#AbolishtheRacistSeal: IFAIR 2016 Talk

This talk was given March 3, 2016 as part of the Indigenous Book Festival’s opening roundtable, “Beyond Stereotype, Prejudice, & Racism,” at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.

I want to make two simple claims: 1) The University of New Mexico profits from the genocide of Indigenous peoples and the occupation of Indigenous lands. 2) UNM’s official seal celebrates this fact.

Originally designed in 1909 by President Edward Gray and officially adopted in 1914, the seal represents what one alumni publication calls “two New Mexico founders, a Spanish conquistador and a frontiersman.” Back-to-back figures of two men armed with the weapons of conquest (a sword and musket) join other seemingly innocuous images, symbols, and rituals—the Lobo, the Alma Mater, the school colors red and silver—that make a university a university, a kind of identity and brand that creates an image of UNM as identifiable and characteristically distinct. According to the Administrative Policies and Procedures Manual’s section on the University’s graphics and symbols, “A cohesive visual identity presents a sense of unity and builds awareness and pride among those connected to [UNM].” “The most formal symbol of the University,” it continues, “is the seal. The seal is reserved for use on documents or forms of the highest official rank from the University President, the University Secretary, and the University Board of Regents such as diplomas, certificates, certain invitations, legal documents, and other printed materials. Use of the seal must be approved in advance, by the University Marketing Director.”

Its most basic definition: a seal as a design or insignia plays the official role of representing an organization, an institution, or political entity (like a city, state, or nation). It originated as a stamp to impress an image or sign of authority into wax as a way of securing, authenticating, and approving. Seal derives from the Latin signum. When used as a verb, signum means to mark or to sign. In its formal, ceremonial usage, it becomes a symbolic act representing power and authority. For a sovereign, it embodies the will of a ruler over the ruled, or the power over life itself, the power to mark those deserving life and those deserving death. Wars, executions, diplomatic treaties for peace and trade all bear the marks of seals. Even the banality of bureaucracy, from letters to official statements to press releases, bears the marks of seals. The seal, too, is used like a brand to mark property, much like one brands cattle. It is also a form of possessiveness, embodying and laying claim to the what is and is not part of the official order of things. In this sense, it plays a role of inclusion and exclusion.

If a seal is an impression of power, then, the seal of UNM is an impression a history that gives it authority. And that history is one marked by violence, dispossession, and death. Like much paraphernalia relating to power and authority, the masculine figures armed with sword and musket personify just how order and civilization was achieved in the founding of New Mexico—through violence. Spanish colonization entailed the rape, murder, enslavement, and torture  of Indigenous peoples at the hands of conquistadors such as Oñate and de Vargas. The expulsion of the Spanish from Indigenous homelands during the 1680 Pueblo Revolt and their subsequent return were was marked by extreme persecution and prejudice towards Indigenous peoples. Nonetheless, subsequent Mexican independence was also filled with further persecution and oppression. The conclusion of the U.S.-Mexican War and the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo revealed the true intentions of U.S. and Mexican colonial policy toward Indigenous peoples. The U.S. violated almost every treaty article before the ink was dry, but both the U.S. and Mexico did, however, uphold Article XI, which guarantees that “incursions” into either nation on behalf of the “savage tribes” inhabiting the newly acquired territory would be met with force of “equal dilligence [sic] and energy” by both nations. Indeed, U.S. domination was equally, if not more, brutal and punishing than its progenitors. From forced marches and open air concentration camps for Navajo and Apache prisoners of war at Bosque Redondo, from Indian fighters and Indian killers such as Kit Carson and William Tecumseh Sherman, to mass enclosures and privatization of unneeded Indigenous lands, the early U.S. colonial period in New Mexico is replete with examples of Indigenous genocide and dispossession.

As a fledgling territory, the founding of the University of New Mexico played a pivotal role in the path towards statehood. Founded in 1889 amidst federal Indian policy that advocated the fragmentation of tribal land and the stealing of Indian children from families to be forced into boarding schools, UNM was originally granted acreage as Trust Land, much like many territorial universities in the so-called Western frontier. The subduing and dispossession of Indigenous peoples during this time is largely lamented due to the closing of the frontier; yet out of this unspeakable violence was borne UNM and the state of New Mexico. The 1910 New Mexico Enabling and Ferguson Acts granted the state 13 million acres of Trust Land. Of which, 200,000 acres were granted to public universities like UNM. In total, 5 million acres were reserved for universities, schools, and other institutions. Of the now 9 million surface acres and 12.7 million subsurface acres of Trust Land, about 96% of value extracted from these lands coms from non-renewable resources like oil, gas, and coal. This highly lucrative business attracts over 9,500 oil and gas leases and 166 mineral leases that cover 3.1 million acres for a value of $433 per acre. For fiscal year 2013, revenue generated from these land at a sum of $577 million realized its second highest earning year, down from 2012’s record-setting $658 million. As of 2013, UNM directly benefits from 253,336 surface acres and 344,821 subsurface acres of public Trust Land. From these lands, UNM earned $8.5 million.

