Indigenous Eco-Nomics: Ancestors of the Future with Nick Estes

Nick Estes speaking at Bioneers 2022 | Photo by Alex Akamine

In this episode, Indigenous scholar and organizer Nick Estes explores how Indigenous land-based and Earth-centered societies are advancing regenerative solutions and campaigns to transform capitalism. “Eco-nomics” puts Indigenous leadership at the forefront of assuring a habitable planet.


Nick Estes, Ph.D. (Kul Wicasa/Lower Brule Sioux), is a Professor at the University of Minnesota and a member of the Oak Lake Writers Society, a group of Dakota, Nakota and Lakota writers. In 2014, he was a co-founder of The Red Nation in Albuquerque, NM, an organization dedicated to the liberation of Native people from capitalism and colonialism. He serves on its editorial collective and writes its bi-weekly newsletter. Nick Estes is also the author of: Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance.


  • Executive Producer: Kenny Ausubel
  • Written by: Kenny Ausubel
  • Senior Producer and Station Relations: Stephanie Welch
  • Program Engineer and Music Supervisor: Emily Harris
  • Producer: Teo Grossman
  • Host and Consulting Producer: Neil Harvey
  • Production Assistance: Anna Rubanova

This is an episode of the Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature series. Visit the radio and podcast homepage to find out how to hear the program on your local station and how to subscribe to the podcast

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NEIL HARVEY, HOST: In this episode, Indigenous scholar and organizer Nick Estes explores how Indigenous land-based and Earth-centered societies are advancing regenerative solutions and campaigns to transform capitalism. An ancient “eco-nomics” today puts Indigenous leadership at the forefront of assuring a habitable planet.

I’m Neil Harvey. This is “Indigenous Eco-Nomics: Ancestors of the Future.”

NICK ESTES: Today I want to talk about what it means to be a water protector, and why the identity of a water protector in this era of climate chaos is so important to a future on this planet, but also a different way of living with the Earth.

And I think it’s important to point out that while there’s a lot of talk about how indigenous struggles are attached to the land, and how we have an Earth centered and Earth-based knowledge system, which is all true, there’s often a tendency to not fully understand traditional economies. They’re not historic, and so maybe traditional isn’t the correct term, but maybe they’re just land-based economies that aren’t entirely capitalistic.

HOST: What do you do when you’re trapped in a system where you don’t belong? Sometimes, the only way out is through.

That’s the predicament facing many Indigenous communities, both in the US and around the world. Capitalism is fundamentally in conflict with Indigenous values, cultures and lifeways. It also appears to be in conflict with a habitable Earth. The climate emergency is the ultimate logic of a voraciously extractive paradigm that’s also systematically unequal – by design.

Just as economics is driving the destruction, it needs to power the restoration — to transform the global economy from a vicious cycle to a virtuous cycle.

Today Native Peoples are showing the world what it means to come together not only as protestors, but as protectors – peaceful guardians of the sacred sources of life and of justice. Indigenous peoples worldwide are linking networks to build power and engage millions more non-Native allies to build a just and regenerative economy and world.

Nick Estes is Kul Wicasa Oyate, a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe. His nation is the Oceti Sakowin Oyate – the Nation of the Seven Council Fires.

He co-founded the nonprofit coalition Red Nation which is dedicated to the liberation of Native People from capitalism and colonialism. Estes is also an author and founded Red Media to amplify Indigenous voices.

He joined the University of Minnesota in 2022 as Assistant Professor of American Indian Studies.

In 2021, he visited the “No Line 3” Water Protector camps in Dakota and Anishinaabe territory. There he saw the catastrophic consequences of climate disruption and the fossil fuel economy on the tribes’ sacred wild rice, called manoomin. Instead of a normal harvest of 80 pounds, the epic drought left just a cup and a half of this critical food for the community and their economy.

Nick Estes spoke at a Bioneers Conference…

Nick Estes speaking at Bioneers 2022 | Photo by Alex Akamine

NE: Anishinaabe people have an esoteric spiritual connection to manoomin, which is codified within their 1855 treaty that actually protects the right of manoomin to exist, it’s the only grain that is protected by treaty rights, by indigenous treaty rights, which isn’t necessarily an aberration because Article 11 of the 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaty, which was signed by my nation, the Oceti Sakowin, the Lakota Nation and the Dakota Nations, also set aside territory for the continued perpetuation of the Pte Oyate or the Buffalo Nation or the Buffalo people. And so even within these colonial treaties, these colonial laws, we inserted our rights of our relatives to exist and to continue to exist.

