The Red Nation Wants Its Land Back

The Red Nation Wants Its Land Back

The Indigenous-led leftist collective is committed to freeing the world from capitalism and colonialism.


On July 31, 2020, as heavy clouds gathered on the horizon, hundreds of protesters filled downtown Albuquerque, N.M. The Red Nation, an Indigenous-led socialist organization, coordinated the rally to protest the Trump administration’s decision to send 35 federal agents to support the local police. After participating in a summer of uprisings against police brutality and hearing about federal agents targeting demonstrators in Portland, Ore., the Red Nation knew that this moment required bodies in the streets—especially in the city with the second-highest rate of fatal police shootings in the country.

Members of the Red Nation carried hefty red and black shields that read “Land Back” and “No Fash” to protect them from riot police and members of the New Mexico Civil Guard, a civilian militia group. But just as this protest was beginning, it started to pour.

Amid the torrential rain, the protesters kept going, while the cops and armed right-wingers never showed up. Members of the Red Nation suggested to me—recounting the event around a table in the gathering space they share with the Indigenous Rights Center and the Water Protector Legal Collective—that even if the police had come, their tear gas wouldn’t have worked in such weather. The rain had protected the protesters.

“There is a deep spiritual element to what we do. There always has been in Indigenous movements. And so when we’re out in public, doing these types of things, those types of moments are really significant for us because it demonstrates to us that our ancestors and the earth itself is in solidarity with us,” Melanie Yazzie (Navajo), a cofounder of the Red Nation, told me a year later. “It’s not just human beings who are protagonists of these stories. As Indigenous people we know that our other-than-human relatives are always a part of what we’re doing.”

Based out of an office space a 10-minute walk from the University of New Mexico, the Red Nation is a leftist collective committed to revolutionary socialism, anti-imperialism, and queer Indigenous feminism in the pursuit of Native liberation. In its seven-year history, the organization has led efforts to remove racist monuments, protest police brutality, and educate readers and listeners through regular podcasts and new publications. But what it has brought to leftist organizing is its commitment to relationships—to each other, to local communities, and to the land itself.

In 2014, when Yazzie and her partner Nick Estes (Kul Wicasa) were graduate students in the University of New Mexico’s American Studies department, two events shook Albuquerque. In March, two police officers shot and killed James Boyd, an unhoused man with schizophrenia who had been camping in the foothills of the nearby Sandia mountains. Then, in July, three teenagers bludgeoned to death two homeless Navajo men, Allison Gorman and Kee Thompson, on the west side of town. The first incident set off citywide protests against police brutality, and the second caused Indigenous organizers, like Yazzie and Estes, to consider the legacy of vigilante violence, particularly Indian rolling—hate crimes against Navajo and Apache individuals, most often targeting houseless men in the border towns surrounding tribal land.

That August, Estes, Yazzie, and a few close friends started discussing what they could do as graduate students to support unhoused urban Native Americans. At UNM, they helped form the Bordertown Violence Working Group, whose members researched attacks against Native people in New Mexican border towns like Albuquerque, Gallup, and Farmington. But they soon discovered there was almost no data. So they surveyed and interviewed Native people in Albuquerque who were living on the streets. Walking through Albuquerque’s War Zone, a neighborhood east of the university so dubbed for its high crime rates in the 1980s and ’90s, Estes and Yazzie spoke with unhoused Native men and women who recounted their experiences with police violence. One man recalled a police officer telling him, “Why don’t you go back to the rez. You’re not welcome here in Albuquerque.” A woman described another cop bashing her head into the pavement before “he just got back in his car and drove away.”

Estes and Yazzie began publishing those findings to a blog that they called The Red Nation. A citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, Estes had proposed the name, referencing the Lakota term “Oyate Luta,” meaning “humble people from the red earth.” That November, they gathered a half dozen close friends and colleagues around their kitchen table to plan actions to protect Native Americans without housing from the violence that had killed Gorman and Thompson beyond the blog. By that spring, the Red Nation had organized protests against carceral violence in Gallup and authored statements of solidarity with the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement and Native Hawaiian–led demonstrations against the Mauna Kea telescope.

At UNM, the Red Nation quickly grew once undergraduates caught wind of the group’s work. The Native American student association, Kiva Club, had first formed in the 1950s but had since become more of a social club than a political organization. That changed in 2015, when senior Cheyenne Antonio (Navajo) came on as Kiva Club president and began organizing workshops and protests—including a coordinated effort to have UNM recognize Indigenous People’s Day and remove racist symbols like the conquistador in the university’s seal and the dorm buildings named for other conquistadors. Other students, like Jennifer Marley (San Ildefonso Pueblo), flocked to Kiva Club when they realized that students and faculty at UNM were responsible for the statements about anti-Native violence that they had read on the Red Nation’s early blog. Once they made that connection, several Kiva Club members—including Antonio and Marley—officially joined the Red Nation.

