In late March,TNI editor Lou Cornum sat down to talk over Skype with the historian Nick Estes. This is an edited and abridged version of their conversation.
In your book Our History is the Future you pinpoint the exact breakfast conversation when you say you got the inspiration for the book’s current form. It made me curious whether you recall exactly how you originally got into the practice of studying and writing history?
Well, I never wanted to be a historian. I took a U.S. history class with a professor who was making awful comments about Native people. I challenged him several times. He told me — this is a direct quote — “I don’t get paid six digits a year to make this shit up.”
So, I thought: I’m going to become a historian because this guy is full of shit.
To be honest, that’s really why I became a history major as an undergraduate. I studied western European history partially because I was just fascinated with the labor history of western Europe and its role in the formation of modern capitalism. When I studied in France, I started reading Fanon and understanding French imperialism and becoming much more interested in U.S. imperialism and U.S. settler colonialism.
I hate U.S. history, like the actual field of U.S. history. I’m much more interested in understanding the United States within a global history, and that’s really where I began my project in Indigenous history as one that I saw as part of this global imperial project.
I was really most struck by the chapter on internationalism for reframing what are often seen as really localized or circumscribed political struggles — however, you’re showing how Indigenous movements for land and water are linked to decolonial visions on a global or planetary scale. How do you think that Indigenous articulations of the nation and those practices of internationalism are different than the Western or Westphalian forms? For instance, you mention the Black Panther Party’s concept of “intercommunalism” and how that’s a similar orientation to Indigenous internationalism, not only turning away from nation-state, from seeking recognition from the nation-state, but also turning toward a different model of world organization.
The idea of nationalism in the kind of Western imaginary, especially in the modern sense, in the 20th and 21st century sense, has become really abhorrent and is something that we should be working against — the really violent right-wing forms of nationalism, for example, whether its Trump or Bolsonaro. But what I find fascinating is there’s also the assumption that every history follows a Western trajectory.
People who have been denied nationhood from the get-go of the founding of modernity and the entry into global capitalism are somehow thus proscribed as potentially being essentially like Nazi Germany. That’s always the comparison.
The “blood and soil thing,” right?
As if there is only one path to nationalism, and that’s xenophobia, exclusion and genocide. But if we look at nationhood and understand it in this larger, global context in the 20th century, we can see decolonization movements were the most robust forms of class war. And they were national liberation movements. They weren’t emanating from the so-called first world or Global North; they were coming from the Global South. And to me that provided the most productive grounds for understanding Indigenous nationhood movements in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Too often we imagine nation-to-nation as relations between Native nations and white-supremacist empires like the United States and Canada. That’s a very limiting and, in my opinion, reactionary form of Indigenous nationalism. That’s not to say that Indigenous nationhood movements are always progressive or revolutionary. Many of them can be reactionary and often do align themselves with the state project of the United States or Canada or even the imperial project.
That chapter itself is actually a condensed version of my original dissertation, and it’s my next book project to really flesh out those ideas. And it was not just to focus on the revolutionary tradition I was interested in but to look at how ideas of Indigenous internationalism can be reactionary as well as revolutionary.
When I think about that, I’m reminded of the Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly, who visited Israel in 2012 and wanted to share agricultural methods of nation building. And I just thought: How did this go so wrong?
Right, and yeah, I point this out in that chapter, if you look at Vine Deloria, he was looking to Israel as a model of the nation-state. It’s not just common in the Indigenous tradition, it’s also present in the Black tradition as well, the Homeland being this kind of Zionist utopia and looking to Israel as an example. W.E.B. Du Bois did that. Vine Deloria did that. Even if it was completely out of step with where Black and Indigenous movements were at that time, which was, in fact, finding more common ground with Palestinians than with Zionists and Israeli settlers.
Another strand of internationalism comes up in that great line in that chapter about the red nations of Europe providing a platform of support to the red nations of North America. I also smiled when I saw your Instagram bio, which says, “the original red scare.” I used to have a Tumblr called “The Red Planet” that was also named for the similar twinned evocations. Could you draw out a bit more the historical relations between communist struggle and Indigenous decolonization?
It’s really fraught. I’d say it’s more fraught than it is productive. In that chapter I avoid talking about the fallout after the Nicaraguan contra wars. And the division of the Red Power movement was along these two axes: one supporting the project of a leftist government, the Sandinistas, while the other was aligning with the U.S. and imperialist powers against the leftist government in the name of Indigenous rights. And that is something I’m going to be moving into for my next book project. I avoided it only because it wasn’t relevant to the longer trajectory of the revolutionary form of internationalism that I was tracing. It deserves its own time and space in order to be thought over and studied.
