Nick Estes is a historian and member of the Lower Brule branch of the Lakota people, one of the three tribes that make up the Great Sioux Nation. He grew up on the border of the reservation where his father’s family lived but was raised by his mother, an Irish Catholic teacher from North Carolina. He says his father gave him knowledge and his mother taught him compassion, both of which helped him through the poverty of his childhood.
Estes was seventeen in 2003 when he finished a shift at Pizza Hut and drove with a friend to Omaha, Nebraska, to participate in a demonstration against the second Iraq War. (He’d learned about political opposition to the war through his interest in punk rock.) That night was his first exposure to tear gas and pepper spray — and his introduction to activism. “After witnessing that,” he says, “there was no way I could go back.” He went on to attend the University of South Dakota, where he was one of seventeen Native American students in his freshman class, and the only one who would graduate.
Though he started out as an environmental-studies major, Estes switched to history after taking a class from a professor who made bigoted remarks about Native Americans. “Lakota people are some of the most written-about Indigenous people on the planet,” Estes says, “yet historians still don’t know who we are.” It wasn’t until he began reading about Native American activism and the Red Power movement that he discovered the tradition of resistance within his own family: his grandparents fought against the damming of the Missouri River by the Army Corps of Engineers. Their efforts were a predecessor to the Standing Rock protests that, for nearly a year in 2016 and 2017, halted progress on the Dakota Access Pipeline, or DAPL. The pipeline, completed in May 2017, carries oil through the Dakotas and Iowa to Illinois, crossing the Missouri River and bringing the possibility of a spill that could contaminate the local water supply. Estes says opposition to the pipeline was about more than just protecting water quality; it was part of a long-term strategy to restore the river-basin ecosystem that supported Indigenous ways of life for centuries and an effort to reclaim Indigenous sovereignty after five hundred years of colonialism.
In his 2019 book Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance, Estes presents Native Americans as a future-oriented people, not a remnant of a dying culture. The Indigenous struggle for survival, he argues, is inextricably linked to the struggle to keep the planet habitable for human beings.
Estes, an assistant professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico, is also cofounder of the Albuquerque-based organization Red Nation, which has fought against fracking near sacred Indigenous sites, opposed child detention at the U.S.-Mexico border, and worked to end violence against Native people. Estes has been an American Democracy Fellow at Harvard University, received an award from the Native American Journalists Association, and coedited the book Standing with Standing Rock: Voices from the #NoDAPL Movement (nickestes.blog). “Indigenous history,” Estes says, “can teach us that capitalism is neither inevitable nor natural. It shows that there were noncapitalist societies, noncapitalist nations, noncapitalist civilizations that were knocked off their developmental trajectory by colonialism.”
In conversation Estes comes across as a revolutionary. For him, Indigenous movements offer a radical alternative to the status quo and “invite everybody to participate as comrades, relatives, and allies.” He says, “To be a good relative to the human and nonhuman world is the ultimate Lakota virtue.”
Frisch: Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s 2014 book, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, introduced me to the concept of settler colonialism. What is it?
Estes: First, not all colonialism is settler colonialism. Most colonialism is a temporary occupation of a place to extract resources and labor. What distinguishes settler colonialism is that the invaders come to stay. They replace the native population — a project that in the U.S. and Canada is often seen as almost complete. Indigenous people here are thought to have disappeared or to no longer be relevant in the present, and, thus, in the future. North American settler colonialism is specifically tied to Indigenous genocide. Canada, at least, has admitted it committed genocide and apologized, whereas the United States either denies its genocidal past or embraces it as something to be celebrated.
And settler colonialism doesn’t target just humans. It also targets nonhuman animal nations such as the buffalo. It seeks to eliminate our relationship with the land, the water, and our nonhuman relatives.
Frisch: Most people think this happened in the distant past. Indigenous people lost their land, and there was a lot of warfare, and then Indigenous people got to keep some land through treaties, and that’s it. But in your book you document this as an ongoing process.
