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Our History Is the Future: Lakota Historian Nick Estes on Indigenous Resistance to Climate Change

Web ExclusiveMarch 22, 2019
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As Nebraska and the U.S. Midwest recover from devastating climate change-fueled floods, we continue our interview with Lakota historian Nick Estes on how two centuries of indigenous resistance created the movement proclaiming “Water is life.” Estes’s new book is titled Our History Is the Future. He is a co-founder of the indigenous resistance group The Red Nation and a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our conversation with Nick Estes, author of Our History Is the Future. The new book tells the history of indigenous resistance over two centuries, offering a road map for collective liberation and a guide to fighting life-threatening climate change. Estes centers this history in the historic fight against the Dakota Access pipeline at Standing Rock. Nick Estes is assistant professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico and co-founder of the indigenous resistance group The Red Nation. He’s a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe.

Nick, thanks so much for staying with us for Part 2 of the conversation. You begin your book with two Thanksgiving stories. Tell us each.

NICK ESTES: So, the first Thanksgiving story is—begins with the Pequot massacre by members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which really marks sort of—in my opinion, marks sort of the mythology of the United States as a settler-colonial country founded on sort of genocide to create, ironically, peace. And then I begin with another story of a prayer march that we led in the Bismarck mall in Bismarck, North Dakota, to kind of bring attention to the Standing Rock struggle during a Black Friday shopping event, which was met by police armed with AR-15s, who then began punching and kicking water protectors who were holding a prayer in the Bismarck mall.

And I thought it was a really kind of jarring sort of contrast between, you know, the past and the present, to say that while there are sort of differences between the massacre of Pequots in Massachusetts to the contemporary sort of fight against an oil pipeline, nonetheless, you know, Bismarck, North Dakota, is 90 percent white community that originally the Dakota Access pipeline was supposed to go upriver from, but then was rerouted downriver to disproportionately affect the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. And “disproportionate” is the language that the Army Corps of Engineers used, as if there’s ever a proportionate risk to environmental issues and water contamination. So, at this particular moment, there weren’t any actions that were happening in the camps, and it was largely at a standstill. And I think that Thanksgiving weekend, there was an Unthanksgiving feast that was held in the camps, and it was actually the highest point of the camps themselves, in the sense that there were the most sort of water protectors had showed up. So, I thought it was a good kind of contrast to show that this history, you know, is a continuing history of genocide, of settler colonialism and, basically, the founding myths of this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Your book’s last words are, “[W]e are challenged not just to imagine, but to demand the emancipation of earth from capital. For the earth to live, capitalism must die.” Explain.

NICK ESTES: So, that line is part of this longer section on liberation. And I think when we think about climate change, oftentimes the question of climate change really centers on market-driven solutions, such as, you know, green capitalism, and how do we create markets that sort of incentivize transition to sustainable economies, right? And I think, really, what we’re kind of like beating around the bush is, is that it’s the system of capitalism that led us into this economic crisis to begin with. It’s the sort of designation of certain populations in certain territories as disposable, that has led us into our current epoch of global climate change. And so, when we talk about who’s going to bear the most burden when we transition, you know, out of the carbon economy, it most likely is going to be those populations that have historically been colonized, you know.

And, you know, what’s happening in southeast Africa is a perfect example of why we need to transition away from not just the carbon economy, but capitalist economies in general, because if we look at the history of how Africa has been a resource colony for Europe and for North America, we can look internally in the United States and understand that indigenous nations continue to serve as resource colonies for the United States, whether it’s the Navajo Nation, where I’m living right now, that is producing oil and coal to generate electricity for the Southwest region, or whether it’s the Fort Berthold Reservation up in North Dakota, that is, you know, ground zero for oil and gas development in the Bakken region. We have to understand that indigenous nations have largely been turned into resource colonies and sites of sacrifice for not just the United States, but for the oil and gas industry.

And so we need to not just think beyond climate change and putting carbon into the atmosphere, but we actually need to think about the system, the social system—right?—that created those conditions in the first place. And so, capitalism is fundamentally a social relation. It’s a profit-driven system, whereas indigenous sort of ways of relating is one about reciprocity and a mutual sort of respect, not just with the human, but also with the nonhuman world. And we’re undergoing, you know, the sixth mass—sixth massive extinction event, which is caused by not just climate change, but is caused by capitalist sort of systems and the profit-driven sort of motive of our current economic and social system.

