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Ernst Haeckel, Chelonia. Schildkröten, 1904. Photo: Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ds-07619.

In his essay “Of Cannibals” (1580), Michel de Montaigne wrote of the recently discovered inhabitants of the so-called New World, “the laws of nature govern them still […] it is a nation wherein there is no manner of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no science of numbers, no name of magistrate or political superiority; no use of service, riches, or poverty, no contracts, no successions, no dividends, no properties, no employments, but those of leisure; the very words that signify lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, detraction, pardon, never heard of.” Montaigne’s celebration of the egalitarian character of Indigenous culture bears striking similarity to many subsequent accounts of European encounters with Indigenous people, from Gonzalo’s famous utopian speech near the outset of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611) all the way to Françoise de Graffigny’s bestselling epistolary novel Letters from a Peruvian Woman (1747).

The idea of what came to be known as the “noble savage” was, in other words, wildly and enduringly popular in Europe. For many critics, this discourse was foundational to European racism. Yet in a talk given a year before his death, the anthropologist David Graeber remarks that scholars today tend to assume that Europeans of the time were so utterly racist that anytime they wrote of Indigenous culture they were essentially fabricating a series of stereotypes. In other words, these tropes may have allowed writers to satirize European society without being put in prison but were nonetheless based on completely imaginary versions of Indigenous culture. But what, Graeber asks, if the “dialogue with a savage” genre that developed in the years after Montaigne’s essay was instead a fairly accurate reflection of withering Indigenous critique of European social hierarchy and inequality?

How might texts such as those of Montaigne and Graffigny reflect a genuine unsettling of European assumptions about the “advanced” character of their grossly unjust societies, a disturbance resulting from encounters with Indigenous people? Furthermore, might we not see the ideas of racial hierarchy that were a mainstay of the disciplines of natural history that developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a defensive reaction to these critiques from the peoples Europe was trying to subjugate? What points of friction, what dissenting bodies of thought within the tradition of natural history testify to these challenges to scientific racism during the age of empire?

In this essay, I discuss Russian anarchist and scientist Peter Kropotkin’s under-acknowledged but groundbreaking book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902), arguing that the text reflects a politically radical stream of thinking within the discipline of biology. Kropotkin’s investigation of the forms of mutual aid within different animal species and, perhaps even more importantly, among different human cultures in the not-too-distant past retains its radicalism in a moment when solidarity and egalitarianism are pressing political exigencies. Kropotkin’s work resonates in significant ways with the tradition of thinking that derives from Montaigne and, if we follow Graeber’s argument, from the Indigenous critique of European social inequality. The mixture of scientific observation, speculations on evolution, and cultural critique evident in Mutual Aid might therefore be situated within a tradition that can best be termed red natural history.

How were European doctrines of racial supremacy generated and sustained in the face of the scathing Indigenous critiques of inequality evident in the work of Montaigne and subsequent writers such as Graffigny? During the eighteenth century, when these texts enjoyed such popularity in the context of critiques of European society, the natural history museum developed as one of the key sites for the manufacture of European doctrines of racial supremacy. As  , natural history museums functioned from their inception during the Enlightenment as repositories for the objects and specimens collected on European colonial expeditions around the globe. They thereby provided public legitimation of European colonialism. The natural history museum developed alongside and functioned as a display space for taxonomy, the scientific discipline that named and classified biological organisms based on their shared characteristics. Das and Lowe report that in the eighteenth century, Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, who is generally considered the father of modern taxonomy, divided humanity along racial lines, describing Europeans as “governed by laws” while representing Africans as “governed by caprice.” Following this reasoning, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s On the Natural Varieties of Mankind (1776) helped to inaugurate the discipline of physical anthropology by classifying humanity into five fundamental types based on the geographical distribution of peoples.

By the nineteenth century, such typologies were linked to craniology, which established the purported superiority of white Europeans over other peoples through measurements of the shape of their skulls. Natural history museums displayed—and still display—these relics prominently, and scientists and other “collectors” competed to amass remains of Native American and other subjugated peoples. Assertations about anatomical difference between “races” of humans were linked to assumptions about civilizational inferiority and superiority after the advent of Darwin’s theory of evolution. For example, Thomas Henry Huxley, who was known as “Darwin’s bulldog,” wrote in his article “The Struggle for Existence in Human Society” (1888) that the animal world is akin to a gladiatorial contest, in which “the strongest, swiftest, and cunningest live to fight another day.” A similar situation, Huxley argued, obtained in human societies: “so among primitive men, the weakest and stupidest went to the wall, while the toughest and shrewdest […] survived.” Drawing on Darwin’s theory of natural selection, Huxley assumed that all life on Earth was characterized by a Hobbesian war of all against all and that the history of civilization was about the taming of these underlying violent drives.

Huxley’s views squared with those of Social Darwinists during the age of empire, who saw the European nation-state as proof of white male superiority and as a legitimation of the right to rule over other purportedly less advanced peoples, including the colonized peoples of the world, as well as the European working class and women. But there was a central, unacknowledged contradiction in these social-Darwinist arguments. For if life was at bottom a struggle in which the strongest and most cunning survived, what exempted the European ruling classes from this logic? Were they not simply the violent and wily victors of this struggle for survival? And, if so, weren’t European civilizational pretensions nothing but a veneer covering over and legitimating cruel rapacity? This is the import of Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz, the supposed emissary of European light, whose genocidal behavior and dying words (“The Horror! The Horror!”) reveal the lie of European claims to civilizational superiority in Heart of Darkness.

Yet the social Darwinism consecrated at powerful institutions such as natural history museums was not universally accepted. Indeed, there was an important but still underacknowledged scientific tradition that explicitly challenged this dominant strain of European natural history. Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution is the most powerful articulation of this dissenting, radical perspective. Born into the Russian aristocracy, Kropotkin chose to do his military service as a youth in the remote eastern provinces of the Russian empire, where he became involved in geographic survey expeditions in Siberia and Manchuria. There, he wrote subsequently in Mutual Aid, he observed two dominant factors in the natural world: first, the extreme severity of climatic conditions, which meant that animals, far from struggling with one another, struggled simply to survive; and, second, that animals of the same species did not fight one another but rather, in Kropotkin’s words, engaged in “Mutual Aid and Mutual Support carried on to an extent which made me suspect in it a feature of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life.” Drawing on these observations, Kropotkin wrote Mutual Aid as a direct challenge to the work of Huxley and other social Darwinists.

Despite his opposition to Huxley, Kropotkin did believe that species competed with one another. Indeed, he was explicitly critical of writers such as Rousseau, who saw in nature only love, peace, and harmony. Kropotkin agreed with Darwin’s arguments about competition among species as one of the motors for evolution. Importantly, though, Kropotkin suggested that mutual aid was the dominant feature of life within particular species, and thus within the animal world in general:

As soon as we study animals—not in laboratories and museums only, but in the forest and the prairie, in the steppe and the mountains—we at once perceive that though there is an immense amount of warfare and extermination going on amidst various species, and especially amidst various classes of animals, there is, at the same time, as much, or perhaps even more, of mutual support, mutual aid, and mutual defense amidst animals belonging to the same species or, at least, to the same society. Sociability is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle.

In making these arguments about mutual aid as a fundamental law of nature, Kropotkin drew on and developed the work of Russian naturalists such as zoologist K. F. Kessler, whose 1879 lecture on mutual aid in the animal world was an inspiration for Kropotkin’s subsequent book. As historian of science Daniel Todes argues, mutual aid was a broadly accepted core of the Russian intellectual tradition during the nineteenth century, which welcomed Darwin’s ideas about natural selection while also seeing the Malthusian assumptions about social stratification as a law of nature that undergirded Darwin’s early work on evolution as a product of a particular bourgeois English school of thought.

