This was my keynote talk for the 7th Annual Native American Alumni Dinner on April 7, 2017 at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion.
Hau Mitakuyapi. Nape Cuzayapi. Cante Waste.
What an honor and privilege it is to be invited back to the homelands and to my alma mater, the University of South Dakota. Wopila to the USD Tiospaye Council and the USD Alumni Association. I also want to give a special shout out to Sydney Schad, a former GEARUP student of mine, for all the hard work in getting me back home. A lot of my former GEARUP students, colleagues, mentors, and relatives are here tonight, and I wish you all well. Wopila.
This is the second time I’ve been invited back to USD since I left in 2010. Returning home is always bittersweet. I’m always anxious to visit friends and relatives. Equally so, I’m troubled by what exactly I’m returning to. What has changed? Who has changed? Did I change? What is changing? Are we going forwards or backwards?
The last couple of months appear like we are moving backwards in time. Some would have it that we should “make America great again.” And it makes me think: when was America ever great? Back in the sixteenth century Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian explorer, got lost somewhere at the delta of the Amazon river. Native people took care of him and his crew. He was the first to recognize these continents were not Asia — even Columbus still believed he had landed in Asia. As a result, an entire hemisphere took his name: America.
In 1516 an Englishman Sir Thomas More would later take Vespucci’s writings on the egalitarian Indigenous societies he encountered and write the book and coin the phrase Utopia. Utopia is a Latin-derived word that literally means “nowhere.” More’s ideas of an egalitarian society were also shaped by Europe’s bloody civil war, also known as the Reformation. The losers of that war, the Protestants, banished from their lands, would seek refuge in the “New World” and attempt to make society anew — or, as some saw it, “make heaven on earth.”
These were the early seeds for the greatest empire in the history of the world that would eventually call itself the United States of America. “America” may have been a “nowhere” place for Europeans. But it was a somewhere place for the countless nations of people who lived here.
There was also major problem: the empire needed land. And the “New World” was actually an Old World fully inhabited by people with their own knowledges, their own histories, their own civilizations, and their own ways of knowing the world. Those ways of knowing didn’t carve the world up into owners, workers, races, and the “civilized” and “uncivilized.”
So what “America” — what utopia — are we exactly returning to?
Don’t take my word for it. I’m a pessimist and a guarded skeptic when it comes to history and change. Pessimism allows us to be cautiously optimistic that things can and will go wrong. When they go right, we’re pleasantly surprised. As a student of history, I don’t think the founding of “America” was ever morally right. And I’m equally hesitant to call myself an “American” or the United States “America” after a lost Italian explorer.
American history feels like the movie Groundhog’s Day. Have you seen that movie? We wake up knowing today will be the same day as yesterday. Like Bill Murray, we have mapped out the entire day — armed with the previous knowledge of how the day will repeat itself. We can change it and modify it to certain degrees, hoping for better outcomes and build on past mistakes. We can take the groundhog hostage. We can coerce and trick people and bend them to our will. But, in the end, we will still wake up on Groundhog’s Day. Will we find that ultimate purpose or will to break the cycle? Will today be the day we finally fall in love with the lovely Andie Macdowell so we can break the cycle and wake up tomorrow to a new day? Maybe. But most likely not. At least, not yet.
Yesterday, when some of us may have forgotten the US was still at war in Afghanistan and Iraq, we woke up to the news that the US has now bombed Syrian military bases. We will wake up tomorrow and the US will still be at war in all three of those countries. Maybe we should ask Bill Murray from Groundhog’s Day if he remembers why we’re still at war. Because some of us seem to have forgotten. As educators, we are, and will be, teaching generations of students whose entire lives have only known war. I’m not just talking about “American” students whose country has been at war for the last fifteen years. I’m also talking about the students from the countries the US bombs, invades, and puts military bases. At the very least, we have an obligation to give them a home if the US military blows up, invades, or occupy theirs.
Is this what we want to leave for our future generations? No waking up for tomorrow, just waking up for more war today?
The last time I left my homelands was on November 8, the day Trump was elected. I also started smoking cigarettes again that day. Today, I returned home the day after Trump bombed Syria. This is what it means to return home for me.
To have a tomorrow and to wake up from today, we need bigger collective imaginations, more courageous collective dreams, and more intimate knowledges of who we are not just as individuals and not as “Americans” but as people, human beings. And we need to intimately know this land before it was ever called “America.” There is a name for it other than “America.” Some call it Makoce — the earth, which is as much alive as our histories. Its beating heart is He Sapa, the Black Hills, and its aorta is Mni Sose, the Missouri River. What do to the earth’s heart and what we put in her veins, we also do to ourselves.
The important thing, however, is that we can learn from history and remember we carry with us — each of us — the past experiences of ancestors — their misdeeds and their victories. We must also learn from the land. Even if you’re like me living in a tangled, concrete maze thousands of miles away, we must remember it was here that the first Lakotas and Dakotas became human — where we emerged from the wase, the red earth, to become the Oyate Luta or, as they say on this side of the river, the Oyate Duta, the Red Nation. This is where the town Vermillion takes its name from the Wase Wakpa, the red clay creek. When we emerged, we were pitiful creatures, the ikce wicasa, the common people, who depended on our relatives the Pte Oyate, the buffalo nation, and the Mni Oyate, the water nation, to give us life. Hence the phrase, Mni Wiconi, water is life. They protected us and cared for us. And we must ask, where are those nations today, our relatives who helped us realize our own humanity? How are we protecting them and taking care of them today?
I was born and raised along the banks of the Mni Sose, the Missouri River. I believe it was during a blizzard. I was too young to remember! The town was Chamberlain, the white-dominated border town just twenty miles south of Crow Creek.
From what I’m told, my ancestor from my father’s side Melissa DuFonde, a Dakota woman, was orphaned during the 1862 US-Dakota War. Her Dakota name was Mni Oke Win, the Woman Who Digs by the Water. As a young woman, she fled to the Yankton Agency, where she was shipped upriver north to Crow Creek. Crow Creek was a concentration camp for the survivors of the war, mostly old men, women, and children who were banished from the homelands, Mni Sota, and Minnesota Territory. Because her family was killed off either by soldiers or vigilante settlers — we don’t know which, we don’t know our connection to the Dakota people or the Dakota Makoce. But it doesn’t matter, because she was taken in as a relative and later married into the Kul Wicasa Oyate, the Lower Brule. Through kinship she and her descendants (such as myself) became Lakotas. It was during those apocalyptic moments, when entire families and nations were being exterminated and actively hunted, that we cared for each other by making new relatives.
I am also told Chamberlain was once called Maka Tipi — or cave dwellers. The name has two meanings. The first comes from when our Dakota relatives fled the US military’s “columns of vengeance” and took refuge in the Missouri River cliffs at the river crossing now called Chamberlain. In 1863, generals Sully and Sibley led punitive campaigns against fleeing Dakotas from Minnesota Territory, culminating in the massacre 300 women and children at Whitestone Hill in what is today North Dakota. The second meaning comes from the first white people who attempted settle the area. Unfamiliar with the weather and the terrain, their flimsy structures were quickly torn apart by summer thunderstorms. At the turn of the nineteenth century, headmen from Lower Brule and Crow Creek came to Chamberlain and helped the settlers construct the first Masonic Lodge. It was one of the first stone buildings and the first building on main street, most likely in hopes of establishing friendly relationships with their white neighbors who had, several generations earlier, hunted fugitive Dakotas for scalps. Those early attempts at making relatives with settlers, literally cemented in the stone buildings, were genuine and sincere for our part. Yet, Chamberlain, although it’s population is slowly becoming more and more Native, still to this day refuses to allow Lakota and Dakota honor songs at its high school graduation. Perhaps they have forgotten how pitiful they were when they first arrived to this land. Perhaps they have forgotten their ancestor’s pledge to live in peace here. Perhaps they have forgotten their own history. Perhaps they truly believe they are in the nowhere place called “America,” where promises and history don’t matter.
