Mexie sits down with anti-capitalist and decolonial scholar and activist, Dr. Nick Estes, to talk about the US election and what the Empire looks like under various administrations, about the legitimacy of the Supreme Court with respect to Indigenous law and sovereignty, and about how decolonial and anti-capitalist struggles are intimately linked. It was an enlightening discussion! Please follow Nick’s work at The Red Nation (links below).
Source and Links
- The Red Nation: http://therednation.org/
- The Red Nation podcast: https://directory.libsyn.com/shows/vi…
- The Red Nation Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/therednation
- The Red Nation on Twitter: https://twitter.com/The_Red_Nation
- Nick Estes on Twitter: https://twitter.com/nickwestes
- Our History is The Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/bo…
Books mentioned on the show:
- Du Bois, Black Reconstruction
- Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream
- J. Sakai, Settlers
- Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism
- Vander Wall and Churchill, Agents of Repression
- Churchill, The COINTELPRO Papers
Support the Show
[MUSIC] Oh, those rich people. Always flying off somewhere.
MEXIE: Welcome everyone to the Vegan Vanguard. It’s Mexie and today I’m publishing my interview with the incredible Dr. Nick Estes who is a super-rad indigenous anti-capitalist decolonial scholar and activist. I sat down with Nick on a live stream this past month and I wanted to share our conversation in podcast form because it was really enlightening and I was just so incredibly stoked that he would take the time to speak to me about the election, about US Empire, decolonization, and anti-capitalist struggle. I also did a few interviews with Dr. Richard Wolff a few months ago that I’m also planning on releasing as a second podcast in December after our first scheduled podcast with a very special guest, so stay tuned for that. But before we get into the interview where I introduce Nick further, I would like to make a quick pitch for supporting the show on Patreon. This is a fully donor-funded show.
We rely on all of you to keep going and right now we’re paying someone to work through our catalogue to transcribe all of the episodes. This is something we’ve wanted to offer for a long time but it was always just out of reach. It’s a very expensive process so we could really use all of the help that we can get, frankly. If you get anything from this podcast and you have a few dollars per month to spare, supporting us on Patreon will get you access to the Total Liberation Discord server which is co-hosted by Mad Blender and Kathrin. We hold bi-monthly community political discussions there which are always really lovely and I feel like I’m learning a lot from everyone there and it’s just, I don’t know, it’s just a nice space to be in. We also have stickers and pins designed by Meneka Repka of Nooch Design Co., and soon we will have merch.
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[MUSIC] For anyone who doesn’t know who Nick Estes is, he’s an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico, he’s a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, and he’s a co-founder of The Red Nation which is an organization dedicated to the liberation of native peoples from capitalism and colonialism. He’s the host of The Red Nation Podcast which is a really awesome podcast that everyone should check out. He’s also the author of Our History is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long History of Indigenous Resistance, so thank you so much Nick for coming on the show.
NICK: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for having me, Mexie.
MEXIE: Awesome. Okay, I’m really stoked to have this conversation. I was just saying before that I have a number of questions. I always come up with a lot of questions, so I’m gonna ask these first and then hopefully we’ll have time for some questions from the chat at the end. If anyone has a question related to something that we’re talking about, then I’ll just bring it up at the time. So, I thought we could start with US election stuff. Like, you almost don’t want to talk about it but unfortunately the US election takes up the entire world’s airwaves for years at a time, so I thought we could start talking about that in relation to US Empire and then move into decolonization and land back stuff. So, the election; Joe Biden. I guess I’ll preface this by saying that in the run-up to the election, I tried not to comment on it too much because I’m from Canada. I’m not from the US, and so if I was criticizing Biden or something, people would really take that as someone who doesn’t even live here condemning us to fascism or something like that, so I kinda just sat back and took in how people were approaching it. I think a lot of leftists were approaching it like, you know, voting for Biden is strategic. It’s somehow some harm reduction or something like that, but I did see a lot of people vote-shaming BIPOC comrades who, for very good reasons, did not want to engage or vote in this election. I guess I’m just wondering how you as an indigenous activist who cares about decolonization, how did you approach this election and either engage or disengage? What did it mean to you?
NICK: Yeah, I guess the simple answer to that — well, first of all, I was gonna ask you if you were Canadian. You said oh, I’m so sorry. [Inaudible] a dead giveaway. But no, I think the short answer to that question is I’m part of a union, the American Federation of Teachers, also United Academics here at UNM. My union does a lot of promoting elections and things like that, and they side with certain candidates, so I tend to align with my union, especially in local elections because it does effect education. I would say my approach to it is more from a — initially from a strategic point of view is from a point of view of organized labor, and then from a point of — a larger kind of political context. I agree with you in the sense that there is this kind of hyper sensitivity around the electoral process in the United States, but that’s not what democracy is, and often the confusion of boding or elections with the actual democratic process.
We actually did an episode on this for The Red Nation Podcast with the historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz where we talked about this and the kind of cult-like following around the US Constitution especially as it relates to the creation of the federal system and how indigenous peoples fit within that. Oftentimes, I think for a good — very good reason, we talk about the US Constitution and the electoral process in terms of the black vote because that’s really where — or how the electoral process was actually created, was to actually marginalize and create minorities out of black people themselves. That’s when you have people who — you have the Three-fifths Compromise, you have the creation of the Electoral College which guaranteed a majority of a minority, meaning that the southern states would always have a majority voice or an over-representation within the political process because they would have a equal amount of senators as well as an equal amount of — or over-representation of electoral votes.
It’s really kind of getting into the weeds of things but to make a long story short, it’s like, we don’t live in a democracy. We don’t directly impact a president first and foremost, and I think it’s okay — it’s not a radical thing to say because as we can see right now, even with the results of the presidential election, there’s a refusal on part — on the part of Republicans to actually accept the election results. They’re cynical about their own quote, unquote, “democratic processes”. For indigenous people, this raises a series of larger questions and this is something that we approached in that podcast and something that I think we should be thinking about not just as indigenous people. We’re not just some kind of special interest that shows up every four years to vote for this or that candidate, but there is — we represent a political block and there’s a reason why yesterday during the MAGA rallies, during the Make America Great Again rallies for Trump in DC, we saw a sign that says — that said — oh, what did it say?
