A Summary and Discussion of “Don’t Go Back to the Reservation: A Bordertown Manifesto”
by Vincent Lima
ROC DSA hosts Socialist Sunday School every other week. We invite participants to read an article. At the session, a comrade presents a summary of the reading. We then split into small groups to discuss the reading. This post is a summary of the reading from our twenty-eighth session, held in November 2022.
“Don’t Go Back to the Reservation: A Bordertown Manifesto,” chapter 8 of Nick Estes, Melanie K. Yazzie, Jennifer Nez Denetdale, and David Correia, Red Nation Rising: From Bordertown Violence to Native Liberation (Oakland, Calif.: PM Press, 2021), pp. 129–33.
This reading confronts the question of what to do about settler colonialism—particularly decades after genocide and the entrenchment of the settlers.
I want to preface my summary by saying this is a question I’ve grappled with for much of my life, in the context of the Turkish occupation of the Armenian plateau and the Armenian Genocide of 1915–17. After this personal reflection, I will provide a point-by-point summary of the piece.
Ideally, when there’s a wrong done to you, you want to be made whole, you want the status quo ante to be restored, that is to say, you want to recover “the way things were before” and maybe get compensation for the interruption.
But that cannot happen with murder or genocide. You cannot bring back the dead. What’s more, genocide puts the survivors at a permanent numerical disadvantage.
What are Armenians supposed to do with the ever-growing population of Turks who live, alongside native Kurds, (to borrow the language of the reading) “on lands that do not claim them? What are Natives supposed to do with the overwhelming number of non-Natives—like most of us—who live here?
A nominally Armenian state in Asia Minor would have an Armenian minority; a Native state or several native states in North America would have a Native minority. See Figure 1. Are the survivors supposed to massacre or deport the heirs of the perpetrators? Are you going to advocate annihilating or deporting millions of people who happen to be born in an occupied space?
Or are the survivors supposed to disenfranchise the heirs of the perpetrators, imposing rule by a Native minority, with the majority second-class noncitizens? Are you going to jettison democracy (instead of building a true democracy)?
When we demand justice, we want to make sure the solution we envision is just and ethical. We don’t want to become perpetrators or settler colonialists ourselves.
These problems seem intractable. The conventional remedy is financial restitution, but inadequate as that is, it also becomes more complicated the more time passes, descendants of Natives and settlers mix, and Natives integrate into non-Native communities. See Figure 2.
The authors of the manifesto under review have a different solution. They call for an end to the world order that sustains settler colonialism and the establishment in its place of a new order in which the settler-Native narrative is toppled over.
Here’s how they describe their solution. . . .
Native liberation is defined as a “future no longer governed by the logic of the bordertown.” The “logic of the bordertown” is the authors’ language for the exploitative relations between settlers and Natives and the continued occupation of Native lands by settlers.
How is this to be achieved? Through “kinship” with “non-Native people and other than human relations.” The authors call for ongoing “alliances with the enemies of settler order: migrant, Black, and refugee relatives, women and queer relatives, and the darker nations of the Global South whose presence, like [that of Natives], threatens settler order.”
I find the categories of “migrant” and “refugee” especially interesting and important here: Those of us here who are not Native, are we “settlers” or are we “migrants”? By exempting from the “settler” category migrants and refugees (as well as the descendents of enslaved people and the majority of the population that comprises women and queer people) the authors manage to narrow down the enemy.
How does the manifesto distinguish between settlers and migrants?
The authors don’t say explicitly, but implicitly, it is through their relations with private property. I assume that Bezos and Musk are settlers. Oprah, even though she’s a woman and Black, and a gay billionaire like David Geffen, say, would also count as having a “settler” relationship to private property even though “Black, . . . women and queer relatives” are viewed as allies. How about an immigrant who buys a house or a plot of land?
I remember an article in an Armenian newspaper in Iran sometime in the 1980s. The author described a visit to the United States, staying in Glendale, California, with a friend in a house with a two-car garage and a garage opener. (That’s the detail I remember!) The friend asked him after a few days, “How do you like our America?”
I wrote a response to the article, saying the only people who would ask about “our America” are those who own a fancy house like that and feel like they have an ownership interest in the country. The rest of us ask how you enjoyed the time we spent together in kinship.
Something definitely changes when you gain a stake in the existing system of property relations,
but the authors aren’t explicit in their definitions.
Continuing with the manifesto, the authors make these points:
- The future is Native.
- The authors make it clear that they have a revolutionary agenda:
- “We have burned their villages to the ground before to protect our lands and nations. We will do it again to liberate our relatives. . . . We will redistribute stolen land and stolen wealth hoarded in their bordertowns, and this will create an abundance and equality for all life. Settler colonialism and capitalism interrupted Native kinship. When settlers are gone, we will resume this kinship as a practice and a place.”
- We need to consider what the authors mean by the phrase, “when settlers are gone”? I read this to mean “when the relations of production are such that no one owns Native land and no one hoards wealth, the category of ‘settler’ will cease to exist.” But maybe I misread it and they mean it literally, as in “when non-Natives physically leave the continent.”
- All land is Native, and all settler towns and cities are bordertowns.