Far from being universally valid, this Malthusian influence on Darwin conveniently helped legitimate the class, race, and gender hierarchies of the Victorian age. In Mutual Aid, Kropotkin argues that Darwin in fact came to reject this facile position in later work such as The Descent of Man (1871), where, according to Kropotkin, Darwin pointed out how, “in numberless animal societies […] struggle is replaced by co-operation, and how that substitution results in the development of intellectual and moral faculties which secure to the species the best conditions for survival.” A great part of Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid consists of detailed studies of the complex forms of social solidarity found among species such as ants, parrots, and chimpanzees, sociability that he argues is responsible for these species’ superior self-organization and evolutionary success.

As Iain McKay explains in his excellent introduction to Kropotkin’s work, the insights about the animal world advanced in Mutual Aid have been abundantly corroborated by biologists in recent decades. Leading contemporary primatologist Frans de Waal for example writes that Kropotkin “rightly noted that many animals survive not through struggle but through mutual aid,” a position that he documents in detail in his book Good Natured. Noted paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould concurred, arguing that “Kropotkin’s basic argument is correct. Struggle does occur in many modes, and some lead to co-operation among members of a species as the best pathway to advantage for individuals.” As Iain McKay has documented, many other scientists have joined this chorus, including biologist Lee Alan Dugatkin, whose Cooperation Among Animals extends Kropotkin’s catalogue of animal mutualism exhaustively. Perhaps most surprisingly, this list also includes biologist Richard Dawkins, whose book The Selfish Gene shows that what he calls “mutualistic cooperation” is in fact often central to the successful transmission of an organism’s genetic heritage. George Monbiot’s account of the myriad form of cooperation that unfold among the organisms living in the ground under our feet in his recent book Regenesis is only the latest take on the complex, self-organizing systems that structure the natural world.

Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid was not only the first work to prove that cooperation was central to the survival of animals—it also extended this insight to human societies. Challenging the writing of previous utopian philosophers of the European Enlightenment, Kropotkin argued that human solidarity was based in the practices of mutual aid that had helped our species survive and evolve for thousands of years:

It is not love and not even sympathy upon which Society is based in mankind. It is the conscience—be it only at the stage of an instinct—of human solidarity. It is the unconscious recognition of the force that is borrowed by each man from the practice of mutual aid; of the close dependency of every one’s happiness upon the happiness of all; and of the sense of justice, or equity, which brings the individual to consider the rights of every other individual as equal to his own.

The second half of Mutual Aid consists of an exposition of this claim that the cooperative instinct is the basis of human society and solidarity. Drawing on recent anthropological research, Kropotkin argues that “the earliest traces of man, dating from the glacial or the early post-glacial period, afford unmistakable proofs of man having lived even then in societies.” This evidence directly contradicts the assumptions of Hobbes and successors of his like Huxley, who falsely represented, in Kropotkin’s words, “primitive mankind as a disorderly agglomeration of individuals, who only obey their individual passions, and take advantage of their personal force and cunningness against all other representatives of the species.” For Kropotkin, “societies, bands, or tribes—not families—were thus the primitive form of organization of mankind and its earliest ancestors.” The upshot of these insights about the prehistory of humanity is a damning indictment of contemporary European society and the competitive ethos that undergirded capitalism: “Unbridled individualism is a modern growth, but it is not characteristic of primitive mankind.”

When Kropotkin writes “primitive” in the preceding quotations, he refers to Homo sapiens during the earliest period of our existence as a species. But it was hard for even as radical a scientist and activist as Kropotkin to wholly escape the dominant evolutionary discourse of his day. Indeed, the chapters of Mutual Aid that deal with human cooperation are organized into analysis of “mutual aid among savages,” “mutual aid among the barbarians,” “mutual aid in the medieval city,” and “mutual aid among ourselves,” in an evolutionary schema that seems to replicate the kind of racist thinking on display in so many museums of natural history.

Yet Kropotkin inverts the evolutionary typology that these distinctions seem to encode by arguing that the forms of human solidarity evinced in the social organization of “savages” and “barbarians” have been eroded by the subsequent establishment of the state. Thus, for Kropotkin, the rise of the centralized state in the absolute monarchies of early modern Europe generated the conditions of selfish individualism necessary for the growth of capitalism. He argues that there were two main reasons for this: first, “in proportion as the obligations towards the State grew in numbers the citizens were evidently relieved from their obligations towards each other.” Equally if not more importantly, however, Kropotkin argues that states “systematically weeded out all institutions in which the mutual-aid tendency had formerly found its expression.” The success of this campaign of ideological and physical annihilation can be measured by the near-universal acceptance of the doctrine in biology that “the struggle of each against all is the leading principle of nature.”

But the battle of elites to destroy popular traditions of mutual aid and solidarity was not completely victorious. Kropotkin argues that “the nucleus of mutual-support institutions, habits, and customs remains alive with the millions; it keeps them together; and they prefer to cling to their customs, beliefs, and traditions rather than to accept the teachings of a war of each against all, which are offered to them under the title of science, but are no science at all.” As in the portion of Mutual Aid focused on the world of animals, Kropotkin elaborates myriad examples of institutions of cooperation and solidarity established by the multitude. Among these were the communal forms of agriculture practiced in peasant villages.

Kropotkin’s take here was likely shaped by the founder of the Women’s Union during the Paris Commune, a young Russian woman named Elizabeth Dmitrieff. Influenced by Nicolay Chernyshevsky’s novel What is to Be Done? (1863), Dmitrieff believed that collectivist rural organizations such as the Russian obshina could be nodes of the radical society to come. Other historical moments Kropotkin discusses include autonomous cities of medieval Europe, contemporary labor unions, and the “countless societies, clubs, and alliances, for the enjoyment of life, for study and research, for education, and so on, which have lately grown up.” Beyond the inherent interest of the historical examples he adduces from various epochs, however, the overarching point in Kropotkin’s account is that the elites who wield state power cannot succeed in stamping out the human instinct to engage in mutual aid. As Kropotkin puts it, “the mutual-aid tendency in man has so remote an origin, and is so deeply interwoven with all the past evolution of the human race, that it has been maintained by mankind up to the present time, notwithstanding all vicissitudes of history.”

Herein lies the significance of Montaigne’s account of Indigenous cultures with “no name of magistrate or political superiority.” Like the many other stinging Indigenous critiques of European society that David Graeber excavates in his lecture on the origin of theories of social inequality, Montaigne conveys the sense of life in a society in which mutual aid and cooperation had not yet been eclipsed by the divine right of kings, in which egalitarian values of social solidarity had not yet been suppressed by the rampant inequalities generated by capitalist class warfare and racist imperial science.

Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid rekindles this critique, grounding a vision of what it means to be human in the social commons and practices of commoning. The links he laid out between cooperation in nature and solidarity among the multitude were incendiary and remain so. His insistence on the persistence of the human instinct for solidarity, of mutual aid as the foundation of morality, could not be more important as humanity collectively confronts the struggle against a capitalist system bent on planetary ecocide. Kropotkin’s arguments for mutual aid offer inspiration for a vision of scientific inquiry and political struggle for the common good rather than for profit. His work reminds us that there are alternatives to capitalist competition, plunder, and feckless, ceaseless growth. It is a vision of a world without inequality and without the cops and jails and racism that maintain and intensify such inequality.

A complementary vision can be found in the work of the many Indigenous activists who have fought to preserve and elaborate traditions of care for kin and planet. Today these struggles for alternative futures are articulated in the work of contemporary activists such as the Red Nation, whose Red Deal lays out a series of key signposts for radical climate action, proposals that call for action beyond the scope of the US colonial state. For the Red Nation, decolonization must be paired with the total cessation of carbon extraction and emissions that climate scientists are calling for. It is from these interwoven practices of decolonial work and radical scientific inquiry that a red natural history adequate to the task of ending planetary ecocide will blossom.

