Freedom is a Place
Long traditions of anti-colonial resistance in Turtle Island
Text originally commissioned for and published in The Funambulist 20 (Nov-Dec. 2018) Settler Colonialism in Turtle Island (guest-curated by Melanie K. Yazzie & Nick Estes) and The Funambulist by its Readers: Political Geographies of Chicago and Elsewhere (2019).
The project of anti-colonial place-making has a long tradition in Turtle Island that can be traced from the creation of maroon colonies of escaped slaves to contemporary Indigenous-led uprisings, such as the camps at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline. The first non-Indigenous people to permanently live in the North American continent were not Europeans, but, in fact, were former African slaves. Brought here as unfree people to a free land, that unnatural condition has been resisted by the formation of communities of fugitive slaves that were sometimes abetted by Indigenous allies and relatives.
For example, in 1526, Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón, a Spanish conquistador, founded North America’s first European colony, San Miguel de Guadalupe, in what is currently the state of South Carolina. With him he brought a hundred African and Indigenous Caribbean slaves as well as hundreds of Spanish settlers. The slave plantation was the first bordertown, a European-dominated settlement trespassing into sovereign Indigenous territory, which paved the way for later Anglo iterations of settler colonialism, such as the infamous Plymouth Plantation. Within a year, the enslaved had joined with the original people of the land, the Guales, to extirpate the Spanish colonizers. It was the first successful anti-colonial slave revolt and Indigenous uprising on the continent. The self-emancipated Africans joined their Indigenous comrades, making kin and living with the land without dispossessing, displacing, or eliminating the original people like Europeans would do for the next five centuries. They became the first permanent non-Indigenous inhabitants of Turtle Island. The colony, however, was also a preface to the apocalypse that gave rise to the first nation born entirely as a capitalist state: the United States.
While it is important to document the nightmare of settler colonialism, it is also profoundly urgent to examine the deep radical consciousness of allied struggles that co-create liberated spaces and communities of freedom, past and present. In the essay “Abolition Geography and the Problem of Innocence,” Ruth Wilson Gilmore maintains that the practice of abolition geography “starts from the homely premise that freedom is a place.” And although Gilmore’s concept emerges from the Black Radical Tradition, it is compatible with Indigenous traditions of radical relationality, of bringing human and non-human beings into just, reciprocal, and accountable relations. Kim Tallbear describes this process as a form of kinship, of making those seen as different into familiars and by care-taking Indigenous relations to other humans and the land, water, air, plants, and animals — something anathema to white supremacist empires like the United States, which is premised on exclusion, theft, slavery, genocide, and imperialism. Put simply, the U.S. is an alien nation, a place built on unfreedom.
In 1969, during the 89-day takeover of Alcatraz Island by Red Power activists in the San Francisco Bay, a young Black Power revolutionary who later took the name Assata Shakur visited the island offering her services as a medic. She marveled at “the quiet confidence” of the Indigenous activists who had founded a new community based on their traditions out of what was once a notorious federal prison. Originally Ohlone land, the prison island was the site where four Modoc resisters were hanged and where “hostiles” such as Paiute and Apache prisoners of war and other western Indigenous nations were imprisoned in the late 19th century for resisting U.S. invasion. In 1894, the military also imprisoned 19 Hopi men at Alcatraz as punishment for refusing to send their children to government- and church-run schools where they would be violently indoctrinated with the virtues of U.S. patriotism and white Christian civilization. Confinement, whether by boarding school, reservation, or prison, attempted to break Indigenous kinship relations, by stealing children and leaders and removing them from their communities, and thereby eliminating their relations with the land.The Indigenous prisoners at Alcatraz had encountered similar conditions that Red Power activists had found generations later: a harsh landscape purposefully isolated from the rest of the world, uninhabitable, abandoned and in disrepair, much like the Indian reservations from which they had come. This time, however, Indians of All Nations, as they called themselves, had drawn from the ranks of Indigenous peoples shipped to U.S. cities as part of the federal termination program called relocation. Once they came to the city they were deprived of their history and culture. The activists aimed to transform the notorious Alcatraz prison into the first “all-Indian university” where courses in Native history and culture would be taught. “Our children will know freedom and justice,” their manifesto declared.
Although evicted by police under orders from the Nixon administration, Alcatraz catalyzed an Indigenous movement that kicked off occupations of federal lands and buildings across the continent. The height of which occurred during the seventy-one day siege at Wounded Knee, where Indigenous activists took over the small town in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, demanded the ouster of a corrupt tribal administration, and declared independence from the United States. While a captivated U.S. public only saw — and still only see — the spectacle of militant Native men in braids and shades brandishing firearms, James Baldwin saw something else. “What Americans mean by ‘history’ is something they can forget,” he said, in an unpublished interview that was recently uncovered, reflecting on this period of Indigenous uprisings and selective settler memory. “They don’t know they have to pay for their history, because the Indians have paid for it every inch and every hour. That’s why they’re at Wounded Knee; that’s why they took Alcatraz.” The fires of Indigenous liberation had been lit at Alcatraz and Wounded Knee, and they continued to burn decades later.
