Just listened to this interview with Leanne Simpson and Glen Coulthard about Dechinta, an indigenous land-based education course in Dene territory. The Decolonization journal has a whole issue out this month on land-based education, available here.
Here is an excerpt from the interview, where Coulthard points to the limits of Western education and analysis, and the transformative power of indigenous land-based learning: “We’re trying to make these reconnections with students and our traditional territories in order to formulate a critical analysis of our colonial present and its effects in Denendeh and in the North. And it’s through those practices that we come to understand what’s wrong with the forms of colonial economic and political development in the North, insofar as they obliterate those relationships of reciprocity that dictate our understanding of land.
You can get only so far teaching in a primarily cognitive sort of way through ‘traditional’ sources and literatures that you use in university. I found as an instructor – who also learns so much every time I go – that I didn’t really get, for example, the critique offered by the Dene of capitalism in the seventies, until I started that experiential kind of relationship with the land through these land-based practices. I had learned as much as I could in the archive, talking to people, and reading about that history, but it was only when I started to commit myself to re-learning those practices and re-embedding myself in those social relationships with place, that I understood in a more concrete and embodied way, what was wrong with the forms of economic development that have come to be dominant in the North and elsewhere.”
This is Corey Snelgrove’s summary of his MA Thesis, drawing connections between environmentalism, colonization, and what he calls “settler stewardship”–settlers’ ways of knowing and relating to the land perpetuate and reify settler colonialism. All of this is grounded on Lekwungen Territory, in “Victoria” where he did his MA, and he also gestures towards productive alternatives where settlers are taking leadership from indigenous peoples and supporting indigenous relationships to land, worked through his participation in the Community Toolshed here:
“This orientation marks a difference between the Tool Shed and settler stewardship, and this difference is shared by many of those participating in the Tool Shed. For example, discussions with Community Tool Shed participants reveals a recognition of the entanglement between colonization and the environment. Participants also recognize the different role for non-Lekwungen peoples than Lekwungen peoples in engagements with the land, such as removal of invasive species versus the harvesting of camas. Additionally, participants do not seek to absolve themselves from colonization. Rather, they often trace their involvement to their implication in colonization.”
The following is a short summary of my Community Governance Project completed as partial fulfillment of an MA in Indigenous Governance at the University of Victoria under the supervision of Cheryl Bryce (Songhees) and Dr. Jeff Corntassel (Tsalagi)
I have never considered myself an environmentalist. And, to be clear, I still don’t.
Over the past two years though, I’ve found myself engaging in what are often referred to as environmental issues. Most specifically, I’ve been involved in the removal of invasive species from Garry oak ecosystems in Victoria, British Columbia. This work has mostly entailed the removal of scotch broom.
Introduced to these lands by the first independent settler on Vancouver Island, Broom is an invasive plant with deep, thick roots, and which produces up to 18,000 seeds that are in turn spread by human and non-human forces. Not only does removal require physical labour to uproot these plants, but it also requires…
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Aragorn! – “Locating an Indigenous Anarchism” in Uncivilized: The Best of Green Anarchy (2012).
This is one of the first pieces of writing that attempted to bring anarchism and indigenism together (that I know of). It’s written in a non-academic style, without citations or jargon, and it’s pretty short. It engages brings together theory, practice, and political traditions in a nuanced way, and there’s a lot packed into a few pages.
The piece is framed as an imagined story, about what an indigenous anarchism would look like. It begins with the destruction of civilization, and the burning of cities. This is the precursor to an indigenous anarchism: “once we get beyond the flames we will have to craft a life together” (49).
“Indigenous” means “of the land we are actually on” and “anarchist” means “without authoritarian constraint” (49). The three main principles of anarchism, for Aragorn!, are direct action, mutual aid, and voluntary cooperation (50).
He is wary about setting down principles of indigenous anarchism: “If I believe in a value and then articulate that value as instrumental for an appropriate practice then what is the difference between my completely subjective (or self-serving) perspective and one that I could possibly share usefully? This question should continue to haunt us” (51).
But he cautiously states some first principles of indigenous anarchism:
- Everything is alive. There are no objects, and there are no dead things: “Alive may not be the best word for what is being talked about but we could say imbibed with spirit or filled with the Great Spirit and we would mean the same thing. We will assume that a secular audience understands life as complex, interesting, in motion, and valuable. This same secular person may not see the Great Spirit in things that they are capable of seeing life in” (51)
- The ascendance of memory. He means something very specific by “memory” here, and suggests that our society is characterized by forgetting, but doesn’t say much about what this memory is… (51-2)
- Place: similar to memory, he argues that contemporary civilization places us nowhere (suburbs, stripmalls and airports are the ultimate examples of non-places). An anarchism of place doesn’t necessarily mean living in one place; it might entail moving with the seasons, or “travelling every year as conditions, or desire, dictated” (52). These choices would be dictated by people, and not “the exigency of economic or political priorities” (52).
- Family: the extended family is an extension of the principle that everything is alive: “the connection between living things, which we would shorthand call family, is the way that we understand ourselves in the world. We are part of a family and we know ourselves through family” (52).
