In December 2017, I went to Big Bend National Park to backpack with a group for my birthday. Because I got there with the group leader before everyone else, we had time to take a tour of the visitors’ area. In the history depicted, visitors were told that the land was previously lush before overgrazing caused the soil to dry up and become exhausted. That was the first time I had been able to observe that happened when an ecosystem was destroyed by human interference. After reading Estes’ account, I now know that the way of life perpetuated as the “American dream” is human interference to the point of destroying not just ecosystems but the cultures that protect them, with no contrition or effort made for atonement.
Among many things, this book is a love letter to native culture. Estes covers much of the history of the tribes that he has been permitted to share, and through this image, he begins at the the first genocide. Throughout that history has been a genuine desire to maintain native culture without interference, an impossibility once the United States decides that there were resources to be extracted. Instead of seeing a country yearning to be free from the yolk of British colonialism, Estes describes what the freedom of settlers meant for those “in the way.” Additionally, Estes describes the social and psychological effects of the fictional portraits of “savage Indians” as compared to the “civilized” settlers and “pioneers.
Repeatedly, Estes explains that when the United States needed to commit acts of violence that were otherwise illegal or genocidal, the government would create laws and raise funding to legalize murder, rape, and starvation. Because people wanted to monetize hunting and trapping animals, entire animal populations were wiped out due to the narrative of “getting rich.” When native tribes tried to work with the government or explain how the ecosystem worked, soldiers would gather and destroy vital herds while spreading illness. Biological warfare has been with this country since its inception, and Estes reminds us that the people who were supposed to be protected were always White, and never Indigenous.
Indigenous life has always been political because the right to exist among people trying to exterminate them means that there has always been a movement for Indigenous civil rights. Moreover, Estes argues that “civil rights” should not be limited to the definitions by those who justified colonization. Contrary to patriarchal depictions, Estes describes movements inundated with women, who bore the brunt of violence in the forms of rape, sterilization, and child separation in addition to all other atrocities. While many movements added women when society in the United States accepted it, Estes discusses how Eurocentric gender associations were contradictory to Indigenous ways of life, even discussing how Two-Spirit (what many refer to as “nonbinary”) people have always been activists.
What becomes clear is that most of what has been done to Indigenous people has been allowed because of a lack of exposure. The narrative has always described Indigenous people as savages without any sense of culture or respect for civilization. Once those tribes made it to the international arenas and mobilized themselves across racial lines, the government did everything it could to suppress the truths of immoral misdeeds. Because most native people do not have control of several media outlets, they were smeared on international news as ungrateful without anyone asking the question of whether they had ever asked to be invaded and conquered. They worked heavily with other racial activists–such as the Black Panthers and La Raza–while maintaining their own identities as the original inhabitants of this continent.
What this book makes abundantly clear is that Indigenous people have always been considered expendable for the sake of an ever-insatiable cash market; their ecosystems were malleable and they were in the way. It is a difficult read not because of the language–Estes works to be accessible–but because of the facts presented about present-era extermination. Rather than acknowledge the inhumanity of demanding that other people sacrifice themselves in favor of the dominant narrative, United States historians have consistently given settler colonialism a pass which is now playing out in the “illegality of protest” instead of accountability for unsanctioned violence. This book was originally chosen because of the Standing Rock atrocities, but reading it will give anyone looking a more comprehensive description of Indigenous responses to the United States.