If we return to how UNM brands itself to create “a sense of unity and pride,” we can begin to think of various ways in which the University narrates itself and its history, how it tells its story. The UNM seal tells a story, too—a story that is celebratory of the anti-Indian violence forged within the University’s history and how it benefits from the dispossession of Indigenous lands. What is perhaps most insidious about the commemoration of colonial conquest is its celebration of two essential actors and perpetrators of genocide—a conquistador and frontiersman—and the sacred and sanctimonious status the seal holds for its alumni and benefactors. As much as the assault on the racist imagery of Indian mascots is seen as a direct assault on the sanctity of whiteness (and settlers) to possess and lay claim to Indigenous lands and bodies, defacing and interrupting the colonial narratives of a university seal will, too, be seen as an assault on a “tradition” and the sanctity of possessive whiteness. But what this “tradition” celebrates and what this sacredness protects can categorically be defined as anti-Indian, or explicitly Indian hating. The stakes are high to talk openly and fluently about colonization and occupation. To do so creates an uncomfortable space of overwhelming hostility and tension. History, after all, is the past’s saturation of our present moment. It cannot be ignored. But to bring it up is to bring it into existence as something to be “dealt with.”

It is not by accident that the lands stolen by the figures consecrated on UNM’s crest—the conquistador and the frontiersman—created a source of revenue for the University. The University, in this case, literally profits from the dispossession and death of Indigenous peoples. Changing the racist-colonial celebration of the seal, however, will not rid the University of this pervasive history of violence and dispossession, nor will it change colonial, racist behavior. What I have been talking about so far is the colonial structures of power, premised on genocidal conquest and Indigenous erasure. The violence of colonial occupation and dispossession is not only fundamental to UNM’s being, but it is also reimagined as a history of securing freedom and rights—freedoms for some and unfreedom for others. It permeates the University even as it actively denied and ignored. But it is not my intention to blame the University, nor its constituency, for the wrongs of the past. While UNM is not responsible for the past crimes of its forbearers, our present reality is a product that history, and for that the University has to be held accountable if it perpetuates and, indeed, celebrates the destruction and attempted annihilation of the original people of this land.

That’s why the very least the University can do is to abolish the racist seal. Recently, a committee of Harvard Law School faculty, students, alumni, and staff recommended that school’s crest—which was modeled on the family crest of a slaveholding family—be retired.  Across university campuses movements have galvanized to abolish symbols that celebrate racism—such as Confederate flags and icons of slavery. Abolishing these symbols of oppression, however, only revealed institutionalized inequality. Changing university iconography means nothing, we were told, if it is not accompanied by real, material resources—such as scholarships, the creation and funding of diversity centers, and equal representation at all levels of the university system including the board of regents. This is bare minimum accountability. As we have seen, some administrators at these institutions lost their jobs for upholding and defending status quo inequality. It was only after student protest and sit-ins did these universities capitulate. At UNM, we are reminded by the administrators’ utter neglect and disdain to institute Indigenous Peoples Day as an official holiday after successful undergraduate organizing in passing a resolution. Universities are supposed to be bastions of free thought and progressive politics. If anything, UNM administrators’ neglect of Indigenous students and demands demonstrates classic reactionary and backwards thinking on Indigenous issues and concerns. One needs to only look at the national movement to see how cities and institutions across the nation have already implemented Indigenous Peoples Day, including the city of Albuquerque.

In conclusion, as Indigenous peoples we must refuse to allow our educational achievements (some of us as first generation graduates and doctorates) to be tarnished by UNM’s unwillingness to enter the twenty first century and to respect the basic fundamental of human rights standards. That is, colonialism and genocide are crimes against humanity and so too is their celebration. World consensus agrees. We demand this seal be abolished and the Indigenous peoples of this land receive accurate and appropriate representation. We do not want this insidious racism branding our accomplishments on our degrees and graduation gowns. We, as Indigenous peoples, do not belong in museums. This university’s racist history does. Hecetu welo!

Book Review: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

Originally appeared in La Jicarita:

Reviewed by NICK ESTES

unknownHistory, especially Indigenous history, is still a site of struggle in academia, in public education, and in the popular national imaginary. The narrative conventions of U.S. history often create convenient niches for the so-called “Indian Wars” under the umbrella of a “history of the West.” Past atrocities safely remain in the distant past, perhaps unfortunate, but nonetheless in the past. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States derails this narrative. She contends that the genocidal history of the U.S. against Indigenous peoples was not only foundational to bring the nation into existence but required to export it as a global project in the twenty-first century. Indigenous peoples, perhaps the first and longest standing enemies of U.S. empire, remain central to this history of the U.S. and its future.

For this reason, Dunbar-Ortiz’s highly accessible An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States is the Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee of our times. When Bury My Hearthit bookstores in 1970, it became a national bestseller. Mass protests against the Vietnam War drew connections to the U.S.’s genocidal and imperial past of Indian-hating and colonial massacres. In the same moment, the burgeoning Red Power movement was radically altering the landscape of Indigenous scholarship and political struggle on the domestic and international stages. It didn’t call U.S. imperialism exceptional, but rooted in the genocide of Indigenous peoples. Dunbar-Ortiz, a participant in both of those struggles, writes in a time when the militarization of the globe under U.S. empire in a post-9/11 world has again exposed the fallacy of U.S. democracy. Yesterday’s enemies of empire, Indians, are made anew in our present moment as the ever-looming “terrorist threat.”

To understand this, Dunbar-Ortiz asks us to reconsider the foundation of the U.S., making several claims. First, the U.S. is a colonialist settler-state, which “is not to make accusation but rather to face reality, unless Indigenous peoples are erased.” (7) The “refusal or inability” of U.S. historians to understand their own history is the source of the problem, or “the absence of the colonial framework.” (7)

Second, Indigenous resistance is over five centuries old and needs to be re-framed within a broader history of the Americas that does not result in complete annihilation and disappearance. She writes, “Surviving genocide, by whatever means, is resistance.” (xiii) This also means rethinking history from an Indigenous perspective as active participants in shaping their own histories of themselves, the land, and the formations of U.S. colonialism.

