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The Salmon Nations Speak

Salmon are on the brink of extinction. But communities are fighting back, summoning the power of ancestral knowledge and practices to defeat proposed mega-mines and decrepit dams that stand as both monuments to colonialism and barriers to spawning salmon.

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Across the United States and around the world, monuments to racists and genocidal colonists are being toppled, thrown into rivers, vandalized, and quietly removed. Responses to these actions vary widely. Some on the left celebrate them as meaningful acts of refusal. Others disregard them as merely symbolic gestures, acts of erasure that obscure the terrain of struggle, making people feel like they’re changing something without changing anything at all. On the other side of the political divide, right-wing conspiracists interpret monument removals, the integration of “critical race theory” into educational curricula, open borders for refugees, and Indigenous land claims over privately-owned and federal lands as part of one coordinated movement to eliminate the white race—a conspiracy that some call “the Great Replacement.” 

If the narrative of a Great Replacement has been a rallying cry for the far right—a highly effective means of driving a division between ethnonationalist patriots and the forces, tendencies, and movements that undermine their “sovereign claim to the land,” the left has thus far not directly answered to the charge. While it may be tempting to disregard the right’s conspiracy as a paranoid fantasy, there is another option. The left can take advantage of it—by defining what it is fighting to replace, and what with. 

This text is the first in a two-part essay series, which enters this ideological struggle from the left. As members of Not An Alternative (NAA), a collective that has spent the past eight years intervening within the sector for science and natural history museums in the United States under the generic name The Natural History Museum, our focus is on the disciplines and institutions broadly associated with natural history. What would it mean to replace the dominant tradition of natural history, which emerged from colonialism and enforces a capitalist relation to the world, and what might such a replacement open up for the left?

Not An Alternative, Mining the HMNS: An Investigation by The Natural History Museum, 2016. The eponymous exhibition, held at Project Row Houses in Houston, Texas, interrogated the symbiotic relationship between the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences and its corporate sponsors. The exhibition analyzed key narratives and displays in the Houston museum, highlighting the voices and stories that were excluded – those of the low-income Latinx fence-line communities along the Houston Ship Channel. Photo: Not An Alternative / The Natural History Museum.

As part of this investigation, NAA is working with Indigenous and non-Indigenous theorists, historians, ethnobotanists, geographers, landscape architects, artists, and activists to define and organize around a counter-tradition of natural history, a Red Natural History, which sees the world not as a wealth of natural resources available for possession or profit, but as a world in common that cannot be enclosed. This first text situates this inquiry within NAA’s history of practice, telling the story of how we came to believe it is necessary to name and organize around an alternate tradition of natural history. The second delves into the question at hand, sketching out our collective’s provisional definition of Red Natural History.

The Museum Divide

Established in 2004, NAA is a collective of artists, activists, and theorists with a mission to affect popular understandings of events, symbols, institutions, and history. We have worked shoulder to shoulder with homelessness and anti-eviction activists, Occupy Wall Street organizers, environmental justice advocates, climate scientists, and Indigenous organizers, engaging their struggles not through a typical head-on (or head-butt) approach, but through the occupation and redeployment of popular vernacular, symbols, and institutional forms. Our persistent goal, as much as aiming to challenge the right’s grip on power, has been to challenge the left to step into its own power. We have argued that without a strong organizational infrastructureand a language in common, left counterpower is very difficult to build and sustain. Without these resources, the left finds itself continuously starting from scratch, seemingly building from nothing other than the experience of co-optation and defeat. 

As the right has spent billions of dollars seizing institutions for its ideological agenda—taking over the leadership of everything from public school boards to major museums—much of the radical left has abandoned such spaces, arguing that left counterpower should be built in the streets. For this camp, institutionality is assumed to be inherently conservative. In our collective’s analysis, this position has contributed to a strengthened and emboldened right, which has embedded itself within the concrete structures and infrastructures through which people learn to relate to the world, and a demoralized left, which tends to see its failures at the expense of what it has achieved.