Gilmore calls the generational memory of striving toward freedom an “infrastructure of feeling.” She builds on Raymond Williams’ “structure of feeling” to say that every new generation is an accumulation of knowledge from past struggles, a deliberate “selection and reselection of ancestors.” Indeed, the Black Radical Tradition and traditions of Indigenous resistance are accumulated knowledges and selectively inherited genealogies of emancipatory struggle. But revolutionary ideology doesn’t just exist in the mind; it is a material force to be reckoned with. It turns injury into movement. “Our DNA is of earth and sky,” wrote the late Red Power poet John Trudell. The DNA was not the biological unit, but a metaphor for how radical relationality, as caretakers of the earth, is coded into Indigenous resistance. “Our DNA is of past and future.” It builds both physical and ideological networks linking radical places and histories to political practice and an anti-colonial imagination of a future otherwise. It is an infrastructure, a solid foundation but not immutable. This was most recently manifest during the nine-month Standing Rock uprising.
And while there are infrastructures of Indigenous resistance, they confront infrastructures of settler colonialism in the form of police, prisons, dams, and oil pipelines that intend to destroy, replace, and erase. These infrastructures of dispossession have forced destroyed and attacked communities to re-imagine and reconstitute themselves once their homes and lands have been taken. Settler colonialism is typically seen as taking Indigenous lands to extract value from those lands. Equally so, however, in the case of oil pipelines and hydroelectric dams, Indigenous land and water is coveted simply so that it can be wasted. For our nation, our lands were coveted so they could be destroyed, to put water on top of them.
When the Army Corps flooded our homelands and agency headquarters twice in the 1950s and 1960s, our nation, the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, was forced to imagine how to reconstruct the nation after flooding and relocation in a way that reflected our values. Indian reservations and Indigenous life were entirely absent from the original Army Corps maps and plans. Without notifying Lower Brule, the Army Corps decided to the build the Big Bend Dam on reservation land to protect Pierre, South Dakota, a white-dominated bordertown and the state capital. To save white homes and livelihoods, we had to sacrifice ours. We had to draw and redraw the layout of our new community, as the old one was entirely covered with water. New roads and water pipelines had to be planned and constructed. Entire cemeteries, our dead ancestors, had to be disinterred and relocated along with our living ancestors to higher ground. Planners ultimately chose a half-moon shaped community structure, a symbolic gesture to traditional camp structure of tipi lodges whose entrances opened east to the rising sun. In the center of the newly planned Lower Brule community was a school to show the emphasis placed on education. Fanning out from there were municipal and administration buildings, churches, a juvenile detention facility, and several outer rows of housing. While imprisonment and Christianity were foreign institutions to traditional Oceti Sakowin societies, the new modern relocated communities made and imagined space for youth incarceration and churches.
A half century later, the planners of the Dakota Access Pipeline, who worked closely with the Army Corps, had to imagine Indigenous peoples out of existence, to justify the pipeline’s trespass through protected treaty lands and across the Missouri River, a freshwater source for millions. When the pipeline potentially interfered with white settlers’ water in Bismarck, North Dakota, the Army Corps rerouted the pipeline, so risks of water contamination in the case of a pipeline rupture were outsourced to the down-river Native nation of Standing Rock, whose reservation boundaries weren’t included on the initial Army Corps’ planning map. The prayer camps that were erected to oppose the pipeline’s construction attracted thousands of Water Protectors from around the world drawing on global solidarity networks.
The Morton County Sheriff’s Department, the local law enforcement agency policing the protests, produced an image on social media that was widely shared of “359 Out of State Agitators Arrested in North Dakota,” in an attempt to criminalize and delegitimize the camps. It had the opposite effect. The map showed the different states of arrested Water Protectors, proving to Standing Rock and Indigenous peoples the widespread solidarity to protect their river, Mni Sose, the Missouri River. The image also proved infrastructures of Indigenous resistance cut deep, extended beyond the physical geography of the Standing Rock reservation, and were about more than what is often viewed as just “Indigenous issues.”
Beyond the Dakota Access Pipeline, a growing international movement has intensified to continue fighting the growing network of pipelines across North America. Kinder Morgan, Keystone XL, Enbridge Line 9, TransCanada Energy East, among a whole host of others connect Indigenous nations and frontline communities. Each flashpoint of struggle indicates a growing anti-colonial resistance led by Indigenous peoples against settler colonialism and extractive capitalism. The broad array of current and proposed pipeline infrastructure sprawls across the continent like a giant spider web. When one pipeline is defeated, such as the Keystone XL, it can be revived or another rises to take its place. In one sense the pipelines appear like the many-headed hydra in Greek and Roman mythology. Geographer Katie Mazer, invoking the work of radical historians Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh, argues that it is not so much pipelines that are hydra-like — chop off one head and another takes its place; but rather, the globalizing networks of pipeline infrastructure connects disparate communities of the exploited and dispossessed. Mazer writes that the growing geography of fossil fuel infrastructure expands and unites in common cause a “seemingly mutable mass variously dispossessed peoples” nearly impossible to defeat. Mazer also argues that, like all oil pipelines, DAPL is not an isolated, issue-based struggle. Each pipeline exists in relation to other pipelines, whether or not they are defeated or built. DAPL is a transnational project, refracting back the transnational and international realities of Indigenous resistance.
