The Regeneration Editorial team recently sat down with professor, author, and organizer Nick Estes to discuss his recent book, Our History is the Future. Nick Estes is an Assistant Professor at the University of New Mexico, a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, and a co-founder of the Red Nation. This wide ranging interview examines not only the long history of indigenous struggle, but the role of women and nonmen in those movements, what would decolonization look like, indigenous internationalism, and more.
Regeneration Editors: The title of your book is Our History is the Future and is in general about the history and continuity of indigenous struggle. However, it’s also partially about your personal family history within that narrative, particularly the story of your grandfather and the resistance to the Pick-Sloan Dams, I was hoping you could talk broadly about the meaning of the title and then also how your family history influenced your writing and framing of the book.
Nick Estes: The place to begin is where I was initially politicized as an activist. It happened in 2003 with the second invasion of Iraq and I was affiliated with several anarchist organizations, because it was the only thing that was happening in the Northern Plains, and it really got me to think about imperialism. I began to reflect on my own family history and looking at the ways in which my grandfather, who was a World War Two veteran and later, I found out, was a Lakota code talker with his brothers. All of them served in different capacities in the war, but they were all Lakota code talkers, minus one. And to me, that was really fascinating history because another branch of the military flooded our lands in the 50s and again in the 60s, so our lands were flooded twice by the US military. And often times when we think of invasion, we think of military invasion akin to the invasion of foreign soil. And so it was really around the question of the invasion of Iraq and US imperialism that I actually began kind of my own intellectual journey into my own family’s history and looking at how indigenous peoples were essentially the first enemies of U.S. empire. In that sense, the title of the book has a kind of a double meaning, one being that our history as Indigenous people being invaded and having our lands completely destroyed by these manmade dams or the destruction of our kin relatives, the Buffalo Nation, could potentially be the history of or could potentially be the future of this planet with global climate change. That’s the pessimistic view. But in the other sense is that, the history books that are written specifically about indigenous people and specifically about Lakota people often have a terminal narrative that ends at wounded the Wounded Knee massacre with kind of the last military slaughter or genocide of indigenous people, especially in the Lakota Ghost Dancers. But we don’t think of settler colonialism as an ongoing event or an ongoing structure, or invasion as an ongoing structure. And likewise, we don’t think we don’t make that connection or that continuity with Indigenous resistance. And so, the title of the book, in that sense and the kind of the productive, optimistic sense is that the history of Indigenous peoples in this hemisphere is the longest history of, I would argue, class struggle and anti-capitalist resistance. And so it needs to be at the forefront.
RE: Can you talk a little bit more about that history of the Oceti Sakowin’s resistance to settler colonialism, the one you lay out in the book, and specifically how that history laid the foundations for the #NoDAPL movement?
NE: Oceti Sakowin history and resistance is often framed as a recent phenomenon in regards to the Dakota Access Pipeline and what I tried what I noticed, and why I actually wrote this book, is it started off as a post on our website, therednation.org, about putting the #NoDAPL movement in historical context with the first invasion of Americans in the early 1800s with Lewis and Clark, which was also a military expedition, by the way, and then continuing on through the Indian wars of the 19th century, the damming of the river in the 20th century, and then the oil and gas boom in the 21st century. And so each of these moments of crisis shapes different forms of Oceti Sakowin history and resistance and also shapes the current kind of character of U.S. imperialism. I say that because U.S. imperialism is often thought of as an overseas project. But my friend and comrade Manu Karuka’s new book, Empire’s Tracks, makes the argument that I think my book is very much in line with this argument, that U.S. settler-colonialism is a form of territorial imperialism and it’s not just an overseas project. When you annex billions of acres of territory, that is an act of imperialism. Just because we’re not regarded by European standards as “civilized peoples” or “civilized nations” doesn’t make us any different from, you know, a sovereign nation invading the territorial landmass of another sovereign nation and then annexing it. Right? That’s imperialism through and through. And so in many ways, when we rebuffed Lewis and Clark in 1804, when they trespassed along our river, we rebuffed them because they didn’t recognize our sovereignty. And at that moment in time, the US was a fledgling nation state. It wasn’t a great power. And the Lakota Dakota people who lived on the river very much controlled the river trade, very much where a dominant force, and had entered into relation with the French and the British and imposed significant economic, political, and military challenge to kind of the entry of the United States government to that particular region after the Louisiana Purchase. Although they “purchased” our land, we never recognized that title to