epicenter for the damming of the river, etc. So it played that important and pivotal role. But I think, going back to the gendered relations, when Europeans first came they left patriarchs when they left oftentimes. And so we’ve internalized much of that heteropatriarchy into our own communities, and it was a tool of domination. The realm of business, the realm of trade, and the realm of diplomacy was relegated to men specifically. And so it created this new dynamic in which Indigenous men then became political spokespeople to outsiders. And it actually inverted a lot of political structures for Indigenous communities. Because even if you just Google Indigenous people such as the Sioux or the Lakota, you’re typically only going to see pictures of the 19th century of Indigenous men.
DD:Which is also a gender divide between the domestic and public sphere that’s quite amenable to capitalist social relations.
NE:And I think we’ve internalized that kind of structure as well. What I was trying to do in this particular chapter, called “Origins,” and I was juxtaposing our origin story as Lakota people; the first person to bring us into relations with the non-human world was a woman. And so we tried to honor that original covenant with Pte Ska Win, the White Buffalo Woman, who brought us into correct relations, specifically with the Buffalo nation. That was our first treaty. And the word WoLakota actually means treaty, but it also means to live in peace. And so every treaty that we signed or that we made since then goes back to that original covenant, which was made by a woman. But if we look at the treaties of the 19th century they were all made by men for a specific reason.
DD:Resistance to the settler colonialist economy was, in large part, made possible when Native people could fall back on subsistence, an alternative economy that allowed for an exit and refusal of capitalist market relations. And so to destroy the possibility of refuge from the settler colonialist market, the U.S. systematically attacked and destroyed that basis for subsistence. And, as you alluded to earlier, in the 1860s the U.S. destroyed 10 to 15 million buffalos in less than two decades, almost eliminating a population that once stood at 25 to 30 million. There was allotment, or the privatization, decollectivization of Native land––in a sense, that denationalization of land. And then, in the 20th century, as you mentioned earlier, the flooding of the Missouri River under huge swaths of reservation land. And 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 the “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.” And 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 multi-front genocide? And how did Native people resist over time?
NE:The question of food has played an important role, specifically for the Lakota and Dakota people. If we go back to the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War in what was then Minnesota territory, that began when several Dakota men, who were starving because they had their rations cut––it was during the Civil War––went into a white settler’s farm and stole chicken eggs. They ended up killing most of the settler family and then it sparked this larger confrontation. So that war began around food and starvation. There was the Mormon calf incident, where a Mormon overland traveler going west had let a lame calf wander into a camp of Sicangu or Lakota people, who were starving. And they killed the calf because there was no owner around. They didn’t see anybody who was taking care of the calf. And then that Mormon wanted retribution against them, and then sent the military after them. The military was destroyed by us, but––
DD:Over a single calf––
NE:That was lame, right. And we didn’t see anybody around, and we actually tried to pay the Mormon family with buffalo meat to compensate for the taking of their calf, but they didn’t want it. So in this early contestation, the contestation wasn’t just about a clash of civilizations or a clash of cultures as we’re often told, but 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. And we can see that with the Crow Nation. There was a recent Federal Court case that was decided that decided that the Crow Nation still had access to hunting territory, and it goes back to their 1868 Treaty that they signed with the United States government. Indigenous communities along the river specifically were much different from those who are further away from the water source. But those Indigenous communities that were along the Missouri River had a mixed economy of subsistence. They had large cattle herds that they could make money off of, while at the same time subsisting off of the land itself. And so, with the creation of the Pick-Sloan Dams, in that report that you were reading, 75 percent of the wildlife was destroyed by the dams and 90 percent of commercial timber was also 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: how do we create food sovereignty? We do manage buffalo herds, even though they were nearly extinct because of the mass slaughter in 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. And so, in many ways, the creation of the Pick-Sloan Dams coalesced with termination and federal relocation policies at the time. And if you read those reports, these Bureau of Indian Affairs anthropologists and policymakers and Dillon S. Myer, who you just quoted, were seeing these dams as a physical means to implement termination. Because one, it flooded a lot of reservation headquarters. It flooded the Lower Brule headquarters. It flooded the headquarters for the Crow Creek reservation. It flooded Yankton’s headquarters. It flooded Cheyenne River’s headquarters. Luckily, most of Standing Rock’s headquarters were safe, but up in Fort Berthold, those headquarters were destroyed as well. And so 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. And, in the case of our nation, it was Chamberlain, where I was born and raised. In Chamberlain, this is the paradox of relocation and this is the paradox of Israeli settler colonialism too. They want Indigenous land. They want Palestinian land. But they don’t want Indigenous people and they don’t want Palestinians. And so, 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, and we want the land but we don’t want Indigenous people.” There are a lot of things to say about that. But one thing, to go back to this idea of subsistence, is that if we look in our territory as the Oceti Sakowin and look at the Great Sioux reservation, which is the western half of South Dakota, and we talk about, “Well what are we going to do? What does a decolonial future look like?” And oftentimes there’s this question around land: who owns it, what are they doing with it, who profits from it. And if we look at somebody like Ted Turner, he owns 200,000 acres of our treaty land. That acreage is actually larger than our nation as the Lower Brule Sioux 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 as our shoreline, but we’re also talking about––we’re not talking about kicking people out of their homes, these settler families that have historically lived within our territories, but it’s about changing that relationship to land.
DD:A revealing irony is that the supposed inviability of private property rights––private land rights––didn’t and doesn’t protect ordinary settlers from corporate power. Energy companies and the like have always exercised a higher form of property rights. And so, ordinary white settlers were promised this dream of white egalitarianism, but what was actually taking place, in many ways, beneath the mystifications of racial capitalism, was the concentration of land and wealth in the hands of the few.
NE:Absolutely. Land is wealth in this country, especially in a settler colonial nation. And we can talk about the emancipation of human beings as forms of property. And there’s a whole racialization aspect that goes around that, but Native people, and even black people, are racialized according to land.
DD:How did these different relationships to the land inform Indigenous and settler identities and, as you just mentioned, other sorts of identities? On the one hand, the system has fundamentally been about relationships the land, in terms of facilitating the settler colonial order of domination, it’s racialized hierarchies, and the raw materiality of acquiring its land base. But at the same time, this 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?
NE:So 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, primarily, access to gold mines in places like Georgia, but it was also about the seizure of property. When Jackson, and then 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. Yes, land was central to that project, but 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 their children (of these slaveowning 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 in acted forms of “civilization,” they could never fully achieve a settler identity or equality under U.S. federal law. And so that’s what’s really fascinating. And 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 settlers citizenship. So Johnson v. M’Intosh is an important Supreme Court decision, and I detail it in the book, because it designates Indigenous nations as “domestic dependent nations.” But 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. But yet that law was applied to all Indigenous nations after the fact, even though we had nothing to do with that Supreme Court decision. And so when we think about the question of land and the question of slavery specifically, 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. So 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. But then also, in Texas, there were 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 now are in Mexico because they were fleeing westward expansion. So we can think of westward expansion and the context of slavery as fueling the creep westward. 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 Radical Reconstruction in the South, that army was withdrawn. But that army didn’t just disappear; it went westward. And so we have to think about that. And also we can think about Richard Henry Pratt, who was the architect of the Carlisle Industrial Indian School, which became the formula for off-reservation boarding schools and the assimilation project for Indigenous people. He got that idea when he was commanding units of mixed freed black slaves as well as Indian scouts in punitive campaigns led against the Kiowa and Comanche in parts of southern Texas. The first boarding school was in Carlisle Barracks, which is one of the oldest military outposts in the United States. It was thus transferred into an Indian boarding school, where the first people to go there were the Lakota people. Because at that time, in 1879, we were considered the most militant and hostile Indigenous nations to the United States. And so they took our children, the children of leadership––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 as well, for the good behavior of their people. It served as both an assimilative gift of civilization, and also as a coercive measure against their leadership. We can trace the influence of slavery because Richard Henry Pratt, in all his benevolence, didn’t believe in biological racism. He didn’t believe, biologically, that Black people were inferior to white people or Indigenous people were inferior to white people, but he did believe in a kind of social civilization 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. He 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 and the sense that they were taking these children, not because they wanted to give us civilization––most of the children that went to these boarding schools never graduated. So, what was the purpose? The purpose was to force our leadership to sign over land. And when it came down to 1887, when we resisted allotment for the first time in 1889, we signed what was called the Great Sioux Agreement, which opened up nine million acres of our land, and created what we now know as the modern reservations in West River South Dakota. All of these policies were about the land and acquiring the land.
DD: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, this dynamic of seizing land either for profit or for waste, in the pursuit of profit elsewhere.
