You Can't Vote Harder: Between American Indian Citizenship and Decolonization

Protestors march in Washington DC in early 2017, demanding that Trump meet with tribal leaders.

A timely, freely downloadable ebook, Socialist Strategy and Electoral Politics brings together new and previously published writings on socialists, strategy, elections, and power in the midst of an ongoing left electoral insurgency in the United States. Activists and scholars from across the socialist left grapple with politics in the wake of Donald Trump's election and the surprising popularity of Bernie Sanders' primary campaign in 2016, as well as the failure of center-left parties across the world to halt the ascent of right-wing populism. While their contributions push, probe, and often challenge one another, all contributors seek to help the left understand where it should go from here, and inspire those not yet organized and active to join the socialist movement.

Here we present Nick Estes' contribution to the book.

Indian Country declared 2018 “the year of the Indigenous woman,” and rightfully so. In the 2018 midterm elections, two American Indian women won seats in the House of Representatives, making history not once, but twice. In New Mexico and Kansas respectively, voters elected Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) and Sharice Davids (Ho-Chunk Nation) as the first American Indian women to serve in Congress. On one hand, the victories can be seen as a repudiation of the Trump administration’s escalated attack on Native sovereignty and lands. On the other, they shine a light on the dismal realities facing Native nations.

We will need more than brown faces in high places in a settler government hell-bent on taking Native lives and lands. You cannot vote harder for freedom and justice. What’s needed is a mass movement of Natives and non-Natives that takes seriously the call for decolonization. It’s not the lack of US democracy that Native people historically have suffered from the most, but its uninvited presence in their homelands that has been the most destructive. This settler nation has historically opened Native lands for capitalist development to ease its own internal economic, political, and racial turmoil—and it has killed, removed, and disappeared Native people to do so. The dire consequences of the recent North American oil boom and climate change make our contemporary moment no less devastating than others in our history and, for certain, even more urgent. But what does it mean to be a citizen of the nation that invades your land?


A week after the validation of American Indian women’s leadership in November’s elections, a report on Murdered Missing Indigenous Women and Girls (dubbed #MMIWG) revealed the grim reality that Native women and girls face in the United States: murder is the third-leading cause of death; non-Native men make up half of the men who murder Native women; despite popular perceptions, many murders and disappearances happen off-reservation where the majority of Natives reside; and, as of 2016, national law enforcement numbers count 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaskan Native women and girls, statistics suspected to be vastly undercounted by a deeply racist legal system.[1]The rate of violence is the highest in the Southwest region, in states like New Mexico, which is experiencing an oil boom. Since taking office, Trump has led an all-out assault on Native sovereignty and lands with the expansion of oil pipelines and drilling, the rollback of environmental protections, and the opening of once-protected areas for corporate plunder. Indigenous feminists have been arguing, since at least the nineteenth century, that violence against Native people is directly connected to the theft and pillaging of land. This was no different under Obama than under Trump. After all, the United States drilled its way out of the 2008 Great Recession at the expense of Native lands and lives like it has throughout its history.

The media and policy-makers typically identify the extremely high rates of violence and the rape of Native women as an “epidemic,” which is defined as “a sudden, widespread occurrence of a particular undesirable phenomenon.” The political volatility of our current epoch may lead some to describe colonial violence as an event and not a structure. But invasion hasn’t stopped. Even if it speeds up in some moments and is more noticeable in others—for example, when riot cops brutalize Native people protecting their water and land to make way for an oil pipeline—US colonial occupation is a long, ongoing process. According to Mvskoke legal scholar Sarah Deer, the use of the word “epidemic” to describe the violence experienced by Native women obscures settler society’s intent to take Native land and absolves it of any wrongdoing for what is a centuries-old, widespread tool of conquest: sexual violence.[2]The late Lenape historian Jack D. Forbes has pointed out that throughout history imperial powers have easily shifted “[f]rom the raping of women, to the raping of a country, to the raping of the world.”[3]Based on accounts of Native women themselves, this is as true today, in the midst of new rounds of dispossession and resource extraction, as it was for those first experiencing invasion. Capitalism penetrates Native lands through the use of terror, with settler law and vigilante violence often working in tandem. These circumstances led some early Native advocates to seek the protection of legal citizenship. It’s worth looking back on the Native struggle for citizenship, suffrage, and legal protection to help us understand our present moment.