Lastly, U.S. “culture of conquest” means violence, genocide, expropriation, destruction, and dehumanization of Indigenous peoples. It is a historically rooted structure, not an event that happened in the past. Indian hating was a requirement to export colonial violence to rest of the world. “Perhaps it was inevitable,” Dunbar-Ortiz writes, “that the earlier wars against Indigenous peoples, if not acknowledged and repudiated, ultimately would include the world.” (12)

Piece by piece, An Indigenous Peoples’ History dismantles the U.S. national narrative, and rigorously interrogates it from an Indigenous perspective. Beginning with the origin stories of European settlers arriving in the “New World” who sought to transform the landscape into the image of the land they left, death and elimination of Indigenous peoples followed in their wake. They appropriated the existing infrastructure of trade routes and agriculture and initiated war after war of extermination to seize land and resources. Here, Dunbar-Ortiz works against the so-called “terminal narratives” to which many U.S. historians subscribe, that Indigenous population decline was mainly due to biological factors such as disease. Conveniently absent from these narratives is over three centuries of colonial warfare waged against Indigenous peoples. “Commonly referred to as the most extreme demographic disaster—framed as natural—in human history,” Dunbar-Ortiz writes, “it was rarely called genocide.” (40)

European ideas of property also played a crucial role in the colonization of the Americas. Peasantry dispossessed of land and livelihood, especially in British occupied Ireland, comprised the rank-and-file of newcomers who came to make a life of their own. They had little choice in the matter when faced with the alternative of starvation and death at home. With them also came soldier settlers, or Ulster-Scots, who were seasoned and violent settlers in the colonization of Northern Ireland. They also brought the practice of scalping, which they first used on the Irish, and the tools of colonization necessary for violent war making against Indigenous peoples. These Scots-Irish settlers formed the wall of colonization as both fodder for the “Indian Wars” and as militant settlers who pushed frontier boundaries. They willingly or unwillingly cleared the way for “civilization” by transforming the land into real estate. The myth was born that white European civilization was “commanded by God to go into the wilderness to build the new Israel” and “entitled to the land through their blood sacrifice.” (55)

Revered U.S. presidents from Andrew Jackson to Abraham Lincoln also washed their hands in Indigenous blood. Jackson’s genocidal Muskogee war won him his political career. As president from 1829-1837, he won support from landless, poor settlers to whom he promised land by implementing removal policies for many of the “Five Civilized Tribes” (Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole) in the South. Killing and hating Indians was not only politically profitable, it was a requirement for office after Jackson.

Lincoln’s tenure was no different. Credited as the author of the 1863 “Emancipation Proclamation” and for “freeing” black slaves in the Civil War, his role as a national “hero” is irreparably stained by his treatment of Indigenous peoples. Lincoln won favor with poor white settlers, much like Jackson, with his promises of “free soil” under the 1862 Homestead Act and the Morill Act, which opened up Indigenous land in the West for settlement and “land grant universities.” (140) He also sent Union troops to violently crush the Dakota in Minnesota Territory and expel them from their homelands in 1862; 38 Dakota men were hung in a public display of force. To date, this remains the largest sanctioned mass execution in U.S. history. Lincoln was also president during the 1864 Navajo “Long Walk” where thousands of Navajo were rounded up and forced marched to an open-air concentration camp.

Successors would walk proudly in these “bloody footprints” across the land and through time. What became known as the “Indian Wars” violently opened up Indigenous land in the West to help relieve the pressures of class conflict and economic crises in the East due to industrialization. With the so-called closing of the frontier and the massacre of 300 Lakota people at Wounded Knee in 1890, almost all land in the U.S. had been divided and privatized. This was further exacerbated by the 1887 Dawes Allotment Act, which gave reservation land allotments to individual Indigenous families and then allowed the sale of “surplus” lands to settlers on the cheap. Indigenous peoples also became a lamentable footnote in the U.S. popular imaginary, as their population reached their lowest numbers. “With the ‘dead Indian,’” Dunbar-Ortiz observes, “the ‘American Century’ was born.” (161)

“The American Century” also served to continue the process of conquest of Indigenous peoples. A large number of Indigenous peoples served in the military during World War I, even though many were not U.S. citizens. In recognition of their service, citizenship was granted through the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act. Many Indigenous peoples, however, protested citizenship because they had not asked for it. As part of the New Deal, perhaps the most dramatic transformations took place. The 1934 Indian Reorganization Act ended allotment and allowed for tribal governments to become politically organized around a U.S.-based constitutional model. Overwhelming numbers of Indigenous peoples also served in World War II, only to return from service to be met with 1950s termination and relocation policies that promised to end federal recognition of tribes and relocate them off their reservations. Much of the Indigenous resistance to these federal policies fueled the resistance to come in the following decades.

The long history of Indigenous anti-colonial resistance, or the “culture of resistance,” from Tecumseh to Crazy Horse, remained (and still remains) in the hearts and minds of many. The post-World War II formation of the National Congress of American Indians, the National Indian Youth Council, and the American Indian Movement (among many other organizations) pointed to a new generation of social movements, some of which also broke onto the world stage at the United Nations. In fact, much of the twenty-point program of the 1972 “Trail of Broken Treaties” nation-wide march to Washington, D. C. served as a framework for the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. But many of the achievements of the international struggle came with consequences; the 1973 73-day standoff at Wounded Knee resulted in a violent FBI crackdown. Nonetheless, the vibrant international culture of Indigenous peoples still exists and thrives today.