Ashley Dawson is professor of postcolonial studies in the English department at the Graduate Center, City University of New York and the College of Staten Island. His latest books include >em>People’s Power: Reclaiming the Energy Commons (O/R, 2020), Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change (Verso, 2017), and Extinction: A Radical History (O/R, 2016). A member of the Social Text Collective and the founder of the CUNY Climate Action Lab, he is a long-time climate justice activist.

“Cooperative Nature” was originally published in Periscope: Red Natural History, Social Text (online, February 28, 2023).

Picture taken by author at the Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson Arizona.

Indigenous is a misnomer. We are family members, clans, nations, and relatives. We know each other by relation to one another. We have stories about ourselves and the animals and the creatures that no longer live on the planet. This knowledge, this sense of place-based understanding, was denied throughout .

For many Indigenous peoples, natural history reads like the history of some unknown universe—some planet of landscapes and monsters with Greek or Latin names. The Eurocentrism of the narrative is not lost on us. The ancient world was carved out in languages foreign to Indigenous nations and repeated the West’s own mythology about itself as the source of knowledge and civilization. Such conceptual colonialism creeps into everyday sciences, especially the natural sciences, where Indigenous people play Tonto-like roles to the real work done by Lone Ranger scientists. We are a people without history for a natural history without Indigenous peoples.

This essay explores the ways in which ancient history and the dystopic future are predicated on Indigenous erasure. Indigenous peoples are confined to the past, yet absent from it. In some cases, we are not possessors of the continent, but responsible for the extinction of ancient mammals such as the woolly mammoth or giant sloth. In natural history, Indigenous people appear to fill in gaps when describing the ancient world but disappear just in time for settlement and discovery.

Take the knowledge about the Dilophosaurus, a dinosaur found in 1940 within the Navajo Nation by Jesse Williams, a Diné man from Tuba City. Williams must have known that what he found was significant. He talked about it with neighbors. So much so that a local trader had heard about it and told a Berkeley paleontologist in the area.

Two years later, the paleontologist excavated the remains of the animal and took credit for the discovery. He named the dinosaur Dilophosaurus wetherilli, wetherilli a Latinization of a white trader who made his living selling goods to Diné people. The Diné man who actually found the skeleton was included only in the folklore retelling of the discovery and not given any credit for it. He wasn’t mentioned in the journal article announcing the dinosaur to the paleontology community in 1954, not even as a footnote.

In her 2005 book, Fossil Legends of the First Americans, folklorist Adrienne Mayor documents this history of scientific colonialism and Indigenous narratives about the ancient world. She writes that Indigenous peoples were the first to find mammoth bones in North America, showing them to French traders in the 1760s, who instantly took credit for the discovery. The Indigenous peoples who brought them the bones were dismissed as savages, without even their tribal affiliations recorded. This is why I have to refer to them here using the generic category “Indigenous” and not by the tribal name, or by using the names of the specific individuals involved in the exchange of knowledge.

In 1998, five years after Jurassic Park made the Dilophosaurus world famous, Arizona passed a law to name the Dilophosaurus one of two official “state dinosaurs.” The conversation about what should be the state dinosaur was both ridiculous and at times xenophobic. Some noted that Dilophosaurus skeletons were found in China and so were obviously not limited to the territorial claims of Arizona.

Importantly, the controversy provoked Diné people to start talking about the injustice of paleontology more generally, and, in particular, how the skeleton was removed from Diné lands without permission or cultural consideration. Bessie Yellowhair, today a tribal official, told the Arizona Republic that the removal of the Dilophosaurus from the Navajo Nation “violated Navajo sovereignty and property rights.”

To this day, Berkeley contends it had proper research clearance. But at the time of the initial discovery in the 1940s, the Navajo Nation lacked sufficient regulation over research on the reservation. This would not change until the 1990s, when the Navajo Nation created a human subjects review board and a historic preservation office to oversee research conducted within the reservation—research that belongs to the Navajo Nation and Diné people. The Berkeley paleontologists took advantage of the colonial situation to get at well-known geological formations and hunt for ancient skeletons—skeletons that have meaning in Diné history and cosmology.

Too often and too easily Indigeneity is reduced to a simplified monolith. Generations of social change, cultural advancements, scientific understandings, and political developments among diverse and different nations are denied. Our bodies and beliefs are only useful as background information.

Take for example a 2018 article in Science Advances, “Footprints preserve terminal Pleistocene hunt? Human-sloth interactions in North America.” In this article, the authors rely on an overtly racist 1933 study of Pueblo Indians by eugenicist and founder of physical anthropology Aleš Hrdlička to estimate the height of people who made the tracks near a giant sloth in ancient times. Hrdlička is notorious for his support of eugenics as a science, infusing his racial theory in how he approached his anthropology. He believed central Europe was the center of human evolution and he threated Indigenous peoples like objects.

The HrdliÄŤka study was a catalog of body measurements, skull shapes, observable physiques, skin tone, nose shapes, hair coarseness, teeth size, and so forth. These were classic markers of eugenicist research that informed racist theories of human evolution.

HrdliÄŤka treated Indigenous peoples as objects and not humans. In 1904 he convinced the Mexican Army, after they killed Yaqui men, women, and children, that he should be allowed to collect some of the victims as specimens to study. He took the bodies to the archives of the National Museum in Washington D.C. It was more than a hundred years before descendants of the murdered were able to get the bodies back to Yaqui lands in Mexico for a proper burial.

Although Hrdlička opposed Nazism, he was also a white supremist who said late in life that the Soviet Union was the “the last great biological reserve of the white race.”

When archeologists today use Hrdlička’s racist and intrusive biophysical research to inform their understanding of the ancient past, the biopolitics of race is renewed in the hidden form of data buried in footnotes and methodologies despite what is known of the researcher’s methods and biases.

In her landmark book The Indigenous Paleolithic of the Western Hemisphere, Paulette F. C. Steeves writes that archeologists use “Clovis culture” to homogenize various cultures and tribes throughout the continents into one people and to limit their time on this side of the planet, to suggest Indigenous peoples can’t be in North or South America before a certain date. She notes archeologists rarely insist on this kind of dogma when looking at Western Europe.

When we think of Indigenous peoples in natural history, our stories are ignored, marginalized, or appropriated in the form of “traditional ecological knowledge,” as something supporting and not fundamentally challenging Western epistemology. The explanations of Indigenous people offered in the biological and social sciences work to erase Indigenous histories, philosophies, and politics. We are rendered objects and not people, to be studied and not considered.

In environmental sciences, Indigenous peoples are shaped by the land as a warning of potential “collapse.” In our final example, geographer Jared Diamond argues that Anasazi people over exploited natural resources and therefore their society imploded. This is crude environmental determinism that reflects US climate anxiety more than an accurate history of Indigenous peoples in the southwest. Anasazi people didn’t disappear; their descendants are among the Isleta, Acoma, Hopi, or even Diné people who still live in the region.

In this era of –cenes, climate change, and exclusionary epistemologies, how do we account for temporal injustices that are inherent in the practice of natural history? In a forthcoming paper, Sara Smith and I argue that scenes remain Eurocentric and exclude Black and Indigenous epistemologies and temporalities.

To decolonize natural history is to fundamentally challenge and expand upon what we consider “natural” and “historical.” One approach is to center Indigenous narratives and recognize Western mythologies when we see them. When scholars homogenize Indigenous experiences or cultures, or act as if we were incapable of understandings the ancient world, they are perpetuating epistemic racism and colonialism.

Andrew Curley (Diné) is an assistant professor in the School of Geography, Development, and Environment at the University of Arizona. Curley’s research focuses on the everyday incorporation of Indigenous nations into colonial economies. Building on ethnographic research, his publications speak to how Indigenous communities understand coal, energy, land, water, infrastructure, and development in an era of energy transition and climate change.

“Dinosaurs, Eugenics, and Collapse: Indigenous Erasure in Natural History” was originally published in Periscope: Red Natural History, Social Text (online, February 28, 2023).

Tipi on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation during a ceremony. Photograph by Rosalyn LaPier, courtesy of the author.

