Things are big in the United States of America. Returning home after a year away reacquaints me with big detached single-family homes, big single-occupant vehicles, and big single-species grass lawns. I find wider roads, longer distances, larger supermarkets, and more stuff everywhere.
As a student of ecological economics, it makes me a little anxious. Such individualistic extravagance isn’t ecological or economical. I remind myself: it is precisely why I came back.
I spent most of the past year in Barcelona, studying with a group of researchers who are interested in degrowth – the idea that humans and other species might live better if the former had a smaller economy. Degrowth is not recession. It is a purposeful, equitable slowing of the rate at which we transform nature into stuff.
Our politicians pledge economic growth like priests promising eternal paradise in heaven, as if producing and consuming 3 percent more smartphones, assault rifles, and bacon-flavored beverages this year than we did last year is our best bet to achieve the good life. According to a 2015study, the United States’ yearly material footprint – the materials taken from farms, forests, mines, and other extraction sites to make the products Americans consume – measures about 27 metric tons per capita. In other words, 163 pounds of nature is extracted every day to feed, house, clothe, entertain, and satisfy the average U.S. resident. While the gadgets and garbage have piled up, the number of wild animals hashalved over the last four decades. People, rich people in particular, have conquered the planet in the quest for more.
Degrowth means downscaling the human enterprise to share the world nicely with other species and our grandchildren. Degrowth means distributing wealth equitably and prioritizing needs over wants.
But why the word “degrowth” anyway? Alively, complex debate rages over whether the term isuseful orharmful. I only want to make a few points that relate to the U.S. context.
Renouncing growth today has the potential of flipping every politician’s favorite narrative: that only growth can save the poor.
In the wake of elections that gave all three branches of government to the Republican party, the reeling American left must rethink, regroup, and rekindle the smoldering embers of the Bernie campaign. But Bernie Sanders, just like the politicians and financiers he rightly criticizes, is firmly pro-growth.
I cannot understand why. Growth over the last four decades has not brought substantial wage increases or a functioning healthcare system to the 99 percent, but it has made the U.S. economy unsustainably big in terms of resource use and carbon emissions. We must demand that leaders address inequality and other issues head-on instead of promising that a growing economy will make things better. Degrowth should be our rallying cry.
But degrowth has not yet caught on among academics or activists in the oversized United States. Don’t get me wrong, many initiatives here exhibit the values of the degrowth movement – simplicity, democracy, sharing, the rejection of economic growth as the goal for society. There’s a network of organizations fighting to create an economy based on justice and ecology, a campaign to work less, a scholarly groupfocused on downsizing consumption, and countless community-scale projects from urban food forests to bike cooperatives to tool-lending libraries. And there are the water protectors at Standing Rock, standing peacefully in the way of the growth economy’s ever-extending tentacles. Yet these projects lack a defiant unifying frame for their collective crusade to construct a socially and environmentally sustainable country.
Mostly, people suppose that degrowth is too negative a term for the American culture of optimism. Per social norms, people in the U.S. are not typically any less than “fine” when asked, “How are you?”
Why hasn’t degrowth spread in the United States? At September’s international degrowth conference in Budapest, I spoke with some other degrowthers living in the U.S. about why the word has not been adopted and how we might spark a movement.
Mostly, people suppose that degrowth is too negative a term for the American culture of optimism. Per social norms, people in the U.S. are not typically any less than “fine” when asked, “How are you?” A downward-oriented word like degrowth produces reflexive repulsion.
In response to Trump’s victory and the calls by many to “give him a chance,” Jelani Cobb, a professor in journalism at Columbia University, tweeted that he “had not fully appreciated until now how much the relentless American drive for optimism resembles abject denial.” Denying that a finite planet cannot sustain infinite growth is just another aspect of that abject denial.
Yet in other ways degrowth is too positive for the United States. Bear with me. Barbara Muraca, an Italian environmental philosopher who arrived at Oregon State University two years ago, says that ecological intellectuals in the U.S. urge rapidly transforming society to avoid imminent civilizational collapse, whereas the European school of degrowth tends to promote a slow revolution toward living well together with less. The deep-green environmentalists of this country foresee hardship accompanying the end of growth. Degrowth tends to look at the bright side of freeing ourselves from our current unsustainable, unjust economy.
As Muraca sees it, U.S. enviros do not fear the end of the world, but the end of the American Dream. The science on global environmental limits shows that all humans cannot drive gas-guzzling trucks and eat sausage every morning – which means it is unfair if some folks do get to live that way. The news is frightening, for its recipients and for the messenger.
To my friend Deric Gruen, who manages theRethinking Prosperity project, it is simpler: Americans love growth! Emotional growth, sales growth, spiritual growth, crop growth, earnings growth, growth spurts, growth of my social network. People from the U.S. hear about degrowth and reply, “So you are kind of like redefining growth, right?”
So mainstream green groups refuse to renounce growth. Prominent voices from Silicon Valley to the Bible Belt reject the existence of any constraints on human activity. Muraca’s catastrophist colleagues counter this denial of limits with pleas to prepare for the post-fossil fuel world by consuming less.
Most folks do not want to hear these pessimistic-sounding appeals. So the earnest ecologists shout louder, which turns off everyone not already convinced. Who are we to tell our fellow citizens to restrain themselves, and be happier while doing so? Many residents of the highly unequal U.S. cannot comfortably afford to fill their trucks with gas to guzzle. Meanwhile, the plutocrats in charge of the nation jetset to important gatherings around the world where they discuss what to do about climate change and income inequality.
America doesn’t just need a wake-up call. We need new narratives about what the good life is and how to achieve it. Coming to the University of Vermont to take part in the Economics for the Anthropocene research initiative is a chance to bring degrowth home, as both a scholarly concept and an activist slogan. Perhaps one day it can be a social and political movement, too. Instead of boasting about the new wave of cancerous growth their policies will trigger, we need candidates that lay out plans to ensure everyone economic security and opportunities to flourish regardless what happens with GDP.
Last year I cycled across North America, talking about degrowth to anyone who would listen and listening to whomever had something to say about it. Now, in Vermont, I discuss degrowth with other graduate students, undergrads, faculty, and also with the woman who helps me fix my bicycle and the guy kneeling next to me as we dig carrots from the soil. Just mentioning it leads to dynamic and interesting conversations, especiallyamong people previously unfamiliar with the concept.
In the end, it is not about the word, it is about sparking socio-ecological change toward a fairer, smaller, and simpler economy. Degrowth explicitly or by other names.
Sam Bliss suffers from an acute strain of the imposter syndrome that affects most first-year PhD students. He makes okay improvised salads from whatever he finds in dumpsters, though, and is hopeful about surviving his first Vermont winter.
In this report, I will try to give you a sense of what being at Standing Rock is like. Tonight completes my third day here. The weather has been mostly cold but very sunny. The colors, the sky, but most of all the people are startlingly calm and beautiful. The Standing Rock encampment is defined as a prayer site, a place to contemplate and to appreciate nature, “the creator” (not my words), and each other. The Indigenous people here from just about every tribe in the US and some from Canada are so welcoming and warm to outsiders. They repeatedly say how much they appreciate the presence of non-Indigenous folks and how they want to share with us. They are strict on the rules: no violence of any kind, no drugs, alcohol or guns, respect for Indigenous ways, making oneself useful.
The vast encampment contains 4 or 5 separate but connected camps, some on the Sioux reservation land, others outside.The largest one is immediately off reservation land, Oceti Sakowin Camp; it is the one in which most of the activities happen. The others are either defined by age—elders or youth—or vary by activity. We spend most of our time at Oceti but today I took a long walk and visited two of the other camps just to get a flavor of them.
NO DAPL stands for No Dakota Access Pipeline and signs with the slogan are everywhere as is “water is life”. There is a religious feel to the camps and great respect all around. In many ways this is a very old-style Indigenous encampment and in many ways it feels like a post-revolutionary or post-apocalyptic future.
