Issue 9 / Nature

December 07, 2019
A photo of Nick Estes.

Nick Estes.

Water Is Life: Nick Estes on Indigenous Technologies

Water is life. Not in a mystical or romantic way, but in the material way that all humans and countless nonhumans need water in order to stay alive. From August 2016 to February 2017, thousands of Native and non-Native people gathered at Standing Rock to fight for a world structured around a central tenet of Oceti Sakowin philosophy: we want to live and we want our children to live, so we have to protect the water. The opposing philosophy, enforced by multiple state police departments, private security contractors, and the US Army Corps of Engineers: profit is our birthright and we will extract it by any means necessary.

This struggle has been ongoing for generations. In his 2019 book Our History is the Future, Nick Estes, a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, situates the months-long encampment at Standing Rock within centuries-long traditions of Indigenous internationalist resistance to white supremacist imperialism, settler colonialism, and capitalism. Estes is a professor at the University of New Mexico and an organizer with The Red Nation, the Indigenous resistance organization he cofounded in 2014.

We sat down with him to talk about narratives of technological and scientific progress, the Red Deal, and the problem with land acknowledgements.

I wanted to start with your first day at camp at Standing Rock. In your book, you write about digging compost holes with an Ojibwe relative and building a kitchen shack with a Palestinian network admin. It seemed like an incredible logistical feat that brought together people from all over. Can you talk about the infrastructure you all built there and what made that convergence possible?

My first day at camp was late August 2016, before the dog attacks. We arrived to bring supplies, and we set up camp for about a week. Some of us from our organization, The Red Nation, had to leave, but some of us stayed for a long time. One of our people stayed until the last day when camp was evicted in February 2017. 

By and large, the infrastructure of the camp was organized around tribal nations. Our tribe, the Kul Wicasa, or Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, set up our own camp. Next to us was the Ihanktonwan, or Yankton, and next to them was the Oglalas. Then there was the Cheyenne River Sioux camp and then across the Cannonball River, there was the Rosebud Sioux camp. The camp structure took on an organic shape. Later on, other organizations and tribal nations filled in. 

Because of the culture of Native people in general, our camping and outdoor life is really well organized. We have a depth of communal knowledge about those subjects. Even though we are colonized and confined to reservations and don’t live the life that we once lived, we still have a seasonal cycle of migration and gathering. Summers are very community-oriented and organized around a kind of camp life, whether it’s Powwows or fairs or Sun Dances or whatever. Then in the winter, we go back to our more settled homes. Camp life at Standing Rock reflected that.

Everything was organized around need, so the first thing that went up were the porta potties. Then came the kitchens, followed by the donation tents where people could get camp supplies they didn’t have. It reflected the traditions of Indigenous people: if you didn’t have enough, you were still taken care of. Many people see Indigenous generosity as a weakness, but it’s one of our strengths.

Over a longer period of time, people developed internal political processes, both formal and informal. Not everyone was Lakota or Indigenous, and with that many people sharing space, there had to be some kind of community agreements. There were community councils where non-Indigenous people had a say. The camp infrastructure wasn’t meant to be permanent, but it suited the purpose.

Was there power or Wi-Fi? 

No. Or maybe there was for a moment. There was a place called Facebook Hill, which was the only place where you could get good cell phone reception. You would see people up there checking the internet, broadcasting to Facebook or checking email. 

I ask because the conventional narrative about other large mobilizations like Occupy or Arab Spring tends to emphasize the role of social media. How do you think about technology, whether within the context of the encampment at Standing Rock or more broadly? 

Technology is interesting because its value is socially constructed. For Native nations, technological progress is usually top-down. It’s usually something that’s forced on us. More generally, capitalism as a social process has devastated our communities. It has ensured that we don’t have self-determining authority over the means of production that are located on our land. Take the Navajo Nation: there are all these fracking rigs going up there. The road systems are created as infrastructure for fracking rigs. They’re not infrastructure for the people who live on the land. 

