Problematizing the Present

Over the weekend. I read Nick Estes’s book on the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (2019). The book is good in all sorts of ways although I suspect that the story that it tells won’t be new to anyone who followed the #NoDAPL protests or who is broadly familiar with the history of Native American activism and protests. 

That said, it remains a book worth reading as Estes models the kind of activist scholarship that typifies that best books published by Verso. More than that Estes makes the connections between not only the political struggles associated with Native Americans on the Northern Plains and the important role that this plays in recent and contemporary activism. For someone less familiar with the two important (and violated) treaties of 1851 and 1868, the book makes clear the relationship between these treaties and the legitimate grievances of the signatory tribes against the US. The DAPL protest camp stood on land recognized as belonging to the Sioux according to the 1851 Treaty which while violated by the US government, nevertheless remains “the supreme law of the land.”  

While everyone should be familiar with the basic narrative of Estes’s work, there are two elements of his book that struck me as both exemplary and particularly useful to my own book project.

First, Estes is very direct in recognizing the important role that Native American scholars have played in documenting and interpreting the history of US-Tribal relations. In terms of “citational politics,” Estes clearly identifies the national affiliations of Native American authors throughout his text making clear how the history of US-Native American relations involves not only the kind of activism associated with AIM or the DAPL protests, but also the kind of activism that comes from writing incisive, sophisticated, and compelling academic works. Estes’s book contributes to the academic tradition which he cites and adds the most recent chapter in the history of Native American protests.

Second, and more importantly to me, Estes provides a window to Native American thinking about time. The title of the book is Our History is the Future, which offers a counterintuitive view of history which both recognizes it as distant, but also recognizes it as culmination of the present. Whether this alludes to a cyclical understanding of time (where the past is always the future) or a more revolutionary (see the pun?) view that sees the future as the reclamation of the past forfeited in the present remains a bit less clear. I tend to suspect that Estes recognizes the present as a zone of sacrifice both by the architects of contemporary capitalism by activists who oppose them. For the capitalist, the wealth in and of the present only have value in their capacity to generate more wealth in the future. Thus, projects like the DAPL pipeline represent massive outlays of capital (social, political, and financial) in order to secure wealth in and from the future. The discussion of the DAPL pipeline has made clear that its goals are to facilitate the extraction of oil from the Bakken oil patch (which likely depends more on global oil prices than the cost of transporting oil) into a future. This is despite the fact that most sober commenters realize that we must begin to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and reduce carbon emissions. It is hard to reconcile this scenario with present investments designed, at least in terms of rhetoric, to make oil production and distribution cheaper and easier. The damage done in the present, then, whether through the sacrifice of capital or the destruction of Native land or the increased risk to the Missouri River watershed, represents an acceptable cost in the hope for future gains. 

The difference, of course, between Native Americans seeking to protect their land and water (and our water and land, by extension) and the oil and pipeline companies is that for oil and pipeline companies the past is more or less irrelevant. The present is meaningful as a sacrificial zone and the future is where value exists. For Native Americans, as the title of the book implies, the present is significant in that it is the continuation of a 200 year history of protest and negotiation by Native Americans in this region. More than that, the present protests embodies a long experience of protest and violence from Whitestone Hill to Wounded Knee that is very much part of their contemporary awareness. In this way, their sense of the present is not simply a short lived “sacrifice zone” as in the case of the oil companies, but rather a protracted period of sacrifice separated from past defined by autonomy, greater self-determination, and a more expansive view their relationship with the environment and natural resources. So when Estes says, our history is the future, he regards the present as period that has already been sacrificed in the name of the future.

This bring me to a final point. I’ve started to wonder a bit whether the very idea of the contemporary in an archaeological context isn’t problematic. Even the most casual readers of archaeological literature know that periodization schemes often preserve and reproduce problematic world views. While it remains entirely possible to redefine certain categories spatially, chronologically, and ideologically (see for example, the recent turn toward the “Global Middle Ages”), the archaeology of the contemporary world appears rather more committed to a view of the present that is narrowly defined by a white, “Western,” capitalist view of the narrow present. If a Native American at the NoDAPL protests could see their presence and activism as part of a long-present that includes Wounded Knee, AIM, and various other efforts to resist colonization and assert their right to exist, then this represents a very different view of the contemporary than is often advanced by archaeologists of the contemporary world. A view of the present and the contemporary that extends for over two hundred years subverts a present that is consistent with the proximate needs of capital and a sacrificial zone occupied by individuals and groups who must endure violence, pain, and dislocation in the name of a better future that remains continuously out of reach.     

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