All Living with the Land Events

Museums are in crisis, facing escalating pressure to drop fossil fuel sponsors, remove robber barons and war criminals from their boards, repatriate stolen objects, and topple racist monuments, dioramas, and displays. Formed from the extractivist reasoning that fuels climate chaos, museums are grounded in an unfolding history of oppression from which they cannot be extricated. They are complicit in the twin projects of capitalism and settler colonialism, caught in a web of colonialist and capitalist relations whose dynamics disproportionately immiserate the lives of poor Black, brown, and Indigenous peoples. While museums monumentalize and objectify the historical violence of capitalism and settler colonialism, they are not only keepers of the dead. They are haunted by a specter—the specter of primitive communism, a collective mode of life that neither capitalism nor settler colonialism could fully manage, contain, or eradicate. This mode of life sustains a relation to the land that is fundamentally incompatible with the capitalist world.

Capitalism relates to the natural world as a frontier for growth, as raw material to be extracted and turned into profit or waste. The alternative, as Glen Sean Coulthard articulately suggests, is “for land in the material sense, but also deeply informed by what the land as a system of reciprocal relations and obligations can teach us about living our lives in relation to one another and the natural world in non-dominating and non-exploitative terms.”[1] This non-capitalist relation to the land persists despite a centuries-long war against it precisely because it cannot be accommodated by capital. It constitutes the impossibility at the core of the capitalist world, existing and insisting as a specter that haunts its institutions and infrastructures. 

Jodi Dean has argued for the need to develop a partisan politics of climate change: “Rather than trapped by our fascination with an (always illusory) anthropocenic whole, we cut across and through, finding and creating openings. We gain possibilities for collective action and strategic engagement.”[2] We see the museum as one apparatus in which such a partisan politics can be grounded. This is possible only if we begin with the stance that the museum is split, not equivalent to the capitalist and colonial practices and values on which it was founded. The split institution is not determined by capitalism. It is struggled over. This struggle sets the stage for institutional liberation, which we have described as a practice of institutional seizure that generates counterpower by strategically mobilizing the power institutions already have.[3] This chapter proposes a political theory for institutional liberation in the terminal crisis of climate change. If museums take the side of the spectral threat to capitalist and settler-colonial domination, then they can be established as sites for thinking beyond the capitalist enclosure. This requires, first, that we refuse the lure of holism driving dominant fractions of environmental thought.

There Is a Gap in the Oikeios

Responding to the failure of the concept of the Anthropocene to accurately assign the primary agent of planetary change, Jason W. Moore has argued that we talk about our era as the Capitalocene, where capitalism, not humanity, is the driving force of ecological change. Moore argues that by seeing the entanglement of capitalism and nature, we can attend to its dynamic relation to the oikeios—his term for “the creative, generative, and multi-layered relation of species and environment” that makes up the planetary home.[4] Just as nature provides the raw material for capitalist accumulation, capitalism produces nature as a real abstraction: nature as an extractable, commodifiable, manageable raw material that can be bought, sold, represented, destroyed, or protected. Arguing that the Cartesian dualism of Nature/Society is “directly implicated in the colossal violence, inequality, and oppression of the modern world”[5] by virtue of its capacity to externalize nature as an object to be extracted and turned into profit and waste, Moore proposes an alternate concept of nature, which he terms the “web of life”: “the ‘web of life’ is nature as a whole: nature with an emphatically lowercase n. This is nature as us, as inside us, as around us. It is nature as a flow of flows.”[6] Moore’s theoretical distinction between Nature and the web of life helps to explain the decisive shift in liberal environmentalism over the course of the past several decades. For most environmentalists today, nature is not simply understood as the dominion of the non-human. It is an ecology to which we contribute, and to which we can hold our impacts accountable. If capital N Nature demands an ethics of protection and conservation, the web of life demands our contribution. Our capacity to contribute to nature’s ecological balance requires that we reduce our individual and institutional carbon footprints.

In conceptualizing capitalism as a world-ecology, Moore reflects a broader ecological turn in the environmental humanities, which finds in ecology an antidote to dualism. The concepts of the Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, or Chthulucene all follow from the same idea: that, whatever its origins, and whatever forces prevail, there is no outside to the oikeios.

