Power Moves Through People: An Interview with Nick Estes

By Sam RibakoffMarch 15, 2019

Power Moves Through People: An Interview with Nick Estes
IF YOU STRIPPED AWAY the dates and any mention of South Dakota from the first chapter of Nick Estes’s new book, Our History Is the Future, you could almost swap the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline for similar scenes during the Ferguson uprising of 2014, or the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011, or a melee from the occupied Palestinian territories, or a little more abstractly, scenes from any number of Native American massacres throughout US history. That’s the point.

Estes is a professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico, who grew up in Chamberlin, South Dakota, as a member of the Lower Brule Sioux tribe. His book connects the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access oil pipeline to a longer history of indigenous resistance to colonialism, and the wave of global protests from the Arab Spring to Black Lives Matter. He spoke from his home in New Mexico.


SAM RIBAKOFF: A lot of your book is about connecting resistance and activists movements across time and space, and one of the lines in the book that really stuck out to me was a quote from Phyllis Young, a former American Indian Movement member, where she describes her homeland as a “national sacrifice area” for hydroelectricity infrastructure that brings electricity to Chicago and Minneapolis. I’ve been doing a lot of research on the history of the environmental justice movement, and an important figure in that movement is sociologist Robert Bullard, who describes African-American neighborhoods in the South, who disproportionately live in communities with toxic waste sites and toxic industries, as the country’s “national sacrifice zone.”

NICK ESTES: Settler colonialism is an interesting framework because it’s not just about thinking about land as something that can produce value, but land and people that are thought of as disposable. In that instance of what Phyllis Young was talking about, our land was desired in the sense that it couldn’t produce wealth, it was desired in the sense that it could be wasted and destroyed, in this sense it could be flooded. In mid-20th-century history, indigenous land was desired to be wasted. Some of this comes out of Nixon and his thinking of the West as for uranium mining. If you look at the development of atomic weaponry in New Mexico, where I live, it’s a national sacrifice zone, too. The full cycle of nuclear development, extraction of uranium, the production of uranium, the testing of nuclear weapons, and the storage of depleted uranium and nuclear waste all happens here. It’s not happening in Santa Fe. The storage and testing of this uranium is going on in poor racialized communities. If we think about the Flint water crisis, it’s externalizing the environmental impact of capitalist developments specifically onto poor communities themselves. On the ground in Standing Rock, those connections were being made. If you look at the full production of oil and gas, it’s really fascinating. We always see the end-stage product driving around in a truck, but if you look at the whole chain of production, whether it’s the fracking rigs, or the oil wells, they’re often in the heart of indigenous communities, whether it’s the Athabasca tar sands in Canada, or the Bakken oil region on the Fort Berthold Reservation. Then the oil trespasses through indigenous lands, putting indigenous water at risk. Then you go down to Houston and you go into these oil refineries, and it’s literally just 10 miles of oil fields. You go there and see these oil fields are surrounding poor Latino and Mexican-American communities, and the air literally smells like chlorine. It’s almost the same feeling you get where you’re out in a region where there’s fracking. Those oil refineries are not accidentally placed around poor Mexican-American communities, it’s a purposeful orientation.

Rob Nixon has this idea of “slow violence,” or how environmental racism isn’t just experienced in one moment of violence, but it’s actually experienced over generations, and it’s a slow accumulation of violence. In this community in Houston, it’s the increased rates of cancer and respiratory diseases. In Flint, it’s the lead poisoning affecting generations. That’s something that I was trying to get to in my book, when you’re trying to understand what it’s like living on a river that’s damned, or a river that’s dead. You can’t drink the water that’s in that river. I think now we have another generation that lives with the threat of oil contamination of their water because of an oil pipeline, and the looming threat of another pipeline, the Keystone XL Pipeline, running through the heartlands of the Great Sioux Reservation.

You grew up in South Dakota, but were you living in the area when the protests at Standing Rock started?

No, I was living in Albuquerque, then I went to Standing Rock when it started popping off. Then I was just kind of back and forth to Standing Rock from August to late November [of 2016]. It was hard to be away from it. But I didn’t stop being involved. I just got involved with the solidarity for Standing Rock movement. There were several thousand people in the streets in solidarity with Standing Rock in Chicago, and that was really powerful to see. Because Standing Rock wasn’t isolated in just one geographical location. It was a movement that spread throughout North America.

Were you surprised how much solidarity there was for the Standing Rock protests outside of native communities?

I don’t really talk about this in the book, but there was the Trump campaign that had galvanized a large resistance movement in the United States, and kind of like a new disillusionment. But once Trump was elected, it took a lot of people by surprise, there wasn’t any mass resistance movement going on in the United States at the time, except for at Standing Rock. After that election, the numbers in the camps just increased astronomically, because people were looking for a movement to be a part of. When I went back to the camp after Thanksgiving, the camp was just massive. I want to say it at least doubled in size, and there were a lot more non-indigenous people there than before. That really tells you something. It tells you something that someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went to Standing Rock after the election and really became inspired by the movement to run for Congress, she says this in a lot of her interviews. I would trace the origins of the resistance against Trump to Standing Rock itself. I think it galvanized a consciousness in non-indigenous people, that indigenous struggles are literally the tip of the spear for environmental justice in the United States. I would say that the origins of her policy, “The Green New Deal,” originated from those experiences as well.

In the book, you’re really adamant about centering women and “two-spirit people” as important to keeping the Standing Rock protest going. Can you talk about that? 