our land because it was made by European sovereigns that had literally no power on the ground and no military power. Of course, over time that changed. And with the penetration of capitalism into our homelands came horrific terror and violence, specifically gendered violence as I document with the fur trade and the subordination of Indigenous women and almost the complete annihilation of Two-Spirit and LGBTQ people within our own societies. And then, of course, that accompanies the annihilation of our buffalo kin. Indigenous resistance, specifically Oceti Sakowin resistance, isn’t just tied to the continuance of anthropocentric life on the land. But it’s also tied to the continuance of non-human relations to the land itself and also nonhuman beings. And that’s something that I tried to foreground, especially in how we understood treaties and how we understood treaty making. And to me, I think that’s a very materialist, grounded history and analysis. And it’s not a mythical or kind of ahistorical analysis, but it’s a recognition that, we as Lakota, Dakota, Nakota people cannot continue without our relations, not just to the human world, but to the non-human world as well. And you can feel the erasure of our sovereignty through pangs of hundred hunger, right? Each of the wars that I document in the 19th century in some way arose around starvation conditions imposed by the United States government through the elimination of our hunting territories and the elimination of our subsistence lifestyles. In the 1862 US Dakota War, Dakota Warriors essentially wiped out settlers because they were starving and the settlers had annihilated all of our game and had depleted our land base so much that we couldn’t reproduce ourselves biologically on the land by growing our own crops, et cetera. That form starvation and fight for survival continues into the Red Cloud war with the Mormon, what they call the Mormon Calf war. When we killed a starving, lame calf on the Mormon trail out in the Powder River countries, because we were starving because the settlers that were traveling through the area had annihilated our game and chased away our buffalo herds. We did what we had to do to survive and to eat. Fast forward to the plains wars and the wars for the control of the Black Hills. They were all about the protecting the Buffalo nations, which then led to the Buffalo nation’s annihilation and then into Wounded Knee when we were forced into kind of dependency on rations. Our horses were slaughtered. Our our game was taken. And so they controlled us by taking away our children, but also controlling the rations that we received. I think it was American Horse who said, making us dependent on beef rations is like cutting off the heads of our of our nations. And basically starving us into land concessions, etc. In the 20th century we had resettled and re-organized our nations along the kind of fertile river bottom lands. Again, our food is targeted because we have kind of this embedded sovereignty in the land itself because we don’t really require intervention from the outside world. We don’t require outside goods anymore. We created subsistence, small scale agricultural economies. By no means should we romanticize it, was still reservation and prison camp like imposed conditions. But nonetheless, we learned to survive on the land and to live on the land. And so when they flooded our land, they flooded our food. They destroyed our food. Our natural food was replaced by white flour, white sugar and white milk, which led to an increase of diabetes. In many ways, we can trace Lakota resistance, Dakota resistance, to the securing of just biological reproduction on the land. Right? And it’s a matter of survival, survival or extinction. So when we look at the current North American oil boom, it has essentially drilled the US and Canadian economies out of the gutter after the 2008 Great Recession at the expense of Indigenous people and Indigenous lands. Look at places like the tar sands region in Alberta, Canada. Essentially all of these pipelines are snaking out from that region that they could access isn’t sticking out of the Bakken region. But the Keystone XL pipeline, which is currently slotted to be constructed through our land, is going to transport tar sands extracted from Alberta, which has created a dead zone in acreage a landmass the size of the state of Florida. If the black snake is the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Keystone XL pipeline, then the snake pit is the tar sands of Alberta, where all of these pipelines are snaking out from. It comes at the destruction of those treaty nations that Métis nations and the Anishinaabe nations up in Alberta, Canada. It requires their destructions for these settler economies, these extractive economies to essentially live. The terms of the war that are being inflicted upon us hasn’t really changed. We’re now just fighting for clean drinking water. We do have this very grounded and, some would say spiritual connection to water. And the phrase Mni Wiconi doesn’t just mean “water is life.” It doesn’t really have a correlation in English. But nonetheless, we shouldn’t have to make cultural or spiritual claims to say that human beings deserve clean drinking water. Period. Human beings deserve access to their own customary food production, whether it’s subsistence agriculture or subsistence herding, etc. Indigenous resistance is often framed as this kind of like very militant, violent form of resistance. And in many ways it has alternated between picking up a gun or picking up the peace pipe, so to speak, in the forms of diplomacy. But nonetheless, it was always grounded in the land and the need for land to continue on as Indigenous peoples in correct relations with the non-human world.
