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When the Indians Defeat the Cowboys

How indigenous people and the Left can continue to win in the wake of Standing Rock.

The main encampment near the Standing Rock reservation last year. Dark Sevier / Flickr

For Indians, defeat in the face of American Progress and Manifest Destiny was supposed to be a foregone conclusion.

In John Gast’s iconic 1872 painting “American Progress,” a youthful blonde woman clutching a schoolbook in her right hand and laying down telegraph wire with her left shepherds prospectors, farmers, and settlers westward as tribes and wildlife flee before her advance.

In the more familiar Spaghetti Western version of the same tale, Indians rise up out of the wilderness, put up a fierce but ultimately tragic fight, and then succumb to the inevitability of Cowboy Progress.

Last year, an indigenous-led coalition just north of the Standing Rock reservation along the banks of the Missouri and Cannonball rivers revived frontier insurgency. This time, the America they confronted was clutching the aspiration for “energy independence” in her right hand and laying down the Dakota Access pipeline with her left. She shepherded forward Energy Transfer Partners CEO, Dallas billionaire, and robber baron Kelcy Warren, alongside North Dakota governor Jack Dalrymple — a modern-day Custer who unleashed a militarized police force on unarmed water protectors.

With a brutal Great Plains winter weeks away, America braced for the inevitable. “How can this possibly end well?” the New York Times editorial board asked in November.

But then the seemingly impossible happened. At the eleventh hour, the Department of the Army denied an essential easement that would’ve allowed the Dakota Access Pipeline to cross under the Missouri River and ordered an Environmental Impact Statement to assess and consider alternative routes for the project.

The Indians won.

They may have been outgunned by a militarized police force armed with water cannons, concussion grenades, rubber bullets, pepper spray, Humvees, and an immense and opaque state surveillance apparatus, but they outflanked and outwitted politicians and oil barons trying to ham-hand a pipeline through the sacred graves of their ancestors, their sovereign community, and their water supply.

Thousands joined them in their encampments and direct actions. Countless others donated, sent supplies, and organized in solidarity with their movement. 1.4 million people checked into Standing Rock on Facebook to show support. Veterans arrived from across the country to protect the Indians from the very government they had signed up to serve.

Their captivating, organized, and massively popular movement to stop Dakota Access and protect water that sustains life called Americans and the world to the cause of indigenous rights like never before.

But it would be a terrible mistake to characterize the victory at Standing Rock as fleeting, or as an out-of-the-blue eruption. Indians and their indigenous cousins around the world have long been organizing, litigating, and fighting for wins like Standing Rock.

Today, as runaway climate change threatens to scorch the earth, they have demonstrated that indigenous rights and sovereignty — long denied and ignored — are essential to protecting the waters and lands where capital’s concerns are transient and motivated by profit, but where indigenous ancestors are buried and Native children grow up hoping for a better future.

At Standing Rock, the first people of this land — the poorest, the most likely to be killed by law enforcement, and the most easily forgotten — won a monumental victory for indigenous rights, the planet, and the forces of conscience against capital. In doing so, they didn’t just refute the myth of indigenous obsolescence. They seized the reins of progress, opening up new frontiers of struggle for the many Standing Rocks that lie ahead.

The Feathers-and-Failure Fallacy

American folklore and common sense say that Indians don’t win. It should come as no surprise, then, that the blathering commentariat was baffled by indigenous victory at Standing Rock.

More troubling, however, is that historians, social scientists, and political theorists also often buy into the feathers-and-failure narrative.

Consider, for example, the most cited work in the fields of settler colonial and indigenous studies: “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” a 2006 essay by the late radical Australian anthropologist Patrick Wolfe.

In a clever turn of phrase, repeated today like a Feuerbach Thesis for indigenous radicals and scholars, Wolfe described the invasion of indigenous lands as “a structure not an event.” His argument was that settler colonialism — a form of colonialism where colonists come to stay, as in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Palestine, and some Pacific Islands — requires the elimination of Native people and societies to access and occupy their land. As Wolfe put it, “Settler colonialism destroys to replace.”

Wolfe’s theory of settler colonialism emerged out of the ongoing “History Wars” in Australia, a public, battle-hardened, and career-defining debate over whether Australia’s treatment of Aborigines should be considered genocide.

For decades, specialists have squabbled over the numbers massacred at places like Tasman and Slaughterhouse Creek. These debates remain passionate and deeply controversial. They are tied to political battles over land rights, reconciliation, constitutional recognition, mass incarceration, racism, and Aboriginal treaties.