First We Go After the Blacks and the Indians. It was a very explicit thing because indigenous people, there’s an acknowledgement that indigenous people, not through the electoral process but through the federal system and just by the mere fact we control large amounts of land, we have a lot of political power in this country but we’ve been effectively made within the electoral process and even within the kind of constitutional process a minority, an ineffective minority to the point where at least the right wing acknowledges our power and our — the actual threat we pose to their political project, but on the other hand you have liberal CNN saying that we’re something else in the category of voters. Literally quote, unquote, “something else”.
NICK: Oh, you didn’t see this?
NICK: Oh my gosh, it’s like a hot minute. Well actually, it literally became played out in Indian country in the matter of an hour ‘cause there were so many memes created about it, but there was some CNN pollster who was like — they did some kind of exit poll and they were like, these are the categories of people who voted today. There was like, Whites, Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, then the bottom was a small [inaudible] that said Something Else.
NICK: Yeah, there was a lot of joking about it and I think for a lot of us on the left, there is this kind of — like you said, there was a lot of shaming amongst indigenous people to get out to vote. It’s not to minimize the impact that native voters had, and I can talk a little bit about that because I do think that they contributed to flipping states like Arizona…
MEXIE: For sure.
NICK: …but there was an emphasis coming from people like Deb Haaland and others that voting is sacred and that it’s our obligation as native people to vote in this election. That was very much a liberal narrative, but the liberal mainstream didn’t even recognize us. Somebody was like, so, we did all this voting and sacred stuff and then we get categorized as something else.
MEXIE: Yeah. I know, that’s terrible. You’re right, yeah, I mean, the Navajo Nation was pivotal in flipping Arizona, right? But yeah, and I just saw this on the left, like people who are anti-capitalist, yeah, just not really understanding why some indigenous people might not want to legitimize the US Empire through voting, right, and then putting it all on BIPOC people even though yeah, BIPOC people are the ones who really make or break elections for the Democrats anyway, and they did come out for Biden, right? It was just, I don’t know, a very strange landscape right now.
NICK: Yeah, I don’t — I would — I know that people are like oh, they came out and voted for Biden, but I would take a different argument and say I think they tried to repudiate Trump.
MEXIE: Yeah. That’s true, yeah. Yeah. Yeah, that kinda feeds into my second question about what does the US Empire look like under a Biden versus a Trump, and maybe just high level, what does the US Empire look like between Democratic and Republican establishments in general and what change — or do you think there might be any change that will be felt by indigenous people or colonized people here and abroad?
NICK: Yeah, I mean, that’s a really good question. I don’t know if I really believe in the argument that the Democratic Party can be pushed to make certain concessions to the left. As somebody who’s been — anti-war organizers for — since the beginning — since the start of the invasion of Iraq back in 2003, as somebody — I was in high school at that time and that’s really when it began to get politicized. I had a certain investment within presidential politics, especially with somebody like Obama. At the time, I was a little bit disenchanted with the Democratic Party on a whole, but still nonetheless held out some kind of belief or hope that Obama ran on closing Guantanamo Bay. I was like, this is a good sign because he’s gonna start dismantling this security apparatus that was created under the Bush Administration and the expansion of the global war on terror.
But as we saw through eight years of his presidency, he didn’t do anything along those lines and in fact expanded the Bush doctrine to something we could call the Obama doctrine. He actually increased drone warfare, something that his predecessor Trump ended up doing, you know? What I see the current Biden Administration doing is actually — I don’t think they’re interested in Trumpism so much. I think right now the political landscape is Trumpism versus everything else. In fact, he’s done this really bizarre marriage of Obama and, it sounds so bizarre, but it’s a marriage of Obama era policies and administrators and officials with the Bush era, right? That’s a lot of the people he brought — the never-Trumpers that he brought onto his campaign. I don’t see that as a real alternative.
In fact, I think whether one believes in these things or not, the — if you’re a follower of the Democratic socialist wing of the Democratic Party, they were more successful in their election campaigns when they ran candidates who ran on things like Defund the Police and Medicare, and specifically Medicare for all because that’s an affirmative policy that I think everyone can get behind. But all of the cynical corporate Democrats largely — they didn’t have that same kind of election record. They didn’t have that same kind of success. I think there’s something to that and where indigenous people fall within that line is that — I had a really good conversation with a journalist friend of mine recently who covers tribal affairs for the New Republic, Nick Martin, and we talked about how the primary way that indigenous people are racialized in this country is through disappearance and erasure. We are not supposed to be here, you know?
I think there was a study that said less than 25% of Americans acknowledge that they’ve met a real indigenous — or had a conversation with a real indigenous person. When you’re under the terms of constant erasure, that lure of representational politics whether it’s on — in the Democratic Party or in the Republican Party is very strong because we simply don’t have any kind of mechanism within this current system to actually leverage indigenous rights or indigenous sovereignty.
MEXIE: Mm-hm. Yeah. I think that makes a lot of sense. Yeah, so, I would say you’re completely right in terms of Obama and the administration, and people kind of forget that Biden was a part of that, you know? Yeah, I don’t think Biden is particularly good on foreign policy. I guess could you speak a bit to Biden or Obama’s role in the violence that was enacted towards Water Protectors at Standing Rock? Because…
NICK: Yeah, I think I missed — I didn’t answer the other part of your question. It was about how Biden would be on foreign policy, and I actually don’t think he would be — I think it would be a different flavor of what Trump is doing. I think it would be a continuation of the Obama era. We had an actual coup attempt, several coup attempts in Venezuela under Trump, but we also had a successful coup attempt or a successful coup in Bolivia, but in the Obama years, you can point to Honduras and the entering into the Syrian civil war and all these other examples of — it’s — it was a total interventionist policy on behalf of the Obama Administration. I think we — it’s a weird moment because four years ago, Standing Rock was popping off because after the elections on November 8th, there was this large disenchantment with — across the left.
