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

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

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

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

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

The Museum Divide

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond the Museum

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

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

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

Drawing a Red Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defining Red Natural History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Q&A was conducted following Jonas Staal and Florian Malzacher’s Training for the Future, a utopian training camp held from September 20-22, 2019 at the Ruhrtriennale, Bohum, Germany.

How did you approach the notion of the ‘training’ and what does the term mean to your practice?

Our collective understands training not as the endless rehearsal of a future yet-to-come, but the practical development of competencies that strengthen our collective capacity to make the future through struggle. We train to sharpen our tools, to organize ourselves, and to establish the myths that we need to build and strengthen collectivity. When Not An Alternative was invited to Training for the Future, we focused less on the process of training than on the potential outcomes. What generic tools could we offer that could be conceivably adopted and deployed in struggles around the world, regardless of the objective conditions?

“Inventing the Radical” aimed to train trainees in a way of seeing our collective power, which Not An Alternative argues is inscribed in the “language in common”: the visual and communicative forms through which social movements and other collective formations are made to appear. Before we can effectively contribute to the building of the language in common, we have to be able to see where it already exists, to train our sights on the signs of our power that are already inscribed in the landscape. Our collective’s position is that the capacity to build on the language in common requires, first, that we can identify the signs of collective power that already exist.

Because of the specific setting of the training (a former industrial plaza in a German city we had never been to), we embraced the visual language of the training facility as a resource. We asked trainees to see the neo-constructivist visual language of the training facility (which itself is an iteration on the visual language of Soviet design) as a case study in the practice of iteration. We asked trainees to develop an inventory of the signs and symbols that demarcated the partisan dimensions of the design. We then sent the trainees outside with materials leftover from the installation with the task of iterating on the visual language that was already there, to produce forms of “communist graffiti” beyond the immediate training site. We wanted trainees to take away one central idea: collective power is not built through the production of novel or innovative forms, but through the conscious and unconscious iteration on the language in common we inherit, that we learn to recognize as ours, and that holds us together as a “we.” 

In a time of dystopian normativity, what does the notion of the ‘future’ mean to you?

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock tells us that it is “100 seconds before midnight.” Not only is it easy to imagine the end of the world, but also the end of capitalism. The paralyzing problem is that both ends are imagined to correspond to the termination of humanity as a whole. Convinced by the “dystopian” tendencies in contemporary discourse and climate science, many on the left write off the possibility of egalitarian emancipation, leaving us without firm ground to stand on. But as Potawatomi philosopher Kyle Whyte reminds us, the dispossessed peoples of the world have struggled under apocalyptic conditions for centuriesnot just for survival, but for the collective flourishing of human and more-than-human life. There are reasons to live and reasons to struggle, even and especially when the future is not guaranteed. 

For Not An Alternative, the future is not in the future. It is neither a vision of utopia or dystopia. Rather, it is a horizon for struggle in the here-and-now. We inscribe the future in the present by insisting not on the certainty of planetary collapse, nor on the certainty that communism will follow the death of capitalism, but on the indeterminacy of the future. If the inevitable names the enclosure of the future, the indeterminate points to the common beyond and beneath. When we understand that the future is indeterminate, we do not sit and wait for the opportune moment, but, like Marx’s mole of history, we plot and scheme in order to produce the opportunity to strengthen our side.

What does it mean to reclaim the future’s means of production?

We have been arguing that our collective counterpower grows and develops in a dynamic relation to the counterpower we inherit from our ancestors, from revolutionaries whose struggles have informed our own. By recognizing that our struggles fall within a long tradition of resistance, and iterating on the means of communication that we inherit, we build power and make the future possible. In this sense, we would suggest that the means of the production of the future do not need to be “reclaimed.” They have never been abandoned. Thus, our collective task is less to reclaim the means of producing the future, than to consciously and intentionally build on the means of production we inherit. When we iterate on the work of our ancestors, we produce a gap in the capitalist worldan opening in which to affirm our collective difference and construct an infrastructure to support it.

This Q&A was originally published in Training for the Future Handbook, edited by Florian Malzacher and Jonas Staal (Sternberg Press, 2021), 286-290. 

As part of the group exhibition “Overground Resistance” curated by Oliver Ressler at frei_raum Q21 exhibition space, the artist collective Not An Alternative present their project The Natural History Museum.This conversation between Steve Lyons and Oliver Ressler presented here in shortened and edited form, took place around the conference “Barricading the Ice Sheets” at Camera Austria in Graz in February 2020.

Oliver Ressler: Can you talk about the most important aspects of your artistic praxis? How did it develop?