I align myself more with Lee Maracle, who was a Red Power activist and openly identified as a communist and a Marxist at a time when Red Power had elements of anti-communism and anti-Marxism kind of built into its orientations. At the same time, Red Power had this international project where aligning with the Eastern Bloc or the Soviet Union was not because there was an adherence to communist traditions but more so aligning in the sense that these are our allies in this struggle. And that we as Indigenous peoples, if we are truly internationalist and sovereign, can make relations with anyone we please. And these nations lent us a sympathetic ear, for many reasons. One was to point out the hypocrisy of U.S. humanitarian intervention into the third world or into communist countries. But that is also a very cynical view as well, to say that solidarity wasn’t meaningful or wasn’t a productive thing. We look back on the global decolonization movement and look at the role of China or the Soviet Union in cynical or utilitarian terms to say, like, they just wanted to expand their spheres of influence. This ignores how in East Germany there was genuine solidarity with Indigenous activists at that time. From everyday German folks and people from the Soviet Union, you know — there were people writing millions of letters a year to ask for the release of Leonard Peltier. To me those are really meaningful forms of solidarity, and they get glossed over. Not to say they are perfect, they’re really fraught relations. Even Indigenous people in the first world, their orientation toward these nations wasn’t always genuine; it was at times utilitarian. It just shows the dynamic nature and diversity of the Indigenous movements that never gets talked about.
What are the ongoing or continuous forms of that internationalist tradition? In the book, you have a photo from the camps at Standing Rock that promote an internationalism within Indigenous nations on this continent. The issues around worldwide extractive oil industries, connected to the implementation of pipelines — do you see these becoming a site of relation and internationalist bonds with global Indigenous movements as well as within North America?
The way I would answer that question wouldn’t necessarily look at intra-Indigenous internationalism. I would look at it going back to the North American oil boom, which began around 2007–2008. Around that time you had Indigenous peoples, Indigenous nations going to the Venezuelan government to make alliances with Hugo Chávez through CITGO, which was an oil company in the United States that was basically providing heating assistance to millions of poor people in the United States, not just Indigenous people but also Black and white and Latino families. And I think that was a really powerful time; in this moment of high energy costs in the Plains during brutal winters, it was the Bolivarian government that reached out to Plains Indigenous people and said, We’re gonna put heating oil in your propane tank this year as a sign of solidarity and good faith on the part of the people of Venezuela.
Why that’s interesting and why I’m bringing that up is because in 2007–2008 the price of oil dropped because of this technological boom with fracking and the refinement of oil sands up in Alberta, Canada. That coincided with the great recession and the collapse of the housing market, and millions of mostly poor, racialized people were kicked out of their homes and suffered the consequences. For an eight-year period of time, the United States basically drilled their way out of the recession, increasing domestic oil production by 80 percent during the entire term of Obama. Some of the justifications that are now coming to light around that oil boom are fascinating. It was a strategic interest for the U.S. to wean itself off dependency on Venezuelan oil. From 2008 to 2016, the rapid fall in oil prices coincided with an economic war against Venezuela to essentially starve out the Bolivarian Revolution. Venezuela has a single-commodity economy, so all the gains made by the revolution were largely funded by that oil economy. It was something I didn’t really get to include in the book. I regret taking it out, but it needs to be emphasized. Both that there’s international solidarity between the Venezuelan government and Indigenous nations in North America and also that the drilling on Indigenous lands and the destruction of Indigenous lives, through the building of pipelines on Indigenous lands, is a result of the United States’ imperialist endeavors in Latin America. It’s directly connected, and, in many ways, the continued frontier violence of oil extraction is related to the imperialist orientation of the United States according to the Monroe Doctrine, which Trump invoked last October at the United Nations. So, it’s very much alive and well, Manifest Destiny as well as the Monroe Doctrine. But there are also remnants of this Indigenous internationalist project that said, “We can get aid from any country that we want; we’re not dependent on the United States.”
That connection is so key: between the imperial project, U.S. intervention abroad, and how the U.S. has intervened in Indigenous lands inside its borders. The starting chapters in the book, which talk about the history of damming, of the Pick-Sloan dams in particular, illustrate that method and that history of U.S. energy frontiers. That speaks to a question I had about how attacks on Indigenous people in the United States are related to overseas strategies of warfare and imperialism.
