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Where is home for Black people born in America? What land can we truly call ours?

My grandparents were born in the Deep South in the early 1900s. In the forties, they migrated north along with thousands of Black Southerners in search of security away from the racial terrorism that defined their lives in Mississippi and Alabama. They moved to look for work, stability, and to create peace for themselves and those they loved.

Many Black people in America don’t often get the luxury of staying in one place for too long, unless someone else wants to keep us there. Federal and local governments, private industry, insurance companies, urban planners, real estate brokers, homeowners associations, and many others have conspired to move or confine Black bodies since the abolition of slavery in 1865.

After Hurricane Katrina, the media called Black Americans forced out of their homes by nature, disaster capitalism, and an anti-Black federal government “refugees.” Refugees in the very country where we were born. But this is the reality of many Black people in the US—we are constant outsiders, moving through spaces where we never really belong. When shopping, driving, swimming, birdwatching, grilling, sleeping, jogging, eating, taking public transportation, walking, or standing still—we never belong. The Great Migration never ended for so many of us. Because of gentrification and displacement, we are constantly moving to find decent lives for our families and the safety and the stability that comes with it.

My family has been in Oakland for over twenty years, but we’ve moved around a lot. Always looking for the next place to live after an illegal eviction or a rent increase. Always searching for someplace to call home that is affordable enough to still have a life after rent and hoping for communities safe enough for children. Each time, we’ve come face-to-face with the legacy of redlining juxtaposed with the exorbitant rental costs that defines our present-day rent-is-too-damn-high reality in California.

The places where Black families can afford to live are few. They are the same places where lack of access to quality education, healthcare, fair wages, and other resources manifests in community violence and then reactionary police terrorism. To this day we are still experiencing the impacts of racist housing policy.

Our entire nation is founded on the theft of bodies and land and we’ve never reconciled it, never paid the reparations that are needed to move forward. That’s why our current system of neoliberal capitalism can’t be disentangled from racism and systems of inequity in this country. That’s why Black people are still behind on health access, land ownership, intergenerational wealth. That’s why Black people account for 25 percent of Oakland’s population, but 70 percent of its homeless. We continue, every single day, to look for a space where we can be anything but refugees in a land that’s not our home.

When half a dozen Black mothers approached me last year because they lacked safe and dignified housing for their families, I heard this same old story. But when we organized and called ourselves Moms for Housing, and reclaimed a home on stolen Ohlone land—that was a new story. That was self-determination. That was a rejection of the capitalist notion that the housing market should determine whether children have a place to sleep at night.

Illustration by Echo Yun Chen.

I recently ran and won an election to represent the city council district where the symbolic home we fought for stands. Just to qualify, to be eligible to run for office, I had to pick up and move again. I’ve been pushed out of housing so many times that I’ve lived in just about every council district in Oakland. I had to find a new place on the “correct” side of a line imagined by political power brokers to run in the district I called home in 1999.

Because I wasn’t born in Oakland, folks are saying I’m not an “Oakland native.” But the whole concept of the “Oakland native” is an invented notion that not only erases Indigenous people who are the true Native Oaklanders, but also serves to marginalize Black people. How many Black folks can afford to spend all their lives in the place they were born?

But on another level, I understand. I have to. The weight of consistent migration; the push and pull of forced, voluntary, or desperate moving around is imprinted in my DNA. It is the very thing that allows me to survive any and everywhere. The territorial and turf-based obsession with space is a direct result of deprivation and lack; of the pain and pride of being born into a space where one has to fight to survive. It shapes you. It is the same experience in Chicago as it is in Harlem, and Philadelphia and Los Angeles, Detroit and San Francisco.

These imagined state, national, and local borders impact Black people who are constantly pushed from one neighborhood to another as the places we make great are transformed by gentrification. The imaginary lines of gerrymandering serve to divide Black people, working class people and other communities from each other, to keep us from organizing for power at a larger scale.

Every day that we occupied #MomsHouse, we heard from Twitter trolls and news commentators: Why don’t you just move? If you can’t afford Oakland rents, why do you deserve to be here? We would often respond that the members of Moms for Housing were born and raised in Oakland, which they were. We would answer that the suggestion to “just move” is a way of tearing families and communities apart, and ignores the realities of how people access employment and childcare through community networks. And it denies us our dignity. We deserve to be here. This is our home.