After a decade pushing for the development of a coherent visual language for the left—which NAA saw begin to coalesce, and then saw disappear, in our involvement with the eruption and disintegration of the Occupy movement—we founded The Natural History Museum (NHM), an experiment that aimed to model a left answer to the right’s institutional takeovers. The NHM was founded both as an intervention on the US sector for science and natural history museums and an institution in and of itself, an experiment in enlisting the museum as part of a communicative infrastructure for the climate and environmental justice movements. NAA’s hypothesis was that for museums to help pave the way towards a more just and sustainable future, they would need to not simply represent environmental injustice, but be rebuilt around the movements that are struggling against it.

Not An Alternative/The Natural History Museum, Will the Story of the 6th Mass Extinction Ever Include the Role of its Sponsors? (2015). Diorama installed at the American Alliance of Museums Annual Convention in Atlanta, depicting the David H. Koch Dinosaur Wing at the American Museum of Natural History in New York several hundred years into a dystopian future. Photo: Not An Alternative/The Natural History Museum.

We started with a series of campaigns that aimed to split some of the country’s largest natural history museums from the industry interests they served. In the first of these campaigns, we enlisted dozens of the world’s top scientists and Nobel laureates to stand behind an open letter to the museum sector calling on all museums to cut ties with fossil fuel interests. We made a target of fossil fuel oligarch and climate science obfuscator David H. Koch, who for 23 years had held a position on the board of trustees of the American Museum of Natural History, one of the country’s largest natural history museums. Following dozens of news stories and more than 550,000 petition signatures, Koch quietly stepped down from his position at the AMNH—a monument toppled. Koch, in our calculus, was low hanging fruit, a symbolic target that could be leveraged to draw out comrades inside the museum sector with whom we could advance shared aims. In the Koch campaign, as well as other campaigns against corporate sponsors, fossil fuel investments, and right-wing funders of science denial, our aim was not to make museums like the AMNH better, but to activate an internal split—to reveal, in their internal contradictions, a kernel from which to build a left alternative.

Beyond the Museum

It was during the #NoDAPL movement at Standing Rock that our scope began to expand. When the Dakota Access Pipeline company bulldozed sites sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, with the suspected aim of obliterating evidence of Traditional Cultural Properties before they could be officially designated by the federal government, it became evident that archeology, oral history, and other building blocks of “natural history” as it was conventionally understood could become crucial components of a pipeline struggle. Asked for support by Native Organizers Alliance, an Indigenous-led community organizing network, we leveraged relationships built over the previous two years to issue a public letter condemning the desecration, which was ultimately signed by more than 1400 archeologists, anthropologists, historians, and museum workers.

If our initial aim was to enter the struggle for environmental justice from the side, through the mediating apparatus of the museum, the conflict over archaeological and cultural resources at Standing Rock made it clear that some of the most consequential struggles over natural history were taking place not in museums, but on the land. Natural history was not just in the museum; it was also in the ground, standing as a bulwark against extraction. 

Out of our collective’s long-term intervention within and beyond the natural history museum, we have come to the analysis that it is not the museum, but natural history itself, that needs to be split—a conceptual shift that allows for a radical reimagination of what institutional forms can best support collective emancipatory struggles. The museum is one apparatus that can be used to teach people to see the world in common that exists beyond and beneath the capitalist world, but there are others: Tribal Historic Preservation Offices, environmental justice think-tanks, progressive science associations, citizen science labs, journals like Society & Space, and so on.

Drawing a Red Line

Since 2017, NAA has been working primarily in solidarity and in collaboration with Indigenous communities in North America, most deeply with the House of Tears Carvers of the Lummi Nation. For more than a decade, the House of Tears Carvers has been carving totem poles, putting them on flatbed trailers, and bringing them to communities across North America to build alliances in the struggle to protect the land and water for the generations to come. The totem pole journeys visit Indigenous communities, farmers and ranchers, scientists, and faith-based communities, engaging groups in ceremonies led by Lummi elders. At each ceremony, participants are invited to touch the totem pole—to give it their prayers and power, and to receive its power in turn. The goal of the totem pole journeys is to connect communities on the frontlines of environmental struggle, and to build, through ceremony, a collective that did not previously exist—invoking generations past, present, and future. Lummi councilman Freddie Lane likened the totem poles to batteries: they are charged with the energy of those who touch them, and as they travel, they give the people energy in turn.

