The Red Deal: An Indigenous Manual to Decolonize and Heal the Earth


We conclude this issue with a conversation with occasional Funambulist contributor Jennifer Marley and Demetrius Johnson, both members of The Red Nation. We talk about the Indigenous-made treatise that they released in April 2021, a manual that cannot conceive ecological practices without decolonization and the abolition of capitalism: The Red Deal.

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The monument of colonizer Juan de Oñate has been removed by settlers for “safekeeping.” Pueblo people dance on its pedestal. Celebration turns to ceremony as drums and prayer echo the valley. The statue will stay removed so long as the struggle for Indigenous liberation continues. / Photo by Justine Teba (The Red Nation, 2020) in Ohkay Owingeh, Tewa Territory, Alcalde.

Léopold Lambert: Many of The Funambulist’s long-time subscribers, in particular in Turtle Island, are well acquainted with The Red Nation’s crucial work, but some others in other parts of the world might not, could you tell us a bit about it?

Demetrius Johnson: The Red Nation started in 2014 after the killings of Cowboy [Allison Gorman] and Rabbit [Kee Thompson], two Diné people who were sleeping on the street, here in Albuquerque, and they were murdered by people passing along. In the aftermath of that, The Red Nation and a bunch of other community members stood up for them: they held protests and wanted accountability for those who did that. It’s also like a testament to what Native people experience here, in border towns: Native people, living on their own land, are just treated violently by settlers. The Red Nation’s founding members — two of them were Nick [Estes] and Mel [Melanie K. Yazzie] — started the organization to protect our unsheltered relatives, to protect those Natives living in border towns, or even to just assert ourselves, wanting to live our lives without being discriminated against, without having violence enacted towards us. But since then, it’s grown into something beyond. I joined in 2015. And to see The Red Nation go from something that started from a few people having the same vision of empowering Indigenous people to a huge collective of Native people all across Turtle Island, is a beautiful thing!

Jennifer Marley: I also joined in 2015 and, at the time, we were doing small scale educational events and a few small protests. But it was really during that time that we realized that our primary foundation was in being committed to border town justice. A border town, for readers who aren’t familiar, refers to a town or a city that is surrounded by reservations — not necessarily an international border. We use this terminology to emphasize that our communities are in fact nations and not simply reservations, and it also indicates that these metropolitan areas are in fact, Native land.

In border towns we’re constantly being pushed to the fringes on our own land. From there, we engaged in a number of campaigns that started to gain national, in some cases, even international traction. I remember some of the early campaigns we did that gained a lot of traction were the fight for Indigenous peoples’ Day and then the campaign to abolish the University of New Mexico’s racist seal, which later became a broader campaign against racist imagery. We saw the fight against racist monuments and imagery pick up last year with the destruction of racist Confederate monuments and other imagery around the U..S that happened in mass. And so we consider ourselves as being a part of what would become a national movement.

Some other campaigns were justice campaigns, like the fight for justice for Loreal Tsingine, who was murdered by a white cop in Winslow, Arizona, and Ronnie Ross, who was murdered here in Albuquerque. And it just continued and, as we grew, and during Trump’s administration, we started writing The Red Deal. We put a lot of energy into it and it happened via community coalition. We realized that in order to build a mass movement, we envisioned, we wanted to have a platform that clearly articulated our politics and the ways we would achieve our goals. We wanted to clarify what we’re talking about when we’re talking about decolonization, or what we’re talking about when we’re talking about saving our Earth. And so now, we’re in a whole new phase of The Red Nation: we’ve been putting a lot of energy into The Red Deal and into the establishment of our media project, The Red Media, which will serve as a press and eventually, we’ll start putting out all different types of media. Of course, the organizational work continues on the ground here. And we know it’s going to be a Red Hot Summer, just as we saw last summer, I think we’re gonna see a lot of militant action in the streets pick up again.