My friend, the poet Mark Tilsen, made a joke when we were discussing what the future would look like. I said, “Indigenous peoples aren’t protesting the construction of wind turbines and solar panels on their land.” And he replied, “Yet.” It’s true: regardless of what the technology is, who has the power to decide how it will be implemented and managed? Who will shoulder the burden of the transition away from fossil fuels? Take those electric cars that run on batteries made from rare earth elements — those elements have to come from somewhere. Those wind turbines have to be built on someone’s land.

At the same time, I would say that Indigenous ontologies and ways of being are social systems that value different things than settler ontologies, so our technologies look different. Indigenous technology gets cast as primitive, like it may have been useful in the past but no longer has any relevance. But that’s not true. Assembling communal life is in itself a technology. 

That dynamic, where technology by default means settler technology or capitalist technology as opposed to Indigenous technology, also operates with the law.

Your book shows that US law is not “the” law but is “settler law,” one of many possible legal frameworks. And one subtext of the book is that settler law is a technology for dispossessing Native nations of their land and replacing Indigenous people with settlers and infrastructure to support settler life. There’s a Lakota concept for this that you describe: Woope Wasicu, or “law of the colonizer.” Can you talk more about that?

These are ways that we’re racialized: we’re constructed as not developing socially valuable technologies and we’re constructed as lawless — not having forms of order, or having forms of order that are not legible to the settler state. Erasure is a social technology that makes the taking of our land much easier. It’s done not just at the level of the imagination, but enacted through the law itself. 

In my book, I mention this 1823 Supreme Court decision that said that Indigenous people only had occupancy rights to our land — not full title — so settlers who “discovered” our land could legally take it. That ruling was based on the “doctrine of discovery.” The Chief Justice in that case, John Marshall, cited a fifteenth-century papal bull called the “Doctrine of Christian Discovery” that was used to legally justify Portugal’s claims to land in West Africa. The reasoning was that, just like non-Christians in West Africa were considered “savages” who couldn’t own their own land, we couldn’t have full title to our land because we’re not full humans who exist at the level of civilization — a doctrine decided and standardized, of course, by the colonizing nation. 

So settler law comes in to impose itself on ours. And what’s interesting about US settler law is that even though the United States claims to be a democratic republic, it has a very covenant-based government, meaning that it derives its authority from a constitution that hasn’t changed much since it was written. The United States is different from other liberal capitalist democracies in that it came into existence as a capitalist democracy from the get-go. It didn’t evolve from feudalism like democracies did in Europe; it supplanted itself on top of what already existed, in order to destroy what already existed.

Consequently, US settlers were one of the first nationalities to define themselves against the people whose labor and resources they depended on, whether it was African slaves or Indigenous land. There are core principles of American identity that revolve around white supremacy, land ownership, xenophobia, anti-Indigenousness, and anti-Blackness. Those principles are ingrained not just in the Constitution, but into the broader social fabric of the United States. 

Those principles also helped compose a highly centralized national identity. In response, the multitude of disparate Native nations became centralized into fewer, more unified identities. Our Indianness as a universal identity that we share is always defined against what we are not, and what we are not is a colonizing nation. 

Another thread that runs through your book is the extent to which feats of engineering and scientific “progress” literally come at the expense of Native life and land. You write about the Pick-Sloan Plan, which was sold to the non-Native public as an innovative hydroelectric power project. Can you talk more about that?

In the name of providing cheap hydroelectricity to settlers and making the prairie bloom through irrigation, the Pick-Sloan Plan called for the construction of five dams along the Missouri River. So between 1946 and 1966, the US Army Corps of Engineers condemned and seized 550 square miles of Native land through eminent domain. The dams also flooded seven Lakota and Dakota reservations and forced thousands of people to relocate from land they had lived on for generations.