I blame my bad eyesight on my mother, Angela Quinn-Estes. She was an educator and taught me to read before I ever attended school. Poor people move a lot. I didn’t understand that at first. But I once counted we had moved over twenty-three times before I turned eighteen. As a child, we bounced around from Mitchell, Gregory, Winner, Brookings, and finally settling back in Chamberlain. Everywhere we went, I had books because we had libraries. I was consumed with books and information. I stayed up late reading everything I could get my hands on: comic books, novels, newspapers, the ingredients for toothpaste, etc.
My mother’s ancestors were poor Irish Catholic settlers from Faith, bordering the Cheyenne River reservation. Her father became an orthodontist and she was raised most of her life in Raleigh and Durham, North Carolina. From what she tells, they were kind people to their own but also were deep-seated racists. Maybe that’s why we never knew that side of the family very well. Us half-breeds tainted the lineage. She met my father, Ben Estes, in Chamberlain along the river. My father has a thick rez accent and my mom, until the day she died, kept her southern drawl. So I inherited from my parents a peculiar accent, bad eyesight, and the tendency to read tubes of toothpaste.
If my mother gave me education, my father gave me compassion. I would later learn from my father the long, deep history of the land. You may not know it, most likely because his occupation requires him to see people when they are at the worst (he’s a cop), but dad loves his people and the land. My brothers and my dad all work in jobs where if they visit you, it’s probably on the worst day of your life. They are public servants, who respond to fires, accidents, violence, etc. I don’t envy them. Meanwhile, I just read books and write what I think are witty and clever things. Dad is what I would later learn descended from a long line of Lakota nationalists — patriots who love their land and people. That’s where his compassion comes from.
In my short life, those two things are what kept me alive: compassion and knowledge. They are also things that can never be taken from you. They may take your land and you may be poor as hell, but they can never take away your knowledge and compassion. That’s who I am, or at what I aspire to be: a compassionate, educated, Lakota, with Irish settler ancestry that I know nothing about. In other words, don’t light a match near me.
While we grew up poor, we never knew it. I was always surrounded by books, stories, loving grandparents and relatives who always had plenty of frybread and cigarette smoke to make you feel at home, and we had plenty of cats and other animals we adopted as our own.
I remember when we were young, we plugged newspapers and cardboard into the holes of the floorboards of my mom’s clunky, white Ford Grenada to prevent snow and water from splashing up into our faces. One time, I remember sitting in that Granada in the Buche’s grocery store parking lot bawling my eyes out. Mom had gotten into an argument with the cashier. I didn’t understand at the time but she wasn’t allowed to purchase groceries that day. According the cashier, she had used up all her store credit. So we went hungry. She later told me the cashier made a comment about refusing service to a broke, single mom raising two children from different dads — one white and one Native. Little did she know my blonde-haired, blue-eyed brother had the same dad. He was just pulled from the oven too quickly and didn’t get time to brown up!
Those are the things I remember growing up. There was plenty of tragedy, humor, and rage.
In my teens, I remember my first love: punk rock. Punk rock saved my life. It connected me with young people all over South Dakota who wanted a different world, a better world. We traveled to underground basement shows and talked about radical politics. Most in the scene were poor white kids who grew up in trailer parks on the ride side of the tracks like me. Punk rock brought me to Omaha in 2003. Feeling much like I do today as I did fourteen years ago, I detested war and was outraged like millions across the globe that the US invaded Iraq. After my shift ended at Pizza Hut one night, a close friend and I drove to Omaha to protest the second Iraq War. I was 17. It was the first time I smelled teargas and the first time I tasted pepper spray. It made me think, why is peace is so violent? I was forever changed. I joined the movement and never left. This moment is when my education really began.
Punk rock also brought me to Vermillion and to USD. All my friends had come here to start an activist and punk scene. I can’t remember if I chose to come here to go to school or to become an organizer. Either way, it was cheap and I got some scholarship money. Reading for coursework was perhaps an added benefit. After a while, I was the only one of my peers still attending classes. Nevertheless, I spent six years here finishing my undergraduate degree in history in 2008 and leaving grad school 2010 to take care of my dying mother and returning in 2013 to finish my master’s degree in history.
Later, I would learn I was the only one of my freshmen cohort of eighteen Native students to finish my undergraduate degree at USD. At the time I had graduated high school, Natives had a seventy-five percent dropout rate just from public schools. Why did I stay in school? And why did my peers dropout? There are several reasons. No matter what, if I had stayed out all night for a show or whatever, I always attended my classes. Attendance wasn’t perfect, but you get the picture. I credit GEARUP for my educational successes. Had it not been for that program, I would not be here today. Most of you in the room would not be here today.
My freshmen and sophomore year, I was in the earth sciences, convinced I could save the planet with science. I was fairly good at math and loved learning about our planet. I still love science. Math, not so much. This all changed the semester I took a required US History survey course. The professor, now retired, made several racist comments about Natives in class. Upset, I spoke with him after class. I expressed my concerns. He quickly dismissed me by saying, “I don’t get paid six digits a year to make this shit up!” He turned his back to me and walked away. I got a C in the course and decided I was going to become a historian. I would like to add: as it turned out, I really enjoyed history and my history professors were not all racists.
As Native students, we organized to get the American Indian Studies program out of the basement of Dakota Hall — which we did. Imagine that, you’re in the basement of the building that’s named after you. We also attempted to get USD to abolish its racist alma mater song, known as “The Pioneer Spirit,” which celebrates the conquest of “untried frontiers.” It doesn’t matter if you’re Native or non-Native. It’s embarrassing to have your educational achievements tarnished by a song that celebrates the theft of the Black Hills and the conquering and genocide of Indigenous peoples. For those who are going to graduate, at the graduation ceremony it may be your first time hearing the song. So here’s your warning.
It’s important to consider the particular history of this institution and what it chooses to celebrate, remember, and forget. Institutional memory and celebrations speak to a university’s committed values. USD is a land grant institution. After the genocidal conclusion of the 1862 US-Dakota War, USD was awarded land by the federal government. As I mentioned above, my ancestors were targeted for extermination during that war. Weeks after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, he ordered the hanging of 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minnesota as punishment for the Dakota Uprising. This is how USD was founded: on stolen Indian land. There was nothing “untried” about these frontiers. These frontiers were inhabited by people. As university campuses around the nation begin to abolish symbols of white supremacy such Confederate flags and buildings named after slave owners, USD needs to seriously consider its commitments not just to Native people but to everyone. Does USD stand for Indigenous genocide? If not, then why does the institution celebrate it? It always concerns me when people confuse reverence with memory. Abolishing a racist song, mascot, statue, etc. doesn’t erase history. Those things are about reverence — appreciation, respect, and honor. We can remember Indigenous genocide without celebrating it. That’s what historians and the unread books we write are for.
But I would also caution: these are not histories that are safely confined to the past. They are very much alive and well in the present. We only need to look to Standing Rock and the heroic effort by Water Protectors to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. We should be talking about what happened in Standing Rock and why it posed such a threat to the order of things. I’m not sure what the media in South Dakota has been saying, but Standing Rock was about more than stopping a pipeline. I spent some time up there and I want to share some perspectives with you about my experience. It speaks to what a possible more just and peaceful future may look like.