For me and many of the people I organize with, power is defined as the ability to create or change your circumstances. That’s part of what Moms for Housing was all about. Self-determination means: If I want to take this house and move my family into it, I will. If I want to build a house on this land, I will. It’s quite American, if you think about it.

And right now, people are realizing that power. People are refusing to pay their rent and mortgages. They’re asking why landlords and banks should get paid when workers aren’t. People are tearing down monuments to colonialism and white supremacy because it’s in our power to do so. We want to see a different reality—one that is equitable and nurturing.

The people are rising up. That uprising will mean the abolition, not reform, of many systems: from policing to the commodification of housing, from unequal access to health care to violence against women.

I dream of what will come after we tear down those systems. I dream of what will rise in their place. I dream of a day when Black people in this country can age in place. When we can put down roots and grow, generation to generation. When we can call a place home, without fear of being displaced ever again.

As executive director of Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment Oakland, Carroll Fife helped found Moms for Housing and passed legislation at the state and local level to build collective power for tenants. She has helped to build a national network of Black organizations and individuals working together for community self-determination.

“The Great Migration Never Ended” 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).

Julian: In an early passage of There There, you write: “Being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere.” What did you mean by that?

Tommy: I am enrolled in the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. But we’re specifically Southern Cheyenne. That’s the difference between Northern and Southern Cheyenne. Difference between Montana and Oklahoma. And then even within that, we know that we’re Suhtai which is—there’s Tsitsistas and Suhtai are two different aspects of Southern Cheyenne history. Growing up in the city knowing that and then working in the urban Native community for so long, it’s just not something that was recognized. Just like tribes become other tribes and join with other tribes and get new names. There was this whole experience of Native people living in the city that I was able to witness and be a part of. And it became its own thing to me. Not that it should be its own tribe, but it should be able to be considered. If people are in the city for over sixty or seventy years, and you still have to think of Indians as belonging to the land.

And I was basically just speaking against the idea that the authentic Native experience has to do with the land. And then also at the same time wanting to really ground the experience of living in the city as an Earth-based experience. A lot of times our relationship to the land, or reality is as if we’re aliens. Because it’s so steeped in Christianity and this idea that we hold dominion over the Earth. So God gave us the Earth and planted us on this big planet. And then we control it. And that’s not really like a holistic or a Native worldview and way of thinking of relationships and your relationship to the Earth. So I was trying to make a city feel more like something that you can relate to. Like anybody would with the land.

So trying to say that it’s not about returning to something that was before, like where you’re supposed to return to history where we come from. But the land is right there, and people who have been living there for a long time and have histories with cities. So really just trying to make that hit home and sort of define that as something that the reader going into these urban Native lives can try to understand in a short amount of time at the beginning of the book.

Julian: You just touched on this, but what do you think about the idea that Indians are the “original environmentalists”—about Natives being closer to the land and nature?

Tommy: Well, I think it goes back to the Christian thing, or the religious thing, the worldview thing. And it’s not that we are out there hugging trees because we care about the land in some mystical way. It’s actually the way you think of relationships and reality. And people steeped in Christianity, even if they’re not Christian, there’s a lot of thoughts embedded in American thought and being an American that automatically are tied up with Christian ideas. And so I think Native people—even though there’s plenty of Christian Natives—the Native worldview is one that has to do with considering all your relations. And not considering yourself in some hierarchy that you are above everything else. And like I said before, holding dominion over the Earth. But you are—I hate the word stewardship, but there’s a relationship that has to do with a non-hierarchical system. That, for Christians, is a natural way to think of their God-given place on Earth.

And for Native people, it’s just—I don’t want to speak in a pan-Indigenous way, but if you were to differentiate between the two, Native people and non-Native people, even. But that’s not totally true. But white Americans—the big difference, even though we have a lot of probably specific things that make us different, the big one is this worldview, and the way that we relate to reality. I hate to even say the Earth. It’s really your relationship to reality. That happens to be the land because that’s where we live. But it’s not like some mystical Indian Earth thing. It’s reality. It’s a philosophy.

Julian: Yeah, and being a good relative, being a good homie—basically that kind of idea. So you’ve kind of touched on this a little bit, but do you think that the urban experience, which is by most statistical measures, the majority Native experience, do you think that that requires a different conception of what we mean by “land” and Native people’s relationship to it? Do you think we need a more expansive definition of what the land is?