RE: The theme of living in correct relations appears a lot throughout the book. Specifically, you talk about the relations for the Oceti Sakowin with the Buffalo Nation and the Missouri River. You also point to the philosophy of Mitakuye Oyasin or “all of my relations” and in fact in the introduction you said that the book is less about objects, individuals, and ideas than it is a history of relationships. Can you talk about what it means to be in “correct relations” and why this is such an important concept?
NE: I don’t think a society that has stolen land can have an ethical relationship to that land and its people. So that’s the first place I want to start. I start that chapter talking about the origin stories of Oceti Sakowin value systems. In contrast to the introduced system of capitalism. Which is about the profit motive and the privatization of human beings and nature, the commodification of human beings and nature. And I begin with this Pte Ska Win or White Buffalo Calf Woman as she is known. Who was our primary prophet who essentially made us who we are today when we say Lakota. So words like Wolakota or Wodakota, depending on the dialect you use, has been translated as something meaning “treaty”. But in the past, it actually meant “peace” or “correct relations”. And so, we’re always trying to achieve balance and correct relations, not just with the human world, but with the non-human world. It’s the utmost duty of a Lakota / Dakota person to be in correct relations with the world, to be in correct relations with your family, the land you live in, with those around you, and the non-human world. And so that’s the ultimate goal, to be a good relative. Part of the way that we’re racialized as Indigenous peoples is we are mystified as something other-worldly, as if we walked out of a history book, or having walked out of some kind of new age text about communing with nature, you know, as if we’re the Na’vi from Avatar, connecting our braids and downloading data into trees (laughs). You know, something like that, and that’s part of our dehumanization. That’s also part of how we are racialized, because if we’re not real in the present, then it’s easier to erase us and make us not real in the future or the past. And so that’s one thing that I always try to push back against when we talk about what it means to live in correct relations. Now, why that’s a theme in my book is because it’s something that I think gets glossed over in a lot of analysis of Indigenous people and in studies of Indigenous people. It’s either romanticized on one hand or it’s kind of cast off as a superstition. Kind of going back to that Na’vi thing, a mystification. But from my readings, for example, on the hearings on the construction of the dam from Indigenous people themselves is that they would sit there and try to explain, and this has been the problem of Indigenous people for the longest time, why we need things like mice. There’s a whole section that I have in the book about the power of the mouse and why we need these mice to survive. And how a family had survived on mice beans an entire winter because of imposed starvation conditions of the reservation system. But also, the relationship that we had developed with that particular animal, and how that animal almost has gone extinct because of the construction of dams alongside of plant medicines, alongside of different kinds of animal nations. And you can just look at our last names right. Bear Killer, Plenty Horses, American Horse. We had a relationship to animal nations, and it was a very revered relationship. But it wasn’t a mystical one. It was one in which there was co-dependency. And I would make the argument that for example the Buffalo Nation weren’t wild animals, but we were caretakers of that Buffalo Nation. We helped to clear the plains and burn the brushes to ensure the renewal of certain kind of plants to make sure that our Buffalo relatives had plants to eat. And in many ways, we would herd them you know and not as we understand in kind of like industrial agriculture today but it was grounded in a very material relationship to the land and the beings that lived on that land. When you point out there’s the theme of living in correct relations it goes back to that original covenant of Pte Sa Win who brought us into relation with the Animal Nations, the plants, the water, and even other human nations. When we signed treaties with the US government there were articles in that treaty, and I point out Article 11 in the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, that specified territory for the Buffalo Nations and the ways in which we were targeted for destruction happened through the destruction of our relations to that Buffalo to the Buffalo Nation specifically. Because the annihilation of the Buffalo meant the reduction and the diminishment of our hunting territories. We can think about that in the context of water as well. In the resource wars that are imposing scarcity on things that should socialized, or that we should have access to like clean drinking water are instead being privatized and the few fresh water supplies that we do have are being contaminated. Whether it’s by fracking, large scale industrial damming, or the continued theft of that water by corporations like Nestlé, or large scale industrial agriculture that essentially extracts that water for free when we don’t even have access to water. In the current capitalist world that we live in there can be no ethical relationship that capitalism has to human beings and the non-human world. I think it would be wrong for us to assume that we live in some kind of late capitalist society, because capitalism will always invent new frontiers and new ways of privatizing life and we should never underestimate its cunning and its dynamic ability. As Indigenous peoples we can attest to that kind of that kind of knowledge or the ways in which life has become privatized. Even our DNA as Indigenous people has become privatized by DNA companies and has become commodified; our identities have been reduced to a biological agent. I think it’s important to take a step back not as individuals trying to “live in correct relations”, but collectively as comrades, as relatives to try to live in correct relations. And to achieve that, we have to get rid of that primary obstacle which is obviously imperialism or capitalism; not in an abstract way. You can’t just just eliminate the thought patterns in your mind, you must organize material struggle against it in the real world.