In her 1883 autobiography Life Among the Piutes—the first nonfiction book published by a Native woman in the United States—Sarah Winnemucca, a Northern Paiute anti-rape activist, described the early invasion of her homelands. A flood of land-hungry outsiders brought with them predation and war. In 1862, to avoid outright class war in the east during the Civil War, Congress passed the first of many Homestead Acts opening millions of acres of Native land in the west for settlement to newly-arrived European immigrants. The trespass of Native women’s bodies coincided with the trespass onto their lands. Winnemucca devoted two of eight chapters detailing wars fought between Natives and the United States and settler militias specifically to white men raping Native women, which, according to her, was the catalyst for the Pyramid Lake War of 1860 and the Bannock War of 1878. Beyond outright warfare, the threats of violence controlled the behavior of women in her community. To hide them from marauding white men from nearby cattle ranches, Winnemucca’s mother and aunt once buried alive her and her cousin, both young girls at the time. Submerged in the soil, a nightmarish metaphor, it was their land and their bodies the invaders had come for. As the land was taken so too were their sisters. Winnemucca’s proposed remedy, to protect Native property and life, was citizenship and peaceful coexistence. “If the Indians were protected…instead of the whites,” she wrote, “there would be no Indian wars.”[4]She went on to promote the 1887 Dawes Bill, believing private property ownership would halt the taking of Native lands. The opposite happened: settlers devoured 270 million acres of “surplus” lands not allotted to individual Natives. And today her people’s lands are still trampled and fought over.

Those early settlers forged a national myth of the rugged frontiersman and became the pioneer heroes for a modern militia movement that has undertaken armed occupations of federal lands. Today, it is the Bundys, the white Mormon ranching family and darlings of the right-wing, who occupy Paiute and Shoshone lands near Bunkerville, Nevada. In 2014, Cliven Bundy, the family’s patriarch, led an armed standoff against the Bureau of Land Management because he refused to pay cattle grazing fees on federal lands—lands he believed he should have unrestricted access to. The uprising and others like it, while frequently passed off as fringe, resonate with broader efforts to open “public lands” for private interests. In this sense, militia movements, like their forefathers before them, are the shock troops of privatization. While blaming “federal tyranny” for impeding their access to grazing lands, the Bundys never addressed the nearby Moapa Band of Paiutes whose homelands were taken as “public domain.” Nor did they mention the federal government’s violent and illegal removal of the Dann sisters from the Western Shoshone in Nevada for using their own homelands for ranching.

In 2016, when Cliven Bundy’s sons, Ryan and Ammon Bundy, led an armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Reserve in Oregon, they weren’t interested in the Northern Paiute’s prior claims to the land. Part of the federal reserve was once the Malheur Indian Reservation, the homelands of Sarah Winnemucca’s people. The trespass of white ranchers onto Native territory and the terror they inflicted on Native women culminated in the Bannock War and the forced removal of Northern Paiutes in 1879, which opened their reservation for settlement. White supremacists are not confused about this country’s history of eliminating Native people. “Native Americans had the claim to the land, but they lost that claim,” Ryan Bundy told the Associated Press, speaking specifically about the Northern Paiutes. “There are things to learn from cultures of the past, but the current culture is the most important.”

While “white nationalist” is often the preferred term used to describe the Bundys and their ilk, coupling “white” with “nationalist” seems redundant in a settler society like the United States where whiteness is already closely aligned to nationalism. “White supremacist” is more accurate. Moreover, members of the militia movement are typically seen as vigilantes operating outside the law. While this is true, the armed takeover of “public lands”—which are stolen Native lands—upholds the white supremacist antecedent to the law in its perceived absence. But it’s precisely through “legal” means that Native lands and resources have historically been acquired by the US government and white settlers.


