Shelley Angelie Saggar reviews an account of the Standing Rock event which makes clear the connection between the voices of ancestral resistance and those of contemporary struggle.
Nick Estes, Our History Is The Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (Verso, 2019). 320pp.
Published in the run-up to the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s arrival on the shores of Turtle Island, Nick Estes’ Our History Is The Future is a powerful counter to pervasive mythologies that still surround narratives of American settlement. Opening with an account of the true Thanksgiving story, Estes (Lower Brule Sioux Tribe) reminds us that ‘peace on stolen land was born of genocide’ – setting the tone for a text that refutes attempts at Indigenous erasure by connecting the voices of ancestral resistance to those of contemporary struggles (Estes, i). Skilfully connecting an analysis of the specific ways in which the Oceti Sakowin have organised themselves in opposition to the US settler state with a broader imagining of the material nature of decolonisation, Estes’ debut is simultaneously precise and far-reaching in its vision and scope.
Combining deft historical analysis with journalistic flair, the book begins by focusing on the alliances developed across Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in the years leading up to the crystallisation of the #NoDAPL movement at Standing Rock in 2016. Examining the cross-section of white farmers, Indigenous land and water protectors and leftist activists that coalesced first against the Keystone XL pipeline and later at Standing Rock, Estes situates this practice of relation-making firmly within Oceti Sakowin traditions of making alliances to strengthen common interests. From a chronological account of how these alliances were formed, Estes pivots in the second chapter to offer an cosmological understanding of the waterway at the centre of the #NoDAPL movement. Mni Sose, the Missouri River, is framed as an ancestor, emphasising the philosophy of “Mitakuye Oyasin”, or “we are all related” (Estes, 15). Placing Mni Sose, along with He Sapa/The Black Hills, at the heart of how Dakota, Nakota and Lakota-speaking peoples conceptualise themselves, Estes follows the history of Indigenous and settler entanglements along the river, highlighting how settler trading practices created a patriarchal system that enacts violence unto Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit peoples to this day. This violence, the author goes on to argue, weaponised since settlement, has been extended to now characterise the expansionist nature of global US imperialism. The third chapter offers a political history of the Oceti Sakowin as a political confederacy and their treaty-making relations with the US state. This sets the tone for how Estes presents the defence of land and water that culminated at Standing Rock – as self-defensive resistance to an intrusion onto unceded land. Chapter 4 revisits the flooding of the Missouri River bottomlands as a devastating consequence of the promises of postwar development that was heralded as a triumph of Keynesian policy at the expense of forcibly removing both human and nonhuman peoples. With the coming of hydroelectric power, Estes identifies a shift in settler conceptualisations of Indigenous land away from bountiful opportunity to sacrifice zone – echoed in the decision to route potentially catastrophic pipelines through Indigenous land.
The fifth and sixth chapters position the arrival of the Red Power movement in Oceti Sakowin country as a direct response to the tripartite policies of termination, relocation and environmental wastage. The synthesis of these historical episodes into a continuous policy of genocidal aggression on the part of the US state allows for a reading of the resistance that Estes outlines as a continuous, evolving process. Contrary to the myth of the “vanishing Indian” then, Our History Is The Future traces not just an Indigenous politics of opposition, but a vibrant and omnipresent theory of decolonisation that strives to create and preserveas well as resist.Estes is particularly attentive here to the work of Oceti Sakowin women as educators, theorists and activists, subtly but intentionally elevating voices which are too often deliberately obscured. The conscious focus on women and Two-Spirit peoples as central to Indigenous resistance on Turtle Island runs throughout the book, insisting on the disproportionate violence that racial capitalism, settler colonialism and environmental degradation has on these peoples and the material necessity of resistance in the face of epidemic rates of violence against them (as indicative of this, see The Final Report of the National Enquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls).
Estes concludes with a considered reflection on how the trajectory of Red Power and the international stage it built created an environment in which contemporary environmental protection movements like #NoDAPL could flourish on a global scale. Perhaps the most powerful argument of the book is the conceptualisation of Indigenous resistance as an omnipresent process that runs throughout the course of American history. Defining freedom ‘not as the absence of settler colonialism, but as the amplified presence of Indigenous life and just relations with human and nonhuman relatives, and with the earth’, Estes articulates a vision for decolonisation that dually protects ancestors and descendents from extraction and exploitation (248). Whilst the description of this vision is beautifully lucid, the book is somewhat limited in imagining a roadmap for how to achieve this, which occasionally undermines the project of linking up historical and contemporary struggles it strives to connect. In light of the recent outpouring of global solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs protecting their land and water, this feels like a missed opportunity for theorising where these movements go next. It could be argued that Our History Is The Future is a history, and therefore not the right place for such a program. However, the book continually connects the lessons of past resistance with present conditions in order to elucidate ‘[…] what must be done to get free’ (14). This, plus Estes’ central involvement in The Red Nation, a coalition dedicated to the ‘liberation of Native peoples from capitalism and colonialism’, makes the absence of a clearer program felt all the more keenly.
The central thesis of the book is to establish a continuum of Indigenous resistance in order to counter attempts at erasure through narratives that emphasise the “inevitability” of colonisation. An enduring image encapsulating this lies in the discussion of the removal of ancestral remains that lay in the path of the pipeline. Estes states: ‘because Native people remain barriers to capitalist development, their bodies needed to be removed—both from beneath and atop the soil—therefore eliminating their rightful relationship with the land’ (47). The power of this image lies in its inherent ability to make connections to two of the most urgent issues regarding decolonisation: the protection of ancestors (through resisting extractivism, returning remains from museum holdings and language revitalisation), and the safeguarding of descendents (through building kinship relations, protecting land and water and returning sovereignty to the colonised). In connecting these, Our History Is The Future is a reminder of the perpetuity of Indigenous lifeways that defy the destructive force of racial capitalism as epitomised in the US settler state but echoed around the world and essential reading for those committed to both the material and epistemological project of decolonization.
Shelley Angelie Saggar is an independent researcher and museum practitioner looking into the representation of museum repatriation and (post)colonial recovery in Native American and Māori literature and film. Her research interests include literary representations of museum spaces, repatriation policy and decolonial curatorial practices. She is the founder of The Decolonial Dictionary and tweets @j4lebi