Are the Chipaya under threat of disappearing ?

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The Kawsay staff filling up the truck’s tank with gas as they got ready to load it with soil. Source: author

by Paula Monroy

The Uru-Chipaya territory is an autonomous indigenous municipality of the Plurinational Republic of Bolivia. The region stands 3876 m. a.m.s.l., located 194 km southwest of Oruro city, northeast of the Coipasa salt flat—the second most important in South America (2500 km2). Currently, the municipality counts with a permanent population of about 1814 people. The main productive activities are subsistence agriculture (quinoa, potatoes and kañahua) and livestock (sheep breeding—approximately 86%, and camelids—approximately 14%) also intended for self-consumption. In December 2015 Lake Poopo dried up and now the Lauca river is facing a similar fate, forcing Chipaya people to flee their territory due to water scarcity.

However, other factors cumulative to the stress occasioned by drought are as well relevant when inquiring how the continuance of the Chipaya nation is challenged. To explore the issues at hand, a skype interview with Leonel Cerruto, Founder and Director of KAWSAY-Centro de Culturas Originarias, was conducted. As an institution, Kawsay has the main objective of strengthening indigenous originary campesino organizations through projects that include La Escuela de la Madre Tierra (The Mother Earth School). The conversation started with a discussion about tourism.

I wanted to start off by asking you about the tourism initiative in the Chipaya territory. When I was there I remember hearing from our brothers about an Italian man coming in and incentivizing the overture to tourism. Are you aware of how that is going so far?

Leonel Cerruto: A few years ago the community built an albergue in Chipaya, but it is not doing very well. To my understanding, an organization is currently doing some work financed by the European Union, but [Kawsay is] not working with them. [Kawsay’s] strategy is more community oriented. They [the organization] want to promote tourism in general. However, it is up to the autonomous indigenous government to decide in the end. The autonomy was voted ‘yes’ with close to 80% of the votes. We are happy because it was the last step to confirm the indigenous autonomy. We will enter a process of transition to formalize [the Chipaya’s] own government. A bigger challenge will come about, such as where will the community get resources from, because people go to Chile to work and make money so they can sustain themselves. In that sense, tourism is a good choice because it does not require a big investment.

The organization Leonel referred to is GVC Italia—Gruppo di Volontariato Civile (Civil Volunteer Group). As he stated, the European Union is financing the project, which was named “Qnas Soñi (People of the Water): CHIPAYA, between tradition and technology, towards a resilient municipality”. It is an intervention plan that aims to assist the Chipaya people in adopting a strategy that pretends to help them reclaim their cultural identity and ‘treasure’ their ancestral inheritance. It pretends to do so by implementing four processes associated with the construction of a resilient community, one of which is developing services for tourists and promote it as a cultural destination nationally and worldwide.

It appears to be a good idea, but there is something missing. In their website, the organization [GVC] overlooks the importance of conducting an impact assessment. The Chipaya territory is located in a zone with pandemic flora and fauna species. Considering the Poppo Lake dried up not long ago, introducing an initiative like the one [GVC] is promoting would be adding more pressure to the ecosystem. For example, tourism requires sanitary services and food. It could also bring more garbage in the area like plastic water bottles and snack packages. What do you think?

L. C.: We are not too informed about [GVC]’s project. We’ve been more focused on the indigenous autonomy aspect. We are assisting the community in mobilizing to spread their own statuto because there were some people opposing to the indigenous autonomy. [GVC] is separate from us. However, things are about to change. For example, now that the indigenous autonomy has been adopted, the governance structure will change. So, tourism will be discussed in a participatory manner.

The state is interested, yes, but the problem I see is that they are not looking at it from the Chipaya perspective. They label it as ‘community tourism’, but they are misunderstanding it for rural tourism, which is not community tourism at all.

To my understanding the state is supporting [GVC]’s project.

L. C.: The state is interested, yes, but the problem I see is that they are not looking at it from the Chipaya perspective. They label it as ‘community tourism’, but they are misunderstanding it for rural tourism, which is not community tourism at all.

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A landscape of the Chipaya territory. Source: author

What comes to mind is the experience of my hometown Tepoztlan in regards of tourism in general. Back in the early 1900s Robert Redfield, American anthropologist and ethno-linguist, published a study about the campesino community in the village, which attracted sociologist Oscar Lewis whose research in the village revolved around poverty. Since then, the village underwent a process of urbanization as it became a hotspot for academic tourism. Then rich people were drawn to live there seasonally because intellectuals and artists were also living there. The pyramid and customs made Tepoztlan a mystical village that to this day receives thousands of visitors every year without any sort of control or regulation.

L. C.: What you are saying is true. We have to be careful when integrating tourism. What worries me, which I imagine is similar to what you just mentioned, is that the Chipaya is an ancient culture not only in Bolivia but in the continent. So tourism is a threat. It is valid what you were saying. This reminds me of the Taquile island found in the Peruvian side of the Titicaca Lake. It is a community that self-started tourism and yet did not change their everyday activities, which are all tourist attractions. Each family gets a tourist, and the community has a common fund they collectively administer and also redistribute between the families. This is a good reference of how community tourism is organized and administrated. I know many instances in Ecuador that are more diverse in this branch. In other words, there are many forms of community tourism that are more controlled and the flow of tourists is regulated. The problem is when money dominates the situation.

Yes, I agree. In Tepoztlan, for instance, people are turning their backs on agriculture and prefer to sell their land, land they inherited in most cases, as it is a faster source of income. This is problematic because the territory is fragmented and has become vulnerable to privatization.