In general there’s this sense of dread, the kind of waning of the Obama Administration and the entry into this kind of Trump era. You have to remember that people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez actually announced her successful bid for congress while she was at Standing Rock because [inaudible] she saw a lot of — no alternative. It was the only sustained protest movement that was going on at the time. I remember at the — around Thanksgiving or Thankstaking when I showed up the last time — for my last time that I was there, there was just a stream of cars coming into camp because it was — everyone put a lot of hope in that. I would say the impetus for things like the Green New Deal came out of that political alternative that was offered at Standing Rock. The failure of the Obama Administration I think is very apparent in the sense that Obama never — he only acknowledged it once publicly to my knowledge that this was happening at Standing Rock and he said we’ll look into it.
At that moment in time, it was one of the largest police mobilizations, right? We have to remember this is a rule of geography; you — there was deployed over ninety different law enforcement jurisdictions and federal jurisdictions such as Custom and Border Patrol, Homeland Security. I don’t know if [inaudible] was there, but I know some of their equipment was used in that as well as Hennepin County Sheriff’s Department which is the county where George Floyd was actually murdered by police. Also Montana Highway Patrol who actually later went on to go around the country to teach law enforcement jurisdictions, how to put down rural uprisings specifically on Indian reservation land.
NICK: Obama never really acknowledged it. I don’t know; I’m actually gonna read you — I don’t know if I’m gonna read the whole thing but I do want to read his new memoir to see what — ‘cause he has to acknowledge it because Archambault’s sister, the president of — or the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe was part — she was an Obama appointee in his administration. Obama actually visited the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe back in 2014. So, there was a direct connection between Standing Rock and the Obama Administration. He had to have known but even in his — even in the years where he reflected back on his administration, he talked about being politicized by the civil rights movement and seeing the images of black civil rights organizers and people part of the black freedom struggle getting sprayed by fire hoses and attacked by attack dogs, but not once did he mention the fact that that actually happened under his administration.
MEXIE: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, no, I’m really — I am really curious to see if he’ll — what he’ll say about that. I guess one of my worries — I don’t know if you share this, is that under Obama, I just — when the Democrats are in power, obviously people will think that there’s kind of — I don’t know, that things are better or they’re fine, like Biden’s running on this quote, unquote, “return to normalcy”. I worry that under Trump, people who probably wouldn’t have cared so much about a coup in Venezuela or a coup in Bolivia I feel were just really — everything Trump did was bad, so it was a lot easier to get average libs or whatever to be like yeah, this is bad, this is regime change; we don’t like this. I guess I worry that, yeah, similarly under Obama, I feel like even though Standing Rock and Ferguson — that happened under Obama, it doesn’t really stick to him the same way that it does to Trump. People kind of think oh, well, I’m sure he wanted to do something but he just — his hands were tied or something whereas under Trump it’s like no, it’s all Trump’s fault; he’s horrible, he has a horrible administration. I guess I worry with Biden that we’re heading back into this phase where people will see things like oh, the coup in Venezuela, and it’ll be more like maturity politics like oh, well, of — we have to do this to help the people or we have to — it’ll be more respectable whereas under Trump, it won’t be. I don’t know what your thoughts are on that.
NICK: Yeah, I think it’s important. I talk about this in my book and I’ve talked about it since the Trump election that oil and gas, domestic oil and gas production in the United States actually increased 88% under Obama because of his — not necessarily because of his policies. I mean, there was the fracking revolution and the advent of certain kinds of technology that made fracking for a short period of time profitable, and now we’re seeing that it’s not profitable. Biden has hitched his wagon to a dead horse. I know that’s not a good analogy. Hitched his wagon to a sinking horse; that’s a really powerful analogy. But you know, the — I think one of the elements that sticks out to me about that time period was in a Democracy Now! interview, Winona LaDuke was literally walking to the front lines in Standing Rock in 2016, and I don’t know if it was Amy Goodman or somebody was interviewing her as she was doing her thing; they’re like, what do you see this as?
She’s like, this is an escalation of aggression against Venezuela. They’re like wait, what? How’s that connection being made? What she said is that Venezuela has the largest-known oil reserves in the entire world and the development and the exploitation of natural — or oil in the United States as a domestic economic development program is directly related to the sanctions campaign that Obama implemented. He tightened the screws on Venezuela. You can read the WikiLeaks cables to see this kind of escalation and aggression that he was pushing against Chávez and then later Maduro, but it was a way to implement sanctions against Venezuela and to wean the United States off of Venezuelan-produced oil. Obama’s energy policy was towards American energy independence, right?
It was like, by any means necessary in the sense that it would develop the most exploitative forms of oil and gas drilling which is fracking while also exploring green technologies. I think it’s fascinating. I’m interested to see — I don’t know where Biden actually falls on this. I’ve looked and looked and I think there’s a reason why we don’t know the answer to this, but he’s come out in opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline which, by the way, is really funny because Trudeau, when he met the president elect Biden, when he had a meeting with him, his only topic of conversation was try to — to try to get Biden to reverse his decision on canceling the permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline.
MEXIE: Good. Yes, good, yeah.
NICK: So, liberalism.
NICK: What I’m really interested — is he hasn’t said anything publicly about the Dakota Access Pipeline. I wonder why that is. I wonder if his energy policy is gonna be the same as Obama’s in the sense that Obama — the reason why he shut down the Keystone XL Pipeline permit is because it crossed the international border. It didn’t fall within his American energy independence thing because he was interested in developing only the kind of domestic capacity whereas Trump is like, he doesn’t care where it’s coming from. He went from energy independence to unleashing American energy dominance, is the term that he uses, on all the globe. It’ll be interesting to see where Biden falls on this because the oil going through the Dakota Access Pipeline is primarily fracked. He’s refused to come out and [inaudible] into fracking, so who knows?