In 1924, the year American Indians became US citizens, Zitkala-Ša, a Yankton Dakota writer and activist, co-authored a report titled “Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians.” Following the discovery of oil on their lands, the study found that Oklahoma Natives, by law and force, “have been shamelessly and openly robbed in a scientific and ruthless manner.”[5]In 1912 the Osages in Oklahoma began leasing their lands for oil development. The increased wealth attracted uninvited attention from whites. Between 1890 and 1907, half a million white settlers invaded what was still Indian Territory, acquiring wealth and land by “managing” Native properties. In 1907 when Oklahoma became a state, the federal government transferred legal restrictions on Native properties and probate authority from the Department of Interior to state courts. In 1921 federal legislation limited the payments to “incompetent” Natives. Local courts assigned white “guardianship” over Osages found incapable of handling their fortunes. Within three years, more than 600 whites had taken more than $8 million of Osage oil money. That same year the “Osage Reign of Terror” began. Within four years, there were sixty documented cases of Osages murdered for their wealth.

The so-called Five Civilized Tribes—the Chickasaw, Creek (Muscogee), Choctaw, Seminole, and Cherokee—also suffered unsparing theft by white squatters and communities seeking their oil revenues. Zitkala-Ša met with Native women and girls documenting their cases. On her eighteenth birthday, white men from the Gladys Belle Oil Company abducted Millie Neharkey, took her to Missouri, got her drunk, and repeatedly raped her in the course of several days. Her kidnappers tortured Neharkey to force the sale of her lands to the oil company. Other white men who had assumed “guardianship” over individual Native estates allowed their wards to starve to death or outright killed them with the aim of inheriting their property and wealth. Others coerced Natives into marriage to inherit their wealth and, in some cases, killed off all potential heirs. “Dead or alive,” Zitkala-Ša and her co-authors wrote, “the grafters manage to ‘get’ the Indian.” To safeguard against this looting in life and death, Zitkala-Ša advocated for citizenship and, with it, suffrage.

Citizenship was not, however, the unanimous aim of the majority of Native nations—in fact, it was widely resisted. Nonetheless, citizenship was imposed in 1924—and immediately and severely restricted. Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico outright banned Natives from voting—prohibitions that were eventually repealed in 1948. But this didn’t stop South Dakota, with its large Lakota and Dakota populations. In 1939, the state passed laws that required Natives living in predominantly white towns to fill out “certificates of non-residence” that barred them from receiving poor relief, voting, and seeking permanent residence off-reservation.

The practice was widespread during the termination era, especially in Rapid City, South Dakota. Termination began with a 1953 act of Congress that immediately extinguished the federal recognition of the Flathead, Klamath, Menominee, Potawatomi, and Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribes, opening their lands for privatization. That same year, another law authorized states to assume criminal and civil jurisdiction over Native people and their lands. The legislation worked alongside relocation policies to remove Native people from the reservation to urban spaces. But white supremacist states, like South Dakota, with large Native populations faced a special problem: the state wanted Native land but not Native people. The “Indian problem”—more accurately described as the problem of Natives living on lands settlers wanted—played itself out through the withholding of resources according to gender, race, and class lines. For example, in 1956, Sarah White Bull, a paraplegic, was driven by county officials from Rapid City back to the Standing Rock reservation because she was unable to pay her medical bills. “[W]ork or go hungry,” one official put it. The county tried unsuccessfully to take out liens against White Bull’s allotted reservation land to pay for her hospital bills. They did the same against others. One county official called a Lakota mother a “gypsy tramp” for asking for food and medical assistance for her children. Native people died because local hospitals refused them services and counties denied them any aid.[6]