L. C.: Right. This is also observed in Cusco. It is a very important point, indeed. Once a territory is fragmented, cultural identity is also fragmented. Indigenous autonomy is important because it integrates the political and especially the spiritual aspect. The latter should be reincorporated.

Putting this in the Chipaya context, what would you suggest as a strategy? Considering that globalization is already changing the lifestyles of teenagers.

L. C.: One way is by recuperating the ancestral view to regain spirituality. This is key. For example, last month I was at a meeting with a group of elders who were saying the importance of seeing the earth as a living being. Once nature is seen as someone who is alive, it is treated as if it were alive. This vision needs to be retaught to young people. We are working with youth to help them integrate in the community life.

In other words, there are many forms of community tourism that are more controlled and the flow of tourists is regulated. The problem is when money dominates the situation.

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A grain and seed storage hut. Source: author

Once nature is seen as someone who is alive, it is treated as if it were alive.

Don’t you think it’s a bit complicated with the internet and mobile phones?

L. C.: That is a reality and we need to embrace it. The internet cannot be eliminated. Most young people have cellphones and they spend most of their time chatting on it. The goal is to help them give the internet a different use. It is not a matter of prohibition, it is rather a matter of switching the use they make of this technology. We are producing videos with them, they are coming up with their own presentations with their own communities. It has been working positively so far, as participants are getting more engaged with their culture and identity. They are integrating in the communal activities more and more.

Are ancient rituals such as capturing the wind and harvesting dunes still practised?

L. C.: Yes, although I am not specifically sure about those two. But, we are working on reincorporating traditional practices into the spiritual and ritual activities. It is a slow process because not all participants accept it right away. It also depends on their families and community. In Charagua, a community where we are undergoing a similar project, we are doing pretty well. Participants are very active and actively integrate in the community.

In regards of food sovereignty and drought…

L. C.: That is serious. Especially in the Andean part, which includes the Chipaya territory, and the Chaco region. It is a desperate situation because, for example, the potato seeds that were cultivated could not germinate as it has not rained.

There is a study online stating that the drought of the Poppo lake is due to water mismanagement.

L. C.: On the one hand, as you say, it is due to water mismanagement. There seems to be a lack of communal management of the resources and a lack of prevention measures. On the other hand, one cannot ignore that drought and el Nino are effects of climate change. The absence of rain is not necessarily because the little water available is mismanaged. Climate change plays a big role in all of this. Both things are cumulative. Another thing I am realizing is that some news are manipulated with political intent. What is true for Bolivia is that, according to official reports, 40% of our glaciers have been lost in the past years. This means that our mountains have less snow, resulting in less water supplying to the rivers and springs. It is undeniable. We have many snowcaps that have lost snow, thus there is no water running from those places. Consequently, there are less volumes of water feeding the rivers. So this is what has been going on. There is no prevention, the proper measurements have not been taken to come up with a contingency plan, for instance. Our water resources continue being used as if nothing was happening. It is a complex matter, and climate change is a key cause.

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The rooftops of two neighbouring homes. Source: author

The absence of rain is not necessarily because the little water available is mismanaged. Climate change plays a big role in all of this. Both things are cumulative.

The following is something that I have been noticing (since my childhood) in communities deemed ‘poor’ in the capitalist sense. It is a dependency on the government for help, or an expectation to be helped from above. While conducting an interview in the Chipaya nation, the interviewee asked for financial aid to the government for the construction of a diversion canal, as if a bureaucrat would watch the video. His colleague told me that the money had already been approved and they were just waiting for the government to hand it out.

L. C.: Absolutely. More than the government it would be the state, though. This government has been giving out more resources, and it is up to the municipality to manage those resources according to the needs of the population. If the municipal agents do not allocate the resources properly, neither will the communities. In the last couple of years this has become a generation of dependency. For this reason, local authorities need to be strengthened, especially in the area of communal organization. This is something we are working on permanently. With the indigenous autonomy they should as well strengthen their organization so it is less dependant on the central state.

Car traffickers don’t respect the borders and the municipality was not capable of keeping them away either. The indigenous autonomy now allows the local authorities to fairly manage their territory.

I noticed that car trafficking is another threat to the territory. What is your opinion on this matter?

Indeed, trafficked cars are driven into their territory, but the Chipaya people are not involved in it. It is up to them to build barriers that will keep [car traffickers] from crossing. Territorial control has been a struggle that the Chipaya people have not been able to do to these days. Car traffickers don’t respect the borders and the municipality was not capable of keeping them away either. The indigenous autonomy now allows the local authorities to fairly manage their territory.

Let me pause to briefly explain what the indigenous autonomy is about. Back in 2007, with 4 states against (Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Australia)—and the abstention of 11 states (which included Colombia and the Russian Federation)—the United Nations’ General Assembly passed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) by a majority of 143 votes in favour. Two years later, President Evo Morales made the official launch of the indigenous autonomy process with the Decree Law 231. As it is recognized in Article 2 and Article 290 of the constitution, indigenous peoples have the right to self-govern their ancestral territory in harmony with law and constitution as long as it is done within the structure of the unitary state.

A Chipaya man showing his hunting technique. Source: author
A Chipaya man showing his hunting technique. Source: author

I read a UN report that says that the health issues [Chipaya] children and women are more prone to get are anemia and malnutrition. What I found concerning is that during my visit I did not see any health centres.