The pace is slow though everyone seems to move with great purpose. People jump in and do the tasks that seem to be needed: cooking, cleaning, helping each other to put up a yurt or a teepee, chopping wood, tending fires, washing dishes, offering legal, medical or psychological help. Cell and internet service is miserable and probably interfered with by the constant drones that fly above the camps.
For me the most impactful point was respect. They defined that as including slowing down, moving differently with clearer intention and less reactivity.
On Friday I attended a brilliantly presented orientation to the camp. One of the presenters was Maria Marasigan, a young woman who was active in the Brooklyn Food Coalition. It was the best anti-racist training for allies that I have witnessed: succinct, not guilt-trippy, and very direct. The three main rules are: Indigenous centered, build a new legacy, and be of use. They shared the Lakota values that prevail in the camp: prayer, respect, compassion, honesty, generosity, humility, wisdom.
For me the most impactful point was respect. They defined that as including slowing down, moving differently with clearer intention and less reactivity. They suggest asking fewer questions and just looking and learning before our hands pop up and we ask to take up space.
They clarified a gendered division of behavior and practice, including asking women to honor traditional norms of wearing skirts during the sacred rituals (including in the cooking tent) and for women “on their moons” to spend time in a tent to be taken care of and rest if they choose. Somehow it seemed okay, actually respectful, not about pollution and ostracism.
While I was helping out in the cooking tent—my main area of contribution—an Indigenous woman came by with about 10 skirts and distributed them to the mostly women in the cooking tent and we gladly put them on. It served as an extra layer of warmth over my long underwear and jeans. It was not what I expected but it seemed fine to all of us. We just kept chopping away at the veggies.
Later that day I attended a direct action training that was also quite thorough and clear. Lisa Fithian, an old friend from anti-war movement days, lead the training and explained how to behave in an action and how to minimize police violence. Lisa, along with two other strong, smart women, one Black and one Native, laid out a plan to do a mass pray-in in town the next day. My New York City travel companion and I both felt that we couldn’t risk arrest and decided not to join that direct action but to be in support in any way we could.
At 8 am the next morning about 100 cars lined up in convoy formation at the exit of the Oceti Sakowin Camp, each with lots of passengers—including some buses and minivans—and went into Manwan, the nearest town. The Indigenous folks formed an inner circle and the non-Indigenous formed a circle around them. The Indigenous folks prayed, sand and danced. The tactic was exercising freedom to practice their religion while protesting the Dakota Access Pipe Line. No arrests were made despite massive police and drone presence. One local man tried to run over a water protector but she jumped aside; the man had a gun but was subdued by the cops. Lots of videos were taken and the man was brought to the local jail.
On Saturday I finally got a press pass as I got a request to cover the encampment from New Politics, a print and online journal. That gave me the right to take photos (otherwise not allowed), but still limited—no photos of people without permission or of houses or horses, again without permission from the people with them. I set out to interview people at the various camps and to get a sense of what people were planning to do for the winter.
I spoke with Joe, a part Lakota from Colorado who had been raised Catholic and attended Indian residential schools, taken from his parents by the state because they doubted the ability of the native community to raise their own kids. He said it was brutal. When asked why he was here, he replied, “This is the first time since Little Big Horn that all the tribes are uniting against a common enemy—the black snake—the pipeline that will harm our water, our people. This unity is making us whole.”
At Rosebud camp just about a 1/2 mile from Oceti, I discovered a group of people building a straw-bale building that was destined to become a school. Multi took a break to tell me how they came to create this project with the full collaboration of parents and kids in the camp. Their project grew out of a team of people from Southern California who are builders and designers who use earth and straw as materials creating almost no carbon footprint and providing both strength of structure and extraordinary insulation—very important for a windy and cold winter ahead.
“We spent five days gathering ideas from people at the camp as to what they needed. They decided on building a school for the many kids who might stay the winter or come and go over time.The parents and kids helped to design the structure with the builders.”
Multi told me, “We didn’t want to bring the colonialist idea of what was needed and just tell people at the camp. We spent five days gathering ideas from people at the camp as to what they needed. They decided on building a school for the many kids who might stay the winter or come and go over time. The parents and kids helped to design the structure with the builders. All the decision-making was ‘horizontal’, engaging everyone with equal voice, avoiding hierarchy. It will be a one-room schoolhouse with nooks for specific tasks and will serve K-8th graders.” A teen center is being built nearby.
When I visited there were five women and one man working on the project and they welcomed any help they could get to finish the project before the cold sets in. When I asked Multi why she was doing this project she said, “For me this is about coming together as a global culture, a people who have the resources we need for future generations. We are here to protect our futures together. Building a schoolhouse is a manifestation of that ancient technology for our future together.”
“This is all about the water and who lives downstream. We are testing a new economic system that requires governance, self-governance from the ground up.”
Down the road I met Danielle who was helping to build a multi-purpose center housing a kitchen, dining area and meeting room. She told me that “This is all about the water and who lives downstream. We are testing a new economic system that requires governance, self-governance from the ground up. The needs must evolve for us to create a system that will fit them.” She is particularly excited about engaging people to serve and to be united, to be able to work together with their passions for service, to be happy together in this way. The materials for the building were donated by people from Ashville, NC and were deeply appreciated. All over the camps one sees evidence of creative problem-solving, cooperation and contributions brought from afar. The “donations” building is brimming with winter clothes (adults and kids), foods of all kinds and practical items.
I was particularly interested in the many families that were at the camps, including lots of kids of all ages, including infants. One family from Boulder, Colorado, with 8-year old Oscar and 11-year old Audrey, were unpacking their car when I came upon them. Their mother, Susan, said, “We are here to support the protest and to have our kids learn from it. I want my kids to understand that we do what we can to take care of the water and support the Indigenous people. To step it up these days we have to hold some ground. This is one of the places we can meet. It would be great if Obama would release the land and kill the pipeline.” Amen.
I encountered a father-son pair from Manhattan. Fourteen-year old Declan Rexer learned about the encampment from a single segment on MSNBC news but couldn’t find anything else about it in the corporate media. He was particularly upset by the police attacks on elderly protesters. He then went to alternative and social media and found an enormous amount of information. His interest grew and his father, William Rexer, decided to bring him out to North Dakota to learn for himself.
They plan to bring back lots of information for Declan’s classmates and encourage more people to come out to see for themselves. William, a media professional himself, connected with some of the young documentarians at the camp and will provide some material support to them in order to advance their work.
“I’ve been here from the beginning and I will stay to the end. All winter if that’s what it takes. We have been colonized and divided for 500 years.”
I spoke with Joseph, a Salish man from Montana. I asked him how long he was planning to stay at the camp. He told me, “I’ve been here from the beginning and I will stay to the end. All winter if that’s what it takes. We have been colonized and divided for 500 years. This is our time to unite and resist. We must protect our water and our tribes.” He thanked me for coming to Standing Rock and being an ally. He asked me to tell my friends to come out and join the encampment, to be water protectors.
Generosity is evident all over the camp. I particularly love working in the kitchen, a huge army tent with large tables, stoves and lots of equipment. On each of the two days that I worked in the kitchen there were about a dozen people busily working in happy unison. There was a chief organizer and then 4 or 5 people who were in charge of a particular dish, each with 1-3 assistants. I was an assistant, happy not to have to mastermind anything. The chatter amongst the workers reminded me of the Park Slope Food Coop squads where people work together with shared goals. As one man put it, “We come together here with one vision. We are building a new world together.”
I am moving slowly and deliberately and thinking about the world we need to build together, on a much larger scale.
While I attend trainings and sacred fire circles, chop veggies, talk with people, drive people around, and walk around the various camps, I am struck by how happy I feel. Sure, this is temporary. Sure, this is not my “real world”. But it is a lovely world, a loving world, a kind world, where each person is greeted with kindness. Young men and women ride through the camps on horseback, connect to ancient traditions, and bask in the glory of a shared culture of resistance. I don’t come from this culture but I do support their determination, their right to protect their land and water and people, their valiant attempt to build a better world. I am moving slowly and deliberately and thinking about the world we need to build together, on a much larger scale. Can we decide to be kind to each other, to collaborate, to try to remove ego from our day-to-day practice? I don’t know the answer to these difficult questions. But I do know that when people share a common struggle we can be beautiful. I bask in that beauty at Standing Rock.
