The critical theorist Nick Estes writes on the time he spent at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Popular resistance against the North Dakota Access Pipeline emerges from a grass-roots movement that became “the largest Indigenous-led protest movement in North America in the twenty-first century” (Serpe 2019). I came to know Nick Estes from his lecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign in Fall 2018 organized by the Unit for Literary Criticism and Interpretive Theory. Estes titled his talk “Indigenous Studies: As Radical as Reality Itself.” The name points to the ontological nature of postcolonial theory. The convergence of radical grass-roots requires a corresponding ontology to theorize political oppression in its ecological register.
Nick Estes is a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe. He writes critically on his experience at the large-scale demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016 to 2017. Estes identifies the #NoDAPL movement as a struggle against settler-colonialism in a 2019 interview titled “Indigenous Resistance Is Post-Apocalyptic”:
“Standing Rock was a reiteration of our traditions of resistance: the unification of grassroots movements with tribal councils, the treaty councils, the reunification of our Seven Nations, the Oceti Sakowin. Alongside all of these, you saw the best of our diplomatic tradition — “Lakota” means friend and ally — that’s one of our primary tools of resistance. It was a convergence of all of those elements — that’s why Standing Rock was a certain kind of historical turning point, not just for us as Oceti Sakowin but for the Indigenous movement in America” (Estes, Serpe 2019).
Theorists and activists have to understanding the convergence at Standing Rock in terms that are ecological and political. Estes’ writing is indispensable for providing a perspective on “what climate justice activists can learn from Indigenous political struggle” (Serpe 2019). For postcolonial theorists like Estes, decolonization has the potential to unite movements like Standing Rock and global action for climate justice.
Estes builds a shared ontology by learning form Indigenous feminist writers like Faith Spotted Eagle and Madonna Thunder Hawk. Capitalist development is ontological. As such it is not reducible to economic exploitation. Because the economic structure is simultaneously exercises an exploitative agency over the social body. Capitalism extends into relations of alliance and filiation constituting the social body.
“The penetration of capitalism into our territories began through the targeting of our relations with the animal nations. It was the beaver and then it became the buffalo. It also seeped or penetrated its way into our kinship systems” (Estes 2019).
Transformations contribute toward the global construction of climate change in the epistrata of geophysical assemblages. Only an ontological account of ecological assemblages can explain the complex relation between seemingly unconnected processes in the micro-political and macro-geological senses.
The dispossession of land is only one of the immediate consequences of settler colonialism. We also inherit our ethical categories from the colonial order. The passage of a flux at one level affects a transformation along the parastrata and molecular substrata in a given territoriality. New forms of exploitation drive chemical processes at the level of climate. Capitalism affects itself across multiple domains. The reterritorialization of capital leaves behind embedded mentalities of the kind Estes wants to dislodge.
Resistance to persistent forms of oppression occurs in the ecological assemblages across diverse strata. To dislodge is to de-stratify, to leave the plane of organization toward the plane of dis-organization, and new possibilities. The symbiosis between ecology and decolonization is not metaphorical. The relation cannot be expressed as an analogy, nor as a resemblance, but only as an assemblage, an ecology of machines.
To learn from indigenous resistance, as Estes recommends, we ought to consider Standing Rock in all its constitutive assemblages. In 2016, Obama waffles on his decision for the pipeline. His administration stuck with its neoliberal orthodoxy by eventually approving the pipeline for construction with the aid of the police. Standing Rock and capitalism are not merely discursive formations. Their opposition is antagonistic, fundamental to their being. Settler-colonialism and global warming ought not be reduced merely to the politics of identity, but in the ontology of environments and their destruction.
Environmental racism in the form of the North Dakota Access Pipeline evidences a contemporary agency of historical settler-colonialism. Assemblages converge in a material space across the strata. Decolonization = decarbonization. It is time to leave the fossil fuels in the ground. Because the construction of a pipeline at one level is simultaneously an assemblage of state-enforced racial capitalism. “Nature = Industry, Nature = History” (Deleuze & Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, p.25).
The generalized critique is fundamentally ecological. We have to identify climate justice with the long traditions of struggles against capitalism. In the same manner, Frantz Fanon identifies Indigenous struggle in global terms as central to the “cut-throat competition between capitalism and socialism.” Fanon writes:
“the cut-throat competition between capitalism and socialism […] gives an almost universal dimension to even the most localized demands. Every meeting held, every act of repression committed, reverberates in the international arena” (Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 75).
The international arena for Fanon’s decolonization is an ecological assemblage. Because colonization and global warming are involved with one another on an ontological basis. The ecological assemblage is the flatline, Bateson’s walking stick for the blind man where agency is distributed across a physical system. Capacities for agency are distributed along an intensive curve of thresholds and becomings. Global warming is as much involved in the same processes of industrial fossil fuel extraction applying upward pressure on global temperatures.
Assemblage theory provides ways to analyze warming and exploitation as global tendencies. In an ecological assemblage, the white-settler is at once Oedipus and capital, an abstract expropriation machine made manifest. The appropriating image of Oedipus-capital is a galvanizing force. The gratuitous violence of settler-colonialism is a fundamental part of the same machine heating the planet’s atmosphere. This ontological fact has the potential to unite global resistance movements. “The environmental crisis — if conceived sufficiently broadly — neither trumps nor distracts from our most pressing political and economic causes: it supercharges each one of them with existential urgency” (Klein, 153). Lessons from the world’s Indigenous struggles are essential in building an alliance for ecological action. Because those of us academics or activists who live privileged lives are arriving very late to the same struggle that has been waging for hundreds of years.