AMY GOODMAN: Nick, last week Democratic lawmakers grilled Wells Fargo CEO Timothy Sloan over the bank practices of predatory lending, misleading and defrauding customers, and its relationship to the NRA, private prisons and the fossil fuel industry. This is New York Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez questioning Sloan over the bank’s role in climate change and its financial backing of the Dakota Access pipeline, which, she noted, has leaked at least five times since it started transporting oil in 2017. This is AOC.

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Should Wells Fargo be held responsible for the damages incurred by climate change due to the financing of fossil fuels and these projects?

TIMOTHY SLOAN: I don’t know how you’d calculate that, Congresswoman.

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Say, from spills or when we have to reinvest in infrastructure, building sea walls from the erosion of infrastructure, or cleanups, wildfires, etc.

TIMOTHY SLOAN: Related to that pipeline? I’m not aware that there’s been any of what you described that’s occurred related to that pipeline.

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: How about the cleanups from the leaks of the Dakota Access pipeline?

TIMOTHY SLOAN: I’m not aware of the leaks associated with the Dakota Access pipeline.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is Wells Fargo CEO Timothy Sloan. Nick Estes, can you illuminate us on the leaks around the Dakota Access pipeline since the Energy Transfer Partners succeeded in having it completely built, including digging under the Missouri River, the longest river in North America?

NICK ESTES: Right. So, there have been six leaks. There was actually a leak when—before the pipeline was actually finished. And, you know, they have to put oil in it before it’s even finished, so there was oil sitting in it that started leaking, right? And since the Dakota Access pipeline has been built, there have been six or more leaks—six that we know about. But we can look at the Keystone pipeline, that was built in—not the Keystone XL, but the Keystone pipeline, that was built in the eastern half of North Dakota and South Dakota, and it leaked over half a million gallons just outside the Sisseton Wahpeton Reservation in northeastern South Dakota. And that alone has—the environmental damage to the land has not been sort of adequately assessed. And partially that has to do with, you know, the fact that there wasn’t a cleanup response, an emergency cleanup response, that was on site that could deal with it. I think it was reported, and it took several hours for the emergency management to sort of address it. And so, when we talk about pipeline leaks, oftentimes industry is kind of peddling this myth that they will be, you know, responsive, and they will be—they will be there within minutes of a pipeline leak, and oftentimes these leaks go on for hours, you know, eight hours sometimes, without even notice. And we don’t even know the minor leaks that are happening in the oil pipelines. And so, not only do pipelines leak, you know, it’s how they’re transported in the first place. And even with cargo and rail transport, there’s also a danger that they will explode. So, the risks of these pipelines are always externalized, as, you know, Ocasio-Cortez points out, on to the public to pay for them.

And we can think about this on a global scale, as well, in thinking about how the Global South is really paying for the consumption of oil and gas in the Global North, you know, by experiencing the most devastating effects of climate change. And we can even go and look at, like, why—you know, when Ilhan Omar questioned Elliott Abrams about his horrible human rights record in Latin America and promoting sort of coup attempts elsewhere. We can look—we can make those connections with the current attempts of the Trump administration to overthrow the democratically elected government of Venezuela as going back to, you know, the North American oil boom, which dropped the prices of oil across the globe in an attempt to not just boycott Venezuelan oil, but to actually strangle the Venezuelan economy. And so, in many ways, the extraction and transportation of oil is directly linked to the sort of imperial projects abroad, where the United States is not only just interested in drilling its way out of the Great Recession, but it’s using it as a political sort of way to continue its boycott of Venezuelan oil, but also the sanctions on Venezuela itself. And so, I believe, you know, Winona LaDuke, my friend, has made these connections in the past, but we have to think about these pipeline struggles in a global geopolitical context, as well as understanding that these pipelines are transporting oil oftentimes to a global market, and therefore they’re transnational projects, as well. And they’re not just affecting the indigenous communities of where they’re being built, but they’re also affecting people throughout the globe.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about this growing resistance to pipeline after pipeline. You mentioned Winona LaDuke of the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota, who was also at Standing Rock, We interviewed her there. She had pitched her teepee in the Red Warrior Camp. And she said, “I’m not going to spend my life protesting one pipeline after another.”