In the meantime, state elites pushed a termination agenda targeting millions of acres of reservation lands. In 1957, the South Dakota legislature introduced a bill to assert state jurisdiction over Lakota and Dakota lands. In a reservation-wide referendum, the bill was easily defeated. But in 1963, new legislation was introduced which did not require Native consent. Lakotas and Dakotas acted quickly, collecting the necessary signatures to put the measure up for a statewide referendum. Despite the restrictions they faced, nearly 90 percent of the state’s eligible Natives turned out to vote, and the bill was defeated. In total, 80 percent of voters opposed the termination agenda. For some, the rejection had little to do with upholding Native sovereignty. In a deeply anti-Indian state, white South Dakotans realized that if Natives were forced off their lands they would have to integrate with them as equals in the community, workplace, and school. That was a hard pill to swallow. The possibility of integration was met with threats of violence by some white elites.[7]In this case, despite the overwhelming odds, voting played a key role in protecting Native sovereignty. But Native people in places like South Dakota didn’t fight for the right to vote so much as fought and died, since invasion, to protect their sovereignty. Citizenship and the ballot box were defensive tactics. But the end goal has always been freedom. A decade after this historic vote, Lakotas and their allies rejected state and federal authority over their lives and lands by declaring the Independent Oglala Nation on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation during the 1973 Wounded Knee takeover.


Half a century later, Native voters in North Dakota faced disenfranchisement. Last year, weeks before the midterm elections, the Supreme Court upheld the state’s racist voter ID law. The law requires voters to provide a “current residential street address,” which affects Natives living on rural reservations who don’t always have street addresses because there is no residential mail delivery. The reasons for the Republican-sponsored measure are obvious. Look at any voting map in the last decade.

Across Western states, a sea of red for Republican surrounds large islands of rural lands colored blue for Democrat. Most of those areas are Indian reservation lands. This fact often goes unnoticed: entire nations of people who overwhelmingly reject the right-wing agenda control sizable parts of the countryside and pose the most significant obstacle to the extractive industries. But the political choices in these regions are another matter. In North Dakota, Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp, who was unseated by a Republican in November 2018, is pro-oil and a personal friend to Donald Trump. Her strongest base was Native voters in places like the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. The tribe and activists implemented emergency measures to reissue IDs that met state requirements, so its citizens could vote in midterm elections, resulting in record turnouts. Ruth Buffalo, a Native Democrat, unseated the Republican legislator who introduced the voter ID law. Many Natives affected by the voter ID law cast their ballots for Heitkamp, the senator who in 2017 applauded Trump’s fast-track approval of the Keystone XL pipeline through Lakota lands and in 2016 dismissed Standing Rock’s opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline as “not winnable.” In the end, it was Heitkamp’s campaign that was unwinnable in a red state.

Heitkamp’s credibility in Native communities—her allegiance to big oil notwithstanding—stems from her support for key legislation affecting Native communities, including the Violence Against Women Act, which helps tribes track and prevent crimes against Native women, and Savanna’s Bill—named for Savanna Greywind, a Native woman brutally murdered in Fargo, North Dakota in August 2017—which aims to increase law enforcement tracking of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls. These are important measures for tribes in places like North Dakota, which is home to the Bakken formation, where drilling is concentrated in and around the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara (MHA) Nation, known as the Fort Berthold Reservation, where man camps composed of transient oil workers have sprung up. As a result of the oil boom (from which the MHA Nation has profited as well), violence, disappearances, and murders of Native women and girls spiked. But the MHA Nation had no legal authority over non-Native oil workers or camps that exploited the patchwork of state, tribal, and federal jurisdictions to prey on Native women and girls. Democrats such as Heitkamp illustrate the paradox of settler colonialism: Natives can vote, have rights, and deserve protection so long as the very system—extractive capitalism—that threatens Native livelihoods in the first place remains intact and the settler economy afloat.