Just recently the Trump administration issued a proclamation recognizing Israel’s claim on the Golan Heights. This is coming from the presidency with a long line of Indian killers in it, going back to George Washington. In some ways what I’m trying to do in that internationalism chapter is show the connection between Israel and the United States. And how the Israeli settler-colonial project is only possible because of the U.S. settler-colonial project.
Even going back further into the 18th and 19th centuries, modern counterinsurgency warfare as we know it today dates back to the Indian Wars. It was perfected by the U.S. military and its settler militias. There are scholars like John Grenier, who is a diamond in the rough as far as military historians go, who look at military tradition in the United States as originating in frontier wars against civilian populations, e.g. Indigenous peoples. That’s a very compelling history because oftentimes we look at the War on Terror as a modern phenomenon that originated just in the last two decades as this kind of forever war. But the War on Terror is literally just an extension of the Indian Wars. The Indian Wars have never really ended, because as Jodi Byrd notes the U.S. will always create its enemies of empire by using the tropes of Indianness. We can go back to any modern war that the United States has fought and trace its tactics and how it characterizes the enemy to its approach to “the Indian.” Look at John Yoo’s torture memos: He cites the Modoc prisoner-of-war case, saying that the Modoc prisoners of war in the 19th century are not necessarily enemy combatants, but neither are they civilians, so they have a suspension of personal liberties, and thus you can do whatever you want to them. And John Yoo used that justification in his torture memos to basically justify the torture and detainment of prisoners at Guantanamo for being suspected of terrorism.
At one of my book talks, a Pakistani lawyer asked this really phenomenal question about the traces of U.S. extradition law and how it obtains and kidnaps non-U.S. citizens from other countries to protect its own “homeland security.” The U.S. has used domestic federal law that traces back to the Indian Wars to essentially extradite “terrorist suspects” from other countries who are non-U.S. citizens to try them in U.S. domestic courts. I look at it only in the context of regional history and how the Plains Wars are tied to counterinsurgency tactics and how counterinsurgency tactics were deployed against our people. That means they were waging war not against our military but against our civilian population.
Yes, you very well elucidate that refrain I hear among Indigenous activists and thinkers: The Indian Wars never ended. Thinking of the title, then, Our History is the Future, I wonder how you see that history being transformed in the future. What is your vision of the future? If our history is carrying forth, I would hope the history of resistance struggle will have some sort of overcoming of the destructive history of colonial violence.
It has multiple meanings, and it’s interesting to see how different people take it up. One sense of it is, like, we can look at our history as genocide, ecocide, and the apocalypse that is settler colonialism and say this is the future for the rest of humanity. Which is awful and in my opinion is not worth entertaining. But there’s also the history you gesture toward. Indigenous resistance movements have always been future oriented. Because of the binary the U.S. has created of winners and losers, we often think of Indigenous peoples as on the losing end of history without understanding the miracle of Indigenous life today and the fact that there are elements of a future society premised on justice and sustainable relations between human and nonhuman worlds existing within Indigenous cultures themselves. It’s not to say that Indigenous knowledge is going to save the planet. I don’t believe that. I think that it provides a possible pathway toward that future, but it has to be fought for and struggled for. That’s one thing the title points to, Indigenous resistance histories as a future-oriented project.
One thing I think about in terms of future-oriented thinking or radical political visioning is just being able to think about a time past America, beyond America. We can imagine a time before America, we often invoke it, maybe we romanticize it, but we also draw a lot of strength from the knowledge that there was a time when the world wasn’t like this. I use that kind of history to project forward that there will be a time when America won’t exist, or at least state that as a possibility. Yet, one thing I struggle with, then, is the question of recognition, especially through treaties, which can alleviate the harms of genocide and dispossession, and give you the rightful resources and means of life that have been taken under colonialism. But I’m wondering, Do they also solidify the place of America in relationship to Indigenous nations? How do we navigate having these legitimate grievances but with an illegitimate power?
I think we can understand that if the United States were to actually uphold its treaty obligations, it would entirely go bankrupt. Because it would be not only a monetary compensation but a physical and material compensation that would have to come into account. Recognition of treaties sometimes functions as an accusation against the U.S. and the wrongs that it has committed. On the other hand, the fulfillment of treaty rights would basically mean the end of the U.S. as we know it.