L. C.: Presently, there have been some incentives from the state in this regard. However, as we were saying before [about depending on the state], as indigenous nations we had always had our own systems, not just in regards of health. We have ancestral wisdom. School teaches other ideas about culture.

Is the content taught at public school designed by the state?

L. C.: It is one thing that it is provided by the state, which should be the case anyway, and yet it should be the community who creates its own education system. Resources should be provided by the state because it’s part of a country; but, in this case, communities should have more capabilities to maintain their own education system.

Do you think this could be done in the indigenous autonomy?

L. C.: Yes, relatively because the educative system is centralized by the state. It will be more attainable as [the Chipaya people] get their own system, which needs further strengthening. In the instance of Bolivia, there are three curriculum levels: one is central, another is regional, and the third, which has not been effectively developed, is local. Therefore, it is possible to continue working on regular education. On the other hand, there is the need to continue working on our own community education, which is what indigenous nations have always had for thousands of years. Yet, since these themes are no longer researched in depth, it is as if they did not exist. All cultures have had their own education or formation systems that are actually meant to attain wisdom, including health and any other system. It is important to clarify which are our own systems.

All indigenous cultures have their own ecological principles, or cosmovision. When these principles are forgotten the ecosystem is destroyed.

To conclude, would you say the Chipaya nation is under threat of disappearing?

L. C.: Yes. However, the indigenous autonomy can facilitate the Chipaya people the possibility of recuperating their culture. The Urus are in the process of going extinct, though. A segment of the Uru population lived near the Poppo Lake. Since the lake dried up, they lost their livelihood because they are essentially fishermen. They were forced to migrate. For this reason, their territorial structure is scattering. They are moving to urbanized regions because they no longer have a means to survive. This is happening in a different region of Oruro. It is happening to other cultures, too, and the process is similar: it disjuncts, scatters, and then disappears. There has been progress in the case of the Chipaya nation because the indigenous autonomy will allow them to develop their own life model by strengthening their ancestral culture. At least that is what is hoped. All indigenous cultures have their own ecological principles, or cosmovision. When these principles are forgotten the ecosystem is destroyed.

 

Paula Monroy is an undergraduate student at Concordia University majoring in Urban Studies.

Moving slowly and deliberately at Standing Rock

Photo: Nancy Romer
Photo: Nancy Romer

by Nancy Romer

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.

Photo: Nancy Romer
Photo: Nancy Romer

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.”

Photo: Nancy Romer
Photo: Nancy Romer

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.

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Photo: Nancy Romer

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

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Decolonisation in Europe

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Sofia Jannok at Standing Rock. Photo: Jeff Schad

by Rut Elliot Blomqvist

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 in Global 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.

Grieving: Oappáide”

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”—gákti being 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.

 

Decolonising 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.

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Sofia Jannok at Standing Rock. Photo: Jeff Schad

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:

Grieving: Oappáide”

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

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Sofia Jannok at Standing Rock. Photo: Jeff Schad

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 DiscogsAmazon, iTunes, and Spotify. You can buy other merchandise on her website, www.sofiajannok.com.

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Returning to Indigenous world governance

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In 1974, a group of Mohawk families occupied Moss Lake in New York state. After three years of heavy activism and high tensions, they signed an agreement with the state and were granted the area as a land trust. Source: Ganienkeh.net

by Kanenhariyo

I have a dream that our people will spread out from the reservations we call territories and establish new communities steeped in our languages, laws, traditions and clans. I have had this dream since I was a teenager. I have come to a point in my life where I believe the time for me to be a part of that movement has arrived.

For those of you with the same or similar dream I encourage you to let yourself be known. Let’s join forces and make our dreams of freedom and national independence our reality.

I also recognize community building takes committed people willing to work together to make possible the betterment of everyone’s future generations. I am ready to find solutions together with others to make this dream become reality.

I started to investigate if there was a way to establish a collective land holdings in a collective commons outside of a nation state. If that has been done before I wondered what examples exist and how a group or a collection of groups should go about structuring and organizing and protecting such a land holding.

What my research found was that in fact there are several examples of such land holdings. They are often referred to as “community land trusts” or “land trust protectorates.”

After World War Two several of these sorts of land trusts were established to assist lands and populations who had experienced colonization or relocation establish themselves with protection from other nation-states invading them.

Amazingly a structure and legal apparatus does exists at the international level.

I initiated the process to hire a lawyer prepared and willing to build the nessary legal apparatus to achieve ratification at The Hague. However at the time I had not reached out to others to assist in fundraising and adding to the discussion and development.

I had at the time been too worried about sabotage to put it out there in the world. I was always aware that this sort of project could not be pursued without help so I have come to accept that there will be negative people out there and that we must focus our attention and work with those that seek similar goals and like minded people and not worry about the saboteurs.

Although I do not agree with what has happened in Palestine and Israel, Israel was in fact set up as a collective land trust protectorate.

There currently are several land occupations occurring in Canada by Indigenous people reoccupying their territories. However there are no legal apparatuses protecting these people or their lands.

Thus the road map and international legal apparatus does in fact exist. I propose that we create an Indigenous land trust that we collectively govern together for the protection of the land and of the people living together. And that we hold lands through the globe as an international land protectorate.

There are several land trusts that hold lands in different countries that buy up or accept donations of lands for environmental protections. This is not a new concept. Except in this case we would link arms and hold each others lands and territories in common, and acknowledge each other’s land stewardship in the places across our Mother Earth where we have lived for thousands of years.