Heitkamp was not alone in her praise of the oil industry eating away at Native lands. While Trump is quick to claim credit for increased domestic oil production, the beginning of the boom occurred during the Obama administration. Last year, while campaigning in advance of the 2018 midterms in Texas, Obama chided Trump in front a group of oil industry elites at Rice University’s Baker Institute. The reason the US “suddenly” became the world’s biggest oil producer? “That was me, people,” Obama said. “Have you checked your stocks when I came into office, where they are now?” he asked the crowd of millionaire oil men. “Just say thank you, please.”

Compared to his successor, however, Obama embraced Native people. In 2014, Obama visited Standing Rock, becoming one of eight sitting presidents to ever visit an Indian reservation. He told Dakota and Lakota youth, that “like every American, you deserve to be safe in your communities and treated equally under the law.” But in 2016 when youth runners from Standing Rock led a thousand-mile relay run to Washington, DC to hand-deliver a petition opposing the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline that threatened their water and community, Obama didn’t respond. He had denied the permit for the northern leg of the Keystone XL Pipeline the previous year, because it crossed an international border and therefore fell outside his domestic energy plan. But he didn’t publicly oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which transported domestically-produced oil. After it was rerouted to avoid the white-dominated city of Bismarck, North Dakota, the new path cut upriver from Standing Rock, threatening the reservation’s water supply.

Following Trump’s election on November 8, 2016, the numbers in the Standing Rock camps opposing the DAPL surged. The only mass resistance movement against the present and incoming administrations was Indigenous-led, and it had brought together issues such as environmental justice, decolonization, and treaty rights. People from all walks of life flocked to it, seeking an alternative to the mass disillusionment following the 2016 elections. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a democratic socialist, credits her experience in the camps as inspiring her successful run for Congress. Deb Haaland also pointed to Standing Rock as the inspiration for her environmental policies, through which she hopes to fight the Trump administration’s attack on public lands.

After the camps were evicted by police in February 2017 and only two weeks in office, Trump carried out a flurry of attacks against Native sovereignty beginning by fast-tracking approval of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, two oil pipelines through Lakota and Dakota lands. Throughout his term, he has also expanded domestic oil production, opening millions of acres of federally protected lands for resource extraction at Bears Ears National Monument, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the Chaco Canyon region. It was calculated plunder at all levels of the federal government—from the EPA, under Scott Pruitt, slashing environmental regulations to the Department of Interior, under Ryan Zinke. For the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Zinke selected Tara Sweeney, an Alaskan Native woman, as the assistant secretary of Indian affairs. Sweeney, a Republican and a former oil lobbyist, is the second Native woman to fill the role. After taking office last August, one of her first actions was to strip the Mashpee Wampanoag in Massachusetts of their sovereignty by taking the tribe’s land out of trust—the first time since the termination era Native land has been taken out of trust.

Before his December 2018 resignation, Zinke left clues as to where the attacks are heading: water. During his tenure, he began the reorganization of the BIA area offices according to major watersheds—such as the Missouri River, Mississippi River, and Colorado River basins—and privileging state boundaries versus Indigenous national territories. For example, the proposed Upper Colorado Basin Region encompasses four states—Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico—within the Upper Colorado River Basin. At the heart of this proposed region are massive fracking operations that have slowly crept into reservation land checkerboarded by the allotment era policies of the nineteenth century. To continue drilling, these rigs guzzle millions of gallons of freshwater from rivers and aquifers running through Native lands. The new regions cut in half the Navajo Nation, a reservation the size of West Virginia in the Four Corners area, whose water rights extend to both Upper and Lower Colorado rivers—the lifeblood of the dry desert climate. The Permian Basin also sits partially in New Mexico, which has produced, thanks to fracking technology, so much oil that it launched the US ahead of Russia and Saudi Arabia in terms of oil production and export.