DJ: Looking back at when I joined The Red Nation, there wasn’t really anything like that around: something that would have the dreams, and the goals of The Red Nation. Back then, I was an engineering undergrad at the University of New Mexico. I was pursuing a degree in electrical engineering, so I could later address some of the energy issues back on the Navajo Nation, our lack of energy, or water resources, despite us being the main provider for energy here, in the southwestern United States. I was thinking that my nation needed more engineers. However, what The Red Nation really taught me was that the reason why we don’t have access to electricity, or to clean running water isn’t because our lack of engineering, or because we don’t have educated people that can make that happen, but that it’s actually all connected to the history of how the U.S. treats Indigenous people. For me, meeting Nick, Mel, Jen, Cheyenne, Uah, and everyone else in The Red Nation at that time, really taught me to learn the history behind the way our communities are affected, and how to change the landscape of our own communities back home. What I thought I would get out of my engineering degree, I actually found it in The Red Nation. And it’s beautiful, in a way, it’s poetic even.

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During the pandemic, the Larry Casuse Freedom Center remains HQ for the on-the-ground-efforts of The Red Nation Southwest. / Photo by Justine Teba (The Red Nation, 2020).

LL: Declaring something as “historic,” is not enough for it to actually be, but regardless, this is the term that comes to my mind when thinking about The Red Deal, and I like the idea of playing with the title of your comrade Nick Estes’ book, Our History is the Future in using this term here. This document, turned into a book, makes it impossible to think of land protection without land back, in other terms to think of ecology without decolonization. Could you tell us about the contexts (both planetary and in your own locality), in which it has been drafted?

JM: I’ll start with planetary. As we know, we’re in a time of climate collapse, and it’s very apparent. It’s the hottest year on record, year after year, it’s the worst hurricane season, year after year, we’re seeing very clear disruptions that are having catastrophic effects for humanity. We know that some of these impacts that climate change causes disproportionately impact on our relatives in the Global South. And, as the book also states, we know that Indigenous people are responsible for protecting over 80% of the world’s biodiversity already. So, with those things in mind, it’s very obvious that Indigenous people are not only interested in caretaking of the land, but actually have the knowledge and the relationships with the land in order to do that. This is the opposite of the imperialist projects that are responsible for the majority of the world’s pollution, the U.S. military alone, and just the few top corporations in the world, are responsible for the majority of CO2 emissions and overall pollution of the Earth. We know that capitalism is the problem, we know that imperialism is the problem. And we know that Indigenous people, historically and presently, have had the solutions. We know that Indigenous people in Turtle Island and elsewhere have never broken their relationships with the land, have never seen themselves as an opposing force to it, but understand themselves as a part of the ecosystem, understand themselves as a part of the land, and see it simply as another relative, not lesser. That’s how we understand it on a planetary level.

Now locally. For as long as The Red Nation has been around, we’ve been looking at resource extraction and organizing to confront it, especially here in New Mexico. New Mexico is essentially a sacrifice zone for the U.S. It’s the site of the birth of the nuclear bomb. It’s one of the only states where the complete nuclear supply chain exists all in one state without needing to import any materials, from the mining of the uranium to the production of weapons: all of that can be done within the state. If New Mexico were to secede from the U.S., it would be the third strongest world nuclear superpower for this reason. The nuclear bomb was actually first built on my homeland: San Ildefonso Pueblo.

The land was stolen to create Los Alamos, which is the center of the Manhattan Project. We’re still suffering the impacts from that today from the irradiation of our land, water and air. As for the Navajo nation, there are over 500 abandoned uranium mines that exist there with no plans for clean up. Today we also deal with gas and oil extraction, which takes place primarily on Native lands, specifically, Diné land. We know that resource extraction has ravaged our communities here, it’s been poisoning our land, air, and water. It’s been stealing land and water. For us, it’s not an up and coming thing that’s on the horizon that we’re anxious about. It’s something that we’ve been living with for generations already. It’s such an urgent thing for us here. And we also know that resource extraction is tied to the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women, because of the men camps which are hot spots for human trafficking, but also just through the impoverishment and violence that flourishes when these extractive projects come to our land, and then abruptly leave, leaving people with even less money than before.