Nitawahsin was a large empire or nation-state of the Amskapi Piikani and their sister-states, located almost near the center of North America. Its borders were the Saskatchewan River to the north, Yellowstone River to the south, the Rocky Mountains to the west, and the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers to the east. At least for two thousand years, but perhaps longer, the Amskapi Piikani and their sister nations lived in Nitawahsin, and Nitawahsin was recognized by other nation-states and empires on its borders as its own country. Its citizens had their own cultural practices, they spoke their own language, they had their own religion, and they had another way of seeing and relating to the natural world. Nitawahsin also had conflicts with other Indigenous nation-states whose citizens spoke different languages, practiced different religions, and viewed the world through their own unique lens. Then a new country foreign to the Great Plains and from far away arrived in 1804—it was the United States of America. A vast difference in their interactions began as the US did not recognize the Nitawahsin as its own country. The US colonial government failed to recognize Nitawahsin borders and erased its existence with their newly created maps in the nineteenth century. This began with the Louisiana Purchase between France and the US in 1803. The act of staking claim to the physical land of Indigenous peoples also came with the act of staking claim to its vast natural resources and Indigenous knowledge. One way the US staked this claim was to collect data and objects for natural history institutions and possess them within their walls.

The first interaction that the Amskapi Piikani had with the US government was with the military and scientific expedition of Captain Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s Corps of Discovery. Lewis and Clark illegally trespassed through Nitawahsin, collecting specimens of plants, animals, ethnography, and other natural history without the permission of the Amskapi Piikani. And they did this with the servitude of enslaved peoples. This American scientific methodology, set forth under instructions by President Thomas Jefferson, would continue throughout the nineteenth century as the US government, private museums, and even individuals collected Indigenous materials without Indigenous nation-states’ consent. Their acquisition of tangible and intangible objects for natural history collections over the course of more than a century amounted to a slow violence, “gradually and out of sight” that over time engendered “a delayed destruction” within Indigenous communities.

The first interaction of the US government with the Amskapi Piikani on Nitawahsin—that of a military and scientific expedition extracting natural and cultural resources—formed the basis of their intersecting histories for decades and even centuries to come. From that initial contact with the US, the contours of the Amskapi Pikunni world have been defined by those who came to Nitawahsin to extract objects and knowledge. American perspectives have so overwhelmed the Amskapi Pikunni historical record that the task of deconstructing and reconstructing our history is difficult without also telling the story of the US as the possessor of our stories. As I am doing here.

Scholars argue that “[t]he emergence of the public museum in the 18th and 19th centuries cannot be disentangled from painful histories of colonial subjugation and exploitation,” and that this desire to possess and order “speaks to a broader mindset of western dominion over other cultures—and nature.” That settler-colonial mindset is entangled within the collections themselves and it is difficult to disentangle it even today. Conducting research today requires Indigenous scholars to use objects and histories from natural history museums that were collected in the eighteenth, nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. And it requires us to engage with the troubled past of collecting and cultural genocide, which can be difficult, emotional, or even traumatizing.

Although the American practice of collecting as a tool of colonization and conquest by a nation-state was a new concept to the Amskapi Piikani, the concept of taking objects as individual souvenirs of war was not. They have a word for acquiring objects as a souvenir or a trophy from an enemy—it is inaamaahkaa. The word is a combination of two others, namaa, or bow, and i’taki, or take, and its meaning becomes Of course, the Amaskapi Piikani had a different concept of the English words enemy and war than Americans. The Amskapi Piikani words for enemy, kaahtomáán or kaahtomin, come from words that mean, “challenging someone to compete” or “playing against someone in a non-athletic game.” Historically, the Amskapi Piikani thought of “enemies” as opponents in a competition. They embedded the cultural practice of inaamaahkaa or “taking souvenirs from an enemy” within their society. Amskapi Piikani society valued individuals with this skill and enjoyed stories of their adventures. I want to share this information to reinforce that Indigenous peoples also have cultural practices that include acquiring objectsthe American concept.

In the summer of 2018, I researched and wrote a short article on the lives of Amskapi Piikani women and the unique headdress that they wear, kaapoisaamiiksi. I wanted to highlight the dream of an ancient woman that created the headdress, its connection to the supernatural realm, its unfortunate discontinued use due to cultural genocide and colonial subjugation, and its contemporary revival. The kaapoisaamiiksi is revered by Amskapi Piikani women and in recent years they revitalized it as an act of decolonization and to use it for healing and community well-being. Working on this kind of historical research—a story with a happy ending—began an interesting chain of events.

Unexpectedly, I was invited to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago to give a talk, which I titled, “Museum Collections: Are They Products of American Settler Colonialism?” The Field Museum was formerly called the Field Columbian Museum of Chicago. It developed during and after the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which celebrated the four hundredth anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus. The fair served as an opportunity for natural history to be collected from Indigenous peoples from all corners of the hemisphere.

While I was at the Field Museum for my talk I asked if they had any kaapoisaamiiksi in the collections, and luckily they had one. At that time they knew little of its history. I was able to view it in their collections, although it remained covered in plastic. I did not write about it or photograph it for my article because I did not see its accession records. My short piece “Her Dream: Blackfeet Women’s Stand-Up Headdress” came out that winter. The curatorial staff at the Field Museum were fascinated by the headdress’s history, and, knowing its story, wanted to spotlight their kaapoisaamiiksi in a small display within a newly renovated section of the museum that opened in May 2022. They asked me and several kaapoisaamiiksi owners to participate in the multi-year process. The Field Museum staff said they would do further research as to the history of the headdress within their own records. In the winter of 2021, two years after my article came out, they researched their owns accession records and shared them.

They learned that the headdress was purchased in 1905, one hundred years after the Corps of Discovery first came to Nitawahsin. A Canadian federal employee in Alberta, Canada sold the headdress to the Field Museum. He sold it along with a small number of items to the museum for $105.00. The buying and selling of Indigenous cultural objects had become increasingly common after a century of interaction since Lewis and Clark. I wrote about this history in Invisible Reality: Storytellers, Storytakers and the Supernatural World of the Blackfeet, and I argued that an “unintended economy” grew that included the selling of objects, stories, or songs to museums and collectors. I called the museum collectors storytakers.

Like other Indigenous scholars, I rely on the records of natural history museums and collections to help tell our stories. These stories often cannot be told outside or separate from the history of dispossession, trauma, and on-going oppression. Even when we want that to be the case. Our history is intimately intertwined with the colonization, cultural genocide, and violence inflicted by the US government and their agents. Using natural history museums requires Indigenous scholars to acknowledge (but not necessarily accept) the Pandora’s box that will be opened by each archival door.

The Field Museum’s records told a darker story as well. Along with the kaapoisaamiiksi, the Canadian official also sold to the Field Museum the human remains of eleven people—for a price higher than the price of the kaapoisaamiiksi. The story of the Field Museum headdress found within the accession records was not the happy ending that I had hoped. It was instead a part of the slow violence of natural history collections. And in addition to the sales receipts and transporting documents the records also held correspondence between the museum and the seller that are perhaps too unsettling, irreverent, and even uncouth to quote from here. Historians will often brush aside these kinds of letters as “a product of their time” in an effort to not address the true violence and white supremacy occurring with the buying and selling of the ancestors of Indigenous people. (See Field Museum of Natural History, Accession Date, August 10, 1905, #940.) And it is just these kinds of documents that remind Indigenous scholars of where we have stood and continue to stand in these histories—as objects. And even as some Indigenous scholars, such as myself, wrestle with these incongruities, others walk away from this system of academia and natural history museums that they view as too tainted to engage.