RE: Can you briefly touch on this point term, regarding the US as the Wasicu, “the fat taker”, what you say is the highest insult, meaning they act individually or as if they had no relatives.
NE: In our very racialized society we often try to project those racial categories onto other knowledge systems. So for example where “Wasicu” has been taken to mean “white people” when, in fact, it is not a racial category. It actually designates or identifies behavior. There are other Indigenous nations that have words that essentially describe the same kind of thing. For example, Winona LaDuke often talks about the “windigo economy” or the “cannibal economy”; or, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy calls every sitting U.S. president “town destroyer”, because of the behavior of this nation, and the behavior of these people…and its just fun to say. (laughs).
RE: On the role of women, non-men, and two-spirit peoples which is essential in your narrative of struggle. You highlight the specific ways that they led the NoDAPL movement, the specific ways they were targeted for repression, and also the continuing, specific assault on these people. For instance, in the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) movements in Canada and the US. Can you talk about why you made that such an important pillar of your book? And what do you think the implications of this history is for the structure of settler-states?
NE: One of my friends made a recent critique of my book and I appreciate it. Julian Brave Noisecat asked me why I didn’t go into more detail about kind of the hyper-masculinity of the Red Power movement, and specifically the violence and discrimination against Red Power activists who were women or non-men. It’s a very valid critique. I think that’s important to highlight, that we can’t just romanticize the Red Power movement. Violent masculinity was a prominent feature in many ways. However, in recent books whether it’s the Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, and even some more recent books on the Red Power movement itself, they all focus on the men. And I felt like that when we turn to those narratives, we also turn away from certain things. For example we need to talk about the killing and the murder of Anna Mae Aquash, who is part of MMIW, killed at the hands of her fellow comrades. We also need to talk about the ways in which Indigenous women within the Red Power movement have also been erased. And that it wasn’t just Anna Mae Aquash who was murdered. There were 36 other Lakota AIM activists who were also murdered, about half of them were women. They have never made the lists of the murdered and missing because we suspect they were murdered at the hands of the state.
So we have to be careful in how we privilege talking about certain lives over others. I didn’t learn this history about the Red Power movement through Russell Means or Dennis Banks. They came after when I began to study this movement. I learned about it through Madonna Thunder Hawk, Phyllis Young, Lakota Harden, Marcella Gilbert, people who I’m friends with. When I was a young organizer, they were the ones who took me under their wing and talked about the history of AIM. So, I always understood the Red Power movement and the American Indian Movement from the context and the perspective of those women. It’s always a foreign thing for me to see these other representations of it, because it’s not how I came to know it. I try to reorient my perspective in looking at the history, because 19th century histories are just replete with the erasure of non-men. And if we look at the ways in which Indigenous men are overrepresented there’s a particular political project underway as well at this time and it’s to essentially diminish or undermine the Indigenous women’s political authority, as well as non-men’s political authority.
And it was a form of colonization and it first happened through the fur trade and then it happened through diplomatic relations.