DJ: When we were talking about The Red Deal in its early stages, it was after the Green New Deal came out. Indigenous Environmental Network wrote a critique of it, describing how it leaves out Indigenous people. You’re talking about all these ideas of transitioning to a green economy or implementing all these renewable energies, you’re talking about free healthcare, free education, all these socialist concepts, but again, in order to create those things, you need land, you need resources, and you need Indigenous people. After reading the Indigenous Environmental Network’s critique, we had a meeting and we were wondering how we could expand on this because the great thing about The Red Nation is that you can’t just be against something, you have to be for something. That’s what The Red Deal was: we could sit around and talk shit about these things, but at the same time, what are we actually doing about it? How do we go further than this? The Red Deal sounded like an opposition to the Green New Deal, but it was more of a way to say that it did not go far and hard enough. We need it to go hard and far enough for our planet to survive, for us as Indigenous people to survive. No one really talks about how this always affects Indigenous people. If you want solar panels for instance — which is something I’ve been studying — you’re gonna need the precious metals, you’re gonna need these resources to create these things. And where are those resources coming from?

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Hopi Blue Corn is harvested from The Red Nation’s communal garden on a cool fall day. / Photo by Nick Estes (The Red Nation, 2020).

LL: Adopting the book’s structure, which is divided into three parts, could we first talk about the call to divest?

JM: Sure. So we’re looking back to the Standing Rock uprising and how one of the main calls was to divest from the banks that were funding the Dakota Access Pipeline. This has been quite an effective tactic. We saw people storming banks in protest banks all over the country, and we saw groups of Indigenous women going on divestment delegations to meet face-to-face with representatives of European and U.S. financial institutions, insurance companies, and credit-rating agencies, to give them a piece of their mind. I know that there were actually a few institutions that did back out of the funding of DAPL. Because of this, we took it one step further: we call to divest from these institutions, like the police, immigration enforcement (ICE), and the military, and we call for those funds to be reinvested into meeting the needs of the people. So things like healthcare, education, public transportation, really all the basic things that any socialist would demand, right? That’s the way we envisioned it. We have a quote in there that says: “What if the military had to hold a bake sale to keep its doors open instead of a shelter or a language program? ” That’s what we talk about when we talk about divestment and reinvestment.

LL: Here’s another quote I might pull from this first part: “Incarceration is not an indigenous practice. The idea of locking people up as punishment was brought to Turtle Island with the European settlers who colonized it.”

JM: Yeah, certainly, we’re looking to divest from all carceral institutions that exist here in the U.S. as we know them.

DJ: I was one of the contributors to this first part and learning how much the U.S. actually spends on its military was mind blowing: the fact that the U.S. military budget is nearly as big as every other countries’ military budgets combined… Similarly, the amount of military bases that the US military has, something like 800 around the world. In comparison, a country like Russia only has 21 or China, four! I couldn’t believe these numbers. Also while researching this, I could not stop thinking about how my mom’s a teacher, and how I was always in after school programs when growing up, because my parents were working so hard… to know people like my mom, had to fundraise for her own school supplies or for her kids in her Navajo language program, or even I had to fundraise for my after school programs. Meanwhile, the U.S. military is getting this incredible amount of resources, it’s ridiculous. Millions of other teachers are struggling, while the U.S. does not invest much into education or healthcare or transportation: it’s robbery. And this is not just an Indigenous person’s issue: this is everyone’s issue.

JM: When we look at their military budget, it’s going straight to war and weapons, not to the veterans who are disabled and suffering from mental illness from being in combat. It’s not going to anything that you can even conceive of protecting or serving us as citizens, which is even a violation of its own standards. It’s going into reinforcing the U.S. imperialist stronghold over the world. The only way a country can have a military budget, as outrageous as the U.S. is because of imperialism, because it is actively underdeveloping other nations in the Global South, because it is actively stealing from other people, and reinforcing its power and superiority through that. I always think that the nuclear industrial complex is at the heart of US imperialism. That project itself required the theft of Native land and Native labor. So what the U.S. military is doing is just perpetuating this process elsewhere else. Ideally, we would see a mass movement that calls for divestment from the military, from these imperialist projects, to actually meet the needs of people here. I think the Covid pandemic is just a shining example of how the “richest country” in the world was completely unable or unwilling to care for its citizens, in such a disastrous time. We’re still having the largest amount of deaths, with Native nations in the US experiencing deaths from Covid at the highest rates per-capita than anywhere else in the world. This is the capitalist and imperialist death drive that the US requires to exist.

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Comrades roll hundreds of burritos every Sunday to feed unsheltered relatives in Albuquerque for the Solidarity Feed. / Photo by Justine Teba (The Red Nation, 2020) in Larry Casuse Freedom Center, Tiwa Territory, Albuquerque.