Nancy Romer is a life-long social justice activist starting in the tenants rights movement, then the feminist, anti-war, anti-racist, anti-imperialist, union, food justice and, now, climate justice movements. Nancy is Professor Emerita of Psychology at Brooklyn College and now writes primarily on climate movement-related efforts, with a particular interest in agriculture and peasant movements in Latin America. Read their first report on life at the camp here.
When Aymara people in South-America look ahead they are facing the past. Literally. Researchers who investigated Aymara language and gestures have established that, unlike all the studied cultures and languages of the world, they refer to the past by gesturing ahead, while the future is situated behind oneself. The example of the Aymara indigenous people, when reflecting on how history can be useful for activists participating in socio-environmental conflicts, challenges our preconditioned views. We can put history into the foreground, not just as the background or the context of present events but as a central resource for the present and the future.
“All history is contemporary history”—Benedetto Croce.
But it is not only that we all write and research within the context of our own time. It is also that the stories and narrations that we unveil impact us now. They can affect how we look at the past—but especially, when it involves social movements, they can also shape how we look at the present and at the future, at what is conceived as possible and impossible today and tomorrow.
As the Zapatistas claim, it is necessary to “open a crack” in history. On January 1st 1994, the very same day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into force, the Zapatistas launched their revolt in the mountains of Southeast Mexico. From their very First Declaration, they emphasised they were the result of 500 years of resistance to colonialism.
A crack also disrupts the idea of unidirectional, non-linear history, opening a loophole that challenges views of what is in front of us and what in our backs. Once the past is reclaimed, the door to reclaim the future swings open.
One of the expressions of such resistance is precisely their critique of how history has been written. A history that tells the story of the elites just makes the present state of things seem natural, leaves aside the subalterns and silences their past. Against this type of historical appropriation, Zapatistas claim the need to “open a crack”– to write the history of the exploited. A crack that also disrupts the idea of unidirectional, non-linear history, opening a loophole that challenges views of what is in front of us and what in our backs. A crack that permits us to look to the past ahead—like the Aymara—as memories of the alternative non-disposable future. Once the past is reclaimed, the door to reclaim the future swings open.
Reclaiming silenced pasts is a task to be done both in the archives and the streets, both in libraries and mountains, listening to stories and reading dusty records. It can be about how a revolution was silenced and obliterated from history, as shown in the work of Michel-Rolph Trouillot on the late 18th century in Haiti. And also about how dictatorships try to wipe out the memory and heritage of those who opposed them. When, like in Spain, elites have succeeded to remain in power for decades, the stories of disappeared workers and activists and their emancipatory projects frustrated by a 40-year long dictatorship risk being left aside and silenced forever.
The Case of the Segle XX building in Barceloneta
In December 2013, residents of La Barceloneta (Barcelona, Spain) announced a demonstration to reclaim the empty building of the El Segle XX (“The Twentieth Century”) cooperative for its public use. El Segle XX had been founded in 1901, but after years of decline during the Francoist dictatorship, the cooperative was dissolved in the late 1980s and the building was later abandoned.
The importance of several cooperatives—El Segle XX among them—as spaces of socialization, consumption, and culture since the late Nineteenth century soon emerged as a central aspect of the residents’ memories.
At least since 2008, the neighbourhood association La Òstia began collecting information about the history of the neighbourhood and interviewing veteran residents. The importance of several cooperatives—El Segle XX among them—as spaces of socialization, consumption, and culture since the late Nineteenth century soon emerged as a central aspect of the residents’ memories. Later, the Barceloneta Cooperative Memory Research Group (Grup de Recerca de la Memòria Cooperativa de la Barceloneta) continued the work of the association by diving into archives, recording interviews, organising guided tours, and other activities.Similar projects in other neighbourhoods of the city, such as Sants or Poblenou, supported by the cooperative La Ciutat Invisible, greatly contributed to the impulse of the project.
Barceloneta is historically a working-class neighbourhood with low salaries and few public and social facilities, but is now under high touristic pressure. And so the use of the El Segle XX building became a symbolic claim to the municipality.
Since the last decades of the nineteenth century, as part of a wider international movement, cooperatives grew in importance in Barcelona. In Catalonia, cooperatives had their heyday during the democratic period of the Second Republic (1931-1939) when thousands of families became members. Very often, they had their own theatres, bars, and shops. Consumption cooperatives allowed the avoidance of intermediaries between consumers and producers and thus brought urban space closer to the surrounding agricultural environment that fed it.
However, following the military coup that unleashed the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and with the victory of Franco over the Republicans, cooperatives never regained the activity hey had had before. In fact, during the conflict, Barcelona was on the Republican side and Barceloneta was bombed so heavily that it had to be evacuated. El Segle XX was hit by Fascist bombings and reduced to ashes. Although the building was rebuilt after the war, its activity languished during the dictatorship, and most cooperatives were dissolved and their buildings sold. After the cooperative slowly dissolved, the El Segle XX building passed to private hands in the 1990s.
Although the land on which the building is built was categorised by the City Council as a public facility, rumours of private commercial projects for the building started circulating. Already feeling increased pressure from gentrification and tourism, residents were getting uneasy.
In the final days of 2013, two weeks before a scheduled demonstration, an apparently fortuitous fire damaged part of the building. This event fostered a united front of the associations and residents of the quarter, and just a few weeks later, more than 30 organisations signed a statement asking the District to either expropriate or buy the Segle XX building. They also demanded a transparent investigation of the fire and the legal state of the building property, as well as the commitment of the City Council to keep the building categorized as a public facility.
Recording memories, collecting scans of old pictures and newspapers, finding old records or mapping places that have disappeared, residents have found a way to narrate their own story.
At the end of the demonstration in front of the El Segle XX building, several residents intervened by emphasising the historical role of the cooperative in Barceloneta. The march ended with two posters plastered on the wall of the building. One vindicated the historical memory of cooperativism with a quote from 1899; the other was a blank poster to be filled by participants with their ideas for the future uses of the space, under the title “What do we want for El Segle XX?” (“Què volem per al Segle XX?”). In the same fashion, the website of the Barceloneta Cooperative Memory Research Group, whose members had an active role in the march, stated clearly their views on the uses of the memory of cooperativism:
“More than an exercise of historical memory, it comes to us as a memory of the future: the practices of cooperation give us a powerful tool to face a present of cutbacks in social services and to build a shared future”.
Unearthing stories of the past, reconnecting struggles for the future
In a rapidly changing barri (neighbourhood), with growing pressure from luxury tourism stimulating higher rents and pushing former residents out, associations have resorted to historical research to enhance their struggles. Recording memories, collecting scans of old pictures and newspapers, finding old records or mapping places that have disappeared, residents have found a way to narrate their own story.
As highlighted by activist researcher Emma Alari, participatory mapping has been an essential tool in the neighbourhood’s struggles. Maps were used by Barceloneta’s residents to display the different threats suffered by the neighbourhood. The collaboration with mapping activists Iconoclasistas, who illustrated the dangers faced by the neighbourhood by creating a map for the residents, is a good example of this.
But mapping can also be a historical project. By mapping both long- and recently-disappeared places in “Geografia Esborrada de la Barceloneta” (“Barceloneta’s Deleted Geography”), residents not only narrate their history but configure an emotional geography of the barri, which binds together the stories of squatted houses already demolished with the story of buildings like El Segle XX or the Escola del Mar, a wood-constructed school on the seaside, which was burnt by Fascist bombings during the Spanish Civil War.
Such stories are disseminated by walking and talking together with residents (on organised guided tours), and through making audio recordings available online. These stories weave new connections between the past, the present, and the imagined futures. The guided tours in particular provide chances for interaction between those researching the history of the neighbourhood and their inhabitants, confronting and enriching each other’s stories. Residents’ relations to the space are connected with historical research about its uses by past social movements.