American natural history museums are “products of their own history,” political, and represent a reality that is embedded in over two hundred years of US history. As early as 1793, Thomas Jefferson was interested in scientific discovery in the West of Indigenous empires. He initially enlisted the help of the French naturalist Andre Michaux to “survey the Missouri River country.” But that fell through. He then commissioned Lewis and Clark as “Linnaean discoverers” who introduced scientific order to Nitawahsin and other Indigenous nation-states. Jefferson directed his men to impress upon Indigenous people the benign nature of their scientific research and to “satisfy them of its innocence.” But to the people of Nitawahsin, the results of Jefferson’s pursuit of science has been anything but harmless. Instead it has ushered in over two centuries a slow violence of extraction and objectification that impacts our community to this day.

I attended the opening of the new Field Museum of Natural History exhibit “Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories” on May 21, 2022. The museum collaborated with numerous Indigenous communities and individuals to recreate one of their Native American halls. Several museums are now in the process of similar efforts. Within the larger exhibit at the Field Museum, curators included a display of the kaapoisaamiiksi that they collected and purchased in 1905. The Field Museum invited several women from the Stand Up Headdress Society from both the US and Canada and male singers to do a blessing at the opening. There was a lot of interest by media in the opening and our statewide Montana newspaper and local reservation newspaper did articles focusing just on the kaapoisaamiiksi display. Every Amskapi Piikani person I spoke with or saw on social media was proud to have part of our people represented in the Field Museum new exhibit. We are so often erased in these spaces; it felt good to be represented.

Yet, I remained apprehensive. Was this the end of the story? The story of slow violence by collectors, natural history museums, libraries, and archives?  Natural history museums and archives still hold a significant number of our “artifacts,” the objects of our lifeways, from objects used in daily life to sacred objects used for religious practice. As Indigenous communities, and especially our younger generations, seek to decolonize and revitalize our languages and lifeways that were violently taken from our peoples, why were we celebrating yet another sacred object being possessed behind plexiglass?

Rosalyn LaPier is an award-winning Indigenous writer, ethnobotanist, and environmental activist with a BA in physics and PhD in environmental history. She works within Indigenous communities to revitalize Indigenous and traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), to address environmental justice and the climate crisis, and to strengthen public policy for Indigenous languages. Rosalyn is an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana and MĂ©tis.

“The Slow Violence of Natural History” was originally published in Periscope: Red Natural History, Social Text (online, February 28, 2023).

With every superstorm, flood, drought, or heatwave, the uneven effects of climate change are made clear. Coastal communities in the poorer nations are displaced from their homelands while wealthy nations move to tighten border restrictions. Private fire services are hired to protect mansions from wildfires as working-class neighborhoods burn to the ground. The most exploited workers toil in dangerously hot and humid conditions as the managerial classes work from air conditioned offices, or, increasingly, from home. Climate change is not waging direct violence so much as it is heightening the contradictions of capitalism, clarifying the stakes of struggle.

Out of these contradictions, people around the world are turning to old and new ideas and tactics. In Ecuador and Bolivia, Indigenous and socialist activists and politicians have instituted the Rights of Nature as official policy, establishing new legal levers and precedents to ward off the predation of the fossil fuel industry in the Amazon rainforest. In the US, the Red Nation is organizing for Indigenous socialism, connecting the slow violence of climate change to the ongoing and systemic violence of capitalism and settler colonialism. Proposals for Red, Black, and Internationalist Green New Deals are being churned out and vigorously debated.

As IPCC reports set their sights on the not-too-distant future, a wide range of researchers and activists have been turning, perhaps counterintuitively, to the past. Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project (2019) presents a reframing of US history, placing the long history of slavery at the center of the country’s national narrative. David Graeber and David Wengrow’s bestselling The Dawn of Everything (2021) turns to the origins of humanity to unearth the diverse forms of social organization that preceded the rise of capitalism, with the audacious aim of figuring out “how we got stuck.” In the environmental humanities and social sciences, academics are fighting over the presumed origins of the contemporary climate, environmental, and extinction crises, questioning the appropriate name and time scale of our geological epoch. At the same time, people are tearing down colonial and Confederate monuments, integrating histories of injustice and rebellion into school curricula, calling for offensively named places to be renamed, and fighting for the repatriation of cultural artifacts stolen by imperialists centuries ago.

Natural history’s institutions have become key symbolic targets in this widespread reckoning, not least because they put colonial violence on full display. Not only do many natural history museums still contain offensive and racist dioramas and displays constructed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but, as currently constituted, their legitimacy owes everything to the past and ongoing dispossession of Indigenous Peoples, both their material cultures and, across the Americas, their stolen lands. On the one hand, natural history museums can be considered monuments to colonialism, landmarks that function to naturalize capitalist and colonial relations to the world. On the other hand, recent counter-tours at major museums in London and New York City show that museums can also serve as training grounds for seeing from an anti-colonial, anti-capitalist perspective.

As daily news headlines remind us that the future of planetary life is in peril, it may be tempting to see the contemporary struggles over historical markers, events, monuments, and museums as distractions from the main event. It is clear that some camps seek refuge in the past, finding comfort in a projected return to an original state of nature, while others are looking to atone for some original sin. However, there are others, still, who are not looking for salvation, but for alternate traditions, lessons, tools, and epistemologies that might be reworked and mobilized in our struggles for a just and livable world.

This edition of Periscope emerges from this latter tendency, making a case for how history, and natural history in particular, can help orient contemporary struggles for life beyond extraction. To this end, contributors have been asked to engage with a new critical concept, red natural history, which names a tradition of natural history that is not built on colonial or capitalist relations, but on a comradely and reciprocal relation to land, life, and labor. As a perspective and a praxis, red natural history seeks to hold together an insurgency of scientists, scholars, and communities, whose individual and collective practices seek to leverage natural history’s disciplines, methods, tools, and institutional resources in support of contemporary struggles for climate and environmental justice.

What is Red Natural History?

This edition of Periscope was edited by Not An Alternative, a collective of artists, activists, and theorists that has spent most of the past decade developing The Natural History Museum (2014-), a traveling museum that leverages the power of history, museums, monuments, and movements to change narratives, build alliances, educate the public, and drive civic engagement in support of community-led movements for climate and environmental justice. This ongoing project started from the hypothesis that science and natural history museums are not monolithic totalities fully determined by their imperialist foundations or the capitalist interests that they have historically served. Instead, they are collective infrastructures riven with internal divisions. Our initial goal was to organize an insurgency within the US sector for science and natural history museums—to take the sector as a site of struggle, with the aim of seizing some of its institutional resources to support ongoing movements and campaigns.

From the beginning, it was clear to us that there were radicals working in natural history’s disciplines and institutions—scientists, scholars, and educators—who did not want to passively trace the slow degradation of the planet, but to actively get in the way, whether by working directly with communities to expose the impact of industrial pollution on public health, protecting sacred objects or human remains in the path of proposed pipelines, or sounding the alarm about the systemic causes of climate change. We went to conferences with anthropologists, archaeologists, geographers, natural scientists, conservationists, and museum curators, where we were introduced to the range of engaged research practices, radical working groups, and advocacy initiatives that scholars and scientists have developed to support community-led and place-based environmental struggles. While often marginalized within their disciplinary associations, and encouraged to compete among themselves for scarce resources, such initiatives represent an emergent tendency within natural history, which Not An Alternative believes can be organized into a powerful infrastructure for community-led movements.

After working for several years to organize alongside scientists, archaeologists, and museum workers, it has become clear to Not An Alternative and many of our comrades that to represent a position of difference, the many dispersed and largely atomized insurgents within natural history’s disciplines and institutions would do well to both name and organize around an alternate tradition of natural history. This dossier is part of our effort to propose a name for this other tradition, and to work out some of the theoretical foundations and practical applications that might give it substance and meaning.

Our proposal is that red natural history can serve as the name for the array of practices and perspectives that fall under the purview of natural history but break from its dominant imperialist tradition.

Why Red?

The “red” of red natural history names the Other to natural history as it is conventionally understood, the part of natural history that neither capitalism nor colonialism can capture or put to use. As part of the language in commonthat ties together communist, socialist, and Indigenous traditions of resistance, “red” does not signify a stable identity, but a common alienation from the capitalist world.