I started the process of paying for the legal work to get this done but I can not pay for this all on my own. I simply do not have the means.

Canada and other counties are still operating on the premise of the doctrine of discovery.

There currently are several land occupations occurring in Canada by Indigenous people reoccupying their territories. However there are no legal apparatuses protecting these people or their lands. I continue to hear word that plans for more reoccupations are in the works.

Canada and other counties are still operating on the premise of the doctrine of discovery. They also claim Indigenous people within the territory are citizens and therefore any and all Indigenous issues are perceived in the international community as internal issues. Therefore,  outside nation-states are not able by international law to intervene.

So I’m proposing that we build an international land protectorate forming alliances both with each other and nation-states willing to offer support politically, financially, and militarily. There would be many smaller nations, and a few larger ones that are willing to assist.

It’s not a huge jump—if a jump at all—to recognize that we all have the same Mother Earth. Building protective laws for our mother and the people that live with her isn’t a huge stretch either. I think we would be  wise to build a single collective that touches as many continents and people as possible.

In these  collective territories, we would all have a responsibility to support and protect each other, share resources, knowledge, and improve our collective internal trade.

In practice the land trust organization that would hold all the lands of its members in common would be  made up from all the stewards of each different territory.  Effectively this would be creating an Indigenous United Nations, where each group of Indigenous stewards selects their own representative to carry their interest within the collective land trust.

Together we can affirm each other’s stewardship of lands.  We can create stewardship agreements that ensure autonomy and governance over territory by the stewards so long as they continue to maintain certain “laws” to protect the people and the land.

And we hold these lands we live on and with in common. And we work together to create a constitution that ensures protection for the people and the land. With governance at the local level by the people, in accordance to their cultural practices and values that have protected the land for thousands of years.

Holding lands in trust in this sort of manner would make it harder for a nation-state or corporation to make a treaty with some sideliner or a group looking to forfeit their peoples’ rights to the land for a few bucks.

Right now many or most of us have few protections and continuously struggle with small numbers and the inability to raise the capital or people or defend ourselves against corporate interests and foolish nation-state leaders.

Creating a collective Indigenous land trust with stewardship agreements would greatly reduce this struggle by increasing our numbers, creating protectionary laws, and having the international community’s protections apply to the lands and people within the trust. There are several nation-states willing to support such an effort. It’s good for the Earth. And it’s a different model than the current global structure in many ways.

In a sense I suppose I am proposing a form of Indigenous world governance. Perhaps it is time that we return to it.

 

Kanenhariyo is a co-founder of Real People’s Media and the host of the podcast What’s Going On?  

 

A version of article originally appeared on Real People’s Media.

Decolonizing nature, the academy, and Europe

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by Aaron Vansintjan

In one article, Zoe Todd tells a story of how she, as a small child, used to go fishing. Whenever her line got caught on a weed, she would shout out to her parents in the cabin, exclaiming that she had caught a fish. An adult would then come down and untangle her line. But one day, she had actually caught one—and no one came to help her reel it in. Finally, when the adults looked out at the lake and saw the little girl trying to wrestle with the fishing rod, they ran down and her father helped her reel in a giant northern pike. Her father calls this story “Zoe and the Big Fish”, and after telling it, Todd remarks “Ever since I caught that fish I have been obsessed with prairie fish and their hidden lives in the rivers and lakes of my homeland. The way that their bodies narrate stories we, collectively, have forgotten to listen to.”

This summer, I found myself on a canoe on the Georgian Bay, Canada—Go Home Bay to be precise—with a fishing rod. I’ve heard a story that “Go Home Bay” is so-called because when European settlers arrived, the Anishinaabe people there told them to “go home.”

Go to Go Home Bay and you’ll see the raw, exposed rocks, the crooked pines bent by the hard winds and the heavy snow, clamoring for space on the rocks. You can’t help but imagine what this landscape might have looked like in its pristine form, unsullied by humans. The untouched trees, the clear water heavy with life, the rocks shot through with veins of marble and granite—they seem to carry stories that have little to do with the cumbersome wooden chalets that line the water.

Another story telling the origin of Go Home Bay is that loggers, after floating freshly-cut timber down the Musquash River, would deliver them to steamers who would then chug their way to the timber mills around the Great Lakes. After this, the loggers could finally “go home.”

These two stories might be conflicting—but they both indicate that this landscape is far from pristine. The primary forest has long been cut down—the timber industry left barely any trees standing. The fish stocks have long been depleted by colonial fishers, robbing the Indigenous people from a major source of subsistence. And there were people living here before the picturesque chalets were erected: the Anishinaabeg. This land carries their stories, stories that are still being told. There is no “pristine” nature without humans, not even here.

I have little experience fishing. But on my second cast—the first cast I caught nothing but weeds—I caught an enormous pike. I was obviously elated—it’s rare to be that lucky. But I couldn’t help thinking back to Todd’s article about her own relationship with fish and their importance to Indigenous people. In it, she describes how a history of colonialism in Canada is literally inscribed on the bodies of fish—the depletion of their populations and the toxins in their bones. As she tells it, “Fish bodies betray the damage to their habitats. Their bodies tell stories of our negligence and silence.”

Todd’s writing led me to wonder what stories that pike had carried, and what stories the Anishinaabeg had for it. I felt like an intruder—this catch wasn’t really a victory; it was more like a symbol of loss.