Our first projects with our Lummi comrades sought to leverage mainstream museums as communications infrastructures for their campaigns, which we experimented with in special exhibitions at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the Florida Museum of Natural History, and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Our latest collaboration, the Red Road to DC, was a sort of exhibit that traveled across the land—a cross-country totem pole journey that aimed to support local communities’ efforts to protect sacred places threatened by dams, mining, and oil and gas extraction. The journey highlighted the critical importance of Tribal Nations in decisions on land, water and infrastructure projects, and demanded that the U.S. government respects the international legal standard of free, prior, and informed consent in its negotiations with Tribal Nations. 

The Red Road to DC began at the Lummi Nation, where the tribe is fighting to protect the Salish Sea, orcas, and salmon from tanker traffic and pollution. From there, the pole traveled to Nez Perce territory in Idaho, where tribal leaders are fighting for the removal of four dams on the Lower Snake River, which have had devastating effects on the salmon, as well as the people who rely on fishing for their survival and sustenance. It then went to Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, which was opened to oil and gas extraction by the Trump Administration; and to the Greater Chaco region in New Mexico, where oil companies have been given permits to drill despite the area’s historic cultural importance to the Hopi, Navajo and Pueblo Nations. It then headed north to the sacred Black Hills in South Dakota, where Lakota activists are leading the #Landback campaign with a call to return Mount Rushmore to its original custodians; to the Missouri River and Standing Rock, where the struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline remains very much alive; to the rice fields of the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, where water protectors are fighting to block the construction of the Line 3 Pipeline, which promises to transport nearly a million barrels of tar sands per day from Alberta to Wisconsin; and to Mackinaw City, Michigan, where the Bay Mills Indian Community has been fighting the existing Line 5 pipeline, as well as a plan to build a new pipeline tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac. At the end of the journey, the pole was received by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland in Washington D.C. It was ultimately installed at the National Conservation Training Center where it stands as a symbol of Indigenous movements for life against extraction. 

While the communities brought together through the totem pole journey are held in common by a shared history of settler-colonial dispossession, forced assimilation, and exploitation, the Red Road to DC foregrounded not the violent conditions they endure, but the sacred world they live to protect. Instead of drawing a black line between oil pipelines, colonial monuments, dams, and other monuments to extraction, the journey traced a red line between sacred sites, insisting on a relationship between people and place that cannot be seen from the capitalist point of view. 

Our collective co-produced the Red Road to DC because we imagined it could model a response to the struggles over colonial monuments that have been erupting over the past several years, specifically by building power around a different kind of monument—one that reveals a way of seeing and relating to the world that is fundamentally irreconcilable with capitalism. Situated within a wider landscape of activist mobilization that includes struggles to change place names, to remove colonial monuments, to integrate anti-racist narratives into school curricula, to decolonize museums and repatriate stolen objects, and to return land to Tribal Nations, the Red Road to DC could be seen to be part of the Great Replacement that the right-wing conspiracists fear: a movement to destroy the myth of settler indigeneity that the United States was built on—of the “natural” right of the property-owning class of white settlers to the land and everything that can be extracted from it—and with it, the capitalist system that this myth enshrines.

For NAA, the Red Road to DC modeled a non-capitalist and anti-colonial practice of natural history, a natural history that gets its energy from the movements to support collective life and gives these movements energy in turn; a natural history that points to the world beyond capitalism and takes the side of the common. As a first step toward building out and organizing around this alternative, our collective has given it a name: Red Natural History. 

Defining Red Natural History

After spending eight years organizing within and against the institutions of natural history, we are convinced of the need for a name that defines a partisan project of natural history—a name in common that can hold together the insurgent work of scientists, social scientists, conservationists, communities, and others who are struggling to transform the fields and disciplines broadly associated with natural history. 

