Internationalism, Reconstruction, and Indigenous Futurity — Liam Midzain-Gobin


Recent years have seen Indigenous resistance movements capture attention and headlines across what is today North America. Beyond the headlines, movements such as Idle No More and All Eyes on Wet’suwet’en (working in solidarity with the Unist’ot’en Action Camp) have attracted support from Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous settlers alike. They have also provoked outrage, with many seeking enforcement of the “rule of law” in the face of Indigenous challenges to colonial law and disruptions of settler societies and economies.

In Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance, Nick Estes, a Sioux historian and citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, contextualizes one such movement: the #NoDAPL movement that came together at Standing Rock. Estes places the movement within the longer view of what he calls “traditions of Indigenous resistance” [1] to settler colonialism, centred around visions of “being a good relative”. [2] In doing so, Estes illustrates Indigenous existence  not only today, but at each point in settler history. Further, Estes shows that this long history of Indigenous organizing can be understood as the basis upon which an anti-colonial—and anti-capitalist—future may be built, one in which Indigenous nations maintain and strengthen their relations with each other and their territories [3], while rebuilding a relationship of equals with the United States.

Land as Central

Central to Estes’ analysis is the question of land and territory—the theft of which was (and remains) at the heart of the settler-colonial project and the violence it enacts. Estes opens the book’s first chapter by describing the role that land theft played in the capitalist accumulation that underpins the US empire, and how its expansion over Indigenous territory enabled further violence such as the ongoing crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, Two Spirit, and LGBTQ+ persons. [4] He then moves on to describe the way that land remains foundational to Indigeneity, Indigenous nationhood, and Indigenous legal orders, cosmologies, and systems of knowledge. Focusing on the colonization of the Great Sioux Nation, Estes describes the “wasting” of lands through damming and flooding as the destruction of Indigenous sovereignty and jurisdiction [5], calling the Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Program (the Pick Sloan Plan was the US government’s flooding of Sioux land in the Missouri River Basin) a “destroyer of nations” [6] on account of the way it ignored Indigenous nationhood through “technical” and scientific means. [7]

Crucially, land is central to more than just the material and economic reproduction of Indigenous nations. Rather, as Estes notes when discussing the colonization of the Great Sioux Nation, relationships with and responsibilities to land are at the very heart of Indigenous nationhood itself. It is these relationships and responsibilities that are enacted and upheld through Sioux legal orders, as other Indigenous theorists have also noted. [8] In appropriating land, the United States not only (knowingly) undermined the Indigenous nations’ means of material subsistence, but also put into motion a cycle of “slow violence” [9] aimed at destroying Indigeneity.

However, the elimination of Indigenous nations is not inevitable. To this end, Estes brilliantly contextualizes Standing Rock in the long history of Indigenous resistance to colonial genocide. More generally, the book offers a vision for a potential future, articulating an understanding of Indigenous nations as far more than the historical entities they are so often framed as. Estes emphasizes the vitality of Indigenous nationhood and the way in which they continue to build a non-colonial future by maintaining their legal orders, governance systems, and ultimately their existing relationships with each other and the rest of Creation. [10]

Indigenous Internationalism: More-than-Human Kinship

Understanding Indigenous nations as contemporary political authorities helps to clarify two important points Estes makes, and on which non-Indigenous allies should reflect. The first relates to land’s place at the centre of both Indigenous life and settler colonialism. This centrality is not new. Indeed, the driving force of settler colonialism is widely acknowledge to be the theft of Indigenous territory and the replacement of Indigenous peoples with non-Indigenous settlers. However, understanding land in terms of relationships offers a different analysis than one focused on processes of primitive accumulation might suggest. As Estes insists, land is more than just a material means of subsistence for Indigenous nations: Indigenous peoples’ relationships to land and the rest of non-human Creation, represent the very possibility of nationhood at all. Because of this, the theft of land by settlers must also be understood as an erasure of Indigenous nationhood. [11] Indeed, one of the sharpest moves of Our History Is the Future lies in its dissolution of the sometimes sharp distinctions we draw between the material and immaterial. Instead of understanding land as an external, objective reality through which social life and society are reproduced, it becomes an integral part of, and part to, these social relations. Instead of settler views of land as property, or man as having dominion over land in a Lockean sense, we also care for–and are cared for by–it. As Estes writes, “[a]ny cultural and spiritual connection to Mni Sose was also accompanied by a material connection: the river kept people from starving or freezing to death”. [12] Land theft is not only an existential threat to the material reproduction of Indigenous individuals and peoples, but a threat to the remaking of Indigenous national authority and sense of self. It is these kinship relations invoked by Water Protectors when they call for “all my relations” or declare that “we are all related”. [13]