For Indigenous people in North America, colonialism is not a force of the past. It violently affects them on a daily basis. And they are constantly resisting and developing new ways of asserting their culture and governance systems.

I have often wondered how to carry home what I’ve learned from the struggles of indigenous people in North America. How can Europeans, who have learned to remove themselves in time and place from the horrors of colonization, learn to take responsibility and start a process of decolonization? These questions inevitably leaked in to my own research—how can I do field research, keeping in mind that colonization continues today, both in my “field” (neighborhoods facing gentrification) and within the academy?

Todd’s work offers crucial contributions to these questions. Todd is a Métis scholar who has just become a Lecturer at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, and is also completing her PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. Her main research revolves around human-fish relations, colonialism, and Indigenous governance and legal orders in Canada. Some of her other interests include decolonizing anthropology as a discipline, urban planning, and non-academic writing.

What first drew me to Todd’s evocative writing was her article on the Scottish independence movement. In it, she suggests that since the Scots and Irish were colonized, their struggles for self-determination should be seen from a decolonial perspective. In her own research on human-fish relationships and the legal orders that Indigenous people put in place to maintain those relationships, she helps inform the nature-culture debate. And in several other articles she suggests ways that anthropology, as an academic discipline can engage in a process of decolonization. One such article—a critique of the “ontological turn”—went viral in anthropology circles last year.

Through all this, Todd remains giving and forgiving in her writing. She writes lucidly and poetically, noting injustice while stressing accountability. And she is not content with just telling stories of oppression: she consistently offers stories of resistance and paths for transformation.

I was grateful to be able to interview Zoe Todd to further explore these topics. After a discussion that was cut short by poor Internet service on my end, we continued the conversation via email. I’ve put together these two conversations in a shortened, more legible, format.

 

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Colonialism, past and present

Could you explain a bit how your work challenges this idea that colonization is “a thing of the past”? 

Colonialism is an ongoing reality in Canada. In recent years, I have worked with people who experienced the horrific impacts of Canada’s Indian Residential School System. The Residential School that many of the people I worked with attended didn’t close until 1996. There are residential school survivors in Canada who are only a bit older than me. In my own family, the impacts of colonialism are also visceral. I am two generations removed from my grandfather’s lifetime, when he and his parents were kicked off their land in northern Alberta at the St Paul des Métis settlement. But the stories, the trauma of that? Real and present. Not as direct as they were for my grandfather’s generation, but still present. In May, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released an executive summary of its forthcoming six-volume report on its inquiry into the experiences of Residential School survivors. Reading that summary, which lays out the awfulness and violence of the Residential School System, and hearing Justice Murray Sinclair declare that Canada is guilty of perpetuating cultural genocide? That really makes it clear that colonialism is an ongoing reality in Canada.  (It’s also why my colleagues Joseph Paul Murdoch-Flowers and Erica Violet Lee and I started a video project called #ReadTheTRCReport in which people have uploaded videos of themselves reading sections of the report—there is a visceral, embodied experience in reading it aloud that makes it impossible to ignore the stories and findings within the report).

 

How does your own research go beyond depicting Indigenous people as victims, but rather as actively struggling against colonization?

I work in the Canadian Arctic, in a small village or hamlet in an Inuvialuit community named Paulatuuq. I’m looking at how Inuvialuit people in this community have negotiated their reciprocal and ongoing duties to the land and to fish while contending with state-imposed ideas about the appropriate ways to define animals, define the land, define how to engage with exploitative industry. People in Paulatuuq are asserting their laws, but doing it in a way that negotiates a simultaneous but contradictory sameness and difference between their legal orders and their relationship to place (and to the State). Engaging with those aspects of state law that they absolutely have to. So the word I used to describe it is they’re “refracting” colonial forces by asserting their laws in the ways that they can. It may appear that people are being co-opted into co-management but when you’re sitting in those meetings and you’re talking to people it is apparent that they are engaging actively with the scientists and the bureaucrats in a really creative way.

What’s so amazing about Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination is that people are finding these really creative ways to continue to assert their cosmologies or world-views or laws in the face of all of these competing left-leaning, right-leaning, neoliberal, socialist definitions of how people should behave.

 

Could the formalization of Indigenous law by a settler state contribute to the continued colonization of Indigenous people? Some people have argued that this was the case in Bolivia, where sumak kawsay (Buen Vivir), an Indigenous concept, was put into law.

My work is really so small and nascent compared to the incredibly nuanced and ongoing work on Indigenous legal orders and legal pluralities that Indigenous scholars John Borrows, Val Napoleon and Tracey Lindberg (among others) are doing here in Canada. I think their work really demonstrates why it’s important for States like Canada to acknowledge their duties to the legal orders of the people whose ancestry and knowledge and stories of this place stretch to Time Immemorial. I think that the legal pluralistic approach that Borrows advocates for is really important. It demonstrates that Indigenous legal orders that incorporate reciprocal relationships between people, the land, the non-human constituents of the land, water and sky are incredibly important for this country as it contends with increasing pressures to extract oil and gas, mine ore, and dam more waterways.

 

On cities

Why would an anthropologist have a blog called “Zoe and the City?”