NE:Richard Nixon created this term, “national sacrifice zone,” when he was talking about uranium mining in the West. To fuel U.S. economic and military interests we had to sacrifice these areas in the West, what a lot of people call “flyover country.” And we can think about that in the context of a lot of different U.S. presidents. Teddy Roosevelt created the modern national park system. And to do so, ideologically, he had to put Native people out of existence. The fact that in Yellowstone National Park there were Shoshone people still living there on the land, but if we look at a lot of the photography of Ansel Adams, or the Western landscape portraits, or the Western landscape art, it often depicts an empty barren land. Land so plentiful. And if we look at our passports as U.S. citizens and we look at the artwork in there, it’s typically about our national monuments and many of them are natural landscapes. And so this plays a very important ideological function. It does a lot of political work. It describes the West as this open landscape, free of Indigenous people, free of any kind of people. And so 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. And so there are all these functions that play an important role in how we understand the West. And so when we talk about this particular aspect of the Pick-Sloan Dams, they weren’t building dams downriver of major white settlements. They had strategically located each of these dams on Indian reservations. And if we go back to the history before the Pick-Sloan Dams when the states themselves––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. And so, in many ways, it was already predetermined, before the Flood Control Act of 1944 was passed by Congress, that these dams would be built on Indian reservations. Dams are very destructive and if we look at dams throughout the world and dams that are being built in places like China and India, they’re not building dams next to major metropolitan areas. They’re building dams in rural spaces, where they often think you know life is cheaper, life can be easily relocated, and there isn’t much use of the land. And that’s also been an important aspect of the racialization of Native people. That we’re “nomadic,” thus our removal is made much easier. And I want to push back on some notions here about Lakota people specifically. Yes, we did follow the buffalo herds. Yes, we we were, for all intents and purposes, people who traveled quite frequently. But 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. And so when we look at that transition to the reservation period, to a more sedentary life––I don’t want to glorify it; 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 that agricultural knowledge. And if we go back to that original agreement that we made with Pte Ska Win and the White Buffalo Calf Woman––yes, we were brought into relation with all of these animal nations, but on that pictograph that I show, that winter count, which is one of the earliest pictographs, there was also a corn stock. And she is depicted as a white buffalo within the center of a camp circle. Out of her udders are corn kernels flowing into a water. And so there is a relationship to agriculture, and 80 percent of Indigenous nations in the Western Hemisphere, prior to the arrival of Europeans, had some form of agriculture.
DD:And yet this myth of total nomadism was so key to justifying Indigenous dispossession. The M’Intosh 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 U.S. dispossession by virtue of “conquerors rights.”
NE:Even today, modern Indian water law is based on those precepts of civilization, of agriculture. So 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 only counts, under federal Indian water law, is water use for “the purposes of civilization,” because that’s why we signed treaties and that’s why we were put on reservations according to the federal government, is to become civilized Indians. And what form of civilization was that? It was agriculture. So it’s really important to remember that it’s not just some kind of benign racist thing, but it’s actually codified in the law and actually determines how much sovereignty we have over our own natural resources, such as water.
DD:And this is 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.”
NE:And he was drawing from the papal bulls and what is now understood as the “doctrine of discovery.” So when Columbus––who, to his dying day believed that he landed in India not the Americas––when he was authorized by the Spanish crown to conquer or to claim this land and its people in the name of that crown, 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. But these became the basis for, not just federal Indian law, but also international law. And so there’s the debates of Vitoria that were happening in the mid-1500s about 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 is being quoted by Judge Erbaum in a federal court decision about whether or not the United States has jurisdiction in Sioux Territory––
DD:In 1974. A rather recent case.
NE: Exactly, and even the most recent case that was decided with the Crow Tribe, the law that they’re citing is based on these papal bulls that were passed in the end of the 15th century and into the 16th century. So these are 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, but it’s conservative in the sense that it draws upon these backward notions of Indigenous people. And so, 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 15th century. And as far as I know the Vatican, for all of its problems, doesn’t accept these as valid today.
DD:When the Vatican is more progressive than a supposedly secular democratic state’s legal system, you know you have a really big problem.
DD: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 and do they mean to Native nations?
NE:I’ll answer the second part of that question first. The United States has had a monopoly of 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 this is our original agreement with the United States government. And so the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty is very foundational in who we are as Indigenous people, as Lakota people specifically, and Dakota and Nakota people.
DD:And it’s signed after a rather successful round of armed resistance on the part of Native peoples. When a group under Crazy Horse’s leadership destroys an entire unit of troops, the U.S. is forced to come to the table.
NE:That was what they what they called Red Cloud’s War. Red Cloud was one of the main treaty signers. He was one of the main treaty negotiators. And there was a question, there was an internal debate amongst 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 there was a debate about whether or not we should actually wipe out most of the white settlements in our homelands and to 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 had an upper hand. Militarily we couldn’t be defeated. And so we drew the U.S. to the negotiating table. And there are a lot of debates 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 reservations, powwows, gatherings political gatherings etc.) and they will talk about the treaties and there’s such an in-depth knowledge of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty that it’s cited verbatim from memory, about what is in that treaty and what was promised to us. And so in the context of Red Cloud, he understood, for example, the hunting territory of our nation, which was about 30 to 35 million acres, as something that was reserved specifically for the Buffalo Nation. And so, in that way, we were signing that treaty on behalf of a non-human nation to protect them.
DD:And these are expansive hunting grounds in the Powder River Basin.
NE:The Powder River Basin, going up to the Hart River and the area between what is now Standing Rock and Mandan, North Dakota, which was currently a contested construction route for the Dakota Access Pipeline. So this hunting territory plays an important role because it says, “So long as the buffalo shall roam to justify the chase,” or something along those lines. And why that’s an important clause of the treaty is because if there are no buffalo, then there’s no hunting territory. And initially some of the treaty negotiators were hesitant to put that in there because it was such a concession to allow this expansive territory. How are we going to rein in the militant bands that decide not to live on reservations? And the answer to that was, “Well, we kill the buffalo.”
DD: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 just whether they could imagine that the U.S. government would read that clause in such a twisted way to do something that was probably literally unimaginable: the apocalyptic destruction of the buffalo.
NE:It’s something that I’ve pondered over and I wish, I mean I could write a whole book on just that, and our oral interpretations of that treaty and of that clause. And if you look at even 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 Lakota need the buffalo and the buffalo need the Lakotas and without our hunting territory, we are no longer Lakota people.” So he understood––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 non-human side as well in that particular moment in time. And I think it leads up to even––and this is a different conversation––the reason why something like the Ghost Dance caught on, because it wasn’t just about the return of Indigenous life, but it was about the return of non-human life. And if you look at the Ghost Dance songs, there were songs for the buffalo and the return of the buffalo. There were songs for the return of the bear, the plains bear that had been almost utterly annihilated. And if you just look at our last names of the people who still have those really old traditional last names they are names like Bull Bear, they are names like Spotted Tail, Black Elk. They are names that suggest that we had a relationship, a profound relationship, to these non-human relatives. That goes back to how we understood this treaty. And so 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 other nations, those non-human nations who signed that treaty. And so if we look at the current state of things, buffalo herds require an expansive territory and this is a whole other question that we’re talking about on reservation communities, is that 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” so to speak, where buffalo can range. To go back to the treaty though, and the interpretation that the United States government has had, we’ve signed (as the Lakota, Dakota, Nakota people) about 35 treaties with the United States. The first was in 1885 and the last was in 1868. Three years later, of course, they abolished treaty-making. Most of these treaties, if you go back and read them, the first thing that they establish is that the United States is the sole sovereign in the region, and it’s to acknowledge that we will only negotiate with the United States. So the first treaties were essentially to box out the other European powers (the French and the British and even the Spanish) in that region and that we would only negotiate with the United States. Later on, the 1851 Treaty at Fort Laramie brought together tens of thousands of Indigenous people on the plains. And it was what the U.S. government described as a brokered peace among warring factions, and that if an issue arose over hunting competition, over hunting grounds, that the United States would be the one who negotiated or mediated that conflict, establishing the U.S. government as the protectorate of these Indigenous nations. And the 1868 Treaty is really fascinating because it was more expansive in many ways of Indigenous rights, specifically for the Lakota people in what our territory actually was and the kind of resources that we would get from the government, but also the protections. For example, in that treaty, it maps out or delineates the western half of what is now South Dakota as the permanent home of the Sioux Nation of Indians. We signed that before South Dakota became a state. And so the contestation right now, as we see with Governor Kristi Noem, is that she wants to criminalize Indigenous protests to what are called “critical infrastructure” in our own homelands in the western half of the state of South Dakota. Why somebody like Julian Bear Runner, the president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, banished her is, he cites, and most people don’t read too much into this, the tribal council cites the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty and says that that territory which the Keystone XL Pipeline is currently projected to pass through is territory that was never legally granted to the U.S. government, so the state of South Dakota has no authority over that and that we don’t recognize the supreme sovereignty of South Dakota because we’ve never signed an agreement with them. And it is legal to banish the governor of a state from Indigenous lands, and they are citing specifically the authority granted under the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty to do so.
DD:Explain how that era of mass armed resistance in the 19th century came to an end, and how it led 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, a system defined by reservation police, boarding schools, missionaries, altogether aimed at breaking cultural, political, and kinship institutions.