This is not to suggest that some “authentic” Indigenous existence is possible only by Indigenous peoples living in small communities in a sort of harmony with nature. This may be how Indigenous peoples have been viewed in the popular imaginary, but this misses the complexity of Indigenous life. As Estes describes, this image ignores the broader, national relations that each community exists within, and also the inter-national relations between them. These connections arise not only out of conflict between nations—as oftentimes emphasized in the telling of the “pre-history” of Indigenous life—but, more importantly, the economic and diplomatic relationships built and maintained over centuries and millennia. Estes writes of the trading networks centered on the Mississippi River, and agricultural economies [14], but these connections also exist in trading networks such as the Grease Trails that connected coastal and inland nations along the western part of the continent. Together, these networks and relationships constitute a form of internationalism. And more than a fact of history, this is an internationalism which, as Estes writes in his sixth chapter while recounting the meeting of nations at Standing Rock, continues to be maintained and practiced today.

However, the picture of this internationalism is not complete without non-human kin as well: Estes opens the book in part by noting that the Lakota call themselves “Pte Oyate”, which translates to “the Buffalo Nation”, and “Wicahpi Oyate”, or “the Star Nation”, in order to honour their relations with each of these kinfolk. [15] These naming practices reflect the interconnectedness of human and non-human kin to Lakota life and governance, with non-human kinfolk also incorporated into this internationalism. Because of “this vital connection to place and other-than-humans” [16], the US military deliberately targeted “wasted” Indigenous land—ultimately undermining the relationships maintained through this connection, and the Indigenous nations they sustained.

What we can take from the book is that insofar as Indigenous resistance movements, including the #NoDAPL movement, aim to regain territory [17], this is specifically to renew those relationships that are central to Indigenous politics. [18] More than mythological or “spiritual”, these relationships with land and non-human kin are also deeply material; each reinvests these movements with authority, and continues to form the basis of Indigenous legal codes and governance systems. [19] They are also constitutional, with ceremony and everyday life recreating and reinvigorating Indigenous nationhood and legal orders. It is these relationships of responsibility to territory and the rest of Creation that are broken by the land theft that comes with settler colonialism. Reconstituting them by reconnecting with territory is essential for there to be Indigenous futures. [20]

Indigenous Futurity

“All our relations” plays a central role in Indigenous resistance, then, and if we are to build a decolonized future it must continue to be supported by non-Indigenous allies. As #NoDAPL and other movements show, decolonial and anti-capitalist movements share deep connections, often through climate justice movements. Estes highlights this interconnection, identifying settler colonialism as “capitalism’s twin”. [21] Not only do they exploit the land; they also attempt to undermine the very possibility of kinship relations. The commodification of Indigenous land and labour in this settler-colonial form of racial capitalism makes up a key part of the imperial encounter, becoming central to the process of colonial annihilation.

Given these interconnections, it is tempting to see Indigenous rights and resistance movements as seeking deconstruction. Whether it be in relation to coloniality, imperialism, capitalism, or the governance and industrial practices exacerbating the strain on our climate, we cannot ignore that these systems and phenomena need to be taken apart and disassembled. However, throughout Our History Is the Future, Estes makes clear that it would be a misunderstanding of Indigenous organizing to view it as destructive, because this misses the fact that the central focus of many such movements is on reconstruction. This reconstructive work takes many forms, such as establishing educational systems such as survival schools [22], and the rebuilding of Indigenous governance systems and legal codes centring relationships to the non-human world. This work coheres around a commitment to reanimating Indigenous nationhood and Indigeneity—in particular, Sioux nationhood—as Estes contextualizes the #NoDAPL movement in relation to specific previous examples of Sioux organizing and historical resistance. One of the most useful takeaways from the book, then, is that it is only through this reconstructive work of educating and practicing national governance systems that Indigenous communities can realize their aspirations of self-determination outside capitalist and colonial modernity.