We know, today, Western societies have adopted the Rights of Nature movement, and this is being attacked by the right as an anti-human and anti-life movement as well, and we can see the recent successes of certain countries, like Ecuador and Bolivia, in codifying it within their constitutional frameworks or within legal systems to protect Mother Earth or Pachamama.

HOST: Today, the Rights of Nature movement has become the fastest growing environmental movement in history. By 2022, 24 countries and 9 tribes had passed laws in the US and Canada.

It flips the capitalist paradigm from nature as property to be exploited – to nature as rights-bearing to persist, evolve and thrive. It’s a fundamentally Indigenous worldview, customized to modern times.

It’s no accident that First Peoples, who comprise just 3 percent of the world’s population, continue to protect 80 per cent of global biodiversity on Indigenous lands. Yet everywhere they’re frozen out of economies.

So how do you transform economics into eco-nomics? Start by looking to the past…

NE: Where was the question of jobs when it came to the destruction of rice paddies? Where was the discussion of green jobs when it comes to land defense? Typically, jobs as we know them in a capitalist system is often workers in relationship to capital, and oftentimes our jobs entail acts of pollution. And in the case of these pipelines where there was the Dakota Access pipeline, the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, or the Line 3 pipeline, which was essentially a reroute of the Keystone XL pipeline, carrying the same tar sands, the question of unionized labor always came to the fore, and the jobs that were going to be provided.

And when these indigenous nations, whether at Standing Rock or whether at the Line 3 protests, decided to set up blockades and to say these pipelines will not only destroy our water systems, but they will destroy our economies, unionized pipeline workers crossed a picket line. What do we call people who cross picket lines? [AUDIENCE RESPONDS] We call them scabs. And in this era of growing, intensifying, organized labor militancy, we have to understand that indigenous lifeways, indigenous protection of water, of air, of land, the very sustenance that we need to survive, should also be considered a form of labor that is valued and protected.

In other words, protecting and regenerating nature is a green job.

Nick Estes cites a report by the Indigenous Environmental Network called “Indigenous Resistance Against Carbon”. It details the work of tribal nations, water protectors, land defenders, pipeline fighters, and many other grassroots networks who have dedicated their lives to defending the sacredness of Mother Earth. They’re also protecting their inherent rights of Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination.

Indigenous Peoples have developed highly effective campaigns that utilize a mix of non-violent direct action, political lobbying, multimedia strategies, fossil fuel divestment, and other tactics to accomplish victories in the fight against neoliberal extractive projects, like Keystone XL and Line Three pipelines endangering the Minnesota waters and lands where manoomin grows.

NE: That report found that indigenous-led movements from a variety of struggles, whether it was through direct action, court cases, legislation, were challenging about a quarter of greenhouse emissions from both Canada and the United States. In other words, Indigenous People, a minority within both settler states, are punching well above their their weight class, in terms of impact on climate change and preventing cataclysmic climate catastrophe. [APPLAUSE]

To put that into perspective, that’s about 400 new coal fired power plants that are being challenged. And just the Line 3 pipeline alone is about 50 coal fired power plants. So the completion of the Line 3 pipeline and the carbon emissions that it will produce over its lifetime are about the equivalent of 50 coal fired power plants. That’s more than twice the carbon emissions of the entire state of Minnesota.

I also want to turn to a recent backlash against water protectors and against the climate justice movement. There was a legislative initiative led by the American Legislative Exchange Council called the Energy Discrimination Elimination Act, which is model legislation that is planned to go through state legislators to ban and to make illegal the divestment from fossil fuel companies [AUDIENCE RESPONDS] as a form of energy discrimination.

If you’re challenging a quarter of greenhouse emissions from both Canada and the United States against one of the most violent and destructive industries in human history, of course there’s going to be backlash, of course there’s going to be punishment and revenge against those who have hit the bottom line of this capitalist society.

HOST: Nick Estes says that when we think about capitalism, we also have to think about class. He spoke on a panel at a Bioneers conference.

NE: Class isn’t just about your income, class is about power. It’s fundamentally about power. And I think Indigenous Peoples are often removed from that question. And the massive genocide of indigenous people within this hemisphere —the largest genocide in human history that we know of, was a form of class warfare that not only destroyed entire nations of people but destroyed entire alternative histories and possibilities of this particular land.

