Julian Brave NoiseCat | New Beginnings

By Julian Brave NoiseCat

In 2016, as Donald Trump ascended to the highest office in the land with the revanchist slogan, “Make America Great Again,” Indigenous peoples gathered on the banks of the Mni Sose, or Missouri River, just north of an impoverished Indian reservation established as a prisoner of war camp and reborn as a stronghold of hope and symbol of resistance: Standing Rock. More than 10,000—Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike—stood in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to defend land and water promised to the Oceti Sakowin, or Great Sioux Nation, in the long-broken Fort Laramie treaties of 1851 and 1868. At perhaps the most tumultuous and consequential turning point in recent global history, Indigenous peoples—the poorest of the poor, the most likely to be killed by law enforcement and the most easily forgotten—not only showed people of conscience the path forward. We led the way.

On these hallowed grounds, history tends to repeat itself. From the 1850s to the 1870s, the Dakota and Lakota peoples fought a series of wars to stave off encroaching American soldiers and settlers. In 1890, police murdered legendary Chief Sitting Bull on the Standing Rock reservation, claiming that he was preparing to lead the Ghost Dance movement in an uprising. Two weeks later, the United States Cavalry massacred more than three hundred Lakota—including unarmed women and children—at Wounded Knee. Their corpses were left frozen on the ground for three days before the army hired civilians to bury them in a mass grave. As laborers shoveled dirt over bodies, Indigenous land was opened to settlement.

In the heart of the American continent and across the Anglo-colonized world—from Canada to Australia, South Africa, Aotearoa (New Zealand) and beyond—nations and empires were forged from Indigenous death and dispossession. In tandem with capital extracted from enslaved Africans and the happenstance abundance of coal deposits in the British Isles, millions of acres of expropriated Indigenous lands fed British and later American divergence from China. For a time, abundant land and bountiful natural resources liberated settlers from labor, debt and capital and gave rise to the property-owning “American Dream.” In the crucible of these new worlds, European settlers and immigrants from nations as disparate as Dalmatia and Ireland refashioned themselves White. Railways crisscrossing dispossessed Indigenous lands created an integrated national market stretching from sea to shining sea. Gold extracted from Indigenous mountains and streams, including the Lakota peoples sacred He Sapa or Black Hills, filled the vaults at Fort Knox. The epic frontier myth, retold in countless John Wayne flicks, became quintessential Americana.[1]

Today, the characters and details of the stories that animate this landscape have changed, but the settler and the Indigenous remain locked in a grim dance. In the coming months, TransCanada Corporation will make a final investment decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, expedited by the Trump administration. If completed, the project will pump as much as 830,000 barrels of butiminous sands or “tar sands” through Oceti Sakowin territory, passing just south of the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation in present-day South Dakota, violating the same Fort Laramie treaties in question with Dakota Access. In November Keystone 1, a sister project of Keystone XL, leaked more than 9,700 barrels of oil onto lands just west of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate’s reservation in present-day South Dakota. Days later, in a split decision, the Nebraska Public Service Commission approved an alternate route for Keystone XL. In the weeks and months since, more than 17,000 people signed a “Promise to Protect,” committing to take non-violent direct action in the path of the pipeline in solidarity with Indigenous peoples if construction begins, likely spring 2019.

The American machine once rumbled forward with the confidence of divine prophecy, described by journalist John O’Sullivan in 1845 as “Manifest Destiny.” But today, its advance appears tepid, its future in question, its decline perhaps even inevitable. In 2008, the subprime mortgage crisis brought the cookie-cutter house-lawn-car-wife-kids-retirement version of the American Dream crashing down. As the gap widens between the haves and have-nots, the long-forestalled reckoning between labor and capital grows more likely—catalyzing phenomena as disparate as Occupy and the Trump election. The triumph of the first Black president and the rise of a new diverse electorate are threatening the immutability of white privilege. Digital media is displacing the print and cable cultures that supported modern nationalism and party politics. The current commander-in-chief’s slogan admits that the nation has fallen from its preeminent perch. Despite their distaste for the president’s bombastic style, sober analysts agree, foretelling the rise of China and the inevitability of an Asian Age. The accelerating climate crisis, fueled foremost by America’s ravenous appetite for fossil fuels, exacts a mounting toll on global and domestic affairs. In the twenty-first century, scarce resources and a growing population forebode mass displacement and human conflict that will test the resilience of national and global institutions—including the nation-state itself. We need look no further than the Middle East, the EU and even Puerto Rico.[2]