MEXIE: Yeah, no, absolutely. Yeah, I mean, I think he’s gonna definitely have to be pushed really far on that. But yeah, it’s kind of the same in Canada that all these pipelines are touted under the banner of oh, well, we need to develop Canadian oil which is the dirtiest oil, actually. The tar sands is even worse than fracking, but yeah. We need to just run rough shot over indigenous rights in order to have quote, unquote, “energy independence”. But there’s no — we’re not even really developing green energy, so…
NICK: Well, the argument that Trudeau makes is we have to develop the dirty stuff to get the clean stuff.
MEXIE: Yeah, right. Makes sense. Makes perfect sense. Yeah, yeah, liberalism. I wanted to move to the Supreme Court. Abby Martin from the Empire Files made a video about why we should abolish the Supreme Court ‘cause it’s undemocratic and all the rest, but she was focusing on Roe v. Wade and the fact that the Supreme Court can overturn the election results, but I wanted to hear your take on that. I know that you’ve talked about the Marshall Decision and how really devastating that’s been for upholding the treaties. But you know, there are some good cases like the Oklahoma decision where a large part of Oklahoma was actually Muscogee Creek Reservation but that didn’t actually give the land back; it was just a criminal investigation. Yeah, thoughts on the Supreme Court.
NICK: Yeah, the Supreme Court is a really undemocratic institution and I agree with Abby Martin. It should be abolished. I think for indigenous people, I think it was under John Marshall, the Supreme Court Justice who actually expanded the powers of the Supreme Court to have the kind of — to wield the kind of influence it does today beyond its original constitutional mandate ‘cause it kind of existed in this — I’m not trying to uphold the Constitution as the model document, but he took lots of liberties with the Supreme Court and the expansion and the interpretation of the Constitution. That’s the kind of effect that we’re dealing with today. It’s no accident that he was the one who decided these three monumental court decisions that still affect indigenous people known as the Marshall Trilogy, categorically defining not only the Cherokee Nation as a domestic dependent nation but all potential — or all future indigenous people who would enter into relation with the US and sort of pulling them into that domestication process with the courts.
There’s debates about it within indigenous communities about the best process and the best approach to the Supreme Court but the truth of the matter is, is you get somebody like Ruth Bader Ginsburg who may be good on some issues but historically, her record has been really bad on indigenous issues and actually upholding the race’s legal doctrines that John Marshall upheld. The McGirt decision actually — I don’t — I wouldn’t categorize it as a good decision so much as they were just upholding the law that they wrote and asking mediocre white guys to be like, don’t be racist and don’t be a dick. You shouldn’t get a cookie for that, you know? Gorsuch was this conservative Supreme Court Judge and he wrote a — he wrote — it’s actually a pretty eloquent decision. He’s like, on the other side of the Trail of Tears was a promise.
It’s like, wow, that’s — he was very poetic in his writing but I think at the end of the day it’s like, if Oklahoma had been following the law the entire time with these treaties which are federal law and they’re not state law, then we wouldn’t be in this predicament in the first place. It’s fascinating to me that the liberal left judicial process has seeded that ground to interpretation of the textualists, the [inaudible] elitist school of Supreme Court Justices. I don’t know — I think the only remedy to that particular situation, with a short-term remedy, is to create some — it has to be some kind of act of congress that moves those decisions out of this judicial body and into a different kind of — a new era of Indian Affairs because right now we’re — Indian Affairs, they say we’re in the era of self-determination where we get to decide, but it’s really the era of self — it’s the era of consultation where they just consult us as they take our lands and as they make decisions about what they want to do with those lands. We’re not even living — some people call it moving into the era of consent. I would say it needs to be something a little bit more robust than that.
MEXIE: Mm-hm. Yeah. It’s fairly similar in Canada about the consultation process being really terrible. In Canada, the Supreme Court has very often actually upheld indigenous rights in title but then it doesn’t actually translate into action on the ground. I think there’s a similar thing where the treaties are with the crown and the federal government but then the provinces just issue ten years and disrespect treaty rights. But it sounds like in the states, actually, with that Marshall Decision and the rest, it sounds like actually they’re trying — they’re watering down — in Canada, they’ve already — they definitely don’t respect the treaties at all, but I think there is this growing movement to make people really respect and uphold them. That has so much power because obviously indigenous nations can — out of everyone, they can really question the authority of the settler state itself and — of the capitalist projects and whatnot. But yeah, it sounds like they’re really trying to I guess take the teeth out of the political power that you would otherwise have, particularly under UNDROP and stuff, but I doubt that the US is a signatory to that.
NICK: Yeah, they are, but it’s like…
MEXIE: They are?
NICK: Actually, Obama, he was the one who signed but it was emphasizing the non-binding element of UNDROP to say we’re not bound to uphold everything.
MEXIE: Right, right. Moving onto decolonization and the Land Back Movement. On the ground in Toronto, the work that’s happening on the ground, I feel like the majority of radical movements are led by indigenous and BIPOC comrades and there isn’t a lot of debate. Everyone’s really on-board with land back and decolonization and things like that, but when — with the work I do online, I find it actually really, really difficult to talk to other settler leftists about decolonization or land back and things like that. People are, I guess, frightened of it. They don’t know what it is or they’re — they just get really upset by it. There’s kind of this general discourse that we can actually decouple or just separate the anti-capitalist struggle from the decolonial one. I was hoping you could maybe speak to that and how these struggles are actually woven together.
NICK: Yeah, it’s kind of a — or, I don’t know what they say; red herring. I was gonna say yellow herring. I don’t even know what a herring is. I think it’s a fish.
MEXIE: I think it’s a fish.
NICK: All these animal metaphors. I think I got nervous ‘cause I saw you were vegan and I was like oh no, I don’t want to…
MEXIE: No, don’t even worry about it.