Tommy: Well, I think it’s hard to separate the idea of land from nature. And it’s hard to look at a building and see it as a part of nature. A rural experience, like where I live now and the way people experience reality, like driving more often, further distances to get to places and being very compact and inside the insides of things (like in buildings)—it’s a different experience of what land is. I don’t think of the city experience as being different than; I relate to it as the land. But it’s not… This building’s not a tree, and we can’t think of it that way either. So it’s all very convoluted. It’s a philosophy that I have cultivated just from having that relationship with the city. And I think that’s what it comes down to. It’s like people’s relationship to the land in the past and having sort of ancestral land is like, you get to know an area that becomes home in a way that you internalize it and you respect and love it because it’s so familiar to you.

And you have that relationship to it because you spend your time there. That’s the area that you spend your time in. And that’s why people have a tight relationship to the land. It’s familiar to you. And so that’s how I feel about Oakland and the city. In my mind I can walk… I know it so well, in my imagination, I can walk through every part of it and really see it. And that’s a relational thing. And that’s a feeling of belonging and a feeling of home. And I think when it comes to land and Native people’s relationship to land, a lot of that is related to home and having a place that you belong. And having ways of doing things that go back in your family that have to do with the land and the animals there. Or the bus route that your dad took to go to work. These are all things that have to do with belonging to a place.

Julian: I remember when I was growing up, I remember sometimes the drum group at the Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland would set up at some of the local pow-wows under the name “Hyphy Boys.” Which was a reference to the local hip hop scene of which they felt they were a part. Which was partially coming out of Black and Latino Oakland, which was also part of the Oakland that urban Native people were moving through even though most people didn’t really see us there. So yeah, I think that you’re spot on with all that.

Tommy: And also a lot of times the reference to land is a reference to a reservation. And a lot of times that’s not the homeland, that’s not the ancestral homeland of most Native people. Some people ended up being able to stay where they were. But for the most part, you’re referencing a different piece of land that you were removed to. And that’s a whole different kind of belonging. But in the same way that people now own the reservation land as their own and have that relationship to it, that’s the same approach I was trying to have to the city.

Julian: Right. You’re displaced and dislocated to the city, but then the city also becomes what you are Indigenous to.

Tommy: Yeah.

Illustration by Echo Yun Chen.

Julian: You once told me about a character that was in an earlier draft of There There, who was a bit of a doomsdayer. Sort of like an apocalyptic prophetic figure. Can you say a little bit more about that character?

Tommy: I’m not sure if I’m remembering. Was it a guy under a freeway?

Julian: Yeah, yeah.

Tommy: Yeah. I was just… I don’t know when, somewhere writing the book. Because I’ve heard it a lot now in the past few years. People talking about Native people being post-apocalyptic. And thinking of the apocalypse has always been on my mind because I grew up in a Christian Evangelical Church off School Street. Do you know Shiloh? In East Oakland.

Julian: No, I don’t.

Tommy: Anyway, crazy people who thought the world was going to end. And I was swept up in it because that’s how I was raised. And just got to thinking about Native people having a relationship to all this talk of apocalypse is like, we’re from a people that survived the end of their world essentially, and started over. And thinking of us as post-apocalyptic. So this guy that I had under a freeway, part of this character who didn’t ultimately make it into the book named Billy Two Rivers. He’s just being yelled at, by this guy under the freeway in San Leandro. In my mind, it was over by Rasputin’s. You know that freeway overpass? And it’s a young Native guy hearing this old Native guy kind of talking this way. Referring to himself as a ghost and then referring to himself as post-apocalyptic. So it wasn’t a major scene, but there were a lot of other things to that character.

Julian: Why did that scene and character ultimately not make it in? I guess there’s already a lot of characters.

Tommy: I mean, I think it came down to—and this is the same feedback I got on the latest draft of my next book—the editor’s like, “We need to focus it.” And so that comes with who’s central to the story, and what role are they playing? And so this character was a little bit more periphery and that’s why the cut.

Julian: So, Oakland, which is where we both grew up, has long been the center for lots of movements for justice, whether you’re talking about the Black Panther Party, the Occupation of Alcatraz. More recently, when I was in high school, the police killing of Oscar Grant, and the response to that in the community. How has that history of the place shaped your thinking and writing about it?