As democracy and planet slip into a new age of anxiety, pipelines like Keystone XL and Dakota Access have become a peculiar barometer and apt symbol of global unravelling. Since the oil shock of 1973, the United States, with the cooperation of Canada and to a lesser extent Mexico, has sought to unmoor itself from the global energy market dominated by OPEC. Today, a cadre of “strategic realists” argue that energy independence will prolong American ascendancy. This year, oil production in the United States is projected to beat Saudi Arabia, climbing above 10 million barrels per day, according to the International Energy Agency. Once billions of dollars have been sunk into the pipelines that enable this oil boom, operators will continue to extract value from their infrastructure as long as the marginal benefit of the fossil fuels produced is greater than the cost of extraction. In the Tar Sands, producers use industrial mega-shovels to scoop oil from the ground making production costs low. Geopolitical and micro-economic interests are intertwined in pipelines. Drinking water be damned. And each new project connecting global markets to the Athabasca Oil Sands in Alberta, Bakken in North Dakota and Permian in Texas locks humanity and planet into decades of increased carbon emissions, kiting the globe closer and closer to the climate tipping point. The science is clear: if society is to keep climate change below 2 degrees Celsius, in line with the Paris Agreement, 80 percent of known fossil fuel reserves, representing an estimated $20 trillion, must stay put. The oil-pipe life support built to prolong the waning American Century heralds the cataclysmic onset of the Anthropocene.

For a few months, Standing Rock brought this world-devouring machine to a symbolic and systemic halt. Like their ancestors before them, and like Salish nations currently fighting the TransMountain pipeline in British Columbia, Anishinaabe fighting the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota, Houma fighting the Bayou Bridge Pipeline in Louisiana and Oceti Sakowin fighting the Keystone XL pipeline in South Dakota, the water protectors took a stand and said no.


As citizens engage in historic resistance, resurgent and radical Indigenous movements are building more just alternatives to our colonial present and broadening the horizons of political possibility. A growing body of scholarship can help us think with these powerful, strategic and generative refuseniks. Building on the seminal work of Indigenous scholars like Audra Simpson, Cultural Anthropology published an edition focused entirely on the act of refusal. “To refuse is to say no. But, no, it is not just that,” writes Carole McGranahan in the issue’s introduction. “To refuse can be generative and strategic, a deliberate move toward one thing, belief, practice, or community and away from another.” Synthesizing contributions to the issue, McGranahan articulates four theses on refusal. First, refusal is generative—it is a move to bypass state power and replace it with new political systems and relations. Second, refusal is social and affiliative—it protects and builds community. Third, refusal is distinct from resistance. Resistance assumes an a priori landscape of state domination. Refusal, on the other hand, describes a more specific maneuver to escape or replace state power with something more just—like Indigenous jurisdiction and sovereignty. Fourth and finally, refusal is hopeful. It redirects focus from what is probable and pragmatic to what is possible and transformative. From Standing Rock to Queensland, Indigenous peoples are not just resisting—we are refusing. With our bodies in the paths of bulldozers, police and private security, we are breaking away from the colonial machine by asserting our nationhood and sovereignty at the junctures where the political and economic joints of the structures we oppose are welded together. We are insisting on more just and reciprocal relations between the people, the land and the water we share—relations rooted first and foremost in Indigenous communities, not nation-states.[3]