In the Indigenous tradition, the term “red” was historically understood as a derogatory slur, meant to racialize Indigenous Peoples and differentiate them from white settlers in North America. With the Red Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the color was reclaimed as an affirmative signifier of Indigenous cultural identity. From the American Indian Movement’s use of the red logo on its flag, to the Indigenous climate justice movement’s reference to Mother Earth’s “red line,” to the red handprints and red dresses that powerfully assert the unjustly ignored epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, to recent political programs like the Red Deal, red has had a central place in the language in common of Indigenous movements within and beyond North America for more than a half-century.

In the socialist tradition, the color red has also been a key means of differentiating comrades from enemies. From the common deployment of the red wedge, red star, and red sunset in international communist art and propaganda to the use of red bandanas by striking workers in the early US labor movement, “red” has been a central part of the language through which the international workers of the world have communicated their struggles for liberation.

The relationship between Indigenous and socialist or communist reds is not simply analogical. Not only did Marx and Engels take inspiration from Iroquois modes of life and forms of social organization, but socialist ideology has been crucial for many decolonial movements across the world, from the liberation struggles of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde (1963-1974), to those of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in Chiapas, Mexico (1994- ). These entanglements speak to the ways in which people have worked together to engage, renew, and weave together multiple ways of knowing and traditions of thought and action in their collective emancipatory struggles. They also remind us that there are real reasons why during the so-called “red scares” of the past two centuries, Indigenous Peoples, communists, anarchists, and the dispossessed and exploited peoples of the world have been lumped together, treated as part of one coordinated conspiracy to overthrow capitalism.

In positing the existence of “Red Natural History,” our hope is to inspire others to draw from the many traditions of anti-colonial and anti-capitalist thought and action to advance a natural history worthy of the name.

About This Dossier

This edition of Periscope was inspired by the hypothesis that natural history is not completely determined by its colonial or imperialist traditions. Rather, natural history as it has come to be known is the enclosure and instrumentalization of a much broader project with diverse (and not exclusively European) origins. For our part, Not An Alternative broadly defines natural history as the project of seeing, relating to, and coming to understand the material world. There are ways of relating to the world as a wealth of natural resources, and ways of relating to the world as a world in common that cannot be enclosed. Red natural history names the project of seeing, relating to, and understanding the world as a world in common. Our collective introduced this concept in “Towards a Theory of Red Natural History,” published in Society & Space last May, outlining red natural history as a speculative project—a framework to elaborate a tradition from which the world beyond the capitalist world can be made to appear.

If natural history is a mode of seeing, presenting, and tracing the forces that have produced the world we live in, it is by definition partial and partisan. One objective of red natural history is to train ourselves to see from the perspective of the part that the dominant tradition of natural history has systematically barred from view. Red natural history is attuned to the forces, both human and other-than-human, that heighten the contradictions through which change becomes possible, the forms of more-than-human comradeship that sustain the threat to the capitalist world system. It reveals the untold people’s histories of insurrections, mutinies, strikes, and rebellions as plots co-produced with the land, water, and animal, outlining how people work with their environments in their struggles for justice and liberation just as they have historically leveraged the most exploitative labor conditions to produce the oppositional power they need. The stories that might be chronicled by red natural history attend to storms, fires, rebellions, and egalitarian lifeways in equal measure—to all signs of abundance that betray the enclosures violently imposed upon the world in common.

This dossier brings together Indigenous historians, geographers, and knowledge keepers with non-Indigenous scholars, theorists, and artists to engage with red natural history, not as a fully formed concept, but as a field of inquiry. It should be stressed, however, that this field of inquiry is not open-ended. It is grounded in a shared commitment to the struggle for collective liberation. The essays follow their own paths, but point toward four central theses:

1. Natural history is split. Just as there is an imperialist tradition of natural history, there is another, non-colonial tradition of natural history, which can be made visible through practices of interpretation. Describing the case of a Kaapoisaamiiksi (a headdress traditionally worn by Amskapi Piikani women) in the Field Museum’s collection, Rosalyn LaPier demonstrates how objects of natural history are never completely enclosed, even as they are bought, sold, and subject to display in the world’s most powerful natural history museums. For LaPier, the material cultures of Indigenous Nations are neither conduits to a precolonial ideal, nor are they simple artifacts of dispossession. They tell a complex history of both dispossession and resilience, revealing violent economies of extraction, but also a system of relations that is illegible to the settler-colonial gaze—an Indigenous world, where things are done differently. Andrew Curley turns to the history of the Dilophosaurus wetherilli, a dinosaur skeleton found by a Diné man on the Navajo Nation in 1940, only to be confiscated by paleontologists from the University of California, Berkeley two years later. Curley compels us to see the imperialist tradition of natural history as a grounded practice built on expropriation and Indigenous erasure, but he also offers, through his interpretation of the Dilophosaurus, a blueprint for another kind of natural history: one that situates its objects within the long history of struggle against colonial dispossession.

2. Red natural history insists on the power of history writing in the practice of history making, precisely by developing narrative arcs that orient contemporary struggles for social and environmental justice. It does not seek to understand the world as it exists (appealing to some illusory neutrality), but to take the past as a source for building consciousness and collective political will. In this sense, red natural history participates in what Ruth Wilson Gilmore (following Raymond Williams) describes as the “selection and re-selection of ancestors,” from which traditions of resistance are made and remade. In his contribution to this dossier, Ashley Dawson turns to the anarchist tradition to identify, in both human and other-than-human systems, a primordial commonality that runs against the logic of predation governing the capitalist world. He draws on Peter Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid to elaborate a dissenting tradition of biology, which, in emphasizing the role of cooperation in species evolution, opposed the dominant nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century understanding of evolution as a “struggle of each against all.”

3. Red natural history has the capacity to orient movements within and against the university. As a practice of seeing, interpreting, and relating to the world, red natural history extends a broad net over a range of academic disciplines, suggesting the need for both self-criticism and transformation in the sciences, social sciences, and the practical fields of landscape architecture, planning, and design. Kai Bosworth explores the tradition of radical geography, which emerged in the 1960s as an answer to geography’s imperialist legacy, asking what radical geography can do to not only redress geography’s past wrongdoings, but also actively contribute to contemporary struggles for environmental justice. Natchee Blu Barnd elaborates how ethnic studies might be conceived as a branch of red natural history, showing how, as the study of difference and differentiation conducted from the perspective of the oppressed, ethnic studies embodies the antithesis of the imperial tradition of natural history. Billy Fleming turns to landscape architecture and the design professions, asking how designers and landscape architects can forge alliances with insurgent movements for climate and environmental justice. He surveys the work of the Designing a Green New Deal studio, which he runs at the University of Pennsylvania, giving a sense of how design education might be shaped around the imperatives of red natural history, most directly by training students to produce tools that can be put to use in regional struggles.

4. Red natural history is not simply a critical project. It is a constructive, affirmative one, which seeks to find, in the gaps of the capitalist world, the signposts of another world, and from this other world, another natural history. Alberto Acosta argues that the Andean concept of buen vivir offers a vision of another world that is incommensurate with the capitalist world, proposing a combination of tactics and struggles that might bring about the “pluriverse,” which is a term that Indigenous activists and communists in Latin America are organizing around to signal a break from the Western tradition of global development. Dina Gilio-Whitaker writes from a hundred years in the future, and like Acosta, she insists that mass extinction is not guaranteed. Starting from the hypothesis that there is no future without decolonization, she works backwards to imagine the shifts that must take place to turn against the tides of climate catastrophe. Gilio-Whitaker joins with others in the Periscope dossier to insist on the power of revisiting the past from the perspective of a future where justice prevails.