And there’s this very interesting narrative from Black Hawk, who was a Sac and Fox leader, in his autobiography he talked about how when one of the U.S. generals came to his people to ask if they could cede land and he said “OK, we’ll send the people who have the authority over that land” and so they sent a bunch of women to negotiate a treaty with this U.S. military guy and he was like “I didn’t come all the way from Washington D.C. to sit down with a bunch of women”. And so this was an active project. I don’t think it’s so much a project of recuperating Indigenous women’s perspectives so much as it is a project to kind of have a feminist framework when we’re looking at history, when we’re studying history, and when we’re studying power because feminists, especially left feminism, is about understanding relations of power.
It’s not about polarizing the genders to create gender conflict, it’s actually to understand how gender is a construction and a machination of power.
And so within Indigenous history specifically, I think there is this gendered element that often gets kind of glossed when we talk about settler-colonialism and the penetration of capitalism. But also, with how we understand our own movements.
What’s most fascinating about this for me is to look at who is remembered in the Red Power movement. It’s always men, what I grew understanding and seeing on the ground is that it was Indigenous women like Madonna Thunder Hawk and Phyllis Young who were still doing that day-in and day-out community level organizing. It never stopped for them. There wasn’t just the high point of AIM and then everything just kind of fell apart. AIM launched them into the mainstream and then they just continued doing the work. They were instrumental in implementing things like the Indian Child Welfare Act . The American Indian Movement was partially founded to end child removal. Most people don’t know that. But if that was the element of AIM from activists like Ojibwe activist Pat Bellanger. She saw child removal: 1-in-3 Native children in 1969 were adopted up to white families. And it was part and parcel to the termination or relocation acts. AIM was founded to combat that and to end it. It was also founded to challenge the racism of the public school systems that these Native children were being integrated into. So, they founded survival schools that taught native languages, native culture, native history, which was a radical thing at that time in the 60s and 70s. And that gave way to things such as Native Studies as we now know it in the university. But most scholars in the academy don’t know the radical roots of that and don’t know that AIM, and specifically AIM women, were the ones who implemented these policies challenging Indian child removal and promoting survival schools. And so that’s partially why I centered those voices because it was such a throughline for me to see Indigenous women and non-men leading the NoDAPL movement. It was a continuation of that tradition.
RE: Looking at NoDAPL and forward, you say in the book that, “…grounding resistance in Indigenous feminist interventions has become all the more urgent.” Can you tell me what that might mean? Maybe in some specific examples from the NoDAPL movement and what it might look like in future movements?
NE: So this was a question that arose: how do we understand customary or traditional governance? If we want to implement our systems of governance and political authority according to our own traditions, are we going to draw from the tradition that’s been given to us which says that only men are leaders? Or are we going to draw from what’s in front of us is the fact that young people, primarily non men, are leading this movement? And it’s not to say that there was always correct gendered relations in Lakota societies or Dakota societies. But there is a striving for that balance. And we’re not buffalo hunters anymore. We don’t live in that lifestyle. We’ve changed.
And so what I saw what was fascinating was that there was a lot more young people who were leading the charge and organizing the meetings, and I believe that it was actually young people that made this national news and that made this international news. And they’re the ones who were literally the vanguard. When people wanted to take the path of least resistance, primarily elected leadership, in petitioning and lobbying Congress and lobbying the federal government to just have kinder forms of colonialism, it was the young people who were like, “we’ve got to do something more than that,”. And so they’re the ones that really kind of push this forward. And so in that in that sense, I think, if I wrote this history in kind of the traditional sense of, “oh, let’s just focus on the braids and shades, men of the Red Power movement” and only looking at men in leadership, a lot of people that I wanted to write for wouldn’t see themselves in this history. I wouldn’t see myself in that history. And so in many ways it’s not a revisionist history, but it’s the history that a lot of us had already known. I think the interventions that were made by non-men in the NoDAPL movement, and that are happening right now for example in the Southwest, it’s all young Indigenous femmes and non-men who are leading the movement against oil and gas extraction in New Mexico. There are men who are involved, but they’re very marginal within the actual leadership. As far as being militant, on the line, challenging the oil and gas industry, challenging elected officials, challenging the status quo of farming out millions of gallons of water a day to these corporations for free. And being the most confrontational and putting their own, lives on the line, risking arrest, but also risking social alienation from these very heteropatriarchal communities that they come from.