I do think that the treaties themselves are interesting in that sense, because the United States has had a monopoly on interpretation of the treaties, saying that they are agreements that we would eventually sell our land or give over our land to them, but then also there’s our interpretations, which are supposed to have equal standing to the United States, which center our relations not just to the human world but to the nonhuman world as well. And that goes beyond the treaty itself into our own agreements and treaties or ways of being with our nonhuman relatives, in the sense that we are caretakers of them. It’s not that we create pristine nature reserves, but there’s an interaction with nonhuman nature that is fundamentally different than the way that not just the United States but capitalist societies in general view nature as something that is consumable, exploitable in the name of profit. Even wastable. Thinking about what you just said, “Our history is the future,” which also means a time past the United States, when you go to downtown Rapid City, where I used to live, there’s all these statues of U.S. Presidents there. A good portion of them, a third of them, weren’t even presidents of that land specifically, because that [territory] wasn’t even the United States at the time. But also, for there to be a future on this land, there can’t be a future for the United States. That doesn’t mean that U.S. citizens are awful or horrible people, it just means that, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor once said, the afterlives of slavery are baked into the cake of the United States. I would say settler colonialism is also baked into the cake of the United States, and you can’t un-bake a cake.
There’s also the issue itself of how to change people’s attachments to the American nation. How do we get people to start to live in a way that’s different? I wanted to mention your work with The Red Nation. I see your book as very much in conversation with movement work, and it is of course also dedicated to the water protectors. What are your thoughts on how knowledge and ways of thinking develop outside academic spaces through the practices of decolonization?
I think social movements are producers of knowledge, and I see my work as using the knowledge a particular social movement has produced in order to then produce more knowledge for and about social movements. I think that’s a totally legitimate field of study and research. A lot of my colleagues wouldn’t agree with me, they always have to qualify it as being like an “activist-scholar,” and I don’t really know how I feel about that. Whereas the academy itself is very interested in reproducing settler-colonial ideology but also reproducing ruling-class ideology. I’m not interested in decolonizing the academy — I don’t think that’s possible as long as the occupation exists. What I am invested in is building movements from below and to the left.
We occupy a position in that decolonization movement that is deeply engrained, because I can’t just like go to bed tonight and not be Indigenous. Whereas my colleagues in Russian history get to do Russian history from nine to five. My work begins and ends when I was born and when I will die, because I cannot escape that social position. I fully embrace it. That’s just who I am. What I do within the academy, what I do within my own community: They’re both survival in some ways. One is survival to ensure there will be a coming generation, and that doesn’t mean a coming generation just for Indigenous people but for all people.
There’s also like a first-world position or orientation that we have to acknowledge. In the sense that U.S., Canadian, North American universities have accumulated the social wealth of the world. We don’t have to work to produce our food. We can go to school to think about these things, right? We have to take this into consideration. What is the actual purpose of the academy in that sense? Are we acknowledging the material conditions that produce the very reality of North American academic discourse? If we’re not, then we’re not being honest with ourselves. To me we have such an incredibly privileged position within the world that we have this special obligation to fundamentally change not the relationship in the academy but that global imperial relationship to the rest of the world. We should be at all turns challenging this project. Because we do occupy that position of privilege within the world, but I don’t hear a lot of U.S. academics, non-Indigenous or otherwise, really stating that reality. It’s so glaring. You go anywhere else in the world, there’s not the opportunity. People come to the U.S., come to Canada to get that kind of training, but there isn’t an honest appraisal of the social wealth that is accumulated and trickled upward to these elite institutions. Knowledge is still imperial.
The anecdotes from the camp were all so carefully rendered with attention to what that movement and that camp represented. Were there other bits of experience that you also wanted to include?
I think, it’s hard to describe: I’m one person of tens of thousands of people who walked through that camp, or more. I don’t know how many people at the end of the day walked through that camp or participated in solidarity actions around the country and around the world. That’s the beauty of social movements and movements in general. I’m just like a pebble making a ripple. If you cast a million or billion pebbles into the ocean, it creates tidal waves. That’s called history, right. My history is just one of many histories. I hope that there are more. More perspectives not just on the camps but on Indigenous history. More Indigenous history from the people who have lived it. That’s what I was trying to inspire, not to be the end-all be-all of this history, or the history of Standing Rock. I was hoping it would open a door, in the sense like those thousands of young people whose experience can never be taken away are now going to go on and carry that struggle forward. That’s a really beautiful thing, I think. I’d rather stay an optimist. Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.
I will say, that is the mood I was in at the end of the book: ending with a very clear-eyed view of how we’ve gotten here and a fiery vision of where we’re going. I really appreciate that ability to keep both of those alive.