Tommy: Well, I think some of that is probably influence that is unconscious. And the swell of pride of coming from Oakland comes from knowing about all these movements. And Oakland is tough and real. And I think more so the fact that there’s so much history in Oakland. And specifically that Native side of it, and the Occupation of Alcatraz. And that I didn’t see it in a novel was really striking to me. And I already knew I wanted to write about Oakland, and through my experience. So it had more to do with the absence of Oakland in literature. And just really wanting to represent something that I knew belonged.

To novelize something is to—there’s a lot of imaginative leaps, but for the Oakland experience, there was so much that was just right there that I felt belonged in the pages of a novel. So I was just inspired by the fact that so much has happened in Oakland. And like I said, growing up there and working in the community, and hearing a lot of stories and working on storytelling projects. It was the absence of that being represented in literature was just one of the things that made me want to write into it.

Julian: Do you think that you have a responsibility to a place, a community, a history? How do you think about your relationship to the material and stories that inspire you?

Tommy: I think specificity is universal. And the only way to get deep into specificity is to write. I mean I hate the “Write what you know,” cliché advice, writer advice. And I don’t mean that. But I’ve led writing workshops and people try to generalize because they think that’ll make their story more universal. I don’t know that there’s a responsibility, but I think it’s smarter to write it about where you come from. You can get inside those very specific, intimate details about a place and about the people that live there. And so I think it’s just a smarter decision on the page to get as specific as possible about the world that you’re building.

And not generalizing because you think you don’t want to isolate people because they don’t know what that experience is like. That’s actually why we go to novels—to walk in the shoes of characters we don’t know. I mean, that’s part of why I’ve always gone to novels. Sometimes I’ll not want to read stuff where I already know the world and the people. I’d rather read something that is unfamiliar to me. So getting specific, I think maybe writing about the place you come from it may not be a responsibility, but I think it’s a smarter writing decision.

Julian: What sort of impact, if any, do you hope that your writing has on the world? Or do you even think about it that way?

Tommy: I’ve seen in Native spaces people kind of light up around being seen. And say stuff around, being seen in the pages. And I think if I could inspire anyone to try to write, or feel like they can. Because as you know, growing up, there’s not very many Native figures, heroes that are visible and see a lot of success. And I think it’s important for Native people to see that. So if I can be a door, whether that’s through somebody just seeing that I did it, or actually helping other Native writers at the Institute of American Indian Arts. If my success can mean more success for more Native people, that’s the most I could hope as far as impact goes.

Julian: What are you reading, watching, otherwise generally sort of consuming or paying attention to now that we’re all sort of locked up inside for the pandemic?

Tommy: Well, I just finished a really long book that I was researching for the novel that I’m writing. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was just reading all the news, and listening to all the podcasts about what was going on and sort of obsessing over that. And then I got kind of burnt out on that. And trying to focus on what I’m working on, which always looks like doing research books. And then becoming obsessed with news about fires, and the skies being filled up with smoke. It’s been harder for me to read fiction. I’ve just broke through whatever problem I had had with delving into fiction, maybe in the past two weeks, I’ve been reading more fiction. I’m reading Song of Solomon right now, as I already told you. I have Viet Thanh Nguyen’s sequel to The Sympathizer. And that’s of interest to me just because he’s a fantastic writer, but also the sequel to a book. And I’m working on a sequel to There There.

I got really into this reality show called “Alone,” with my family, where people in places like the Arctic, trying to survive for a hundred days. So that’s kind of junk TV stuff. And sometimes it’s pure escape stuff. Got really into “Schitt’s Creek” and watched all of those with my family as well. But I think for the most part, it’s either been research and delving into stuff that relates to what I’m trying to write. Or it’s been news. Just reading articles about what’s going on and trying to grasp the new reality. And really adjust to like, this could be years of this. And trying to accept that. And live a life and not continue to feel like you’re living in purgatory.

Julian: Does the news, or the pandemic, or things like that, given that you’re consuming so much news about it and other media, does that end up influencing how you’re going about your new writing project? Or your latest writing project?

Tommy: It did. It infected the book. There’s some virus in the book now. And I don’t know if it’ll stay. But there was so much, I was consuming so much and it affected reality in such a huge way that I couldn’t help but have it be in there. And it’s such a historically big moment. If you’re writing a contemporary book and you’re writing into the future, which my book is doing, then you’re going to bump over it somehow. You can’t skip over it. History is not going to skip over it. So, your novel’s going to seem tone deaf if you don’t include it.