LL: This part also describes a People’s Tribunal through which “people have organized to express their own verdict on corporations that harm them and declare what action will be necessary to remedy those harms.” Could you tell us more about it?

JM: That was actually modeled off some tribunals that were held in Albuquerque to hold police accountable for killings several years back. I was very young when this was happening, but some other comrades were there. Similarly, our Kanaka Maoli relatives in Hawai’i held tribunals to try the U.S. military and government with their forms of Hawaiian law and sovereignty. In Hawai’i, in 1993, there was a People’s International Tribunal, to hold the U.S. military and government accountable for the desecration and theft of their lands. So there’s precedent there. And I know that there are people’s tribunal’s all over the world, which seek to do similar things, to really enact their sovereignty, and to highlight the illegitimacy of the U.S. government and law.

LL: The second part is entitled “Heal Our Bodies.” Could you talk about what it means and its relationship to the concept of decolonial ecologies?

JM: When we were writing this, there was a lot of conversation about just the word “healing.” So often it’s depoliticized, it’s taken up to mean individual healing, something that doesn’t require political struggle, and something that happens just at the level of feelings and opinions. But we wanted to reclaim that word, and we’re using it to refer to the actual restoration of the land and people. With that section, we’ve talked a lot about what exactly it would take to heal our bodies, that our material conditions must first allow for healing. It’s calling for basic things like the end to domestic violence and violence against women and LGBTQ2+ people, we call for the right to reproductive health care, the right to healthcare in general, the right to public transportation, the right to education, because we know that healing is impossible under capitalism. We know that in order for us to heal, we must create the conditions in which we can heal. We wanted to make it clear that healing is something that is never an individual process, but always requires collective struggle and requires us to care about the healing of us as a whole. We also go on to describe the healing of our bodies in relation to the healing of the Earth, which we’ll talk about in the next section.

DJ: You can’t heal when the knife is still in your back. Meaning that you can’t go forward with addressing the thing that’s harming you. And in this case for our people and the world, it’s capitalism, imperialism, and colonization. In my years of organizing and being around in these spaces, people do like to use the word “healing” in very individualistic and selfish ways as a means to avoid accountability. Like Jen said if it’s not rooted in collective struggle or caretaking, then how are you defining it? Because how we’re defining healing our bodies and communities, it means things like investing in free and reliable transportation, free education, free healthcare, free housing, clean water, clean air, and ending missing and murdered Indigenous people by divesting away from the military or incarceration.

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Relics from hosting community before the pandemic remains untouched at the office. / Photos by Justine Teba (The Red Nation, 2020).

LL: Finally, the third part is entitled “Heal Our Planet.” The Red Deal envisions humans as a “young species” that can learn from much older non-human relatives. Going back to this notion of “healing,” we can see how, at first glance, it could be associated with the concept of “saving” that characterizes the “save the planet” mantra that joins the never-ending list of the white savior complex. Could you tell us why, of course, this “Heal Our Planet” could not be further away from that “Save the Planet”?

JM: What we’re trying to articulate is that we have always been in relation with the Earth and we’re asking: “How far removed from your own humanity can you be to not realize that we are a part of the ecosystem, a part of the land and that we’re just relatives among many on this planet.” So when we talk about saving our Earth, it’s not talking about us being the saviors of the Earth, we’re really talking about saving ourselves. As Indigenous people, that is historically how we’ve got our victories, we don’t get handed these victories by settler states, we don’t get handed these victories by settler institutions, we fight for them and gain them ourselves. When we’re talking about healing our Earth, it’s to connote that this Earth belongs to all beings on the planet, and not just one political superpower, but it’s also to show that we literally see all other living beings simply as relatives. And we do not mean that in a corny way! We always say that we don’t want people to read this and think about the cliché, mystical Indian, and flute music starts playing… [all laughs]