The contributions to this edition of Periscope come together in their resolute commitment not to historicism—to seeing things “as they really were”—but to the constructive project of seeing in (natural) history the opening from which another world has always existed—a world in common that is built and sustained through reciprocal relations between people, animals, and the land. This is not a conclusive statement on what red natural history is and does. More than anything else, it is an invitation to others to join in the struggle to determine the pathways through which the red in natural history can come into view.

–Steve Lyons for Not an Alternative

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.

“Red Natural History: An Introduction” was originally published in Periscope: Red Natural History, Social Text (online, February 28, 2023).

The world is in flames. From California and Oregon to Australia and the Amazon rainforest, the largest fires on record are spreading across the planet, bathing their surrounds in an unsettling red light for days at a time. Floods, droughts, hurricanes, deadly heat waves, and other climate-fueled disasters are tearing across the landscape. The Gulf Stream is on the brink of collapse. The predictive models of modern science no longer point to stable patterns, but to the volatile force of the unknown.

Not An Alternative, Red Specter, still from 3D animation in progress, 2020-21. Image: Not An Alternative.

The combined history of colonialism and capitalism has been marked by the unceasing effort to control the human and nonhuman forces that threaten to bring about its end. Climate change is only the latest threat, but it is unrivaled in its power to transform the world. The incapacity of science, states, and corporations to manage the threat of climate change is forcing a crisis in the colonial regime of knowledge that underpins capitalism—the groundwork of the tradition of natural history that emerged from the social institution of modern science and the political project of imperialism over the last three centuries. 

This text introduces a perspective that interprets natural history neither simply as the study of “nature,” ecosystems, or premodern cultural traditions, nor as an intrinsically colonial enterprise, but as a history of struggle between two incommensurate relations to the world: one governed by a logic of extraction and enclosure and another that relates to the world as a world in common that cannot be enclosed. This struggle is not waged on the terrain of the natural, but over its interpretation, not over what is “intrinsically in nature” (Gould, 1988), but over the relation to the world that ought to be naturalized.

Naturalizing the Capitalist World

From Europe, to China, to the Indo-Islamic world, long traditions of natural history have emerged, and sometimes converged, over the course of human history. But by most accounts (Raj, 2007; Basalla, 1967), natural history is understood as the sole dominion of the West—as a project that emanated outward from the colonial metropoles to survey the entire world with the empiricist tools of modern science. The first large-scale natural history museums and botanical gardens were established in Europe and Great Britain to put this project on display. There, biological and geological specimens, premodern cultural artifacts, human and nonhuman remains, and other “curiosities” bought and stolen by explorers and colonists were submitted as material evidence for scientific investigation.

In its institutionalized form, the imperial project of natural history constructed a picture of the world through the spoils of imperialist expansion. Its collections demonstrated the military power of the metropole, and its methodologies for interpreting these collections asserted the supremacy of Western empiricism and modern science. This tradition of natural history rested on the assumption that experts could understand the world by extracting and studying its constitutive parts. It claimed its object as an individuated, knowable thing, part of the wealth of natural resources available for possession, profit, and scientific probing.

This basic premise came to prominence through Charles Darwin’s theses on evolutionary biology, which grafted a Malthusian logic of individual competition onto the world as a whole. According to this logic, organisms and their environments are not seen to be mutually dependent; rather, as Richard Lewontin (1991) explains, in the Darwinist evolutionary struggle “organisms find the world as it is, and they must either adapt or die.” Generations of conservative economists appropriated Darwin’s theory of natural selection to explain the dynamics of competitive advantage under capitalism, rationalizing capitalist domination as an evolutionary fact. The “survival of the fittest” thesis, proposed not by Darwin but by the social Darwinist philosopher Herbert Spencer, galvanized the eugenics movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which, unsurprisingly, found vigorous support from the world’s most influential natural history museums. The dominant ideology of natural history, which embedded both the logic of competition and the violence of extraction into the project of scientific inquiry, served to reinforce social Darwinism’s capitalist and white-supremacist conclusions. 

Illustration of cranial types from Josiah C. Nott and George Gliddon’s Types of Mankind: Or, Ethnological Researches, Based Upon the Ancient Monuments, Paintings, Sculptures, and Crania of Races, and Upon Their Natural, Geographical, Philological and Biblical History (1854). (c) Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International.‍

All in the name of science, lands were torn up, bodies were exhumed, and skulls were examined, compared, and classified according to racist typologies. The living subjects of ethnographic study, too, were cast as primitive and prehistoric, banished from the historical time of the ethnographer (Fabian, 1983). “Objects for observation,” Vine Deloria, Jr. (1969: 81) argued, were always implicitly “considered objects for experimentation, for manipulation, and for eventual extinction.” Prioritizing the physical materialism of the world and its ecosystems, natural historians submitted everything sacred to the profane logic of equivalence—the law of capitalist exchange. In this and other ways, natural history was part of a broader plot to remap the world as a capitalist world, to turn what John Locke (1689) called the “wild Common of Nature” into a source of profit.

The microscope is only one of many tools deployed in the ongoing project of naturalizing the capitalist world. By means of violent dispossession, deceitful and broken treaties, and the declaration of terra nullius, territories collectively held for generations by peasants, Indigenous peoples, and maroon communities were, and continue to be, stolen, enclosed, and submitted to the abstract logics of private property. Through the legal abstraction of land titling, territories were commoditized and made fungible—leveraged as credit, exchanged, and subjected to financial speculation in a world market (Bhandar, 2018: 97). It is not that the transition to capitalism catapulted idyllic premodern cultures into history, undoing some illusory primordial innocence as traditional anthropology and historiography would have it, but that in recoding land as property, collective systems of land tenure based on kinship, intergenerational stewardship, spiritual value, or communal labor have been rendered both illegitimate and illegible—from the capitalist point of view. Displaced and dispossessed, people around the world have been put to work, forced to toil not for the land and each other, but for capital.

Haunting Natural History

This ongoing process of enclosure and expropriation, which Marxists call “primitive accumulation,” has not only been a means of asserting sovereign rule over Indigenous land and establishing capitalist economic relations in new territories, but also a means of repressing preexisting modes of life, knowledge systems, and land-based practices that cannot be reconciled with the demands of colonialism or capitalism. Agrarian commons, subsistence farms, systems of mutual aid, and Indigenous practices of land and water stewardship share one thing in common: an insistence that the world is not a resource to be extracted, but, as Glen Sean Coulthard (2013: 60) puts it, part of a system of reciprocal relations and obligations between humans and nonhumans that demands mutual respect, non-domination, and nonexploitation. Writing about the land-based practices that structure the theory and practice of Indigenous anticolonialism in North America, Coulthard (2013: 13) names this perspective “grounded normativity,” underscoring how Indigenous struggles for land are also deeply informed by the land. The ethics of reciprocity, which is differently expressed in Indigenous and non-Indigenous traditions of resistance, is not a straightforward inversion of the colonial logic of extraction and enclosure. It does not simply subordinate human life to the lives of animals, plants, water, and land. Rather, it underscores how their interests are bound together in the production and reproduction of life.

During and after the transition to capitalism, collectivist societies across the world, even within Europe itself, have struggled within and against their conditions of survival to build alternative knowledge systems from their own embodied experiences, clarifying and sharpening place-based traditions and ways of knowing in and through their collective struggles for liberation. In the paranoid minds of the capitalists, these constructed traditions, knowledge systems, and world-building practices are not only incompatible with the colonial logic of extraction; they also represent its combative antithesis, expressing what nineteenth-century crowd psychologist Gustav Le Bon (1897: xvi) characterizes as an emotional, unreasoning, and barbaric “primitive communism” that needs to be destroyed.

There have not always been direct material connections between “communistic” peasants, heretics, maroons, women, workers, colonial subjects, and Indigenous peoples, whose appearances have spanned continents and historical periods. These groups have also related to the land they have traversed in distinct and sometimes contradictory ways. Nevertheless, oppressed communities across the world have been perceived by the capitalists as instantiations of one collective body, whose inborn fidelity to the common will, left to itself, bring about capitalism’s end (Linebaugh and Rediker, 2000). Faced with the endurance of this capitalist conspiracy, it is no surprise that colonial and capitalist forces continue to brutally attack collectivist societies and the cultures that ground them, specifically targeting the reciprocal relation between peoples, the animals they rely on for their survival, the lands they steward, and the traditions that connect them to their ancestors.

