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Native rights and resistance after Standing Rock

Nick Estes and Ragina Johnson interviewed by Khury Petersen-Smith - Socialist Worker, January 24, 2018

One of Donald Trump's first acts as president was to sign executive orders to push through construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and Keystone XL Pipeline. Both projects were flashpoints of Indigenous resistance, especially DAPL, which sparked a rebellion at Standing Rock that galvanized months of protest and political action around the country.

The executive orders signaled Trump's hard line against Indigenous protest, as part of his broader attack on oppressed people, the working class and the environment. More recently, Trump announced the reduction of protected lands at Bears Ears National Monument, amid a series of insults toward Native Americans, such as his disrespect of Navajo veterans when they visited the White House.

Nick Estes is a co-founder of the Red Nation website, and Ragina Johnson is an activist and member of the International Socialist Organization. Both participated in the Standing Rock resistance and other struggles, and have written prolifically on Indigenous politics. They talked with Khury Petersen-Smith about the state of the struggle after Standing Rock and the questions of Indigenous oppression and self-determination that lie before us.

CAN YOU discuss some of the lessons of Standing Rock a year after Trump pushed through the Dakota Access Pipeline?

Nick: Yes, but to back up a bit before Trump made that executive order, I want to look at the tail end of the Obama administration, because it's important to contextualize that decision.

On December 5, 2016, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers halted construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline to do an environmental impact study, and that was the impetus for the evictions that would come later in February--to say: "Look, the struggle is over, go home, we don't need people on the ground anymore."

So in many ways, it was kind of a signal to people on the ground that these decisions were going to be made behind closed doors, and they were going to be made at a high executive level.

The next month, I was in Washington, D.C., lobbying senators like Al Franken and other Democrats to support the clemency application of Native political prisoner Leonard Peltier. The sense that we got from the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee was that Indigenous issues were outside the comfort zone of people like Al Franken, and those close to the Obama administration.

At the same time, we felt that there was such an immense amount of pressure in the public sphere in favor of this clemency application--especially because of Standing Rock--that there was no way that Obama could morally refuse this clemency application.

But we were wrong. And he was a president who issued so many pardons--particularly relating to nonviolent drug offenses, but he also granted the release of [Puerto Rican political prisoner] Oscar Lopez Rivera. So we were very hopeful.

But then we found out that, in keeping with every presidential administration since Jimmy Carter, there was no interest in considering Leonard Peltier's clemency application.

This is important, because if we think about the criminalization of Water Protectors at this particular moment, we have probably about five Leonard Peltiers. Among them are Red Fawn and Little Feather, both of whom are facing decades behind bars. It's also important to remember that Red Fawn herself comes from an American Indian Movement family. Her parents knew Leonard Peltier, and they, too, were profiled by the FBI.

This is the backdrop to the moment in early February where Trump, within two weeks of taking office, signs these two executive orders--one to fast-track construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the other to fast-track the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which the Obama administration had denied back in December 2015.

Many people saw this as a complete shift--a complete 180-degree turn--from the Obama administration. I think there's a tendency to lump all of these setbacks for the environmental movement and Indigenous struggles onto Trump.

But in fact, you have to see that the roots of these struggles don't just go back to Obama--they go back to a continuing war against Indigenous peoples in North America and in Turtle Island.

It's important to look at this particular decision to force through DAPL and see that it's not exceptional--it's part of this longer process. Trump just opened up more than a billion acres for offshore drilling, reversing Obama-era policies and protections that were specifically in response to the 200 million gallons of oil dumped into the Gulf of Mexico during the BP spill.

But it's also the case that the movement put a huge dent in the fossil fuel industry. We have to look at what just happened in New York City, where Bill de Blasio is having the city divest pension funds from the fossil fuel industry--and also sue oil companies for their responsibility and role in climate change, specifically relating to Hurricane Sandy.

I don't think that what's happened in New York City would have been possible had it not been for Standing Rock.

Ragina: I think what you're talking about is really important, Nick.

Many people want to put all of the attacks and setbacks onto the Trump administration without taking into consideration what the Obama administration did. The U.S. actually became the largest producer of oil and fossil fuel extraction in the world, surpassing Saudi Arabia. This is how the U.S. economy was rebuilt after the crash in 2007-08.