With these insights in mind, Dunbar-Ortiz closes the book by looking to the future. Weighing heavily on the moment in which she writes, the U.S.’s endless “war on terror” is, in many ways, a re-fashioning of the “Indian Wars” or the creation of new Indians of empire’s frontiers. Challenges to U.S. empire must then come with the understanding and appreciation of Indigenous existence and resistance, deeply embedded within this particular history. She argues that any social movement that intends to disrupt settler colonialism and empire must account for Indigenous peoples: “Indigenous peoples offer possibilities for life after empire.” (235)

But An Indigenous Peoples’ History is not another litany of white guilt. Dunbar-Ortiz invokes the late Lenape scholar Jack Forbes when she argues that although living settlers are not responsible for their ancestors’ acts of genocide, “they are responsible for the society they live in, which is a product of that past. Assuming this responsibility provides a means of survival and liberation.” (235)

This is a book that should be shared among the Indigenous and non-Indigenous reading public as well as read and taught in college and high school classes. It will serve as a reference point for many scholars and activists to come.

The People Take to the Streets to Protest Police Brutality: A Photo Essay

My photo essay from Saturday’s (June 21, 2014) “March to End Police Brutality” in Albuquerque, NM.

The People Take to the Streets to Protest Police Brutality: A Photo Essay

UNM Graduate & Professional Student Association Passes Historic Israel Divestment Resolution

UNM Graduate & Professional Student Association Passes Historic Israel Divestment Resolution.

“Love is Universal,” Except for Palestine: ASUNM Divestment Resolution Voted Down

La Jicarita

Commentary By NICK ESTES

In a standing room only, record-setting gathering of over 150 people at six p.m. on Wednesday night, April 2, 2013, the undergraduate student council Associated Students of the University of New Mexico (ASUNM) voted against adopting a divestment resolution targeting UNM investments in Israeli corporations. Student Senator Ayham Maadi sponsored the resolution, which was drafted and supported by eight student organizations—Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), Students Organizing Actions for Peace, Movimiento Estudiantil Chican@ de Aztlán, UNM Dreamers in Action (MEChA), Men of Color Alliance, Men of Color Initiative, Fair Trade Initiative, and UNM Arabic Club.

More than 150 people packed into ASUNM meeting in the Lobo A & B room at the UNM Student Union Building. The meeting began at 6 p.m. and ended shortly before 10 p.m. More than three hours were spent discussing the divestment resolution. More than 150 people packed into ASUNM meeting in the Lobo A & B room at the UNM Student Union Building. The meeting began at 6 p.m. and ended shortly before 10 p.m. More than three hours were spent discussing the divestment resolution.

Before the floor opened for debate, UNM…

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Common Sense Anti-Indianism: Border Town Violence in Rapid City, SD

Paper originally presented at the 15th Annual American Indian Studies Association Conference, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, February 6, 2014. This essay is a shorter version of a longer, in-depth analysis. 

NOTE: For those interested on the research and theoretical work I’ve been doing on border towns since 2012, see: Border Towns: Colonial Logics of Violence, Indian Casino Cartels or Alcohol Cartels? Farmington, NM, First Nations Sculpture Garden: Rapid City and the Politics of Stolen Ground, Why Chamberlain, SX is Indefensible, and Insanity: Chamberlain, SX and the D/Lakota Honor Song Controversy.

“[T]he ubiquitous denial of Anti-Indianism in our lives and in our scholarship obscures our necessary understanding that there is almost always reason behind tragedy.”
—Elizabeth Cook-Lynn

“Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.”
—Walter Benjamin

Screen Shot 2013-11-02 at 11.27.44 PM

On Tuesday, August 2, 2011, the Rapid City Police Department was rocked by the unprovoked shooting of three on-duty officers. While conducting a routine stop…, a male suspect pulled out a concealed weapon and began firing. Officer Nick Armstrong, who was patrolling on a bicycle as part of the Street Crimes Unit was struck first. Officer Tim Doyle was shot in the face, but was able to freturn [sic] fire with [sic] the suspect. Officer Ryan McCandless was also hit, and fired 14 shots before falling.

Officer McCandless died later that day. Officer Armstrong died four days later. As Doyle fought to recover, the department, community, and law enforcement agencies from across the country came together as a family to grieve for our fallen heroes. [Emphases added]


Printed on the second page of the Rapid City Police Department’s (RCPD) 2011 Annual Report is a black and white photograph (see above image) of mainly white onlookers of all ages looking northward on Rapid City’s Mount Rushmore Road toward an oncoming procession. A motorcade of emergency vehicles escorts the bodies of two Rapid City Police (RCP) officers, Nick Armstrong and Ryan McCandless, killed in the line of duty. The picture evokes the well-known images of the “Fallen Heroes” of 9/11. Even the photo’s caption—“Fallen Heroes”—arouses parallels with the “unforgettable” tragedy.[1]