Those dams were imposed on us by the US military. Hydroelectric dams have a lot in common with nuclear power plants in terms of how they’re centrally and hierarchically managed, how they produce power, and how they’re ingrained within the military-industrial complex. Hydroelectricity and nuclear energy also both get lumped in as “green” technologies, but I would contrast the impact and management of those particular forms of technology with solar grids and wind turbines, which are very decentralized.

If you turn off the hydroelectric dam, the impact is catastrophic. The same goes for a nuclear power plant: if you’re not cooling your nuclear rods, there are disastrous downstream — literally, down the stream — consequences. You need hierarchical management built in, to keep people safe. But the existence of those threats is a manmade crisis that naturalizes and justifies that hierarchy once it’s been created.

On the flip side, solar power and wind power are decentralized. You knock a couple wind turbines off the grid and it doesn’t have any effect. Those are some of the things I think about. And even the fossil fuel industry is thinking about this. They want to recentralize those decentralized green technologies. It’s like the internet: everybody thought it was going to democratize everything, and now it’s been totally privatized and commodified. That’s something we have to fight in this energy transition.

Camp Tech

It’s hard to talk about the internet without talking about centralization, and also without talking about surveillance. One of the metaphors we have for online surveillance is the panopticon. But the scholar Simone Browne makes the case in her book Dark Matters that the origins of surveillance also lie in the slave ship and the forms of racialized policing that emerged from the plantation. Would you add the reservation to this set of ways of thinking about surveillance?

Yeah. I don’t think it’s a competing framework. I think it’s complementary. I’ve been thinking about camps as a technology of surveillance and control, and I would consider reservations to be a kind of camp. In the book, I talk about a few types of camps. There’s the resistance camp — the blockade — which has long been a tactic of Indigenous people. You saw it from the late 1960s through the early 1980s with the occupations of Alcatraz and Wounded Knee, and the Yellow Thunder camp in the Black Hills. You also saw it more recently with Standing Rock and the Unist’ot’en camp in British Columbia. Mauna Kea, where thousands of people are camping to protect a sacred Native site from a billion-dollar telescope, is becoming a resistance camp. We could go on and on. 

But there’s also the concentration camp. The US concentration camp originated as a technology of control specifically for Indigenous people. Under Abraham Lincoln, thousands of Dakotas were put in a concentration camp at Fort Snelling. In the Southwest in the same period, Navajos were subject to forced marches and imprisonment in camps. And, of course, reservations were and are concentration camps. Russell Means of the American Indian Movement once said, “Pine Ridge is concentration camp #334.” On our tribal IDs, we each have an assigned number that corresponds to our reservation. I’m from Lower Brule so mine is 343. The concentration camp evolved into the apartheid Bantustan system in South Africa. The architects of that system were looking at the reservation system in Canada because they shared an affiliation with the British Crown. So these technologies are co-constitutive.

The last type of camp are what Indigenous activists have called “man camps.” These begin as transient settlements of extractive industry workers who set up in an area temporarily and then leave. They’re the shock troops of capitalism. But what starts as temporary extractive infrastructure eventually becomes permanent outposts. 

Could you give an example?

My hometown, Chamberlain, South Dakota, used to be called Fort Kiowa. And it was a trading fort, a militarized encampment of primarily men who were killing tons of animals to extract furs. Now, it’s a racist border town. Many people think of the US-Mexico border when they think of border towns, but here I’m talking about the white-dominated settlements bordering Indian reservations that were once man camps and have now become permanent fixtures. 

The penetration of capitalism into non-capitalist economies is always accompanied by extreme violence, and it’s not just a process that starts and then ends — it’s ongoing. There was a time when US hunters and soldiers would go out and kill as many buffalo as they could. That was it; that was the whole goal. Miners did the same thing. And now you have man camps of oil workers who go into a region, run the oil extraction machinery, and then leave. These man camps obviously exist to extract resources — whether it’s animals or people or minerals — but they also perform a certain social function: they reorder societies toward the accumulation of capital. 