Estes: Right. If Indigenous genocide is recognized, it is relegated to the nineteenth century, as if we’ve moved on from that nightmare chapter in our history. But I have traced four invasions. The first is the fur trade, which took hold in the seventeenth century and led to the annihilation of fur-bearing animals within our territories and also brought smallpox and other contagious diseases.
The second invasion was the railroad and the military in the nineteenth century, and with it came the annihilation of the buffalo, our food supply.
Frisch: Was the annihilation of the buffalo a purposeful act, or was it just greed?
Estes: There’s a lot of debate about whether it happened because of a clear policy or because people just got carried away with collecting and selling hides. I think it was a combination of both. There was a material incentive for the individual hunter to exterminate buffalo, and also an incentive written into treaties. Article XI of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie says that as long as the buffalo shall roam, the Lakota shall have access to their hunting territory. If the settlers exterminated the buffalo, though, they could take that hunting territory. The military men at the treaty signing were aware of this loophole.
The third invasion would be the passage of the 1944 Flood Control Act, which authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to build five earthen dams on the main stem of the Missouri River. Building the dams was essentially a way to provide employment to people returning from World War II. It was a continuation of the large public-works projects that had helped get the United States out of the Great Depression. About one-third of the Indigenous people who lived along the Missouri River were forcefully relocated because of the dams. We lost 90 percent of our commercial timber and 75 percent of our wildlife.
Those river bottomlands were fertile grounds prior to invasion, and there were massive settlements of Indigenous people engaging in large-scale agriculture along the river. The arrival of the fur trade turned these rivers into conflict zones, and Native people moved away from them. Then, during the reservation period of the mid-nineteenth century, they moved back, because the lands near the river were the most fertile for agriculture, ranching, and also just living. When dams were built, the bottomlands again became a place of death and destruction.
It’s interesting the way water was weaponized, first with the arrival of fur traders, who came by water, and then later with the creation of the dams, which destroyed our nations and relocated us.
Frisch: Were your ancestors relocated?
Estes: Yes. They mostly moved to another part of the reservation, although some moved off reservation. The problem is that the land the government took was irreplaceable. You can’t trade fertile river bottomlands for the higher plains, which are good only for raising cattle. So we lost our food supply. In an attempt to replace the irreplaceable, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers calculated our food consumption down to the dollar and the calorie. They forced us to put a price tag on what we got from the river bottomlands: berries, plums, deer, elk. Our food culture was taken away and replaced with a poor, store-bought substitute. Our wild plums were compared to the plums that you’d get in a grocery store. The food we called “mouse beans” was compared to chickpeas by the amount of protein and calories they both contained.
I don’t want to romanticize the reservation period prior to the dams, but as a result of those dams, we moved almost entirely from a semisubsistence lifestyle to a cash economy. We became dependent on imported groceries. The dams forced us to become the consumers we are today. It wasn’t just an economic transformation; it deeply affected our health for generations. There was a spike in diabetes, which had been foreign to us. With the introduction of white flour, white sugar, and white milk to replace our lean, high-protein diets, we had something like a 60 percent increase in the diabetes rate.
Frisch: Today Indian reservations seem to be food deserts. During my travels in the Great Plains in 2018, I would walk into convenience stores adjacent to reservations and find mostly colored sugar water and the biggest bags of frozen french fries I’d ever seen.
Estes: We do live in food deserts. And, at the same time, you can look around those reservations and see food being produced everywhere on land leased by industrial farming operations: monocrops of soybeans, corn — which was a traditional food of ours — sunflowers, or cattle. Yet you almost can’t find a fresh vegetable in Lower Brule Indian Reservation, where I lived. You can’t find a fresh tomato.
Subsistence agriculture is coming back, though not at the scale that it once was. The Lakota and Dakota people have been racially stereotyped as nomads who lived exclusively off hunting and gathering. If that were true, why did we have such a close relationship with corn? Our origin story even refers to corn. White Buffalo Calf Woman, Pte San Win, has corn kernels falling out of her udders into the earth and the water. Corn is the main crop of the Indigenous people of the Americas. And corn cannot grow by itself. It requires tending and care. Photos taken prior to the construction of the dams show that our corn, squash, and bean farms were massive, and every house had its own garden. There was also a large community garden that covered acres and acres.
