AUGUST 28, 2019
THE BULLETIN OF THE ATOMIC SCIENTISTS set their famous Doomsday Clock to two minutes to midnight this January, indicating that humankind is as close to terminal disaster as we have ever been.
They named the usual suspects: climate change and the threat of nuclear war. But as Noam Chomsky explained recently in an interview with Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman, there was a new culprit added to the list of threats to existence: the undermining of democracy.
As Chomsky sees it, the three threats are interrelated. Climate change and the threat of nuclear war, he says, “are not going to be dealt with by major institutions, state or private, acting without massive public pressure, which means that the means of democratic functioning have to be kept alive.”
What Chomsky did not mention is that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists specifically named social media as a primary forum for democracy’s erosion. Even as social media seems to give voice to greater numbers of people, it also poses a threat to “the rational discourse required for solving the complex problems facing humanity.”
At least some of these worries were central to two dramatic American standoffs that unfolded just ahead of the 2016 presidential elections. The occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon by rancher Ammon Bundy’s cluster of militant, anti-government activists and the mass protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline’s construction near the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota both gripped the nation via viral social media posts, self-reporting, and arguments over who holds power in a democratic society.
Two new books analyze, respectively, these two moments of American frustration. Both offer crucial context. And both also offer themselves up, whether advertently or not, as distinct examples of how and why we develop historical narratives.
Nick Estes’s Our History Is the Future is an unflagging contribution to postcolonial recordkeeping. It places the #NoDAPL movement in the greater context of Indigenous American resistance movements.
Estes points out a litany of injustices, detailing one historical moment after another in which Native Americans have suffered systemic violence. It is, in part, a catalog of frustrations which, one hopes, forever bear repeating and never cease to engender moral outrage.
A lingustic tradition of the Haudenosaunees, also known as the Iroquois, holds that the nickname for every US President since George Washington is “town destroyer” to preserve a collective memory of Washington’s 1779 order to burn their cornfields “to thwart the reclamation of the land and impose starvation.” But this brutal act existed not for itself, nor for the punishment of the Haudenosaunee. “To consummate possession by mixing blood and soil,” Estes writes, “the troops responsible for razing the Haudenosaunee towns were afterward rewarded with title to Indigenous lands.”
It was much the same in the 1940s, when many major postwar development projects unfolded at the expense of native lands. The 1944 Pick Sloan Flood Control Act oversaw the construction of dams which flooded 309,584 acres, displacing 900 native families in the Dakotas alone. “No care was exercised to minimize the damage to Indigenous lands. To protect the majority-white border town of Williston, North Dakota, from losing its land, however, the Army Corps modified the Garrison Dam.” Estes writes that the dam was “built safely upriver so as not to flood Bismarck, a white-dominated border town and the state capital of North Dakota.”
“This is not simply an examination of the past,” Estes writes in the introduction. It is dangerous to understand Indigenous traditions — or history at all — as static and therefore futureless. Colonialism continues, Estes says, but it changes and so does the resistance. Projects like the Garrison Dam are echoed directly in the 2016 story of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Our History Is the Future makes an incisive case for the consideration of modern police violence as tied to the US imperial project. On August 19, 2016, North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple declared a state of emergency, seemingly out of frustration with a legal deadlock between the Standing Rock Sioux and the Army Corps of Engineers. In soliciting assistance from the federal government, the pipeline company itself, and, in his own words, “any entity we can think of,” Governor Dalrymple effectively militarized the state’s response to the unarmed but growing resistance. This key moment created the conditions for brutalization which would become viral images.
On October 27, these varied militarized forces united in a massive raid of the 1851 Treaty Camp, one of the central sites of the resistance, in “the largest mobilization of cops and military in the state’s history since 1890, when nearly half the standing military was deployed to crush the horseless and starving Ghost Dancers in Standing Rock.” Over 70 law enforcement jurisdictions heeded Governor Dalrymple’s emergency declaration, and along with the National Guard and TigerSwan, a private security force employed by the Dakota Access Pipeline, performed a violent eviction of the camp, which had been set up as a physical blockade to the progress of DAPL construction crews.