NE:The transition from armed resistance to one of reservation life was a very traumatic one. For us specifically it’s marked by the 1876 Battle of Greasy Grass, when we wiped out the 7th Calvary––
DD:Custer’s so-called “Last Stand.”
NE:Yeah, 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 there was a big win that Custer wanted to make before the centennial celebration on July 4th, which was almost a week before he was killed at the “Battle of Little Bighorn,” as the U.S. government calls it. At this time period 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 them 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. And some of them went north to Canada to seek protection under the British Crown there, such as Sitting Bull, and Crazy Horse was there for a while. Others went back to the reservation life, but we weren’t defeated afterwards and then decided militant armed resistance was no longer viable. It was because we actually realized that we couldn’t fight anymore in the sense that the U.S. military, yes, they couldn’t defeat us, but they could take away our food source, and they could take away our children, and they could take away that all the things that we held sacred to our our communities and our families. And so the surrendering was a military surrender in many ways, but it didn’t happen after a major defeat. And I think that’s really important because afterwards––and I don’t really get into this in the book, but it’s something that I encourage a lot of people to read. There’s this book calledby Mario Gonzalez and Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, where they talk about the killing of our pony herds. So they wiped them out because they understood the pony as a tool for mobilization, so we could leave the reservation. We could escape. We could continue to hunt. They wiped out the pony herds. They implemented the 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. And a lot of these Indian agents, they weren’t just technocrats or bureaucrats put out here. 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. Some of even the Catholic priests that were out there had stakes in mines in the Black Hills. So they were financially benefiting. They call it the Indian Ring on these reservations. They were financially benefiting from these things. But at the same time, you had the implementation of the “Civilization Regulations,” which essentially disallowed dancing, ceremonial feasts, large public gatherings, and giveaways, and also the Sun Dance, which was one of our most sacred ceremonies and most powerful ceremonies. It brought together––we used to just have one big Sun Dance as an entire nation. Now we just have basketball tournaments where everybody gets together. But it was barring these cultural events because it was where we organized politically. And 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, but it was rifles for hunting. And it made us dependent on the reservation system itself. And so, not only was it physically coercive to leave the reservation, but it was almost impossible to, because we had to get our food sources from the rations that were being handed out there. And so the Civilization Regulations are incredibly important because they were implemented around 1885 and they were only repealed in 1935 with the Indian Reorganization Act. But they also helped facilitate the taking of children and putting them into boarding schools, the banning and the outlawing of our language and our religious practices, which weren’t fully “legalized” until 1978. So these are really important. This is a really important and traumatic time for us. But also it still, to this day, on our CDIBs (our certificate of degree of Indian blood cards) that we’re granted by the U.S. Government, the first four numbers are our prisoner of war camp that we were assigned to on that card. So mine is like U-3456, which is––I don’t know if that’s the correct number––but it’s the assignment of the prisoner of war camp for the Lower Brule Sioux tribe. And so each of these tribes, we had a number on our cards. So each of these tribes were assigned a specific prisoner of war camp number, and that’s how people became enrolled as “citizens,” what we now know as citizens of tribal nations. But they were also enrolled according to allotment. So my “U” number, or my “U” letter on my card, means that I’m unallocated. I don’t have Indigenous land on the reservation. And other people are A allottees, who benefit––are descendants of people who were allotted land through the allotment system. So 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 relations to the land base that we come from. And so the reservation period hasn’t ended. Even though we’re allowed to leave the reservation today, many of those punitive policies––allotments stopped in 1935, but many of those punitive policies still exist to this day. At least the afterlives of them exist today. And so I think about the amount of legal and political justification for the reservation system that went into creating these laws, and they haven’t been entirely undone. Indian child removal is still an issue. ICWA is now being challenged in the federal court system by the Goldwater Institute, based out of Arizona, which is trying to undermine tribal sovereignty––to say, essentially, that tribes are not political or legal entities, but they are racial entities, that under civil rights legislation we shouldn’t have a leg up on other people, in the sense that if children are adopted out to white families, tribes shouldn’t have a say because they should be adopted out under equal access to different foster parents and different families. And it doesn’t see us as citizens of a nation. You wouldn’t take, well the U.S. government does this anyway, I was going to say you wouldn’t take a citizen, a child from Mexico, and imprison them.
DD:But that’s just what happens.
NE:Yeah, that’s just what happens.
DD:I want to talk about the other side of this legacy, the legacy of resistance. And you alluded to this earlier. The first big moment of resistance, after the end of mass armed struggle in the 1880s, was the Ghost Dance. And it prophesied that a messiah would destroy the colonial world and reinstate the Indigenous one. And really critical here, you write, is that boarding-school-educated students, people with a foot in both worlds, were key to its spread. What was the Ghost Dance? What conditions led to its emergence? Why did the U.S. 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 and life?
NE:So Paiute Prophet Wovoka was the first to envision the Ghost Dance. There are many stories––I’m not an expert on Paiute history––but there are many stories about him as a person 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 material conditions that he lived in and that his people lived in during the reservation period. And so, in many ways, they were a response to the conditions of reservations. And if we look historically, and we look at these kind of prophet-inspired or prophecy-inspired movements for Indigenous peoples, we can look at Tenskwatawa and the Ohio River Valley and the creation of Prophetstown. And his brother, who we all know, Tecumseh, brought together disparate Indigenous nations into a kind of political confederacy to push back 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 at that particular time. And so, yes, there is this kind of esoteric spiritual element to it, but I think it’s more important to look at those material conditions that led to these uprisings and why they’re important. So the Ghost Dance was just another iteration of a prophecy-inspired movement. I wouldn’t say Wovoka was a leader of it, but he was an instigator of envisioning an Indigenous future, one in which the colonial relation was abolished and had ended, that Indigenous people would go back to living the way they were, 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––Lakota leaders traveled to Pyramid Lake, Nevada where Wovoka was living. And they travelled by train, and they actually got permission by the Indian agent and passes to travel by train too. This is a thoroughly modern affair. You know, they weren’t riding by horseback through the desert on “A Horse With No Name.” They were riding the train in a modern transportation system. And so they went to visit Wovoka. And they saw the prophecy, and he instructed them how to perform the dance, and the reason why they need to perform the dance. And so when they took it back to the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Agencies, there were boarding-school-educated Lakota people who were there who transcribed the prophecy both in Lakota and in English. And they sent out these letters, and this is in James Mooney’s own investigation of the Ghost Dance. James Mooney was an ethnographer, an agent of empire hired by the United States to investigate the root causes of the Ghost Dance. In his book, his interpretation of the Ghost Dance has now become the standard bearer interpretation of the Ghost Dance Movement itself. And 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. So he traveled out West and collected oral interviews. He visited multiple Indigenous nations and, of course, most of his focus was on the Lakota and Dakota interpretations of the Ghost Dance, which he says we misinterpreted. But going back to these boarding-school-educated Lakota children and young people, they were very much an integral aspect of this movement and its spread to different Indigenous reservations, specifically among the Lakota and Dakota people. And so in that sense it was a thoroughly modern anti-colonial resistance movement. It wasn’t what James Mooney saw as a millenarian religious revitalization movement that believed in an apocalypse. It was using the conditions in which Indigenous people found themselves, which were reservation conditions, and the tools that were introduced, such as writing and speaking in English, to spread its message. And to me, when I was reading that, I was like, our interpretation of the Ghost Dance is fundamentally wrong because the Ghost Dance often appears in U.S. history books, much like Indigenous people, to die tragically at Wounded Knee in 1890. And so during this time on the reservations, even on the reservations that had leadership that was more amenable to the United States, 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 just the very nature of the Ghost Dance was illegal because we weren’t allowed to dance. And so 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, 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 this split up families, because a child would get recruited––a boarding-school-educated child would get recruited to the Indian police––and then be required to arrest his grandmother or his grandfather for participating in a ceremony.
DD:And this is not so long after the final moments of mass armed conflict and armed resistance. Custer was being sent in to enforce a federal decree that Native people either had to immediately return to their reservations or be considered hostile.