Julian: I think one more question, then we can call it a day. So you teach a bit now, right?

Tommy: Yeah. I just have one student, so it’s really not very much.

Julian: Okay. So I was wondering as a fellow writer who’s a big fan of your work: What advice would you give to writers, students, others, who are interested in telling stories, about how to write stories that engage at the same time with these questions that you’ve been able to engage with? About visibility, about a story that had not been written into novels before about being Indian in Oakland or Indian in the city? What advice would you give to folks who are trying to grapple with these big things and do it as a writer?

Tommy: Yeah, I think… I mean, if we’re talking about fiction, I think getting as specific into what your reality is like is going to be more revealing than anything else. And if you have a message, as far as fiction goes, if you have a message that sounds too political, or you’re really trying to get something across, I don’t think it is delivered as well as if you’re getting into the weirdness and specificity of the way you’ve experienced reality. So I think between that, and just on a sentence level, really always considering that writing and reading are two sides of the same coin. And you really are writing for reader engagement.

I think sometimes writers can get caught up in the preciousness of their sentences and forget that there is no writing without the reader on the other side. And it’s a communal experience: writing and reading. Reader engagement should really be a sentence level consideration. How is this reading? So I think sometimes that can get lost. Yeah, those two things. I think getting as specific as possible into your own worldview and reality. I think some of those things will come out. Sometimes I take the approach of maximizing the ideas I want to get in, and then cutting it back and trusting that the essence of it will remain.

Julian: Awesome. I think that’s really good advice, actually. Especially in an era where writers have to compete with the NBA and HBO and Netflix and all that. You really got to convince people to spend a few minutes with your stuff. All right, that’s all I had. This is really, really great, man.

Tommy: Sorry, it was so rambling. I hope somebody can edit it into better shape.

Tommy Orange is a graduate of the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. An enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, he was born and raised in Oakland, California.

Julian Brave NoiseCat is Vice President of Policy & Strategy for Data for Progress and Narrative Change Director for the Natural History Museum. A Fellow of the Type Media Center and NDN Collective, his work has appeared in The New York TimesThe New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and other publications. Julian grew up in Oakland, California and is a proud member of the Canim Lake Band Tsq’escen and descendant of the Lil’Wat Nation of Mount Currie.

“Being Indian Has Never Been about Returning to the Land” 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).

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, Métis, 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).

One of Karl Marx’s most quoted observations—that history appears “first as tragedy, then as farce”—actually comes from Hegel. It was the elder German philosopher who first wrote “That all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice.”[1] Hegel, according to Marx, had “forgot to add” that these twinned cycles also tend to come in genres: first as misadventure, then as vaudeville.

We are today confronted with twinned crises that could affirm this adage. In 1918, the world confronted a global war and a flu pandemic. Black veterans returning home were met with a wave of racist violence and riots known as the “Red Summer,” which targeted African American communities, confined to the bottom rung of America’s caste system. Fast forward a century to the latter months of 2019 when the novel coronavirus appeared in China, triggering a global economic recession in early 2020. Then, a few months into the pandemic recession, the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis fomented a summer of multiracial uprisings against systemic racism. As in 1919, this Black-led rebellion was inextricably tied to widespread discontent among African Americans, who still to this day inhabit the lowest racial and economic position in the United States. And as in the early twentieth century, this movement for racial justice has engendered a racist backlash.

Add to this the impending climate catastrophe, and it becomes increasingly clear why a large and active portion of the electorate is calling on their leaders to enact a “Green New Deal”—a ten-year plan to mobilize every aspect of American society to achieve 100 percent clean and renewable energy, full and guaranteed employment, and a just transition for workers and communities on the frontlines of the fossil fuel economy.[2] In the current context, a Green New Deal could both avert the oncoming ecological calamity and reconstruct the economy on a more inclusive basis. Given the extraordinary level of net job losses so far—6.8 million since February according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—calls for the reinvention of our political economy from the unsustainable logics of profit-driven extraction of labor and natural resources feel especially timely.

Illustration by Echo Yun Chen.