Wrestling with the connectedness of people and things, thinkers in this paradigm seek to acknowledge the existence of human, non-human, and inhuman feedback loops at a planetary scale, to establish connections that make porous the capitalist world’s operative divisions. Frédéric Neyrat traces the principle at the root of this theoretical tendency—that everything is connected to everything else—to Barry Commoner’s 1971 book The Closing Circle. Informed by cybernetics, this hugely influential book “shows that feedback loops connect each part to the totality of the system (what affects one part affects the other).”[7] As an attempt to overturn colonial science’s traditional prioritization of substances over relations, this project is viewed by its advocates as a means of bringing critical theory in line with Indigenous ways of knowing—a distinct mode of thought that constituted colonial science’s historical other. However, a brief examination of the history of ecological thought reveals that ecology is no less bound up in the project of colonial expansion and capital accumulation than was its dualist precursor.

In the book Imperial Ecology, Peder Anker charts the development of ecological discourse as it emerged as a privileged framework to not only address questions in the natural sciences, but also address the social, economic, and political problems confronting the British Empire since the late nineteenth century. The term “ecosystem” was coined by Arthur George Tansley, a British botanist and Oxford University professor whose own research and editing in the early twentieth century were crucial to the expansion of ecological methodology into the fields of sociology and psychology. The research of Tansley and his Oxford colleagues was born from a conservationist ideal that served to justify and legitimize British expansion in the colonies:

The aim of their research was to empower the social order of their patrons in various colonial agencies or commercial companies by ordering the economy of nature so that it could serve the social economy of British imperialism. This was achieved by rendering the ecological order of nature into an order of knowledge suitable for managerial overview. This aerial view on nature, society, and knowledge—the master perspective from above—was at the very core of British ecological reasoning.[8]

For the Oxford ecologists, the discipline of ecology was thus not only a means to map and classify relations between organisms in the interest of objective scientific inquiry. It was also a means to manage nature’s economy according to the interest of the imperialist state. As a systematic methodology for mapping the relation between organisms, ecology was central to the economization of nature. Guided by both colonialist and capitalist imperatives, ecology was also wielded as a tool to control nature by pacifying traditional Indigenous practices that the imperial power could not understand.[9]

Anker is not alone in drawing connections between ecology and capitalist political economy. Jeremy Walker and Melinda Cooper have suggested how more recent advances in complex systems theory, most notably the influential work of ecologist C.S. Holling, have marched in lockstep with neoliberal economic thought. Charting the structural compatibility of Holling’s complex systems theory and Friedrich Hayek’s late theory of spontaneous market order, they argue that the holism of contemporary ecology, as well as its insistence on the inherent instability of ecosystems, is only a step away from neoliberal capitalism’s dominant conceptualization of resilience, risk management and crisis adaptation.[10]

The question is not whether or not the theory adequately breaks from the inheritance of capitalist or colonial thought—ecology, like Nature, has its dark side—but how it orients our perspective on the terrain of struggle. In its drive to subsume and manage antagonistic forces, much ecological thought gives form to what Alberto Toscano calls the “logic of pacification,” a structural capacity to “shift from external-contradictory differences to internal and harmonized ones.”[11] Oil companies operationalize this logic when they factor the costs of public pushback into their infrastructure development plans, mobilizing “risk mitigation” strategies to neutralize Indigenous resistance to fossil fuel infrastructure.[12]

In contrast to the revolutionary traditions of Marxism and anarchism, which recognize antagonism and class struggle as motors for political change, ecological thought frequently envisions politics as network management.[13] It is not surprising that ecology emerged as a dominant metaphor for thinking relations under capitalism in the neoliberal era. It pictures a world in which there is no gap, no other—the very world invoked by Margaret Thatcher’s routine claim that there was no alternative to economic liberalism. The supposition that “Capitalism makes nature. Nature makes capitalism”[14] results in a naturalization of capitalist domination, strengthening the dominant ideology that makes it, as the common saying goes, “easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” The oikeios is the capitalist world. Ecology offers a framework to interpret relations between capitalism and nature, allowing us to make sense of climate change as a project of capital. The problem is that while ecology can picture the capitalist world, it also participates in the active repression of the gap in it. Our premise is that there remains a gap in the capitalist world that the framework of ecology cannot recognize. Non-capitalist modes of life persist and insist, within and against.