As we will elaborate in the next essay in this series, our collective defines “natural history” as the ever-unfolding history of life and land. While the dominant, institutionalized tradition of natural history is informed by a colonial logic of extraction, enclosure, and exploitation, we argue that there is another tradition of natural history, built not on colonial or capitalist relations, but on a comradely and reciprocal relation to land, life, and labor.

For us, the “Red” of Red Natural History does not only suggest a relationship to the history of Indigenous struggle, but also to the “red threat” that terrifies the right, the red flags that have been waived by revolutionaries around the world for centuries, and the red alerts issued by climate scientists to warn of the storms to come. In our interpretation, Red Natural History is not just a proposal for charting alternate histories of natural history, but also for embracing the right’s fantasy of left power. It is also a call for the left to search for the ancestors, irrespective of their identities, whose emancipatory struggles live on in the contemporary movements to remake the world as a world in common.

Our collective’s perspective on Red Natural History is one of many that will be shared over the next year, as we have been working with Indigenous and non-Indigenous scientists, scholars, and practitioners to publish a dossier of speculative essays that give meaning to the term. The point of this collaborative investigation is not to reach consensus, but to create energy around the term Red Natural History, to signal a gravitational pull from the critique of the imperialist tradition of natural history to the positive articulation of another—a tradition of natural history that can rise to the challenges of today’s overlapping and intensifying social, climate, and extinction emergencies. 

Our hope is that Red Natural History does not remain an abstract concept, but that it has an effect on practice—that it provides a framework that insurgents from fields associated with natural history (including archaeology, anthropology, geography, history, ecology, and so on) can use to articulate what they share in common as they struggle to leverage their institutions’ resources to support the communities that are leading efforts to protect natural and cultural heritage, block extractivist projects, and point the way to a just and livable future for all.

Not An Alternative (est. 2004) is a collective that works at the intersection of art, activism, and theory. The collective’s latest, ongoing project is The Natural History Museum (2014–), a traveling museum that highlights the socio-political forces that shape nature. The Natural History Museum collaborates with Indigenous communities, environmental justice organizations, scientists, and museum workers to create new narratives about our shared history and future, with the goal of educating the public, influencing public opinion, and inspiring collective action.

“Coming Out the Other Side: Notes on an Eight-Year Expedition into Natural History” was originally published in Society & Space (May 9, 2022).

Tansi Kia, Boozhoo Nindinawemagaanitog! I greet you all as relatives. I acknowledge and give thanks to my Anishinaabe, Cree, French, and Norwegian ancestors for giving me life. I am evidence of their survivance. I acknowledge that I live and work on the lands of the Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo peoples, represented by the sovereign nation of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria. I take a moment to recognize and give thanks to all of the First Peoples of Mickinaak Minis (Turtle Island), our Anishinaabe name for North America, and all of you around this sacred Earth. Here we are in Dagwaagin (fall), Waatebagaa-giizis (Leaves Turning Moon)—sometimes also called the Fall Corn Harvest Moon, as it’s a time for harvesting foods and preparing for winter. Autumn is a time of inward turning, with longer nights and deeper dreams. I ask you to please take a minute to acknowledge the First Peoples on whose land you are on, wherever you are. Who are the Indigenous peoples who took care of that place for centuries and millennia? Remember that their living descendants are still here today, although not often visible due to ongoing histories of conquest and colonization. Yet they—we—persist, and have our own understandings of the past, experiences of the present and visions for the future.

We are facing problems unprecedented in the global history of humanity. These converging crises are what poet Gary Snyder has called, “post-industrial pre-collapse.” Others are saying the collapse is upon us. Others are calling this time the beginning of an apocalypse. “Apocalypse” is a powerful word, meaning revelation or literally “to no longer conceal.” No longer hiding the colonial, racist, sexist, anthropocentric ideologies and structures that the US was founded on; no longer concealing the truth of genocide that occurred on Turtle Island. On the edge of many precipices, we are living in prophetic times, where the gifts of the ancestors are revealing possibilities for pathways forward. But the path forward can only be traversed after reckoning with the past. At this turning of seasons, the broken parts of our world are being uncovered and uplifted so we can see differently, re-learn to be human and heal. Yet, how do we intelligently and compassionately respond to the broken world and act in times of such turmoil? What can we do to transform individual and planetary consciousness to live respectfully with the land, its creatures and with one another?