We effectively stopped Keystone XL pipeline. The resistance that culminated at Standing Rock is the product of decades and centuries of resistance--and in particular, the last decade of Indigenous nations reasserting their treaty rights against the Keystone XL pipeline.

A lot of the nations that stood up--the Lakota and others--had been standing up against KXL, so there was a foundation in place for using treaty rights. There was the Nez Perce, who had stopped sections of the pipeline crossing over their lands through direct action.

So we effectively stopped KXL for a time. We'll see what happens now, but there are many lessons to be drawn. This struggle will continue, because there's whole new wave of extraction--the U.S. economy has depended on it.

Nick, could you talk a little bit about Leonard Peltier and his situation today? This is so tragic, especially when you look at the number of political prisoners who have died in prison, or shortly after being released.

Also, I wasn't able to go back to Standing Rock a second time, but you were there. Could you talk about the radicalization and solidarity there?

Nick: Yes, but before I answer that question, I just wanted to point out something about the Keystone XL pipeline.

We often think of it as defeated, but in fact, Obama only denied construction of one-quarter of that pipeline. Actually, the Nez Perce were protesting and blockading the construction materials that were for the three-quarters of the pipeline that actually did get constructed.

So the Keystone XL pipeline was built, and under the Obama administration, there were 10 Keystone XL-sized pipelines built beginning in 2010 through the end of his term in January 2017.

It's also important to remember that, like you said, Obama drilled the U.S. out of the Great Recession on the backs of the working poor, as well as Indigenous peoples. That was incentivized with his 2010 New Energy Security Plan, which actually increased domestic oil production by 70 percent beginning in 2010--and that continues into Trump's administration. So I'm glad you brought that up.

About Leonard Peltier, there's no other way to put this: Obama gave Leonard Peltier a death sentence when he denied him clemency.

As it stands today, Leonard Peltier is held in a maximum-security prison. He's an elder, he has Type 2 diabetes, and he has other medical conditions. He's in a place where the life expectancy is somewhere between 50 and 60 years old. And as we know from previous political prisoners who have been released, prison adds two decades to your life.

So Peltier is biologically 70-some years old. But physically, considering the conditions in which he's being housed, he's close to 90 years old in terms of how his body is breaking down. It's terrible what Obama has done.

About the repression at Standing Rock and how it has raised people's consciousness: There was an immense amount of police, military and private security repression that was inflicted on Water Protectors--who by the way, were not all Indigenous.

But--and this isn't to minimize the amount of violence against people at Standing Rock--there were no deaths committed by police officers at Standing Rock. However, in 2016 and now in 2017, Indigenous peoples were killed by U.S. police officers at a higher rate than any other demographic.

Those killings at the hands of police officers weren't in conflict zones or protests. The victims weren't killed by riot police, or by police officers driving around in armored tanks, as we saw in Ferguson, as we saw in Baltimore, as we saw in Standing Rock. They were killed during routine stops.

For example, the same year that Standing Rock took off, before I went up there, I was at an anti-police brutality march in Winslow, Arizona, after Austin Shipley--a white police officer--murdered a Navajo mother, Loreal Tsingine, in cold blood earlier that year. And it was ruled a justified shooting because she held a pair of roach clips, and that was considered a weapon.

So I would say that the routineness of police violence is much more deadly in these other contexts than we consider at Standing Rock. But it's not like one is worse than the other--they inform each other.

At Standing Rock, we saw the police state stripped bare. People saw what happens when Indigenous peoples with their allies stand up against Big Oil. And who steps in?

Under the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC), which was created in the mid-2000s to provide state governments with the ability to enlist the services of other law enforcement jurisdictions in the case of natural disasters--such as fires, floods, hurricanes, etc.--the government of North Dakota, under the direction of Gov. Jack Dalrymple, enlisted 96 law enforcement jurisdictions from around the country, along with Homeland Security, the Border Patrol, the North Dakota National Guard, the FBI and so on.