NE:That’s what was happening on the reservation. We also have to consider that 1889 was the year that North Dakota and South Dakota achieved statehood. And, as part of their Enabling Acts, and most Enabling Acts of Western states––actually, I think almost all states that were allowed into the Union as part of their Enabling Act to be recognized as a state––have to forgo interfering with Indigenous people in Indigenous nations to maintain that federal relationship, or that worship status with the federal government. And so South Dakota, to establish 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 Dance 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 was called “The Cowboy Militia,” which was an armed vigilante group that would go around and kill Native people. They massacred 75 Native people who had left the reservation. So this was all leading up to the Wounded Knee massacre in the state of South Dakota. And there was what was called the “land boom” in South Dakota upon its achieving statehood, where you had white settlers who were essentially squatting on Indigenous land and near reservations. And there are a lot of towns in the western half of South Dakota where you ask some of these old landowners if they can produce the original title to the land and they can’t. So they’re eating away at this reservation territory. And a lot of people at this time weren’t getting their rations on time, so they were going out and killing settlers’ cattle to eat and to prevent starvation. So this was the context. It was a very intense moment. And so, at the local level, you had white settlers who were petitioning state governments to do something and state governments thus going on and petitioning the federal government to do something. So they created a mass scare, very similar to what happened at Standing Rock. So you had the armament of these settler militias, such as the Cowboy Militia that was created in Rapid City, and they’re like, “If you don’t do something, we’re gonna 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 are armed? Yes, but they weren’t armed in the sense to 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. But yet they represented a political threat to the order of things, and the idea that if these Indians don’t come under control, it could potentially lead to armed conflict with these white settlers that are surrounding the reservations. So half the standing army was deployed. Spotted Elk, who is also known as Si Tanka or Bigfoot, fled from the Cheyenne River and camped with Sitting Bull in December at that time. And he had led a group of Ghost Dancers, which was primarily women, children, and elders. There were a handful of men, but there 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 actually were staying near Sitting Bull’s encampment. Sitting Bull was aroused 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. Si Tanka, or Bigfoot, was spooked by this entire event and he left the reservation really quickly and didn’t bring a lot of provisions. It was cold during that time and he himself had developed pneumonia, and so he was being carried by a horse drawn wagon. And they fled to Red Cloud’s agency, and they were actually invited by Red Cloud to seek sanctuary in his agency. And they travelled 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 and Custer’s regiment, the 7th Calvary, was deployed at that particular encampment to essentially guard them, put them under armed guard. There are a lot of questions about what happened that morning. And one of the interesting facts of that day was that the day of the massacre was actually 60 degrees, and so it was a very warm day. And the calvary came down and essentially asked Bigfoot’s people to turn over their weapons, their hatchets, and to surrender themselves. And there’s confusion about what happened and who fired the first shot. And I think the widely accepted version is that Smoke, a man who is deaf, had his hunting rifle and he refused to give it over to the soldiers and the two soldiers were trying to confiscate it. And for Lakota people, for warriors, for people who are part of that kind of warrior tradition, they don’t own anything except for their weapons. And so 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. It wasn’t communicated to him that that was happening and his gun went off. And thus began the massacre of around 300 Lakota, primarily Miniconjou, people at Wounded Knee. To this day the military recognizes this as a battle, and there’s actually 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 to recognize it as a legitimate engagement against an armed group of people. But the interesting thing about this, and I document this in the book, is that it didn’t end there. And a lot of the Ghost Dancers, the Oglala Ghost Dancers and Red Cloud’s agency, fled to a place called the stronghold in the Badlands. People like Plenty Horses, Crow Dog, who is also a former Indian police, and Rosebud, who left the Indian police, frustrated with reservation life, went back to being a Lakota person and only spoke Lakota, wore his hair long, and he joined the Ghost Dance resistance. And then it became a much more armed resistance. And there were some churches burned down. There were some settlers who fled because their cattle were killed. But by and large, a lot of the leadership didn’t want any more bloodshed after all of these people had been killed. But in the stronghold, Lieutenant Edward Casey was actually sent out to bring in this hostile group of Ghost Dancers. And Plenty Horses, who had been educated and taken away from his family and sent to Carlisle Indian School, had returned back to the reservation to find that everything that he learned there was incredibly useless on the reservation. There were no jobs. He learned to be a blacksmith, but he couldn’t practice blacksmithing because there were no blacksmiths. There was no shop for him to work. And actually the cutting of his hair caused great humiliation, and the dressing as a white man caused great humiliation and alienation from his own family. And so he had joined this resistance movement in the stronghold. And so when Lieutenant Edward Casey came to meet with the Ghost Dancers, in an act of defiance, 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. And of course Plenty Horses was arrested. But the interesting thing about this, and this goes into the narrative that this was a military engagement with an armed group of hostiles, was that when he was put on trial for the murder of Edward Casey, the court had concluded that a state of war had existed. And thus he couldn’t be charged with murdering Edward Casey, because otherwise the Wounded Knee Massacre would have been an act of murder as well. And so the legacy of the Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee is very important for Lakota people. And it actually is a strong marker for us as a transition, not just from the reservation period, but to this decline and political repression of our leadership, of our reservation leadership. You have the formation of the first Treaty Councils that kind of went underground. You have the societies––the cultural societies and the spiritual societies––that all went underground because they feared that the repression that happened at Wounded Knee would be repeated again. And so it was very traumatic for us in that sense but, nonetheless, the spirit of the Ghost Dance itself lived on.
DD:I want to talk more about the destruction of Indigenous relationships with land and with non-human nature. In Lakota and Dakota cosmology, the buffalo are a nation, the Pte Oyate, and so is the Missouri River, the Mni Sose. 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 in the world.” Explain how Oceti Sakowin kinship relationships function, not only between humans of various sorts, but also with other-than-human-entities: land, water, creatures. And explain what sort of lessons this kinship model might hold in 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 and the rest of the earth.
NE:To begin to answer that question we have to step outside of the book itself and talk about something that I don’t really highlight or explain explicitly in the book, and that’s the concept of WoLakota. If you look up at the dictionary definition of it in the Lakota language dictionary, it says that WoLakota is the translation for “treaties.” It has taken on that meaning, but WoLakota essentially means, what does it mean to live a good life as a Lakota person? And it’s associated with peace, with harmony, and with good relations. So the introduction of WoLakota as a concept obviously began before paper treaties and began before colonization and European invasion. And it began with Pte Ska Win, which is the White Buffalo Calf Woman. She was our primary prophet and also a woman who brought us into correct relations with the human and non-human world. And essentially she made us Lakota people, as the story goes. There is a longer story to it, but suffice it to say that we have our own written records of this first encounter with this woman who taught us how to live correctly with the human and non-human world. And in the book, I talk about Brown Hat’s winter count. And winner counts are pictographic depictions of monumental events that took place during the four seasons. And they were typically recorded during the winter and then retold during the winter, hence the name winter count. And Brown Hat––what’s really fascinating about his winter count is that he was recording the first diplomatic relation Lakota people had entered into with other-than-humans. The first treaty, in a sense, was made with other-than-humans or the human nations, 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. And also in this pictograph, there was a picture of water. There’s a constellation associated with the Pte Oyate or The Buffalo Nation. That constellation is actually called tayamni, which actually means her water, and it’s a word for womb. It comes from that, when we were made Lakota people, but it’s also connected with this biological or anthropocentric notion of our relationship to water, in the sense that everyone is born in water. That’s the original pictograph. And the irony of it is that the white anthropologists who collected his winter count never explained what these earlier pictographs had meant, and so it’s only been through interpretations by Lakota oral historians that we now know that this is one of the first documentations of when we became Lakota people as we know it today. And so, fast forward to the 19th century when we began making treaties with the United States. I look at, specifically, the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. And 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 actually nearly doubled our treaty territory from the reservation, which was about 32 million acres to the hunting territory, which is about 35 million acres. That hunting territory is where the Dakota Access Pipeline currently trespasses through. But there was actually a recent court decision in which the Supreme Court decided that the Crow Tribe has rights to hunting territory as defined by their 1868 Treaty that they signed with the United States government. And so there is a basis in law for this hunting territory, and it’s specifically related to our relationship or harvesting of non-humans for our sustenance and to continue as Indigenous people. But if we look at that article in our 1868 Treaty, it spells out a direct relationship, not just to the non-human world (in this case the Buffalo Nation), but 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. And so how the United States has interpreted that particular article is, “If there are no buffalo, then there is no hunting grounds, and then there is no hunting territory.” And so, to kill a buffalo literally translated into the taking of land. And even this cultural aspect of that; some of the buffalo hunters that came into the region, they were European aristocracy, and they didn’t just come into our region, they came to all of the West and the Great Plains area. And they were guided by the U.S. military to lead these expeditions, which were often called “war parties” or were called “the slaying of red skins.” That was associated with the taking of scalps off of the mutilated corpses of slain Native people. When they began doing this, they didn’t just stop there; they would take the hides and leave the carcasses to rot and then poison the carcasses with strychnine to get rid of scavengers and the predatory animals such as coyotes and wolves, but then also, in some instances, Native people who were starving. There is this esoteric and there is this spiritual connection to the Buffalo Nation that goes back into our history with Pte Ska Win, the White Buffalo Woman, but also there is a direct material connection to that buffalo, and the legal/ political connection that is codified within the treaties itself. When Red Cloud Maȟpíya Lúta, the leader of the Oglalas, abdicated from his leadership in the Pine Ridge Reservation, he said, “We were told the land of the Lakota was the land of the buffalo. The buffalo shall have their land, so that they shall roam and the Lakota shall have their buffalo.” It wasn’t some kind of mystical ahistorical relationship that he was articulating. He was talking about that Article 11, 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 treaties, not only does it talk about where we’re going to get our food, such as hunting and agriculture, but it also talks about what are our territorial boundaries as defined by water.
DD:Could you say more about this explicit naming of these very concrete and material relationships with non-human nature? And what lessons, at the risk of romanticizing Indigenous knowledge, what lessons we might learn, as so much of humanity remains in such intense denial of our relationship to non-human nature that we risk rendering much of the earth uninhabitable?