While some might argue that these crises—and, in particular, the environmental emergency—are not related, a great deal of evidence suggests this is not the case. As Susan Sontag wrote in 1967, societal decisions have upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of life itself.”[3] Sontag believed, rightly, that “the unquestioned assumption of the right of white Europeans to exterminate a resident technologically backward, colored population in order to take over the continent” had played a significant role in upending the Earth’s ecological balance.[4]

Amidst our economic-environmental malaise, demand for something green, new, and good is growing. Led by leaders like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, young people are expressing their dismay at the shortcomings of their elected leaders. They want America to face the interrelated crises of economics, race, health and environment. And they understand that these things are linked: environmental degradation has, since the inception of the United States, gone hand in hand with the displacement and expropriation of Native nations and the pollution of Black and Brown communities. This reality brings to the fore questions of leadership, representation and decision-making in the emergence of a new economy. To put it simply: those who brought us to the precipice cannot lead us out of it. As the Haudenosaunee Confederacy stated at the 1977 UN Conference on Indigenous Peoples: “The way of life known as Western civilization is on a dead path….The technologies and social systems which destroyed the animal and the plant life are destroying the native people….The native people of the Western Hemisphere can contribute to the survival potential of the human species….”. In sum, the Eurocentric market-logic that continues to rule the global economy today is and has been intellectually bankrupt. In spite of the comforts to modern populations, such a system has encouraged social depravity, ecological catastrophe, environmental racism, and widening inequalities.

No one perspective holds a monopoly on truth, of course. I suspect, however, that absent the full inclusion of the most marginalized, whose perspectives might bring us closer to a more rounded and developed understanding of our present, we may once again live out Karl Marx’s warning.

Westenley Alcenat is a scholar, teacher, mentor, and academic consultant. He is an Assistant Professor of History, Urban Studies & American Studies at Fordham University in the Bronx, NY and teaches courses on nineteenth century United States, Atlantic, and Afro-Caribbean history.

“First as tragedy, then as _____” 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).

  1. [1]Marx, K., & De, L. D. (1898). The eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. New York: International Pub.
  2. [2]Green New Deal: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver [Video file]. (2019, May 12). Retrieved October 18, 2020, from
  3. [3]Sontag, S. (1967). What’s Happening in America. Partisan Review, Winter, 19671967(Winter).
  4. [4]ibid.

For Indigenous peoples, our pasts, presents, and futures involve living and being in reciprocal, consensual, and sustainable relations with the natural world, which includes human relationships to each other as well as with lands, waters, landscapes, atmospheres, and plant and animal nations (for brevity, we will collectively describe this network, imperfectly, with the English word “lands”). In this testimony, we imagine a world that fosters stronger human relationships with each other and with the land—the world that we need. To do so, we must first address the challenging contemporary global and national contexts we find ourselves in and understand the paradigms that have led us here.

As we write, the world is in a state of flux. Human lives across the world are threatened by the novel coronavirus, a global pandemic that has made visible deep structural inequalities, resulting in disproportionate infection and death rates among Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities. At the same time, uprisings unfolding across the world demand the end of state violence–for example, in the United States, the end of police violence against Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities. Meanwhile, experts around the world are sounding the alarm about climate change, warning us about its dire impact on human lives and land, if we don’t act accordingly.

Illustration by Echo Yun Chen.

Each of these pandemics–COVID-19, white supremacy, colonialism, capitalism, and climate change–disproportionately threaten Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities. Climate change, for example, disparately impacts Indigenous peoples, threatening Indigenous access to knowledge, food and medicine systems as well as water, ceremonial, and sacred spaces. This disproportionate impact threatens the health of the planet, as 85 percent of the world’s biodiversity survives in Indigenous-controlled territories where human relationships with the land are characterized by effective and sustainable land management practices. Capitalism and colonialism threaten this biodiversity and fuel the climate crisis by structuring extractive, consumerist relationships with the land.

The devastating effects of these interrelated pandemics for human and more than human relatives around the globe are demonstrating the urgent need for relational, reciprocal, and respectful ways of living together. In response to the question of how to shift our relational practices, we argue first and foremost that respectful relations with the land and with each other are contingent upon the cessation of colonial harms against Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities, including ongoing threats to the lands that sustain us. We therefore call for returning the care and governance of our original territories as a primary step in remaking sustainable, just, and thriving futures for all. We advocate, too, for the revitalization of Indigenous educational practices that prioritize preparing young people to tend to the land, community, and one another. Lastly, we argue for a recognition of the value of Indigenous leadership and governance as relevant not only to Indigenous nations but to all people and, in fact, vital to the survival of the planet itself.