NICK: I was just joking, but I’m just really bad at metaphors and I have dad humor. But I think the accusation that gets leveled at indigenous people tends to be like oh, well, they just want to create an ethnostate or what are you gonna do with all the people who live on the land and blah, blah, blah. Those accusations assume a lot of stuff which I think is really — it says more about these kind of repressed fears than it does about anything indigenous people represent or the land back or decolonization represents. The first thing I would say is that we already live in an ethnostate. Read the Declaration of Independence and the original Constitution as it was written in 1887. Read the Federalist Papers. It was very much intended to always be an ethnostate and that’s why we’re in the predicament that we are. Secondly, there isn’t — they didn’t just hate indigenous people because they hated our culture or spirituality or whatever; they hated us for two primary reasons.
One; we were atop land that they wanted and two; we actually represented an alternative political order to the settler states. For the first point, the first point is important because there’s this idea in going back to these federal case laws and federal law in general as it relates to indigenous people; there’s a recursive element and this is kind of a fancy term but basically it assumes that indigenous people were owners of the land for it to be taken and transferred into the possession of others when in fact land tenure as we know it today is something that is primarily — I mean, it’s not only about European nation states, but the land tenure system that we have inherited or that has been forced upon us in this land does derive from a European tradition of conquest. But also this idea of ownership is based on exclusion and the right to alienate that land. We’ve only been granted one of those rights.
We’ve never been granted the right to exclude anybody under the law. We’ve only been granted the right to sell our land or to alienate it to this other state. That really debunks this idea that we were owners and that somehow we’re gonna go out and do what — do to white people what their ancestors did to us or whatever. That also is a recursive — or a repressive idea of this idea of white genocide or the misplacement, like as if native people — but it’s an implicit acknowledgement that genocide happened, right? That these property regimes actually uphold a genocidal order. That actually works in our favor to say yeah, well, you’re admitting that genocide took place or is taking place and that your property system is based on it. We got that one down. The second one is this idea of political governance.
I think one of my friends and colleagues, Emily Riddle, she’s a grad student; she’s a Metis grad student from up north. She talked about how within the kind of pantheon of indigenous nations that occupy or that live on the prairies or live with that particular landscape that I’m a part of, that it was their negotiated existence with each other that made them sovereign. It wasn’t an exclusion, right? That sovereignty accounted for people who were considered new arrivals or sometimes even settlers themselves. But it was like, we have to — that diversity is our strength. It’s not a weakness as it is a plurality, I would say. That plurality of ways of life was a strength for them, not a weakness as it’s portrayed within this current system. You can look to examples; there’s real examples of this.
Bolivia has a plurinational model constitution that acknowledges the thirty-two different indigenous peoples that live there and makes space — it’s not a perfect system because it’s, you know, you have to negotiate these kind of differences but nonetheless, there are things out there that show that these things are possible and that you can create a system of governance that accounts for this diversity versus trying to — I would say that the settler model is the one that it seeks to replace. It seeks to destroy to replace, specifically. Decolonization, if it’s going to happen, isn’t just about decolonizing your English department or whatever that means, or hiring a couple of native people or getting a couple of native people into congress. Decolonization does mean land back and it also means that — it also understands that decolonization isn’t an indigenous problem; it’s everybody’s problem.
That includes non-indigenous people. Settler colonialism is primarily about the dispossession of indigenous people for land but it’s not only about indigenous people, right? That’s something that I always encourage people to think about, especially people who have been indoctrinated, who have internalized white supremacist ideology. That itself is a structure. It’s not just some kind of individually held belief, because the first goal of that ideology is to make white people behave a certain way and also to make other people behave a certain way. It’s incumbent upon them to join us in that particular struggle. One last example is — the state I’m from, South Dakota, has I think the highest rates of death almost I think in the — some of the highest rates of death in the world. I don’t know where it stands like, the actual numbers percentage-wise, but the COVID deaths have been so out of control. It’s so fascinating to see because the more people who are dying are actually white people, older white people. White supremacy actually kills white people, too. The idea that you’re somehow immune to COVID-19 if you don’t believe in it are actually killing white people.
MEXIE: Yeah. Yeah, no, absolutely. I think that was really, really well said. Yeah, just in general, colonialism and capitalism have always been so completely interlinked, right? Colonialism fed the beginning of capitalism, same with slavery and everything. Then it continues to do so; neocolonialism and imperialism obviously feeds this capitalist beast so I just feel like, I don’t know, yeah, we can’t fight colonial capitalism with more colonialism, right? You can’t fight capitalists with more capitalism. In your book Our History is the Future, you also talk about indigenous resistance as really about a battle between two different value systems and really the meaning of land itself. I was wondering if you could speak a bit to the importance of this kind of worldview shift to create any kind of sustainable post-capitalist future.
NICK: Yeah, I think I was in this conversation with somebody yesterday where we were talking about oil jobs in New Mexico, because there’s this fear and I think it’s — I don’t think it’s — I don’t know, I have mixed feelings on it. There’s this fear that we can’t get widespread support around climate justice policy or any kind of green transition or even any transition towards — away from capitalism because these oil workers are gonna lose their jobs. My counter to that would be to say well, you know what’s fascinating? Even thought indigenous — my reservation is a small reservation — has been really hard hit by COVID-19. In some ways it’s actually been beneficial to us because through the CARES Act which was not a small amount of money, we were able to employ 100 people. That employment of 100 people, giving them jobs to set up health-check points and to make sure that people are getting food and have access to medications and healthcare has actually created a different sense in our community of service.
You see people who aren’t — there’s a psychological difference that’s intangible, right? This was with a small amount of money that we were able to employ just 100 people, but there’s a noticeable difference because unemployment is high, right? When people are like oh, we’re gonna lose all these oil jobs, it’s like bro, I — we’ve been — we’ve suffered from unemployment forever for like, over a century. Don’t talk to me about losing jobs. But also suggests that — I would say that creating what Standing Rock did and what — when it talked about the meaning of land, it wasn’t just this particular indigenous identity where we just have this superior local knowledge. I mean, it is superior in some ways, but that’s a chauvinistic way that we had this superior knowledge of this place and land that nobody had access to, right? The opposite actually happened; they were like actually, we need people.