- Self-determination and radical decentralization: “Self determination should be read as the desire for people who are self-organized (whether by tradition, individual choice, or inclination) to decide how they want to live with each other” (53). Aragorn! argues that these principles are often adopted in anarchist discourse, but they aren’t lived up to in practice. Anarchists often refuse any conception of ‘race,’ and this entails a refusal to understand and deal with indigenous people and people of colour, for whom these categories are very real. He’s not saying that these categories are real (or that they aren’t); he’s saying that anarchists often fail “to apply the principles of self-determination to the fact that real living and breathing people do identify within racial and cultural categories and that this identification has consequences in terms of dealing with one another… the answer is that these anarchists do not expect to deal with anyone outside of their understanding of reality. They expect reality to conform to their subjective understanding of it” (53).
He is also critical of the anarchist tradition for what he calls “repetitive criticism”—this form of critique is useful for “getting every member of a political tendency on the same page,” but its effect is often to generate suspicions and detachment from anarchistic events, rather than affirmations of them: “the form that anarchist criticism has taken about events in the world is more useful in shaping an understanding of what anarchists believe than what the world is” (54). Anarchist criticism is often turned in on itself, comparing the world and peoples’ efforts to an Anarchist ideal, and the world is always found deficient.
Aragorn! articulates a paradox of indigenous anarchism (and other anarchisms): “Anarchists would like to have it both ways. They would like to see their tradition as being growing and vital, along with being uncompromising and deeply radical. Since an anarchist society would be such a deep break from what we experience in this world, it is impossible to perceive any scenario that leads from here to there. There is no path” (54).
In other words, the vision of indigenous anarchism is so radically different from the dominant order that there’s no way to invent a strategy that would bring those conditions into existence. You can’t get there from here: “I will not finish this story with a happy ending that will not come true. This is a sharing” (55). He seems to call for patience, in the end, recalling his teachings: “The reason that I sit here and drink is because I am waiting for the white man to finish his business. And when he is done we will return” (55).
In the final paragraphs, he notes that the only indigenous anarchists he’s met have been native people, not because it’s impossible for nonnative ppl to live this way, but “because there are few teachers and even fewer students” (among the settler population) (55). This is another reason why settlers need to engage with indigenous peoples: “If learning how to live with these values is worth anything it is worth making the compromises necessary to learn how people have been living with them for thousands of years” (55).
Kwon, Minwon. 2004. Chapter 4: “From Site to Community in New Genre Public Art: The Case of ‘Culture in Action,’” in One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity. Cambridge: MIT
In this chapter, Kwon focuses on a series of art interventions called “Culture in Action,” held in Chicago, as one of the foundational pieces of what has become known as “new genre public art” (NGPA). Kwon traces some of the origins of NGPA, discusses contesting conceptions of “community” and then critically unpacks the “Culture in Action” intervention with these questions in mind. It’s a great intro to NGPA, both because of its discussion of influence, its detailed case study, and its method—the author actually looks at the concrete relationships and outcomes of these projects (how they worked themselves out “on the ground”) rather than just celebrating (or criticizing) public statements and theories about the art.
NGPA was differentiated from ‘public art’ as a practice that was more participatory, more engaging, and focused more on interactions and collaborations between artists and communities. The “Culture in Action” series was facilitated by Suzanne Lacy, and featured a eight different exhibits/collaborations with different artists, collaborators, and audiences. It saw the whole city as a site for intervention, and sidestepped the prevailing dependence on architects and professionals for doing site-specific art. “Culture in Action” privileged process over product: it “was defined not in terms of material objects but by the ephemeral processes of interaction between the local participants and the audience.” (104)
Kwon discusses these in some detail here, but I’m going to skip over these specificities. I think this case study is less important than the general points about NGPA and community. Kwon reviews many of the prevailing differentiations and distinctions of NGPA, such as it influence by Marxism and feminism; its shift from audience to artist, object to process, and production to reception; and its critique of ‘sites’ as too abstract, privileging instead notions of space and community. Community often signifies marginalized groups (the Latino community, women’s groups, etc) but it can also signify abstract communities of the dominant order (business community, scientific community) or reactionary middle-class interests (the ‘real’ community of families, posited against deviance and crime). Culture in Action thus tried to be issue- and audience-specific.
Kwon raises critical questions about the Culture in Action project by attending to the conceptual and theoretical differences, which aren’t visible from the public statements, “embedded instead in the specific (invisible) processes of their respective community collaborations, in their enactment of the necessary institutional and individual exchanges and compromises” (116). Enacted notions of community here range from the mythic and homogenizing category of “Woman” (which ultimately subsumes the diversity of women commemorated a singular unity), to durable, long-term “invented communities” that were the product of relationships and coalitions formed with the help of local artists who used existing knowledge and connections to create meaningful and lasting partnerships. Kwon shows how some artists identified the communities and the outcome prior to collaborations, and they had to rely on curators because they lacked any local community connections. Others lived in Chicago and used the art partnerships to leverage resources and create lasting partnerships.
Kwon concludes by insisting that it’s not a simple binary between local/insider/good/successful vs. non-local/outsider/bad/failure. Local artists have a “head start” with existing connections and local knowledge, but there are no guarantees of success, and likewise, the outsider perspective can lend an incisive perspective (135).