In her groundbreaking first book, Mohawk Interruptus, Kahnawaké scholar Audra Simpson asks what it means to be a member of her Kahnawaké community. Her study is animated by the tension between her role as an anthropologist and her citizenship as Kahnawaké Mohawk. She works in a discipline rooted in the production of colonial knowledge and power. For decades, anthropology has examined “others” in ossified units of analysis—like clan units and kinship charts—turning ethnographic subjects into governable categories. As a Mohawk citizen, Simpson belongs to an Indigenous nation that refuses the governance of the American and Canadian settler states. This conflict between the disciplinary imperative to represent and the political imperative to refuse energizes Simpson’s work in remarkably productive ways. With painstaking vigor, Simpson shows that settler colonialism—the structure that seeks to dispossess and eliminate Indigenous political and corporal bodies—has failed and that Indigenous sovereignty endures in the maw of colonial domination. But Simpson’s most enduring contribution is her articulation of refusal. Interviewing her Mohawk compatriots, who used every opportunity to remind non-Native people that this is not their land and that there are Mohawk political possibilities and orders that pre-date Canadian and American colonial governance, she develops this posture of refusal into theory and practice. “They refuse to consent to the apparatuses of the state,” Simpson wrote in an essay for Cultural Anthropology. “And in time with that, I refused then, and still do now, to tell the internal story of their struggle. But I consent to telling the story of their constraint.”[4]

Yellowknives Dene political theorist Glen Coulthard is perhaps the leading critic of Indigenous constraint. In his award-winning, Red Skin, White Masks, Coulthard draws on the works of Marx, Fanon and others as well as the history of Dene struggle to launch a studied broadside on the edifice of dominant contemporary Indigenous advocacy, policy and institution-building. In the 1970s, powerful Indigenous movements in Canada, the United States, Australia and Aotearoa fomented a profound shift in colonial governance from policies, ideologies and techniques of assimilation and integration to a new and enduring paradigm of self-determination, rights and recognition. Despite reforms to accommodate a small measure of Indigenous self-determination, reformed state power still remains colonial. As Coulthard writes, “In the Canadian context, colonial relations of power are no longer reproduced primarily through overtly coercive means, but rather through asymmetrical exchanges of mediated forms of state recognition and accommodation.” The implications of this argument are controversial. As Coulthard puts it, “much of our efforts over the last four decades to attain settler state recognition of our rights to land and self-government have in fact encouraged the opposite—the continued dispossession of our homeland and the ongoing usurpation of our self-determining authority.” Or, to put it simply: we’ve been played. But in his willingness to pull no punches and depart from more conciliatory and professionalized schools of Indigenous political thought, advocacy and organization, Coulthard finds solidarity and perhaps even vindication in the remarkable success of movements like Standing Rock, which advanced Indigenous self-determination in ways that more traditional state-centered channels of campaigning and litigating never could have achieved. As Coulthard wrote in a 2012 blog post for the journal Decolonization, Indigeneity, Education & Society, “If history has shown us anything, it is this: if you want those in power to respond swiftly to Indigenous peoples’ political efforts, start by placing Native bodies (with a few logs and tires thrown in for good measure) between settlers and their money, which in colonial contexts is generated by the ongoing theft and exploitation of our land and resource base.”[5]

As a political act, refusal is a double negative. When we refuse the desecration of our waters, the dispossession of our lands and the destruction of our worlds, what are we assenting to? In their adroit articulation of the structures we must spurn, Simpson and Coulthard offer powerful new beginnings. Simpson’s book lends itself most immediately to a careful consideration of Indigenous political orders—communities, nations, confederacies—as sovereigns. Coulthard’s work, meanwhile, lends itself most clearly to a consideration of Indigenous lands—the systems of interrelation and modes of production that must be taken up again to build alternatives to capitalism and colonialism. But the difficult work of collectively imagining and building those Indigenous futures at Standing Rock and beyond is just beginning.