What we’re trying to really say is that Native people have had real material relationships with the land and we have systems of reciprocity, that actually are the basis of our governance systems. So caretaking the Earth isn’t supposed to be seen as an act of charity or anything like that, it’s actually the basis of how we historically have organized ourselves politically. That relationship is not only a very material and physical relationship, it’s one that has historically guided our principles. And what people might call “Earth-based spirituality,” we remind them, is political. So in that section, as a part of that we talk about things like traditional sustainable farming. Just that alone: agriculture and farming is something that is depoliticized, unfortunately, through the ways nonprofits talk about it, or the way white environmentalists talk about it. Our farming or agriculture and hunting systems have been disrupted very purposely to make our subsistence economies collapse. As I mentioned earlier, in the 1940s with the Manhattan Project, land was systematically stolen, our hunting grounds and farming grounds were taken, so that we would be forced to make our wages as employees for the labs. It was a way to provide cheap and consistent labor from us. At that time, and to this day, those labor contracts continue, because we lost our ability to sustain ourselves from the land. We’re thinking about that and what it would mean to reclaim our land and regenerate opportunities to reassert and recreate our own economies and governance structures outside of the framework that the U.S. forces upon us.

DJ: Jen, you always talk so well. Nick told me something when we were writing this section, because I was having this huge issue with this part about renewable energies, and energy extraction, and how we live in accordance with the land. He brought up this example in Venezuela where Indigenous people there said that if the government was going to take these resources from the Earth, and build these roads and railways to access it, they’d have to make those roadways and trains accessible to them too. This makes particular sense when on Navajo lands, extractive companies had promised to build roads and to fund schools and to set up a hospital…, but they never fulfill them. Worse, a lot of Navajo people die, because these oil tankers come in and out on these roads and drive elders off the roads, and die. So perhaps we take resources from the land, but it’s crucial that communities get something back in return and we also need to make sure that our non-human relatives are also involved in all these processes. That’s what The Red Deal is trying to make us think about: how to enact these things. I feel like our southern relatives have a better idea on how that works, rather than here in the U.S..

JM: Yeah, in short, if Native nations have an opportunity to nationalize our resources, I think we would prove just as many nations in the Global South, in particular in South America, that there’s a way to live in reciprocity with the land. Even if your economy is dependent on some form of extraction, we would actually have the economic sustainability to move beyond those forms of extraction, to create and instill even more sustainable means of creating energy and creating infrastructure, and living in a way that isn’t harming the Earth. But in order to do that, we first need liberation, right? We need the ability to create our own economy, to create our own governments, to nationalize our resources, to have full control over our lands. And only when that happens, can we begin to move forward, to create new technologies that will allow us to truly live sustainably. But there’s a reason that we’re not able to do that, because so many of these solutions, what people call “green solutions,” already exist, but they’re never going to get that funding from the government. Scientists are never going to get their funding for projects that would disrupt the flow of capital, that would disrupt industries like gas and oil. Through Native liberation, sovereignty and nationhood, we see a life for these possibilities.

LL: Perhaps one final word on the conclusion itself and its powerful title: “Our words are powerful. Our knowledge is inevitable.” Can you tell us a bit about it?

JM: We talked about that a lot. Sometimes we’d say amongst ourselves: “Our victory is inevitable, it’s already been written.” When we say that, we also refer to what Nick says in his book title that you cited earlier: Our History is the Future. It’s not that we’re looking to recreate a past or primitive time. Rather, we’re looking at the knowledge that has long been held and applying it to build a new future. In order for life to continue, it is inevitable that people will eventually look to the knowledge that we have, and always have had. When it really comes down to it, people are seeing these institutions collapsing in front of them, people are losing faith by the day. And people are looking for an alternative that goes beyond those symbolic gestures that goes beyond a “green imperialism” or “green capitalism,” and we seek to provide the alternative with The Red Deal.

DJ: When I introduced The Red Deal to my family, and talked to them about what we’re doing, they already have a clear understanding of what all these things mean, even if they don’t have a terminology down or a knowledge of what’s happening globally. They can still relate to it because they have those experiences: they understand it from the life they lived. The message we as The Red Nation want to communicate through it, is that for our relatives to live, and for the world to live, for everyone to have a sustainable future, capitalism and colonialism have to die. As we say throughout The Red Deal, it’s either decolonization or extinction. That’s literally the point we are at now. And this is not a new idea: our relatives have been talking about this for years. They have an understanding about this. It’s just that now, we just had to come in hard. There’s no more time, and of course that’s the difficult part. ■