This essay critically interrogates the shooting-deaths of the two RCP officers and the twenty-two-year-old Oglala “male suspect,” Daniel Tiger. I read the August 2 shootings as a spectacle of colonial violence that does political and emotional work, often obscuring and displacing histories and realities of colonial occupation and violence. Kahnewake scholar Audra Simpson identifies these colonial spectacles as especially useful “because they continue to redirect emotions, histories, and possibilities away from the means of societal and historical—Indigenous dispossession, disenfranchisement, and containment.”[2] Furthermore, the language of the 2011 report elicits feelings of unanticipated consequences of a routine stop resulting in the “unprovoked shooting” of three RCP officers. Absent from the official narrative, however, is the routineness of stopping Native people in Rapid City and the history of colonial dispossession that epitomizes the city’s antagonistic relationship with the Oyate.[3] The report also invokes feelings of belonging to a “community” that came together as a “family” to mourn and grieve the tragedy of “fallen heroes”—the violent deaths of RCP officers. Routineness gave way to tragedy. Tragedy gave way to collective mourning as community, as family. Yet, both terms—family and community—engender a sense of belonging, loyalty, commitment, and idealized sense of collectivity that, through emotional investment and responsible samaritanship, promises happiness. Fulfilling the promise of happiness is contingent upon committing oneself to family, community, or nation with the expectation of reciprocation, even if happiness is deferred, never achieved, or violently disrupted.[4] Or, in the case of the August 2 shootings, community and family are defined through a sense of collective loss and collective mourning.

Benedict Anderson theorizes that collective tragedy or mourning fuels “emotional legitimacy” to “nation-ness”—or the transforming of fatality into national continuity. In this sense, family and community (or nation) become the objects of futurity, which require investments in time, energy, resources, and emotions.[5] Threats to sense of national futurity must be vigilantly guarded against as one would protect property through the use of force and violence. Thus, in the case of a predominantly white border town, whiteness becomes, as legal scholar Cheryl Harris argues, a form of property, or “whiteness as property,” that must be defended and upheld through law, social norms, and the exercise of violence.[6]

It is here at the multiple sites of community, family, whiteness, and property that produce spectacles of colonial violence and emotional economies that isolate, exclude, and cause unnatural deaths to “ungrievable” Native bodies. These emotional economies are historically contingent moral, political, economic, and social realities that produce what Raymond Williams calls “structures of feelings.” These structures of feelings are “changes of presence,” or experienced realities “while they are being lived” or “when they have been lived.” While they are “emergent or pre-emergent,” they are not adequately defined or rationalized, but felt and/or enacted,[7] which produce what Antonio Gramsci defines as common sense, or a type of “historical becoming” that is a set of perceptions and feelings that are continually transforming and emerging.[8] Ultimately, common sense assembles a moral economy of feelings and emotions based on structures of feelings. This common sense, everyday affective response to historic and ongoing Native bodily violence and dispossession in Rapid City generates what Dakota scholar Elizabeth Cook-Lynn identifies as “anti-Indianism.”[9] When coupled with colonial occupation and border town realities, they produce what I call anti-Indianism as common sense.

To this effect, I examine how the legal and moral systems currently in place in Rapid City produce mobilize anti-Indian sentiment through everyday common sense, affect, and ideological practice. Through the routineness of policing Native bodies, Daniel Tiger’s violent act brought the hushed silence of everyday violences Natives experience to a public space that resulted in the destruction of his own body along with two RCP officers. This particular colonial violence is what Achille Mbembe describes as the “phenomenology of violence” or the “spirit of violence” that “insinuates itself into the economy, the domestic life, language consciousness. It does more than penetrate every space: it pursues the colonized even in sleep and dream. It produces a culture; it is a culture of praxis.”[10]

Rapid City: Border Town

To know Rapid City, however, we must begin with the acknowledgement that it has been historically at the heart of colonial empire and occupation of Oyate treaty and ancestral homelands. Much in the same way to know global finance capital is to the know its epicenter, its capital, New York City; and to know the militarization of the globe is to know Washington, D.C. as its capital. Colonial outposts, or border towns, inhabit and make up the spaces in between the epicenters of settler colonial occupation. They encapsulate the entrepreneurial and brute force of invasion and occupation, simultaneously speculative (boom and bust) and inherently coercive toward Native land and populations. Marking historical transitions of the political economy of the Indian Wars, settlement, statehood, and economic development, the Black Hills (or He Sapa) were (and are) a central feature for the forceful subduing of the Oyate. Likewise, Rapid City served as a “gateway” for this occupying force of colonial capitalism.

Following the “Great Sioux War of 1876,” boomers and speculators highly coveted the 24 million acres of “Sioux Territory” set aside for protection under the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. The 1877 Black Hills Act through stroke of the pen accomplished what could not be achieved through brute force. It “legally” ceded through Congress’ plenary power the area known as the Black Hills, which constituted a violation of the “trust responsibility” for over 1.3 million acres of treaty land.[11] Enforcing this seizure, however, did not mean the invaders peaceably accumulated land through legal reasoning alone. Prospects of statehood and economic development would require extending the U.S. military campaigns of outright extermination to low level skirmishes with Oyate to shore up territorial security and permanence.

“Dakota fever” plagued early settlers from 1878 to 1887. Coming out of a five-year national economic recession, plans for a yeoman farming empire in the western half of Dakota Territory fueled the mass settlement of He Sapa and the surrounding plains of Sioux Territory. The population of settlers and prospectors in the area doubled from 1880 to 1890.  Acreage of land deeds also correlated with the population boom, soaring from 163,739 acres in 1877 to 941,800 acres in 1878 and finally 1,123,233 acres in 1887.[12] What was known as the “Great Dakota Boom” entailed the speculative investment of railroads, mining, homesteading, and ranching in Oyate territory. The only thing that stood in the way of securing occupation was the task of further containment, dispossession, and elimination of the “hostile element among the Indians who want to rove at will and live as formerly in their wild state.”[13]

