An Imprisoned Abolitionist Analysis of Our History is the Future by Nick Estes

By Safear

Before you celebrate Thanksgiving this year, take some time to learn the true history of the Indigenous people of America. In the mythology of American propaganda, the Indigenous are portrayed as characters in a story from the past. Have you heard the story? Native Americans rescue the pilgrims by teaching them how to survive winter in a new land. As a sign of friendship, they celebrate together over turkey and sweet potato pie. Voila! Thanksgiving. If you are like me, then this is one of the lies you were taught in school. And if you still believe those lies, then you obviously haven’t read Our History is the Future by Nick Estes.

The true origin of Thanksgiving is an act of genocide. In 1620, the Mayflower pilgrims established a colony at Plymouth, Massachusetts. That part is true. However, the actual celebration comes after the settlers slaughter 700 Pequot (Natives). William Bradford, the governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, declared in 1637 that Thanksgiving Day be celebrate “in honor of the bloody victory, thanking God that the battle had been won.” The Thanksgiving “holiday” is a celebration of the slaughter of Indigenous people. So think about that while you’re enjoying your cranberry sauce.

Before the arrival of white settlers, Indigenous people flourished throughout America. Around the Mni Sose, the Missouri River, a sprawling group of Indigenous tribes came to be amongst the most feared by settlers. The Oceti Sakowin, a collection of seven Dakota-, Nakota-, and Lakota-speaking nations spanned the territory from the western shores of Lake Superior to the Big Horn Mountains. Settlers sought to destroy the Indigenous and take their lands. America is founded upon and maintained by settler colonialism, the decimation of Indigenous populations in order to steal their land.

The Oceti Sakowin were called “the Great Sioux Nation” by settlers. Eventually the name “Sioux” would become synonymous with “criminal” in white settler society. This criminalization of the Indigenous justified removing them from coveted lands.

In reality, the Indigenous have a rich culture, placing priority on lofty principles such as honoring relatives. As the Lakota and Dakota say, “Mitakuye Oyasin,” which means “We are all related.” This includes maintaining good family relations, allyship and honoring the non-human natural environment. These principles brought the Indigenous into opposition with the Wasicu (the settler/colonizer/ capitalist, meaning “someone who steals the fat”), whose only concern was pillaging the land and its people for profit. Capitalism, the making of humans and nonhumans into labor and commodities to accumulate profit, is the “twin brother” of settler colonialism. Accumulation of profit is the foremost priority of the capitalist society. Everything destroyed on the path to attaining it is considered collateral damage. [1]

A lot was destroyed in the process of removing the Indigenous from their land. The settlers used physical and biological warfare to decimate the Native population. Even the romanticized explorers Lewis and Clark resorted to brutal tactics, such as kidnapping tribal leaders as hostages and threatening to exposed Natives to smallpox during their travels. Lewis himself wrote that the Sioux were prevented from attacking “by our threatening to spread the smallpox, with all its horrors among them.” Not the great guys you thought they were, huh?

Another method of Indigenous removal was to attack their food supply. The U.S. Army hunted the Buffalo to near extinction. “From 1865 to 1883, the frontier army sanctioned the mass slaughter of Buffalo to shatter the will to resist by eliminating a primary food supply and close relative… In two decades, soldiers and hunters had eradicated the remaining 10 to 15 million Buffalo, leaving only several hundred survivors.” Exterminating the Buffalo was an attempt to contain and exterminate the Indigenous.

The U.S. government also utilized the reservation system for racialized containment (segregation) of the Indigenous. The carceral reservation was used to destroy communal organization and assimilate Natives into white settler society. In 1878 the first reservation police force was established. Indigenous people were recruited to “enforce the new social order dictated by federal agents and church officials.” The Bureau of Indian Affairs, a federal police agency that operates without tribal oversight, created the Court of Indian Offenses in 1883. The court’s purpose was to compel (white) “civilization” upon Native Americans. These institutions officially criminalized Indigenous people by outlawing practices such as “sun dancing, ceremonial dancing, customary giveaways, owning guns and weapons, owning ponies, men wearing long hair, polygamy, large feasts not organized by the [Christian] church, Indigenous funerary rites, and honoring ceremonies.” The punishment for violating a Civilization Regulation could be “starvation by withholding rations or imprisonment.” Eventually, the Indigenous civilization regulations were repealed in 1935 after the damage had already been inflicted.  