After years of actions and campaigns in the neighbourhood, the Barcelona City Council has finally committed to starting the process of expropriation of the El Segle XX building to give it back to the barri. The struggle, however, is far from over. As the recuperation of the building is close to becoming a reality, the neighbourhood association/assembly is designing its own project for the uses of the building through a grassroots process. In a major open meeting in the square, residents wrote their ideas for the future uses of the cooperative building on several large-size copies of the 1939 project drawings to rebuild the cooperative after the war, which had been located in the archives.
Nostalgia, often dismissed as over-romanticization, can also be an emotion connected to transformation and even revolution. Past experiences are opportunities for reinvention, possibilities for alliances across time.
This wasn’t just a practical way to collect all the ideas for the different floors of the building and a reminder of the building’s past. It was also a symbolic gesture: the maps of the project to rebuild El Segle XX after the Fascist bombings and the occupation of Barcelona in 1939 were recycled 76 years later to discuss an alternative future with the barri’s residents. The past can be a resource for imagining alternative futures—in a very material way.
While some would see a gloomy and nostalgic flavour in this struggle, activists explicitly state that they don’t intend to idealise, nor to romanticise, a return to a static lost past. They want to learn lessons about past experiences tried and failed, understand past hopes for imagined futures, explore the daily life and the problems of the neighbourhood in the past and its connections to today. Michael Löwy has suggested that Walter Benjamin used “nostalgia for the past as a revolutionary method for the critique of the present”. Nostalgia, often dismissed as over-romanticization, can also be an emotion connected to transformation and even revolution. Past experiences are opportunities for reinvention, possibilities for alliances across time. Stories like the one told by the El Segle XX building can be, as Italian authors Wu Ming and Vitaliano Ravagli have asserted, “axes of war to be unearthed”.
Santiago Gorostiza is a PhD candidate trained both as an Environmental Scientist and as a Historian. He investigates socioenvironmental conflicts during the Spanish Civil War and the Francoist dictatorship. His research interests include urban geography, the environmental history of war and the role of historical research in political ecology.
“Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.”
-Malcolm X, 1963
When I was in Luzon this past year, burning sambong allowed me to connect & celebrate the two sacred lands that have given me life. Sambong is a philippine plant medicine, a cousin of Turtle Island sage.
*Turtle island is the name given by several Indigenous cultures to what Europeans have called “North America” since colonization.
Burning sambong became a ritual that reminded me of my braided creation story, raised by a Turtle Island aunt and Philippine mother that have both given me life. Amongst many other medicinal plant beings that connect Turtle Island to the Philippines, partly as a result of Spanish colonial trade relations, are tobacco and corn, both of which hold their places in the stories of my elders’ childhoods.
The more i reflect on my relationship to these two lands, the more i come to relate to Turtle Island as an aunt who was forced to take me in under conditions of violence & force, and yet still has loved and given so much life to me, and the Philippines as the mother whose many children have left her because colonial pillage has fragmented, objectified, and violated her in ways that make it hard for her take care of many of us.
After spending committed time in solitude with mother earth in my ancestral lands for several months this past year, I came back to Turtle Island with a deeper sense of reverence for this Aunt who has taken so much care of me and enabled my life under conditions of settler colonial violence.
I keep returning to the question of how i can integrate practices of love and care into my everyday survival in a way that will allow me to go beyond surviving to regenerating my self, ancestors and an-sisters, cultures, and the communities and lands that allow us to be. For me this has meant that prayer, song, connecting with plant and element friends, dance, and other body connection practices form intentional rituals in my life. They have become forms of regenerative medicine, my body being the land that cultivates and carries them regardless of where i am in the world. More broadly, i ask myself how communities and lands impacted by deep colonial harm can not only survive but regenerate in the context of systemic subjugation, extraction, and violence.
At this year’s annual March for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, I noticed the powerful smell of burning sage and the use of other sacred medicines. This, as well as the presence of song and dance, brought spiritual, emotional, physiological healing to the march while reviving Indigenous ceremonial practices. It reminded me of how incorporating traditional practices of care and creativity—specifically when these practices are led by people from the communities they are indigenous to—can transform the often sanitized, colonized, cold spaces of marches. I often wonder how spaces of mourning and loss can be transformed into spaces of cultural revitalization. The singing, dancing, and burning of plant allies at the march felt like forms of cultural resurgence as people viscerally connected to their creation stories through medicine and their bodies.
At the march, Ellen Gabriel spoke of how we cannot wait for the state and the law to protect and honor Indigenous womxn. She also stated that the protection and celebration of Indigenous womxn’s lives requires a cultural shift whose embodiment the law cannot ensure. In this way, she speaks to how politics based on gaining visibility and recognition under the legalistic terms of the nation-state is limited in its capacity for revitalizing indigeneity, healing inter-generational trauma, and ensuring the regeneration and celebration of Indigenous womxn’s lives.
“I am a bigger threat to the Canadian state and its plans to build pipelines across my body, clear cut my forests, contaminant my lakes with toxic cottages and chemicals and make my body a site of continual sexualized violence. What if we collectively and fully reject the politics of recognition in politics with the Canadian state? What if we collectively and fully reject the politics of recognition in our mobilizations and organizing? What happens when we fully reject the politics of recognition in education? Where do I beg the colonizer for recognition in my own life? Why?”
“Our backs tell stories no books have the spine to carry”
-rupee kaur, poetess and spoken word performer. From the poem “Women of color”
While in the Philippines, I felt on the deepest level the truth that our bodies are the land. The silent time of solitude i took to be on the sacred Mt Banahaw and in other spaces of unconcretized, respected earth were truly the most powerful and transformative times of connection to my body & ancestors.
As a queer femme filipinx performer, provider of emotional labour and care work, and as daughter, niece, cousin of many filipinx people who have worked dedicatedly as care & domestic workers, I’ve experienced how my body and other racialized feminized bodies become sites of consumption, fetishization, and energy extraction through, for example, underpaid, unpaid, and industry-specific labour that tends to be domesticated or sexualized.
As a performer and as someone who is often asked to do emotional labour in specific ways, I’ve experienced how the values and stereotypes ascribed to my brown feminized body as a site from which to extract energy connects to the way that colonial-capitalist institutions relate to the body of our mother earth as a site for resource extraction through, for example, mining and fracking.
And so I feel what many Indigenous womxn visionaries like Leanne Simpson and Amanda Lickers of Reclaim Turtle Island have expressed in different ways—that asserting the bodily self-determination and sovereignty of womxn and queer folks, especially those most impacted by colonialism, is intricately linked to asserting the self-determination and sovereignty of the land. As such, both womxn’s bodies and the earth are sacred sites through which communities, cultures and institutions can be made to reproduce colonial values. Womxn play a distinct role as culture-bearers, and the cultures we bear reflect and are enabled by the lands we inhabit.
(4) remembering womxn and land through song and dance
The babaylan in Filipino Indigenous traditions is a person, usually a womxn, who, according to Leny Strobel, director of the Center for Babaylan Studies, “is gifted to heal the spirit and the body; the one who serves the community through her role as a folk therapist, wisdom-keeper and philosopher; the one who provides stability to the community’s social structure; the one who can access the spirit realms and other states of consciousness and traffic easily in and out of these worlds; the one who has vast knowledge of healing therapies.” As noted by Grace Nono in “Songs of the Babaylan”, many babaylans integrate song and dance as part of their healing, spirit, and land connection practices.
The babaylan were seen as a threat to colonial powers because of their strong connection to traditional cultural practices, their dedicated and intimate relationship to the land, to spirit worlds and to plant and medicine allies, and their commitment to preserving all these land-based connections. Christianization and colonization involved the regulation and removal of Indigenous community connections to the land and suppression of philippine Indigenous spiritualities. As part of this, babaylan traditions were forcefully regulated, and babaylan were demonized as witches or brujas and subjugated—forcing many to go into hiding or minimize their visibility.