With the US leading in both the consumption and production of oil, a serious climate justice movement has to start here on stolen land. Resistance to capitalist development first began on Indigenous lands, and it should end there as well. 2019 will be a history-making year of social movements. Trump’s green light of the Keystone XL pipeline through Lakota and Dakota treaty lands has already sparked a fight, as construction is expected to begin in Spring 2019. From the Line 3 pipeline in northern Minnesota to the Bayou Bridge pipeline in Louisiana and the fracking fields in the Navajo Nation, Indigenous Water Protectors are at the frontlines of the climate justice movement. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s timeline of twelve years to prevent the most deleterious effects of warming temperatures should be cause for alarm. One thing that we can learn from the long tradition of Indigenous resistance is that our foresight must be far-reaching, stretching beyond our individual lifespans and towards a solidarity with forthcoming generations so that they too may live.


The 2018 midterm elections proved that a white supremacist agenda is not invulnerable. It was defeated with less than half the voting population. In 1986, Mike Davis keenly observed that “In no other capitalist country is mass political abstentionism as fully developed as in the United States, where a ‘silent majority’ of the working class has sat out more than half the elections of the last century.” Those words could have been written today. This mass boycott, Davis argues, is directly related to “the striking absence of an independent political party of the proletariat.”[8]And while it may seem that watering down a decolonization agenda—one that foregrounds the restoration of Native lands, lives, and nations—may be in the interest of such a revolutionary political formation, history proves otherwise. Two key elected officials of the new progressive congressional cohort—Haaland and Ocasio-Cortez—trace the origins of their campaigns to the Standing Rock movement. And the beginning of the mass resistance against Trump also began there.

Treaty rights, which protect the environment and therefore protect everyone’s rights to clean air and drinking water, should inspire the thinking of the growing left. Likewise, Indigenous rights, like human rights, extend beyond imperial borders and include the Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples fleeing violence in their own countries and the Black communities which have suffered historically from the legacies of slavery and mass incarceration. Immigrants and refugees, who are not the same as settlers and colonizers, deserve to be welcomed, and a country founded on slavery, genocide, and theft has no right to say who and who does not belong. These are not secondary struggles; they are thestruggle. Decolonization is class struggle and settler colonialism is not solely an Indigenous problem. Settler colonialism is everyone’s problem. It is the reason for borders and white supremacy, the material and ideological barriers controlling the behaviors of the international working class, thwarting potential unity across North America. Whether in the city, the reservation, or the countryside, Indigenous peoples are fighting for liberation and self-determination because every square inch of the US is stolen. These are working class movements from the left and from below, made up of poor Natives and non-Natives alike. There can be no left, no socialism, and no climate justice without an anti-colonial agenda placed front and center with Indigenous peoples as the tip of the spear.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor once said that African slavery and its afterlives are baked, like cake, into the very institutions of the US. The same could be said of settler colonialism: you cannot un-bake a cake. You cannot vote harder for decolonization, and we cannot expect elected officials to do what only mass movements can. We mustn’t submit to the cynicism that an ameliorated two-party system is the most we can fight for. Voting can be a defensive tactic in particular conditions, but we can never take that tactic as the parameters of our politics. Decolonization won't come through a ballot box, more of the same lesser-evilism, or the Democratic party. There are alternatives on the rise; let’s help shape them together. Our future generations depend on us to be good ancestors to them.

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[1]These figures include Native trans women.

[2]Sarah Deer, The Beginning and the End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), ix-x.

[3]Jack D. Forbes, Columbus and Other Cannibals(New York: Seven Stories, 2008), xvi-xvii.

[4]Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins, Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1994), 178.

[5]Gertrude Bonnin, Charles H Fabens, and Matthew K. Stiffens, Oklahoma's Poor Rich Indians Orgy of Graft and Exploitation of the Five Civilized Tribe—Legalized Robbery (Philadelphia: Indian Rights Association, 1924), 5.

[6]See Nick Estes, Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance(New York: Verso, 2019).

[7]See Nick Estes, “Anti-Indian Common Sense: Border Town Violence and Resistance in Mni Luzahan,” in Settler Colonialism and the Urban Prairie West, eds. Heather Dorries, Robert Henry, David Hugill, Tyler McCreary, and Julia Tomiak (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, forthcoming 2019).

[8]Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the American Working Class (New York: Verso, 2018), 3.