First, let’s examine the root causes of our predicament. The problems we are facing, from climate chaos to societal upheaval, are not causes but are symptoms of a deeper imbalance in our relationship to the Earth, ourselves and thus each other. As chief Oren Lyons, faith keeper of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, has said, there will be no peace on Earth until we end the war on Mother Earth. We end this war by listening to the wisdom and warnings of Indigenous leaders, including greater respect for Indigenous peoples’ distinct land-based sustainable practices. As Robin Kimmerer astutely observes, we need to restore the Earth but equally if not more importantly, we need to restore our relationship to the Earth. That is what has been broken on Turtle Island through over five hundred years of colonial ruptures and injustices. Humanity must transform conquest consciousness to kinship consciousness. The dominant worldview of conquest and greed must be transmuted to one of kinship, reciprocity, and generosity if we are to survive and thrive as human beings on a living Earth.

As modern humans we must decolonize conquest consciousness, which focuses on fragmentation, domination, competition, materialism, arrogance, and black-and-white binary thinking. This colonial mindset represents a hierarchical abuse of power that is exhibited in patriarchy, white supremacy, extractivism and the commodification of the sacred, whether that be genetically modified seeds or human trafficking. Most of us have, sadly, been impacted and infected by conquest consciousness and need to decolonize our minds and behaviors to shift toward a new kinship worldview and lifeway.

In our Anishinaabe oral tradition, we have stories about the dangers of conquest consciousness embodied in a greedy, frightening cannibal monster we call Windigo. This conquest consciousness has infected many and has eaten its way into the heads of countries. It is another type of pandemic—an addictive, insatiable mental illness of sorts. Humanity’s urgent challenge is to resist and banish the windigo consciousness. We need to embrace a worldview and way of living that recognizes all life as interwoven kin and understands that humility and generosity are essential laws of nature to ensure life continues.

There are many theories about the root causes of our global crises and most point to mistakes made in human thought. As Einstein profoundly noted: “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” A systemic mis-take in human consciousness separates me from we. This root delusion manifests in a constellation of events—past and present: monocultural agriculture that leads to material accumulation, abstract capitalist hierarchy and patriarchal power, represented in monarchies, slavery, and organized religions. Additional historical factors include the origin of European sciences with the valorization of the so-called objective knower and scientific self. This belief in a subject/object duality created a machine model of the universe where “man” could dissect and control nature for his own desires. This age of scientific discovery went hand-in-hand with the Vatican’s fifteenth century Doctrine of Discovery, which led to the exploitation and commodification of humans and nature in the name of God and empire. Human exceptionalism was codified in this doctrine that justified global imperialism and mass genocide of Indigenous and “other” peoples not deemed Christian or human. This pattern of historical events gave humans the terminal belief that they were superior to all other life and could dominate and control life for their benefit. The idea that humans, especially male, white humans, were unique, entitled and ultimately, superior, gave justification to conquest consciousness. It also provided the blueprint for structural oppression that has led to untold suffering and injustice still faced by many people and Earthly relatives.

Illustration by Echo Yun Chen.

Indigenous leaders are calling on Pope Francis and other religious leaders to repeal the Doctrine of Discovery and usher in a Doctrine of Recovery. We must start the long, important pathway toward truth, justice, reparations, and healing. This repair must take place to acknowledge and heal from the religious wounds inflicted on Indigenous and othered peoples in the name of God and religion. We need to heal the wounds inflicted on Mother Earth in the name of progress and civilization.