In September, I was present at the Babaylan Conference, themed Makasaysayang Pagtatagpo (Historic Encounters): Filipinos and Indigenous Turtle Islanders Revitalizing Ancestral Traditions Together. It was hosted in Coast Salish Territories—an unceded territory within what settlers call British Columbia. The conference has been happening in Turtle Island since 2013 and strives to “build and strengthen our Filipino communities in the diaspora through the sharing of Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Practices (IKSP)”. This year’s theme focused on questions of how to meaningfully connect with Philippine Indigenous knowledge systems and spiritualities in a way that engages with the realities of our presence on Turtle Island.
During the conference, I co-guided “Queer Earth”, a session by and for queer participants. A central intention for me was to invite reflections on the role of song & of queer folks (and queer song!) in movements of re-indigenization. Specifically, I wanted to reflect on (1) how we might re-connect to our intuitive, embodied ancestral knowledge to return energies to mother earth through ritual and specifically song and (2) how my relationship to being queer is deeply rooted in a relationship with the earth which embraces fluidity, diversity, connection, negotiation, and reciprocity not just in relation to gender and sexuality, but in my relations to all beings, and (3) how these two might intersect.
What ended up organically emerging was a collective grieving of our queer ancestors—from our unknown queer ancestors, to our queer aunts and uncles within our blood and chosen family—which was marked by spontaneous song, lots of crying, prayer, and oral reflections of what brought us to the room. While communally mourning the lives of those passed, we also collectively and musically affirmed our queer selves, and held one another’s queer stories and the emotions and hopes that sprung from them. In the session I felt a release of grief through my own mourning, a release that seemed to be collective as I witnessed others’ mourning, and shared reflections with participants about the session afterward. One of the co-facilitators, Will, mentioned this was the first markedly queer congregation at the conference since its inception, which left me feeling like this process of queer mourning of lives passed was also inherently a process of queer resurgence.
For me, the organic emergence of song with the percussions we made out of our bones and tongues deeply reverberated through and revitalized my emotional, physiological, spirit self. I felt the truth held by many Philippine Indigenous knowledge systems that storytelling through song is a way of connecting to and enabling the survival, return, and celebration of our an-sisters. As Grace Nono notes, in many babaylan Indigenous traditions, song helps to connect to the spirit world in a way that can and does bring back our an-sisters and ancestors, revitalizing our connection to our selves, the earth, our ancestors, and cultures.
At the conference, I also reflected on the role of dance in revitalization while witnessing the collaboration between two dance groups. Butterflies in Spirit is “a dance troupe made up of mostly family members of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women that raises awareness of violence against Indigenous womxn and girls across Canada. BIS commemorates the victims of violence in Vancouver and across Canada”. During and prior to the conference, Butterflies in Spirit collaborated with the Kathara Philippine Indigenous Dance Collective in a fusion of contemporary hiphop with traditional dance choreographed by PowWow dancer Madelaine McCallum and with live musical accompaniment by Kathara.
The dances at the conference re-created many stories of rebirth and renewal through depicting the metamorphosis of butterflies, the migratory flight of birds, difficult journeys through sacred waters, and the welcoming of nations after long journeys. Dance can be a form of community practice that celebrates cultural life through remembering creation stories in movement, nurturing communal bonding, and affirming relationships with spirits & the land through connection with the body and with emotions. The embodied stories I witnessed reminded me that amidst all the dispossession and violence against brown bodies and lands, communal practices of re-connection with body, culture, and land are well alive.
The collaboration reminded me of what Leny Strobel, director of the Center for Babaylan Studies, said during the conference that “we are not people separated by land, but people connected by water.” I viscerally felt this as I witnessing the dance against the backdrop of the Sunshine Coast’s waters, which summoned my inner waters to well up through my eyes as I watched. I left the conference being reminded of the regenerative role that song and dance can play in our movements for healing and justice.
(6) (in)visibility and (ir)recognition beyond the nation-state
“While theoretically, we have debated whether Audre Lourde’s “the master’s tools can dismantle the master’s house”, I…I am not so concerned with how we dismantle the master’s house, that is, which sets of theories we use to critique colonialism; but I am very concerned with how we “re” build our own house, our own houses. I have spent enough time taking down the master’s house, and now i want most of my energy to go into visioning and building our new house” -Leanne Simpson, Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back
“The inner resources of the people that cannot simply be reduced to resistance. This – cultural energy – is also power – but it is a power not meant to dominate nor resist but creatively for a people to become themselves.”
-Albert Alejo, Generating Energies in Mount Apo
In my experience within the social justice communities of Tio’tia:ke—the Kanien’keha or Mohawk word for Montreal which means “where the currents meet”—creative & spiritual practices such as our song & mourning circle in the conference—are less valued forms of activism than more visible, outward, street-based, masculinist, and legally-oriented forms. Activism is often based on making certain peoples, identities, communities, movements, and goals visible and legitimate within a legal, nation-state framework that measures value through positivist, hyper-visible, masculinist, standards. This often looks like demanding for “rights” on the streets and in the courts, on the terms of the nation-state’s legal and political frameworks.
I am forced to adopt these frameworks of being recognized by and visible to nation states for purposes of mobility whenever I travel across the border and am asked for my passport which upholds my “Canadian” nation-state settler-colonial status, and when I apply for my passport and must choose one of the two genders recognized by this nation-state. The nation-state’s visibility and recognition are part of my existence. Its laws and institutions impact my existence even if i would like to opt out of and become invisible from them. In some ways, I value making visible the invisibilized, for example in remembering those who have been made missing and murdered by the settler colonial nation state, and in making visible the invisibilized, un(der)paid emotional, spiritual, labour of the black, brown, Indigenous, racialized bodies on which the nation-state depends. I cannot refute that visibility does matter when nation-states regulate many of our lives, and that visibility can be an important way for people to, for example, survive through accessing resources that the nation-state is a gatekeeper of. Yet we need to remember that these are by and large resources these institutions, and their agents, have violently extracted from the labour, lands, and communities of those from whom they gatekeep these resources. And as as I move toward a place of imagining how to commit to regeneration (of the lands, waters, self, culture, ancestry, and communities that give me life) beyond survival, it becomes undeniable to me that nation-state legal frameworks are based on upholding and glorifying the state as a place to merely ensure the bare survival of racialized people, especially Black and Indigenous womxn. The movements to grant the earth and queer people recognition and protection under the law, such as the global movements toward legalizing and decriminalizing queerness and the “granting” of “people status” to lands and rivers are done in an unequal, western, human-centered power relations where the state at the end of the day gets to set the terms of who is granted protection from state violence itself.
The nation states of Turtle Island have been built on systemic violence against racialized, specifically Black and Indigenous, peoples through impoverishment, dispossession, disappearances, killings, mass incarcerations through the prison industrial complex, resource extraction, and food apartheid that sickens and poisons—slowly and fastly kills—communities. And the more that these realities of this nation-state violence are revealed to me, the more clear it becomes that the legal framework of rights and recognition through which it operates is invested in the bare minimum of survival for Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities.
So the question this begs for me is: do I actually want visibility from the nation-state, or is it precisely invisibility that I want? Of course, the answer to this is very contextual. Nonetheless, I feel strongly that the choice of invisibility and un-recognition from the nation-state as forms of surviving and thriving is invaluable in our recognition and rights centered political/social/spiritual landscape.
Invisibility from the state can enable the conditions for survival, sovereignty, and self-determination, and therefore resurgence and revitalization. During the Japanese occupation of her village in World War 2, my grandmother was given a medallion from her grandfather to make her and her home invisible from Japanese soldiers. Her home was the only one not burnt down in her village. She’s here, I’m here (and queer!), and we’re hella regenerating, fueled by our love for one another and our communities. It is precisely in invisibility from the state that many off-grid Indigenous, Black and Brown communities are co-creating for themselves the conditions to thrive and regenerate beyond the conditions of regulated survival on which the nation-state is built.
(7) regenerative medicine: love & creation stories
“You can keep your political purity. I choose love.”
