Indigenous Resistance, From Wounded Knee to Standing Rock
Nick Estes is a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, an assistant professor in American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota, and co-founder of The Red Nation, an Indigenous resistance organization. He is the author of Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance. This interview was broadcast on Alternative Radio, based in Boulder, Colorado, in May and has been edited for length and clarity for this print version.
Q: This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of a historic event in Native America, the action at Wounded Knee. What was its significance, and does it still resonate with Native peoples?
Nick Estes: On February 27, there was a fiftieth-anniversary commemoration with three days of powwows, dance competitions, and an oral history project . . . documenting the role of American Indian women and their leadership within the Red Power movement. In many ways, it does resonate today because you have the children of the Red Power movement who are leading today’s movement. Whether it’s the protest at Standing Rock, [the] Line 3 [oil pipeline], or the attempts to get the Black Hills, or Paha Sapa, back to the Lakota Nation, these are all generational struggles. In many ways, the Red Power movement and the legacy of Wounded Knee just continued.
A lot of times, in the public memory of the Wounded Knee occupation, it was the end of a sort of militant Red Power movement. In fact, according to the memory of the participants, it was just the beginning of something greater, because the next year, you have the founding of the International Indian Treaty Council on the Standing Rock Reservation. You have the United Nations conference [on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas] in 1977, and you have the Black Hills gathering in 1980 that brought together thousands of white ranchers, farmers, and various environmental groups to protect the Black Hills. It was a transition point from the more confrontational tactics to something different.
Q: How does this connect with the resistance at the Dakota Access Pipeline?
Estes: It connects in many ways. For one, the veterans of Wounded Knee played active roles at Standing Rock. Folks like Clyde Bellecourt, Madonna Thunder Hawk, Bill Means—they were all there at the camps when I was there. They were just doing what they do in these situations: They coordinate, they organize, they push forward the sort of action-oriented locking down of equipment, the organizing of camp life itself, and the centering on treaties and Indigenous sovereignty.
Q: What kind of influence and inspiration is derived from having around those kinds of elders who lived that history?
Estes: One thing I always tell people is that what I say and what I present isn’t actually new. A lot of it is just repeating and building on the work that they did. When it comes to treaty rights, to [returning] land in the Black Hills, even to the Dakota Access Pipeline, those issues surrounding water and treaties were the issues they were fighting in their generation. I don’t think they ever thought they [would] resolve all of those things. That’s why they created institutions like survival schools—to train the next generation of children in understanding what treaty rights are and what Indigenous sovereignty is.
For somebody like me, it took my own personal journey to discover these things. Part of the work I’m doing is trying to elevate these histories, because I think they’re taken for granted. The word “sovereignty,” the notion of land back—these are things that preceded even the American Indian Movement [AIM] and the Red Power movement.
Q: John Trudell, a member activist of the American Indian Movement, used to say the FBI stood for the “Federal Bureau of Intimidation.” Over the last fifty years, there’s been a marked increase in surveillance and mechanisms of control. How has that played out in terms of Native America?
Estes: It plays out in many ways. One of the biggest blemishes upon the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies is that they’ve gotten record amounts of funding, but what is their solve rate for murdered or missing Indigenous women? Because reservations are under federal jurisdiction.
So if they’ve done such a great job over the years, and they’ve been pumping so much money into these federal agencies, what are they actually doing? We understand now that many times, they’re policing legitimate movements that are trying to address poverty, housing, all kinds of land issues, and environmental issues, but there’s an overemphasis on these Indigenous-led and Black-led movements, and not really looking at the other sort of supposed functions that the FBI has.
A perfect example of this goes back to 1975. When you look at how many FBI agents were dedicated to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The whole state of South Dakota has about two active FBI agents in their field office. In 1975, right before the shootout, there were thirty dedicated FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
What was happening at that time? The U.S. Civil Rights Division found that there was a so-called reign of terror, where dozens of murders happened of AIM supporters and people who were suspected of being AIM supporters. There were beatings, rapes, all the crimes the FBI was supposed to be investigating. So the increase of the FBI presence on the reservation had the inverse effect.
I’m not trying to draw correlations here, but the increase of FBI presence on the reservation happened at a time when there was also an increase in violent crime. Why was that? Part of the inquiry should lend itself to the fact that the FBI was playing the role of a political police force . . . .
The FBI was supposed to have reformed itself after the Church Committee [in the U.S. Senate in the 1970s], and we know that’s not the case. With 9/11, you have the creation of a massive security and surveillance apparatus during the so-called war on terror. This was right after the so-called Green Scare in the 1990s, when the FBI was surveilling environmental activists, and, in some instances, entrapping them into doing illegal activities and infiltrating these movements.
We saw that happen all the way up to Standing Rock and beyond. We don’t know yet, but I’m sure there will be in years to come more evidence of this. This is now the new normal, not just for Indigenous-led movements, but for any legitimate protest movement in the United States.
Q: This year is also the 200th anniversary of the Monroe Doctrine. How did that affect Native peoples?
Estes: In 1893, on the eve of the U.S. war with Spain, Frederick Jackson Turner, famous for the so-called frontier thesis, in a lesser-known speech talked about this in a quote: “The germ of the Monroe Doctrine was created in the Ohio Valley.” Meaning that these white settlers, after the American Revolution, rushed in there to try to claim the land, because that was the original intent of the United States—to expand westward, to emancipate themselves from the crown, but then to eventually expand westward.
I think it’s coincidental. I don’t think there was any kind of conspiracy involved in terms of the Monroe Doctrine and the Doctrine of Discovery [in reference to the 1823 Supreme Court case Johnson & Graham’s Lessee v. McIntosh, which made the Doctrine of Discovery a part of federal law]. They just happened to fall in the same year.