We live in an era where many people in this state, especially it’s elected leadership, view Indigenous sovereignty and treaties as a threat. This view is interesting because it gets at the heart of what Standing Rock was all about. What is widely dubbed the #NoDAPL movement is about upholding the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty and about protecting the water from inevitable contamination. After all, it’s not if the pipeline breaks but when. All pipelines break, no matter how safe or how thick the Chinese-manufactured steel. Most critics will say that treaties are ancient documents with no relevance in the present. There is a document older than the treaties — the US Constitution — that says “treaties are the Supreme Law of the land.” As Lakotas and Dakotas, we may be familiar with all these arguments. And they are all sound arguments.
Opponents of treaties, Indigenous sovereignty, and giving land back to its rightful caretakers are really just afraid we will do to them what they did to us: genocide, removal, confinement to reservations, the destruction of lands and water, etc. That’s a curious assumption. First, there is an implicit acknowledgement of fault, that these lands were not “untried frontiers,” that genocide did take place, and that, indeed, this land is stolen. For this settler society to flourish, they had to take our land and we had to give up who we were. Those are not radical things to say. They are truths that we must be courageous enough to admit to ourselves. Second, refusing to acknowledge that their settler government made treaties with us, they take no responsibility. We must remind them, those treaties are not just Indian treaties, they are your treaties, too. It is your responsibility to uphold them, too. Lastly, how unimaginative! Are we possessed only with the capacity to solve problems with war and violence? That’s a very pessimistic view of humanity.
I read some interviews with the cops who worked the pipeline protests. A fair number of law enforcement and military personnel conceded the larger point that the Oceti Sakowin, the Great Sioux Nation, had a legitimate legal, political, and moral claim to stop the pipeline. One cop told a reporter, “The conversation among those in the camp has changed to treaty lands. That won’t be decided out here, at this level, but they have a very valid argument there. They might be on to something if they pursue that.” That raises an important question. If there are wrongs committed and indeed this land was never ceded the United States, then what authority does a local county sheriff’s office have to weigh in on treaty rights and stolen land? The police should never have been there in the first place. They should never have done what they did to people.
But, I suppose, you need an enemy and someone to blame. Why not blame the Indians? It seems like the narrative portrayed in North Dakota was that angry Indians who hated white people were burning cars and scaring little white children in shopping malls. If we look at Standing Rock, that was simply not the case. In fact, the opposite happened and that what was most terrifying for North Dakota and South Dakota pipeline advocates.
The people who came to defend the land, the water, and treaties — many of them were non-Natives. Some of them were poor white kids I went to high school with who felt completely disempowered and betrayed by their own government. Free education, healthcare, and clean drinking water are more radical demands than spending $30 million in disaster relief money to bring in 76 law enforcement agencies from around the country, homeland security, border patrol, and that National Guard to brutally beat, harass, mock, and degrade people who want to pray with water. For what? A $3.7 billion pipeline that will only create a dozen or so permanent jobs? While we can blame Trump for many things, the Dakota Access pipeline began under Obama.
After the banks crashed the global economy and millions lost their jobs and their homes, the US government initially paid out $700 billion to the banks responsible for crashing the market. Forbes has now estimated that federal bailouts to banks will amount to more $16.8 trillion, with $4.6 trillion already paid out. Many of the banks bankrolling DAPL initially received tens of billions of dollars in federal bailout money. Everyone is still reeling from the effects of the Great Recession. Opioid addiction has skyrocketed among white communities. When I go back to Chamberlain, I see the effects of addiction and how it has devastated that town. But addiction is the symptom of our current economic and political moment. It should not surprise us. Instead of an increase of educational and employment opportunities, we have instead seen the pillaging of the earth for corporations to reap huge profits. That was Obama’s economic recovery plan and that has been accelerated under Trump. Since 2010, ten Keystone XL pipelines have been built and domestic oil production increased by 70 percent. In contrast, if we look at South Dakota’s economy we often think agriculture is the number one wealth producer in this state. In fact, the vast majority of this state’s wealth is not produced by farmers or the oil industry. The vast majority of the wealth in this state is produced by the service industry — the people who work in fast food, retail, and healthcare. This class of people is also the group that shoulders the largest tax burden but they are consistently neglected when we talk about wealth and power in this state. We have drilled our way out of recession at the expense of Indigenous land and poor working people. Poor white people were as much squeezed by the recession and hoodwinked by the bailouts under Bush, Obama, and now Trump as anyone else.
These are not bold alternatives; these are status quo visions. They are cowardly visions. They jeopardize the land and the history it carries, and they jeopardize a livable future. We are experiencing the earth’s six mass extinction event, an event that has been — without out a doubt — linked irreversible catastrophic climate change. It is a system-driven extinction, a system called capitalism. And it must be system-driven solution that cannot be capitalism.
In her poem “i am graffiti,” Anishnabe poet, activist, and scholar Leanne Betasomoke Simpson writes,
we are the singing remnants
after the bomb went off in slow motion
over a century instead of a fractionated second.
We are the singing remnants in the age of the slow bomb that not only targeted people for destruction, but also the planet. As Simpson points out in the title of the poem, we are the “graffiti” this system tries to paint over again and again to erase us. However beautiful we may be, however bold our messages are, and not matter who stands with us, like graffiti we are still considered criminal.
That’s why Standing Rock mattered. The states of North Dakota and South Dakota have always feared poor white people and Natives getting together and taking their destinies into their own hands. At its best moments, that’s what happened at the camps at the confluence of the Cannon Ball and Missouri rivers: everyday Native and non-Native people got together. They decided they were not only against a pipeline, but they also stood for something. The media and the institutions of power have instilled fear into white people that the Indian Problem is out of control and that they will all be kicked off the land if we give the land back. The opposite happened. We invited them into our circles and we stood together.
That’s the fundamental misunderstanding when we talk about racism and colonialism. We are taught racism and colonialism are meant to control Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples. And they do control us. But racism and colonialism are really meant to control white people. That’s a lesson from Standing Rock worth remembering.
Now there is talk of reconciliation. And that deeply concerns me. The word reconcile is problematic. It means that two equal parties come together to reestablish friendly relations. It assumes that there was equal fault on both sides and that hostilities have ceased. Neither of those things are true. Unless we’re talking about land return and the abolition of colonial institutions, reconciliation is deficient and cannot achieve the kind of justice necessary to make Indigenous nations and the planet live again.
But that doesn’t mean we are without hope. Two generations ago, my grandparents fought to protect the Missouri River and their lands against the Army Corps of Engineers. The Pick-Sloan dams would flood over half a million acres of land, most of which was Indigenous land. As a result, thirty percent of the populations of Lower Brule, Crow Creek, Cheyenne River, and Standing Rock were removed. Ninety percent of commercial reservation timber and seventy-five percent of wildlife was destroyed. My grandparents could never have imagined that across the world, millions of people would rally and march in major cities to protect our river. And that’s a very beautiful thing.
More so now than just a year prior, people are waking up. Standing Rock will be one of many, many important changes to come. It’s rather ironic when you think about it. Under this president, we feel more free to talk about the past and about a future than just a year ago.
We are living in historic times. No matter how alone or afraid we feel, we must remember we have relatives. That has been a major comfort for me. The histories I write and read are, indeed, nightmarish. But these histories are full of our ancestors’ stories. History is not something that if you ignore it long enough it will go away. History is an active element, very much alive in the present. For Indigenous peoples, we take comfort knowing our ancestors are always with us.