Haunting the Individual

The answer to the problem of the gap is not to disregard the web of life in favour of its precursor. There is no dispute that the enlightenment concept of Nature was complicit in capitalist and colonial violence, and to return to it would be to disregard decades of critique from within the environmental movement. As Andreas Malm points out, “[t]he prototypical wilderness subject is a white male bourgeois individual,” whose identification with wild nature “symbolically reenacts his conquest of the world.[15] Malm’s perspective is provocative because, despite his targeted critique of the concept of wilderness, he is not prepared to completely disregard it: “The fact that the ruling ideas about wilderness are the ideas of the ruling class is no more reason to dispense with that category than the same fact about democracy or freedom or justice for that matter.”[16] For him, the concept points beyond the anthropocentric fantasy of a constructed world, acknowledging how the supreme power of nature dwarfs that of capitalism. If nothing else, the focus on wilderness renders the capitalist system contingent and vulnerable: “[P]laces with a high degree of wildness still hint at the possibility of life beyond capital.”[17]

Malm refuses a central tendency in contemporary ecological thought, which he has characterized as its “dissolutionism”: the erasure of the boundary between nature and society. For him, binaries are “analytical equipment,” and the binary of Nature/Society retains both analytical and political utility in the context of the climate crisis.[18] In arguing for a concept of nature as other, Malm invokes Immanuel Kant’s analytic of the sublime, which, for both radical and liberal critics, has been roundly critiqued for reinforcing the very ideological foundations of capitalism’s extractivist reasoning. Kant argues that the terrifying, overwhelming, disorienting experience of sublime nature produces not only fright, but also a moment of transcendence that results in the ultimate validation of the individual. Sightings of the sublime “raise the energies of the soul above their accustomed height, and discover in us a faculty of resistance of a quite different kind, which gives us courage to measure ourselves against the apparent almightiness of nature.”[19] The encounter with nature’s incalculable power produces the omnipotent individual subject precisely by threatening its obliteration. From the perspective of capitalism, the sublime will always reinforce capitalist relations of domination—a logical reason why scholars in the environmental humanities have persistently steered clear of it.[20] However, the sublime also names the otherness that the individual is recruited to manage, identifying in nature a profound threat to bourgeois individualism.

If for Kant, the sublime power of nature constituted the other to the rational individual, for Sigmund Freud, it was the unruly crowd. Jodi Dean reveals how Freud’s work in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921), as well as in his primary interlocutor Gustave Le Bon, pit the individual against the crowd. Le Bon’s influential 1895 study The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind shaped the modern discourse on crowd psychology, arguing that when absorbed by the crowd, the individual loses control of his reason, forgets his individuality, and reverts to his most primitive state. For Le Bon, the revolutionary uprising of the crowd was approaching:

The claims of the masses are becoming more and more sharply defined, and amount to nothing less than a determination to destroy utterly society as it now exists, with a view to making it hark back to that primitive communism which was the normal condition of all human groups before the dawn of civilization. The divine right of the masses is about to replace the divine right of kings.[21]

Le Bon points to the “primitive communism” imagined to have preceded Western civilization, aligning with Marx’s own diagnosis of a communitarian ontology, which interprets the human as a social animal [22] In Group Psychology, Freud builds on Le Bon to ask both what unites people in a crowd and what holds them together. Freud’s answer, as Dean puts it, follows from his interpretation that the unconscious is a crowd: “Moving from many to one, Freud’s explanation encloses the directed intensities of Le Bon’s crowd into an individual unconscious. Collective desire is reduced to an amplification of frustrated individual desire.”[23] From this perspective, it is the leader who assembles and directs the crowd according to his individual desires. Against Le Bon, Freud writes that man is “an individual creature in a horde led by a chief.”[24] He defends the ground on which the politics of liberalism were established.