Granted statehood on March 4, 1889, South Dakota’s state government began culling anxiety and hatred toward the Oyate: “Early developers firmly believed the only way to improve economic conditions in the state was to move Indians out of the way.”[14] Rapid City and the town’s newspaper, The Rapid City Journal, became ground zero for calling for increase arms and policing of Native peoples. In fact, the infamous South Dakota Home Guard, euphemistically known as “The Cowboy Militia,” headquartered in Rapid City, became the vigilante arm for policing the Oyate if they left the reservation. In early December of 1890, they gave insidious meaning behind the phrase “off the reservation” when they slaughtered seventy-five Lakota near the Cheyenne River for leaving the Pine Ridge reservation.[15] The Journal and the Home Guard’s calls for war and extermination came to a head when the Seventh Calvary massacred about 300 Lakota men, women, and children at Wounded Knee Creek on December 29, 1890. Dissatisfied with the outcomes of the so-called “Indian War of 1890-1891,” South Dakota settlers further complained that the Oyate had not been adequately punished, since not an acre of land was ceded and they had not been exterminated nor fully removed: “In frontier parlance, the Indian problem had not been settled.”[16]

The failure of not settling the “Indian problem” through physical extermination extended into the twentieth century as federal Indian policy moved from removal to assimilation policies. Although Rapid City remained the colonial epicenter for western South Dakota, on June 21, 1906 Congress granted 1,391 acres of land to Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) for the construction of the Rapid City Indian School, which would annually house 250 Native students until its closing in 1934. From 1934 to 1956, the 1,391 acres were eventually sold off to the Rapid City School District (14 acres in 1948), the City of Rapid City (200 acres in 1949 and 27 acres in 1952), the South Dakota National Guard (673 acres in 1950), the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (27 acres in 1953), the U.S. Indian Arts and Crafts Board (118 acres in 1974), and various Christian churches (263 acres from 1948 to 1956). The Indian Health Service retained 42 acres for Sioux Sanitarium Hospital and 27 acres were set aside for the establishment of Sioux Addition in 1962. Despite the “trust responsibilities” of Congress, little or no consent from the Oyate was given to validate these land exchanges and jurisdictional incorporation into the Rapid City municipality.[17] Much historical scholarship has focused on the usurpation of large swaths of land from the Oyate following the Great Dakota Boom and 1887 Allotment Act, but little if any scholarly attention has been paid to the historic processes of urban land dispossessions in border towns like Rapid City.[18]

The creation of the Sioux Addition in 1962 just north of the Rapid City’s city limits concentrated the Native urban population, but also ghettoized what would become known as North Rapid City. The Native residents of North Rapid City were largely cut-off from the city proper, without sewage and running water, voting rights, and adequate roads and infrastructure. Furthermore, the geographic and structural oppression Natives experienced in North Rapid City dispelled the relocation and termination logics of reservations being rural isolated pockets of poverty.[19]

Life Lived in the Negative

In the Associated Press’ Great Plains award-winning August 7, 2011 article, “No Words Could Ease Such Grief,” Rapid City Journal reporter, Kevin Woster, writes the August 2 “unfathomable act of violence by a young Native American man, 22-year-old Daniel Tiger” resonates with the local Rapid City community grieving the loss of two RCP officers killed in the line of duty. “[T]he apparent perpetrator of this horrible act,” writes Woster, “was himself a human tragedy, with loved ones here [in Rapid City] who hurt.” Officers Ryan McCandless and Nick Armstrong, he continues, “made dozens of stops each week similar to the one they made with Tiger and three companions,” and the felled officers were “in the business of saving such kids from themselves, and from disastrous conclusions.”[20] While the RCP officers lives were honored with words that “could not ease such grief,” the life and death of Daniel Tiger was chalked up as a “human tragedy.” His life could only be saved from itself. This was the official report.

And that report went something like this: on August 2, 2011 at approximately 4:20 p.m. RCP officer Tim Doyle responded to what was described as a “routine stop” of four individuals who “appeared to be under the influence of alcohol” in a North Rapid City neighborhood at the intersections of East Anamosa Street and Greenbriar Streets.[21] Shortly after officer Doyle approached the individuals, officers Nick Armstrong and Ryan McCandless arrived on scene.  After officers failed to obtain the identity of Daniel Tiger (Oglala), he revealed a .357 caliber revolver and opened fire on the officers killing Armstrong and McCandless and wounding Doyle. Tiger’s shooting and killing of the officers was ruled as an “unprovoked” attack. In the exchange Tiger also sustained gunshot wounds and died the next day. In an official investigation by South Dakota State’s Attorney, a witness’ interview alleges Tiger disclosed the following: “he wanted to die because he had no job, no home, and nothing to live for; he was facing prison time if he got caught and did not want to go prison; he wanted to go out with a bang.”[22] Another Journal article detailed a long wrap sheet of seventeen charges that included assault against a law enforcement officer, “violent or gang-related offenses,” alcohol and drug possession, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest. In 2008, Tiger served a five month prison sentence was paroled and sent back for eleven more months for a parole violation. At the time of August 2 shooting, Tiger was on a 30-day suspended jail sentence for assault.[23]

Although an adult at the time of the shooting, Tiger’s story represents a common reality many Native youth face in Rapid City. Lakota journalist Jesse Abernathy, for example, surmises that the Rapid City school district works in tandem with the Department of Corrections in the targeting the school system’s high Native population is a “school-to-prison-pipeline.” Investigating the school district’s “Zero Tolerance” policies and hiring of uniformed officers, Abernathy notes the rise in policing of Native students through the Pennington County Sheriff Department’s partnership with Rapid City public schools. With a Native high school dropout rate of over fifty percent, children as young as eleven and twelve receive harsher sentences than adults through Juvenile Detention Center-sponsored “alternative education.” As a result around seventy percent of students in JDC-sponsored education programs end up at a Department of Corrections facility, sometimes remaining there until they are twenty one.[24]