You see this now in the West Bank. Israeli settlers occupy these outposts in order to reshape the landscape and disrupt the social world of the people who were already there. The state deploys the Israeli Defense Forces to protect the settlers and put down Palestinian resistance. Sometimes there are more soldiers than settlers: they’re just there to protect a small sliver of illegal settlement.

So those are three technologies of surveillance that we can think about: an Indigenous countersurveillance program of creating resistance camps, the state-sanctioned concentration camp, and the public-private partnership that is the man camp.

When I asked the surveillance question, I thought you were going to talk about racist policing around reservations. But it sounds like the policing of Native people also happens in a more informal way through these man camps that pop up around extractive industries on or near Native land. So is the police and prison abolition work you do with The Red Nation also about fighting those extractive industries?

The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) issue is a perfect way to talk about carceral abolition work in that context. The activists who developed the MMIW framework were connecting it explicitly to the extractive industries. But there’s also a framing that says the problem is due to a lack of law enforcement as opposed to understanding police as part of the problem. If you read the reports on the MMIW epidemic, the perceptions and actions of law enforcement confirm that, as an institution, the police perpetuate the problem of violence against Indigenous women.

New Mexico has the highest number of MMIW cases in the US. What conditions contribute to that? New Mexico is undergoing an oil boom. Where are these women disappearing? They’re disappearing in border towns. Gallup, New Mexico was once a coal-mining community. Santa Fe was once a place where they bought and sold Native slaves. The same with Albuquerque, which is where I live. These are now permanent border towns where there are high rates of violence against Native women, as well as against LGBTQ and Two-Spirit people [Eds.: This is a Native term for gender-nonconforming people, distinct from the non-Native concept of LGBTQ identity.] In regions where oil and gas is taking off, you see this increased violence. Unfortunately, instead of throwing out the extractive industries, the solution so far has been to go to the police.

Let’s bring the surveillance conversation back to Standing Rock. In your book, you write about emails and other documents that came out after camp was evicted, where police and security contractors were discussing counterinsurgency tactics to use against Water Protectors. They were talking about “riot control agents,” aerial surveillance, and infiltrating camp. Did people at camp know this was happening?

There’s a naive trust in Facebook, Twitter, our cell phones — all these things we’re socialized to use day-to-day and bring into our intimate lives. Even technologies that are supposed to be encrypted were hacked. We don’t know how they were hacked, but information was getting out. 

I think that naive trust is partly because there’s a generational gap between movements today and those of the past that experienced the violence of COINTELPRO, the FBI’s counterintelligence program that targeted the Black freedom movement, the American Indian Movement, and the antiwar movement in the 1960s and 1970s. We don’t believe we are under constant surveillance, even though there has never been a point in human history where we are under such constant surveillance.

So those documents weren’t surprising. What we can take from them is how police officers and private security firms like TigerSwan were and are connecting different struggles. We’re often taught to silo our struggles, to say, “This is a Black issue; that’s a Native issue; that’s a Palestinian issue.” But they see it all as one, and we should too. North Dakota state police shared a federal “Field Force Operations” manual that references Ferguson. They are drawing connections among many different issues: violence against migrants crossing the border; the policing, criminalization, and surveillance of Water Protectors at Standing Rock; the dehumanization of Black people in Ferguson and Baltimore. Our adversaries see themselves as participating in a global counterinsurgency war, and we can’t underestimate the power of that alliance. It’s not a secret that Facebook works hand-in-hand with law enforcement. 

Our group, The Red Nation, dealt with this when we were planning a protest against the Entrada, a celebration of Spanish reconquest after the 1680 Pueblo Revolt that ultimately ended up being abolished by the city. We learned after the protest that the Sante Fe Police Department (SFPD) had issued a sealed warrant — so we never saw it at the time — and that Facebook had turned over all of our communications on Facebook Messenger. As a result, on the day of the action, the SFPD brought in twelve different law enforcement jurisdictions. There was a huge police presence with sniper nests and everything. Eight of our people got arrested. We didn’t find out until later that they had access to our Facebook messages. Most of what was on there was irreverent memes about the cops, but that was a wakeup call. We no longer write anything on our phones or social media that we’re not willing to share in public, no matter how private we think the conversation is.