For Freud, there is no such thing as collective desire, only the desire of individuals. Consequently, for him, the crowd is competitive by nature. In the absence of collective desire, a charismatic “chief ” must necessarily impose his desires on the crowd. Freud’s invocation of the language of tribal governance points to the work of ideological enclosure on Freud’s own thought. Constructing the chief as individual, Freud actively disavows the threat of primitive communism that was revealing its force both in the streets and in the colonies at his time of writing, while reflecting an alignment with the project of settler colonialism, which recognized individuation as a weapon against the collective and communal modes of life supporting Indigenous Nations before and during colonization. 

Unearthing the long tradition of resistance to settler colonialism within the territorial boundaries of the United States, Nick Estes offers insight on the perspective from which the settler saw both Indigenous people and Indigenous land. Settler colonialism was not only a project of dispossessing Indigenous peoples of common land, but also an assault on the collective bonds that held Indigenous Nations together in their relation to the slivers of land which they continued to inhabit. The process of allotment provides an example of the settler-colonial project of individuation. Allotment was the process of breaking up collectively inhabited reservation land into plots of private property. These parcels were “given” to individual Natives, while “surplus” was auctioned at dirt cheap prices to settlers. Estes writes of the effect of allotment on the national unity of the Oceti Sakowin Oyate, or Great Sioux Nation: “Allotment emphasized individualism, breaking up the tightly knit family units of direct kin and extended relations called the tiospaye, isolating them on different plots of land in distant parts of the reservation.”[25] Routine violence against Indigenous women was also part of this project of individuation: “White traders and trappers appropriated Indigenous women’s bodies as much as they had appropriated the wealth of the land by harvesting and selling the skins of animals. The two practices went hand in hand.”[26] The degrading material and psychological toll of individuation was built into the settler-colonial project of enclosure.

Freud’s claim that man is “an individual creature in a horde led by a chief ” represses the violence of individuation. When understood as an assemblage of individuals, a crowd can be broken up, disciplined, managed, or eradicated by force. A culture can also be exterminated. However, as Dean makes clear, when we disidentify with the individual enclosure, we can see that the leader does not speak on behalf of the collective but posits a gap that is struggled over: “The crowd doesn’t desire the leader; the leader incites and directs the desire of the crowd.”[27] The leader is not a hypnotist, but is “hypnotized by the idea”—an idea that always exceeds the person who believes it.[28] The leader can be substituted for another person, or even a common name, icon, or flag. The idea, rather than the charismatic leader, is what governs the crowd. And the idea cannot be killed.

What is Inalienable?

Kant’s analytic of the sublime and Freud’s theory of crowd dynamics are two sides of the same coin. They construct the individual as a bulwark against a threatening collective other. The story of capitalism and settler colonialism’s attempt to eradicate this abject other—be it Indigenous or communist, human or non-human—is not only the history of the capitalist world, but also the history of the gap in it. To speak of the gap in the capitalist world is to insist on a common that has not been enclosed by capitalism, a suggestion that notably breaks from Marx’s thesis on primitive accumulation, which took the “violent transformation of noncapitalist forms of life into capitalist ones” as a historical phase in the development of capitalism.[29] What remains following primitive accumulation is a world ravaged by capitalism, turned into pro!t and waste. Numerous challenges to this thesis have emerged in feminist and decolonial Marxist traditions, where, building on David Harvey’s reading of Rosa Luxemburg, thinkers such as Silvia Federici, Glen Sean Coulthard, and George Ciccariello-Maher, among others, have reconceived primitive accumulation as an incomplete and ongoing process of dispossession.

