BOOK REVIEW: ‘Our History Is The Future’ Puts Standing Rock In Broader Native American Story
BY NICHOLAS CANNARIATO
Modern Indigenous American history is a history of resistance. It’s often assumed that Indigenous resistance to white settlers and enterprisers is often considered an act of self-defense, when it was — and is — also a battle between starkly different value systems.
For the Oceti Sakowin, or Sioux Nation, resistance is not just based on a claim to land that invaders have sought to usurp and exploit; it’s also about what “land” means. In Our History Is The Future, Nick Estes poignantly describes an idea of what land means from an Indigenous perspective:
“During the last ice age, massive glaciers carved up the land. After the ice retreated, it left rolling hills and tunneling valleys that became buffalo roads, where herds that once blackened the plains traveled during seasonal migrations to and from water. The buffalo followed the stars, and the people followed the buffalo.”
In this scene, land means interconnectedness, humility before the sublime rhythms of the earth.
The book’s primary purpose is to situate the resistance to the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) at Standing Rock in the broader story of Indigenous American resistance (specifically Indigenous people of the central plains) to land incursion and dispossession. And Estes succeeds more often than not throughout the book by balancing an emphatic but accessible tone with academic (but not too academic) scrupulousness.
He writes about Indigenous forms of resistance that resorted to force when necessary, and negotiation and the courts when possible, even if, in the end, all often proved futile. For the people of Standing Rock and Indigenous people more broadly, DAPL was yet another violation of sovereignty by outsiders with an entirely different notion of what land means. To white settlers and enterprisers by and large, land meant power and property and corresponding violence in the service of wealth, resulting in the widespread annihilation of Indigenous peoples and their cultures.
The book also provides specific historical context for notions of land and property that animated white settlers and enterprisers. Former Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall articulated the precarious status of Native Americans in the 1823 decision, Johnson vs. M’Intosh. Estes relates that “Indigenous people, [Marshall] ruled, only possessed ‘occupancy’ rights, meaning their lands could be taken by powers that ‘discovered’ them: ‘The Doctrine of Discovery’.” To unpack this decision, Estes cites Onondaga international jurist Tonya Gonnella Frichner, who argues that the “newly formed United States needed to manufacture an American Indian political identity and concept of Indian land that would open the way for the United States in its westward colonial expansion.”
Estes deserves praise for having written a very well-paced, highly detailed, morally urgent book in which he keeps his eye trained on the profound injustice he catalogs, condemns, and portrays, really, as beyond immediate redress. Although he traces Indigenous resistance back to the first white settlers, his focus is particularly sharp in his recounting the resistance at Standing Rock, the central form of opposition around which the book makes its case. At Standing Rock, and in the history of Oceti Sakowin resistance, existential threat has permeated a broader struggle of ideas, it should be said, not sought out by Indigenous people, but, rather, thrust upon them.
Again, it comes down to what “land” means. Tasunka Witko, also known as Crazy Horse, once said “my land is where my dead lie buried.” And Estes echoes this sentiment and its betrayal in the context of Standing Rock:
“Because Native people remain barriers to capitalist development, their bodies needed to be removed — both from beneath and atop the soil — and therefore eliminating their rightful relationship with the land.”
For instance, the changing of the course of the DAPL by the Army Corps of Engineers was an early perceived affront to the dignity of Standing Rock’s land and people. The Army Corps planned to shift the pipeline’s course from upriver of the capital of North Dakota, Bismarck, to upriver of the Standing Rock Reservation, or Sioux County, where 47 percent of the population lives in poverty. Estes writes:
“In its environmental analysis, the Army Corps had concluded that the Bismarck path crossed a ‘high consequence area’, which meant that the spill would have an adverse effect. Not once did it mention Standing Rock, for which a spill half a mile upriver was of no consequence to the Army Corps.”
In August of 2018, AP reported that in “its initial analysis of the Missouri River crossing that skirts the northern edge of the Standing Rock Reservation along the North Dakota-South Dakota border, the Corps studied the mostly white demographics in a half-mile (0.8-kilometer) radius, which the agency maintained is standard. But if the Corps had gone another 88 yards (80 meters) — not quite the length of a football field — the study would have included the reservation.” There’s a clear disparity of concern here, one could argue, and it’s exceedingly hard to characterize it as a mere oversight concerning vulnerable people and their land.
The protests at Standing Rock eventually developed into a full-fledged city of sorts, with Indigenous people not just from the plains states, but from all over. It was an Indigenous utopia of resistance. Estes describes it as such:
“All one had to do was walk through the camp to witness that dream. Flag Row — a half-mile procession of more than 300 Indigenous national flags that lined each side of the road — cut through the heart of the camp. Starting at the north gate, where new arrivals checked in with camp security, it was the ‘main drag’ of the ‘Indian city’ — the tenth-largest city in North Dakota at its peak. Alcohol and drugs were strictly prohibited. Media were required to report to the media tent. No photographs of children, or of anyone, were permitted without consent. Nor was the recording of prayers or ceremonies.”
This was not only a protest; this was a community of collective resistance and cooperation pitched against the forces of greed and exploitation. And it was, in Estes’ words, “Indigenous generosity — so often exploited as a weakness — that held the camp together.”
Our History Is The Future points a way forward, with solidarity and without sentimentality, to an idea of Indigenous land alive with ancestry and renewal. Standing Rock is the model for the present, bound to the past, to reckon with the future.
Now, as the Trump Administration has reauthorized not only the Dakota Access pipeline but also the Keystone XL pipeline, Indigenous people, their water, their lives, are once more under direct threat — their land once again imperiled by forces more concerned with the land’s uses than its meaning.
Though the resistance at Standing Rock is very recent history, it is also the future.
Nicholas Cannariato is a writer and editor based in Chicago.