That’s why history is important. To know one’s history is to not be held captive by it. For Indigenous peoples, we have no choice but to engage with settler society at all turns. Settler society, however, can choose to engage us or not. Often it chooses not to.
Over the years we have made new relations — it’s what sustained us and what kept us alive as people.
And that’s where I want to leave you all tonight. I want you to think about your relations. When we say, Mitakuye Oyasin, we are all related, we mean everyone and every-thing. To be a good relative to the human and nonhuman world is the ultimate Lakota virtue. It’s something we all should aspire to in our lives. It protects us. And we will protect our relatives. So we can all walk without fear, whether plants, animals, or the most vulnerable of this world. That is the world we have to imagine and demand can exist. It is possible.
With that in mind, I want to leave you with the words of Dakota scholar Ella Deloria. In these dark times, her words have taught me not to fear but to take courage in my relations and my relations to take courage in me. She wrote, “I am not afraid; I have relatives.” Let’s take courage in this affirmation. Repeat after me:
“I am not afraid; I have relatives.”
“I am not afraid; I have relatives.”
“I am not afraid; I have relatives.”
“I am not afraid; I have relatives.”
Now look around you. You are surrounded by relatives. This is what I love to return home to, a room full of fearless relatives.
by Nick Estes
On June 25, 1876, lieutenant colonel George Armstrong Custer and brigadier general Marcus Reno led a group of 650 men against a camp of thousands of Lakotas, Cheyennes, and Arapahos. Among them were Sitting Bull, Pizi (or Gall), Inkpaduta, Crazy Horse, Pretty Nose, Left Hand, Two Moons, Wooden Leg, and many more from the heroic armed resisters of the Cheyennes, Arapahos, Dakotas, and Lakotas. Custer led the first assault, which was supposed to be a surprise attack meant to quickly overwhelm the large camp. Custer’s men were quickly halted and forced to retreat uphill. Despite popular myths, Custer and his men never mounted a brave last stand but were instead taken down as they ran away from the Indigenous warrior men and warrior women. For his courage, Custer was promoted to the rank of general after his death.
Hunkpapa warrior woman Moving Robe Woman who fought against cavalrymen later recalled the events that day. A young woman at the time, Moving Robe Woman was harvesting tinpsila, or prairie turnips, when the cavalry rode in. After hearing her brother was killed in the initial attack, she said, “I ran to a nearby thicket and got my black horse. I painted my face with crimson and braided my black hair. I was mourning. I was a woman, but I was not afraid.” Indigenous warrior women among the Plains nations were common. In fact, according to Northern Cheyenne histories, Buffalo Calf Trail Woman is credited for knocking Custer from his horse before he was killed. Indigenous women also knew what defeat meant — if they were not killed, their bodies would be forced over to the desires of their captors. They fought back not because they wanted to, but because they had to.
The defeat of Custer’s Seventh Calvary and the killing of 268 of his men was a major victory. According to Moving Robe Woman, however, not everyone saw it that way. None, she recalled, “staged a victory dance that night. They were mourning for their own dead.” About four dozen were killed during the fight. From the start of the battle to the end, Moving Robe Woman was in mourning. Many popular accounts of the Battle of Greasy Grass and histories of the West over-romanticize the battles of what became known as “the Great Sioux Wars.” Extreme violence and wanton slaughter is nothing to callously celebrate, as Moving Robe Woman reminds us. Each victory against the invaders resulted in immeasurable casualties, if not at that moment then later. Armed resistance was a calculated risk that was not carelessly undertaken — it was not fatalistic. Like Moving Robe Woman’s account of Greasy Grass, from the beginning of the first battles to their violent conclusions the Oceti Sakowin was in constant mourning over the theft of their lives, their world, and so many countless relatives. The profound courage of valiant armed resistance protected the dignified life of one’s ancestors not only at that moment but also for the ancestors already forthcoming. Armed Indigenous resistance has always been a future-oriented and life-oriented project that deserves the utmost honor and celebration. It is because of armed struggle that all has never been forever lost or stolen. It is because of this fearless struggle that we remember.
I gave this speech at the Lower Brule High School Graduation on Friday, May 20, 2016 at the Lower Brule High School in the Lower Brule Sioux Indian Reservation.
Hau Mitakuyapi. Cante waste. Nape cuzyapi. Tatanka Ohitika imaciyapi. Nick Estes wasicu imaciyapi.
It is with extreme humility and humbleness that I shake each of your hands, congratulate you, and greet you with an open heart. There is no greater honor than being invited by young people to give this commencement speech. It means more to me than I can ever express in words.
You all are excited and eager to receive your diplomas and celebrate with your families, and you didn’t come here to listen to me. I’ll try my best to not be that stereotype of an “Indian man with a microphone” and drone on for three hours. Trust me, I’m not that interesting, I’m too young for that, and you probably won’t remember what I have to say anyways. And that’s okay because today is about you.
Let me begin by saying, pilamayelo. Thank you. When they sent smoke to the sky, it was you the ancestors prayed for. You are the ones we have been waiting for. Do not take the importance of this day, your responsibility, and your achievements lightly.
For you to have a successful, healthy life in the future, however, it is my job as a historian to remind you where our people came from — however boring that may be! You cannot know where you are going in this world unless you know where you came from. Indeed, we are descended from powerful people. Go anywhere in the world and people know the Lakota, for better or worse!
Who are the Kul Wicasa Oyate? To know us is to first know the land. After all it is the land from which we became human — inyan (the earth), mni (the water), ska (the sky), and tate (the wind). Out of the wase — the red earth — we became Oyate Luta — the red people, the red nation. It is to the land we return as ikce wicasa — common people.
Along life’s journey, we make kinship with each other — wotakuye — to our human and nonhuman relatives. For us, the Brulé, Sicangu Tintonwan, we have this river who is also our relative — the Mni Sose, the Missouri River. Our history is also the history of this river.
In 1803, the wasicu — the fat-takers — claimed this stretch of the river as part of what became the largest real estate transaction in world history. The fledgling United States “bought” 827 million acres from the French Crown in the Louisiana Purchase and sent two white explorers, Lewis and Clark, to claim and map the newly acquired territory. Of course, the Lakota, like many Native Nations, never consented to sale of their lands, let alone acknowledged the supremacy of the United States. Lewis and Clark were considered illegal trespassers; and it was only after they failed to earn passage from our nations that we stopped them here, very close to where Lower Brule now sits. They called us “the vilest miscreants of the savage race” because we asserted our right to exist on this land and we did not consent to European invasion and colonization — beginning one of the longest and most hotly contested struggles in the history of the world.
The rest of the nineteenth century was an effort to suppress, annihilate, and dispossess us of our rightful claim to this land. Despite popular belief, however, we were never militarily defeated. In 1854, we laid waste to Lieutenant Grattan’s forces after traders who trespassed into our territory and mocked and degraded our people. In 1866, Red Cloud waged a successful military campaign forcing the U.S. states to the sign a peace treaty in 1868 at Fort Laramie, which guaranteed the Lakota, Dakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho confederacy sole owners over the vast 25 million acres of what became known as the Great Sioux Reservation. The U.S. broke the 1868 peace when General Custer and white miners trespassed into He Sapa, the Black Hills. In 1876, we killed Custer and his men at the Battle of Greasy Grass. For more than four decades we repelled invading forces, which costed us many lives and was in the end unsustainable because the federal government sponsored the wholesale slaughter of 10 million buffalo to starve us out. Many were forced onto reservations — the world’s first open air concentration camps. Life here was never supposed to be sustainable. We were never meant to live.