When I was introduced to the American Indian Movement, I was introduced by plains grandmothers, such as Madonna Thunder Hawk and Phyllis Young. I always understood the American Indian Movement as organized, created, and kept afloat by indigenous women themselves. When you read modern interpretations of that era, it’s always about the men. You get this really warped idea of indigenous society as really dominated by men, much like Western society, but if you know the history, if you know the oral traditions, and if you know our societies and cultures, that’s just simply not the truth. We can see that in the ways, going back to the fur trade, that native men were used often as agents of empire, to undermine kinship and the traditional authoratativeship of women. When we look at the way the fur trade enclosed around the Missouri River basin, it did so through the use of men as interlocutors, and it did so through taking women for use of their kin networks for trade. Indigenous women’s bodies were literally used as a way to expand capitalist markets within the Missouri River basin and elsewhere. During the protest you had this rebirth of the Two-Spirit nation, which is kind of like an umbrella term for the LGBT community in indigenous nations, centering their leadership in camp life itself. Them having a seat within the council was really historic. Just in my own experience as an organizer, indigenous women, femmes, and two-spirit people constitute the leadership of most activist organizations in indigenous communities throughout the country, much like Idle No More or the Black Lives Matter movement. Again, it’s not to say that indigenous societies are utopias — we do have sexism and homophobia within our own communities — but this was a moment of reckoning, to deal with it in a democratic, collective way by centering these voices and experiences. It was also this moment when we invited non-natives into our space to defend land and treaty rights and to defend indigenous rights. These are moments when I think we can really see the limitations of certain kinds of reformist movements. Power moves through people, it doesn’t move through policy, it doesn’t move through just electing people to power. Those ideas and the kind of theoretical weight behind them originate from the ground up.

Since Trump’s election, and since the last violent removal of the Standing Rock protesters and encampment, what’s been going on at Standing Rock? Did the protests serve as like a rebirth of native activist movements?

Just because this region isn’t making headlines doesn’t mean nothing is going on. There is a lot of mobilization around the Keystone XL Pipeline, which is the sister pipeline to Dakota Access. It was defeated under Obama, and then, like a zombie, it rose from the grave, and now it’s threatening our communities once again. It’s going to cut right through the heart of the Great Sioux Reservation. They’ve already built cities out in the middle of nowhere with the expectation that pipeline workers will live there, and once those workers leave they’ll be holding facilities for activists that get arrested. This is all going on in South Dakota right now. There’s a divestment campaign going on against TransCanada to urge its investors to not just divest from fossil fuels and TransCanada itself, but to reinvest in sustainable energy in tribal communities. In the meantime, we’re preparing for what will inevitably be another standoff with the state governments of South Dakota and Montana. Construction is supposed to start in June of this year. The Canadian part of the pipeline has already been built, they’re just waiting for the US part. Standing Rock wasn’t a defeat; I think it was a lesson. It is about stopping these pipelines being built, but it’s also a long-term struggle. Just because Obama denied the Keystone XL permit doesn’t mean it’s going to go away. This isn’t going to go away by just defeating one pipeline. This is a system, it’s not just a single-issue struggle. What’s been happening back home is this kind of long-term envisioning, of not just stopping pipelines, but reclaiming and restoring watersheds and indigenous lands, and what that will look like for non-indigenous people, too. So there’re conversations with white landowners, and workers, who do have a vested interest in decolonization. Having these broader visions of social change are important. These conversations are happening, but the media would rather talk about Elizabeth Warren’s heritage, or, of course, Trump. Trump really sucks the air out of the room. This Trump narrative creates this “are you for or against Trump” dichotomy, but leaves out how his policies are really a continuation of Obama-era policies, and policies around public lands, which are stolen native lands.

The last line of the book is: “[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.” Who are you speaking to there?

I wrote this book for my 16-year-old self. I needed a book like this when I was growing up in Chamberlin, like I didn’t know that native people wrote. I didn’t know that native people wrote about their experiences. I didn’t know that native people were leftists, or could be activists. I was politicized by the antiwar moment when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. I went to my first protest in Omaha. I was politicized in that moment, and I had no way to think through the things I was experiencing. Experiencing tear gas and pepper spray during that protest, which ended with police beating people over the head, and me not having a way to really process what I was seeing or what I was feeling. I read Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein because that’s what my skater friends from other places were reading. I always wondered why there wasn’t an indigenous author that I could read. Later of course I found out there were indigenous authors, like Elizabeth Cook-Lynn and Vine Deloria, who are two of my inspirations. I wrote it for myself because I didn’t know how historically loaded imperialism was, and I didn’t know that it affected my people first and foremost, and how this system was exported to the rest of the world. Later, I found people like Elizabeth Cook-Lynn who were connecting the war in Iraq to the Indian Wars of the 19th century, specifically against the Lakota and Dakota people. That doesn’t mean that this book is just for Lakota dudes like myself; it’s written for a general audience, and it’s written for my peers. I hope people pick this up, not knowing anything about us, and learning about our struggles, and connecting this to the broader history of global imperialism, and US imperialism specifically. It’s specifically for a younger generation who are starting to become politicized and trying to understand this world. Hopefully these stories will have meaning to them and have resonance to global struggles, whether it be the MST in Brazil, or Palestinian refugees, these stories will hopefully resonate as an international story. And the last line of the book is actually hecetu welo, which is Lakota for, “It is said,” or, “My truth,” or, “That’s it. Take it or leave it.”


Sam Ribakoff is a writer/reporter and documentary filmmaker from Long Beach, California.

LARB Contributor

Sam Ribakoff is a journalist and documentary filmmaker from Long Beach, California.


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