The Red Deal

I want to change gears to talk about the Red Deal, The Red Nation’s proposal for climate justice and decolonization. What would you say are the main pillars?

Our program is influenced by the divest/reinvest strategies of Standing Rock and the Movement for Black Lives. At Standing Rock, Water Protectors called for divesting from fossil fuel industries. The Movement for Black Lives platform calls for divesting from carceral institutions and reinvesting in the things that people need to live — instead of the things that put us in jail. 

The Red Deal focuses on the state itself as opposed to industry because it’s the state that keeps the extractive industries intact. Who else was at the pipeline protests? The police. What allows the criminalization of Native people? The carceral legal apparatus. What prevents colonized nations from throwing off the yoke of US dominance so they can develop? The US military. So demilitarization and carceral abolition are two main pillars of this program. We estimate that divesting from those state institutions would free up about a trillion dollars to reinvest in things like hospitals and healthcare and land that has been destroyed here, as well as in other countries that have been damaged by the US military.

We’re also using the idea of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey’s Green New Deal, which essentially argues in its legislative text that every social justice issue should become a climate justice issue. Indigenous people have long been the most confrontational arm of the environmental justice movement, but have received the least attention when it comes to actually making policy. The Red Deal says that if we’re going to imagine carbon-free economies and the end of fossil fuels, then we also have to talk about decolonization. How are we going to build wind turbines but not give the land back to Indigenous people?

The Red Deal stands for a caretaking economy. If soldiers and the police are caretakers of violence, then we need to contrast those value systems with people who are caretakers of human and nonhuman life. That includes teachers, nurses, counselors, mental health experts. It also includes land defenders and Water Protectors. 

We all need water and land and forests to live. But when you walk into a restaurant, who gets a discount? Military and police, who, by the way, tend to be men. That reflects a value system. Caretakers tend to be women, and caretakers of the land tend to be Indigenous. If we look at the anti-protest and anti-BDS laws [Eds.: the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction movement is a Palestinian-led campaign “to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians”] that have gone through state governments, they criminalize caretakers. So that’s what we mean when we talk about investing in a caretaking economy that seeks to live in a correct relation with each other as human beings and nations, as well as a correct relation with the nonhuman world.

On the topic of lip service, what do you think of land acknowledgements? I recently came across one on the website of Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet subsidiary that’s spending $900 million to build a “smart city” on the Toronto waterfront.

A screenshot of the Sidewalk Toronto website covered by a popup alert with a statement acknowledging that Toronto is within the Treaty Lands and claimed Territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit, and an expression of gratitude.

Here’s what I think about land acknowledgements. I ride a bike to work. Imagine I wake up one day and my bike is gone. I’m late for work. Maybe I’m going to get fired and I won’t be able to feed my family, but I’m shit out of luck. And then some guy rolls by on my bike and is like, “Hey. I want to acknowledge that I’m riding your bike. I know it’s really bad that I stole it, but I hope we can work towards reconciliation.” And then he cruises away on my bike! 

I guess it’s not that land acknowledgements shouldn’t happen, but they just make me think, “Uh, okay. Great.”

But this kind of gesture isn’t limited to land acknowledgements. People often use the language of decolonization when they’re not actually talking about giving back our land. What they’re actually talking about is indigenization. That’s an inclusion framework: let’s include Indigenous people in their own dispossession. Let’s have more Indigenous clergy! Let’s have more Indigenous people in the police, in the military, in the forces that occupy our land!

In the vein of concrete questions about Red Deal implementation, I want to ask you about tradeoffs that tribal governments have made over the years. In the 1960s, Fairchild Semiconductor, a microchip manufacturer that was one of the first major firms in Silicon Valley, built a factory on a Navajo reservation in Shiprock, New Mexico with the support of the Navajo Tribal Council.