Police in riot gear, advancing alongside armed personnel carriers, “dragged half-naked elders from ceremonial sweat lodges, tasered a man in the face, doused people with CS gas and tear gas, and blasted adults and youth with deafening LRAD sound cannons.” Those 142 people arrested were “marked with a number in black permanent marker on their forearm, led onto buses, and kept overnight in dog kennels.” It is hard to deny not only the outsize but also the strategically dehumanizing nature of this response, especially considering that confiscated personal effects, from sleeping bags and jackets to ceremonial pipes, “were returned soaked in urine.”
The agencies that arrived were among the largest recipients of the Department of Defense’s 1033 Program that ships surplus military equipment to law enforcement agencies nationwide. For example, between 2006 and 2015 the South Dakota Highway Patrol, which sent troopers to police Water Protectors, obtained $2 million worth of military equipment, including dozens of assault rifles and five armored vehicles.
Nick Estes does not imagine — nor stretch to create – connections; he does not work in ways that are particularly clever or poetic, although the book is peppered with moments of deeply felt passion for and participation in the subject. In those moments, the text hums with a kind of emotional resonance.
Estes is a member of the Lower Brule Sioux, was born and raised in Chamberlain, South Dakota, just a few hours from the site of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. And indeed he was at Standing Rock in 2016, not only as a documentarian or journalist, but as one of the founders of the Red Nation, an Albuquerque-based organization “dedicated to the liberation of Native people from capitalism and colonialism.” As such, he reports from the inside.
Estes said in a March interview that as a teenager, he read Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein “because that’s what my skater friends from other places were reading.” He wondered “why there wasn’t an indigenous author” working in a similar vein. Indeed with this book, he acts in such a capacity.
Our History Is the Future also offers a feminist reading, as Estes details the innumerable ways in which the marginalization of women and Two-Spirit people was an essential weapon in the colonizing and swindling of Indigenous Americans. White settlers refused to acknowledge the key roles that women played in trade and politics. “In white society, women and children held little or no political authority and were little more than domestic servants. […] Indigenous women’s bodies increased white traders’ access to new markets through their kin — and by extension, land, capital, and political and economic influence.”
Along with this direct violence and twisting of customs, the elimination of women’s authority in the treaties themselves guaranteed their erasure. “To gain access to Indigenous lands, white men had used Indigenous men to break communal land practices and undermine Indigenous women’s political authority.” Estes explains that “Indigenous women are largely absent from early historical narratives.” It is therefore significant that “many contemporary social movements — in particular #NoDAPL, Idle No More, and #BlackLivesMatter — were led by women, and Two-Spirit and LGBTQ people.”
Linking the extractive industry to colonial violence and violence against women is easy work for Estes, who describes a long history of man camps, towns of thousands of men which sprang up overnight alongside extractive projects, particularly throughout the Dakotas, on or bordering tribal lands. These man camps led to “some of the highest concentrations of men, outside of prisons, in North America.” Along with these skyrocketing concentrations of men, frequency of violent assaults against Indigenous women and girls statistically skyrocketed. “Non-Native oil workers exploited a complex patchwork of federal, state, and tribal jurisdictions in which tribal law enforcement has little or no jurisdiction over non-Natives, allowing perpetrators to escape tribal justice.”
That is all to say that we are made to see clearly, through Estes’s work, the ways in which supremacy systems protect and perpetuate themselves. He quotes historian Andrew Birtle, explaining that the US Military Academy studies conflicts between the state and Native Americans “only in its course on the law, and in ‘the same manner as it did the treatment of guerrillas and actively hostile civilian populations in civilized warfare.’” It would be difficult to miss the connections between this architecture and, for example, the eviction of the 1851 Treaty Camp or the more general, militarized response to the unarmed protests.
But it is not state violence that is the culprit — not working alone, anyway. The particular collaboration between state and private interests has advanced, again and again, on Indigenous lands and relationships. “Because Native people remain barriers to capitalist development,” Estes writes, “their bodies needed to be removed — both from beneath and atop the soil — therefore eliminating their rightful relationship with the land.”
The pleas to consider a more intimate relationship with the natural environment have long gone unheeded by such capitalist development, and that struggle is as old as the United States. In late 2016, viral social media images of police and protestors facing off at Standing Rock brought a direct version of that struggle into the homes of people who might never have heard of Standing Rock or the Dakota Access Pipeline. One might read a sort of cynicism in Estes’s insistence that “our history is the future.” The book is, after all, a history of Indigenous struggle to survive. But perhaps, even if read as a prediction of continued struggle, it is still more triumphant than cynical.