In a capitalist system wealth accumulates over time, whether it was made honestly or through the forced labor of African slaves or from land stolen from Indigenous people.
Frisch: When I was traveling in North and South Dakota last summer, I was astounded to find that most of the ranches on tribal reservations were leased to or belonged to non-Native ranchers.
Estes: Large-scale farming and ranching operations have gobbled up all the small farms and created enormous industrial enterprises. Wealthy landowners have an oversized influence on how land is used within our treaty territories. In some instances settler families illegally occupied our land and then sold it for a profit. And that money was passed down to those settlers’ descendants. In a capitalist system wealth accumulates over time, whether it was made honestly or through the forced labor of African slaves or from land stolen from Indigenous people.
One out of four white people in the United States is a direct descendant of someone who benefited from the 1862 Homestead Act or one of the other Homestead Acts that followed it. [The Homestead Acts gave away 160 million acres in the American West — 10 percent of the land in the U.S. — to 1.6 million settlers from the East. — Ed.] If we want to talk about wealth inequality, we can start by pointing to this one land policy. And it wasn’t just the government giving settlers this land for free; legislation was passed to subsidize irrigation and other improvements on that land, adding value to it. Much of that land was later absorbed into large land enterprises. So there’s a long history.
Frisch: Did the Homestead Act intensify conflicts between Indigenous people and settlers?
Estes: It did. The Homestead Act was signed into law in May 1862. The Dakota Uprising against the United States occurred in August of that year, in the state of Minnesota and what was then the Dakota Territory. Like almost every conflict between Indigenous people and the settlers and their government, this one revolved around food. In treaty negotiations the Dakota people had signed away almost all their land, so they couldn’t hunt or even farm. They were experiencing a drought. Rations were late, if they arrived at all.
Frisch: You mentioned earlier that the government tried to compensate tribes for food lost to dams in the 1940s, but I didn’t know the nineteenth-century treaties included food provisions.
Estes: Our treaties, as interpreted by the U.S. government, say that in return for the cession of our land, the United States would provide beef, flour, sugar, and coffee rations, as well as annuities — monetary compensation so people could purchase whatever else they needed at a store. This encouraged graft and theft by the traders who monopolized the Indian trade — men like Andrew Myrick, who was infamous for ripping off Dakota people. At the time of the uprising he had gotten many Dakota people in debt by giving them credit against future annuities, then charging interest. He was making a killing. When people were so deep in debt that they were literally starving in front of him, Myrick said, “Let them eat grass.” During the uprising the Dakota targeted him and other traders. According to the stories, Myrick was found dead on the ground with grass stuffed in his mouth. My friend Layli Long Soldier says, “That’s a poem in itself.”
Frisch: What sparked the uprising?
Estes: Several young Dakota men had gone to pilfer chicken eggs from a nearby settler farm, on land that had once been their territory. They were starving and were stealing food, and they ended up killing most of the settler family. Dakota leaders felt that war was inevitable and decided to continue the attacks. In the initial days of the uprising the Dakota people were successful in pushing out a lot of white settlers, but over the course of several months the Dakota were beaten back, forced to surrender, and then expelled from the state of Minnesota. About three hundred Dakota men and boys were tried in military court, without due process, for crimes and outrages against white settlers. In the largest state-sanctioned mass execution in U.S. history, thirty-eight of them were hung the day after Christmas 1862.
Minnesota offered a bounty of two hundred dollars for the scalps of any Dakota people who dared return to the state. The military also organized an expedition against the fleeing Dakota people to punish them. In a buffalo-hunt camp at Whitestone Hill they massacred about four hundred Lakota and Dakota people, most of whom had nothing to do with what had happened in Minnesota. This was before the more well-known massacres at Sand Creek and Wounded Knee, and it is almost forgotten in this country. The operation was one of the first scorched-earth campaigns against Indigenous people, and it would provide a model for future campaigns of annihilation.