We need Water Protectors to come here. A Water Protector isn’t — it’s based on this indigenous knowledge system of protecting and caretaking the land, but it — not every Water Protector was an indigenous person, right? I would say that if we’re thinking about the meaning of land and we think of stewardship and caretaking as central to not just indigenous peoples’ connection to that land and the meaning of that land, but actually a livelihood that’s attached to a real material basis. Everyone needs clean drinking water. Everyone needs healthy land and an environment to live. It’s not this exclusive indigenous thing where we’re just enjoying all the pristine environment. It’s like oh, we actually have a larger concern about other people. That goes back to the COVID-19 stuff; the tribes, they weren’t just like oh, we’re going to protect our own.
They were like, we’re doing this because we want — we don’t want to spread the virus to white communities as well. Your government isn’t taking care of this. There’s a universal application to this, and so when we talk about the meaning of land and caretaking land, it’s not just an indigenous issue. There’s indigenous people out there who are already doing these green jobs that we’re so worried about. They’re not being paid for it and they’re not talking about oh, we’re gonna lose our economy. But at the same time, their — those jobs that they’re doing, defending land and water, we should think about them as a labor struggle because we need that — we — that’s our livelihood as indigenous people. That’s our land base. We need that to survive just as your job is your livelihood, right? When we put up a picket line and a blockade, we’re asking other workers to stand with us and to join us on our picket line. You don’t want to be a scab, right, so don’t become a scab.
MEXIE: Yeah, no, exactly. I mean, just to the oil — losing oil jobs; they’re gonna be lose through mechanization anyway, right? So yeah, we’re all gonna lose our jobs through automation. These jobs are already going away. But yeah, I think that’s really apt. There’s obviously so many benefits for settlers; not that we should be in solidarity with land back or decolonization because it would benefit settlers, but obviously yeah, there is a lot of benefits because if we actually uphold the treaties, then that’s just a better environment for all of us to live in, right? That’s just actually, yeah, working towards better relationships between people and the environment and working to address climate change and all the rest. I think people don’t really think about that. Yeah, so, I just wanted to ask a few questions about this idea of revolution. I guess this kinda, again, speaks to the importance of connecting the decolonial and anti-capitalist struggle, but do you see a settler revolution that could maintain colonial power structures? How do we avoid something like that?
NICK: I don’t know if it would be a revolution, though. I think it would just be a state of reaction which would — it would already be — it would be a counter-illusion. I think Gerald Horne was very — he’s a historian who said this; the seventeen — the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution was actually a counter-revolution. It worked specifically to the fact that the British Empire was moving towards abolition and that the American settlers wanted to maintain the system of plantation slavery which was incredibly profitable for them at that time, so they decided to preempt the Abolition Movement and to declare independence to maintain the system of slavery. I would add onto that that in the eastern hinterlands of — or the western hinterlands of the American colonies, the indigenous nations were beginning to form larger diplomatic and political structures that were antagonistic to the American settler project as well.
I think it was also to preempt the formation of a larger political — indigenous political block that actually posed a legitimate challenge to the US Empire. But I think — the burgeoning American Empire, but to your point about what — there’s this kind of — I think there’s an oversimplification sometimes between settler and indigenous or a settler-native binary because I would say that that discounts a lot of the broad experience of the kinds of people who were brought to these lands often not by choice; often through war, enslavement, capture, fleeing, economic situations that were a part of structural reform programs that the United States helped implement. I think that indigenous — there’s a tendency to say indigenous — there’s this program for indigenous struggle and we all have to adhere to it, but I would say that they’re — looking at the history of indigenous movements and internationalism, in fact, it’s quite the opposite that they were these very broad and robust visions that looked to other parts of the world.
It’s important to remember that the most advanced climate justice policy and movements that we have today, the Rights of Nature Movement actually came from the global south, right? The Sovereignty Movement; it wasn’t a bunch of non-profits in the global north coming up with this. It was mainly peasant and indigenous communities in the global south we’re talking about. We’re the producers of this. We do have to — we should have the say of how this food is used and to prevent its exploitation. I think there’s a tendency within the First World to place a lot of emphasis on what our domestic policy and how — if we work all these things out, then they’re just gonna be beneficial to everyone else without really realizing that the United States isn’t only a stain on this land, but it’s also a stain on the planet, and that it’s our obligation to not only listen to what other people in the global south have to say especially in — with their relationships with the United States, but to understand that that also has to structure whatever kind of system that we want on this land.
It can’t be just this kind of exclusive — and this is me kind of pushing in the other direction — it can’t just be this kind of exclusive Identitarian project because being indigenous doesn’t make you an anarchist or a socialist or a leftist or an environmentalist. We have to move beyond that because we already have indigenous people in congress, half of whom are Republicans. All of them are pro-war. That’s not progress. Indigenous as an identity is not necessarily revolutionary but indigeneity as a project, as a political project, tends to be. We see the successes of that not so much in the US in creating a large-scale political form of governance that accounts for all the plurality that we have, but definitely like I said in places like Bolivia and elsewhere where they’re actually practicing socialism. There is the antagonism and a hostility of the global north even amongst indigenous people towards those movements because they’re going to internalize that imperialist framework of the US that what we think and do matters to the rest of the world. In reality, it doesn’t really, and we actually — if we are trying to really connect on a universal level, we need to actually listen to what they’ve done and we have a lot to learn from them.
MEXIE: For sure. Yeah, shout-out to Bolivia. I think that’s probably one of the first times that a country has overturned a US-backed coup through elections, so that’s, yeah, that’s amazing. But I guess speaking to that, I was wondering your thoughts on — you mentioned Third-Worldism ideas. J. Sakai wrote about how in the Imperial core, the white working class isn’t going to be really the revolutionary agents because more often than not, they’re invested in the settler state or as you said, a lot of people do internalize, even people who think of themselves as leftists do internalize this imperialist mindset. Just wondering your thoughts on that.