And so we’ve been knocked off our course of development, and I think it’s appropriate to not only challenge capitalism, but also move through it and work towards a different kind of system, and to understand that the culture and the values and the languages and the practices we still retain, the remnants of that, can be the basis of a new system, and should be the basis of the new system. I think of Black Elk saying, they cut down the tree of life, but the roots still remain. Like, indigenous lifeways are the roots of this land.

HOST: When we return, Nick Estes examines how the original DNA of capitalism, colonialism and imperialism continues to evolve today with resource colonialism on Indigenous lands, and how global Indigenous movements are building allyship with all peoples to become protectors of life on Earth and ancestors of our future…

I’m Neil Harvey. You’re listening to The Bioneers. This is “Indigenous Eco-Nomics: Ancestors of the Future”.

Nick Estes with fellow panelists Sikowis (left) and Alexis Bunten (center) at Bioneers 2022 | Photo by Alex Akamine

HOST: The so-called “transition” from feudalism to capitalism in Europe was in truth a blood-soaked three-centuries of class war, privation and grave inequality. Bankrupt monarchies and feudal manors became un-economic.

Feudal estates were sold to merchants to raise export crops as investments. Enclosure laws forced tenants off the land and privatized what had been the commons for an already precarious subsistence existence.

It transformed landless peasants and workers into wage slaves. Money replaced nature as the preferred medium for the accumulation of wealth.

Simultaneously came the conquest of the Americas. Colonization yielded the biggest transfer of wealth in history: a head-spinning fifteen-fold increase in Europe’s money supply.

Within a century, 95 percent of the Indigenous populations of North America were dead. Then the elites began enslaving Africans.

A new model had been set for an emerging global capitalist market economy: export-oriented production, monopolistic wealth, and the international division of labor in a race to the bottom. It systematically destroyed local economies.

With that model also came a worldview and ideology. The Earth was a thing, commodity to be exploited for profit, and might made right.

In 1493, a Papal Bull called the Doctrine of Discovery declared all non-Christian peoples less than human, with no rights. The Church became business partners with the state, providing theological justification for land theft, genocide and slavery. The Doctrine of Discovery has yet to be rescinded.

Sometimes the only way out is through. But how? Again, Nick Estes.

NE: Capitalism is neither inevitable nor is it natural to human society. We can look at all the human societies that have existed throughout time, immense diversity of human culture, and understand that this is a minoritarian kind of like tendency that developed out of Western Europe that kind of spread to the rest of the planet, at great peril to many people, and now at great peril to everyone because of catastrophic climate change.

When we talk about the invention of the steam engine in the early 1800s, or I guess the mass proliferation of the steam engine in industrial capitalism in the mills, the textile mills in England, that was a result of hand-picked cotton by an enslaved labor force on land that was stolen from indigenous people. And so when we think about the historical carbon emissions, it’s fundamentally tied to those two processes, and that was only possible because of global capitalism, something we know as imperialism. Capitalism wasn’t just an isolated thing that kind of started off on a small scale and then expanded. It was fundamentally a global system when it was inaugurated.

And so I think to understand it that way opens up a new set of problems but I think a new set of solutions as well. And looking at global supply chains, you know. We can even look at tribal nations. We can ask ourselves why some—a place like the Navajo Nation, which is essentially a state, you know, in terms of its size and population and how much resources that it holds in terms of coal, oil and gas, as well as uranium, but why is it that that nation isn’t as rich as all of the, you know, Chevrons or all of the Shell oil companies or all of the energy companies that exist? It’s because it’s fundamentally resource colonialism. It’s taking those places and purposefully impoverishing them so that they can take the raw material, develop it, and then sell it back to somebody else.

We had moments in time where various kind of nationalist tribal councils within the Navajo Nation tried to essentially nationalize its oil industry and keep production within its boundaries, but that was attacked by the federal government, to break that up, in the interests of these energy corporations. Because they don’t want tribes to reap the profits of their very own resources that are on their land, let alone do they want developing nations or nations in the South to reap the profits from materials such as lithium, the new green energy frontier

And so, capitalism is not the solution, it’s the problem. You know? We need to go beyond capitalism, but how we get there is another question. You can’t wake up tomorrow, have good intentions, and then go and hug the murder out of capitalism. We have to move through the system, and we have to organize on all fronts.