We’re not immune, as Indigenous people, from heteropatriarchy. The patriarchs came and they left patriarchy when they left. So it’s become a challenge and now heteropatriarchy is seen as just as untenable as the US occupation of our land, and rightfully so. And we’re not meek in any sense amidst the pantheon of social movements like Black Lives Matter, the migrant justice movement here in the Southwest is very queer, very anti-colonial, it’s led by a lot of non-men even though it’s not projected that way in the mainstream media. And even the targeting of trans migrants doesn’t get any coverage because their lives aren’t seen as valuable as say, children or families. But nonetheless, the core organizing in places like Albuquerque, for example, is around trans migrant rights. The movements are always more advanced, than the society that they live in or the current social conditions that they lived in. They’re like essentially exiles from the future who are alienated because they try to create the society that they want to live in, in the here and now, it’s a future project. And so in that sense, I would say even that the fact that there was this challenge to traditional heteropatriarchy in not just the NoDAPL movement, but the Indigenous movement in general, is a step in the right direction. And it’s actually much more hegemonic in the Indigenous movement on than most people would think.
RE: An important contribution of your book is bringing to the reader’s attention the long tradition of Indigenous internationalism within the formerly and currently colonized world, particularly, say, in Palestine. Can you expand on that history and how it affects current anti-imperial perspectives?
NE: Yeah, I think this is an element that I think surprises a lot of people and there’s a lot of folks who want to distance themselves from this particular moment in time, partially because of the profound anti-communist backlash with the fall of the Soviet Union. And also the profound kind of adoption of U.S. exceptionalism that, “Our Indigenous people are unique. They would never align themselves with Marxist and Communist states.” And I think it’s really dishonest and disingenuous. But also, this was a specific path that was very much different from what other Indigenous movements had taken. Some Indigenous movements chose to ally specifically with North Atlantic powers, with the imperial powers of the world, with the global North. They saw much more currency and purchase in aligning with their colonizers than they did with other colonized and oppressed nations. And so that has to be said because this was a different kind of path that was sought by specifically Lakota and Dakota people and our treaty councils. And so in that context, it’s good to just kind of lay out that kind of field of struggle and to understand that this wasn’t like a hegemonic thing. It wasn’t like all Indigenous international movements were leading to this direction. We can see it with the Black liberation movement. We can see the Chicano liberation movement. That sometimes elements of those movements align more with the colonizers than with other colonized populations. However, what I was trying to unearth or shine a light on was that there was much more political possibility, I would argue, in aligning with colonized and oppressed nations than there is with one’s own colonizer. And I feel that the really robust analysis of nationhood, of decolonization, of nationalism is really happening in conversation with these anti-colonial movements.
And today you’ll see the word decolonization thrown around every which way. But if you just read even the most basic definition of decolonization in the UN Charter, it literally argues that the occupying powers go away. That’s the definition of decolonization. I don’t want to diminish it or try to modify it in a way because it’s disingenuous to other decolonization movements throughout the world. If you go to South Africa and you say the word decolonization, that has a much different connotation, then, let’s say if you go to the Upper East Side of Brooklyn, where they think decolonization is like self-care or something, I don’t know. So in that sense, it has this kind of very radical and militant history.
And what I’m finding out more even after I wrote that chapter is that the Indigenous movement, specifically the International Indian Treaty Council, was very much influenced by the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestine Liberation Movement in general in their approach to the human rights framework at the United Nations. But also in their approach to waging this war of position, this ideological war. Where we understand that armed struggle of Indigenous people isn’t really practical in the context of the United States when we’re like the minority of the minority, but nonetheless, we shouldn’t abandon the nationhood project. And in fact, if the United States doesn’t want to take seriously the question, then we take it to a world forum. And that as Indigenous nations, we have every right to enter into relations with other struggles in other nations. I would say this has been really strong with the Palestine movement.