Given our expertise as Indigenous educators, as well as the fact that colonialist and capitalist ways of relating to the land and each other are learned, the majority of our testimony focuses on the value of Indigenous educational models and ways of relating with each other and the land. Dominant extractive relations with land are learned everyday by children in schools and continually reproduce the problematic relations between humans and land. Any discussion of education must be viewed within the context of the ongoing colonial violence Indigenous peoples experience, and in concert with broader efforts to return–or, more precisely, rematriate–Indigenous lands and restore Indigenous systems of governance, both of which we believe can benefit all people.

Refuse Further Extraction and Harm

To restore right relations with the land and with one another, we must first resist and disrupt settler colonial forms of harm. The violence perpetuated by settler colonialism, in addition to tangible interpersonal harms, often manifest in “well-meaning” gestures towards the “greater good” at the expense of Indigenous well-being and futures. We must all take responsibility and engage in active steps on both individual and structural levels towards ending harm, as continued harm against Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities negates progress forward in other areas. Claims to larger issues or needs (e.g., documenting biodiversity in Indigenous territories) are cloaked forms of violence and reflect superficial understandings of the dynamics that have brought us to where we are. Learning to live without causing harm is central to our collective endeavors.

Restore Indigenous Governance of Our Original Territories

It is no mistake that 85 percent of the world’s biodiversity is located within Indigenous-controlled territories. Indigenous peoples’ relationship to land is characterized by a deep sense of respect, responsibility, and reciprocity for land and life, fundamental values that have sustained the health of lands and Indigenous livelihoods since time immemorial. Restoring Indigenous governance of our original territories, including the ability to caretake our lands with knowledge systems and practices developed over millennia, not only advances decolonization, but might also support broader efforts to sustain all lands and lifeways today. For example, Indigenous peoples have long recognized the value of fire in eliminating invasive species and nourishing plant life. In some communities’ restorative burning practices, dry grasses feed slow-burning cool fires, which in turn create rich environments for the growth of new grasses. These practices regenerate, heal, and nourish the land, leading to new growth. As this brief example illustrates, Indigenous land practices can help sustain the biodiversity that strengthens the health and wellness of the planet. To that end, we advocate wherever possible, for the transfer of Indigenous lands to Indigenous hands, and for the ability of Indigenous peoples to co-manage their territories with those who currently occupy them.

Revitalize Indigenous Models of Education

As educators, aunties, mothers, and grandmothers, we believe that to be in right relationship we must think about the education we offer our children, recognizing that the generations coming behind us will shape our relationships with each other and to the land for years to come. Indigenous societies have long practiced forms of education in which land-based, play-based, intergenerational, and applied learning strategies have helped the next generation learn what it means to live in ethical and sustainable relationship with all living beings. These long-standing systems of education that have helped our children learn the full spectrum of what it means to be human, to live ethically, and to take care of one another have been interrupted by colonial models of education.

Colonial schooling has served as a weapon to erode Indigenous territories and disrupt the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next. In a history marked by forced removals from traditional homelands, coerced attendance at federal schools, and persistent racism in public institutions, formal western schooling attempted to incorporate Native students into capitalist networks of consumption that prioritize private property and competition. Colonial schools became models for public education today, schools which center narratives that enable, and even promote, othering, oppression, and exploitation. The majority of public education today emphasizes independence and competition over collective obligations; rationality and progress over care and compassion; and separation from nature over networks of embedded relations. Together, these approaches teach children to view the land as a secular and inanimate set of resources, designed for human-entitled use and economic gain.

These models of colonial schooling have interrupted (but not destroyed) Indigenous practices of land stewardship, knowledge transmission, and kinship. Our history, even as it has been marked by violence and disruption, has also been marked by our resistance, ingenuity, and dedication to creating Indigenous futures in which the responsibilities we have to one another and to the land form the foundation for students’ learning and being. Our embedded ways of learning together with each other and with the land continue to nourish and sustain us, and, we believe, offer a more generative model of education for all children.