Many of the Dakota people who fled the Dakota Territory lived in exile for the rest of their lives. Some were eventually allowed to return to Minnesota, but greatly pacified. Little Crow, one of the leaders of the uprising, attempted to return to hunt and collect food, and two white settlers, a father and son, found him, killed him, and scalped him. His body was later decapitated, and his scalp and skull were displayed at the Minnesota Historical Society until 1971, when the remains were finally returned to his people.
I’m a descendant of the survivors of that war. As Dakota people, we don’t have any connection to that part of our territory, because so many of our ancestors were exterminated.
Frisch: You talked earlier about four invasions, but we only got to the third: the dams built in the postwar era.
Estes: The fourth invasion is the recent North American oil boom. Prior to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, the oil industry hadn’t directly impacted the Dakota and Lakota people, because there are no major oil and gas deposits within our treaty territories. Nonetheless the threat of transporting those hazardous materials through our lands has galvanized us and helped revitalize Indigenous resistance movements.
For us the invasion began around 2007 or 2008. At the same time the subprime-mortgage crisis was tanking the global and the U.S. economies, new fracking technology was allowing petroleum corporations to gain access to previously inaccessible oil. The tar sands in Alberta, Canada, were also being rapidly developed as a new source of oil. Speculation in this new oil economy caused a drastic drop in the price of oil. Both the Canadian government under Stephen Harper and the United States government under Barack Obama participated in increasing domestic oil production. Obama called it the “all of the above” energy strategy, simultaneously increasing domestic oil production by 88 percent while also pursuing alternatives to carbon-based fuels.
Today the U.S. is the number-one oil producer in the world, outproducing Russia and Saudi Arabia. Big Oil has helped lift the U.S. economy and the Canadian economy out of the Great Recession, but it has achieved this at the expense of Indigenous people. Oil pipelines are crisscrossing our territories like a plague of black snakes. The tar-sands region of Alberta, where the oil companies have created a dead zone the size of Florida, is the pit that many of these black snakes are spiraling out from.
We’re still experiencing this fourth invasion. It hasn’t stopped. I live in New Mexico, near the Permian Basin, which is projected to be the world’s largest oil reserve. They’re just drilling and drilling and drilling there. In northern New Mexico many of the Eastern Navajo people have lived without running water in their homes for more than a century. Now fracking rigs built next to their land allotments are pumping millions of gallons of water a day into the ground, contaminating the groundwater. We are at the high point of this new invasion.
Frisch: In 2019 the Canadian government released a final report on 1,200 missing and murdered Indigenous women in that country, calling the crisis a “genocide.” Is the increase in women’s vulnerability related to the “man camps” for the oil boom?
Estes: Yes, and that genocide is happening in the U.S., as well, though there wasn’t a similar report here. Man camps house transient groups of workers in extractive industries like oil, mining, and timber. They aren’t a recent phenomenon. The first fur-trade ports were man camps. They didn’t send white women there, only white men. These men traded not only in animal skins but also in Native women and girls. Rape and sexual violence were used as tools of conquest. Murdered and missing Indigenous women are part and parcel of the introduction of extractive capitalism to our region.
You can visit many reservations and still find the names of those river-trade forts: Fort Yates, Fort Pierre, Fort Thompson, Fort Randall. Some of them became border towns. The town where I was born and raised — Chamberlain, South Dakota — is a border town that traces its first settlement back to Fort Kiowa.
Frisch: How did growing up in a border town shape your understanding of what it means to be Indigenous in the United States?
Estes: I was raised by my mother, who is white and originally from the South. My father is Native. After she had my brother and me, my mother stayed in Chamberlain to be close to my dad’s side of the family. I grew up visiting his relatives on the reservation. In school I was one of maybe five Native kids in my class. It was not cool or fun to be Indigenous.