NICK: Yeah, I don’t — I have lots of thoughts on that. I’ll just say that you can’t conflate — again, you can’t just conflate an identity with a class position. I think it’s important to understand that even within indigenous communities there’s class hierarchy, right? I think race is oftentimes an expression of class because class is fundamentally about power, right? I would say that there is a structural — a larger structural settler political — I wouldn’t — there is an Identitarian element to it, but I think on a legal and political structure, it’s kind of embedded itself to a point where it’s seen as the only alternative to things, where it’s like we just have to go through these normative political processes to achieve what we want. We see how that — there’s certain dividends, right, that are paid out to certain — the so-called white working class, but I don’t — I’m not on the bandwagon to say that working class is solely white.
There’s a lot of white people in the working class but also, they’re not the working class at the same time. They’re not the italics working class and that we actually — to have a real program of struggle in this country, it’s not something that just has to be palatable to white fears or whatever, but it has to actually engage that certain contradiction that there are people who don’t — they think they benefit from the project but they don’t. I recommend everyone to read Du Bois Great Reconstruction — or The Black Reconstruction because it’s that book that taught me that there — he uses — I think people have called it the wages of whiteness; he calls it the psychology wage of whiteness, this idea that whiteness flattens out class identity and that the clerk at Walmart has the same political interests as Donald Trump. We know how big of a fallacy that is, right?
But at the same time, when people say — when they place an overemphasis on whiteness in the attempts to decenter it, they’re actually centering it again. I always caution people against that. It’s like, we have to address it. White supremacy is a real thing that needs to be addressed, but it doesn’t help if you’re always constantly centering whiteness as itself as the problem, right? It’s like the big difference between whiteness and white supremacy. It does inform a class structure in this country and it does have real material things. There’s some people who want to remove the class relations of power from white supremacy itself. I think it’s racial capitalism; as a lot of people in the black radical tradition have eloquently stated that you can’t separate the two because they’re — the class structure is fundamentally about an expression of race, right, because race is fundamentally about power.
I have a lot to say about that, but it’s — it bothers me because you see it coming from both sides. You see the anti-wokeness where it’s like oh, well, this is why the Democrats, the corporate Democrats are so cynical, is they just think that they can henpeck a representational class of political elites from each of these oppressed groups and then call it gravy. Then the other side of it is saying well, all white people have inherent racism or whatever it is. I would say that if your lived experience — if you grew up in a place that I grew up, like white supremacy, that might actually seem like yeah, a lot of white people are racist and they harbor these views. They probably have private conversations that we don’t know about. I don’t know. I would say that there’s a truth to that but at the same time, that’s a very cynical way of going about things and I guess my — as somebody who’s a socialist who believes in a universal humanity and that we are — we can move beyond that, but it’s only gonna happen through struggle. It’s not gonna just be like — I’m not gonna just lecture at white people about how racist they are. It’s like, they know how racist they are, you know?
MEXIE: Yeah. Yeah, no, I think that was really beautifully said. Yeah, thank you for that. Yeah, there’s a few minutes left. I do have more questions. I haven’t really been seeing many questions from the chat so if anyone has any questions, say them now, otherwise I’m just gonna ask my own questions. I guess I just wanted to talk a bit more about this idea of land back. I was listening to a podcast called Give the Land Back? from Flash Forward. They had indigenous scholars talking about how there’s actually all of this federal land in the US. I think upwards of 30% of the land might be federally-owned land that they could be giving back to the tribes right now, not even touching the areas that are highly-populated or settled or whatever, including the Black Hills. I think that’s something that people don’t really think about. They hear land back and then they hear oh, well, am I gonna be deported, or I didn’t take the land, or you know what I mean? Things like that. But I don’t think people maybe realize that there’s actually so much that can be done right now, right?
NICK: Yeah. I think that’s something that’s been proposed. In the 80s, there was the Bradley Bill that — that basketball player — I think he was from New Jersey; he became a senator, I think. I can’t remember the exact — but he proposed giving or returning federal land and the Black Hills back to the Lakota people. It didn’t materialize to anything for a variety of reasons, but then next came to — there was this idea of the Buffalo Commons that you could take large swaths of the Great Plains and turn it — return the federal land back to tribes for management and all those kinds of things. Then that was like, under Reagan, so it didn’t really play out well. But the question of — I think it is a viable alternative because a lot of times, indigenous people are already entering into these engagements with the National Park Service, National Forest Service for co-management. That’s good, I guess. I think a lot of people would find that really amendable, even white folks as well. But the problem with that is that it doesn’t address — again, it doesn’t address the class issue. Yeah, public lands were created as a — to benefit the quote, unquote “public” which we know as a white settler public, but also private land ownership in this country is really fascinating. If you look at the largest landowners, most of them are white men. Most of them are white billionaires. Ted Turner owns 200,000 acres of my Treaty territory. He’s one of the largest landowners in the entire world, right? Land is about class power in this country. If we’re not talking — if we’re not addressing that, the fact that one individual can own more land than entire nations of people, right; again, the average non-native person who’s just living in a city, who’s a renter, you’re not an owner. You have nothing in common with Ted Turner. You have everything to gain by his expropriation.
NICK: I think the land back conversation needs to move towards looking at the privatization of land and the accumulation and hoarding of land.
MEXIE: Mm-hm. Yeah, because it is unfortunate because for a lot of different nations, unfortunately, a common way that they can get their land back is if they raise lots of money and buy it back or they get NGOs or whatever to donate money and then buy land back and then hold it in a trust or whatever which, again, as you were talking about before, that’s — goes along with the colonial capitalist vision of private property and land and not a great alternative. There’s one question, here; in the case of the Mapuche here in Chile and Argentina and Rapa Nui, how to reconcile the different views of autonomy and independence amongst groups? I’m not sure if you can speak to that.