-Lindsay Nixon, an anishinaabe-nehiyaw writer, curator, community organizer, and researcher currently residing in Tio’tia:ke/Mooniyang (Montreal), Facebook post. May 23rd.
Normative political activism for me has too often been devoid of the loving—nurturing, caring, sustaining, (re)creative—energies that make the process of working toward justice feel loving, just, life-giving, regenerative, sustainable.
Activism that celebrates what has been made invaluable and invisible—from all the emotional, cooking, cleaning, & care work that sustains us to the spirit world with whom we co-exist—not only complements legalization efforts to recognize and protect, but is necessary if we want to go beyond survival and de-colonization to regeneration and re-indigenization. I want to commit to an activism that celebrates our connection to all the invisibilized lineages, labour, histories, her-stories that transmit to us and enable our (re)creation stories of past, present, and future.
Of course, there is no one linear, one-size-fits-all way to survive and thrive under all circumstances for all peoples. A diversity of tactics makes sense for the unique, dynamic, fluid, ever-changing times and spaces that call for the heterogeneous “us” to survive and thrive. I am not here to tell people to stop petitioning nation-state governments when the state has a real, violent, impact on our lives. Rather, I am affirming the value of acknowledging and challenging the systems of harm that often prevent us from surviving, and inviting us to reflect on how we can co-create conditions to sustain and regenerate ourselves through harnessing love within our communities independent from the nation-state. This is a call to transmute the (very valid) rage against destructive systems that harm us into energy that allows us to regenerate and sustain one another through nurturing love for ourselves. This regenerative self-love requires knowing, remembering, and re-creating ourselves.
Perhaps through taking the time to mourn and remember those who have enabled us to be here, by breathing, by offering our sisters food and feeding ourselves, or offering our ancestors food on our altars. Perhaps this knowing comes through story-telling, perhaps through song, perhaps through dance.
#waterislife, we cannot dance without water
Shaina Agbayani is a queer femme broom-wielder butterfly-singer, film-maker, dancer, cook, fermentation-fairy, cleaner, and co-creator of beat:root and re:bodies. She resides between different parts of luzon and tio’tia:ke in kanien’kehá:k, haudeonsaunee lands. She keeps offerings at https://queererth.wordpress.com
The European core nations have colonised the world. This system is not only based on the unequal exchange of land and labour—as the anthropologist Alf Hornborg has shown inGlobal Ecology and Unequal Exchange—it is also on the verge of making the planet uninhabitable. So the world must be decolonised. But what would it mean to decolonise Europe? How do we decolonise the core of the world system—the area of the world that gave birth to colonialism itself?
Another world exists
In the north of Scandinavia, there is an Indigenous culture that has persisted against colonisation. The land is called Sápmi. The Sámi, like all Arctic Indigenous peoples, are experiencing the severe effects of rapid global warming and decolonisation is now more than ever a matter of survival.
Sofia Jannok is a songwriter, yoiker (yoik is a traditional Sámi vocal style), and pop singer; activist, environmentalist thinker, and reindeer owner. Through her words, melodies, activism, and existence, Jannok pushes for decolonisation. The title of the last song on her latest album ORDA: This Is My Land is “Noaidi,” a Northern Sámi word that means shaman but that she also translates as “Decolonizer.” The noaidi drives out the colonisers and their mentality. The noaidi reveals another world, a story that has been silenced in the history of the Swedish nation state.
For me, the encounter with Sofia Jannok’s music and stories opened the door to a new world-view. I am an urban middle-class Swede brought up to think that industrialisation is necessary and that this mode of production combined with better welfare distribution means progress for all. I have always had a nudging feeling of something being wrong with the story I have been told but other narratives are rarely given space in the media, nor in the academic contexts or political organisations I have been part of.
I was able to interview Jannok to explore the connection between her music, the decolonisation of Sápmi and of Europe, and the necessity of Indigenous rights and Indigenous peoples’ perspectives for all of humanity. This article tells the story of the other world that already exists in Jannok´s Sápmi. I weave a pattern of our conversation, her songs, images of what her stories make me feel, and examples of colonisation past and present.
Jannok and I begin by talking about music. I ask her about the role of music in Sámi decolonisation work and she emphasises that the increased focus on Sámi musicians and artists in the Swedish media often misses the historical ties between artistic expression and political struggle in Sápmi:
The national media in Sweden are only now opening their eyes to what is happening in Sápmi, because music is bringing these things to the fore. But music has always been an essential part of the decolonisation work that Sápmi has undertaken for as long as I have lived and long before my time.
She tells me that she sees her voice as a continuation of the voices of the past. Some of her influences, or precursors, are the yoikers, musicians, and activists Áillohaš (Nils Aslak Valkeapää) and Mari Boine. She also mentions all the music that came out of the action in Alta in Norwegian Finnmark in 1981—a manifestation, Jannok says, that made Norway take Sámi politics seriously, leading them to open a Sámi parliament and sign ILO 169 (the UN convention on Indigenous peoples’ rights, which Sweden still has not signed).
I continue what previous generations started: mirroring the contemporary world—as art always does, or at least I think it should.
Indigenous art can be an important mirror: it reveals parts of reality that are obscured or distorted by the colonial mirrors that dominate many people’s view of the world:
It’s through art and culture that we can look back on what another time was like. From my perspective, neither history books nor the media are impartial. With regard to us in Sápmi, an efficient way of obscuring and oppressing is to say that we don’t exist at all. And because of that I think that art and culture and music gives a more fair and true image of reality, because it is told through the eyes of the ones who experience it. All over the world, the history of Indigenous peoples has mainly been told by the colonisers and of course that yields a pretty slanted image and a very short-term perspective too because the time that colonisation has been going on is only a second if we compare it to how long we have existed on the earth.
Through a decolonised picture of reality—this is how we can see the other world that is possible.
Colonial blindness and Indigenous grief
On her latest album ORDA: This is my land, Jannok has a song that contrasts these two reflections of reality—the colonial and the Indigenous one.
Not grieving the loss of you home sweet home
Not grieving your walls that for all times are gone
Not grieving, because they were already gone
Your house was built on an old woman’s home
I’m grieving the wide open wound that I see
When will they understand when to let be?
I’m grieving for her because she lost it all
Under your kitchen floor buried is her soul
The first time I heard this song, all illusions about the goodness and soundness of my society started to melt away. I felt that it spoke to me; that I was the “you” that this song is directed to:
I—the grieving Sámi.
She—our mother, the earth.
The kitchen—the food, energy, of the colonising world, which has buried our mother’s soul.
You—the blind people in the colonial state, who do not see what they have lost.
They—the core of the Swedish state, which colonised Sámi land and whose colonial project is ongoing.
Like the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island (North America) who are right now protecting their home and the earth from the Dakota Access Pipeline and the expansion of the Tar Sands, Jannok and the Sámi see that the colonising industry wants to “steal our mother”—a line from Jannok’s song “We are still here”—and so they are protecting the land, water, air that we all depend on. Jannok was in fact part of a Sámi group that went to Standing Rock in North Dakota to show their support for the activists there.
But the core of colonial society in Sweden contests the parallels between the Sámi and other Indigenous cultures. On ORDA: This Is My Land, Jannok shows this very clearly by including excerpts from a hearing in a court case between the Sámi reindeer herding community Girjas and the Swedish state—a case that Girjas won, though the state has appealed and a new trial will be held in 2017.
In the hearing the State calls a witness, a non-Sámi resident of Finnish Sápmi, who voices the opinion that the Sámi are not an Indigenous people and that the colonial theories that have been developed “for North America and Australia” do not apply to “Lapland” (or Swedish Sápmi). Jannok explains why she contests this claim on her album:
I draw parallels to other Indigenous peoples precisely to debunk the opinion that Sámi people aren’t Indigenous. As if that was an opinion when it’s fact, and facts are facts and can’t be overlooked: the Sámi are an Indigenous people. The opposite is to claim that the earth is flat and try to discuss from the starting-point of the earth being flat when we have already agreed that the earth is round. Let’s start the discussion from there. We are an Indigenous people. Grant us our rights, that we have maintained for ourselves for thousands of years.