We didn’t live just in Chamberlain. We moved around a lot. My mom was a teacher and would sometimes have to take extra jobs as a bartender and a housekeeper just to make ends meet. I remember what it was like not to eat and to be discriminated against. My mother was denied credit at the grocery store several times because she had Indian children. She was chastised for being a single mother of Indian “bastards,” even though we had a close relationship with our dad. Native people were supposed to stay on the reservation, away and out of sight.
Right now the towns that border reservations are experiencing a demographic shift. White people are moving away because there are few economic opportunities, while Native people are leaving the reservation for places like Chamberlain in search of low-wage jobs. The elementary, middle, and high schools that I went to are becoming more and more Indigenous: about half in the lower grades and one-third in the upper grades. But the high school still does not allow the singing of Lakota honor songs at graduation ceremonies. There’s still open hostility toward Indigenous people.
One of the largest employers in Chamberlain is the St. Joseph’s Indian School, a Catholic boarding school where young children suffered immense violence, especially sexual violence, in the 1970s and 1980s. My father and all his siblings graduated from there. The school has effectively lobbied the state legislature to create a statute of limitations for sexual-violence civil suits, thus preventing my father’s generation from mounting any kind of class-action lawsuit against the school, even though this violence has been well-documented.
Frisch: For decades Native children were taken from their parents — kidnapped, effectively — and placed either in boarding schools or in the homes of white families.
Estes: Children were removed not just from their parents but also from their communities and their nations, to detribalize and assimilate them. The removal of children from families is cultural genocide. When outright kidnapping became no longer palatable, the Indian boarding school was created by a military officer named Colonel [Richard Henry] Pratt. He believed military training and service was the best way for Indians to become “civilized.” His Carlisle Indian Industrial School taught children to obey through drills and following orders. Most of the children didn’t have any practical skills when they left, only the ability to march in single file and salute the flag.
Following World War II, as more and more Indigenous families moved off reservations, they came under increasing state scrutiny through public schools and hospitals. State officials began convincing Native mothers to put their newborns up for adoption. The state’s argument was something like “You know you can’t take care of this child. You don’t have the economic means. We will place them in a white family to protect them and to give them the gift of civilization and opportunities you are unable to provide.” Or the authorities would simply say, “You don’t have consistent employment. You’re an alcoholic. We’re going to take away your child.” In 1969, at the height of relocation, one in three Native children was adopted out to a white family.
The Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in 1978 to protect Native children, but state departments of social services and foster-care systems are still undermining it. It is lucrative for foster-care systems to take Native children, because many of them qualify for special needs. A white foster family may get between one and three thousand dollars a month to raise that child.
The history of Indigenous people could be the history of the planet, meaning we’ve already undergone not just one apocalypse but several. So there’s something to learn from us about the current climate crisis.
Frisch: If the government gave even a fraction of that money to the actual mother . . .
Estes: Exactly. But that’s not what this is about. It’s a continuation of child-removal policies. At one point the St. Joseph’s Indian School — a Catholic school — got a lot of support from the state. Some Native families still send their children there, because the school provides housing and three hot meals a day. Who can turn that down, especially when you’ve been deprived of those things in your own household?
Frisch: What did you intend to communicate with the title of your book, Our History Is the Future?
Estes: I think I wanted to counter the idea that Indigenous people can exist only in the past, that there’s no future for us. Not enough books about Indigenous people today talk about the future.
In Black Elk’s interviews with John Neihardt [Black Elk Speaks, 1932], he talks about a future for Indigenous people and what that would mean. He isn’t just lamenting the past. A lot of the primary documents I read for my book talked about the future. Native Americans are a future-oriented people. But, as a historian, I move into the future facing backward.
So that’s one interpretation of the title. The second interpretation comes from friends of mine, people who have read the book and said that the history of Indigenous people could be the history of the planet, meaning we’ve already undergone not just one apocalypse but several. So there’s something to learn from us about the current climate crisis.
