Socialism, solidarity and the Indigenous struggle

September 12, 2018

In August, Ragina Johnson and Brian Ward attended the Native Liberation Conference hosted by the Red Nation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where they gave the following presentation about the links between socialism and the fight for Indigenous liberation.

Brian Ward

We are socialists who stand in the tradition of being for Native self-determination, fighting against all forms of oppression, for working-class liberation and for the overthrow of capitalism and socialism from below.

As revolutionary socialists, we understand that national oppression, economic exploitation and social oppression are inextricably linked. We are Marxists drawing on a Marxist method of understanding the world. We know that Marx himself didn’t get it all right, but rather provided a method which socialists have built on.

The issues of national oppression, economic exploitation and social oppression must be taken up together in movements from below if we are ever going to achieve a workers’ revolution on this land mass.

Our starting point, as socialists, is that the oppression of Native Americans and their corresponding resistance of over 500 years is shaped by the dispossession of Indigenous lands and resources.

Activists march against the Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock, North Dakota
Activists march against the Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock, North Dakota

The U.S. was founded as colonial-settler project. It was built on the bodies of enslaved Blacks and the little-known Indigenous slavery, the dispossession of Indigenous lands and genocide, and the exploitation of laborers, men, women, Native, Black and immigrant alike. American capitalism would not have been possible without this land and labor dripping with blood. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, describes these dynamics of how capitalism came about in An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.

Everything in U.S. history is about the land. Who oversaw and cultivated it, fished its waters, maintained its wildlife; who invaded and stole it; how it became a commodity (“real estate”) broken into pieces, to be bought and sold on the market.

We cannot have a revolution without the social power of the working class, nor without taking up the racist history of the U.S. or fighting movements of the oppressed to win gains and break down divisions

RIGHT NOW, we are facing an emboldened right wing that is no longer in the shadows. They want to follow Donald Trump in his vision of Making America Great Again, which basically means going backward toward a society of blatant white supremacy based on the origins of this country.

A year ago, right-wing terrorists killed Heather Heyer in Charlottesville. In August, we saw the violence of right wingers and the police in Portland, Oregon; the right-wing tipping off the police in Berkeley to arrest activists; and a large counterprotest against the tiny “Unite the Right II” rally in Washington, D.C.

These right-wingers are fighting hard against any left-wing activism and can be connected to the Bundy family and its battle to “get their land back” from the Bureau of Land Management without any recognition of whose land they claim to be theirs.

This is the context of our fight. The only way to fight back against these attacks on Native people, African Americans, women, members of the LGBTQ community, immigrants, white anti-racists, socialists, anarchists and workers is to connect our struggles.

As Marxists, we believe in the politics of solidarity. What we mean by this is not simply standing side by side with each other because it’s the right thing to do — which is true — but that our struggles are connected.

This isn’t easy when we live in a racist society that is extremely segregated. Most people don’t live in multiracial neighborhoods. There are obvious racial and gender disparities in wages, the impact of police violence, health outcomes and more.

The reality is that workers across the board don’t get anywhere near the quality of life that the rich receive. As the abolitionist Frederick Douglass said, “They divided both to conquer each,” in reference to poor whites and slaves in the South.

This was the same process between Natives and non-Natives. The ideological thrust of white supremacy and Manifest Destiny convinces many whites that they are superior. These ideological thrusts benefit the 1 Percent because if we are at each other’s throats, the billionaire class gets off scot-free and can invade Indigenous lands, cut our wages and reduce our livelihoods.

The politics of solidarity was most recently on display during the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, when solidarity came from all over the world: from the Sami people, Indigenous to Northern parts of Norway, Finland, Sweden and Russia, to non-Native climate justice activists, to Palestinians, to Black Lives Matter activists, and other Indigenous nations on this land mass.

Solidarity was welcomed and needed to fight against the pipeline — which, as the activists at Standing Rock said, was a fight for safe water for all people downriver, Native and non-Native. One Native activist observed how the white farmers of today face many of the injustices of Natives of the past, with corporations and their pipelines trying to take more and more land.

One of the most inspiring moments at Standing Rock was when members of the U.S. military and veterans came to defend the camp and hosted a session of apology to the Indigenous people for the historic role that the U.S. military has played in devastating Indigenous communities.

We also saw the development of the Cowboy-Indian Alliance, which brought together white farmers and Natives in the way of the Keystone XL pipeline.

The examples at Standing Rock and Keystone XL stand in the tradition of organizations like the Black Hills Alliance in the 1980s that brought together Natives and non-Natives in South Dakota to try to stop uranium mining.

In all these organizations, people’s ideas changed. During the struggle in the Black Hills in the 1980s, for example, many white ranchers came to understand treaty rights.

A clear example is Marvin Kammerer, whose family had been ranching in the Black Hills since the land was stolen from the Lakota. In a New York Times interview, he said:

I’ve read the Fort Laramie Treaty, and it seems pretty simple to me; their claim is justified. There’s no way the Indians are going to get all of that land back, but the state land and the federal land should be returned to them. Out of respect for those people, and for their belief that the hills are sacred ground, I don’t want to be a part of this destruction.