We have a new growing labor militancy that’s attacking one of the most destructive carbon-intensive industries, which is the Amazon. The Amazon monopoly on logistics. We should support unionization efforts and workers’ democracy because unions aren’t environmentally bad. They often are pitted against environmentalists all the time, but there are examples, going back to when the Black Hills Alliance allied with gold miners and ranchers in our homelands — people who would be ideologically considered settlers and colonizers — to say that treaty rights not only protect indigenous people at our access to the land but they also protect workers who are working in hazardous conditions, who drink water that their mine tailings are polluting. Right? We all drink the same water. Like indigenous people aren’t unique and somehow like water that enters our body is like, you know, something like that that’s different.

And so thinking about that and scaling up the idea of the local to the universal, and thinking that indigenous values protect everybody’s access to clean drinking water, access to air, access to land that we all need to survive. And I think the most ethical action that we can take is to really fight like hell to build something that’s different. And whatever that looks like, we have to find out through struggle itself. And the only way we win is if we struggle, and we can’t be afraid to do that in this moment.

HOST: In 2020, The Red Nation nonprofit coalition that Nick Estes co-founded published, “The Red Deal”. It describes a political program for the liberation that emerges from the oldest class struggle in the Americas — the fight by Native people to win sovereignty, autonomy, and dignity. It’s a call to action to come together to confront climate catastrophe and build a world where life can thrive.

Nick Estes says the Red Deal was inspired by the 2010 People’s Agreement of Cochabamba in Bolivia at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth.

NE: We have things such as the Green New Deal. I think the sentiments behind such endeavors are important, but what the Cochabamba Accords, or the People’s Accords, put forward is a critique, not only of the patriarchal capitalist system that commodifies nature and that commodifies relations between humans and the non-human world, but also the uneven expectations of transition that are outsourced, oftentimes to Indigenous People and those people of the Global South; that if Global South countries, nations, and peoples developed along the same pathway as those in the United States and the so-called First World, we would need three planets to survive the immense amount of resources that it’s going to take.

And we can see that same mentality, that same system operating today. When the United States wants to make a one-to-one transition of energy consumption without understanding the extractive relationship it has to continue to consume — the lithium, the copper, the cobalt that goes into renewable technologies has to come from somewhere. Whether it was Biden, whether it was Trump, they understood that the key trading partner in that particular energy transition, the so-called “green revolution”, was China. And much like the fracking boom that began in 2008, which was an attempt to wean the United States off of what it considered conflict oil from countries that it was in disagreement with, the United States is again trying to develop its own strategic mineral reserve for green technology, rather than questioning the mass consumption of energy in the first place. [APPLAUSE]

And we can see that Indigenous Peoples again are on the chopping block, whether it is Resolution Copper in the sacred site of Oak Flat, to build one of the world’s largest copper mines to fill the needs of the so-called green energy revolution, or whether the massive open pit lithium mine that they’re trying to build in Nevada at Thacker Pass on sacred Northern Paiute lands, we understand that this relationship is still fundamentally colonial, and we need an alternative. And so that’s why we’re saying we need a people’s agreement not only amongst human nations and relations, but we need a people’s agreement with the Earth itself, and that we draw inspiration from buen vivir, or the idea that living and development in correct relations doesn’t mean overconsumption, doesn’t mean that we measure our successes on material consumption but we measure our successes on the quality of life, not only of human beings, whether it’s housing, whether it’s education, whether it’s healthcare, or whether it’s just living a good life, not at the expense of the planet. [APPLAUSE]

And we have models to draw from, as I pointed out with Bolivia, with Ecuador, but now there are growing models here in the United States. We have to go back to the water protectors. There’s a reason why we are living in the era of the water protector. For sure, water protection, the defense of land, the defense of non-human species and relatives has existed since time immemorial, but there was something different about 2016, where anyone, not just Indigenous People, could walk through the gates at the Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock and become a water protector.

It’s a universal identity that’s grounded in indigenous values, and we need support for those who have sacrificed their freedom, indigenous and non-indigenous. Over 900 water protectors in the Line 3 struggle are going through the court systems right now. And I want all of you to go online, to go to to donate, to find out how you can support the legal defense, because the most ethical thing that you can do right now is direct action; to support those who are putting their bodies on the line.

Because as my mentor and my relative, Madonna Thunderhawk, told me, that it’s the highest honor of a Lakota person to be an ancestor of the future, and that’s what we’re asking you in this moment in time, to be good relatives of the future generations. So thank you very much. [APPLAUSE]

HOST: Nick Estes… “Indigenous Eco-Nomics: Ancestors of the Future”.

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