Frisch: What, from an Indigenous viewpoint, do you see as the answer to this global problem?
Estes: I hesitate to say that Indigenous knowledge provides a pathway to a more sustainable future, because I think that puts too much burden on us to save the planet. And it romanticizes Indigenous knowledge. Indigenous knowledge didn’t help us deal with genocide, ecocide, or the taking of a future from entire generations of people. No human society has any knowledge that could prepare it for that.
But I do think we can learn from Indigenous people that capitalism is neither inevitable nor natural. Many Indigenous societies were not evolving to capitalism. Its class system and heteropatriarchy were entirely alien to us. The split between humanity and nature? There is no word for “nature” in Lakota. Our word for “humans,” Oyáte, is a universal term that applies to nonhumans as well.
Frisch: Earlier you referred to oil pipelines as “black snakes.” Can you tell us the traditional Lakota prophecies about the black snake?
Estes: For the Lakota the creation of the black snake, or snakes, foretells a time of imminent destruction and the uniting of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples to turn back those forces of destruction. I think of a prophecy like this as a revolutionary theory of what must be done.
This is nothing new. The Ghost Dance was also a prophetic, revolutionary theory, and part of an anticolonial movement. [The Ghost Dance was a ceremony at the center of a religious and political movement that prophesied an era in which evil would be “washed away.” — Ed.] At Wounded Knee in 1890 there was a massacre of about three hundred Lakota people, ghost dancers fleeing for their lives. They were starving, unarmed, horseless, and participating in a dance during a period when such dancing was illegal. To dance was to act in open defiance of the authorities.
Frisch: Was there a ban on all Native dancing?
Estes: Dancing was allowed only in instances in which it aligned with U.S. or Christian holidays. For example, on July Fourth, Indigenous people could have a social dance in public under the American flag.
These laws and restrictions were part of the civilization regulations of the 1880s, which categorically banned public expression of Indigenous culture and spirituality. Even our ceremonies went underground to avoid the surveillance of authorities. The ban on dancing wasn’t repealed until the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.
The Ghost Dance was a direct response to imposed starvation conditions and restrictions on Indigenous life. People want to dismiss ghost dancing as a fatalistic, conservative movement that was trying to bring back the “old ways,” but if it was just harmless cultural revitalization, then why did the U.S. government deploy its army against it?
Fast-forward to today. If the black snake is just a prophecy that doesn’t matter, if all we are doing is just praying and revitalizing our customs, then why did they deploy ninety-two different law-enforcement jurisdictions, including the National Guard and Homeland Security, against a peaceful prayer camp at Standing Rock? There’s more at stake. We can’t ignore the potency of Indigenous prophecy as revolutionary theory, whether it’s the Ghost Dance or the black snake. Even the U.S. government recognizes that. Even the security personnel who were policing the Dakota Access Pipeline protests and infiltrating the camps identified this “religious” element as intensifying the protest.
Frisch: You’ve written that the worst insult in Lakota is to be called greedy. How are values like humility and sharing embodied in the social organization of the Lakota?
Estes: I think those values arose out of economic and social conditions that required equitable distribution of resources, from the food you put into your stomach, to the water you drink, to the care you give. The lives we lived required us to share resources out of pure necessity. When the U.S. government took away our subsistence mode of living, our customs remained in place, though we could no longer fully practice them. In many ways the transition to a capitalist economic and social system was incredibly violent, but I don’t think it’ll be as hard for Indigenous people to transition back to a noncapitalist system in the future, because we still have remnants of what it means to be a good relative — and not just to your human friends and family but also to the nonhuman world.
Frisch: You quote Dakota scholar Ella Deloria: “I am not afraid; I have relatives.”
Estes: This gets into why I wrote this book. To borrow a phrase from [Italian Marxist] Antonio Gramsci, I am a pessimist of the intellect but an optimist of the will. I think what’s missing in this postmodern society is sincerity and genuineness, people actually caring about each other. The most fundamental aspect of being human is to care for somebody else. In my angsty younger days I read a lot of European philosophy and learned about the influence that Charles Darwin had on many European philosophers and on capitalism. Although Darwin never intended for his theory of evolution to be applied to society, many have extrapolated from it a grim, dismal, mechanical world organized around the competition for resources.
Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin believed in evolution as well, but he introduced the idea of mutual aid. He said that species more often cooperate, rather than compete with each other. Cooperation is the more prevalent aspect of nature.
Frisch: There’s also symbiosis, where two organisms live together in a mutually beneficial arrangement.
Estes: Absolutely. We would struggle to survive without the bacteria in our gut. To me that’s a much more positive view than one in which we ask only how we can commodify life and nature. We are not living to our full potential because the future has already been taken away from us by neoliberal capitalism.
In a revolutionary tradition, it’s our job to show how everyday people taking small actions can lead to extraordinary, history-making events. Standing Rock wasn’t spontaneous. It was an accumulation of many small actions. It started years ago with fighting the tribal-council government of the Lower Brule Sioux tribe, which sided with TransCanada, the company building the Keystone XL Pipeline. And Standing Rock wasn’t just a refutation of Big Oil. It was an affirmation of life. We took a stand to promote a different reality — one in which we live in community, the way we’re supposed to. That’s the humble goal I had for this book: not just to refute the nightmarish present but also to express hope for a liberated, anticolonial future.
Frisch: The Standing Rock protesters called themselves Water Protectors. What does that mean?
Estes: The Dakota Access Pipeline will cross the Missouri River upstream of where the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation gets its water. “Water Protector” is a label that’s contemporary but has historical origins. My great-grandfather Ruben Estes, the first chairman of our tribe, sought to protect the river. Well before him, the Lakota people refused [explorers] Lewis and Clark passage on the river, because they were viewed as trespassers. My grandparents fought the construction of dams on our river as well. To be a Water Protector is to be part of this long tradition. But the title “Water Protector” isn’t exclusive to Indigenous people. Anyone who entered the Standing Rock camp became a Water Protector, because that’s the way the state viewed them.
There’s a very old Lakota concept, mni wičoni, which is often translated as “water is life,” but I don’t think the English translation does it justice. In our creation stories the first medicine was water — the mni pejuta, they call it. The inyan, or the stone, was the first being that existed. He wanted a friend, so he cracked himself open and bled mni — water.
When we say mni wičoni, we are referencing a deep and esoteric relationship with water. Access to clean drinking water is a fundamental human right that everybody has — not just Indigenous people. This is a universal struggle to protect a finite resource on the planet.
If all we are doing is just praying and revitalizing our customs, then why did they deploy ninety-two different law-enforcement jurisdictions . . . against a peaceful prayer camp at Standing Rock? There’s more at stake.
Frisch: You have said Standing Rock was about more than just stopping a pipeline. What else was it about?
Estes: Last week a friend told me she came to Standing Rock because she was so heartbroken and infuriated by the video she’d seen of the protesters getting brutalized by the police that she was ready to fight. When she got there, instead of going to the front lines, she ended up chopping carrots in a kitchen, speaking to relatives she had never met, and just being human with other humans, just being Indigenous with other Indigenous people. That was something she got from this movement that nobody could take from her.
The great thing is that thousands of Indigenous youth cycled through the camps, whether for a day or for the duration. They, too, had a shared experience that can’t be taken away from them. They now know what it’s like to live free.
Frisch: There’s a high rate of suicide among children on reservations. Yet I’ve read that not one Indigenous youth from the Standing Rock Reservation committed suicide during the Standing Rock prayer camp.
Estes: I, too, heard from a suicide-prevention counselor on one reservation that, during the winter months — which are the most dire months for youth suicide — there were no youth suicides because of the camps. In these moments of rupture and crisis, new ways of being can emerge. Indigenous people, and also other marginalized and oppressed folks, have all these social programs, nonprofits, and federal programs to prevent us from committing suicide, from joining gangs, from using drugs, from succumbing to all these symptoms of colonialism and capitalism—
Frisch: Teen pregnancy, homelessness.