Steve Lyons: I work with Not An Alternative, a collective of artists, theorists, and activists in the United States. Our current and ongoing project is The Natural History Museum (NHM). The NHM is both an officially accredited museum of natural history and an activist organization, which we founded in 2014 as an experiment on the U.S. sector for science and natural history museums. Our idea was to occupy the museum form in order to enter the museum sector as a kind of Trojan horse. Building on the work of our comrades at Liberate Tate, our first projects and campaigns used the museum as a platform to get climate change obfuscationists and fossil fuel oligarchs dropped from the boards of trustees of some of the largest science museums in the country. Since 2017, we have developed ongoing collaborations with Indigenous communities and organizations that are working on the frontlines of the climate crisis, with the aim of leveraging museums as communications platforms for their struggles and campaigns.

Not An Alternative, Mining the HMNS: An Investigation by The Natural History Museum, 2016. © The Natural History Museum

Oliver Ressler: How would you describe the role of artists within the climate justice movement? How do you see them and how do you wish it would be? 

Steve Lyons: We think it’s important to make a distinction between artists and cultural producers. One of the challenges of thinking about how artists can engage within the culture of social movements is that the concept of art comes with a lot of baggage. The dominant tradition of contemporary art is entirely compatible with the ideology of bourgeois individualism. In this tradition, art is largely imagined to transcend the everyday, valuing novelty and creativity over political efficacy. And we see this within the structure of the art world, not only in the United States, but globally. A few members of Not An Alternative went to art school, but not the majority. We see ourselves as cultural producers, and see the broader framework of cultural production to be a more generative framework to think about the kind of work that we do, as well as the kind of creative political work that people do within the context of social movements.

As a collective, we have historically avoided attributing our individual names to any given project. We are organized as a collective – so we work together, as a group – but, more importantly, our work is geared toward the production of collectivity. It’s worth emphasizing that culture, in the anthropological sense of the term, has always been central to the formation of collectives. Cultural forms and practices produce social bonds, allowing people to distinguish their comrades from their enemies. They are also the means by which collectives express counterpower. As cultural producers, we work on the terrain of culture (again, in the anthropological sense) to build, expand, and sharpen the language in common that holds us together as a “we.”

TEJAS “Toxic Tour” Hologram Mini-Diorama, HD, 6 min, 2016 © The Natural History Museum

Oliver Ressler: Jay Jordan in the abstract for his talk for the conference “Barricading the Ice Sheets” uses the term of “extractivist art”. Is an activist art “extractivist”, if it takes place in an art institutional context? 

Steve Lyons: That’s a loaded question! Of course I can think of numerous examples of artists who have a parasitic relationship to social movements, who are more invested in trading on political righteousness than with the building of collective power. But does every practice that locates itself within cultural institutions need to be extractivist? I don’t think so. The history of creative activism within museums that we associate with the tradition of institutional critique – the Art Workers’ Coalition in New York comes to mind – runs against the grain of what JJ is calling “extractivist.” In this tradition, art institutions are taken as backdrops and sites from which people have come together to engage in anti-imperialist, anti-patriarchal, anti-racist struggle. Since the 1960s, there have been numerous instances, including some that JJ has been involved in, where artists have seized cultural infrastructures as resources and platforms for political struggle.

Does the activist intervention offer credibility to the institution, giving it a veneer of authenticity? Or does it add value to a social movement or campaign? Does it activate the institution as a site of political struggle or force a decision? Of course, some projects do all of these things, since working within and against is always, necessarily, contradictory. But I think, for example, that the groups associated with BP or Not BP and Liberate Tate in the UK, who are working on fossil fuel divestment and sponsorship campaigns in London, are doing a really great job of working within museums, but against the interest that these museums were built to serve. Not An Alternative is also working between social movements and museums. We are not satisfied with our work unless it is adding to the movement or campaign we’re contributing to. We are constantly asking ourselves if we are contributing to the building of collectivity, strengthening the operative divisions, or producing concrete change that puts our comrades in a better position.

Personally, I don’t think there are any uncomplicated sites of struggle. Whether we’re in a museum or a public square, we’re struggling within and against capitalism. And given the state of the world, I think it’s important that we’re not only working at the margins.

Oliver Ressler: The enormity of the challenge of the climate crisis requires that also the wider art world needs to transform radically. What are central aspects of this transformation from your point of view?

Steve Lyons: Some people would argue that the art world is simply an infrastructure for the production of capital. The art world, in this view, is a complex of art fairs, commercial galleries, and museums, which articulate to produce capital, both through the trade of assets and the production of prestige. Financiers get social benefits from the art world, and artists get symbolic and cultural capital, both of which are at some point, and continually, parlayed into money. One problem with this account is that it doesn’t help us understand what Greg Sholette calls the art world’s “dark matter”: the glut of surplus labor that this complex produces. I think it’s more generative to see the art world from the perspective of contradiction – to see it as an infrastructure that produces class divisions, and which thus creates the conditions for antagonism and struggle. From this vantage, the art world is an infrastructure in which money and power circulate, but also an infrastructure that can be seized.