Like good Lakotas, we persevered and mastered reservation life. In Lower Brule, we were the second tribe in the nation to adopt the Indian Reorganization Act in 1935, which gave rise to our modern tribal governments. We did so not to acquiesce to a superior government, but because the newly formed state of South Dakota wanted to dam our river in the 1920s and 1930s and divert its life-giving waters to white owned ranches and farms against our wishes. We organized under the IRA not because we opposed the development of the river, but because we wanted the best for our people. We wanted irrigation for our crops and livestock, and, above all, we wanted access to electricity any development would bring. What happened instead was the Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and South Dakotan politicians collaborated and decided to build a series of dams on our river, the Mni Sose, without our consent. They called it the Pick-Sloan Plan. As a result, both the Fort Randall Dam built in 1957 and the Big Bend Dam built in 1963 flooded tens of thousands of acres of bottomlands and one third of our population was relocated. Many left the reservation for good. This also ended many of the successful tribal ranching programs and forever destroyed access to plant medicines that grew along the river. What greater crime against our nations could exist in the twentieth century that forced the relocation of thousands of Native families and flooded half a million acres?
As people invested in a moral universe that compels us to be good relatives to each other and the earth, we have to name the systems that caused this great upheaval and destruction of life — capitalism and colonialism, the twin systems that violently ripped us from our rightful place in this land and destroyed our relationships with the nonhuman world and each other. These two systems place profits above people and the planet and have now thrown everyone — not just the Indians — in the fight for their lives.
In the course of two centuries, we went from free peoples — free to live on this earth according to our own will — to people confined to reservations and forced to live as paupers in our own homelands, as the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere. We went from 25 million acres of territory in 1868 to 9 million in 1889. In 1889, the year South Dakota became a state, the Lower Brule possessed almost a half-million acres. In 1907, white settlers with the backing of the federal government had reduced our reservation to less than a quarter million acres. From 1907 to 1934, that land base was reduced to half its size. Pick-Sloan dams flooded another 23,000 acres, leaving us with just 95,000 acres.
Our entire population, our entire nation, is now expected to live in a reservation that is smaller than the total land owned by some wealthy billionaires, such as Ted Turner. Imagine that, one individual owns more land and wealth than an entire nation of peoples whose land it was first, the same people who never agreed the land was for sale. That news should not be shocking. If you’re like me, it is insulting and outrageous. For this country to become the “the greatest democracy” in world history, Native people of this land had to give up so much. Let’s not forget that when our leaders affirm democracy abroad, it came at the expense of our people.
But our history is not just a history of loss. What is most striking about the history of Native peoples is that we possess one thing no others can claim: we came from this land and to this land we shall return. We refuse to go away. We refuse to disappear. And we refuse to be quiet about it. And that’s a beautiful thing.
For the class of 2016, you join the tens of thousands of Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota peoples of the Oceti Sakowin who have strived and achieved an education. You may not know it, but our intellectuals, our thinkers, are world famous. They have led political movements and social causes not just in the 1800s in the so-called “Indian Wars.” In the early 1900s Zintkala-Sa (Gertrude Bonnin) from the Ihanktonwan and Ohiyesa (Charles Eastman) from the Isantyi founded the first Native-led intellectual and political society in the United States, the Society of American Indians. Nicholas Black Elk, an Oglala medicine man, explained WoLakota, the nature of the Lakota cosmos and the meaning of our cultural life. Luther Standing Bear, an Oglala writer and actor followed in their footsteps and penned a series of books on Lakota life. Soon after the titan Vine Deloria, Jr., an Hunkpapa from Standing Rock, became a world famous Lakota scholar of politics, history, law, and religion. His famous 1969 book, Custer Died for Your Sins, became the manifesto for the 1960s and 1970s Red Power movement and paved the way for Indigenous peoples to achieve international recognition at the United Nations. From this part of the world, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, the Santee and Ihanktonwan scholar and writer, has penned fourteen books on the history and politics of the Lakota and Dakota nations. There are many Lakota and Dakota scholars and writers alive today, people such as Delphine Red Shirt, Megan Red Shirt, Joel Waters, Tasi Livermont, Kim Tallbear, Laniko Lee, Lydia Whirlwind Soldier, Joseph Marshall III, Taté Walker, Richard Meyers, Deanne Stands, Mabel Picotte, and many, many more. We are fortunate to possess our own tribal national Oceti Sakowin writing group, the Oak Lake Writers Society, that writes not for dominant society but for our tribal reality.
Among our own people, we have intellectuals and writers. From my family alone, Ruben Estes was the first chairman of Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and an active member the first treaty council. My late grandfather Frank Estes, published the first book written by a tribal member: Make Way for the Brules published in 1963. In 1971, my grandfather George Estes published the first tribal history of the Lower Brule called Kul Wicasa Oyate.
Despite the profound challenges posed to our nation, we have drawn from the longest traditions in the history of the world. It is a tradition of resistance and resilience that began in 1492. The opposition, the unwillingness to just disappear, lies in our ability to accommodate and resist rapid and violent changes. To do so, however, has required us not to just retreat within ourselves, to seek isolation from the world, but to engage it head on, sometimes with brutal truth and reality. The scholars and thinkers I have mentioned did so, and for it they have contributed to our forward momentum of history.
We are often thought of as backwards peoples, mired in a history and culture of a bygone era. In fact, we are just the opposite. We are, in many ways, more modern and more progressive when compared to our non-Native neighbors. For example, just down the road the Chamberlain school board is still upholding racist practices that do not belong to this century. They have banned our Lakota and Dakota honor songs from their commencement ceremonies. But we will win that fight and drag those who resist change, inclusion, and equality and justice, kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. We will show them by example by leading the way that we have a right to exist as peoples with dignity and respect in our own homelands.
When the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere said, “no, the Black Hills are not sale” and, “no, we don’t want your money, TransCanada,” we did so as an assertion of our right to exist on this earth according to our teachings and ways that place life above profit and material wealth. For that, the Supreme Court ruled in 1980 that, yes, the Black Hills were illegally taken. More recently, because of our strident opposition the Keystone XL pipeline, the President of the United States canceled TransCanada’s contract with the State Department. Our non-Native neighbors took the money and have just experienced largest oil spill in this history of this land in eastern South Dakota. As I speak, construction has begun on the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota that will trespass, once again, our treaty lands. Future oil spills are inevitable unless we put a stop to not just the pipelines, but end the system that threatens the annihilation of the entire planet. To accomplish this monumental feat will require Native and non-Native cooperation on a scale never before seen in history. To coexist peacefully in this land, however, it will require the correction of historical wrongs and the upholding of the original agreements — the treaties — we made with the U.S. and acknowledgement that indeed this is stolen land.
While these are colossal tasks, the burden does not lie solely on your shoulders as young people. One of our most valuable assets that has helped us survive thus far is our kinship.
Wotakuye — kinship — is not a technical skill that can be learned in school, like math, English, or auto mechanics. It is a virtue, like kindness and humility. It is something we aspire to, an aspiration we may or may not achieve in our lifetime.
In this society, we have been taught to look down on each other, especially our most vulnerable. We cannot begin to embody the people our ancestors prayed for until we practice wotakuye, that all our relations matter, not just some of them: our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and Two Spirit relatives matter; our women and children matter; our elders matter; our poor and homeless relatives matter; our relatives who suffer from addiction matter; and our relatives who live behind bars matter.
Change in this world begins with how we treat each other, it begins with how we treat our most vulnerable, the poorest and most dispossessed in our society. It used to be the highest insult to Lakotas to act as though you had no relatives. To act as though you had no relatives meant that inequality triumphed, while people suffered and went hungry. That used to be considered an embarrassment. Today, as a society that is our normal.