NICK: Yeah, I mean, this is something — it’s — there’s — again, this isn’t a one-size-all-fits or one-size-fits-all approach to everything. With the Mapuche, it’s like, there’s a strong kind of — I would say anarchist tendency among a lot of the Mapuche resistors because the Chilean state and Argentinian state literally bisect their territory, right? It’s actually the problem of those states that interfere with the self-determination and autonomy of the Mapuche people. It should be the priority of how that — how that’s decided should be up to them because they’re the ones who are taking care of that land and the confrontations that they’re having in Chile and Argentina are not necessarily — I mean, they are with the state. There is a lot of state violence but it’s at the — in defense of these logging corporations, these lumber operations, these mining operations and these large altiplanas, these large plantations that are antagonistic to indigenous rights because again, it gets down to the class element; it’s like, the security forces and the police in both of these states are meant to uphold a certain form of class rule, right? Mapuche people are at the bottom of that. But I would say that yeah, I mean, that’s — there’s a lot to get into those kinds of politics but at the end of the day, it’s up to them to decide what — they need to be granted or given the space to develop what autonomy means to them and self-define what that kind of governing structure is going to be.
MEXIE: Mm-hm. Yeah, absolutely. There’s a few other questions. Yeah, that was addressed earlier. Someone asked what do you think of Russell Means and his approach to supporting Indian sovereignty?
NICK: I don’t know. That’s a big question. I mean, I talked quite extensively about it on a Red Left Podcast episode. I would say there’s two versions — there’s two phases of Russell Means. There was one that was very much aligned with the politics of the American Indian Movement and internationalism that espoused thinking about indigenous nations as akin to Third World decolonization projects. His views changed on that over time and he didn’t hold those. He became a libertarian later on in his life. So, which one? What’s the first thing you want to talk about?
MEXIE: Yeah, that makes sense. Okay, so, I’m conscious of your time. I think we can end it there, but thank you so much — oh wait, there’s another one. Do you have to go right now?
NICK: No, I don’t — I can — I’ll take two more questions.
MEXIE: Okay, alright. So, this one, I’ll put it up on screen. What do you disagree with as far as J. Sakai? Sakai wrote settlers in response to the mistreatment of his black comrades within the black liberation struggle.
NICK: I don’t know if I have a fully-formed disagreement with Sakai. I think you should read his book in conversation with Mike Davis’ — what was it? Something of the American — Prisoners of the American Dream. I think they talk about the same — elements of the same thing from different angles, like the failure of an organized labor in the United States to actually create a workers’ party or a left party is Mike Davis’ thesis because there was such an investment into the racial-political order of the day. Sakai’s argument is very similar in that regard but he takes a — they take a different kind of approach to it. I would say that Sakai is a little bit more heavy-handed, but in some ways it’s needed in its critique of this idea that we could all unify around this kind of vision of a universalized proletarian class struggle because the class — the settler class doesn’t see itself as the working class or it sees itself as a working class that’s separate from other elements or other variations of the working class. I think that is an important contribution that he’s — that they’ve made to this particular debate that I’m sympathetic with because they were one of the first people to articulate a settler, native, and colonized class-based analysis. Oftentimes in mainstream political organizing, even on the left, it gets watered down. Nobody wants to — everyone wants to erase colonialism and the colonial relation as if indigenous people just don’t exist anymore.
MEXIE: Mm-hm. Yeah, I feel like — yeah, nobody really wants to talk about settler as a social position, you know? Again, you said it’s really reductive how people talk about that in general but I just — I feel like, yeah, it’s — I just think that was well-said. Okay, how should we view Anna Aquash in the history of indigenous resistance in relation to AIM?
NICK: I mean, that’s a big question but I’ll say that Anna Mae Aquash is — was a Mi’kmaq revolutionary and she was very fundamental to the growth and the proliferation of AIM, especially in Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and in her own community. There’s been books, numerous volumes written on her murder and her assassination. What I would recommend people do to think about the Anna Mae Aquash assassination and those eight members who were convicted of her murder is to read this alongside the larger COINTELPRO operation that was meant to discredit, defame, and essentially lead to the assassination of indigenous revolutionaries. Read a book called Black Against Empire where — it was for the first time, actually — I read some of the stuff on the police repression of the Black Panther Party, but I think I — it was probably the most comprehensive overview of what had happened and how infiltrators, FBI infiltrators, introduced elements of torture, snitch-jacketing, the paranoia around people being infiltrators. But that — at the same time, that’s kind of the larger structural surveillance and repression of these social movements from the FBI. But on the other hand, what we do — what we also failed to do is realize the human part of it and the fact that these were people who were coming from the most oppressed and repressed elements of society, trying to make revolution, trying to make change, and they made mistakes. We shouldn’t just write hagiographies about them but also we have to understand the conditions in which they were operating and why they made those decisions, why they made those mistakes, why things turned out the way they did because the COINTELPRO operation didn’t just disappear overnight. They have ended but it evolved into a larger — a different kind of form of surveillance and repression. It teaches us a lesson in this moment in time to take serious state repression, but also not to repeat the mistakes of past struggles and past movements.
MEXIE: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, we know it’s still going on and very much that they’re still watching us and probably infiltrating on all the rest but yeah, I think that was really well-said. Yeah, thank you so much for coming on. I feel like I could talk to you forever but yeah, I guess we’ll end it there. I’ve linked where people can follow you in the description box but do you just want to shout out quickly before we go where people can find you and your work?
NICK: Sure. My major political work or I guess my major political project is The Red Nation. You can follow that @The_Red_Nation on Twitter or therednation.org online. We have various Facebook and Instagram accounts for our various chapters throughout Turtle Island. Then also The Red Nation Podcast; it’s on all the major podcasting things. You can find it on Apple iTunes, Spotify, whatever the other ones are, I don’t know. Yeah, I guess the best way to support, I would say, is to look at our land back campaigns that we’re supporting right now. There’s the Mniluzahan Camp that’s providing temporary shelter for our relatives, Oglala relatives who are living on the streets in places like Rapid City. There’s already been several exposure deaths. There’s also the Shinnecock Sovereignty Camp in the Hamptons that’s going on right now. That’s Warriors of the — Warriors of the Sunrise is their Twitter handle as well as their Instagram handle. If you want to donate to those things, I’d recommend donating to them. They need help. They need amplification. Yeah, that’s the work that I would support.
MEXIE: Awesome. Yeah, I’ll link that below as well. Great. Thank you and thank you everyone, and have a good night.
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