Moreover, South Dakota’s prison incarceration rates are significantly higher than the neighboring states such as Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wyoming. With an overall decrease in crime down nine percent from the last two decades, South Dakota’s imprisonment rate is ten times higher than the national average, growing over 500 percent since 1977 (720 inmates) to 2012 (3,600 inmates). Of the 3,600 inmates, Native inmates number close 1,110, over thirty percent of the total population while only constituting about nine percent (73,835 as of 2010) of the state’s population (833,354 as of 2010).[25]

In Rapid City, as of 2012 Native inmates make up more than forty-two percent of the inmate population (around 70 inmates total on average) of the Pennington County Jail and serve thirty-seven percent of all the time served by the total inmate population.[26] This overrepresentation stands in stark contrast to the fact that Natives make up twelve percent (8,662 as of 2010) of the total population of Rapid City (69,854 as of 2012). The hyper-incarceration rates of Natives in Rapid City is greater than the reservation-based incarceration rates. These incarceration rates also correlate directly with reservation-based and urban poverty of Natives. For example, forty-eight percent of South Dakota’s Native population lives below the poverty line, while in Rapid City Native poverty rates exceed fifty percent.[27]

These statistics disrupt the narratives of reservations being pockets of rural poverty and crime. The fact is that the urban Native population in Rapid City is more likely to live in poverty and be arrested than reservation-based Native populations in South Dakota. In this sense, Rapid City as a colonial border town functions to negate the Oyate’s presence through increased structural oppression. In the case of Daniel Tiger and the Journal’s pathologizing of his criminal and deviant behavior, August 2 brought to bear the public, hushed secret of Native oppression and disenfranchisement. But the routineness of the August 2 stop had a brutal and violent precedent.

On May 7, 2010 twenty-two-year-old college-bound Oglala man, James Capps, was shot five times in the back from fourteen feet away by Pennington County Deputy Sherriff’s Deputy David Olson for allegedly reaching in his pocket when commanded to turn around. Capps was unarmed except for a piece of driftwood found near his body. Officer Olson pursued Capps for allegedly stealing a bicycle. An internal investigation revealed Olson’s killing of Capps was “justifiable.”[28] Prior to these shooting deaths, eight men’s bodies (six of whom were Lakota) were found drowned in Rapid Creek between 1998 and 1999. Although many suspected foul play, the RCPD ruled the deaths of Benjamin Long Wolf, George Hatten, Alan Hough, Randelle Two Crow, Loren Two Bulls, Dirk Bartling, Arthur Chamberlain, and Timothy Bull Bear as drowning after drinking heavily.[29]

No public ceremony was held to commemorate Tiger, Capps, or the eight drowning victims. Although the Oyate publicly protested in 2010 and 2011 after the deaths of Capps and Tiger in what has been labeled as “war against Natives by the RCPD,” RCP Chief Steve Allender reasoned at a community forum in March 2012 that there is no war and that: “There are so many sides to the story. We have the Native people, who want to see the land given back, and the people who are more assimilated into non-Native culture; and the people who are very traditional… All of these groups are asking for different things and it is difficult to determine what we are supposed to do.”[30] In one sweeping statement, Allender equated the Oyate to a spatially and temporally fractured community of those who were too Native and those not Native enough—or read differently, Natives presence still remains a spectacle for conjecture. Lenape scholar Joanne Barker observes this kind of logic as enabling the production of legal and social justifications for whites occupying Native lands. She writes, “Natives are never quite Native enough to deserve the distinction and rights granted to them under the law which extends ‘special’ rights and privileges to Natives out the benevolence of those in power.”[31] Asking why the RCPD was not outraged over the unnatural deaths and killing of the Lakota men, Elaine Holy Eagle posed the question more than a decade earlier at a 1999 community forum: “Is it because people are conditioned to believe it’s okay if an Indian person is killed?”[32]

Indeed the August 2, 2011 shooting deaths of two RCP officers at the hands of Daniel Tiger ruptured and brought to the surface Native lives lived in the negative of the colonial border town of Rapid City. It was never a question if the unnatural deaths of Natives at the hands of police or the everyday violences experienced under occupation were to be grieved. They are simply ungrievable. Nonetheless, the mass incarceration and criminalization of Native bodies is seen as an everyday lived reality. Anti-Indianism as common sense, as an historical phenomenon, left unchallenged, renders Native lives as the disposable refuse of an unfavorable history and therefore ineligible for meaningful mourning, personhood, and realization.

[1] Emphases added. Rapid City Police Department, Annual Report 2011 (Rapid City: City of Rapid City, 2012), 5.

[2] Audra Simpson, “Settlement’s Secret,” Cultural Anthropology 26(2) (2011), 206-207.

[3] I use the term Oyate to describe the Oceti Sakowin (Nation of the Seven Council Fires or the Great Sioux Nation). Although “Sioux” is the most common name, it is also a contentious label that was given to the Oyate. Official titles of the Oyate do, however, use “Sioux” as a general description (such as the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, etc.). For the proposes of reclaiming and claiming what we have historically and continue to call ourselves, I will use Oyate to describe the people and nations of the Oceti Sakowin or “The Great Sioux Nation.”

[4] See Mimi Thi Nguyen, The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages (Chapel Hill: Duke University Press, 2012).