INSIDE THESE movements, activists have started to see their struggles linked together: to fight for Native self-determination and against ecological destruction, imperialism and colonization. Ideas change throughout the struggle, and we need to remember that.

A whole new generation of activists at Standing Rock has learned the long history of the U.S. continually breaking treaties with nations — how the U.S. stomps over their self-determination any time the U.S. government and corporations need access to Native lands to extract energy and raw materials. The ecological justice movement is coming to an understanding that treaties must be upheld and extended as demanded by Indigenous nations, based on their traditional territories.

As our planet burns and our ecosystems are destroyed for profit and capitalist expansion, it is vital we talk about solutions to the crisis that put Indigenous nations’ historic right to their lands, resources and sacred sites front and center.

From the Cowboy-Indian Alliance and Standing Rock today, to the Black Hills Alliance in the 1980’s, and even Wounded Knee II, these struggles would not have been possible without a multiracial fightback that connected struggles for land. Solidarity will win the day.

Standing Rock also opened up a fuller picture of Native oppression and struggles that goes beyond land and treaty struggles.

We have an ability to bring the fight against Native oppression and for Native liberation into all of the economic and social struggles of today, while keeping the question of land rights central. We can’t separate the oppression and the institutional racism Natives face from the dispossession of Native lands.

Natives are excessively affected by poverty, violence against women, issues of reproductive justice, separation of families through racist adoption practices, police brutality, substandard housing, unequal access to quality education and health care, and the effects of climate change.

Not discussed nearly enough is that Indigenous people are murdered at an even higher rate than African Americans by police officers in this country. Much like African Americans, Native Americans are disproportionately represented in the prison population as well. We must end the prison system in the U.S. that still locks away more people than any other country.

We must view this in the larger international context, too. It was in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 2000 that Indigenous people fought against the privatization of water and won! Indigenous people in the Global South are connecting their struggles to that of the working class as a whole.

We believe in a democratic world run by people. As Clayton Thomas Mueller, an Idle No More activist in Canada, said:

Imagine if the workers and First Nations actually joined forces in a meaningful coalition — the rightful owners of the land, side by side with the people working the mines and pipelines, coming together to demand another economic model.

Ragina Johnson

It’s not that white workers are over here on one side, and Natives people who care about land rights and the environment are over there on the other side.

The theft — the dispossession and expropriation — of Indigenous communal lands went hand in hand with turning Indigenous peoples into laborers.

This is a process that first took place in Europe, and then here. People were coerced into working for wages in order to live and survive, so the questions of land, labor, class, race and nation can’t be separated.

Indigenous peoples in what became North America — Turtle Island — were drawn into the exploitative wage labor system and class society of capitalism over the last 200 years.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz spoke with Brian and I about this history in an interview two years ago for the International Socialist Review. She argues that Native people are overwhelmingly workers and have made important gains using their power in the workplace:

In the Diné Nation (Navajo reservation), the energy industry has long dominated, and in the 1970s, Navajos formed trade unions to demand that they have the jobs and job training...When the Navajo workers began to organize in the 1970s with the United Mine Workers, it was against federal law for unions to organize on Indian reservations. Peter McDonald challenged that and won.

The Navajo workers had specific demands for medical benefits; they bargained to include their medicine men to be paid. They had the Indian Health Service, but they wanted to pay their medicine people and were able to get this into their contract. They are very strong union people. Unfortunately, there are other problems with the fossil-fuel industry and internal struggles in reservations over ending extraction for environmental reasons.”

Dunbar-Ortiz also points to the issue of class within nations — something I think isn’t talked about enough, because there is a sense that a person is only “ruling class” if they are a billionaire.

But class is about power — who controls labor, resources and the production of the things we need in our society. While it is totally true that many nations are set up so the wealth created goes back in some way to their nation, there are still capitalist structures and exchange.

A series of questions could be asked: Who manages the resources? Do you, as a worker, have control over your worksite and schools? Do you decide if your leaders are developing business relationships with Israel or other corporations? What are Native-owned corporations doing in your community?

The majority of Natives work off of reservations for a boss at a corporation, so this has to be a major factor in understanding the position of Native people as workers.

WHY IS all this important? Native people hold power at the workplace and, through this collective power, have the ability to better their and their coworkers’ conditions.

In the workplace, they can also push for social justice fights against racism, for immigrant rights and women’s liberation, against gender and sexual violence, the fight for health care, the fight for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, and more. We can use this power to change society, alongside workers of other races, nationalities, genders, etc.

We can say that Natives are workers, they are oppressed because of their class position, and they are exploited alongside other workers — while also understanding that Natives face national, racial and gender oppression differently than non-Native workers because of the legacy of colonialism and structural racism codified by U.S. capitalist laws and government.

So much of this was highlighted in the last big upsurge of struggle, from the 1950s through its culmination in the 1970s, during the U.S. government’s attempts at “terminating” Nations — which was ultimately pushed back due to grassroots struggles and the organization of the Red Power Movement.

