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Review of Nick Estes’ “Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance”

by Brant Roberts
“The radical kernel of the book is that today’s Indigenous political struggles are reflections of past struggles both in resistance to settler-colonialism and the violence imposed against them.”

“Land is a matter of race, class, and colonialism.”[1] 

“For the earth to live, capitalism must die.”[2]

Nick Estes’ new book Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance is able to balance popular accessibility with a rigorous application of theory and historiography. Centered on Indigenous struggles in the US, he thoroughly documents the work of water protectors and their confrontations with state violence while mirroring similar resistance struggles throughout the past 400 years. In short, the radical kernel of the book asserts that today’s Indigenous political struggles are reflections of past movements in their shared resistance to settler-colonialism and to the violence imposed against them.

The title itself is, as scholar and podcaster-extraordinaire Sina Rahmani noted, “ironically imperialist.”[3] Turning the ideology of manifest destiny on its head, the title makes it clear that what was once seen through colonial eyes as a dead past was never the case and that the history of Indigenous life is far from its conclusion. Rather than succumbing to the fate of parodying past struggles, as Karl Marx once described as wearing “time-honored disguise and this borrowed language,” or of narrating them as a triumphal futurist, Estes is clear in seeing these events as part-and-parcel of a new Indigenous struggle that deals with similar contradictions of the past and with new conditions of the present.[4]

As if prophetically mapping out the future of Indigenous people, the first 4 chapters are titled “Siege,” “Origins,” “War,” and “Flood,”  while the final 3 chapters are titled “Red Power,” “Internationalism,” and “Liberation.”[5] If we are optimistic then we may see both cause and effect, as well as the significant difference between living under the siege of colonization and the moment of liberation. The struggle between the two is the rich center of the book and defines the conditions that will characterize liberation – a process with no definite end in sight and a word without a strict definition; a horizon without a sunset.

A tense tone is felt throughout much of the book; given the content-matter, it is notable that Estes never gave in to melodramatic prose. Neither does he engage in making connections that tentatively exist nor does he write poetically. There are gut-wrenching moments that would make the average reader put the book down briefly; one can only imagine writing about and contextualizing these experiences – much less living them out. Yet he does not shy away from combatting popular historiography that the book contends with when he writes, “Indigenous resistance to colonialism–even if for self-defense–is considered criminal much as it was in places throughout the Americas, Africa, and more recently in Palestine. Libraries have been filled with volumes written by armchair historians, colonial apologists, and scholars of all stripes–too many to name here–on Northern Plains Indigenous warfare.”[6]

The book begins with the resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and the fight that took place between water protectors on one side and the state in collusion with companies involved in building the pipeline on the other. The pipeline itself was expected to carry oil from North Dakota to southeast Texas, and it became a much more controversial project when the route was moved away from the predominately white capital Bismarck to the other side of the Missouri River near the Standing Rock Reservation. The pipeline violated the reservation’s  sovereignty and threatened their supply of drinking water from the river’s basin; in response, the tribe took on the task of organizing against the companies and government agencies that planned and approved its construction. 

Tragically, the neighboring Lower Brule Reservation, of which Estes is a member, gave in to an offer from the company to construct the electric lines that would power the pipeline across their land. Feeling betrayed by their elders, young organizers within Lower Brule took to building momentum within the tribal council and faced up against the internal contradictions within the reservation’s institutional structure. They ended up winning enough seats within the tribal council to halt the construction. It was this experience of fighting to win consensus that prepared many of them to take the initiative to start organizing demonstrations against the DAPL.

Estes lays out how the democratic organization and structure of the Oceti Sakowin Camp reflected both the militancy necessary to protest against all odds and the communal way of life that we should all strive towards. Built originally as an overflow camp for water protectors from outside the reservation, the camp became large enough to be considered, at its peak, the 10th largest city in North Dakota. Everyone took part in camp life and worked in a variety of ways from carework to direct action training. Estes mentions every role imaginable as he lays out the long list of challenges that they faced every day.[7]

Highlighting the role of women and Two-Spirit people in resistance to both the DAPL and the exploitation of their bodies by settlers and the state, Estes makes it a point to mention their incredible contributions as leaders in every aspect of camp-life. Two-Spirit, as he notes, “is an umbrella term for Indigenous people who identify as LGBTQAI+.”[8] Also included are their experiences as victims to the many “man camps” of oil workers that were set up once the oil boom began in North Dakota and the murderous heteropatriarchy that followed.[9]

The repression against water protectors was strong as a combination of federal, state, county and private militarized forces was used against protestors, aiming especially at Indigenous people. These agencies were able to obtain around $2 million worth of military equipment during the protests and made use of almost all of it; the private security firms that were hired by the pipeline construction company even used attack dogs on protesters.[10] There was no shortage of violent methods against both sympathetic journalists and protesters.