AMY GOODMAN: But what about this ongoing resistance to pipelines throughout the United States and Canada? I want to go to President Trump, right after he was inaugurated, announcing the pair of presidential memorandums to revive the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines, the two major projects halted by the Obama administration following massive resistance from indigenous and environmental groups.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This is with regard to the construction of the Keystone pipeline, something that’s been in dispute and is subject to a renegotiation of terms by us. We’re going to renegotiate some of the terms. And if they’d like, we’ll see if we can get that pipeline built. A lot of jobs, 28,000 jobs, great construction jobs. … This is with respect to the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline, Dakota Access pipeline, again, subject to terms and conditions to be negotiated by us.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is President Trump, newly inaugurated, announcing that he was moving forward with the Dakota Access pipeline and he was reviving the Keystone XL. The significance of this, Professor Estes?

NICK ESTES: So, if we go back to 2014, Obama was the—one of six sitting presidents to actually visit an Indian reservation during his time in office, and he actually visited Standing Rock during their Flag Day powwow and met with then-Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault III [II]. And so, he made a promise to youth at that particular powwow that he would—you know, that we would put our minds together to make what’s best for the future generations, you know, citing Sitting Bull, one of the Lakota leaders of resistance in the 19th century. And, you know, the Dakota Access pipeline, when it came down from the Bakken oil region, it was those Standing Rock youth who ran to Washington D.C., hoping that Obama would live up to his promise to listen to the youth, the indigenous youth. And, you know, from what we know now, it’s that we don’t know if he was even listening. And so, in many ways, you know, Obama couldn’t really halt the construction of the pipeline. Towards the end of his term, I know that there was—there was an order to halt the construction and a mandated environmental review. But, by and large, you know, his administration was a failure to uphold sort of that promise to indigenous people.

And so, if Obama’s administration is a failure, then the Trump administration is an absolute catastrophe for indigenous nations in the United States, because, you know, Trump has intensified the oil and gas extraction, not just in the Bakken region, but here in the Four Corners area, in the Permian Basin in western Texas and parts of New Mexico. Oil production has just increased, and he’s using the Bureau of Land Management to, essentially, sell off, sometimes for dollars on the acre, indigenous land or public lands, as we know it now, which is really just stolen indigenous land, to the highest bidder. And when we talk about pipelines—right?—and we talk about oil and gas production, we really have to talk about the source of those pipelines. And here, you know, in the Southwest region, it’s the Permian Basin and the Four Corners region, where there’s been extensive fracking and oil and gas development.

But also, what’s happening now with the Keystone XL pipeline is very interesting. I’m from South Dakota originally, born and raised. And, you know, the governor of South Dakota introduced—Kristi Noem introduced a series of anti-protest legislation bills specifically targeting water protectors in South Dakota who may be protesting the Keystone XL pipeline. And the interesting thing about that—and we can go back to the Standing Rock protest—is that these states have contentious relations with tribal nations to begin with, right? We didn’t sign treaties with the state governments, but yet the state governments participate in the continued criminalization of indigenous people for trying to uphold our treaty rights. And so, why are we criminals, you know, and activists, who are just trying to protect land and water? And when we go back to the treaties, in like the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, which the Keystone XL pipeline contravenes and trespasses through treaty-protected territory of the Great Sioux Reservation, we’re not asking the state of South Dakota to do anything radical. We’re not asking nonindigenous people to do anything radical. All we’re asking them to do is to uphold their own Constitution. Your government signed the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty with us. It’s your responsibility to uphold that treaty, as well. And, you know, your own Constitution says that treaties are the supreme law of the land.