Many Native people came together in cities and on campuses, to organize against the Vietnam War, for Black liberation and women’s rights and against institutional racism in their schools and their communities — and for their own liberation. The culmination of these struggles also produced labor resistance in the period of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s in the form of wildcat strikes.

That round of attacks on Indigenous communities was driven by an energy boom in the 1970s, under the Carter administration.

During every economic crisis and boom of capitalist growth and development, there are new land and resource grabs and attacks on Indigenous nations. This is as true today as it was 50 years ago or 200 years ago.

As people described in an earlier session on the resistance to new oil and gas extraction in Chaco Canyon, Diné land and the Four Corners area has long been used as a “sacrifice zone” for the U.S. government and corporations in their endless drive to war, and desire to dominate the world militarily and economically.

But there has been long-standing resistance to this — not just in terms of ecological battles (which are incredibly important), but also Native workers in these struggles who have made demands to better their lives, their communities, the environment and their working conditions.

In 1978, as more Diné people were being forced off their land, they had to get jobs in power plants or oil refineries to survive. In the book Ecocide of Native America, the authors Donald Grinde and Bruce Johansen describe the labor strikes that took place involving Navajo workers. Workers were able to bring in the larger Native community to make broader demands:

The strikes sparked occupations of some workplaces, as community residents often joined the workers. For example, a Texaco oil refinery in Aneth, Utah, on the northern edge of the reservation, was occupied by workers and their families in April 1978. The occupants demanded that Texaco agree to keep its white employees from bringing alcoholic beverages onto the reservation, dismiss employees from carrying sidearms on the reservation...

To resist expropriation of Navajo resources under cover of a domestic energy crisis, the growing grassroots resistance in Navajo country expanded into a large popular movement during the 1970s.

One of the takeaways looking at this particular struggle is how you can fight for self-determination and workers’ rights together.

Also, these struggles helped develop solidarity with non-Native workers and miners — raising consciousness around how issues of land, corporate pollution and defending Native cultures is connected to economic justice for Native communities and all of us.

In these struggles, you can see the potential for connecting Native workers’ power, stopping war and the energy extraction industry that harms communities, people and the environment. You can see the potential to organize at the workplace to demand renewable energy production — production that is about human needs, and not corporate profits.

Native workers hold immense power, alongside their class in broader society.

WE DON’T think we have all the answers. We’re here to learn, build relationships and help build solidarity.

I just want to conclude by pointing out that there is a socialist tradition of fighting against racism, for national liberation and for self-determination — even within Native struggles for liberation.

This is largely a hidden history, but one example is the activism and work of Howard Adams.

Adams was Métis and a leader of the Red Power movement in Canada. He was also a professor, author and socialist. He was influenced by the Black Power movement, had heard Malcolm X speak and was inspired by the national liberation struggles happening at the time.

Similar to José Carlos Mariátegui, a Peruvian Marxist who wrote about how we need to connect struggles for land, workers’ rights and Indigenous struggles, in Prison of Grass, Adams introduced a method of how to link race, class, oppression, national liberation and colonialism in a way that I haven’t found in any other writings.

Adams details how dispossession is caused by colonialism, capitalism and the rise of class society. From there, he argues how racism against Indigenous peoples is an ideology constructed for material gain of those at the top. It was first rooted in colonial regimes wanting to extract cheap labor, or free labor, from Native workers alongside stealing their lands.

Adams ultimately puts forward a vision for how a national liberation struggles (alongside broader class struggle) could be achieved:

This oppression of the Native people is so deeply rooted in the capitalist system that it cannot be completely eliminated without eliminating capitalism itself...Those Indians and Metis who have jobs are almost exclusively laborers, and very few are of the professional classes or the petit-bourgeois. Because of racism, we are the most exploited and oppressed of all workers.

At the moment, the success of the Native movement depends on its ability to develop a radical thrust, and upon the strength of its red nationalism. Mobilization of the masses of Indians and Metis is still centered around local community struggles.

However, as the struggle widens, social class features will gradually become more prominent, and the movement will turn into a class struggle. Indians and Metis will come to see [that] the different class struggles throughout Canada are not separate [but] related.

I think it’s vital that we bring these politics and history into all our movements.

The future that we want and need to fight for is one where land and resources are controlled by the people — and first and foremost, that includes Indigenous land controlled by Indigenous people.

As socialists, we understand that we cannot predict how a rupture of the system will break out — how a working-class rebellion on a historic scale will combine with an Indigenous liberation movement, Black and women’s liberation movements and other social struggles to fight to overturn capitalism. We can’t blueprint what all the demands for self-determination will be.

But we know a revolution will never be possible here on this landmass unless we combine all these social forces.

As socialists, we aim to be part of these fights, today and tomorrow — to link up the forces who will struggle and organize together in solidarity, to win better conditions for oppressed peoples and the working class and, ultimately, to overturn capitalism — the root of Native oppression.

Further Reading

From the archives