The American war against its indigenous people is incessant, interminable and indefensible. From the Pequot Wars blessed by the English Puritan John Winthrop to the present day destruction of native culture and community in the name of resource extraction, there are very few episodes in human history more bloody, brutal and relentless. The recent attempts by indigenous Americans to defend their lands and culture against the rapacious designs of the energy industry on Canada and the United States exist as blatant reminders of this history. When members of various indigenous nations represented their peoples (along with allies) in the Idle No More protests that began in Canada in 2014, the response from the authorities was swift, occasionally brutal, and mostly dismissive of the native people’s claims and demands. A very similar scenario played out in the US Midwest during the direct actions against the DAPL pipeline at Standing Rock.
Nick Estes, author of Our History is the Future, makes this very clear. Given the history of their treatment at the hands of the European invaders and their descendants, Estes’ book title takes on a double meaning. The history of genocide is as much a potential future for the Native Americans as is the history of their resistance a hopeful response to the genocidal legacy. A member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and co-founder of The Red Nation, Estes participated in the Standing Rock resistance. It is within the resistance at Standing Rock that Estes bookends his history of indigenous history in North America, especially the land known as the United States.
Although the text focuses on the story of the Oceti Sakowin people, the history told within these pages is the history of most indigenous people in the United States. A combination of bloodshed, treaties made and usually broken, settlers with their own tales of hardship and woe, and a government whose philosophy is best expressed in its use of the gun, the bulldozer, and the dollar bills offered as compensation, this history is more than just history. It is the essence of the capitalist nation whose capitol id in Washington, DC and whose reach extends into space. It is to the credit of all of us opposed to this monolith that the resistance of the indigenous peoples continues to not only exist, but to provide an example.
Our History is the Future opens with a description of the encampment at Standing Rock in 2017. Estes discusses the genesis of the movement to oppose the pipeline, the politics of the pipeline in the Dakotas and within the movement against it, and the machinations of the State and its armed forces aimed at disrupting and destroying the resistance movement. Woven neatly into this descriptive endeavor is a discussion that combines a Marxist analysis with a philosophy as old as the stories, prophecies and myths of the Lakota nations. Perhaps the best description of what I mean can be found when Estes writes after summarizing a myth where the black snake serves as a metaphor for the Missouri River, his people’s historic lifeblood: “For the Oceti Sakowin, prophecies like the Black Snake are revolutionary theory….”
That river is not only the lifeblood of the Oceti Sakowin and other tribes, it is a central focus of the battle between the colonizers and the indigenous peoples. If the water can be taken away, destroyed or poisoned, its life giving properties for the native peoples will no longer be there to sustain them. It was this understanding that was part of the decision in the mid-twentieth century to flood the region for hydropower and destroy the riverbed where the tribe had been pushed to after the Indian wars of the previous decades. It is this same understanding which informed the decision by the corporate and military officials to move the pipeline away from the white-dominated city of Bismarck, North Dakota and run it through Standing Rock.
Estes’ book is a vital history of the United States. It is a history told from a point of view that champions resistance and explores its meaning, specifically as it applies to the indigenous people of the land. From the Ghost Dance to the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation to the internationalism of the United Nations Indigenous Peoples Conference, Our History is the the Future is both a celebration and a warning. The hope and solidarity that has propelled the resistance historicized in these pages remains a genuine and viable reality in a world that seems locked in a struggle that could well determine its destruction or its salvation.