But the importance of it is that when President James Monroe was making that speech, he was really drawing from the so-called founders of the United States—people like Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. During the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, Hamilton specifically said the United States needed a strong, central, federal military that could be funded through the levy of taxes, because they faced two enemies. The first was other European powers—Spain, Britain, and France—and the other was powerful Indigenous nations in the West. That’s why Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that there were “merciless Indian savages” on our western frontier. It was almost like a declaration of war—of what the United States would be.
When you have the codification of the Doctrine of Discovery within federal Indian law, it turns, over a course of federal cases, Native nations into domestic dependents. But there’s also a treaty process to bind, and that’s what Jefferson used—the language of binding Indigenous nations to the United States; to peel them away from other European powers so that the United States could assert hegemony within North America as it expanded westward.
That’s the same mentality and ideology of the Monroe Doctrine: to bind Latin American nations to the United States; to make them compliant. And we saw the bloody evidence of this in terms of how it unfolded over the last 200 years, with countless U.S.-backed coups, all the way up to the ongoing sanctions against Venezuela, a half-century blockade of Cuba, the continued interventions in Latin America, the propping up of rightwing dictatorships, the U.S.-backed overthrow of Pedro Castillo, the democratically elected president of Peru, the U.S.-backed coup of Evo Morales—it goes on and on and on.
Q: Where do you stand on the issue of reform versus radical change? Do you believe in incremental improvements, or do you feel that the times demand radical, substantive change?
Estes: I don’t think it’s an either/or. I think it’s both. There are certain things that can make the quality of life of people here in this country, or on this planet, much more livable with just minor reforms.
If you abolish the Washington football team mascot, if you change the mascot for the [former] Cleveland Indians [now the Guardians], those are huge shifts, but it’s also like you’re building a movement. And that has a psychological effect, to show that when people get together, they can win something.
When you make these minor reforms, it shows that things are achievable and winnable.
The current landscape is issue-based. We’re taught to be issue-based activists and not look at the broader picture. I think both are possible . . . . Sure, we didn’t stop the Dakota Access Pipeline, but nonetheless, it was a win. It was part of a longer struggle to radically transform our carbon economy, our extractivist economy.
But you also have to be fighting for alternatives that don’t just simply say, “We’re going to replace this with a green economy that will still require the same kind of colonial relationship as now. Instead of extracting oil, we’re going to extract lithium from your lands.” We do need those materials to transition, but it has to be negotiated, and it has to be on the terms of the people who are most impacted. That’s the reform side.
For the radical side, they always say “the horizon of struggle.” Why? Because as you approach the horizon, it keeps going farther and farther into the distance. If you don’t have that kind of dialectical thinking about the future and how history actually works, then you might arrive somewhere and think that it’s an OK place to be.
But that’s not reflective of human nature. Human nature is constantly evolving. Human culture is constantly evolving. There are always things—inequities within ourselves, our relationships to each other, as well as the land—that need to be resolved. However, that transformation, when they say revolution, it’s not an instantaneous thing. It’s something that unfolds over generations.
Q: U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has in very bold terms talked about the climate crisis we’re facing, using phrases like “time is running out,” and “the clock is ticking.” What are your views on the climate crisis? Is this system nimble enough to address it in a way that will not cause widespread chaos?
Estes: I can’t predict the future, but I can tell you what’s happening now. We are experiencing the effects of carbon that was put into the atmosphere generations ago. If we think about what we’re putting in today, how bad the changes in the weather have [been] just in our current moment. Think about it—we’re exponentially greater than what was put out generations ago. If we think about it in those terms, it paints a very bleak picture.
I also think there are trends that are important. If we look globally, if we look even at the [U.N.] Conference of the Parties [COP] meetings, these are usually dominated by the North Atlantic nations, the NATO nations, or whatever you want to call it. They all followed a path of development that required an immense amount of carbon input that the rest of the world is paying for. Therefore, if the rest of the world is paying for that amount of carbon that these so-called First World nations produced at the expense not just of the people they colonized, but also future generations, then those nations also owe, in perpetuity, reparations to the people who are also trying to develop, because they can’t develop along the same trajectory, using and emitting the same carbon.
India is now the most populous country in the world, and it’s building coal-fired power plant after coal-fired power plant. You see The New York Times and other Western media sources talking about the immense amount of pollution that’s going to [happen as a result]. This isn’t India’s problem—this is a First World problem, because the First World colonized the atmosphere with their carbon pollution so that they could develop along the same lines, and now they’re saying, no, the Third World can’t develop that same way.
That’s not to say that alternatives don’t exist; there are. But we also have to remove the sort of restrictions on technology transfers for green, sustainable energy. A lot of the patents are held—most of them by China—but a lot of them are held by the United States and other First World nations. So [when] we talk about climate change, we’re talking about a global project.
In the context of the United States and Canada and Indigenous-led movements, a 2021 report by the Indigenous Environmental Network found that Indigenous movements in Canada and the United States [through resistance efforts] accounted for challenging [the equivalent of] a quarter of emissions from both [countries]. That’s a huge amount, especially given the fact that we’re about 1 or 2 percent of the population . . . . It shows you the effectiveness of those kinds of [resistance] movements and promoting a carbon-free future.
[David Barsamian is director of Alternative Radio (www.alternativeradio.org) in Boulder, Colorado, and author of many books, including "Notes on Resistance" with Noam Chomsky and the forthcoming "The Architecture of Modern Empire" with Arundhati Roy.]