What if, instead of the models of colonial schooling that extracted childhoods from land and family, children learned about their place in the world through systems of relationality? What if they had the opportunity to learn in intergenerational environments that cultivated caring forms of learning in relation to place, or that attended to the sacredness of all life and the spiritual dimensions of knowing? What if educators centered Indigenous teaching and learning practices, such as storytelling and story-listening? This approach would help students understand their responsibilities to all their relatives, human and greater-than-human. It would inspire children to work toward inclusive conceptions of justice that account for the well-being of land and all it sustains. It would help children acquire skills in restoring relationships and healing harm, skills that we believe are as important in our relationships with one another as in our relationships with the land. Such a model would foster land-based solidarities and land-centered literacies that situate children within a vast network of relations whose well-being is intimately bound up with their own.

Recognize the Value of Indigenous Leadership for All Peoples and Lands

Just as Indigenous educational models can serve as a basis for fostering healthier relational practices for all children with each other and the land, so too can Indigenous values serve as a basis for a healthier society. Indigenous knowledge systems and systems of governance are not only relevant to Indigenous peoples, but have relevance and implications for all peoples living on Indigenous lands, as well as for the survival of the planet. For example, Indigenous educators and tribal leaders are currently working to address food insecurity in response to the current, unsustainable models of food production and transportation. Investing in local foodways and regenerating ecosystems offer ways to shift the social crises brought on by climate change and to restructure our damaging reliance on fossil fuels. In addition, Indigenous diplomatic traditions that emphasize the values of autonomy and interdependence offer important models for fostering more mutually respectful relationships between all peoples. And Indigenous legal traditions that foreground peacemaking and restorative justice offer meaningful alternatives to punitive notions of justice that are the basis of mass incarceration. These brief examples highlight the value of Indigenous leadership, not just in supporting Indigenous peoples, but in helping transform society from one based on extraction, competition, and waste to one based on mutual respect, support, and sustainability.


Like generations of Indigenous educators who have preceded and will follow us, we believe the answer to the question of how we may come to live in right relations with one another and with the land requires answers deeply connected with education and land stewardship, as the lessons we model and teach to the next generations will shape the world beyond our lifetimes. Living in better relationship with the land and with one another benefits all living beings. To that end, we reiterate our call that as a society we must refuse to engage in practices that further harm Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities and homelands. We must restore Indigenous lands and support Indigenous land caretaking practices; revitalize Indigenous models of education, including language reclamation and community-based models of education that emphasize ecological regeneration; and we must recognize and raise up Indigenous leadership systems for everyone. The vision we have described here is a vision that ultimately focuses on life, that values and prioritizes the dignity and respect of all living beings. It teaches our children how to co-exist in respectful, reciprocal relationships with diverse communities, including lands, waters, atmospheres, plants, and animals, and it believes in and works towards a more honest, just, loving, and sustainable future for all of us.

In developing this testimony, we engaged in conversation with the writings of scholars John Borrows, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Noelani Goodyear–Ka‘ōpua, Sandy Grande, Daniel Wildcat, Eve Tuck, Bryan Brayboy, and K. Wayne Yang. We are grateful for their ongoing contributions and insights.

Meredith McCoy (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa descent) is an Assistant Professor and Andersen Fellow of American Studies and History at Carleton College where she teaches about Indigenous histories and research methods. McCoy currently serves on the Teaching Hard History Advisory Board for Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Dr. Emma Elliott-Groves is an assistant professor in the Department of Learning Sciences and Human Development in the College of Education at the University of Washington. Her work grows from ethical frameworks generated by Indigenous and place-based knowledges and practices to create process-centered approaches that illuminate Indigenous pathways toward collective livelihood.

Dr. Leilani Sabzalian (Alutiiq) is an Assistant Professor of Indigenous Studies in Education and the Co-Director of the Sapsik’walá (Teacher) Education Program at the University of Oregon. Her research focuses on creating spaces to support Indigenous students and Indigenous self-determination in public schools, and preparing teachers to challenge colonialism in curriculum, policy, and practice.

Megan Bang (Ojibwe and Italian descent) is a Professor of the Learning Sciences and Psychology at Northwestern University and is currently serving as the Senior Vice President at the Spencer Foundation. Dr. Bang studies dynamics of culture, learning, and development broadly with a specific focus on the complexities of navigating multiple meaning systems in creating and implementing more effective and just learning environments in science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics education.

“Restoring Indigenous Systems of Relationality” 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).