- The authors write: “The border exists everywhere [that the] settler order confronts Native order. Everything in a settler world is a border.”
- The values that govern life in all settler nations—competition, aggression, self-interest, exclusion, violence, exploitation—are values learned, practiced, and perfected in the bordertown.
- The authors assert: “All settler cities and towns were born as bordertowns and, today, maintain the primary characteristic of a bordertown: Native erasure.”
- What does “Native erasure” mean?
- Let’s take Rochester as a bordertown and take, as an instance of competition, self-interest, exclusion, and exploitation, Whole Foods trying to break into the market, Wegmans trying to stop it, the two giants fighting for market share. Are these giants engaging in Native erasure? The term has to mean something more than, “They don’t think about Natives because Natives are completely irrelevant to Whole Foods’ and Wegmans’ commercial interests.”
- Settler colonialism and capitalism go hand in hand.
- Warming up to their topic, the authors focus on capitalism. They write, “Bordertown economies are designed to feed off Native life in order to capture value for settler society. . . . Settler colonialism and capitalism go hand in hand in the bordertown.”
- Storied confrontations like the protests at Standing Rock over the Dakota Access Pipeline highlight the destruction of Native life by capitalism. Encroachments and destruction are a daily fact of life, though outside of specific investments in or around reservations, I doubt capitalists give Native life any thought at all. It’s worth thinking about whether and how the capitalist economy is designed to feed off Native life even without the capitalists thinking in those terms.
- Native death is the raw material that built the bordertown.
- Whereas the authors have defined the bordertown as everywhere, now they focus on the actual meeting points of Native communities and settler interests: See Figure 3. “Like a snake, the bordertown’s payday loan stores, pawnshops, and trading posts hunt us and seize us in their debt grip. The settler’s hospitals treat us like animals. Their churches treat us like heathens. Our deaths give the bordertown life. The bordertown must die for Native people to live.”
- The bordertown cannot be reformed. Settler society cannot be redeemed.
- “Settler projects are violent, but temporary,” the authors assert. “Settlers,” they write, “cannot escape the fact that they are foreigners squatting on borrowed land and living on borrowed time. This is why settlers created ‘the Second Amendment.’”
- The point about the Second Amendment in 1791 really resonates. But do people who are neither Natives, nor migrants, nor refugees identify today as foreigners? Do they feel the precarity of living on borrowed time? I don’t know the evidence for that.
- Private property mediates all expressions of settler kinship.
- “Like bordertowns, property is not natural; it is built from the blood of Native and Black ancestors. Property requires borders to make sense as a form of enclosure. As such, it requires constant violence.”
- And who supplies the violence? Not just the militias of the Second Amendment:
- “The origins of modern police can be found in militias and patrols whose ‘duty’ it was to recover enslaved Africans (property) and kill Indians to acquire land (which they converted to property). The institution of police is settler kinship in its purest form.”
- There is no Native liberation in a heteropatriarchal world.
- The authors now turn to their argument for women and queer people to be their allies.
- “Bordertowns are man camps at an advanced stage: [Wall Street, the White House, the Bakken oil field, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the Ivy League are all man camps.] The man camp is where and how settler men establish and renew their identity as conquerors and owners. Of property. Of women. Of the monopoly on violence.”
- Settler colonialism is the disease. Decolonization and abolition are the cure.
- Settlers “need us—the value they extract and exploit from our labor and land—to survive. We don’t need them. We outnumber them. They use diseases like COVID-19 to dwindle our numbers and kill our dreams for liberation, so they can settle back into their version of normal. Settlers are the preexisting condition that plagues us all.”
- The authors, as you see, now use the language of disease control. In calling settlers a “preexisting condition” to be eradicated, they use the language of the oppressor against that oppressor. But precisely because it is the genocidal language of the oppressor, I wonder if it is the best choice.
- Native liberation will be won in the bordertown.
- The authors conclude on this note:
- “Abolishing private property liberates land from the borders that imprison it. Bordertown justice envisions a world without borders. We abolish borders by burning bordertowns to the ground. Without borders, capitalism dies. When there are no longer borders, settler colonialism too ceases to exist.
- “There is more than one way to kill a settler. Settlers want us to match their guns with ours, because the only language they speak is violence.
- “Enclosure violates and scars the land. We must destroy private property to liberate Mother Earth. We will redistribute wealth to all humble people of the Earth from the rubble of private property. We will return Native people to their rightful path of development as nations upholding treaties of peace and harmony with the Earth. There are many ways to do this. But the abolition of private property must be our shared goal if we are to have any hope of a future. Join us in this struggle for liberation.”
The question I started with was how to respond to settler colonialism and genocide. The manifesto’s answer, “Topple capitalism,” is of course music to our ears.
But as socialist feminists and antiracists we know that “topple capitalism” alone is never enough. You have to consider sites and kinds of exploitation lest you reproduce in the new order the patterns of oppression that thrived in the old order.
In the context of settler colonialism, it is hard to see a definition of private property that does not include individual home ownership. This definition is not the one widely used by socialists in our quest for social control of the means of production.
So the question to consider in the end is whether the abolition of private property would achieve Native liberation.