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Places of freedom: Reimagining the future of Standing Rock


In the fall of 2016, in a shopping mall located near a small city in North Dakota, the smell of campfire betrayed a group of activists arriving from an encampment at Standing Rock. The group was swiftly arrested after shoppers alerted the police to report the offensive smell. The activists were Water Protectors from the nearby #NoDAPL encampment. Their purpose at the mall was to raise attention to and remind shoppers of the Water Protectors’ efforts to block the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The line was known to have a strong potential to contaminate local drinking water and was recently planned to be rerouted so that it would go through Standing Rock Reservation, one of the poorest communities in North America.

The story of the arrests that day in Bismark, North Dakota, is among many well-documented state-facilitated actions taken against Water Protectors during #NoDAPL actions almost five years ago. Nick Estes, a citizen of the Lower Sioux Brule Tribe and Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico, was a member of the group that was arrested, and he describes the events in his recent book, Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance.

Estes commits to the idea that resistance to projects of settler colonialism like the pipeline, “has always been a future-oriented and life-oriented project, and it is because of this fearless struggle that we survived and we can remember.” Our History Is the Future provides context for Standing Rock by making essential connections between Indigenous resistance efforts in the United States and that of other colonized peoples globally in their struggle against imperialism.

Throughout his book, Estes points out that racial capitalism is an import of European-style imperialism. Capitalism, to Estes, is the vehicle that drives settler-colonialism and both in effect and by necessity causes the destruction of Indigenous communities and the land.

Land plays a central role throughout the text. The fourth chapter, titled “Flood,” outlines the colonial practices common during the twentieth century on the territories of the Oceti Sakowin, areas that are now known as North and South Dakota, near the historically contested Black Hills. Estes notes that “Indigenous land was desired merely so that it could be wasted.”

The events that took place leading to the genocide of the tribal nations of the region are carefully laid out in this section. The bodies of Indigenous peoples were barriers to the state’s capitalist development of the territory and therefore had to be removed. Destroying the plants, animals, and water through large-scale resource projects took away the possibility of a future for the people. Destruction occurred through the damming of Mni Sose (Missouri River) and its tributaries providing for agriculture, an activity deemed by Estes as personifying settler colonialism.

Settler activities like agriculture and water management removed political power away from the Indigenous nations and led to the eventual and near-complete breakdown of traditional Indigenous governance structures including a disunity between reservations. The impacts of the early twentieth century projects, however, led to the reawakening and resurgence of a struggle for sovereignty.

While the settlers wasted the land, an anti-colonial political consciousness developed throughout the United States in the mid-twentieth century. In a chapter titled “Red Power,” Estes outlines the development of a movement that was intergenerational in nature but specific to the current destruction of Indigenous communities and the land. Following the civil rights movement and the unfettered development of resource projects, Black and Indigenous peoples were pushed to urban centres and found one another there. They developed militant political organizations including the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement (AIM) in places like Oakland and Minneapolis.

From there, the groups waged their own battles with the state by deploying political education programs and investing in social projects designed to build pride in their previously suppressed and ridiculed cultural traditions. In Minneapolis, AIM focused initially on community empowerment and service programs. Women played a critical role in all of these programs especially in survival schools. Urban Indigenous youth were taught about native history and culture; parents of the youth were offered legal advocacy support.

Through this work and the tumultuous events of the late 1960s and into the 1970s, AIM members began to see themselves as part of a global group of colonized peoples. The consciousness that had developed in this time of organizing and action broadened to include the struggles of oppressed peoples elsewhere. Political education within Indigenous resistance movements like AIM began to include concepts of anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism—the complete tearing down of systems and structures designed to oppress marginalized communities.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore, a distinguished American professor known and regarded for her work in abolition and racial capitalism, notes in a recent interview with Brenna Bhandar and Rafeef Ziadah that “abolition is not the absence of something; it’s the presence of something.” Gilmore goes on to speak of consciousness as an awareness that “is not just a matter of information; it’s not a matter of facts, but one of developing and pursuing things through a sensibility that shows a different possibility can emerge.”

It is useful to evoke the words of Gilmore here to note the ways in which Estes unfolds the significance and connections of AIM with other liberation movements in contemporary history such as Black Lives Matter. Estes coincides with Gilmore’s notion that while the consciousness and the focus of liberation movements are similar, the particular histories of colonialism are different. For this, he provides us with a workable and meaningful definition of solidarity and liberation.

In his final chapters, “Internationalism” and “Liberation,” an essential link is made in the counterinsurgent efforts against civilian populations by both the United States and Israel. COINTELPRO, the CIA-operated program designed to infiltrate the organizations of both the Black Panther Party and AIM, resulted in the successful removal of political leaders guiding the insurgency. Similarly at Standing Rock, a militarized and weaponized police force met the Water Protectors and their allies with brutal force, most notably shooting water canisters at protestors in sub-zero temperatures, releasing chemical compounds on the demonstrators (deemed illegal by the Geneva Convention in international warfare though ironically not prohibited for use in domestic disputes), and finally using attack dogs to intimidate them.

In Palestine, similar tactics of illegal occupation in the West Bank facilitated by intelligence gathering programs and the brutal enforcement of the Israel Defense Forces has resulted in widespread incarceration of Palestinian peoples. The arrests of Black and Indigenous lives on Turtle Island in their efforts of liberation and sovereignty are comparable to the experiences of Palestinians; in fact, both the United States and Israel profit from incarceration and detentions. The response of both countries has been to deploy militarized police forces in attempts to suppress liberation movements. These actions expose the fears of the colonial powers losing their legitimacy.

Our History Is the Future achieves something unique because Estes situates the struggle of Standing Rock into historical context and gives meaning to the future of Indigenous resistance while placing these struggles into the broader context of global capitalism and imperialism. Estes gives the reader a new future to consider. The smell of campfire, a long-held sacred practice for the Oceti Sakowin, can activate the arrests of citizens attempting to protect the water, but the movement to imagine and create places of freedom continues to grow.

Kimberly Wilson is a coordinating editor of Canadian Dimension. Kim works as an adult educator facilitating an Academic Upgrading class with Alexandra Park Neighbourhood Learning Centre in Toronto’s West End. She holds a Master of Arts degree in Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies from Trent University.


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