This process of Indigenous criminalization was not intended to prevent harm in society. Rather criminalization was (and is) a method to marginalize and disenfranchise specific population groups into social death. Many different groups have been the victim of criminalization. Black folks were criminalized under slave laws, Black Codes, and Jim Crow laws. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese people in America were criminalized. About 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry (80,000 of which were U.S. citizens) were sent to detention camps called “relocation centers”.[2] Likewise, Muslims have faced intense criminalization under the guise of protecting Americans from terrorism following 9/11. The (white) elite criminalize segments of the population and place them in prisons, jails, immigration centers, and other carceral institutions as a tactic to maintain their privilege. Divide and conquer.

Reservation life restricts the existence of the Indigenous to confined spaces, separate from white spaces. Jackie Wang describes these types of spaces as void zones, which white people can only access through the fantasy of media representation.[3] These void zones hide a level of oppression that would never be accepted in white spaces. This spatialization is important to understand as it allows violence to be committed against the marginalized people assigned to these zones.

Ghettos and projects are also void zones. The degree of violence allowed to occur in these places would cause a public uproar if committed in white spaces. Frantz Fanon writes that these types of spaces are “where Black is not man.”[4] His statement highlights the dehumanization process which occurs in void zones. This dehumanization negates any connection (from white society) to people in these areas.

Prison is a void zone. We (prisoners) are discarded from society and subjected to countless physical and psychological violations. Our complaints fall on the uncaring ears of white society. To them, we are no longer fully human, thereby not human at all. Correctional officers are specifically trained in the dehumanization process. They are taught to remove from themselves any empathy they may feel toward us. To look at us as non-human, only property to be guarded like chattel. Prisoner is not man. As such, our story is not worthy of being told.

The psychological warfare designed to strip the Indigenous of their identity also came in the form of education. Boarding schools were formed solely for the purpose of education of Native children. After removing these children from their families, they were brought to “schools” established by white settlers. These boarding schools exercised highly regimented routines based on the military principles of discipline and order. “The boarding schools didn’t train Indigenous students to fight, rather they taught them docility, compliance, and submission- the necessary ingredients for indoctrinating US Patriotism and citizenship.”

Prison is also a place of educational warfare. The battleground takes place in groups such as Thinking for a Change and Therapeutic Community programs. These cognitive behavioral therapy programs attempt to force assimilation into a specified class in white society. Stephen Wilson said, “The Prison teaches us that all our problems are in our heads. That all we need is cognitive behavioral therapy and our lives will be better. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, capitalism and class have nothing to do with how our lives turned out.”[5] Instead of examining social structures which shape our lives, we are told that the only problem is us. This “education” is intended to remove radical behavior and ideology, conforming each individual’s thinking into the structures of the oppressor. The purpose is to convince the prisoner that the world is static, not able to be changed- to convince us that we must conform to whiteness to be “American.”

Is it any wonder the American flag has become a despised symbol across the world? Many Indigenous people consider the U.S. flag a symbol representing the settlers who killed, raped, and pillaged Native people and lands. The Haudenosaunees call every U.S. president “Town Destroyer” after George Washington ordered a campaign that burned Haundenosaunee towns in New York during the Revolutionary War. For the Indigenous forced to live on the reservation, the flag was “one of the first means to signify U.S. supremacy at reservation headquarters.” In 1874, soldiers attempted to build the first flagpole at the Red Cloud Agency. This enraged the Oglala (Natives) who proceed to chop it down with their hatchets.

What does the American flag represent to those oppressed under its banner? What did it mean to Black slaves who were bought and sold? What does it mean to Black folks who live subjected to institutional racism? What should Muslims think of it while their countries are invaded in its name?

What does the American flag represent to the prisoner? At the prison I am in, staff members wear clothing procured by the Department of Corrections. One t-shirt features a large American flag flowing across the back. My comrade noticed something peculiar about the flag. One of its stripes was removed, the name of the prison substituted in its place. The Prison Industrial Complex is so ingrained into this country that it was able to replace a stripe on the flag. The significance of this wasn’t lost on us. We told the staff member he needed a new shirt. Every day I see the American flag patched proudly across the shirt sleeve of each C.O. Prisons are as American as apple pie and they want a piece of it at our expense, but We will not make it easy for them.