But while his contemporaries tried to win the History Wars by appealing to documents, figures, and definitions, Wolfe sought to reframe the debate. He shifted the focus from determining the point at which butcheries become genocide to the “logic” of eliminating indigenous people over centuries and around the world. Settler colonialism, he argued, is a structural phenomenon that plays an ongoing and central role in shaping the modern world.

Wolfe’s was a brilliant intervention. In the jargon-riddled field of postcolonial studies, he homed in on the empires, colonies, states, and territories of ongoing settlement and indigenous dispossession. His theory traveled well. For indigenous scholars and activists from the United States to Palestine and Canada to New Zealand, “settler colonialism” became the dominant framework for understanding ongoing Fourth World struggles.

But Wolfe’s theory ran into a rather significant problem — reality.

If settler societies like Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States are structurally dependent upon the elimination of the Native, how do we explain the survival, resilience, and resurgence of that same Native? How do we explain the global emergence of policies of indigenous self-determination, recognition, and land rights in various forms? Are these policies lipstick on the same colonial pig? Are indigenous people permanently cast in cameo roles — their victories small exceptions that prove the rule?

How do we explain Standing Rock?

Wolfe’s theory, however popular and illuminating, is in a sense, a gussied-up version of the inevitable victory of Cowboys over Indians — a reworking of Victorian ideology as critical theory.

The indigenous story unfolding before us demands more.

Explaining Standing Rock

The Cowboy is supposed to be everything the Indian is not.

While the Indian is depicted as a tragic vanquished trope, the Cowboy is a handsome, swaggering, and triumphant trickster. While the Indian retreats into the wild, the Cowboy hunts down his enemies to settle old scores. While the Indian is at best a noble savage and at worst a villain, the Cowboy is a cultural icon and hero.

And, while the Indian is a loser, the Cowboy is a winner.

At Standing Rock, generations of myth and folk wisdom proved wrong. As Bill McKibben put it in the Guardian, the Standing Rock movement “is a break in that long-running story, a new chapter.”

In a moment when the Left is struggling in the face of a globalizing free market and an ascendant right, indigenous victory stands as both a surprising puzzle and an intriguing promise. It begs the rarely considered question: why have indigenous people been able to secure a stunning victory while even the most successful movements of late have faltered? And what can other movements learn from Indians?

Various voices have risen to offer answers. Writing in the Nation, Audrea Lim argues that Standing Rock shows a multiracial coalition united against neoliberalism and white supremacy can win in the heartland. McKibben and Naomi Klein tout the power of direct action and praise indigenous organizers for catalyzing nonviolent mass resistance.

In the New Yorker, novelist Louise Erdrich suggests that Standing Rock prevailed because it offered the world an emotionally, historically, and environmentally compelling story rooted in faith. “Every time the water protectors showed the fortitude of staying on message and advancing through prayer and ceremony, they gave the rest of the world a template for resistance,” Erdrich concludes.

All of these analyses are accurate, but their individual and collective explanations for the Standing Rock victory are insufficient. They fail to ask key questions about the when, where, how, and who. They do not explain what made this movement and moment different.

And perhaps most importantly, in their haste to explain a seemingly improbable and episodic victory, these writers miss the remarkable big picture.

Outflanking Corporate Globalization

Since the 1970s, unions, public goods, social welfare, and other essential building blocks of social democracy have been beaten back by the free market consensus. Yet over these same decades, indigenous rights to land, jurisdiction, and sovereignty have gained ground. At the same time workers lost their unions, the environment was winning a union of its own. That union takes the form of indigenous rights.

Credit for these often-overlooked indigenous victories belongs to the indigenous movements that unswervingly pushed for similar goals across decades and even centuries: return of indigenous lands, restoration of indigenous sovereignties, and dignity for indigenous peoples.

From the time their lands were seized in the nineteenth century and even before, indigenous people came together, forming tribal, intertribal, regional, and national coalitions and organizations. They pressured states and empires built on lands taken from them to recognize their demands. They stood strong against obstinate and repressive governments determined to claim their remaining territories and assimilate their people into the laboring class. They remained resolute.

As the Chiefs of the Syilx, Nlaka’pamux, and Secwepemc nations wrote in a petition to then–Canadian prime minister Wilfrid Laurier in 1910:

So long as what we consider justice is withheld from us, so long will dissatisfaction and unrest exist among us, and we will continue to struggle to better ourselves. For the accomplishment of this end we and other Indian tribes of this country are now uniting and we ask the help of yourself and government in this fight for our rights.