Evidence of the hydra-effect can be seen in the vast array of solidarity networks that supported the #NoDAPL struggle. Black Lives Matter, Palestinian justice organizations, religious groups, military veterans, and many more from other social locations and movements galvanized support for the Indigenous-led resistance movement beyond the physical geography of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. From the camps sprang to life the flame of Indigenous resistance that fanned out across the continent. But solidarity isn’t a fleeting moment that springs up only in moments of crises and dissipates in the interlude.
The state of North Dakota in turn mobilized 76 law enforcement jurisdictions from across the settler colony to suppress the uprising, drawing from its own security state solidarities. In August 2016, Governor Jack Dalrymple invoked powers granted under the Emergency Management Assistance Compact — which allowed states to seek help during declared “community disorders, insurgency, or enemy attack” — to crush the Indigenous-led uprising. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan used the same powers to crush the Black-led uprising in Baltimore after the police killing of Freddie Gray. This time an Indigenous nation was declared the threat. Emergency management response has been increasingly used as a new mode Indigenous expropriation and suppression of Black revolt.
DAPL also contracted Tigerswan, a murky mercenary group that ran counterinsurgency operations against civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it applied the same techniques against unarmed Water Protectors. According to The Intercept, the private security firm referred to Water Protectors as “terrorists,” the prayer actions as “attacks” and a “jihadist insurgency,” and the camps as a “battlefield” (May 27, 2017). They noted specifically the presence of Palestinians and also tracked the movements of Water Protectors of Middle Eastern descent. In their daily briefings to local enforcement, Tigerswan frequently used aerial photography to monitor the growth of the camps. One situation report had superimposed the image of a gorilla atop the camp. It was an image of Harambe, a gorilla killed at a Cincinnati zoo when a Black child tell into his cage. White supremacists used the killing of Harambe to mock Black people online, charging that a gorilla had to be killed because Black parents are careless. The comparison of Black people to monkeys and gorillas is also a well-known racial trope. The anti-Black trope was used to racialize, mock, and degrade Water Protectors of all stripes with the images of primitivism. To DAPL and police, the camps were a theater of operations, enemy combatants who had to be destroyed.
To Water Protectors, in contrast, the camps were a place of life, where an emerging Indigenous future was actively under construction. “I think it’s a rebirth of a nation,” said Faith Spotted Eagle, an Ihanktonwan elder and co-founder of the Brave Heart Society. The Dakota, Nakota, and Lakota nations re-united as the Oceti Sakowin. At the camps the Indigenous movement had reproduced itself, not in a biological way but through imparting the tradition of resistance from one generation to the next. “And I think all these young people here dreamed of that one day they would live in a camp like this,” Spotted Eagle continued, “because they heard the old people tell them stories of living along the river.”
New camp arrivals were given a hand-drawn map of what was at the time North Dakota’s 10th largest city. Roads had been named for Indigenous revolutionary heroes, such as Red Cloud and Red Warrior Camp. The map indicated where to find free kitchens, health clinics, legal aid, security, and camp supplies. There was also a day school for young Water Protectors, called the Mní Wičhóni Nakíčižin Owáyawa, the Defenders of the Water School, a name chosen by the students. Education centered treaties, language, culture, and land and water defense. The curriculum of Indigenous song, dance, math, history, and science was less about indoctrinating youth to be good citizens of settler society. As Indigenous educator Sandy Grande points out, the Defenders of the Water School was anti-colonial education for liberation — how to live and be free and in good relation with others and the land and water. The camps offered a brief vision of what a future premised on Indigenous just would look like. With all its faults, there is something to be learned from the treaty camps at the confluence of the Missouri and Cannonball rivers.
Access to food, education, health care, legal services, a strong sense of community and community security were guaranteed to all. Most reservation communities in the U.S. don’t have access to these services, and neither do most poor communities. Yet, in the absence of empire with Indigenous governing structures in the camps, people came together to help each other, to care for one another as relatives. The camps were designed according to need, not profit. Their threat to an oil pipeline was not the greatest threat to the settler state — the greatest threat was that the camps represented an unrelenting revolutionary tradition that was simultaneously international and local, that will rise again to action to create and recreate places, spaces, and histories of freedom. That’s what separated the camps from the world of cops, settlers, and oil companies that surrounded them. Capitalism is not merely an economic system, it is a social relation. In contrast, Indigenous social relations — premised on radical relationality — offer a revolutionary different way of relating to other people and the world. For capitalism to live, the Indigenous world has to die, and vice versa.
Nick Estes is Kul Wicasa from the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, an assistant professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico, and a co-founder of the Native resistance organization, the Red Nation.