Estes: Exactly. [American Indian Movement leader] Madonna Thunder Hawk has called it “program-itis” — the proliferation of programs that don’t actually get at the root cause. Moments of uprising unite people more than additional funding for a certain program or a tweak to the system. Even though we didn’t “win” the battle at Standing Rock, I think we came away with unity and a sense of renewed purpose, a sense of what needs to be done.
Frisch: You’ve said that colonization hurts non-Indigenous people, too, who may or may not be complicit in the system but are also disempowered by it.
Estes: Decolonization isn’t just an Indigenous goal, nor is the protection of water, plants, animals, and the environment. It’s everybody’s problem. If there’s one benefit of global catastrophic climate change, it’s that it puts us all in the same boat.
I think we’re reaching a breaking point, where movements that offer radical alternatives to the status quo are inviting everybody to participate as relatives and allies. There’s a tendency to pigeonhole Indigenous struggles as just locals trying to defend a piece of land. I would argue that, even going back to the first resistance against European invaders, we were participating in a broader anticolonial movement, protecting other nations of humans and nonhumans. Through kinship making, through making relatives, Indigenous people invite others to join the struggle, to see how our struggles are the same.
Frisch: Tell me about the Indigenous resistance group Red Nation that you cofounded.
Estes: We formed in 2014 after two Navajo men, Allison Gorman and Kee Thompson, were brutally murdered by three teenagers on the west side of Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was a case of what we call “border-town violence,” which includes both police violence and vigilante violence. Border towns aren’t just towns. Some are cities. Albuquerque is entirely surrounded by Pueblo reservations.
We realized that a lot of Indigenous movements were focused on reservations and rural lands. They didn’t reach into cities. But nearly four out of five Native people live in places like Albuquerque, Rapid City, Denver, New York City, and Los Angeles. And being off the reservation doesn’t mean they escape social and political violence or racial discrimination. We formed Red Nation to address that. Our ongoing campaign “No Dead Natives” is a way to show solidarity with our relatives who live on the streets. We don’t call them “homeless,” because it’s a contradiction in terms to say Native people can be homeless in their own homelands.
It’s not that the police or city governments or settler vigilantes simply hate people for being Native. Attacking them serves a political function. It says that cities are not Indigenous spaces, that this is settler territory. Police and settlers participate every day in the policing of Native people, telling them to “go back to the reservation.”
There are some things that only a mass movement can do. We can’t expect politicians to accomplish our goals for us. We also recognize that our culture isn’t enough to save us, that we need real political alternatives.
Right now we’re drafting a Red Deal platform, somewhat in response to the Green New Deal — not a criticism or a refutation of it, but an Indigenous perspective on the climate crisis and what needs to be done to fix it. It includes ending border patrols and having solidarity with our relatives who are incarcerated, because prisons are often left out of environmental justice. It includes demilitarization. The U.S. military is one of the biggest polluters on the planet.
The U.S. military can play no positive role for the environment. Let’s be honest. It dammed our river. It destroyed our bison and our buffalo. Why would we turn to it for a solution?
Right now we’re focused on ending fracking in the Four Corners area [where Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico meet]. The current goal is to place a moratorium on fracking near New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon, a site sacred to dozens of Indigenous nations — to protect not just the site but also the Indigenous people living there, because what’s the point of having sacred sites if the caretakers aren’t able to live on them?
According to a recent United Nations report, at least a quarter of the world’s land area is owned or managed by Indigenous communities. This includes 35 percent of land formally protected by governments and 35 percent of ecosystems that haven’t experienced much human intrusion. There’s a reason why Indigenous activists — and Indigenous environmental activists specifically — are being targeted for assassination in other parts of the world and criminalized here in the United States. Through our sovereignty, we protect the biodiverse regions of this planet. Indigenous people are protecting the earth’s lungs and liver. Without us, civilization would be even farther down the road to its own destruction.