In moments of global political and economic crisis like the 1880s, 1930s, 1940s, 1970s, and now 2010s, state policies toward indigenous people worldwide often shifted.

During the 1880s and 1940s, the United States applied assimilationist pressure on indigenous communities, with disastrous consequences.

In the 1880s allotment and privatization policies under the Dawes Act of 1887 splintered indigenous lands and communities and brought poverty and political, social, and cultural erosion.

In the 1940s, termination policies designed to eliminate tribes and assimilate Native laborers further devastated indigenous communities. Children were taken from their families and placed in abusive residential schools. Workers were displaced from their homelands and dropped into poverty and homelessness in urban ghettos. Indigenous people, particularly indigenous women, were subjected to sexual violence, sterilization, and medical experimentation.

Yet the stubborn dream of indigenous resurgence endured. And crises sometimes ushered in marginal progress. In the 1930s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s so-called “Indian New Deal” afforded tribes greater control over their lands and resources and restored a measure of sovereignty and self-determination. The 1960s and 70s saw the rise of the Red Power movement, a momentous breakthrough that pushed the US and Canadian states to adopt policies based on recognition instead of assimilation. The contemporaneous Maori Renaissance in Aotearoa/New Zealand and Aboriginal land rights movement in Australia won similar gains.

These movements often found unlikely allies in neoconservatives, neoliberals, and their predecessors who, beginning in the 1970s and especially from the 1980s onwards, saw indigenous self-determination and autonomy as an opportunity to scale back social welfare spending and reduce indigenous dependence on the government.

It was Richard Nixon who inaugurated the current era of indigenous self-determination. He outlined his commitment to the policy in a special message to Congress on July 8, 1970:

This, then, must be the goal of any new national policy toward the Indian people: to strengthen the Indian’s sense of autonomy without threatening his sense of community. We must assure the Indian that he can assume control of his own life without being separated involuntarily from the tribal group. And we must make it clear that Indians can become independent of Federal control without being cut off from Federal concern and Federal support.

At times, support from capital-friendly politicians contained and defanged the revolutionary potential inherent in the restoration of indigenous lands and sovereignties. In some instances, capital interests used self-determination as a facade to restructure tribes as junior corporate partners in the global political economy. This occurred at times with Indian gaming, Alaska Native Corporations, corporate iwi that manage Treaty of Waitangi settlement money in New Zealand, the Indigenous Land Corporation in Australia, and First Nations natural resource corporations in Canada.

More often, however, indigenous people have coopted conservative forces as agents of an indigenous agenda. Across the world, while other Left and progressive movements gained little and often lost ground, indigenous people moved debate and policy in directions favorable to their interests.

Self-determination is now the established framework for indigenous policy in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Aotearoa/New Zealand. It has been firmly endorsed and furthered through the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In states built upon the dispossession, marginalization, and attempted elimination of indigenous people, these are remarkable victories.

At Standing Rock and at proposed pipeline sites across the United States and Canada, neoliberals have been forced to confront indigenous rights — a legal precedent and policy partially of their own creation — when in a prior age they would have plowed through these communities without a moment’s hesitation.

Politicians like Nixon did not anticipate that indigenous people would, for instance, be able to parlay the minor restoration of self-governance over expanded acreage in the hinterlands into a transformative political, economic, and cultural movement. Indigenous people, according to common sense, could never win. The future that is now our present would never happen.

This condescending assumption turned out to be dead wrong. And it opened up pathways to victory for indigenous people precisely because they had been underestimated.

Viewed from a decades-long and global view, indigenous people emerge as cunning, courageous, and even heroic political tricksters. They took their struggle out onto their lands and waters and into the courts. They outsmarted and outflanked politicians by simultaneously pressuring and cozying up to them. In so doing, they won important and lasting concessions bit by bit.

In the long run, these concessions and relationships have provided indigenous nations with access to government as well as the political, economic, and legal leverage to deliver devastating blows to the networks and infrastructure of carbon-dependent capitalism, which threaten the future of indigenous communities, lands, and waters and all who share these with them.

This dynamic revealed itself most vividly under the administration of Barack Obama, who many Indians adopted and embraced. Obama became one of the only sitting presidents to visit an Indian reservation when he journeyed to Standing Rock in 2014. In September 2016, at the Obama administration’s final Tribal Nations Conference, National Congress of American Indians president Brian Cladoosby honored Obama with a song, blanket, and traditional cedar hat.