NE:So Robert Williams, he’s a Native lawyer and jurist, he’s written extensively on how the legal canon has essentially bifurcated humans from “nature.” And so within the legal canon itself, just as one example, in one institution of Western society, in 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 non-human. For example, as I have just explained, there was no delineation between human nation and non-human nation. They were all nations of people, essentially, that had equal rights in compacts and agreements. And without romanticizing this notion, it’s ingrained in a lot of Indigenous epistemologies.
DD:And ironically it’s frankly more materialist.
NE:I would agree with you there. And also, the current U.N. report 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, political––to their homelands and bioregions. And this includes about 35 percent of global area formerly protected by governments or other entities. And 35 percent of ecosystems that experience limited human intervention. And this is a recent U.N. report. So the best kinds of environmental policy come from the ground up, from these communities. And Indigenous communities hold within their own regions around 70 percent of the world’s biodiversity. And that includes the Indigenous nations, the diminished Indigenous nations, of the United States and Canada. I was thinking about this earlier, about however problematic Engels was in his, he does prove through the use of Lewis Henry Morgan, an anthropologist who studied Indigenous kinship relations, that hetero-nuclear families, capitalism, and colonialism are neither natural nor are they inevitable, because there are or there were actually non-capitalist societies living alongside of capitalist societies. And not all societies tend towards capitalism or the exploitation of nature as we know it today.
DD:Right. 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 U.S., 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 a 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.
NE:So first of all, just to build off of 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 peoples relations with the land and with other than humans. And 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. So, for example, the Homestead Act was a way, as people like Greg Grandin and Richard Slotkin have argued, to create a “pressure valve” to open up the West, to relieve the contradictions that are inherent within the expansion of slavery, and the contradictions of slavery in the South and in the East and to eventually prevent outright class war amongst white settlers themselves. Because even the presidents, such as John Quincy Adams, who said that there’s one thing that all European Americans can unite around, and that’s the killing of Indians.
DD:He said that disapprovingly, to clarify.
NE:He was saying it to criticize westward expansion. But I think folks like Jodi Byrd, in her book,, talks about this sort of paradigmatic Indianness, in which settler colonialism creates the figure of the Indian to be destroyed and to dispossess. And it manifests through the ways in which empire expands, not just within a territorial context, but within an economic context. And that boils down to land, within North America, specifically, and within North American settler colonialism. So the Homestead Act opens up land––very cheap land––for white settlers. And railroad companies are playing a major role in this; they have what are called “colonization offices,” specifically in the Nordic European countries, to recruit poor folks to essentially put them out as cannon fodder on the Western frontier, to occupy these places near railroads or near infrastructure, to create towns, essentially. And then accompanying that, it’s not just the Homestead Act, it’s a series of Homestead Acts. You have the Desert Land Act much later that essentially provides federal subsidies to improve the land and provide irrigation. So you have a lot of public investment into creating value on this land through agriculture, primarily. And agriculture is an interesting form of settler colonialism because it’s considered permanent and it’s considered something that destroys the Indigenous flora and fauna––going back to that idea that elimination isn’t just about eliminating Native people or humans, but it’s also about eliminating Native non-human life as well, including plants and animals. So 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. And we can look today at the effects of that when we look at our homelands. When 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 by large agricultural companies, such as Monsanto and Cargill, who have eaten up and bought these parcels and now have turned them into production, because you need less and less workers because of the mechanization of labor to actually farm all of this land. And so what you have in places in the Great Plains that are more rural is a lot of white flight. And you have a lot of families who are descendants of the original settlers who are leaving, because the idea of this kind of idyllic farming family is no longer economically sustainable. But nonetheless you have them selling something, they’re not just leaving empty-handed, they’re selling land that their ancestors paid bottom dollar for. And so there’s an invested value and there’s an inherited value for a lot of these settler families intergenerationally, so that they can say that they have wealth. And so if we talk about the wealth gap––and we can look at slavery in the sense that there’s this conversation around reparations. When we look at a lot of these early slave plantations and why most European people, when they came here, had so much time to go to school and learn and to become diplomats, is 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 so there was this accumulation of wealth that was passed on intergenerationally just through stolen labor. And what’s also not really accounted for is the accumulation of wealth through stolen land, and so that’s something that I think we have to take into consideration when we talk about inequality. But when we talk about capitalism, we can look at the ways in which American capitalism, specifically––it requires labor. It requires money. And one of the things that a lot of people on the left always forget, is that it requires land. And land still equals wealth, especially in settler colonial society, and nowhere else in the world are there unique real estate laws and practices as they’ve been developed in places like the United States. And that goes back to settler colonialism and settlement. So when people want to historicize settler colonialism, as saying that it had a beginning and an end, they forget that the land itself is still up for debate and still up for contestation.
DD: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 amongst some. 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 that the conversation often takes place within?
NE:The communities that were hardest hit by smallpox epidemics had the closest relationships, so to speak, to European traders. So, for example, the Mandan, Arikara, and Hidatsa were sedentary river communities in the Missouri River Basin who had developed strong trade relations with first, the French, and then, the British, and sometimes even the Spanish, and then the United States. And as a result of those relationships, they had increased proximity to disease. And that disease was––I don’t think it helps to say that disease was purposely spread, so much as it was conditioned by the trade itself. And so, for example, when it spread during 1837, in one of the most horrific incidences of smallpox on the Northern Plains, it came up on a steamship where traders had knowingly harbored an individual who was suffering from the symptoms of smallpox. 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––days later, sometimes a week later––they develop the really intense symptoms, which include fevers and pustules etc. But the period between when it’s contagious and not is hard to determine, and so it was very much exacerbated and intensified because of the fur trade itself. So while we can’t necessarily pin it on an intentional way of spreading disease to decimate populations, we can approximate that it did intensify because of the trade. And it was knowingly spread in certain instances, not to kill off Indigenous people, but to essentially make a profit––so that we wouldn’t have to turn back a trade ship or a steamship just because somebody was infected, but instead to realize one’s profit quota––that’s more important than saving lives.
DD:You write, “Today’s state violence and surveillance against water protectors is a continuation of the Indian wars of the 19th century.” You write that those Indian wars have also been a model for U.S. empire abroad. Explain this relationship between the history of building the American empire at home and empire abroad, and also perhaps how that history, of Indigenous genocide and dispossession, complicates any neat distinction between home and abroad when we’re talking about American empire.
NE:So if we go back to the practice of treaty making, there was a report that was issued in 1997 by Miguel Alfonso Martínez, who was the special rapporteur on Indigenous peoples at the time. He did a study on treaties, agreements, and other compacts with Indigenous peoples and their colonizing nation state. And one of his conclusions was that treaties are proof of international relationships between Indigenous people and colonizing nation states. And if they are proof of international relationships, what good does it do to reproduce the domestication of Native nations within those colonial states, rather than challenging the domestication process and actually arguing for a kind of international relationship? And I would say, for Indigenous people, specifically in North America, counterinsurgency––the waging of irregular wars against civilian populations––is a form of domestication, is a form of warfare, that looks at Indigenous peoples as an external threat, while also trying to internalize them within the nation state itself. And that plays several functions and it’s unevenly applied across space and time. It differs in different contexts, but nonetheless we can see these similarities. For example, the Pawnee Nation never fought against the United States, but nevertheless suffered almost an 80 percent population decline in the 19th century. And why is that? It wasn’t because of direct military confrontation. It was actually the reservation system itself, and the imposed starvation conditions of the reservation system, that 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 19th 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. And then, 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, in Nicaragua, if they lived long enough. So the overseas imperial project was literally seen as an extension of the Indian wars. And many of these military men, who were veterans of the Civil War and the Indian Wars and then these overseas imperial projects, were very much evidence that this was seen as the logical extension of the frontier. And even though somebody like Frederick Jackson Turner somewhat mythologized the closing of the frontier as the potential closing of a chapter of American history, if we just look at the institution of the United States military, we can see that that chapter was––there was no beginning and end, but it has seamlessly moved on from one war to the next. And if we look at military historians, such as John Grenier, he looks at the first Indian wars as developing the modern tactics of counterinsurgency war that is now taught at West Point in their coin classes. Or even when Indigenous peoples do come up in classes at West Point, it comes 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 then in the present they’re not considered state actors; non-state enemy combatants such as “terrorists” as we now know in the War on Terror. So there’s a direct lineage that the U.S. military, as an institution, traces back to its first enemies of empire, which were Indigenous peoples.
DD:A related point you make that I want to discuss is this perverse mystification and misrepresentation of reality at the core of settler colonialism. One key way this works is that Native resistance to colonizers is always portrayed as offensive, an invading force. How does settler ideology function within settler colonialism? And what does that tell us about the creation of white settler identity and, more hopefully I guess, how that identity might be unmade?