This fact does not stop the Swedish state from telling its own story about the Sámi. In one of Jannok’s samplings from the hearing, the state attorney questions the concept of ethnicity and its relevance to the description of the situation in Sápmi. Listening to this, I remember the music video to Jannok’s song “Viellja jearrá” (“Brother asks”) where the history of racial biological studies on the Sámi is shown. In the light of the history of Swedish eugenics, we can begin to understand the degree of disrespect shown by the state when it now refuses the Sámi the right to define themselves as an Indigenous community. The state in the past studied the Sámi as a “lower race” and now instead wants to do away with the concept of ethnicity. It is hard to find a better example of how Sámi politics are reframed to suit the political agenda.
The state attorney also says that “the State has done its utmost to regulate the reindeer husbandry trade in a generous way” and that “the Sámi have not been subjected to discrimination by the State”. These types of statements can feed widespread prejudices in Sweden about the Sámi as privileged—prejudices claiming that the Sámi both receive special privileges to keep reindeer and benefit from modern infrastructure and technology. What these claims entirely leave out is that the Sámi did not choose to be incorporated into this modern industrial society. The state never asked the Sámi if they would like to abandon a subsistence lifestyle for a professional, regulated reindeer trade.
Part of the decolonisation work is to confront this racist discourse about Sámi privilege. An example of this in Jannok’s music is one of her most fiercely political songs, “I Ryggen på min Kolt” (“In the back of my gákti”—gáktibeing the Sámi word for a traditional regalia) which is directed at the Swedish state and its double standards; when it wants to use Sámi culture for advertising in the tourism industry but not grant Sámi people their rights. She sings:
Du söndrar mellan grannar som lärt sig leva bredvid varandra
Sprider lögner om min familj, mitt folk
Dina ord en dolk
Rakt i ryggen på min kolt
You’re sundering neighbours who’ve learnt to live next to each other
Spreading lies about my family, my people
Your words, a knife
Right in the back of my gákti
The song reveals how, in a classic case of “divide and conquer,” the idea of Sámi privilege is used by elites to play out oppressed groups against each other. There are numerous examples of what this sundering of neighbours has led to today—ranging from racist comments on the internet, verbal harassment, and vandalisation of Sámi language road signs, to hate crimes such as assault and battery, killed reindeer, and arson of lávvu (the Sámi equivalent of the North American tipi).
But “I ryggen på min kolt” tells us that this racism was not always there, that we are all being told lies about the Sámi and the history of Sweden and that this is creating enmity. Decolonisation requires retelling history.
The slanted colonial story of the past and present has been and is motivated to a large extent by the mining industry which has fed the modern Swedish economy, although colonisation through farming settlements goes back several hundred years before this as well. The “golden age” of social democracy and the welfare state was funded by the unequal exchange of land and labour between the core and periphery in the Swedish territory. Jannok, in her work, unearths this inconvenient truth:
“Snölejoninna: Snow lioness”
Antirasist my ass,
när du inte ser från vem du snott all din cash
Han, hon, hen “son”
av oss stal du landet en gång
Urfolkskvinna, snölejoninna, jag är regnbågen på din näthinna
jag är allt det men jag är mer, “mon lean queer”,
har funnits här i tusentals years
An outspoken anti-racist, my ass
You don’t even recognize the people from whom you’ve stolen all your cash
“Son”, he, she and ze;
Once you stole this land from me
A native empress, the rainbow you see, a snow lioness; well, all that is me
All of it, yes it can all be found here, yet I am something more, as I am queer
Residing here for thousands of years
(“Son” is the Northern Sámi third person singular pronoun, which is always gender neutral.)
This song shows the reality of the resource flows in the colonial-industrial economy, but its focus is on the Sámi as dynamic, as queer—without even a grammatical gender divide—and diverse. It is about telling her own story about who she is and can be, or could be. Jannok says:
“Snowlioness” is partly about how the box that society wants to squeeze me into doesn’t have to be a box. Instead I can be all of this and still have the right to be Sámi.
“Diverse” is a good word to describe both Jannok’s Sápmi and the history of northern Scandinavia. The nomadic Sámi population and the settlers of the north coexisted in the past and both groups benefited from their cooperation. Some non-Sámi people had reindeer and many farmers housed Sámi families on the move between summer and winter pastures.
This decolonised story of the past is slowly gaining space in mainstream media because of the music and activism of people like Jannok, and finally also in some history books. One of these books is Urfödan: Om självhushållets mat hos folk i Lappland (Ancient food: On the food of self-sufficiency among people in Lapland) in which Lillian Ryd interviews people from the last generations of both settlers and nomads who lived traditional, self-sufficient lives in northern Sweden before industrialisation all but erased these livelihoods. Through such stories about the past, we can begin to see that the people who benefited from the exploitation of land and labour in the north of Sweden were responsible both for the colonisation of Sápmi and for taking the land away from farmers through the 19th century enclosure movement (“Laga Skifte”).
What has happened to people’s livelihoods in this process is that they have been incorporated into the industrial structure of big society. This is true for both the Sámi and the settlers. One example of this that Jannok mentions in our conversation is the state’s regulation of reindeer herding:
The term “renskötsel” (reindeer husbandry) alone is a very clear example of how society has wanted to label a lifestyle to enter it into its laws and regulations, and then deciding who can do reindeer herding and not. To have zero experience, not even having seen a reindeer or visited a reindeer herder’s everyday life, and still regulate and make decisions that don’t match reality. So you only see the tip of the iceberg if you see a privilege.
The traditional lifestyle of the Sámi has in modern history been undermined by the establishment of national borders, mines, the forest industry, hydroelectric dams, military test ranges, and wind parks. It has also been attacked culturally through eugenics, boarding schools,forced sterilisation, and forced Christianisation—which among other things entailed a ban on yoik. Then, after these atrocities, the state came up with the term renskötsel—a word that, Jannok says, doesn’t even exist in Sápmi traditionally—in order to incorporate this lifestyle into an industrial-professional economy. Reindeer-owning Sámi people became professionals in the reindeer food business. Sámi people who did not own reindeer lost their legal right to be Sámi, Jannok adds:
This led to internal conflicts and differences between Sámi people and Sámi people, which has severe consequences even to this day.
If we look beneath the surface, what we see instead of privilege is the attempt by a colonial state to eradicate an Indigenous population:
For the Sámi, the equation doesn’t add up, and it will be the death of us unless someone listens soon. That’s the way it is. This is an Indigenous culture and it depends on the right to land and water and the reindeer and our settlements. Every day that you infringe on these rights it becomes a little harder for us to survive. We have nowhere to go anymore. That’s just how it is. And it doesn’t add up. It doesn’t add up.
Hearing these repeated words, I feel the grief that Jannok sings and yoiks in “Grieving”. I feel called on to share a decolonised story of our past with all those who still take out their sense of loss and their anger on the Sámi. Stockholm, Oslo, Helsinki, or the world market should be the target of everyone’s anger, and we should work together to build other ways of living with the land—our mother.
Another world through consensus-based decision-making and Indigenous knowledge
There are alternative ways of living—we do not have to sabotage the home we live on in order to live good lives. In fact, if we exploit and pollute the earth, then none of us—like the Sámi now—will have anywhere to go. Colonial society is blind to this. Jannok explains that it is much clearer to her than to many others since she has had the benefit of growing up in a family that is entirely dependent on what nature gives.
The relationship to the earth, Jannok says, gives Indigenous peoples an insight that is lost in the industrial core countries of the West. So, as one decolonisation strategy, could we perhaps imagine a Sámi council in Sweden that advises on environmental issues and pushes back colonial-industrial values from decision-making?
Absolutely. We even have an example of this in the management of the Laponia world heritage area which is located in a very large part of Swedish Sápmi. Sápmi has fought seven hard years to get a majority on the board. Now every decision has to be reached through consensus, which is a typical way to reach decisions in reindeer herding communities.