“Kiva Club is really, really important in the history of Indigenous resistance in the United States, because it was actually in this region that Red Power was born” and then the National Indian Youth Council, said Yazzie. “I think the Red Nation has always seen itself as part of that tradition of resistance. We’re like Red Power, but we’re Red Power for the contemporary moment, and very much picking up where folks left off, like Kiva Club.”

Although it took a few years, Kiva Club and the Red Nation’s collaborative efforts eventually succeeded: The university replaced the conquistador on its seal with “UNM 1889,” and both the university and the state of New Mexico recognized Indigenous People’s Day. With those successes, the Red Nation pressed forward. It hosted a packed book launch for Standing with Standing Rock: Voices from the #NoDAPL Movement, Native Liberation Conferences that attracted thousands of attendees, Palestinian organizers who visited the Navajo Nation, and teach-ins about the Red Deal—an Indigenous environmental framework for combating climate change. It launched podcasts like Red Power Hour and The Red Nation Podcast, as a kind of political education. And Estes and Yazzie copublished Red Nation Rising: From Bordertown Violence to Native Liberation, a book based on research from the early days of the organization. Brandon Benallie and Radmilla Cody of the Navajo Nation anarcho-feminist K’e Infoshop, who had been similarly spurred to action by Gorman and Thompson’s murders and collaborated with the Red Nation in its early days, wrote the introduction. “Red Nation Rising is the continuation of what we, as Diné, would call k’é hasin: everlasting kinship and hope,” explained Cody and Benallie. “Through kinship, we build solidarity and commitment to liberation for the Earth’s poor, displaced, and dispossessed people.”

As the Red Nation grew and changed, its members knew they needed a way to welcome new comrades and build relationships within the collective. They decided to gift new members with red sani scarves, bandanas that Navajo elders would often wear outdoors for sun and wind protection but which became a symbol of woman-led resistance movements after Navajo matriarchs wore them while protesting the construction of a Peabody Energy coal mine at Black Mesa, Ariz., in the 1970s and after the Zapatistas began sporting similar scarves in Mexico in the 1990s.

“It became associated with sort of a militant, land-based, Indigenous resistance, specifically for women,” Yazzie told me. “We chose the red one specifically, because it’s the color of the earth. We’re the Red Nation, the humble people of the earth.”

Like everyone else, the Red Nation was forced to reimagine its work during the pandemic. Covid-19 hit the Navajo Nation and New Mexico’s northern pueblo communities especially hard. Members distributed personal protective equipment and meals to Albuquerque’s unhoused population, but the group struggled to adapt to online organizing.

Antonio spent much of the pandemic on the Navajo Nation, and she said that because the Trump administration granted energy companies new leases and permits on reservation land, oil and gas was increasingly poisoning the air and water. She also noted that lockdowns forced victims of domestic violence to stay home with their abusers. Perhaps because of how dire the situation was, the Red Nation saw its membership spike into the hundreds during the pandemic—with chapters springing up in New York, California, and the Midwest.

But Yazzie said that kind of growth was challenging. “We went from being a more local, very action-based, very in-person, tight community to being a group of people who were spread far and wide, who had not actually met each other,” she said. “You can’t really build real relationships with people that way.”

Unable to gather in-person for workshops, book launches, or meetings, the Red Nation turned to media production. The aim, Yazzie says, was not only “to fill the gap in Indigenous people actually talking about our own issues in the media” but also “to bolster and to cultivate and to nourish movements themselves.” In March of this year, it announced the launch of Red Media—an Indigenous press by and for Indigenous peoples. And in April, the group published its first book, The Red Deal: Indigenous Action to Save Our Earth. In the introduction, the collective argues that the prospect of giving land back to Indigenous people “strikes fear in the heart of the settler” but that “it’s the soundest environmental policy for a planet teetering on the brink of total ecological collapse. The path forward is simple: it’s decolonization or extinction.”

Just weeks before they would take to the streets to protest the dispatching of federal agents to Albuquerque, members of the Red Nation drove north, to Alcalde—a town just outside of Española. As Confederate monuments fell across the East Coast, a similar movement to topple statues of conquistadors, reminiscent of the Red Nation’s early work at UNM, emerged in New Mexico. In Albuquerque, protesters tried to overturn a statue of Juan de Oñate in the city’s Old Town, and in October protesters knocked over an obelisk in Santa Fe dedicated to “the heroes” who fought “savage Indians.” That day, the Red Nation traveled to Alcalde to demonstrate at another statue of Oñate on Ohkay Owingeh pueblo land.

Before the group arrived, Rio Arriba County officials moved the statue to storage, and the Red Nation and other attendees found themselves celebrating the monument’s absence. Despite the police presence, Yazzie said the demonstration felt joyful. She told me it was one of those “beautiful moments where our people get to just be themselves in public, and where women especially get to lead and to guide us in how to go about these processes of reclamation. Reclaiming ourselves, reclaiming these spaces.” Yazzie recalled the sight of pueblo women and children dancing as police stood across the highway. This time, it was their traditions that protected them. “What were they going to do?” she asked. “Come tackle us for singing and dancing?”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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