NE:Invasion is always made to look like self-defense. Whether it’s the United States invading Iraq in 2003, or whether it’s the United States invading Standing Rock, our treaty territory, in 2016, with 96 different law enforcement jurisdictions, it’s made to look like self-defense, and it’s made to criminalize resistance, even in the context of Palestine. When legitimate self-defense is guaranteed to nearly every nation of people under international law, it’s not guaranteed to Indigenous people in North America and it’s not guaranteed to Palestinians in their own territories. And why I bring this up is because we can actually look at the use of chemical weapons, specifically against Indigenous people at Standing Rock or Palestinians. Tear gas is a banned weapon of war. War happens between two sovereigns, but it doesn’t happen between a “domesticated civilian population.” It’s protest against a state. And so, in that context, we can think of John Marshall’s famous phrase “domestic dependent nations.” We are domesticated dependent nations who can be tear gassed. If we were “real nations” it would be against the law to tear gas us. When we think about this idea of self-defense and violence and the settler ideology that mobilizes it, it naturalizes certain territories as expendable and naturalizes certain people as expendable. I don’t know how to necessarily undo that unless we begin to think about settler identity not as something as like, “Oh, it’s my individual identity, this is how I feel about being a settler,” but actually understanding settler identity as being constructed through the law, as being an identity that is actually positioned against Indigenous rights. It’s not something that just exists in somebody’s head. It actually exists in the real world. Turn on your faucet; there’s Indigenous water coming out of it. And so, if we are to begin to answer the question of how do we undo this settler ideology, maybe it’s moving towards something that my friends and I have colloquially called a “settler onticide.” The destruction of a settler ontology, meaning not the destruction of settlers themselves, but the things that grant them settler privileges within the law. Privilege, not like a cultural social privilege, even though that does exist, privilege, if you look at the etymology of it, goes back to legal rights. Why does a settler on Indigenous land, within Indigenous territory, own land? Where did that land come from? This isn’t just a theoretical mind experiment. This is something that’s being discussed amongst Native and settler people themselves, especially back home. For example, there are non-Native farmers, not all of them are white, but non-Native farmers who live within our treaty territories and who are beginning to question their occupancy on our land. And so what does it mean to live in correct relations, not with settler ideology, but in direct relations with the peoples’ lands that you’re living on? Treaties are codified within Article 5 of the U.S. Constitution, which says treaties are the supreme law of the land. That Constitution, whether we like it or not, is everybody’s Constitution. Settlers living on our land are simply upholding the Constitution when they’re upholding our treaty rights to that land, whether it’s access to clean drinking water, our hunting territories, land, education, quality housing etc. Whether guaranteed through treaties for Indigenous people, those are fundamental human rights that are applicable to everybody, but we have to begin thinking about fundamentally that first relation, which is the colonial relation. The seductiveness of the settler identity itself, as we can see in the most extreme forms of fascism arising in the United States or right-wing authoritarianism; the deployment of these tropes of “blood and soil,” the tropes of “This Land Is Our Land,” riffing off of Woody Guthrie’s famous song, which itself has progressive origins, but nonetheless has been taken up as a claim to a collective white nation. It’s incumbent on everybody to really challenge, not just thinking about it as race––racism and the construction of race is very important and it’s very much a part of this process––but fundamentally the primary contradiction, in my mind, is settler colonialism.
DD:A follow-up to that question is just concretely, and there’s no way to answer this in one episode, let alone the answer to one question, but what would a decolonized United States look like?
NE:I don’t think the United States as we know it today could exist in a decolonized future. That’s the politest way I can say it. There are a lot of movements around ending what they call “settler futurity” and saying that this isn’t something that we should be pushing into the future, it’s something that we should be actively deconstructing if there’s going to be a future, a livable future for everyone at all. I’m not one to speculate on the future, I’m a historian, so I move in the future by looking backwards. And so my back is turned to the future because I think the future is constructed by our past. If we are going to think about a decolonized future, one thing that we can begin to think about in the present is to reframe and reshape how we understand class struggle. In the organizing work that we do, and when we talk about class, and where we teach about class, it often.––to this day, even the most educated and most advanced organizers will still fall into a trope of thinking of class as something that is typically the white male worker. And thinking about how even the casualization of labor and the devaluation of certain workers erases class in certain contexts, where we don’t see it. And to think about the food service industry, which I worked in longer than I’ve been a historian or a scholar; over 10 years in fast food, primarily at Pizza Hut. And Pizza Hut was one of the most diverse places that I’ve ever worked. It was more diverse than the university that I work at right now. And I think that represents the true working class as we know it in the United States, typically people who are folks of color, but also migrant folks as well. And so when we talk about decolonization there tends to be a centering of the settler as the focus of decolonization, and we forget that there are other folks, such as migrant workers, who come to this land whose labor is cheapened just by crossing the border. And they don’t have the same kind of worker’s rights as the typical settler, or even a Native person would have, just by virtue of citizenship. Also, if we look at civil servants, people who work for local, state, federal governments, I like to look at the difference between teachers and cops. Teachers are more than 70 percent women. Cops are about 70-80 percent men. And if we look at their wages, there is a distinct difference in their wages, and cops are often paid more than teachers. And when teachers unionize and strike they’re often criminalized. And there are all these tropes about teachers as wanting too much, but nobody questions police unions. Nobody questions the collective bargaining of police departments, and that’s a whole other story. I don’t believe that the police are the working class at all by any means, but just for the sake of comparison we can look at how just these two roles in our society for public service are gendered. They’re also very racialized, but also teachers are devalued in our society. And to me, and to my mind, and to the work that I do organizing locally, we believe that teachers’ struggles are part of this decolonization movement; they’re potential allies. A lot of Indigenous people themselves are teachers, but also they’re the people who are educating our students on this history. And so, thinking about class struggle expansively as a form of decolonization is incredibly important, not just for the context of North America and the context of settler colonialism, but if we look globally in the 20th century, the most successful class struggles were decolonization movements.
DD:You just mentioned immigration, and something I wanted to ask about is, if settler colonialism is fundamentally about the replacement of Indigenous people, Indigenous nations, with settlers, it seems telling that so much xenophobia today is about the fear that the so-called “white race” will be replaced by migrants of color. And then it also seems noteworthy that such a large number of today’s migrants are either mestizos, meaning descendants of European and Indigenous people from Latin America, or Indigenous people from places like Guatemala. This “great replacement” and “white genocide” that the far right is so terrified of, could it actually be viewed from the left and from an Indigenous perspective as something that is not only shaped by colonialism, but that is also itself an act of decolonization given that migration is seemingly making the U.S. more Indigenous?
NE:There is a demographic fear that the white majority is going to be replaced in this country and that groups such as mine, or scholars such as myself, are actively advocating for the replacement of the white race. And these fears of white genocide are completely fabricated. What it does say, because it does important political work, is it says that settler colonialism is fundamentally a demographic project. The problems that Israel is facing right now, and why it’s implementing things such as the Jewish nation-state laws, is because it faces a demographic issue. And it sees its challenge as a demographic issue. It has to replace, it has to bolster its population of non-Arabs, primarily European Jewish citizens, to effectively replace Arab Palestinians and Arab people. That includes not just Muslims, but it includes Christians, and Arab Jews themselves. Returning to the context of the United States’ fear of “the great replacement” or the “white genocide.” One, it identifies this demographic challenge that settlers have created for themselves but two, there’s this fear that somehow Native people or Indigenous descendant people who are crossing the border are going to somehow do to settlers what they did to us. It’s like a reconquista. It’s like “turning the tables,” so to speak. And first of all, that’s a very cynical point of view and it only gets you so far. It’s going to run its course, and it’s going to run its course very violently if it’s not stopped. Second of all, it actually creates a caricature of what we’re actually trying to accomplish. It’s not about a demographic or a population replacement. To undo settler colonialism doesn’t mean to essentially be the exact reverse of it and project it backwards. Decolonization also includes white folks as well, as part of that process. Strategically, we’d need non-Natives and strategically, we’ve partnered with non-Natives in our issues, because what affects us also affects other people. This idea of “the great replacement” or “white genocide” is this specter. The sentiment that’s mobilized by Trump, by Border Patrol, is anti-Indigenous. They are targeting specific people who categorically look, or act, or can be perceived as, Indigenous. And so indigeneity, like any kind of racism in general––racism isn’t static––it’s constantly changing. And in the border regions, if one looks Indigenous they won’t say it outright, because Mexicanness is always associated with brownness. But what also gets erased in that is Afro-descendant people as well, and so we need to also be aware of that question as well. But the way that Trump racializes Mexicans, he racializes Central Americans as Indigenous people. And the irony of it is that when it’s reported on in the press it’s typically when a child dies or when a migrant dies, and they’re not identified as Indigenous. And even other Indigenous nations within the United States don’t identify them as Indigenous. So there’s this interesting erasure where the right is deploying indigeneity as a threat, but it’s also being erased in how we’re understanding indigeneity as it functions, especially concerning immigration and migrants.