This lesson of the reconstructive work of decolonization applies across many other Indigenous-led movements, though Estes focuses on Standing Rock and Sioux traditions of resistance. Here the recent high-profile case of the Wet’suwet’en is instructive. Much of the media attention (and, to a large extent, the organizing energy) has focused on the push to block Coastal Gas Link’s proposed pipeline. The attention to blocking a pipeline has brought many allies, and large amounts of public support, onboard—support that might not otherwise have been as quick to arrive. However, the statements of the Wet’suwet’en organizers, who began the Unist’ot’en Action Camp at the core of the conflict, present the resistance as an opportunity for healing, in part by building the Camp into a decolonial healing and educational space. There is educational programming each summer, including a specific class created in collaboration with the University of Northern British Columbia. Even the agreement which brought to a close the most dramatic portions of the recent conflict concerned land rights and questions of jurisdictional authority. [23] Indeed, as described by those from the Wet’suwet’en nation involved, the discussions were an important step in reaffirming the nation’s authority. While asserting their ongoing presence, Indigenous organizing should also be seen as a rebuilding exercise, one that aims to repair historical trauma and re-establish broken relationships with the non-human world. We as settler allies cannot overlook this reparative effort. It is through such efforts that we can support the rebuilding of constitutional relationships between the Wet’suwet’en, their territory, and the rest of Creation living on that territory. Such an “oversight” would not help us in undoing the coercive and exploitative systems of global capitalism and coloniality. Instead, it would further undermine and marginalize Indigenous authority by placing it in an inferior position to what is oftentimes a settler-led organizing movement. If we are to support a truly decolonial future, these efforts must be at the forefront of our minds in planning our actions, as Estes clearly shows they have been for the Sioux in building their future.

Liam Midzain-Gobin is a settler scholar studying settler coloniality, Indigenous governance, and decolonization. He recently completed his PhD in international relations at McMaster University.

[1] Nick Estes, Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (London: Verso, 2019), 21 (original emphasis).

[2] Estes, Our History Is the Future, 15.

[3] I refer to “territory” here as understood in Elden’s distinctions between land, terrain, and territory: Stuart Elden, “Land, Terrain, Territory” 34 (2010) Progress in Human Geography 799. Briefly, each term describes a separate materiality of space: land as economic space, terrain as military space, territory of governance space. As Estes’ references to space incorporate all three functions, I use “land” and “territory” interchangeably throughout the text.

[4] Estes, Our History Is the Future, 30–1.

[5] Estes, 135–7.

[6] Estes, 152.

[7] Estes, 159.

[8] Glen Sean Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014); Glen Coulthard and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, “Grounded Normativity/Place-Based Solidarity” 68 (2016) American Quarterly 249; Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017); Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark, “Nenabozho’s Smart Berries: Rethinking Tribal Sovereignty and Accountability Indian Tribes and Human Rights Accountability” 2013 (2013) Michigan State Law Review 339.

[9] Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).

[10] The “rest of Creation” referring not only to lands and waters, but also to non-human (animal) entities and kin.

[11] Eve Tuck and Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández, “Curriculum, Replacement, and Settler Futurity” 29 (2013) Journal of Curriculum Theorizing 72.

[12] Estes, Our History Is the Future, 167.

[13] Estes, 15.

[14] Estes, 76–7, 146.

[15] Estes, 8.

[16] Estes, 9.

[17] Estes, 67.

[18] Estes, 44.

[19] Estes, 50.

[20] Estes, 51.

[21] Estes, 16.

[22] Estes, 20, 170.

[23] Amanda Follett Hosgood, “Wet’suwet’en, BC and Ottawa Move Forward on Land Rights and TitleThe Tyee (2 May 2020).