The practices of settler-colonialism and genocide structure much of the history that Estes addresses. Unlike formal colonization, settler-colonialism is not simply about one nation exploiting another nation via the proletarianization and/or enslavement of the Indigenous population, the monopolization of markets and commodities, cultural hegemony, and the theft of wealth sent to the colonizing metropole. Rather, settler-colonialism involves the elimination of the Indigenous population via ethnic cleansing and/or genocide, the theft of land and resources, and building a new nation on top of the former nation or several nations. To clarify, the British did not go to India to become Indians, but the Europeans came to the Americas to become Americans; the projects are similar, but the goals are different.[11]

The process of Indigenous genocide not only took the outright forms of settler violence and settler-state violence (via the military), but also, as Estes notes, via ecocide and the use of national sacrifice zones. These zones are often Indigenous lands that have been burned, flooded, contaminated, polluted, and made lifeless through the actions of the settler state. Some examples include the more obvious DAPL, but also the flooding of Latoka lands in the Missouri River basin that were used for hydroelectric dams; the most atomic-bombed site in the world on Paiute land in Nevada; the contamination of Wanapam land by the first plutonium plant in the US near Richland, WA; and the site of the first atomic bomb explosion on Indigenous land in New Mexico, to name only a few.[12]

When writing a book review there is normally space reserved for criticism, but Estes’ Our History is the Future deserves no such space. The book provides a strong history and a struggle-centric approach that everyone should read. There are many other themes that border on much of what the book covers, including the racist history of national parks as monuments for settlers; the colonial logic of heteropatriarchy and white supremacy; internationalism and the value of global solidarity; and the national question in the context of what decolonizing Indigenous claimed lands will one day have to look like. As readers we should be thankful that he avoided publishing this narrative through an academic publication, which might have stripped away much of the anti-capitalist rhetoric that structures the internal logic of the book as well as allowed for an academic publisher to likely price the book out of the general public’s reach.The DAPL protests took place during the 2016 presidential elections and was never taken seriously by much of the large media outlets in the US, which were far more obsessed with what Trump would tweet next and which words he would misspell than those who were risking their lives at Standing Rock. However, ten months of occupying the site on which the pipeline would be built was enough to change the popular narrative but this time around climate change and centering Indigenous protesters within that fight. That Alexandra Ocasio Cortez pushed for the Green New Deal (GND) is largely due to her participation in the camp as a water protector. However, one would be remiss to not mention the severe limitations of the GND when reviewing this book; the author himself is a member of the Indigenous revolutionary organization, The Red Nation, which has begun to popularize an alternative known as The Red Deal.[13] Already adopted by the Democratic Socialists of America at their last national conference and gaining more traction since, the Red Deal is a far better representation of what is needed as the clock is ticks on the future of the planet.[14] After all, as scholar Vine Deloria once put it, “this country was a lot better off when Indians were running it.”[15]


About the Reviewer: Brant Roberts is based out of Houston and is a member of the editorial collective Houston Review of Books. His writings have appeared in Marx and Philosophy Review of Books, The Daily Cougar, and Threshold Magazine.


[1] Nick Estes, Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (New York: Verso, 2019), 28.

[2] Ibid., 257.

[3] https://www.eastpodcast.com/#/episode74/

[4] Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York: International Publishers, 2008), 15.

[5] Similar to the chapter layout of the classic history of the Haitian Revolution The Black Jacobins by CLR James – “The San Domingo Masses Begin” followed by “And the Paris Masses Complete.”

[6] Nick Estes, Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (New York: Verso, 2019), 92.

[7] Ibid., 58.

[8] Ibid., 62.

[9] Ibid., 30-31.

[10] Ibid., 56.

[11] For an in-depth analysis of settler-colonialism: https://youtu.be/xwj5bcLG8ic

[12] For further reading: Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters by Kate Brown, https://www.hanford.gov/page.cfm/HanfordSiteCleanupCompletionFramework, and https://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/nuclear-war-uranium-mining-and-nuclear-tests-indigenous. For more examples of national sacrifice zones see: the water crisis in Flint, MI; the cancer rates for communities living near Houston’s Ship Channel; and the contamination of Fallujah, Iraq. In the case of Palestine look no further than Israel’s bombings and blockade of Gaza.

[13] https://jacobinmag.com/2019/08/red-deal-green-new-deal-ecosocialism-decolonization-indigenous-resistance-environment

[14] https://www.dsausa.org/statements/dsa-red-deal-statement-of-endorsement/

[15] https://www.nytimes.com/1970/03/08/archives/this-country-was-a-lot-better-off-when-the-indians-were-running-it.html

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