DD:I think xenophobia is anti-Indigenous in a broader sense. It’s anti-Indigenous in the particular sense, in terms of Border Patrol profiling and whatnot, but in this broader sense it reveals what I think is a really too rarely discussed thing that’s at the core of xenophobic ideology in the United States, which is a fear that immigration will undo what the genocide against Native people accomplished.
NE:That actually succinctly identifies the thesis that I kind of beat around the bush on. There’s a reason why at Charlottesville they were chanting, “You will not replace us.” There’s a reason why that sentiment goes hand-in-hand with the explicit anti-Semitism of “Jews will not replace us” as well.
DD:Switching gears a little, one thing that stuck out to me in your book is that there’s this long-running and powerful tension between, what seemed to me to be, two contradictory settler approaches towards Native people. One approach is to isolate Natives on reservations, and the other was to disperse Native people into white society through a process called “termination.” And it’s remarkable that this was the official name of the policy, “termination,” to move Indigenous people into towns and cities. But meanwhile many white settlers didn’t want Native people in their towns and cities. And police and civilians alike frequently targeted, and continue to target, Native people living off the reservation. How did two such contradictory projects emerge? And how have the tensions between them played out?
NE:I think that the former emerged first. The idea of isolating or removing people outside of these settled lands was the first project. If we look at Jefferson, Jefferson envisioned the removal of the Cherokee and the so-called “civilized tribes” from the South and West of the Mississippi long before Jackson actually accomplished that feat. It’s always been the project of the original founders to cross that Royal Proclamation Line from 1763. The reason for “independence” was essentially to remove Indigenous people and take their land. The reason why the so-called “Revolutionary War for Independence” was fought was to gain access to Indigenous land while also, of course, expanding the institution of slavery.
DD:To overturn the Proclamation of 1763.
NE:Absolutely. The primary tactic was to essentially remove and isolate Indigenous people into what we now know as reservations. As Indian policy oscillated between isolation or physical extermination into assimilation or what was known in the mid-20th century as “termination,” these tactics worked hand-in-hand. When one didn’t work it would go to the other. Termination, in my estimation and a lot of people’s estimation, had always been a sentiment and always been a goal, but it can never be accomplished as such. And termination has been given different words, nicer words, such as assimilation.
DD:Like the founder of the Carlisle Indian School put it. I forget his name, but it was “Kill the Indian, save the man.”
NE:The idea was when physical extermination no longer was palatable by an American public, then cultural social extermination became the modus operandi. Termination legislation arose in response to the New Deal legislation, saying, “We need to rein it in with the expansion of tribal sovereignty during the Indian Reorganization Act. We need to rein it in with the expansion of governmental powers to tribal councils. And, in fact, what this Great War that we just came out of proved is that Indigenous people served, not as Indians, but they served as Americans and in the army. And thus, like their black brethren, should be granted citizenship and civil rights.” And of course this is a very cynical take. Arthur V. Watkins was a Mormon senator from Utah who was essentially going after large, land-based tribes because he understood the political power that they played in western states like Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, South Dakota, and North Dakota. And the way that he envisioned getting out of “the Indian business” was through deployment of civil rights discourse, and he went so far as to quote the Emancipation Proclamation, to say, essentially, “Break the shackles. These people shall be free.”
DD:It’s quite cynical, because in reality it was a continuation of the politics of the Dawes Act of privatizing and assimilating.
NE:The problem with Indian people is that we’ve always been on land desired by settlers, and so how do you get us off the land has always been the issue. You can no longer kill us, so we will remove you or terminate your political power to essentially claim that land anymore. And so that’s what termination set out to accomplish. They terminated a handful of tribes, some of them are still working for recognition to this day. The Menominee were the hardest hit, losing a very successful and lucrative timber business that they had in Wisconsin. Under Ada Deer, who was a famous Menominee activist who was the Secretary of Indian Affairs and the first Indigenous woman to serve in that role and under the Department of the Interior, she got her tribe federally recognized again and fought tooth and nail. But they never really reclaimed that status that they had prior to termination. The really sad irony is that the next woman to serve as Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs is Tara Sweeney who was appointed under Ryan Zinke, who just left the Department of Interior. But Tara Sweeney is an Alaskan Native woman and also a former oil lobbyist who, as part of her first act in this position, was to take Mashpee Wampanoag land out of trust. And it was the first time that that had happened since the termination era. We’re kind of back on the other end of that pendulum; we’re swinging back towards a really dark time, especially under the Trump administration. The new policy of the federal government isn’t so much to overtly manage our affairs so much as to inscript us, as tools of the state, to begin our own dissolution and to expand the reach of the settler state. And what I mean by that is––it happens with federal preference laws in gaining contracts, specifically through Homeland Security and the Department of Defense. So you have the Cherokee Nation who is building state department buildings in the Green Zone in Baghdad, and who is also gaining lucrative contracts in border security, and who is creating pre-check systems for Mexican citizens who are traveling to the United States, to make sure that they won’t stay here longer. And then you also have Alaska Native corporations who have invested heavily in oil and gas, but are also gobbling up defense contracts and building and expanding military bases in places like Guam, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere, while also investing in the hiring of personnel at these detention facilities that are detaining migrants. And at the same time you have an imposed scarcity in the federal budget, where at one point in time there was a guaranteed lump sum that was always allocated to Indigenous nations under Nixonian self-determination policies, we now have to compete for that funding. And we’re almost like nonprofits, where we apply for a grant to get a new hospital, to get a new clinic, or new roads, and we end up competing with each other in a limited pool of funding. And so these defense contracts actually become a way to subsidize our economies. And it’s something that, as Indigenous people, we see it in our communities. And the direction that the idea of nationhood is going is aligning further and further with the U.S. imperial project, and many of us are very wary of it, but it’s something that hasn’t really broken the mainstream. And in the meantime, there’s also a strategic targeting of our natural resources. Under Obama, and then more so under Trump, the opening of so-called “public lands” through the Bureau of Land Management for resource exploitation, to the reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs along watersheds. Previously, the Bureau of Indian Affairs regional headquarters were organized according to tribal location. So, before Zinke left office, he had proposed a reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs according to watersheds. So, for example, in the Northern Plains, where I’m from, it will be to the Upper Missouri River Basin. And instead of drawing the natural geography of that area, that region will be defined by state boundaries, which is hugely problematic for us because we don’t negotiate with the states for our water rights. We have to negotiate with the federal government, but a lot of folks fear that this is putting more pressure to go after specifically water, because these new regions are organized around watersheds. So this is the era that we’re in right now.
DD:And what about the history of these contradictions within termination politics, whereby Native people are pushed into cities and towns for the purposes of assimilation and land privatization as well, but white settlers don’t want them there. Because it’s precisely that repression and violence that takes place, within this contradiction in termination, within which the American Indian Movement emerges.