A very different kind of book, Anthony McCann’s Shadowlands, aims to document and analyze the 2016 occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge by white Mormon rancher Ammon Bundy and his supporters.
Bundy’s complaints were also about land, relationships, and rights, but his movement and his demands appear considerably more fraught than those of the #NoDAPL movement. And far from Estes’s staid documentarian rigor, McCann’s approach is at times bewilderingly dense and literary. While he does an admirable job teasing out and examining the various cultural mythologies and personal fantasies that constitute the worldviews of the occupiers and, eventually of a wide cross-section of the so-called Patriot Movement, McCann often veers off into sometimes extraneous, sometimes downright strange philosophizing — like when the text careens abruptly from an explication of the Indigenous Paiute opposition to the Malheur occupation into a three-page thread about Kafka and what he might have had to say about Facebook-bolstered political vitriol.
Moments like these might have been better left threaded within McCann’s own struggle to make sense of this story. But this is also part of the compelling character of McCann’s project. Readers are witness to his process. Shadowlands is in no small way a documentation of a curious poet learning about, observing, and stretching to make sense of his subject.
Shadowlands effects an entertaining, sweeping tone, developing cinematically as a colorful latticework of characters are introduced, documented, and pored over. There is no shortage of fascination in this story.
And it is no surprise that McCann is drawn to the myriad mythmakers of the loosely assembled Patriot Movement. These men (for they are mostly men) contort various legal systems and religious dogma to create entirely new and often malleable systems. McCann seems as interested in divining as he is in explaining. All of the incidents that make up the Malheur standoff, all of the trials afterward, are, in McCann’s hands, less incidents in history than they are clues and plot twists, many of which come readymade with the strange cinematography of countless Facebook livestreams.
Although McCann visits Harney County and the refuge during the 40-day standoff, although he attends most of the related trials, and although he conducts what must have been dozens if not hundreds of hours of interviews, a fundamental part of his process is consuming the many associated YouTube videos and the archived Facebook livestreams originally broadcast by many of the participants of the occupation. These videos are a vital piece of the story, worthy indeed of much consideration. And McCann takes a deep dive into the shaky, rambling, autofocusing world that they create. In fact, these are some of the book’s most compelling moments, not in the least because one has the sense that McCann is on the verge of something entirely new. But he treads some very strange ground in doing so.
Of the many angles McCann takes over the course of Shadowlands, perhaps the most compelling is when he flirts with a visual culture approach to the story, via almost bizarrely in-depth descriptions of these YouTube videos. He watches them not only for the events they document, but for clues into the personalities of the characters. He watches them almost as a critic watches a film, and often seems to be critiquing the performances of the various people in the videos. It isn’t that McCann forgets they are real people, but his analysis is compelled by the drama of the images.
He finds a kind of coherence in the fragmentary design of Bundy’s movement. In reality, it is generous to call it a movement. It is more like a constellation of ideologies and concerns. But just as a constellation is, in fact, nothing but a group of stars that humans have decided are points in a greater image, McCann sometimes sees the tail of a bear where there is really only a line of stars. One has the sense that the thrill of discovery, the thrill of uncovering answers, is available and possible, and the author himself is enraptured by such a thrill.
McCann’s goals seem clear enough: to present the occupiers not only as conspiracy theorists and desperate fundamentalists but also as Americans with grave frustrations entirely worthy of undivided attention and investment. For McCann, their frustration and messy dissent are at the core of democracy.
But the movement was fraught with extemporaneous philosophizing and racist associations and it would seem that only by repeatedly watching these rambling livestreams could one start to see in it a truly cogent ideology, let alone praxis. McCann does just this. He even gives names to aspects and principles that would otherwise go unnamed.
Ahead of the occupation, Ammon Bundy addresses a small crowd that has gathered, drawn by the radical atmosphere of his and his supporters’ arrival in the small town of Burns. He seems to be thinking out loud, as is often the case, but he nevertheless speaks with an emotional charge. McCann tells us that Bundy’s mission is “all about restoring what he sees as ‘the growth pattern of this country’ — which is in Ammon’s vision, ‘a beautiful pattern,’ whose ultimate purpose is the creation not just of prosperity, but also of Liberty.” McCann then quotes from Bundy’s speech at length, and it is clear that to Bundy’s mind, the organization of the United States into territories and then into states assures those states sovereignty under the Constitution. “That’s the growth pattern,” Bundy says, “and if we didn’t have these — I guess, wicked men, if you want to say — call it what you want, it’s a beautiful pattern.”