It’s kind of ebbed and flowed as the Palestine movement itself has ebbed and flowed, but nonetheless, we’ve seen kind of remnants of it like with Vernon Bellecourt and folks like Winona LaDuke. Who went to Venezuela back in 2007 and met with Hugo Chavez and the Revolutionary Bolivarian Government and asked for heating assistance for Indigenous nations in the Northern Plains, who are suffering gouging prices of heating oil in some of the poorest places in the hemisphere. And so Hugo Chavez, through Citgo, actually subsidized millions of gallons of heating oil and assistance. My own tribe got heating assistance! That’s how I actually discovered the Bolivarian Revolution is that they filled up our heating tank in the middle of winter. It had a profound influence on me, and it radicalized me in a way. So in that sense, it’s still meaningful. It’s not like they were providing material assistance to help us become independent, but it was a form of solidarity that goes a long ways.
RE: You’ve recently been involved in the Red Deal initiative. Can you share some more information about that, and maybe criticisms of the Green New Deal?
NE: As an organization, the Red Nation, we support the spirit of [the Green New Deal]. But we understand that it’s a restructuring of capitalism and of class relations. And in some ways, we understand that social democracy can improve the lives of people and create jobs. The main sticking point of the Green New Deal is jobs.
However, we understand that more can be done and that we’d be remiss, amidst a political moment where there is a radicalization, not just within the Democratic Party, but in the social base of the United States in general, to waste this opportunity. So, for example, one of the main reasons why the Green New Deal is on the table is because of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She’s been a firebrand democratic socialist within kind of a left-wing democratic movement. She got her start at Standing Rock as a water protector. She decided to put her bid in for Congress while she was in the resistance camp, at Standing Rock. And I argue it was because of the conversation that Standing Rock created around the question of oil and gas extraction that we have something like the Green New Deal. And so why would we let Fox News, who immediately after that was announced, jumped on the bandwagon and said, “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a militant environmentalist who cut her teeth in the Standing Rock camp” – I was actually disappointed because I didn’t see the left, the progressive left, really embracing this, being like, “hell yea, she is a militant environmentalist who had thrown her lot in with Indigenous people.”
Instead, there was a distancing. And I kind of see this as a disconnect. You know, the Indigenous Environmental Network had a good critique in the sense that they said for decades the indigenous movement and specifically IEN has been saying the only policy that we should be advocating for is a keep it in the ground policy and the end of this current system. They don’t say capitalism. But you can you can infer that they mean capitalism. And I think that there’s mechanisms that are kind of built into the broader kind of movement around the Green New Deal that allow space for radical elements to push for change.
And so why is it that the socialist left in the West can imagine mining asteroids for automated luxury space communism, but they can’t imagine the return of Indigenous land? Why is that more of a realistic political project, and not decolonization? And it’s not to say that climate justice can’t be about decolonization or socialism can’t be about decolonization. But we should make the argument that, and I think the Green New Deal makes the argument, and the way people are interpreting it, is that every social justice movement should be incorporated as a climate justice movement. And I would make the argument that every social justice movement should be incorporated as a decolonization movement. And it’s not asking too much.
What troubles these folks the most, the elites of the Democratic Party as well as the very kind of militant right wing, is that they understand the real history of this country. That it’s a settler colonial society that’s founded on the enslavement of Africans and the genocide of Indigenous people and the continued exile and dehumanization of elements in this society – xenophobia and the criminalization of migrant people.
The solution that is on offer right now by the Democrats, by, you know, preceding Trump and also continuing into Trump, but also the right wing, is that we’re not going to solve the internal problem, we’re just going to create external problems: baiting communists, baiting radicals, baiting environmentalists, which is saying migrants are the real problem, which is saying Black people, Black identity extremists are the real problem. We can say what will about Trump in the way that he’s privatized large swaths of land and has done vast amounts of damage. But we can also look at the last Democratic presidential administration and examine how it created a lot of these problems as well. And we can’t just assign blame to one kind of movement. The Red Deal in many ways is looking at this political moment and this rupture as an opportunity to advance a revolutionary left agenda and to argue specifically for decolonization. So why aren’t we targeting the number one polluter on the planet and purveyor of violence on the planet, which is the US military and the arm of U.S. imperialism, and advocate for its defunding? It’s not an essential aspect of human life on this planet or non-human life on this planet. And it could be done away with. And we can look at also agreeing with taxing the rich, the 70 percent increase in income tax on the wealthiest 1 percent, that some of the progressives have proposed. But we can also look at defunding the cops and prisons and also the carceral institutions of La Migra.