NE:Termination removed around three quarters of a million Native people off reservations into far off urban centers, such as San Francisco, Denver, Chicago, New York, and Cleveland, Ohio. The goal of this project was essentially to isolate people as individuals or individual families, but Indians ended up finding each other in these urban centers and began forming Indian centers, where they could meet socially and culturally and be Indigenous within an urban context. We often talk about the families being removed to these places to be assimilated within mainstream U.S. society, but we often don’t talk about how children were specifically targeted. So, for example, in 1969, 1 in 3 Native children had been adopted out to white families. Most of those adoptions happened within state department of social services that specifically targeted those families and specifically targeted those mothers as “unfit” to care for children. The promise was the “gift” of white civilization. The reason why this happened was because these children were no longer in tribal schools. They were being enrolled in public schools, which increased the surveillance of Native families and children by social services, who then began targeting them for placement into foster care, but then eventually adoption into white families. This happened with great effectiveness in places like Minneapolis, Minnesota. And it is partially why the American Indian Movement formed. It was formed, yes, to combat police violence against Native people who were visiting the city for the weekend, or who were just blue collar workers and were letting off steam at a bar, and then were being harassed by police on the weekend and then imprisoned and thrown in jail and locked up. It was a response to that intense level of police violence, but it was also––a lot of the founders of the American Indian Movement were women, such as Pat Bellinger, who went on to create things such as the survival schools in Minneapolis to provide alternative education for Native children, and to provide what we now know as Native Studies. The other aspect of it is, in smaller more rural locations like where I’m from, I was born and raised in a place called Chamberlain, South Dakota. Chamberlain is a white dominated border town next to the Crow Creek Reservation and the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe where I’m from. So when they flooded our lands in the 1950s and then later again in the 1960s, we were removed twice; we were removed by the first dam and then removed by the second dam. And we faced an existential crisis: would we exist as a nation after the destruction of our homelands, the destruction of our agriculture, our ranching businesses, and our entire way of life? Would we still be Kul Wicasa? Would we still be Lower Brule people after our lands were taken and after our families were relocated? And the proposal that was put on the table by the Bureau of Indian Affairs was essentially that we would move all of the Indian services into a place like Chamberlain. And this happened with other reservation border towns as well. We’d move all of the reservation services that were once at the agency headquarters of the tribe, that are now sitting underwater, to this white-dominated city. That means that the children would be integrated within the school system, there would be some integration within hospitals, and within social and cultural life. This is a time of desegregation, and these white rancher families were advocates; they were the ones who were promoting termination at the state level because Public Law 280 granted the right of the state itself to essentially terminate tribes in South Dakota. Some white legislators got together and said yes, we want to implement Public Law 280, which would grant criminal and civil jurisdiction of the state on reservation lands, effectively terminating them. This worked in tandem with the flooding of our bottom lands. So the dams themselves and the floodwater itself was like a literal manifestation of termination policy. It destroyed our lands, so it performed the function of termination and relocation. Yet when the very threat of us moving off reservation into these white-dominated communities began to be a real reality for them, they began to write violently racist diatribes against the relocation of Indigenous peoples within their community. So it presented a problem; “we want Indigenous land, but we don’t want Indigenous people.” Our ancestors, during that time, they were smart people, they understood. They played on the racism of South Dakota and they understood the laws. They understood that South Dakota is this unique state, in the sense that it has the option for referendums. These Sioux tribes, specifically in the western part of the state, got together and they said, “You know what, we need to pressure the state legislator to put this termination bill up for a public referendum and let the people decide. Let’s have a plebiscite, essentially.” Our leaders went around to these white communities and told them, “We will now be living amongst you.” And it scared the shit out of them. I think there was upwards of 80 percent voter turnout in Native communities––I think it’s the most voter turnout we’ve ever had historically––who voted against termination. And then also these white communities voted against termination, explicitly for racist reasons. So it was a huge victory for us, but the context of it is really quite funny and interesting because that’s been a problem to this day. So Chamberlain, South Dakota, where I was born and raised, was one of the most virulently opposed to this integration policy and actually said that they were going to essentially go out and lynch people who would rent to Native people moving to the town. So I was born and raised in that town and it wasn’t a cool thing to be an Indigenous person growing up. There was a lot of racism. And to this day, that high school won’t allow the singing of Indigenous honor songs for their graduates, even though the Indigenous students make up about a third of the school population. And when I was going there there was like five of us. We all just kind of kept our heads down, as far as not trying to raise too many issues. But the demographic shift that’s happening in these border towns is interesting, and there’s a lot of tension. To this day, even the state of South Dakota Education Department is boycotting hosting any events in Chamberlain, because it refuses to honor the honor song. The legacies of termination and the legacies of these policies have been ingrained within the cultural attitudes of everyday settlers.
DD:I’d like to talk more about the American Indian Movement. What was the Indigenous political history that it emerged from? The legacy of organizations like the Society of American Indians, The National Congress of American Indians, The National Indigenous Youth Federation? And how is it shaped by that history and also by this moment of Third World revolt that it emerged within?
NE:The American Indian Movement was one of many Indigenous organizations of what we now know as the Red Power Movement. And actually the term “Red Power” came from Clyde Warrior, who was one of the founders of the National Indian Youth Council. He had attended a speech by Stokely Carmichael and he heard him use this term “Black Power,” and then he almost immediately started using that term as well. And actually “Red Power” was put in print before “Black Power” was put in print. So the American Indian Movement was one of many organizations at the time, and what set it apart from these other groups is that it really came from the lower class of Indigenous people who were living off reservation. The American Indian Movement (AIM) literally was founded in prisons when people were incarcerated, and they were reading about these Third World movements that were happening all around the world, and the Civil Rights Movement, and the Black Power Movement. They formed in 1968, really kind of late in the development of Red Power ideology, so they had a lot to build on. They weren’t really inventing anything. They were just being a militant vanguard of the Red Power movement. And there’s a lot of criticism because of that, because they arrived late on the scene and they had this hot five years from 1968 to 1973 and then they just kind of burned out. That’s the typical narrative. I would argue that AIM was a vehicle, and it actually was a long-lasting vehicle, and it existed beyond the Wounded Knee occupation. But in relationship to these other organizations at the time, I wouldn’t see them as competing necessarily, I would just say that AIM was the loudest, AIM was the meanest, and AIM was the proudest of them all. It had that kind of proletarian militancy to it that these other movements just didn’t have. It was not just thinking about embedding itself in the city, but it was looking at, “How do we unite the rural countryside with the city organizations?” And so it was actively going back into these communities and seeking out, “So if we really are a nation then who are our leaders and what is our government structure?” And going back to those historic and traditional structures of the elder societies of the treaty councils. And so the treaty councils, they never really invented them, they were already existing. AIM just became a weapon of them or a tool of the treaty council. So, if we look at the Society of American Indians, it was an iteration of a pan-Indigenous movement that was really the brainchild of boarding-school-educated activists, but also the grassroots treaty council people as well. They said, “We need doctors. We need lawyers to essentially take our treaty case to Congress.” And so, in many ways, AIM was just another iteration of that. And very much a product of its time in the sense that it was in this moment of great uprising, not just within North America, but across the world. And it very much saw itself as part of a global decolonization movement.
DD: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 deep colonial future by reconnecting to Indigenous places and histories.” How has Marxism informed your analysis? How do you relate a system of knowledge forged amidst 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?
NE:When I first read Capital I was really bored for the first half of it, and it wasn’t until the latter quarter of the book, where he begins talking about colonialism. As you said, this is something that emerged in European working class ideology. Marx was creating a project that was incomplete, and he knew it was incomplete, and it was full of all these holes. It doesn’t make his project any less important, but if we look at that period at the end that he’s talking about in the expansion of capitalist markets abroad, what we now know is colonialism and imperialism, he’s fundamentally looking at what he calls “primitive accumulation.” There’s been a lot written on it, and I think it’s been over-theorized in many ways, because 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. And so how we are racialized and inscripted into the capitalist project is through dispossession. 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. And so this informs my analysis. And I was somebody who identified as an anarchist because of its working class tradition. I read people like Emma Goldman.
NE:Kropotkin, yes. I very much loved Kropotkin, especially the concepts of mutual aid and his study of natural societies and his critique of Social Darwinism specifically. 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. Then I began to look at all of the things that I had been reading around anti-colonialism and realizing all of my favorite authors, Fanon, specifically, he was a Marxist. And the reason why somebody who was a descendant of a slave from the Caribbean could be an anti-colonial revolutionary in Algeria was because of internationalism and this idea of anti-colonial struggle as a global movement. And it primarily circulated through these Marxist, left, socialist, and communist traditions. But the problem with Marxism in the United States is that it has ignored one of the fundamental contradictions that has created what we now know is U.S. capitalism and imperialism, and that is settler colonialism. And by reading the theories of settler colonialism I see the hints of a Marxist analysis there. For myself as a historian, you know Marx is a student of history, and I became a historian not to really glorify the past, but to understand the present and what is required to undo the nightmarish present. And by thinking about these histories, not in this idealistic way, but in a very concrete and material way, we can think about the project that confronts us with decolonization. I do want to say something about––within Indigenous studies itself there is an anti-communist and anti-Marxist tradition. Ward Churchill has famously edited a book called. Russell Means has a an essay in there called “For America to Live, Europe Must Die,” which is essentially an anti-Marxist polemic. The reason why am ending with this is because this is something I’m taking on in the next project. In this moment, Russell Means has left the American Indian Movement. He begins criticizing a lot of these national liberation movements for taking up socialism and Marxism, which is a far cry from where he was six years prior to that, where he was embracing any and all potential allies to taking treaty rights to the United Nations, and by specifically supporting organizations or national liberation movements, such as the Sandinistas. So there’s this interesting history there that I want to fully develop more and look at, and look at these nuances of why there would be such a robust anti-Marxist tradition within Indigenous intellectual histories within North America, specifically, but then categorically look at a place like Bolivia, which has developed Indigenous socialist and left traditions and has embraced, in many ways, and furthered, many of Marx’s analyses. Or looking at Peru with Mariátegui, who is thinking about national liberation in the context of Indigenous people in the international. Or looking at even Indigenous Marxists of the past, such as Archie Phinney, who was a Nimiipuu or Nez Perce anthropologist trained by Franz Boas and then studied abroad in the Soviet Union in 1936 and 1937 to understand Soviet Indigenous policies. But his entire scholarship has been erased because there’s such an anti-Marxist tradition, not just within Indigenous studies but within the U.S. academy, that we can’t look at one of the founders of the most important organizations for American Indians in the 20th century, in the 21st century, the National Congress of American Indians. Archie Phinney studied in the Soviet Union for two years and founded this organization, but what was his story? We are missing so much in our own tradition as Indigenous people by not looking at this. Not just in my opinion, but as a student of history, the most successful national liberation movements had some version of Marxism or some version of socialism as their future society that they were working towards. I think we would be remiss and we would engage in forms of U.S. exceptionalism to say we’re somehow not a part of that history, or to even understand the mechanics of decolonial thought and decolonial practice as removed from places like Africa and Asia, that they’re not important to our conversation. We’re actually doing ourselves an intellectual injustice by not looking at those traditions.
DD:Well, Nick Estes, thank you very much.
NE:Thank you so much, Daniel. It was such a pleasure.