It is not my intention to tell you how to live your lives. It is up to you to decide. As someone who has been a lifelong educator, let me say this: we need to listen to young people. Your generation, more so than previous generations, is more open and demands a more democratic and equal society. We follow your lead.
Your generation is not afraid of taking risks and challenging arbitrary authority and outdated and harmful social norms. Your generation is open and diverse. It is smart, compassionate, and caring. It possesses the changes we have been waiting and praying for, the promise and hope those of us who lived through trying times and kept the light for a better future lit no matter how dark it got. And these are dark times, indeed. But that should not discourage you. You have the generations of our ancestors at you back and the collective momentum of history pushing you into the future. The world is watching this generation and we are impressed by what we see so far.
If ever you doubt, just remember that the collective will of our nations has persevered for you to be here today in spite of everything. It is not a miracle but a testament to the tenacity, the sheer determination of our people to assume our rightful place in this world and in this universe. For that, you should be proud. I am. I am proud of you and I love you with all my heart, as a relative. For those of us who stand in the sun for four days a year without food and water, we do it for you. You are the culmination of our prayers and hopes for the future. It is through our education, something — unlike our land — that can never be taken from us, that we, as a people, as Kul Wicasa, will achieve our collective liberation. Today, class of 2016, you further that project of liberation and fulfill our ancestor’s vision.
A sincere congratulations!
Appeared in Indian Country Today April 22, 2016
Originally designed in 1910 by President Edward Dundas McQueen Gray, a Scottish immigrant who settled in New Mexico Territory in 1893, the seal represents what one alumni publication calls “two New Mexico founders, a Spanish conquistador and [an Anglo] frontiersman.” The back-to-back figures join other ostensibly innocent images, symbols, and rituals—the Lobo, the school colors: silver and cherry red, the singing of the Alma Mater, etc.—that make UNM a university. They are part of a brand, UNM’s institutional identity that also expresses certain values and history. According to the Administrative Policies and Procedures Manual, “A cohesive visual identity presents a sense of unity and builds awareness and pride among those connected to the University of New Mexico.” Yet, many see the two men, towering figures of genocide and conquest armed with the tools of conquest, as colonial gatekeepers safeguarding the university from the intrusion of Natives and diverse peoples.
Men bearing sword and musket personify just how order and civilization was achieved in the founding of New Mexico—through violence. Spanish colonization entailed the brutal rape, murder, enslavement, and torture of Natives at the hands of conquistadors such as Oñate and de Vargas. The expulsion of the Spanish from Pueblo homelands during the 1680 Pueblo Revolt and their subsequent return were marked by extreme persecution and prejudice. Subsequent Mexican independence involved further persecution and oppression.
The conclusion of the U.S.-Mexican War and the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo revealed the true intentions of U.S. and Mexican colonial policy toward Natives. The U.S. violated almost every treaty article before the ink was dry. Both nations, however, upheld Article XI, which guarantees that “incursions” into either country on behalf of the “savage tribes” would be met with “equal” force.
U.S. occupation was equally, if not more, brutal and punishing than its predecessors. From forced marches and open air concentration camps for Navajo and Apache prisoners at Bosque Redondo, from Indian killers such as Kit Carson and William Tecumseh Sherman, to mass enclosures and privatization of Native lands, the early U.S. colonial period in New Mexico is replete with examples of genocide and dispossession. That history, like U.S. history in general, is one of profound violence.
This talk was given March 3, 2016 as part of the Indigenous Book Festival’s opening roundtable, “Beyond Stereotype, Prejudice, & Racism,” at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.
I want to make two simple claims: 1) The University of New Mexico profits from the genocide of Indigenous peoples and the occupation of Indigenous lands. 2) UNM’s official seal celebrates this fact.
Originally designed in 1909 by President Edward Gray and officially adopted in 1914, the seal represents what one alumni publication calls “two New Mexico founders, a Spanish conquistador and a frontiersman.” Back-to-back figures of two men armed with the weapons of conquest (a sword and musket) join other seemingly innocuous images, symbols, and rituals—the Lobo, the Alma Mater, the school colors red and silver—that make a university a university, a kind of identity and brand that creates an image of UNM as identifiable and characteristically distinct. According to the Administrative Policies and Procedures Manual’s section on the University’s graphics and symbols, “A cohesive visual identity presents a sense of unity and builds awareness and pride among those connected to [UNM].” “The most formal symbol of the University,” it continues, “is the seal. The seal is reserved for use on documents or forms of the highest official rank from the University President, the University Secretary, and the University Board of Regents such as diplomas, certificates, certain invitations, legal documents, and other printed materials. Use of the seal must be approved in advance, by the University Marketing Director.”
Its most basic definition: a seal as a design or insignia plays the official role of representing an organization, an institution, or political entity (like a city, state, or nation). It originated as a stamp to impress an image or sign of authority into wax as a way of securing, authenticating, and approving. Seal derives from the Latin signum. When used as a verb, signum means to mark or to sign. In its formal, ceremonial usage, it becomes a symbolic act representing power and authority. For a sovereign, it embodies the will of a ruler over the ruled, or the power over life itself, the power to mark those deserving life and those deserving death. Wars, executions, diplomatic treaties for peace and trade all bear the marks of seals. Even the banality of bureaucracy, from letters to official statements to press releases, bears the marks of seals. The seal, too, is used like a brand to mark property, much like one brands cattle. It is also a form of possessiveness, embodying and laying claim to the what is and is not part of the official order of things. In this sense, it plays a role of inclusion and exclusion.
If a seal is an impression of power, then, the seal of UNM is an impression a history that gives it authority. And that history is one marked by violence, dispossession, and death. Like much paraphernalia relating to power and authority, the masculine figures armed with sword and musket personify just how order and civilization was achieved in the founding of New Mexico—through violence. Spanish colonization entailed the rape, murder, enslavement, and torture of Indigenous peoples at the hands of conquistadors such as Oñate and de Vargas. The expulsion of the Spanish from Indigenous homelands during the 1680 Pueblo Revolt and their subsequent return were was marked by extreme persecution and prejudice towards Indigenous peoples. Nonetheless, subsequent Mexican independence was also filled with further persecution and oppression. The conclusion of the U.S.-Mexican War and the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo revealed the true intentions of U.S. and Mexican colonial policy toward Indigenous peoples. The U.S. violated almost every treaty article before the ink was dry, but both the U.S. and Mexico did, however, uphold Article XI, which guarantees that “incursions” into either nation on behalf of the “savage tribes” inhabiting the newly acquired territory would be met with force of “equal dilligence [sic] and energy” by both nations. Indeed, U.S. domination was equally, if not more, brutal and punishing than its progenitors. From forced marches and open air concentration camps for Navajo and Apache prisoners of war at Bosque Redondo, from Indian fighters and Indian killers such as Kit Carson and William Tecumseh Sherman, to mass enclosures and privatization of unneeded Indigenous lands, the early U.S. colonial period in New Mexico is replete with examples of Indigenous genocide and dispossession.