Majority rule doesn’t work if you are Sámi you know, we’ll lose every vote. We are so few. There are alternative ways of solving it. I really believe in a council where Sápmi actually has the right to say something. Because as it is today there is supposedly consultation and dialogue around every infringement on Sámi land—with LKAB for instance, a large mining company, if they want to prospect for minerals, then the Sámi community is supposed to have a say—but that’s not how it is in reality.
You can voice your opinion but no one takes it into consideration. And that’s not dialogue. That’s information. So I think an influential Sámi council is a great idea. I don’t understand why it isn’t already like that, with Sápmi having an obvious role in saying how things affect life, nature, the water, the air, the earth. We are dependent on it and for us it is extremely clear but it’s actually for the benefit of everyone. We can’t drink poisonous water, that’s just how it is.
Jannok goes on to describe what has been lost to a great part of the world’s population, and to show that Indigenous rights are important not only for Indigenous peoples but for humanity and the earth itself:
A big part of the world’s population has lost the connection not only to the earth but also with the elders and the knowledge that generations before us had built up. People have been cut off from this, because of industrialism, individualism, egoism, greed. But it is still here, we are still here. Indigenous peoples exist all over the world and we have still got that connection, not least with the elders, the old generation. And with animals and the places we live in. We see how they change. I mean, it is not a coincidence that all the research reports that indicate evidence of climate change and that the gulf stream is changing, these are things that Indigenous peoples have already confirmed decades before. So there is already a lot of evidence that it can be for the good of all to actually listen to these people. This competence that you can find among Indigenous peoples should be used, and it doesn’t have to be proven in accordance with Western methods to be valid. We see, we listen, we feel, we can remind others about how you do this, because we all come from the earth so of course everyone has this ability. To listen.
Singing yourself and the new world into existence
To get more people to listen and reconnect with their own ability to see, hear, understand the earth and other living beings, Jannok has moved from singing primarily in Northern Sámi to singing mainly in English, and some Swedish as well. And the soundscape, production, and rap-inspired vocal style on her latest album also contribute to a sense of her music being more confrontational:
It is a more direct rhetoric. I have moved away from writing more poetically—I’ve always been critical in my songs but allowed art to be art, giving the listener a chance to interpret it in their own way. Now, on my latest album, I don’t want to do this, I want to be as direct as possible. I want to say things that for me have been like saying that the sun rises or something: It’s that it’s light all summer; it is that we are still here. For me it is self-evident, but it apparently isn’t to the ones who always go, ”hey, but, what do you mean with Sámi, do you even exist?” I also want to say “This is my land,” because the focus is always on something other than the fact that this is Indigenous land. Though it is described on every single map—there isn’t one map of Sweden that doesn’t have almost all names in Sámi in northern Sweden. So these self-evident things are what I want to write and I don’t want to leave any space for misinterpretation. It should be clear as daylight what I mean.
Jannok and others like her, from Sápmi and other parts of the world, are giving a voice to alternatives. These stories have the power to change people’s minds and dreams—and so they can also change the society we all build together.
Hope. But there will still always be doubt. Anxiety. We can never know if it will be enough. To find the will to live can be a struggle. All we can do is listen, understand, act, and pass the torch, the fire, on to the people who come after us:
What else can I do but to sing all these songs,
to sing and to hope that we’ll always belong?
I sing to the healing of ancestors’ soil
For future sisters I’m singing this song
What else can I do but to sing all these songs?
For future sisters, I hope they keep strong
To support these future sisters (oappáide means “to the sisters”), to help Sápmi stay strong, Jannok has donated money to the Sámi youth choir Vaajmoe—a choir that developed from the need for a meeting-space after the suicides of several young Sámi. And, of course, Jannok’s own music is part of that same movement of singing yourself into existence, making a place in the world for yourself and the people who walk with you. Jannok’s song “Áhpi: Wide as Oceans” is also about suicide; a tribute to those who have left and a comfort to the ones left behind.
Áhpi sheds light on a reality that exists and that has a taboo on it: mental health issues. To simply shed light on things that are real but invisible is to acknowledge people who live that life. To be seen.
Light, life, love—a land for everyone
Light. She constantly returns to this—to the bright summers with the midnight sun and to the fire that lights your way in the winter:
It’s not in the fight for my own existence that my fire has its source. It’s in life. And life is so beautiful, rich, full of laughter, hustle and bustle between bare mountains, forest lakes and cities. With strong ties to my people, both the ones who have passed and the ones who are and the ones who shall come. My inspiration for everything comes first and foremost from all the colours of life. From the riches of Sápmi; pride, power, and the indubitable fire of existence; from love for people and my beloved hoods. Everyone who claims that we’re a minority, on the verge of extinction, a disappearing part of world history, haven’t been to my world. Anyone who has seen it could never claim such a thing. We are fully alive as long as the earth breathes, because we are connected to our land and we will protect it as if it were a matter of protecting our own lives. Because that’s what it is.
Indigenous people are survivors, and they must survive for all our sakes—they are at the forefront of the struggle against the accelerating industrial-colonial society that would rather drive us all into the darkest abyss of collapse than to degrow, decolonise, scale down at a controlled pace and find the way back to the land. To survive, the Sámi gain strength through the yoik, through the words and melodies and stories of another world that is possible, a world that is not dead and must not be reinvented because it still lives in these people. Jannok’s yoik is the sound of the noaidi driving out the colonisers from the land and from people’s dreams.
Sápmi is the norm, power, beyond doubt. I sing about what I know. I sing about truths that have been censored, removed. But music, language, culture wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for the human beings. Us. Human beings keep fires alive. And fire in its turn keeps humanity alive. So I can but show respect and gratitude to those who’ve given me the chance to live with pride, all my forefathers and foremothers who have gone before us and shown the way. Mum, dad, family and sinewy ancestors. Without these people we wouldn’t exist, and the music wouldn’t exist. It comes from us. I honour the people who’ve clung to the tundra as the windswept mountain birches, and who never let go no matter how hard the wind blew in times far harder than these.
Sápmi as the norm is an alternative to the slanted, short-term perspective of colonial society. Through Jannok, the noaidi’s voice comes to bring a new world to both the minds of Indigenous peoples and the minds of the people in settler societies who may not even understand their own role in the world system. It tells the story of a diverse world where there is room for everyone and where we all know the land. I long for that world, for a place where I can exist. Jannok describes a home that I have been denied by my colonial-industrial culture.
Listening to this story of another world, looking at the world through the grieving eyes of Sámi people, we can find ways to decolonise everyone’s minds and the land we are part of—in Sápmi, Sweden, Europe, and the world.
Another world is not only possible. It already exists.
“This is my land: Sápmi”
This is my land, this is my country
and if I’d be the queen you’d see
that I’d take everyone by hand and sing it so it’s out there
that we’ll paint this land blue, yellow, red and green
If you say that this girl’s not welcome in this country,
if she must leave because her face is brown
Well, then I say you go first, ‘cause frankly this is my land
and here we live in peace, I’ll teach you how
This is my pride, this is my freedom,
this is the air that I breathe
and you’ll find no kings, no queens, here everybody’s equal –
men, women and all who are in between
This is my home, this is my heaven,
this is the earth where I belong
and if you want to ruin it all with big wounds in the mountains
then you’re not worthy listening to this song
This is my land, this is my country,
these lakes, rivers, hills and woods
If you open up your eyes you’ll see someone is lying
I’ve always been here, welcome to my hoods
Rut Elliot Blomqvist is a songwriter, musician, writer, and PhD student in literature and environmental humanities who thinks a lot about environmental justice, degrowth, and the mythologies of contemporary Western society. Ze particularly likes to combine storytelling, music and analysis with activism and farming in searching for ways to describe and build a good life for hirself and others.
Sofia Jannok’s new album, ORDA: This Is My Land, is available on Discogs, Amazon, iTunes, and Spotify. You can buy other merchandise on her website, www.sofiajannok.com.