Coulthard challenges Marx’s theory of primitive accumulation on three counts: First, Marx’s temporal framing of primitive accumulation, which stages the violent expropriation of common land as a stage in the development of capitalism. Second, Marx’s original commitment to modernist developmentalism, which led the author to claim primitive accumulation as “a historically inevitable process that would ultimately have a beneficial effect on those violently drawn into the capitalist circuit.”[30] Third, Marx’s insistence on the violent character of primitive accumulation. Coulthard argues that a shift in perspective—from one that prioritizes the capitalist relation to one that prioritizes the colonial relation—enables the development of a theory of primitive accumulation that can attend not only to the persistence of violent dispossession under neoliberal capitalism, but also to the fact that “violence no longer constitutes the regulative norm governing the process of colonial dispossession.”[31] The flipside of Coulthard’s critical rereading of Marx is perhaps the most provocative: in a world devastated by capitalism, elements of noncapitalist life can be defended from the siege of primitive accumulation.

One reason, as Estes explains, is that for Indigenous peoples, the natural world is inalienable. Describing the perspective adopted by Water Protectors who gathered to block construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline’s controversial Missouri River crossing in 2016, Estes writes: 

Mni Sose, the Missouri River, is one such nonhuman relative who is alive, and who is also of the Mni Oyate, the Water Nation. Nothing owns her, and therefore she cannot be sold or alienated like a piece of property.[32]

By this, Estes is not suggesting that the Missouri River had evaded capitalist accumulation until the Army Corps of Engineers approved plans to route the Dakota Access Pipeline under it. Other pipelines cross under the river. Railroads cross over her. Industries line her shore and pump waste into her. Since the nineteenth century, she has been an important shipping channel for everything from commodities to ammunition. The Pick-Sloan dams, constructed from the 1940s to the 1960s to provide electric power as well as irrigation and flood control for the agricultural industry in Missouri River states, turned the river against its original custodians, flooding seven Lakota and Dakota reservations and dispossessing their already displaced and dispossessed inhabitants. What Estes means is that when seen from the perspective of the Oceti Sakowin—a perspective that understands land, water, and animals as living non-human relatives— the Missouri River is not reducible to its expropriation by the capitalist state.[33] To state that water is inalienable is to posit a truth claim—not a falsifiable hypothesis in the manner of colonial science, but an unfalsifiable claim demanding a specific political and ethical response from the collective that it hails into being. It conjures a subject that is true to it.

Geographies undergo historical transformations, and as the climate changes, rivers dry up. However, just as burial grounds remain burial grounds even after their contents are exhumed by archaeologists or bulldozed by oil companies, water remains, despite its periodic desecration, an inalienable excess to capitalism and settler-colonialism’s war on the common. Recent Indigenous-led movements to protect water against the extraction industry make this emphatically clear: water is alive in the material sense, but it is also sacred. The concept of the sacred oriented modes of non-capitalist life for centuries, in defiance of capitalist and colonial rule. It continues to foster the courage of revolutionary anti-colonial movements today. This concept works to establish a beyond to the material world in which to posit collective belief. 

Where Indigenous anticolonialism anchors collective belief in the natural world, communist movements anchor belief in the proletarianized many, locating a beyond to the world of capitalist domination in the specter of communism. When, at the start of the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels posit that “A specter is haunting Europe,”[34] they are not referring to existing communist party infrastructure (the party does not yet exist), but to the red threat recognized by the ruling class. The specter, as an absence that insists from within the capitalist world, connects living communists to their ancestors—the primitive communists of pre-capitalist times—and their descendants, those who have yet to take up the cause. The specter of communism holds up the living communists, orienting them toward a communist future. It gets embodied in the strikes and working-class uprisings to which Marx and Engels referred, but also in the ceremonial practices of Indigenous Nations, performed in de!ance of settler law. Like the sacred waters, the specter is inalienable. It adopts the form of a prosthesis in the material world, but it cannot be reduced to the prosthetic form that it takes.[35] When it appears, it links the dead to the living, holding open the gap of collective desire.

The Specter Is in the Object

In “The World Is Already without Us,” Alberto Toscano asks the question, “why are photographs of manufactured landscapes so often depopulated?”[36] Addressing the erasure of labor in the contemporary landscape photography of Edward Burtinsky amongst many others, his examination could be expanded to address the more widely critiqued genre of nineteenth-century American landscape painting, which likewise erased the presence of the Indigenous human and non-human inhabitants who tended the land according to a non-capitalist relation until and after settler occupation. These representations, reflecting both the rei!cation of labor and the rei!cation of nature, actively repress the specter that haunts them in the present. For Marx, the concept of the commodity follows a congruent structure: it is an object that both embodies and invisibilizes the labor that produces it. It rei!es an entire system of production, of private property, capitalists, and workers, as well as the “iron laws” that make the system a system. Like the museum, the nineteenth-century landscape painting, or the contemporary manufactured landscape, the commodity tells the story of what is extinguished in its making.