As a fledgling territory, the founding of the University of New Mexico played a pivotal role in the path towards statehood. Founded in 1889 amidst federal Indian policy that advocated the fragmentation of tribal land and the stealing of Indian children from families to be forced into boarding schools, UNM was originally granted acreage as Trust Land, much like many territorial universities in the so-called Western frontier. The subduing and dispossession of Indigenous peoples during this time is largely lamented due to the closing of the frontier; yet out of this unspeakable violence was borne UNM and the state of New Mexico. The 1910 New Mexico Enabling and Ferguson Acts granted the state 13 million acres of Trust Land. Of which, 200,000 acres were granted to public universities like UNM. In total, 5 million acres were reserved for universities, schools, and other institutions. Of the now 9 million surface acres and 12.7 million subsurface acres of Trust Land, about 96% of value extracted from these lands coms from non-renewable resources like oil, gas, and coal. This highly lucrative business attracts over 9,500 oil and gas leases and 166 mineral leases that cover 3.1 million acres for a value of $433 per acre. For fiscal year 2013, revenue generated from these land at a sum of $577 million realized its second highest earning year, down from 2012’s record-setting $658 million. As of 2013, UNM directly benefits from 253,336 surface acres and 344,821 subsurface acres of public Trust Land. From these lands, UNM earned $8.5 million.
If we return to how UNM brands itself to create “a sense of unity and pride,” we can begin to think of various ways in which the University narrates itself and its history, how it tells its story. The UNM seal tells a story, too—a story that is celebratory of the anti-Indian violence forged within the University’s history and how it benefits from the dispossession of Indigenous lands. What is perhaps most insidious about the commemoration of colonial conquest is its celebration of two essential actors and perpetrators of genocide—a conquistador and frontiersman—and the sacred and sanctimonious status the seal holds for its alumni and benefactors. As much as the assault on the racist imagery of Indian mascots is seen as a direct assault on the sanctity of whiteness (and settlers) to possess and lay claim to Indigenous lands and bodies, defacing and interrupting the colonial narratives of a university seal will, too, be seen as an assault on a “tradition” and the sanctity of possessive whiteness. But what this “tradition” celebrates and what this sacredness protects can categorically be defined as anti-Indian, or explicitly Indian hating. The stakes are high to talk openly and fluently about colonization and occupation. To do so creates an uncomfortable space of overwhelming hostility and tension. History, after all, is the past’s saturation of our present moment. It cannot be ignored. But to bring it up is to bring it into existence as something to be “dealt with.”
It is not by accident that the lands stolen by the figures consecrated on UNM’s crest—the conquistador and the frontiersman—created a source of revenue for the University. The University, in this case, literally profits from the dispossession and death of Indigenous peoples. Changing the racist-colonial celebration of the seal, however, will not rid the University of this pervasive history of violence and dispossession, nor will it change colonial, racist behavior. What I have been talking about so far is the colonial structures of power, premised on genocidal conquest and Indigenous erasure. The violence of colonial occupation and dispossession is not only fundamental to UNM’s being, but it is also reimagined as a history of securing freedom and rights—freedoms for some and unfreedom for others. It permeates the University even as it actively denied and ignored. But it is not my intention to blame the University, nor its constituency, for the wrongs of the past. While UNM is not responsible for the past crimes of its forbearers, our present reality is a product that history, and for that the University has to be held accountable if it perpetuates and, indeed, celebrates the destruction and attempted annihilation of the original people of this land.
That’s why the very least the University can do is to abolish the racist seal. Recently, a committee of Harvard Law School faculty, students, alumni, and staff recommended that school’s crest—which was modeled on the family crest of a slaveholding family—be retired. Across university campuses movements have galvanized to abolish symbols that celebrate racism—such as Confederate flags and icons of slavery. Abolishing these symbols of oppression, however, only revealed institutionalized inequality. Changing university iconography means nothing, we were told, if it is not accompanied by real, material resources—such as scholarships, the creation and funding of diversity centers, and equal representation at all levels of the university system including the board of regents. This is bare minimum accountability. As we have seen, some administrators at these institutions lost their jobs for upholding and defending status quo inequality. It was only after student protest and sit-ins did these universities capitulate. At UNM, we are reminded by the administrators’ utter neglect and disdain to institute Indigenous Peoples Day as an official holiday after successful undergraduate organizing in passing a resolution. Universities are supposed to be bastions of free thought and progressive politics. If anything, UNM administrators’ neglect of Indigenous students and demands demonstrates classic reactionary and backwards thinking on Indigenous issues and concerns. One needs to only look at the national movement to see how cities and institutions across the nation have already implemented Indigenous Peoples Day, including the city of Albuquerque.
In conclusion, as Indigenous peoples we must refuse to allow our educational achievements (some of us as first generation graduates and doctorates) to be tarnished by UNM’s unwillingness to enter the twenty first century and to respect the basic fundamental of human rights standards. That is, colonialism and genocide are crimes against humanity and so too is their celebration. World consensus agrees. We demand this seal be abolished and the Indigenous peoples of this land receive accurate and appropriate representation. We do not want this insidious racism branding our accomplishments on our degrees and graduation gowns. We, as Indigenous peoples, do not belong in museums. This university’s racist history does. Hecetu welo!
Listening to Bernie Sanders’ recent speech in Flagstaff, AZ at the Navajo-owned Twin Arrows Casino, I can’t help but think how amazing it is that the Diné, Apache, and Tohono Oodham are the loudest and most radical—cheering at taking down billionaires such as the Waltons (who own Wal-mart), the call for dismantling the largest prison system in world history, and saving the Apache sacred site, Oak Flat.
Yes, there are faults with Sanders and especially the democratic machinery that often uses our miseries as a way to garner votes. It’s not the man, Bernie Sanders, that I am moved by, but the coming together of Natives with other marginalized communities to demand progressive and radical changes for our communities and the dismantling of capitalist-colonial institutions.
To be honest, putting Sanders in the White House won’t bring these desired and necessary changes (Obama is testament to the limitations of populist movements and progressive, neo-liberal presidencies). And the prospects of a Hillary Clinton or a Donald Trump presidency are nightmarish to most of us.
We shouldn’t, however, denounce our own brothers and sisters who passionately and sincerely want radical change. We should be encouraging each other’s political development, not chastising ourselves from the vantage point of political obscurity, abstraction, and elitism. (I’m looking at you ultra-leftists and self-described anarchists!) I often see well-meaning “radicals” denounce Bernie Sanders supporters, often because they project their own fears, insecurities, and shortcomings onto progressive movements and people.
These kinds of attitudes generate a sentiment that tends to normalize right-wing tendencies of blaming poor people of color and poor Natives for their own lot in life. According to this view, poor people possess a false consciousness; otherwise, they wouldn’t shop at Wal-Mart or go on food stamps. The solution is to pull oneself up by the bootstraps. This destructive sentiment often goes one step further by assuming that because Natives are forced to shop at Wal-Mart and subsist on food stamps they are somehow less Native. The radical thing to do would be to “return to the land.”
This assumption fails to recognize what most Natives face: 1) four out of five don’t live on reservation lands; 2) to “return to the land” actually requires a land-base to return to, which is often unavailable to those who do not own property (or possess capital to buy land) in cities and on-reservations or a land-base that is polluted or diminished; 3) most Natives are so marginalized from mainstream social, economic, and political life that any form of recognition is a progressive gain; and, finally, 4) no one wakes up in the morning and decides to be poor and landless or dependent on the federal government and mega shopping centers such as Wal-Mart.
There are encouraging possibilities emerging in this presidential election.
Look at how amazing the anti-fascists movements have organized across difference to halt Trump rallies. We should be encouraging the radical imaginations and possibilities of building a mass movement with Muslims, Mexican-Americans, Chican@s, Black Lives Matter, and the working poor—a movement that centers Native anti-colonial aspirations.