I started my blog in 2010 when I was wrapping up my MSc at the University of Alberta. My passion is Indigenous issues and decolonization in urban prairie contexts. (Having grown up as a Métis woman in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada). I had done a pecha kucha talk on ‘Edmonton as an Aboriginal City’ at a city sponsored event in June 2010 that garnered quite a bit of positive response, so I started the blog to keep writing about my observations and thoughts about how Edmonton had so thoroughly erased evidence of Indigenous peoples and history in its built form. Though my interests have expanded to other issues, I keep the name of the blog because everything for me still comes back to the land I grew up in: urban Edmonton—amiskwaciwâskahikan, pêhonan, home.

Whereas before the colonisation of Canada was framed as an issue of terra nullius, Glen Coulthard argues that urban spaces that Indigenous peoples occupy are conceived as space that belongs to nobody or ‘urbs nullius’.

Many people might be surprised that Indigenous issues and urban issues are so linked. But having lived in Canada I’ve seen this play out quite directly—even just the fact that there’s such large Indigenous populations living in Canadian cities. In fact often urban spaces were designed specifically to keep out ‘loitering’ and ‘homeless’ First Nations or Northern Indigenous people. Do you think it is possible for cities to be spaces for Indigenous people, and what practical urban planning strategies could make that a reality? 

Well, every city in Canada is on Indigenous land! So, by necessity, we have to address this fundamental relationship between land, Indigenous nations and urbanism in Canada. My mentor, Dr. Frank Tough, was the first to really point that out to me. He pointed out that many non-Indigenous folks were framing urban Indigeneity as a ‘recent phenomenon’, but in fact, every city in the country is built on Indigenous land. And cities like Edmonton are built in a very very old gathering place, known in nehiyawewin (Plains Cree) as pêhonan. My friend and colleague Sara Breitkreutz, an anthropology PhD student at Concordia University in Montreal, wrote her master’s dissertation on the ‘revitalization’ of Cabot Square in Montreal, wherein I understand that a lot of anxieties about race and Indigeneity came to the fore in discussions about re-designing the space. In Edmonton, there are a lot of tensions around the presence of urban Indigenous people in spaces that urban planners, architects, developers, politicians want to ‘revitalise’. Yellowknives Dene scholar Glen Coulthard argues that one of the fundamental issues at play in urban gentrification in Canada is that it is an extension of settler colonialism. So, whereas before the colonisation of Canada was framed as an issue of terra nullius, Glen argues that urban spaces that Indigenous peoples occupy are conceived as space that belongs to nobody or ‘urbs nullius’. So, I totally agree with you that urban planning continues to marginalize Indigenous people. I think that in order to change that we have to re-frame cities in Canada as what they are: urban communities built on Indigenous land. And in that, we must centre the reciprocal relationships between non-Indigenous people to Indigenous peoples, Indigenous lands, Indigenous legal orders, language, and community.

 

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Decolonizing academia

Currently there is a lot of work being done, partly inspired by Bruno Latour, challenging this idea that there is a nature-culture divide, which anthropologists now call the ‘ontological turn.’ How do you criticize this from an Indigenous perspective? 

The real crux of my critique of the ontological turn is not that it is wrong. They’re on the right track by acknowledging the nature-culture divide. They are absolutely correct, as an Indigenous feminist I read that as a hopeful moment. But we have to acknowledge that any movement is embedded in institutions and structures and the ontological turn itself has been developed by really wonderful Indigenous thinkers as well as non-Indigenous thinkers. However, as Sara Ahmed points out, it seems that white male scholars are often those that are cited within philosophy and the broader academy, and other people are ignored.

I think that if we’re going to talk about the nature-culture divide we need to be explicit about scholarly work as a colonial tool, and Indigenous legal structures as credible, robust, and dynamic ways of thinking. And also ways of asserting and thinking through relationships between people, whether they’re human or not.

My real critique is that Indigenous thinkers all over the world have been making exactly this point for decades, if not centuries (if you read or listen to the accounts of how the Historic Numbered Treaties in Canada were settled, Indigenous thinkers were asserting a view of the world that inherently disputes the Euro-Western nature-culture divide). But they aren’t often credited—for example, Val Napoleon and her colleague Hadley Friedland argue that Indigenous legal orders are not fragile, but in fact very robust. I think that if we’re going to talk about the nature-culture divide we need to be explicit about scholarly work as a colonial tool, and Indigenous legal structures as credible, robust, and dynamic ways of thinking. And also ways of asserting and thinking through relationships between people, whether they’re human or not. So for me, I think that the danger with the ontological turn is that it’s still coming from a Eurocentric perspective and doesn’t acknowledge, not just ideas but the laws that Indigenous people form that hold people accountable and that place the environment as a sentient thing. And so, I think we need to re-examine how we as scholars are also enacting legal governance and ethical duties toward our work.

 

Do you see that conversation happening in anthropology?

In Canada, with the work of Indigenous scholars, there is a direct acknowledgement that when Indigenous people are talking about their works, they’re not just talking about ontologies, they’re talking about concrete laws and ways of resolving conflict and engaging with the world. To be brutally honest, my experience in the UK really didn’t give me hope that scholars can be held directly accountable to the people that they’re speaking for.

People make claims about how they’re speaking with people, and I want to see us actually ask: how do you assess that? Why are there no Indigenous people on the panels? There were very few Indigenous anthropology students in the UK that I’ve met. For me, the proof will be in how the diversity of a department actually reflects the diversity of the people that we say we work with. The academy itself has to make a change. There are concrete ways that can happen and there are people that are already talking about how that can happen.