If our problem is at least partially one of grammar, there is perhaps no better Indigenous thinker or writer to lend her prose to this Indigenous resurgence than Leanne Betasamosake Simpson of the Alderville First Nation. In her fourth book, As We Have Always Done, Betasamosake Simpson weds Indigenous scholarship to teachings handed down by Anishinaabe elders, brilliantly demonstrating through her research and writing process and product what it might be to write with Indigenous theory and intelligence. “Biiskabiyang—the process of returning to ourselves, a reengagement with the things we have left behind, a reemergence, an unfolding from the inside out—is a concept, an individual and collective process of decolonization and resurgence.” Betasamosake Simpson writes. “To me, it is the embodied process as freedom. It is a flight out of the structure of settler colonialism and into the processes and relationships of freedom and self-determination encoded and practiced within Nishnabewin or grounded normativity.” In this creative escape, Betasamosake Simpson’s narrative soars in many directions. She writes about land as pedagogy, queerness and two-spiritedness as normative, and Indigenous internationalism, solidarity and interrelation between Black and Indigenous struggle as central to the emergence and endurance of communities rooted in justice, reciprocity and freedom. She writes, “when these constellations work in international relationship to other constellations, the fabric of the night sky changes.”[6]


In November, ahead of the Nebraska Public Service Commission’s decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, I travelled to the Kul Wicasa Oyate’s Lower Brule reservation in South Dakota. In the Golden Buffalo Convention Centre, on the banks of the Missouri River, Oceti Sakowin organizers, leaders and allies gathered to build community and solidarity for the stand against Keystone XL. When the Nebraska Public Service Commission announced its decision to greenlight the pipeline, Indigenous organizers held a snap press conference—livestreamed to more than 60,000 on Facebook.

Later that day, Oceti Sakowin leaders and allies in attendance re-signed the Protect the Sacred Treaty, promising to defend ancestral homelands against Tar Sands mega-projects, the Keystone XL pipeline and the Trump agenda. Dave Flute, Chairman of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, shared a chief’s song. “Reaffirm the boundaries of that treaty [Fort Laramie]. Keep out that black snake you have been talking about,” Oyate Win Brushbreaker, 97, told the crowd, referring to the Keystone XL pipeline as the “black snake,” a description from a Lakota prophecy. “Nothing has changed at all in our defense of land, air and water of the Oceti Sakowin Lands,” Faith Spotted Eagle, leader of the Brave Heart Society who convened the multi-day meeting told the press. “If anything, it has become more focused, stronger and more adamant after Standing Rock.”

After we signed the treaty we came together to dance in victory. As our drummers hit the honor beats, we raised defiant hands. Women held red scarves aloft, representing scalps taken in the victory our people and planet so desperately need right now. But how that victory will be won and what form it will take remains to be seen.


[1] Turner, Frederick Jackson, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” 1893; Williams, Eric, Capitalism and Slavery, 1944; Pomeranz, Kenneth, The Great Divergence, 2000; Lake, Marilyn and Henry Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line, 2008; Belich, James, Replenishing the Earth, 2009; White, Richard, Railroaded, 2012; Veracini, Lorenzo, The Settler Colonial Present, 2015; Estes, Nick, “Fighting for Our Lives: #NoDAPL in Historical Context” The Red Nation, 18 Sep 2016.

[2] Gunder Frank, Andre, ReOrient, 1998; Bonneuiel, Christophe and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene, 2016; Coates, Ta-Nehisi, We Were Eight Years in Power, 2017; Dasgupta, Rana, “The Demise of the Nation-State” The Guardian 5 Apr 2018.

[3] McGranahan, Carole, “Theorizing Refusal: An Introduction” Cultural Anthropology 31, no. 3 (2016), p. 319–325, https://doi.org/10.14506/ca31.3.01

[4] Simpson, Audra, Mohawk Interruptus, 2014 and “Consent’s Revenge” Cultural Anthropology 31, no. 3 (2016), p. 326–333. https://doi.org/10.14506/ca31.3.02

[5] Coulthard, Glen, Red Skin, White Masks, 2014 and “#IdleNoMore in Historical Context” Decolonization, Indigeneity, Education & Society, 24 Dec 2012, https://decolonization.wordpress.com/2012/12/24/idlenomore-in-historical-context/

[6] Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake, As We Have Always Done, 2017.