Processing Settler Toxicities: Part I

This 2+ part post is adapted from a presentation at the 2018 Cultures of Energy Symposium at Rice University. Many thanks to everyone who responded to my call for entries into the Indigenous Studies Glossary. Gunalchéesh also to Kristen Simmons and Teresa Montoya for thinking with me for this panel, for your brilliant anger and scholarly generosity and continuing support.  

This is an Indigenous feminist intervention into discussions of toxicity, environmental destruction, and cultures of energy. We start from the basic premise that the environmental disaster we now face has its roots in a prior and continuing apocalypse, in the attempted elimination of Indigenous worlds. The source of the toxicity, industrial capitalism, itself has roots in colonialism and imperialism.

Forget the “golden spike” or the other geological markers of the “anthropocene.” Forget the technoscientific attempts to locate the tipping point for global pollution and climate change. The first steps toward environmental disaster were the first steps of colonizers on our lands. Colonization is the foundation of environmental decline. What is the state of our land, air, and water? Of our other-than-human relations? Before the chemical analysis and the radiation count and the environmental assessments and the soil samples and the EPA and the toxic burdens and the acceptable chemical thresholds. What is the state of our land, air, and water? Stolen. It was stolen. And it has not been returned.

We are Indigenous women whose lives and territories are under siege. We experience the industrial and military contamination of our land and our bodies as a logical extension of continued colonization. We have family, friends, relations who are sick with colonial disease. Cancer, lung disease, diabetes. We have family, friends, relations who are made ill with manifestations of colonial violence and toxicity. Sexual violence, PTSD, mental illness, addiction.

New toxicities follow old pathways of invasion. Railroads carried smallpox and tuberculosis and violent men. Pipelines carry fracked gas and crude oil and violent men. The toxicity spills into our rivers and land and bodies. It is not contained by environmental regulations or settler-state fixes. It is a part of us, this settler toxicity. What do we do now?

(lungs animation is my own work)

Most of the work in environmental anthropology and science and technology studies does not take settler colonialism as the foundation of analyses of environmental disaster, toxicity, and climate change. Because of this, when we present our theorizing from our embodied experience as Indigenous women, we are usually received in the following ways:

  1. we are tokenized, our work is taken as example, not theory
  2. we are aestheticized, told our work is “beautiful” and “moving,” not political
  3. we are attacked, told our work is polarizing and polemical
  4. we are overworked, our work is expected to speak for all Indigenous peoples and issues
  5. we are used, our work is extracted and stolen without citation
  6. we are misunderstood, our work comes from an intellectual tradition that others are not reading or engaging

We hope our experience here will be different, but we have learned not to trust academic spaces. We have learned to protect ourselves, our time, our energy. If we seem guarded, it is because the stakes of our collective work have always been the survival of our peoples. It is heavy work, and there are many saboteurs, and we are tired of fending off attacks. We have developed tactics for reducing the burden of these attacks. I’m going to present the results of some of these tactics, here.

This is a collaborative Indigenous studies glossary. It offers basic definitions of foundational concepts, and offers suggestions for further reading. We offer this document as a way for you to catch up, so we are all on the same page, so we can move forward. If these concepts and readings are new to you, you will have work to do after we are done.

The academy as a whole has not done justice to Indigenous scholarship, so we would not be surprised if much of this is new. The marginalization of Indigenous scholarship is not our fault. We have been thinking and writing and theorizing and acting since the beginning. If you are behind, this is not our fault. Our writing has been available and we have engaged a multitude of other intellectual traditions in our work. We hope that this document is a starting point for a new level of engagement and respect for Indigenous studies. We hope it takes some of the burden from other Indigenous scholars as we struggle to make ourselves legible in ways that benefit our peoples. We hope it helps provide an entry point into our work.

At a time when Indigenous peoples around the world are fighting the destructive effects of extractive industry, we urge you to think deeply about how academia traffics in extractive scholarship. We are graduate students, and junior scholars. We still have dissertations to finish. We are engaged in land defense struggles, we are caring for ill family members, we are returning to our communities to heal and celebrate and mourn. Our writing takes time to emerge, because we have enduring and primary commitments to our peoples and lands and relatives.

We are full of deep theorizations and ideas and new ways of articulating old struggles. We have shared some of this work publicly, and have had it stolen. We are familiar with the dark irony of having our thinking on settler colonialism stolen by settler scholars on stolen land. We are tired of others gaining critical acclaim and notoriety on our backs. You will have the opportunity to publish before we will. Do not extract our thinking. Like all Indigenous theory, extraction from the contexts and relations in which we do our work does violence to us and to our communities. We will publish, eventually, and you will be able to cite us. In the meantime, we suggest you turn your intellectual efforts to the vast body of already-existing literature in Indigenous studies, and take time to learn. To tell a classic Indigenous vignette, I’ve always been told by elders that, when learning a new skill, you observe it in full before practicing it yourself. I watched someone skin a marten, set a trap, shoot a deer, before I was allowed to try it. This works the same way. This glossary is a starting point for a more responsible and less extractive approach to Indigenous scholarship. It is a gift that some of you do not deserve, but it is still a gift.

A Glossary of Indigenous Studies

2 thoughts on “Processing Settler Toxicities: Part I

  1. Very cool piece! Thanks for sharing. You might be interested in the work of Elizabeth Hoover who engages settler toxics in her new book The River is In Us.


  2. Hi,
    What is your full citation for the Glossary?
    Thank you for the generous gift, but I want to properly cite the work each time it is used in any teaching space.


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