 

A new breed of environmentalists, calling themselves eco-modernists, seem to have run with ‘the ontological turn’, arguing that since ‘there is no nature’, conservationism actually won’t help, it is totally up to us to manage, maintain, and design the Earth. What would you say about these “ecomodernists” who take Latour’s argument to another level, using it to justify apolitical, technological solutions? 

Frankly, that whole idea of technology saving us from our own capitalist exploitation of the environment is just wishful thinking. What Indigenous legal orders (ontologies if you must) bring to the table is an acknowledgement that we have reciprocal duties to the land, to the other-than-human. And in those duties, there are responsibilities not to destroy entire watersheds, pollute whole lakes, raze mountains for ore. Because there are real legal-governance, social, cultural, living consequences to those actions. I’m hopeful that maybe some technological solutions can help us with the immediate crises we find ourselves in. But we cannot continue to relate to one another, to the land, to the fish, the birds, the bears, the plants in the way that we have been doing since the beginning of the Industrial revolution. Indigenous legal orders, the little bit that I can claim to understand of them, orient us to a much more accountable legal-governance relationship between all things/people/beings.

 

 

On Scottish independence

How do you see Scottish independence from an Indigenous and decolonial perspective?

I was studying at Aberdeen in the Department of Anthropology. Since October 2010, I’ve been splitting my time between Canada and Scotland. I had a front seat to the independence debate and the referendum. For me as a Métis woman with Scotch-Irish roots on my Métis side of the family, it was really really fascinating and kind of amazing to be there to witness that. Particularly because of the entanglement of histories between Scottish people and Indigenous people in Canada.

As an Indigenous person from North America I think that we need to have robust conversations about how, in the case of Scotland, at least, as a group of people that were internally colonized, or who had their self-determination violated by the Enlgish, they also, in turn, came in very large numbers to what is now Canada and participated actively in the dispossession and colonization of Indigenous peoples here. So I’m a bit weary of making direct comparisons between Scottish independence and Indigenous self-determination and sovereignty in North America, just because I think we also need to deconstruct that relationship between people re-visiting or re-creating their colonization or oppression upon another group. I call it the circulation of colonial violence. But I do think there’s a lot to be learned from these movements where people are pushing back against capitalist nation-state violation of people’s relationships to their own legal order and self-determination. Speaking as an Indigenous person from Canada, I do think there’s a lot that we can learn from Indigenous thinkers, activists, and philosophers.

 

Did you see those conversations happening in Scotland, where they link their own movements for autonomy in solidarity with Indigenous autonomy movements?

I have a complicated answer to that question. There was a lot of discourse in the Canadian media and the British media making a comparison between Quebec and Scotland, saying that Quebec independence and Scottish independence are the same thing. Or, sort of, learning from one another. But the thing with the Quebec independence movement is that it often involves a denial of Indigenous sovereignty in the province. And so I actually didn’t think the comparison in Scotland is really analogous (or helpful—because it erases or glosses over this egregious problem with the way Quebec sovereignty discourses can deny that Quebec exists because the French occupied sovereign Indigenous lands. That’s a conversation for another day, though).

The analogue, I think, for me, is that the Scots did manage to assert their own nationhood in a way by legislating and administering Canada into existence. Our first Prime Minister was a Scottish person, John A. MacDonald. This discourse of the English saying that the Scots don’t have what it takes to run a country I find really amusing. If we’re going to make really simple analogies, I think that an under-recognized discourse is how the Scots played such a heavy role in administering Canada into existence. So, in that sense, the Scots have already proven they can govern—they helped bring a whole nation state into existence! However, it’s very difficult to talk about the Scottish role or complicity in British colonialism within Scotland. I got the sense that it is a very taboo topic—it disrupts the framing of Scots as victims of the English.

I acknowledge that it’s a big ask for me as an Indigenous person to demand that 5 million Scottish people admit their complicity in the ongoing colonial realities of British Empire. But there were moments where I did have conversations with people. And people were amenable to, kind of, discussing those complicated relationships. And I found that really hopeful because colonialism is so paradoxical and complicated.

One thing I’m very weary of is when Scottish people talk about themselves as an ‘Indigenous’ people. The problem, as I learned through my time living there, is that this is a co-optation of the meaning of the word “Indigenous”, as it is defined by the United Nations. I was speaking to someone who said that some of the politicians promoting a pro-independence discourse deliberately strayed away from acknowledging Indigenous peoples (like me and other people from around the globe) who live in Scotland. This was deliberate because in Europe, Indigeneity has been co-opted by white supremacists, who talk about indigeneity as, you know, ‘Indigenous white people’ being impacted by non-white people moving in to their country. My understanding is that Pro-independence politicians didn’t want to invoke that scary xenophobic discourse, and I appreciate that. It’s so dangerous to conflate that white supremacist narrative so dominant in Europe at the moment with indigeneity of people who were moved out of the way and whose lands were taken and who were brutally oppressed to enable Europeans to colonize their nation. However, I hope we can some day talk about how Scots do have a reciprocal relationship to the peoples that were colonized by them—including Indigenous peoples around the globe.

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Decolonization in Europe

As a Métis scholar who has lived in Europe, what was your experience of attitudes toward Indigenous people? How would you like to see those conversations going forward?