So you had 96 law enforcement jurisdictions along with a whole host of security state apparatus jurisdictions at Standing Rock. The only other time that that happened recently was in Baltimore, when the state of Maryland used the powers of EMAC to enlist other law enforcement agencies--and the Maryland National Guard--to suppress Black rebellion.

So we're seeing that, while EMAC was created to combat the effects of climate change, it's actually being used to target Black uprisings, as well as an Indigenous uprising, against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which will add to the causes of climate change.

At Standing Rock, police officers were invited into circles, and then two weeks later, they were shooting beanbag rounds in the faces of those same Water Protectors, as well as pepper-spraying children. That's what happened.

Nobody goes to a protest and wants to get tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed. Nobody wanted to confront the police--this wasn't about police violence at the outset. But it raises the question that you can't ignore: what the apparatuses of the state such as the police actually do and what their role is in these particular protests.

WHAT ABOUT struggles today? Can you talk about the fight to defend the Bears Ears National Monument, which Trump announced the seizure of?

Ragina: First, a word about struggles over the land. A lot of people might think of the history of Native Americans as one of continuous land theft. But there have actually been gains made by these struggles.

So when we talk about Bears Ears, that's an example of the National Parks Service and the U.S. government--which have stolen plenty of land--designating a place in a way that it's a context for recognition and Native land rights.

I also want to say that there are so many struggles that are particular to Native Americans, but so relevant to what's happening in this country more broadly.

We are in the midst of #MeToo right now, for example. And one piece of what happened at Standing Rock was resistance around the long-standing struggles of Indigenous women, families and communities in terms of the questions of liberation, control of our own bodies and violence against women.

So for instance--Nick might remember this--a number of Native women came forward and talked about their experiences of reproductive health care on reservations in particular. I heard stories that there's one person who can deliver babies, and it has to be scheduled and it has to be a C-section--and that's if you're lucky enough to have the resources to actually have control.

Then there's the high rate of violence against Indigenous women. There's been a decades-long struggle for missing and murdered Indigenous women, and Standing Rock created a new opportunity to talk about that.

Lastly, I want to say something about treaty rights: It's not just about the question of land and resources and culture, though those things are so important. There's the question of historic payment--that is, what's owed to Native people.

It's not an afterthought to say that Indigenous people should have health care or access to quality education and schools. Resources have been stripped away from people, and now you have the Trump administration basically cutting these programs by tens of millions of dollars.

These are life-and-death situations that people are facing in Indigenous communities, and it's due to the fact that the U.S. nation-state has stolen the wealth that's been created on the backs of Indigenous people, along with African Americans and workers generally in this country. This is coming to a head in a crisis right now.

Nick: I think one of the most profound things for me about the Bears Ears struggle is what we're seeing in Salt Lake City--in the heart of Republican country: Thousands and thousands of people, Native and non-Native people alike, protesting that decision.

It just speaks to the utter disconnect between this current administration and what is actually happening with everyday people on the ground. Indigenous rights are everyone's rights in that context.

I WANT to ask you about self-determination--Indigenous liberation in the context of liberation more broadly.

I find myself in conversations both about the question of Indigenous self-determination here in the United States, but also in the context of Palestine. One response to the question of Palestinian liberation--usually in hostility, but sometimes genuinely--is: "So if Palestinians have liberation, are you saying that everyone else has to leave Palestine?" Just like: "If Indigenous people have self-determination, would that mean the entire U.S. population needs to all go back where we came from?"

There are a lot of problems with that question, but it seems to me that the notion that this place can either hold Native people or hold non-Native people is actually the logic of a settler, not the logic of Indigenous self-determination.

I was wondering if both of you could speak to that question--because I think it kind of gets at the heart of the question of how Indigenous people are going to get free?

Ragina: I think you answered your own question.

We also have to look at the United States in the context of the world right now. We're living in a place where private ownership of material wealth and our earth and society as a whole reigns--and where has that gotten the vast majority of people? Nowhere. In terms of the need to expropriate what is owed to Indigenous people as a whole, it has to come from the top of society.

We're talking about the vast majority of people here and around the world caring about wanting access to clean water and clean air, and people wanting to live their lives in a way that isn't a death sentence. That's a different way of looking at it than seeing white people as settlers versus Natives.