Ammon Bundy says this phrase, “beautiful pattern,” only once. McCann capitalizes it. “The Beautiful Pattern.”
Then he repeats it 20 more times throughout the book. “The Beautiful Pattern” appears again and again, in McCann’s words only, giving it a sharp theoretical edge and organizing much of the extemporaneous and ragtag constitutionalist thinking around it. McCann gives organization to his subject where there might not otherwise be organization.
He also sets the drama of the Malheur Occupation and the Patriot Movement against the concerns of the native Paiute. Yet the book does not centralize the Paiute, nor the Black Lives Matter movement, which explodes dramatically, literally in the streets in front of the courthouse where Ammon Bundy is acquitted. What the book does centralize is the dissonance between the feckless Patriots and their fairweather affinities for the Paiute and Black Lives Matter and other movements. Ammon Bundy and his followers cut a mess of a figure in this narrative. But that mess, for McCann, is a powerfully important American story. It is, he might say, the important American story.
Out on the refuge, the Bundyites made such a layered image of our moment in history that sometimes I wondered if Ammon was right: maybe God had guided him there, just to give us this freaked-out picture of our past and present as they mingled in the manic Now of the web. Here was so much of the history of the American Thing, a settler story, but restaged for the internet, on sacred Native ground. Here were a bunch of wannabe heroes on a divine mission, looking for a sense of power in their world, channeling the Spirit of ’76 and mixing it with the legends of the West. And here were so many others — the rest of us — watching them, having feelings about them, and hurling these feelings at one another, alongside what we would soon enough come to discover were the fabricated personhoods of Twitter bots and social media operatives, faked-up voices of We the People, invisible companions in the scrum, egging us on.
The occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, according to McCann, seemed to be “inviting the abstraction of their Nation to finally appear and use their bodies as a site on which to manifest its Sovereignty in all its Punishing Glory.” But McCann believes that the desire to see the nation oblige and punish the occupiers was flawed if not dangerous. “Was this a call for justice or just for more killability?” he asks. McCann focuses on a certain theoretical dissonance between wishing for less severe police response to certain situations all the while wishing for harsher police response in other situations. “I understood the basic logic of the subjunctive calls for their removal” from the refuge, McCann writes, but he asks, “Did I want them to rush in and rain death down on the Bundyites?” He gives the term “the righteous subjunctive” to the line of questioning: “What if they were black? What if they’d been Muslim?”
The only way around this dissonance that McCann can see is that the “righteous subjunctive mode never stopped making sense to me when I heard it in [Paiute activist] Jarvis Kennedy’s voice. It was different when Jarvis used it.”
And it should make sense coming from Jarvis’s mouth. Somehow McCann seems to miss the point that the righteous subjunctive coming out of anyone’s mouth should be in solidarity with Jarvis or the Paiute — or Ferguson protestors, and so on. The heavily armed character of the white, rancher-led occupation smacked of settler colonialism, even of the “man camps” that Nick Estes writes about. Armed white men reclaiming land from the federal government in the name of freedom from tyranny seems, to anyone with perspective, embarrassingly shortsighted. And indeed McCann sees this too. As he also sees that the nature of the Bundyites demands are suicidal, leading down a path of privatization and exclusivity. The Bundyites themselves seem to be only partly aware of this when they later parade around a CoreCivic-operated private prison in which Ammon is being held in solitary confinement.
Ultimately, McCann seems to say, over the course of 400 or so pages, essentially: “This is complicated.” Yes, he admits, it is because the occupiers were white that the state’s response wasn’t violent but no, he insists, we shouldn’t root for a violent response. His argument is compelling, not in the least because it asks the question: is what we say we want on social media what we really want? Which is heavy, particularly because so much of his data was collected via Facebook livestreams, the very venue for Bundy’s and his followers’ extemporaneous religio-political theorizing. The entire thing evidently eats itself alive.
It is no wonder the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists sees social media as a major contributor to the “corruption of the information ecosystem on which modern civilization depends.”
Of course we cannot yet measure the ultimate effect of social media on democracy or human relationships. The United States cannot even agree, it seems, on the message of the Constitution or existence of climate change. It is clear, though, that social media not only broadcasts our struggles, but also participates in them. In reading Our History Is the Future and Shadowlands, one might be left with the sense that certain ideas cut through such modern noise, while others are largely born of it.