I think that some people really truly do care about the impacts that European colonialism has had on the world. I think that there are care-full and accountable people everywhere, and I don’t want to paint with too-broad brush strokes. However, in my time in Europe I had a keen experience of the disconnect between the visceral issues I see and experience and bear witness to at home—such as the direct and painful impacts of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Two Spirit People and Girls on Indigenous communities in Canada— and the way these issues are abstract, intellectual, distant in Europe. In Europe, I feel that the direct and visceral [ongoing!] colonial experiences of Indigenous peoples are attenuated by space and time. It’s so hard to convey what these violent, painful issues lived and experienced by Indigenous peoples mean, in an embodied and lived sense, to Europeans when people in Europe are not physically present in our diverse and dynamic Indigenous territories in North America to see the impacts for themselves. In that sense, I think it becomes easy to romanticize and distort the ongoing colonial experience of Indigenous peoples, to not see the harm in appropriating Indigenous material culture or legal orders or stories. Whereas in Canada there is an ongoing legal-governance conversation about Indigenous nationhood and peoplehood, about the ‘nation to nation’ relationship that was acknowledged in the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples—in Europe there is none of this understanding of direct legal-governance accountability, reciprocity or indeed a very robust conversation about reconciliation (in all its nuances and complexities and problematics). So, I think that at the very least, the conversation needs to start with: colonialism is an ongoing imperative. We have ties that bind us across the ocean. Indigenous peoples are very much alive, to reference Thomas King’s (2013) work in his book The Inconvenient Indian. I get the sense that many Europeans simply assume Indigenous peoples are what King calls ‘dead Indians’ (King 2013:53) and I think that many Europeans only want to deal with the idea of Indigeneity. But, the reality is that Indigenous peoples are very insistently ALIVE. And so the conversation needs to start from a) acknowledging how contemporary Europe still benefits from its colonial imperatives and b) understanding that any kind of contemporary conversation requires addressing Indigenous peoples as living and present.

The reality is that Indigenous peoples are very insistently ALIVE. And so the conversation needs to start from a) acknowledging how contemporary Europe still benefits from its colonial imperatives and b) understanding that any kind of contemporary conversation requires addressing Indigenous peoples as living and present.

 

What could ‘decolonizing’ European activism look like? 

I think it starts with dealing with the deeply rooted ideologies that Europe exported in its colonial work. In the UK, I see the suffering and class hierarchies and exploitation of the downtrodden as a harmful series of ideologies forced onto other peoples/nations/societies around the globe. I see the logics that Canada’s First Prime Minister, Glasgow-born John A. MacDonald, employed to send Indigenous children to residential school echoed in the ‘welfare’ (and that is really too generous a word for what the UK government is doing to the poor) policies of the UK government. So, for me, a ‘decolonizing’ European activism tackles the very intellectual and political and social theories and beliefs that were used to justify violence and dispossession around the world. It requires a conversation about what a generous, kind, caring governance and societal model would look like. It means stopping the needless suffering I saw in Europe—tackling the vicious anti-immigration rhetoric that pervades many European jurisdictions, tackling the angry anti-poor rhetoric used by the government. And dealing with ongoing racism in European institutions. Stuff like that. Loving accountability, if you will.

 

On writing

You are a prolific writer as well as an academic. How does your writing fit in with your academic pursuits? How do they compliment each other?  

Writing is how I stay alive. It is a way of being and a way of rooting myself in place when I don’t have a permanent home or place to attach myself to. I would say in that sense my writing is very much part of my Métis diasporic identity. It gives me a way to create home when that is something uncertain or unstable in my life. I also use my blog to write about things that do not directly relate to my research, so that I have a place to hold those thoughts while I work on other academic projects.

Writing is how I stay alive. It is a way of being and a way of rooting myself in place when I don’t have a permanent home or place to attach myself to. I would say in that sense my writing is very much part of my Métis diasporic identity. It gives me a way to create home when that is something uncertain or unstable in my life.

How do ideas form that you want to write about? How do you start writing a piece, and what drives you when you write?

One of my friends noted in awe when something I wrote went viral—’you wrote that darn thing in an hour, didn’t you?’. And it’s true. I usually formulate ideas over an extended period of time, usually while I’m walking around. Walking is really important to me—it is when I sort out ideas and narratives. When I sit down to write something it’s usually already roughly planned out in my head and then I just put it to paper (or blog). I write because I want to contribute to conversations about issues that matter. I write because I want there to be a place for divergent voices. I know that quite often what I am writing wouldn’t make it through the regular channels. I love that blogs and social media are such a powerful medium for those not broadly represented in the physical make-up of the academy.

 

Looking to the future, what projects are you working on? Is there anything you’ve recently read that has inspired you?

I just started a tenure-track position so my current focus is on wrapping on the PhD and really digging my feet into my new role. I’m incredibly excited to start teaching. As for my work—I’m starting to plan out a new research project. I will be returning back to Alberta, to my home territory, to examine human-fish relationships there. To apply what I’ve learned to experiences and stories in my own homeland. So I am incredibly excited.

And the most recent thing I read that inspired me is Dr. Tracey Lindberg’s debut novel Birdie. It is about Indigenous women’s strength, power and resurgence. It left me awestruck.

 

Zoe Todd (@ZoeSTodd) (Red River Métis/Otipemisiwak) is a Lecturer at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada and a PhD Candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. She is a 2011 Trudeau Foundation Scholar. She researches human-fish relations, colonialism and Indigenous legal orders/governance in Canada.

Aaron Vansintjan studies ecological economics, food systems, and urban change. He is editor at Uneven Earth and enjoys journalism, wild fermentations, decolonization and degrowth, and long bicycle rides.

All photos in this article are by Aaron Vansintjan, photographed in Go Home Bay on Anishinaabe territory.