And what we’re finding out with a lot of these ranchers and white communities is that they have no say over the construction of these pipelines. They have no say of whether or not they’re going to be built on their land, because TransCanada is using state governments to condemn property and to create rights of way through their land. And so now they’re turning to indigenous communities, and they’re turning to treaty rights, and understanding that it’s treaty rights, and specifically indigenous rights, that really protect everyone’s rights when it comes to environmental justice issues. And so, while there is this kind of adverse effect of the continued criminalization of water protectors, whether it’s in Louisiana, whether it’s in North Dakota, or even in Canada with the Unist’ot’en, the eviction of the Unist’ot’en resistance camp in Wet’suwet’en territory, or whether it’s in South Dakota and the criminalization of water protectors there, we can understand that there is also a growing alliance with nonindigenous communities who are seeing value in indigenous rights, and specifically treaty rights. And, to me, that is the most hopeful sort of sign of this current resistance movement, is that indigenous rights are at the forefront, because they protect everybody’s rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Nick Estes, you focus on seven historical moments of resistance in your new book, Our History Is the Future. You say they form a historical road map for collective liberation. How did you choose these histories? Just quickly take us through them.

NICK ESTES: Sure. So, I begin at the camps. I begin in the present, you know, at Standing Rock. And then I go to the fur trade with the first U.S. invasion, which was Lewis and Clark, who came through—who trespassed through our territory and were stopped by our leadership. And then I go through the Indian Wars of the 19th century and the buffalo genocide. And then I go into talking about the damming of the Missouri River in the mid-20th century, and then looking at Red Power in the 1960s and in the 1970s and how all of these indigenous people, who were relocated because their lands were flooded by these dams, eventually found themselves and created sort of the modern indigenous movement, known as Red Power, and then looking—going back and ending actually at Standing Rock in 1974, with the creation of the International Indian Treaty Council, which really coalesced these generations of indigenous resistance and took the treaties, the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, to the world and to the United Nations. And to do that, they looked to Palestinians, they looked to the South African anti-apartheid movement, who provided the mechanisms for recognition of indigenous rights at the United Nations. And that all resulted, over four decades, in the touchstone document, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was passed by the U.N. in 2007.

And so, in many ways, when we look at Standing Rock, and we look at—if we go down flag row and we see the hundreds of tribal nation flags that were represented in 2016 and 2017, we also saw the Palestinian flag that was there, kind of hearkening back to that international solidarity with movements of the Global South, and specifically our Palestinian relatives, who, you know, today are still facing—much like us, are still facing the brunt and the brutality of settler colonialism, whether it’s, you know, the United States recognizing the annexation of the Golan Heights or whether it’s, you know, here in North America and the continued dispossession of indigenous territory and rights. We can see that settler colonialism in Israel—or, in Palestine, is really an extension of settler colonialism in North America.

And so—and then I end, you know, with—back at the camps and looking at how these camps really provided—you know, I actually look at a physical map that was handed out to water protectors who came to the camp. And on that map there was, you know, where to find food, where to find the clinics—right?—and where to find the security, and all the camps that were represented at Standing Rock. And, to me, that provided, you know, a kind of interesting parallel to the world that surrounded the camps, which was 90—you know, some 92 different law enforcement jurisdictions. You had the North Dakota National Guard, the world of cops, the world of the militarized sort of police state. And in the camps themselves you had sort of the primordial sort of beginnings of what a world premised on indigenous justice might look like. And in that world, you know, everyone got free food. There was a place for everyone. You know, the housing, obviously, was transient housing and teepees and things like that, but then also there was health clinics to provide healthcare, alternative forms of healthcare, to everyone. And so, if we look at that, it’s housing, education—all for free, right?—a strong sense of community. And for a short time, there was free education at the camps, right? Those are things that most poor communities in the United States don’t have access to, and especially reservation communities.

But given the opportunity to create a new world in that camp, centered on indigenous justice and treaty rights, society organized itself according to need and not to profit. And so, where there was, you know, the world of settlers, settler colonialism, that surrounded us, there was the world of indigenous justice that existed for a brief moment in time. And in that world, instead of doing to settler society what they did to us—genociding, removing, excluding—there’s a capaciousness to indigenous resistance movements that welcomes in nonindigenous peoples into our struggle, because that’s our primary strength, is one of relationality, one of making kin, right?

AMY GOODMAN: Nick Estes, assistant professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico, author of the new book Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance. He’s co-founder of the indigenous resistance group The Red Nation and a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe.

To see Part 1 of our conversation, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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