Contrary to common popular belief, Indigenous people have not resigned themselves to history books. Their resistance to this racist/capitalist/settler society continues to this day. In 2016, Natives took the lead in opposing the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), a 1,712-mile oil pipeline that cuts under the Missouri River through unceded Indigenous territory under the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. (Native communities and nations never asked to be colonized and conquered). The treaties they made with the colonial government continue to be broken to this day. Making and breaking the treaties when convenient is key to settler society; law and order is only respected when it benefits white interests.

Oil pipelines are notorious for leaks and can be disastrous for the environment. Under the banner #NoDAPL, Indigenous people led the resistance against this environmental and territorial injustice. Their enemy was large corporations, such as Energy Transfer Partners, and the U.S. government. The base of their resistance was a collection of camps built upon unceded Native land. The largest was the Oceti Sakowin Camp, north of the Standing Rock reservation. In existence between April 2016 and February 2017, the camps attracted Native and non-Native people from across North America. This was not a typical protest. Indigenous nations are sovereign peoples, and at the core of the struggle was a fight for their sovereignty. Calling themselves “Water Protectors,” the Indigenous were supported by a group which included Palestinian refugees, military veterans, along with Black and white supporters. The #NoDAPL movement was initially successful in halting the construction of the pipeline under the Obama Administration. However, Trump allowed for the construction to continue. Later, DAPL would leak five times in the first six months.

Some prisoners may ask, “Why should we care?” I would ask them, “Have you ever tasted prison water?” Prisoners are affected by many of the same issues free-world Indigenous oppose. How many of us have lived in prisons built on toxic lands? How many of us have lived in old prisons with decaying plumbing or asbestos? How many of us have to drink toxic water without any recourse? Look at what happens in some “free world” cities like Flint, Michigan. You don’t think the same things happen in prison? Water is Life. The Indigenous fight for purity of life! For the purity of water that many take for granted. Today’s society is finally starting to recognize the importance of preserving the environment. Put simply–white folks are late. The Indigenous have already been fighting against those who ravage the Earth through the massive extraction of natural resources. Native Americans continue to resist those who inflict harm upon marginalized people of the world.  

Indigenous resistance is prisoner resistance.

The modern prison system traces its history through three distinct historical paths:

  1. The southern system of plantation slavery
  2. The northern model of the penitentiary
  3. The reservation system of Indigenous territorial restriction

Although each of these carceral systems is unique, they are all characterized by racial and economic disparities backed by the state’s threat of force and technologies of violence. All three have contributed to the American prison-industrial complex.[6]

Today’s Natives are disproportionately harmed by the prison-industrial complex. The incarceration rates of Native men and Native women are four and six times higher, respectively, than those of white men and women.[7] Native people are the most likely ethnic group in the US to be killed by the police as of 2016 on a per capita basis (rate of 10.16 deaths per one million people at the hands of police compared to the second most killed ethnic group, African Americans, with 6.66 deaths per one million).[8]

Once inside of prison, Natives have reported religious restrictions and abuse. At some prisons religious acts such as the Ghost Dance have been banned. Others have been forced to cut their hair, which some Natives believe to be prohibited except to symbolize the grief for the death of a loved one. One prisoner, Robert Iron Eyes, had his arms and legs shackled by prison guards before his hair was forcefully cut “into a raggedy mess.” Afterwards, guards laughed at him saying now he “could get some white religion.” [9]

Modern prisons and reservations are not exactly the same, but the similarities are hard to miss.

Our History is the Future is more than a story of the past, it is a vision for the future. Well-written and easy to read, this book is essential for anyone who wants to learn more about Native American struggle and resistance. As Nick Estes says, “This is a war story. But it is not always with weapons that warriors wage their struggle.” Are you war ready?


[1] “Impossible to fathom was that all of this death had been incidental to the acquisition of profit and to the rise of capitalism. Today we might describe it as collateral damage. The unavoidable losses created in pursuit of the greater objective [in reference to the Atlantic slave trade]” from Lose Your Mother by Saidiya Hartman.

[2] Rethinking the American Prison Movement by Dan Berger and Toussaint Losier  

[3] Against Innocence by Jackie Wang

[4] Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon

[5] “Dis-organizing Prisons” (5 December 2019) by Stephen Wilson

[6] Rethinking the American Prison Movement

[7] https://s3-us-west-1.amazonaws.com/lakota-peoples-law/uploads/Native-Lives-Matter-PDF.pdf

[8] https://www.urban.org/urban-wire/native-americans-deserve-more-attention-police-violence-conversation

[9] Robert Iron Eyes v. Dan Henry, 1990.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s