I do think that right now, there's a political sentiment for solidarity and the type of world that we want. Native liberation has to be central to that.

You can't have socialism--the full realization of democratic rights and equality--unless the inequality and historic wrongs toward Indigenous people are undone in this country. This has to be front and center. This exposes the whole way that capitalism has thrived and the brutality of it in the U.S.--in the same way as questions of Black liberation.

But lastly, we are a small percentage of the U.S. population, and we can't do this on our own. That's where the whole question of solidarity comes in: In order to liberate everyone, we have to do this together.

But that means we have to do the work of educating. What are the real conditions of Indigenous people? How are some of these demands different from the demands of the whole working class and other oppressed peoples? How are they the same? And how do we forefront those demands and questions of liberation as part of our movement?

For instance, when people go out and fight for particular cultural rights of Indigenous people--the rights to ancestral burial grounds, for example--those aren't exactly the same as the questions of self-determination or liberation of other peoples in this country.

So those need to be fought for at the same time that we understand there's a whole host of other issues in terms of clean air, clean water and health care.

Nick: When we look at radical traditions of self-determination, I go back to Lenin. In some of his final writings on the question of national oppression, he really cautioned against this rising Greater Russian chauvinism.

He argued that within the movement for socialism, there has to be special attention paid to oppressed nationalities. In particular, he was talking about the idea of a Greater Russia, and that you can't just wholesale incorporate oppressed peoples into a socialist society without letting them develop, because they've been denied the opportunity to develop as independent autonomous peoples and nations.

That resonates because we've been denied the opportunities to self-determine our own futures, on our own lands, on our own terms.

There are different kinds of nationalism. There's a hyper-reactionary exclusive version. But there's also been a very internationalist approach to Indigenous nationhood.

And I think we can look to Palestine. Palestinians know that they can't end Israeli occupation on their own, and so they've developed--probably more successfully than any oppressed group in recent memory--an international program of boycott, divestment and sanctions.

So you can't talk about settler-colonialism in the United States without talking about settler-colonialism in Palestine. That's a really important question because you can't talk about Israel/Palestine without talking about settler-colonialism, but people tend to forget settler-colonialism in the United States, or North America, or Turtle Island.

I think you can route a lot of these questions of historic oppressions and ongoing oppressions through the history of settler-colonialism and its current legacies in our present. I think that's a conversation that we need to have.

As part of that conversation, we have to look beyond the borders of the United States.

I think in our organizing, we reinforce the Monroe Doctrine in saying that anything that happens below the Southern border is not our concern. But we have to think internationally, because Indigenous people exist throughout the hemisphere and the world.

We have a special obligation as people who are in the belly of the beast--in the largest, most powerful imperial force in history--to undo and challenge that imperialist project.

Throughout history, people have been able to make these connections, and we can do it again. It's insulting to everyday people to say that they can't hold in their minds that this is a settler-colonial society, or that everyone deserves a living wage, or that everyone deserves free health care, or that education should be free.

We don't have to only focus on one thing, because that just reinforces these categories that were forced upon us to begin with. The fight for a living wage is important as it relates to Indigenous people, because when you raise the living standards of the people who are at the very bottom, you raise the living standards of the entire working class.

But that doesn't mean this is just an economic struggle. It has to be an anti-colonial struggle as well. And one in which we talk about the capitalist class.

So the question "What do we do with all these people?" is the wrong question. Ted Turner owns more land than entire Indigenous nations. He owns over 2 million acres. That's larger than the nation that I actually come from.

Lastly, going back to Standing Rock and Indigenous movements, these aren't exclusive projects. These are projects that include everyone.

One thing that's galvanizing about Indigenous struggles is their relationality. There's the environment--and I don't mean some kind of mystic, "we're one with nature" thing. We're close to nature, but we're also not a majority rural population. About four out of five Native people live in urban places like Albuquerque, New York, Los Angeles and other cities.

So when we talk about these ideas of liberation, what would Indigenous liberation mean? It actually means liberating the land. And that means we have to talk about capitalism. Settler-colonialism is important, but it often gets depoliticized--in the same way that white supremacy does--when we eliminate the question of class.

Transcription by Jordan Weinstein and Rebecca Anshell Song

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.