Take art magazines, for example. Big art magazines like Artforum are currently distributed in ways that represent ruling class tastes while contributing to the value of ruling class collections. But this function is historical and contingent. Art magazines do not need to contribute to the reproduction of ruling class power, and there are plenty of examples of art magazines that don’t. One of the benefits of understanding the art world as something that is internally divided, as a sort of split subject that can be struggled over, is that you can see the means of production and distribution as potential resources for left struggle. This isn’t just hypothetical. It’s happening.

We could consider the recent controversy around Warren Kanders, owner of the weapons manufacturer Safariland and until recently, trustee of the Whitney Museum of American Art. During the last Whitney Biennial, community members and artists mobilized to get Kanders kicked off the board of the museum, seizing the museum and the Biennial as a platform to not only draw attention to Kanders and the brutality his wealth is built on, but also to underscore the complicity of the museum. At a pivotal moment in the campaign, Artforum published an article titled “The Teargas Biennial,” which effectively subordinated the story of the Biennial to the story of the Kanders campaign, making the campaign impossible for the institution to ignore. While there were other factors, including internal divisions within the museum itself, it was only after the bad press that Kanders quickly and quietly stepped down from the board. In this case, we can see that Artforum, the iconic ruling class art magazine, was taken as a platform for a movement’s cause. The Whitney Museum, too, became a site for opposition, collectivization, and renewed politicization among and beyond New York’s art community. This is just one example of how ruling class infrastructures can be hijacked.

© The Natural History Museum

Oliver Ressler: I have a question on the use of language: In the northern countries, where winters are cold, for some people the term “global warming” may sound like a reference to something pleasant and desirable. Are there any suggestions concerning the replacement of this term or about the power of language in relation to climate disruption in general?

Steve Lyons: Not An Alternative is invested in using the language that is out there, the language that is being used and that has power. For us it is not a question of substituting one term for another because it is purer or clearer in its descriptive or explanatory capacity. It’s a question of using the term that works. What term is more useful in building collectivity? What are people mobilizing around? Are people rallying around the term “global warming”? Does the term clarify the terrain of struggle? Is it an effective term? If it is, then we use that term, we commit to it and build our work around it.

A good example of how this was active in our practice is when we were working within the Occupy milieu, specifically within Occupy Wall Street. In Oakland, California, there was a major division, pretty quickly after Occupy Oakland began, where a whole subset of the movement came out against the term “Occupy.” “Occupation is the language of the colonizer; we want to Decolonize Oakland!” The movement split in two. For us, while the choice to mobilize around “Occupy” or “Decolonize” opens onto a set of important theoretical questions, from the point of view of practice, the question should actually be much simpler: “What is the term around which counterpower is being built, and in what ways can we build on that?” The point is to expand the collective power that is already there. So that’s a non-answer to your question.

Oliver Ressler: Well, you described quite well why you don’t answer directly.

Where can we glimpse potential futures and new worlds grounded in social justice and ecological flourishing, and how can these be cultivated through creative aesthetic practices?

Steve Lyons: This brings me back to the point where we started, where I wanted to make a distinction between a framework that is organized around art and a framework that is organized around cultural production. The term cultural production includes the production of food, rituals, aesthetic practices, and forms of resistance. From the vantage of cultural production, it becomes easier to see what is actually happening within the movements. Where are we beginning to see the production, or at least the prefiguration, of a more livable world? For several years, Not An Alternative has been admiring the work of Indigenous water protectors and land defenders. And one of the things that has really struck us about the struggles against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock or against the Coastal Gaslink Pipeline at Unist’ot’en Camp on Wetʼsuwetʼen territory in the northwestern part of Canada, for example, is that they are both strongly oppositional – building blockades, holding their ground, and claiming sovereignty of the place against the pipeline company – and also affirmative. Behind the barricades there are camps which operate like training grounds for non-capitalist modes of life, places where people are collectively developing new ways of living and rediscovering old ones, establishing relations to the land and each other that are incommensurate with the extractivist reasoning that has led to the climate crisis. We cannot survive without a thriving world and the world will not survive unless we respect it. And the political and ethical obligation to the land that arises from this way of seeing and relating is not only inspiring. When it’s instituted at the barricades and cultural camps, it also establishes, here and now, a relation to the land and political horizon that points toward a world beyond capitalism.

Oliver Ressler is an artist and filmmaker who produces installations, projects in public space, and films on issues such as economics, democracy, migration, the climate crisis, forms of resistance and social alternatives.

Steve Lyons is Research Director at the Natural History Museum and a core member of Not An Alternative since 2014.

This interview was originally published in MQ Journal (October 10, 2021).

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).