When we say that, you know, we’re opposed to cops, we’re opposed to the carceral system. So specifically, we’re not just saying, Chinga La Migra as a catchy phrase. We’re actually advocating for a different kind of relationship on this land and specifically as indigenous people.
And what we’re advocating with the Red Deal is what we are calling a caretaking economy. If you look at the wages and benefits that nurses or teachers earn compared to fucking cops. See the disparity. The majority of teachers, the caretakers of our children and of our infirmed, are women. The majority of the police are primarily white dudes. But they’re getting paid more and they’re getting more benefits. Go anywhere and you can see like, ‘discounts for cops’. But they’re not like discounts for caretakers, and there is no kind of cultural value of our caretakers. And we would extend that care caretaking label to indigenous people. We are activists. We are revolutionaries. But we’re also caretakers of this land. And returning to that caretaking economy is something that we’re also pushing for. To do that, we have to reallocate a lot of wealth in this country, not just to people who are living on this land, but also reallocating those resources back to the places in the third world that have been destroyed and decimated. And to the lives that had been destroyed and immiserated, just so that people in the first world can have smartphones and that we can have eight white dudes owning half of the world’s social wealth. it’s obscene and it’s gross. And we can trace the intensification of class disparities and class warfare against the poorest of this planet with the intensification of warming temperatures on this planet. There is a direct correlation. So class hatred is warranted.
RE: My last question, and you’ve sort of touched on this, you’ve been reflecting recently I saw on reparations coming up recently and said that if indigenous people were given their due this would bankrupt the US several times over. What would you think the material and maybe also, not spiritual, but ideological implications of decolonization be?
NE: Reparations is not something that comes from the Indigenous movement lexicon. There are several organizations out there who say they’re going to give reparations to Indigenous people. I’ve never seen a demand for that. It’s very distinct to the Black historical experience and the Black liberation movement and there are varying takes on it. And it’s very complex and complicated, and I don’t want to jump into it, much like the perspective on decolonization that Indigenous people have. It’s not that like Indigenous people are saying, all settlers need to go back to Europe or things like that. We would like the white supremacists in the white power people to make that logical conclusion (laughs). White supremacy and settler identity – because it is an identity and it’s not just an identity that people sit around, an individual identity and reflect on it – it’s actually constructed through law, through culture, and has a very material basis. There are settlers who are living on my land. Ted Turner owns two hundred thousand acres of my treaty territory. He is not in the same in the same class position as the poor, working class white kids that I went to high school with and lived in a trailer park with. They are in a different class position.
And so decolonization will be a repatriation or a return of that land, but not in the sense of the great replacement narratives in this “white genocide” narrative that’s coming out of the right – that is more fear mongering. Decolonization involves non-Indigenous and Indigenous people. It also involves the destruction of that settler identity as a legal, political, social, and cultural order. We can’t say that we live in a post-colonial society. When has the 1862 Homestead Act been repealed? When has land been returned? We live in an active, ongoing settler colonial society. And we have to recognize that the failure of leftist, and socialist, and communist movements in the US isn’t due to the failure of socialism itself as a project, but it’s a failure to try to achieve or realize socialism or class emancipation through a settler colonial lens. You can’t do that.
When we talk about decolonization as Indigenous people, we include non-Indigenous people in that conversation. We understand that it’s going to be a hard conversation, but it’s also something that has to penetrate the economic foundations of this country as well the cultural foundations. We have to forego these limited imaginations of settler colonial society, of status quo society. And begin to imagine a radically different world. And sometimes freedom is scary to people. I totally recognize that. And, the right provides really easy solutions to complicated problems – blaming others and blaming external elements.
And I think what troubles a lot of our non-Indigenous comrades, specifically our white comrades when we get into these conversations is that sometimes they don’t like the solutions we offer because they’re not quick and they’re not easy. And it’s not to say that it’s white privilege, or this or that. It’s to say that we actually have a failure of imagination on the Left. And that’s the biggest hurdle right now. And we’re not offering real solutions as far as getting at the root cause. And I think that’s where we’re trying to do with the Red Deal – the best environmental policy comes from the ground up and it begins with returning to the land and it begins with the question of land and our relationship to it and our relationship to each other.