Indigenous and other traditional land-based peoples have demonstrated, over millennia, what Enrique Salmón and Dennis Martinez have termed a “kincentric” philosophy of life.  We humans are profoundly interrelated in kinship networks with the entire fabric of life; from rocks to redwoods, butterflies to bears, clouds to corn. As Enrique Salmón shares: “Indigenous people view both themselves and nature as part of an extended ecological family that shares ancestry and origins. It is an awareness that life in any environment is viable only when humans view the life surrounding them as kin.” The Lakota say “all my relations” and all tribes and Indigenous peoples the world over have similar teachings and practices to acknowledge our humble role in the web of life. Our bodies—the Earth bodies and celestial bodies—are deeply tied through breath and wind, sun and warmth, moon and tides, rivers and tears. We are truly all related, and modern science is finally beginning to understand this too through new insights about shared DNA, common evolutionary origins, and quantum entanglement. We must re-learn how to truly honor our common home, the Earth, and be better guests attuned to the ecological fabric we are inherently woven into. We must also strive to be better relatives, neighbors, and allies to members of our own species, what the Navajo call the five-fingered people.

Throughout the US there are currently dozens of massive fires raging in the West. Concurrently, a continuous cycle of hurricanes and freak storms ravage the Southeast. Some places have had 60 days of hazardous air, other places have no water or electricity, and yet others have too much water with extreme flooding and 125 mph winds ravaging towns. Climate chaos is shaking us up. We are re-learning, the hard way, to respect those processes that give us life: Air, Water, Earth, Fire. These elements are speaking to us and reminding us how precious they are. They provide essential physical support and also give us immense beauty and inspiration which are the foundations of culture and art. The natural world stimulates and fertilizes our imaginations. The Earth gives us what we need physically, but also what humans need emotionally and spiritually, that is the beauty of summer thunderclouds, autumn maple leaves, hummingbird movements, and crashing ocean waves. We bear witness to this beauty and also to the destruction of this beauty at the hands of the Windigo. But we can still protect and restore what has been damaged through a process of decolonization and transformation at the individual, community, and societal level.

All peoples have origin stories. Indigenous Peoples have Original Instructions that remind us of our ecological consciousness, which includes our human family. We have many teachings that outline humans’ primary role in being a good relative. We are given Cosmo-Visions in our creation and origin stories that tie us, like an umbilical cord, to the Universe and the Earth. We are given our metaphoric and rational minds and learning spirits that together make it possible for us to grow and gain knowledge and ultimately, wisdom. Time-tested land-care practices of reverential reciprocity help us nourish and be nourished. We think inter-generationally, honoring our ancestors and preparing for seven generations in the future. We are taught that we are active and important participants in all natural processes, from the water cycle to sacred fire. As Anishinaabe, we are given our Seventh Fire Prophecy where fire represents the generations, the movement of the people across the land, and the transformative power of vision and story. We must renew our kinship with fire once again. Our Seven Grandfathers Teachings remind us to act with Respect, Love, Courage, Honesty, Humility, Truth, and Wisdom, in all that we do. What if humans increased our ability to implement these values in our daily lives?

We need a full spectrum transformation to decolonize, banish, and compost conquest consciousness from our heart-minds, communities, governments, and world. We must embrace kincentrism because our lives and the lives of so many others, depend on it. What will it take to be a good ancestor for future generations? We can all look to our own Original Instructions and life-affirming practices to honor the sacredness of life and enact radical kinship. We can immunize ourselves from the Windigo spirit with loving kindness and learn how to live as good allies, settlers, and relatives wherever we live. By revitalizing our kinship with each other and the Earth, we can transmute poison to medicine, disturbance into growth, pain into justice, and destruction into creation.

Melissa K. Nelson (Turtle Mountain Chippewa)
Indigenous Peoples Day 2020
Mount Tamalpais, Coast Miwok Territory
Turtle Island 

Melissa K. Nelson is a professor of Indigenous Sustainability in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University. Nelson is an Indigenous ecologist, writer, editor, media-maker, and scholar-activist. Melissa Nelson is Anishinaabe, Cree, MĂ©tis, and Norwegian (a proud member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians).

“Decolonizing Conquest Consciousness” was originally published in the dossier “How can we live respectfully with the land and with one another?” edited by Julian Brave NoiseCat for Humans and Nature (How can we live respectfully with the land and with one another?) (November 2020).