The cover of the Economic League’s Red Octopus (1950), depicting an octopus spreading its tentacles across a map of the world. The illustration deploys a visual motif commonly used in anti-communist literature since the 1870s, which equates the deepwater sea creature with the insurgent threat of the “reds.” ‍

So that it could stand as an objective and ideologically neutral authority on the nonhuman world, the imperialist tradition of natural history has served the function of eradicating knowledge systems that it has understood to be in competition. Natural historians have long participated in this project by treating societies they could not understand as barbaric, premodern, and extinct, even as these same societies held their ground and maintained their languages, cultural traditions, and ways of knowing. The modern concept of natural history was thus not only formed on a bedrock of colonialism; it has also required the constitutive exclusion of its other: a natural history built on reciprocity, not extraction. This other natural history was not annihilated, only obscured—symbolically imprisoned in museum vaults and display cases, where it remains as a specter that haunts natural history from within.

‍Red Natural History

This other natural history, in distinct opposition to and in struggle with colonial, capitalist historicization and expropriation, is not simply alternative, peripheral, or marginal to the disciplines, methodologies, institutions, and practices that are usually associated with natural history. Rather, like a repressed trauma, it constitutes the disavowal at the center of natural history and its related disciplines. It is reflected in the life-affirming processes that have been deemed out of control because they refuse to stay within the bounds of privately held allotments: the weeds that settlers try to keep from returning to their manicured lawns; the cyclically returning forest fires that threaten the value of the mansions that get in their way; the surging waters that dams try to hold back; the climate refugees shaking down border walls. Not An Alternative is working with a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous theorists, historians, ethnobotanists, geographers, landscape architects, artists, and activists to give a name to this other natural history, which we propose to call Red Natural History. 

Red Natural History names a commonality shared between the peoples, worldviews, traditions, and practices that have been the objectified subjects of natural history, taking as axiomatic that the world is not a wealth of natural resources but a world in common. The world in common is not identical to “the commons.” The commons is a territorialized site that can be enclosed, whereas the world in common exceeds every attempt to consume it, make it knowable, or enclose it in the property form. It defines a comradely and reciprocal relation between humans and nonhumans, a relation of mutual obligation that is not naturally occurring, but that is made to exist through the sustained, collective effort to produce it. 

For Not An Alternative, the “Red” in Red Natural History designates the divide in natural history, signaling an alignment with those forces that have always been illegible to the colonial regime of knowledge, which represent the dangerous idea that something might exist beyond capitalist management and control. It signals our fidelity with the long history of struggle to make the world a world in common—with the intergenerational movements against enclosure, colonization, exploitation, and extraction that have assembled under the red flag, the red star, the red fist, the red square, and the red line. 

On the cover of Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color: The Threat Against White World Supremacy (1920), a trio of gigantic, silhouetted figures charge across a globe, set against the backdrop of a red sunset. The image supplies a clear illustration of the anxiety and terror felt by the colonizing nation-states during a period of intense anti-colonial struggle.

For centuries, the purveyors of colonialism and capitalism have targeted groups that relate to the world as a world in common, waging brutal campaigns of extermination, enclosure, and forced assimilation. These campaigns have been devastating but left incomplete. The world in common, as a relation to the land and the horizon for our politics, comes into view when we hold in our minds the memory of the ancestors who came before us. It is awakened when we recognize how our traditions of resistance (Estes, 2019) open ways of understanding the world that enable us to see differently, when we build on the life-affirming knowledge of past generations, and when we pick up the struggle to protect the world for our descendants.

As a conscious project of “selecting and re-selecting our ancestors” (Gilmore, 2017), Red Natural History asks us to ground contemporary struggles for the land and all its inhabitants in the struggles of those who came before us, to draw a line from the past into a future that capitalism has barred from view. It asks us to build on the revolutionary work of the True Levellers (better known as the Diggers), who in the midst of the English Civil War of 1642–51, dug up the hedges at St. George’s Hill to plant crops for the poor—an act of negation meant to affirm and reveal the world in common beneath the enclosures imposed upon it (Winstanley, 1649). It asks us to learn from the maroons of Dominica, who, having fled from the plantations to the mountains throughout the eighteenth century, held their ground for decades not simply by fortifying their camps, but also by learning from and living with a wild terrain that the French and British armed forces were unable to tame (Malm, 2018: 13-15). It asks us to remember the Guinnean revolutionary Amilcar Cabral (1972), who, leading the guerrilla movement against the Portuguese occupation from 1963 to 1973, declared that on the flat terrain of Guinnea-Bissau, “Our people are our mountains.” It asks us to stand behind the struggles of Indigenous peoples around the world—to bear witness not only to the blockades they build, but also, as Leanne Betasamosake Simpson writes, to “the rich sites of Indigenous life” existing behind them, where “you will witness a radically different political existence and ethical orientation, in spite of the dominance of colonialism.” Red Natural History’s task is not simply to show how people have “made kin” with nonhuman others (Haraway, 2016), but to build from the long and ongoing history of reciprocity in struggle. The point is not to chronicle a linear history, to get the facts right, but to see past and present struggles as part of one movement to decisively shift the direction of natural history, from progressive degradation to abundance and collective flourishing.

Our collective’s understanding of Red Natural History is inspired by a long history of anticolonial struggle, but, to be clear, it is not based on a neo-primitivist imaginary. It does not look to the past to discover an authentic, precolonial ideal, but to build on the power of those who, throughout history, have struggled to maintain reciprocal relations in the world. It sees tradition as something that is invented, worked on, put to use, and transformed in the intergenerational movement to secure just relations with the land and each other. While the future is not behind us, the accumulated history of struggle empowers and guides us in our collective work. 

The work of Red Natural History is to force the dialectics of natural history into the open. To see dialectically is to see the split in the totality, the dynamic contradictions through which historical change is made. The operative division in natural history is not between the human and nonhuman, as the New Materialists argue, nor is it between nature and society, as in the writing of Jason W. Moore (2015). Rather, it is between two fundamentally irreconcilable perspectives on the world: one that sees the world as a wealth of natural resources and the other that sees the presence of the world in common within and beyond every enclosure. These perspectives enforce distinct relations between humans and nonhumans—reciprocal or extractive—and, as a consequence, different obligations—to the reproduction of life, or the reproduction of capital. To see natural history through this schema is to register the divisions through which the world itself transforms, not in the interest of healing the divide, but of taking a side: oppressor or oppressed, extraction or reciprocity, individual or collective, enclosure or common. When we take the side of the common, we open a path for new alliances, not through the intersection of identities, but through a shared relation to the world. As a mode of seeing historical change, Red Natural History mobilizes its adherents as a divisive force—within, against, and towards an emancipatory future.

How, then, do we relate to the signs telling us that the world we live in is coming to an end? Do we stand by in horror, interpreting the storms touching down with increasing fury as evidence that there is no alternative to mass extinction? Do we rest assured that big tech will save the capitalist world from ruin? Or do we interpret the arrival of the storm as a sign that the red specter has awakened to support the oppressed people of the world in their efforts to plot the only path forward?

The ongoing and accelerating effects of climate change have launched the planet into a perpetual state of emergency, but the meaning of this emergency is not locked in. As a perspective and a praxis, Red Natural History urges those of us who take the side of the common to see ourselves as part of the storm that arrives from the past, not to produce chaos, but to rupture the status quo, draw capitalism’s structural violence and injustices into the open, and orient our struggles for a livable and egalitarian future for all.


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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.

“Towards a Theory of Red Natural History” was originally published in Society & Space (May 11, 2022).