[5] Sara Ahmed, “Happy Objects,” in The Affect Theory Reader, eds. Melissa Gregg and J. Seigworth (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 38.

[6] Cheryl Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” Harvard Law Review 106(8): 1707-1794.

[7] Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 131-132.

[8] Antonio Gramsci, The Prison Notebooks, eds. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 326n5. I draw specifically on the the translators’ note that provides an alternative translation of Gramsci’s definition of common sense as “part of the historical process.” They write: “In the original ‘un divenire storico’—historical becoming. For this aspect of common sense see Int., p. 144: ‘Every social stratum has its own “common sense” and its own “good sense”, which are basically the most widespread conception of life and of man. Every philosophical current leaves behind a sedimentation of “common sense”: this is the document of its historical effectiveness. Common sense is not something rigid and immobile, but is continually transforming itself, enriching itself with scientific ideas and with philosophical opinions which have entered ordinary life. “Common sense” is the folklore of philosophy, and is always half-way between folklore properly speaking and the philosophy, science, and economics of specialists. Common sense creates the folklore of the future, that is as a relatively rigid phase of popular knowledge at a give place and time.”

[9] Cook-Lynn writes, “The traits of Anti-Indianism are as follows: first and foremost, it is the sentiment that results in unnatural death to Indians. Anti-Indianism is that which treats Indians and their tribes as though they don’t exist, the sentiment suggests that Indian nationhood (i.e., tribalism) should be disavowed and devalued. It is anything in history and literature that does not invest itself in Indian audiences. Second, Anti-Indianism is that which denigrates, demonizes, and insults being Indian in America. The third trait of Anti-Indianism is the use of historical event and experience to place the blame on Indians for an unfortunate and dissatisfying history. And, finally, Anti-Indianism is that which exploits and distorts cultures and beliefs. All of these traits have conspired to isolate, to expunge or expel, to menace, to defame.” In Anti-Indianism, x.

[10] Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 173, 175.

[11] Mario Gonzalez in Mario Gonzalez and Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, The Politics of Hallowed Ground: Wounded Knee and the Struggle of Indian Sovereignty (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 137.

[12] Herber Schell, History of South Dakota, 4th ed. (Pierre: South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2004), 158-159.

[13] General Nelson Miles quoted on December 15, 1890 in Rapid City, SD in Philip Hall’s To Have This Land: The Nature of Indian/White Relations, South Dakota, 1888-1891 (Vermillion: University of South Dakota Press, 1991), 136.

[14] Hall, 2.

[15] Gonzalez, The Politics of Hallowed Ground, 177.

[16] Hall, 128.

[17] U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Sioux Sanitorium Lands, Rapid City, South Dakota (Aberdeen: BIA Area Office, 1974).

[18] See for example: Jeffery Ostler, The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism From Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006) and The Lakotas and the Black Hills: The Struggle for Sacred Ground (New York: Viking, 2010).

[19] U.S. House of Representatives, Subcommittee on Indian Affairs, Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Urban Indian Problems: Subcommittee Hearing at Rapid City, SD on September 8, 1971 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Press, 1971).

[20] Kevin Woster, “Personal Column: No Words Could Ease Such Grief,” Rapid City Journal, August 7, 2011.

[21] Kevin Woster, “‘Routine stop’ turned into a nightmare,” Rapid City Journal, August 3, 2011; State of South Dakota, Office of the Attorney General, Rapid City Police Department Shooting Summary Detailing Events that Took Place on August 2, 2011 (Pierre, 2011), 1.

[22] State of South Dakota, 1-3.

[23] David Montgomery, “Shooting Suspect had Long History of Trouble,” Rapid City Journal, August 4, 2011.

[24] Jesse Abernathy, “Educators Discuss School to Prison Pipeline,” Native Sun News, November 7, 2011.

[25] State of South Dakota, South Dakota Criminal Justice Initiative, Final Report November 2012 (Pierre: 2012).

[26] Andrea Cook, “Violent Crime Rates Rising in Rapid City,” Rapid City Journal, February 26, 2013.

[27] Suzanne Macartney, Alemeyehu Bishaw, and Kayla Fontenot, U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, U.S. Census Bureau, Poverty Rates for Selected Detailed Race and Hispanic Groups by State and Place: 2007-2011: American Community Survey Briefs (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2013), 1, 10.

[28] Pennington County Sheriff’s Office, Deputy David Olson Shooting Summary that Occurred on May 2, 2010 (Rapid City: Pennington County Sheriff’s Office, 2010).

[29] Chet Brokaw, “Multiple Drownings Stymie South Dakota Police,” Los Angeles Times, September 26, 1999.

[30] Karin Eagle, “Racial Tensions are Still High in Rapid City,” Native Sun News, March 30, 2012.

[31] Joanne Barker, Native Acts: Law, Recognition, and Cultural Authenticity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 6.

[32] Eagle.

Wounded Knee: Settler Colonial Property Regimes and Indigenous Liberation

Here is a link (below) to my recent publication in Capitalism Nature Socialism Journal based out of the UK. The theme of the journal is bridging socialist and Indigenous perspectives. Check out the entire contents of the special edition if you have access to the journal via academic libraries. Unfortunately, UNM does not currently carry CNS.

With that said, there are some minor grammar errors and one glaring error on page 193. The date of the Battle of Little Bighorn should read “1876” not “1976”. All the errors and oversights are my own. Please comment and share.


Estes CNS Article – Wounded Knee 2013

Special thanks to David Correia for giving me the opportunity to publish in CNS. Check out his new book Properties of Violence: Law and Land Grant Struggle in Northern New Mexico.