At the same time, Standing Rock marshaled a global indigenous-led coalition, pressuring Obama to halt the Dakota Access Pipeline. “Help us stop this pipeline. Stick true to your words because you said you had our back,” Standing Rock youth Kendrick Eagle pleaded in a moving message to the president in November. “I believed in you then, and I still believe in you now that you can make this happen.”

A similar dynamic is unfolding in Canada, where Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to renew a “nation-to-nation” relationship with First Nations, a position which contradicts his economic agenda and is forcing him to either backpedal or face a Standing Rock North in the forces aligned against a proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline.

But indigenous movements used more than cunning and moral suasion. They also identified pressure points and exploited them.

The Dakota Access Pipeline, by its very nature, was a vulnerable target. Trenches cannot be dug where people stand. A pipeline cannot be rerouted without incurring immense expense. Bakken shale oil costs more to refine and transport to market than other forms of crude oil. Investors, bankers, and business partners are risk averse. They don’t like delays, and they don’t like bad headlines. OPEC, not American and Canadian oil barons and politicians, controls the largest share of the global oil market.

In short, if your objective is to shore up the Bakken as a viable domestic alternative to OPEC, Dakota Access looks like a risky play.

Now, indigenous operatives and their supporters are pushing investors to divest. In recent weeks, they’ve posted a conspicuous billboard in Times Square and unfurled a massive banner at an NFL game, even as they maintain their presence in North Dakota. While President-elect Trump has threatened to approve Dakota Access, divestment, environmental review processes, and proposed rerouting could end up delivering more partial victories for Standing Rock in the coming months.

Had the Democrats won in November, the movement could have killed Dakota Access like Keystone XL, delivering a crippling blow to the Bakken oil barons. But to assume Trump’s election guarantees the pipeline will be completed is to again underestimate the indigenous movement.

Indians Make the Best Cowboys

At Standing Rock, Indians settled old scores. They danced inside and outside the lines as lawyers and outlaws. They took on pipelines and bulldozers where the tools and trappings of the oil industry were most vulnerable. As capital and corporate globalization threatened to squelch progress and conscience, the Indians rode to victory. The water protectors emerged as heroes. Their enemies became villains.

For today, it’s victory. For generations it will be remembered and honored. For the movements of the Left, it’s a lesson.

Beyond well-worn analyses of the power of action, solidarity, and narrative, Standing Rock points to the necessity to act when and where the networks and infrastructures of capital are most vulnerable, at the level of individual projects as well as entire industries and global systems. It shows that movements must remain resolute in their aims — even if their goals take decades to achieve. Politics is a long game.

Standing Rock also reminds us that resistance is key, but that effective resistance is strategic. And strategic resistance is even more impactful when paired with subtle and cunning forms of persuasion. This is especially essential for Indians, who comprise less than 2 percent of the population and so must out-strategize and outsmart the powers aligned against them to win.

Lastly, it suggests that indigenous rights are potentially revolutionary, and that indigenous sovereignty is an increasingly powerful instrument against the forces of capital. When the Justice Department halted construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in October, they committed to look into Free Prior Informed Consent legislation. Such a move would greatly strengthen the rights and leverage of indigenous nations.

The Left should see these and other indigenous struggles as its own, incorporating an indigenous platform into the next generation of radical coalitions and writing and thinking about indigenous issues alongside more commonly discussed forms of oppression.

Dark times lie ahead for the first people of this land and all who share it with us. President-elect Trump, a former Dakota Access investor, has threatened to approve the pipeline and others like it. He is lining up resources to accelerate energy exploitation, devastating the natural world and pushing the global thermometer higher and higher. Trump’s advisors have called for the privatization of oil, gas, and coal-rich Indian reservations, mirroring policies like the Dawes Act of 1887 and the “Termination” policies of the 1940s and 50s, both designed to destroy tribal communities.

But the frontier is turning. In an unforeseen and previously unimaginable twist, it is the Indians who shepherd forward progress. In their right hand, they clutch a long history of unrequited struggle for Native Sovereignty. Among its many chapters is the story of Standing Rock and the rallying cry heard around the world, “Water is Life!” With their left hand, they sow the seeds and point the way forward for the forces of conscience against capital.

In politics, it turns out that Indians make the best Cowboys.