Toscano’s account of the dialectic of extinction and resurrection latent in the labor process presents a key for thinking about what it might mean to conjure the specter that haunts the natural history museum. Reflecting on the “hidden abode” masked in the commodity form, the mounting dead labor concentrated in commodities as they travel through the production process, Toscano clarifies that “the fact that they are indeed products of past labor is, in Marx’s colorfully crude metaphor, ‘as irrelevant, as, in the case of the digestive system, the fact that the bread is the product of the previous labour of the farmer, the miller and the baker.’”[37]

The project of resurrecting dead labor is not equivalent to resurrecting labor history:

When living labor power seizes these products, these things, and ‘awakens them from the dead’, as Marx declares, it is not as past but as present use value within a labor process overdetermined by the empty, homogenizing time of exchange value.[38]

The work of conjuring the specter in the land or in the natural history museum follows from this: the specter is awakened not as past but present use value, not as traumatic reminder but as prophetic guide for revolutionary work.

The museum is constituted through the same dialectics of extinction and resurrection as is the commodity. It represses the outside in the objects it contains, overdetermining them in its taxonomic, display, and interpretive protocols. It works to convince itself that it has captured the objects it contains. It does this by means of individuation, by separating the objects in its collection from their original uses and from the communities that cared for them, and by processing them as specimens, trophies, and rare goods. From the perspective of the modern individual—which is also the perspective of the capitalist state—this is interpreted as an effective, unilateral process of extinguishing, not one part of a dialectical struggle that includes a possible resurrection. From this perspective, the individuated object is an object of desire—a fetish severed from the source.

But the museum object also holds the potential to become an object cause of collective desire: when the object’s sacredness is presupposed by a collective, it stands as a beacon for collective belonging, embodying the non-capitalist excess of the capitalist enclosure. The sacred can be desecrated but not destroyed. When the museum object is recognized as imbued with the power of the sacred, it stands for the non-capitalist gap in the institution, activating the museum divide.

The project of institutional liberation emerges from the perspective of the gap. It attunes the partisan gaze not to the power of the enclosure but to the sublime threat to it. It is from this perspective that a partisan politics can be lodged into the capitalist world ecology. Such a politics is the necessary precondition for militant collective action on climate crisis. By orienting our gaze to the spectral threat to the capitalist world, we enter the dialectical struggle between extinction and resurrection, awakening the non-capitalist power in the capitalist world. When we see this non-capitalist power, we see it everywhere. As the object cause of desire, it produces the collective desire for collectivity in us. It opens a gap, holds us in common, and concentrates counterpower as we organize around it.

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.

“Beneath the Museum, the Specter” was originally published in The Routledge Companion to Contemporary Art, Visual Culture, and Climate Change, edited by T. J. Demos, Emily Eliza Scott and Subhankar Banerjee (Routledge, 2021), 418-427.