As the Italian Communist thinker and revolutionary Antonio Gramsci reminds us, as progressive people, we must maintain a pessimism of the intellect and an optimism of the will. The pessimism lies with understanding the limitations of electoral politics in a capitalist-colonial democracy. The optimism lies within maintaining the utter love for our Native people and nations (and all oppressed people in the world for that matter) and fostering the radical possibilities for opening up and calling in (not shutting down and calling out) our relatives’ progressive aspirations. You can possess a pessimistic view of the world without alienating yourself from the love and kinship of your own people—that’s been proven over and over again by the power Native communities to adapt, challenge, and survive the conflagrations of colonialism. Every great, revolutionary Native leader has possessed these qualities.
Bernie Sanders’ followers—including Native communities—are ready for radical change. Instead of shutting down these aspirations, we should be deeply entrenching and fostering our thinking and orientations from these revolutionary positions. We have everything to gain from this popular movement toward radical and progressive politics and very little to lose.
Two young, uniformed soldiers knocked at the door of a humble Lakota log house on the Lower Brule Sioux Indian Reservation, or the Kul Wicasa Oyate. An older Lakota woman, a widow, answered the door. She collapsed to the ground sobbing before the two the men could tell her, in a language she couldn’t understand, her only son was killed in combat. They left her with a sorry your son’s body wouldn’t be returned and here’s a check for hundreds of dollars.
After local clergy encouraged the mourning woman, she cashed the check. As per Lakota custom, the fourth day after finding out her only son was killed, she cut her hair. The hundreds of dollars from the severance pay was soon given away. All her worldly possession, including her wood stove, were set outside her house. Relatives and community members came by, offered words of condolences, songs of healing, and they took everything from her already humble home.
That night she slept on the bare floor.
The next day, relatives brought her food, as she began the yearlong sacred duty of caring for her son’s spirit. Everyday after that, the community came by her home, bringing gifts of food, cooking utensils, and blankets. Hunters would set aside meat after every kill for her. A couple of potatoes and squash were picked for from the community gardens and given to her. Pies and soups were made for her.
After a year, she was nurtured back to health physically and materially, re-acquiring the necessary items for her home to keep warm and to keep her fed. Her physical needs were cared for as she cared for the spiritual needs for her son’s spirit.
Lakota customary law disallows needless suffering in times of abundance and plenty. It’s an embarrassment to have relatives wanting and in need or deprived of basic humanity.
It’s an affront to Wolakota to have others in want, need, and material deprivation. This, to my mind, was perhaps the most concrete aspect of Lakota kinship.
This also worked the other way around. Those who hoarded or ‘took the fat’—or wasicu—were criminal. Narcissism and greed were punishable by stripping individuals of material wealth or forcing them to give away all their possessions as a means of repentance.
If humility, unsiiciyapi, was not practiced, it was enforced as the highest ideal of ikce wicasa, the common people.
Poverty in Lakota society does not, however, solely equate to material wealth. One is pitiful or poor, or unsica, if they are deprived of belonging and home.
This worked internally and externally. Often, families adopted other poor natives or non-natives, caring for their spiritual and material well-being. Those violating this code, too, were punished, mocked, and shamed—and sometimes killed or their wealth expropriated.
The highest insult in Lakota is to be greedy, to be wasicu.
Stories exist of Lakota headmen and women sitting side by side in council. Amongst themselves, the leaders would wear the most humble attire (not the headdresses or beautiful beadwork we’re so used to seeing) and speak with brevity and clarity. To do otherwise could result in ejection from leadership and one could be viewed negatively as long-winded or worse greedy.
In my short life, these teachings have stuck with me and guided my actions as ikce wicasa. The rampant commercialization of Lakota ‘culture,’ however, troubles me. Many non-Lakota (and Lakota) have taken up Lakota ways, especially ‘spirituality’ like the sundance or other ceremonies, but they have ignored the most concrete aspect of Wolakota, in my opinion—the giveaway.
It was after all not the sundance that was first banned under the 1887 Civilization Regulations, but it was the giveaway or the potlatch ceremony that was first targeted because it posed the greatest threat to the imposed reservation social order. Giveaways kept in tact and promoted the classless, non-hierarchical, and radically anti-materialist political and social structure. In this structure, women owned all the domestic material wealth, like the house and everything in it, and had final say on how these materials were used and distributed.
Anti-capitalism and anti-patriarchal social relations posed the biggest threats to the acquisition of Native lands and subduing Native peoples. Native people were not colonized because of our culture, but because we were ‘Indians’—being ‘Indian’ meant being attached to a land base where relationships to that land required maintaining idealized reciprocal social relations among ourselves and the nonhuman world. Being ‘Indian’ meant defending this social organization attached to land.
To eliminate a people to gain access to desired lands and resources requires annihilating their relationship to that land and therefore their social relations. That’s settler colonialism.
Today, Lakota culture is a readily available commodity to be consumed by anyone, stripped of its concepts of justice and equal social relations. It appears to have become like any other religion, something anyone can take up to ‘discover oneself.’
While it is encouraging to see the revitalization and resurgence of cultural practices, it is equally disturbing to see what aspects of this way of life are taken up and promoted at the expense of others.
For example, there is a rise in ‘restorative justice’ practices, which focus on the ‘healing’ of individuals committing offenses in Indian Country. These are positive and progressive movements away from the punitive system of mass incarceration. Yet, they typically only apply to Native on Native crimes and often center perpetrators not victims. They also limit the application of justice to broader society. We still cannot apply our models of justice to non-Native individuals and societies committing acts of violence against our lands and peoples.
Another troubling trend is the over emphasis on healing just lands and water—singing songs and revitalizing cultural relationships—while often ignoring the rampant violence against Native women, youth, poor, unsheltered, and LGBTQ2 relatives. As we scale up land based direct actions against the nonconsensual trespass of corporate and state agencies on Indigenous lands, I am reminded of the powerful insights of Kwagiulth scholar and activist Sarah Hunt:
So what would happen if every time an Indigenous woman had her personal boundaries crossed without consent, we were moved to act in the same way as we’ve seen to the threat of a pipeline in our territories – the nonconsenual crossing of territorial boundaries? We would see our chiefs and elders, the language speakers, children and networks of kin, all in our regalia, our allies and neighbors all across the generations show up outside the house of a woman who had been hurt to drum and sing her healing songs. What if we looked to the land for berries and to the ocean for fish and herring eggs and seaweed to help her body to heal? What if we put her within a circle of honor and respect to show her that we will not stand for this violence any longer. We would bring her food and song and story, we would truly protect her self-determination and to defend the boundaries of her body which had been trespassed and violated.
With the historic defeat of the Keystone XL pipeline across Lakota treaty territory, we need to also take seriously Wolakota—what it means and how we treat each other and the land. Indigenous bodies, land, and water are not abstract things that can be healed through prayer alone. As our leaders and allies bravely declared war against TransCanada and defeated them, we should expect the same attention given to those materially and physically deprived of a dignified life. It would require not just a political revolution but a radical restructuring of our social relations—how we relate to each other indelibly affects how we relate to the nonhuman world.
In closing, I began this essay with a story of healing during the Second World War. Years later, the woman and her nation, the Kul Wicasa Oyate, would be violently removed from their bottomlands on the Mni Sose, the Missouri River. Our lands were flooded by massive earthen rolled dams and our way of life was forever disrupted.
What would justice look like if we applied the same model of healing shown in this story and in Lakota customary law to those wasicu institutions who flooded our lands and destroyed our life ways? Would our allies stand with us knowing justice would involve a radical reciprocity, redistribution, and restructuring of resources and wealth for a more just future? Would they expropriate the wealth and resources extracted from us with the same fervor they have taken up our culture? Will they give away their wealth and privilege and join us?
I hope so. After all, we have given so much.