The one where the workers went on strike for better working conditions and then Fairchild shut it down?

Yes. Presumably, the Navajo Tribal Council wanted to bring jobs to the reservation. You’ve written about the tradeoffs that tribal governments navigate in deciding whether to participate in coal production or chip production or even solar power production on Native land. Do you think it’s fair to talk about that within the context of a Red Deal, or do you think the question is more about why tribal governments even have to think about those tradeoffs?

There are a lot of examples of this. There’s a Raytheon facility right outside of Farmington, New Mexico on Navajo land, where the workforce is 90 percent Navajo. That facility makes the microchips for the Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. The Alaska Native Corporation employs a lot of the private security forces who work at the child and family detention centers on the US-Mexico border. They also have contracts building what are essentially military bases in the Pacific. The Cherokee Nation has contracts to build State Department facilities in the Green Zone in Baghdad. There’s also a federal law that gives preference to Native businesses for lucrative defense contracts. These are the opportunities we get, and we have to take them because our subsistence economies have been annihilated.

People say the Navajo Nation is dependent on coal and oil and gas, but I would actually say that the Southwest is dependent on the Navajo Nation producing coal and oil and gas because no one else wants to do it. No one else will have the generating station on their land because it’s one of the dirtiest coal-fired power plants in the country. So Navajo lands have been sacrificed — whether it’s been for coal, oil, and gas, or something like uranium. The same is true of Pueblo lands: the first atomic bomb was created on Pueblo land. And the nuclear waste that resulted was buried in Pueblo sacred sites because US government agencies knew Pueblo people would never tell anyone because they won’t say where their sacred sites are. 

The reality is that Native nations have a longstanding intimacy with these kinds of economies, whether it’s nuclear economies or fossil fuel economies. Understanding the historical conditions that force Native nations to participate in these economies is important, but I don’t think it’s a conversation about tradeoffs. It’s about the fact that participating in these economies further entrenches us into the settler-colonial system — not just for our own dispossession, but also the dispossession of other people. The Red Deal presents an alternative: a shift away from the military-industrial complex and these extractive economies.

Does that entail a break from the Green New Deal that wants to see investment in green technologies that are also extractive? For example, you mentioned earlier that rare earth elements have to come from somewhere. How do technologies like lithium ion batteries that power electric vehicles fit into the Red Deal, given that lithium is mined on Indigenous land in Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile?

This idea that we’re just going to continue the same level of consumption in a different economy is absurd because it requires the ongoing dispossession and subordination of not just Indigenous nations here, but also Third World countries. There are proponents of the Green New Deal that agree with this. We simply have to lower our levels of consumption. As Grace Lee Boggs and James Boggs said in Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century, “The revolution to be made in the United States will be the first revolution in history to require the masses to make material sacrifices rather than to acquire more material things.”

Many of the revolutions that erupted in the Third World increased consumption levels for the vast majority of those societies because they were under-consuming. To this day, there are many countries that are under-consuming. The United States is not one of those countries. Now, there are a lot of people in this country who are under-consuming, like Native people who live in dire poverty. But, by and large, the average North American middle-class and upper-middle-class person consumes way too much. 

I don’t dwell too much on settlers and whether they will ever have an ethical relationship to land. Some of them will turn into fascists — many already have — and some of them will follow us. If we’re decentering whiteness, and we’re decentering settler ontologies, and we’re actually advocating for their abolition, what does that new world look like? What does ending the colonial relation look like? 

Ultimately, we’re trying to center what good relations to the land means. Instead of talking about car batteries, I think the real conversation should be: why are we working more than twenty hours per week? Why are there jobs that require air travel? Why don’t we have a universal basic income across the globe so people don’t have to leave their hometowns to find work? How do we end border imperialism so capital doesn’t have an endless supply of cheap labor? Those are some of the things that I’m thinking about.

This piece appears in Logic's issue 9, "Nature". To order the issue, head on over to our store. To receive future issues, subscribe.