  1. [1]Glen Sean Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 13.
  2. [2]Jodi Dean, “The Anamorphic Politics of Climate Change,” e-flux Journal, no. 69 (January 2016):
  3. [3]See Not An Alternative, “Institutional Liberation,” e-flux Journal, no. 77 (November 2016):
  4. [4]Jason W. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life (London and Brooklyn: Verso, 2015), 4.
  5. [5]Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life, 2.
  6. [6]Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life, 2–3.
  7. [7]Frédéric Neyrat, The Unconstructable Earth: An Ecology of Separation (New York: Fordham University Press, 2018), 146.
  8. [8]Peder Anker, Imperial Ecology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 5.
  9. [9]Anker, Imperial Ecology, 39.
  10. [10]See Jeremy Walker and Melinda Cooper, “Genealogies of Resilience: From Systems Ecology to the Political Economy of Crisis Adaptation,” Security Dialogue, vol. 42, no. 2 (2011): 143–160.
  11. [11]Alberto Toscano, “Powers of Paci!cation: State and Empire in Gabriel Tarde,” Economy and Society, vol. 36, no. 4 (November 2007): 601.
  12. [12]See Kai Bosworth, “The Dakota Access Pipeline Struggle: Vulnerability, Security and Settler Colonialism in the Oil Assemblage,” in Mary Thomas, Mat Coleman, and Bruce Braun, eds, Settling the Bakken Boom: Sites and Subjects of Oil in North Dakota (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming). See also Shiri Pasternak and Tia Dafnos, “How Does a Settler State Secure the Circuitry of Capital?” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol. 36, no. 4 (Summer 2017): 739–757.
  13. [13]Bosworth, “The Dakota Access Pipeline Struggle,” 608.
  14. [14]Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life, 18.
  15. [15]Andreas Malm, “In Wildness is the Liberation of the World: On Maroon Ecology and Partisan Nature,” Historical Materialism, vol. 26, no. 3 (2018): 4.
  16. [16]Malm, “In Wildness,” 9.
  17. [17]Malm, “In Wildness,” 27.
  18. [18]Andreas Malm, The Progress of This Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World (London and Brooklyn: Verso, 2018), 186.
  19. [19]Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, second edition, translated by John H. Bernard (New York: Cosimo Books, 2007), 75.
  20. [20]An exception is Christopher Hitt, who, after identifying the “scholarly neglect on the part of ecocriticism to interrogate the discourse of the sublime,” argues that the concept of the sublime is not “fundamentally or intrinsically maleficent.” See Christopher Hitt, “Toward an Ecological Sublime,” New Literary History, no. 30 (1999): 605.
  21. [21]Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, second edition (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1897), xvi.
  22. [22]Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft), translated by Martin Nicolaus (London and New York: Penguin Books and New Left Review, 1993), 84.
  23. [23]Jodi Dean, Crowds and Party (Brooklyn and London: Verso, 2016), 105.
  24. [24]Dean, Crowds and Party, p. 109.
  25. [25]Nick Estes, Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (London and Brooklyn: Verso, 2019), 154.
  26. [26]Estes, Our History is the Future, 82.
  27. [27]Estes, Our History is the Future, 111.
  28. [28]Estes, Our History is the Future.
  29. [29]Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks, 8.
  30. [30]Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks, 10.
  31. [31]Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks, 15.
  32. [32]Estes, Our History is the Future, 15.
  33. [33]Estes, Our History is the Future, p. 16.
  34. [34]Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1847) (London: Pluto Press, 2017), 47.
  35. [35]Tim Fisken, “The Spectral Proletariat: The Politics of Hauntology in The Communist Manifesto,” Global Discourse, vol. 2, no. 2 (2011): 20.
  36. [36]Alberto Toscano, “The World Is Already without Us,” Social Text, 127, vol. 34, no. 2 (June 2016): 111.
  37. [37]Toscano, “The World Is Already without Us,” 114.
  38. [38]Toscano, “The World Is Already without Us,” 114.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illustration by Echo Yun Chen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Great Migration Never Ended” was originally published in the dossier “How can we live respectfully with the land and with one another?” edited by Julian Brave NoiseCat for Humans and Nature (How can we live respectfully with the land and with one another?) (November 2020).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tommy: Yeah.

Illustration by Echo Yun Chen.

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

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

Julian: Yeah, yeah.

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

Julian: No, I don’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Being Indian Has Never Been about Returning to the Land” was originally published in the dossier “How can we live respectfully with the land and with one another?” edited by Julian Brave NoiseCat for Humans and Nature (How can we live respectfully with the land and with one another?) (November 2020).

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illustration by Echo Yun Chen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illustration by Echo Yun Chen.

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

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

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

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

“First as tragedy, then as _____” was originally published in the dossier “How can we live respectfully with the land and with one another?” edited by Julian Brave NoiseCat for Humans and Nature (How can we live respectfully with the land and with one another?) (November 2020).

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