Time for the subaltern to speak

Sergio Ruiz Cayuela

Protest against waste incineration in the Asland cement plant in Can Sant Joan. Source: www.ladirecta.cat

I will tell you something about stories,

[he said]

They aren’t just entertainment.

Don’t be fooled.

They are all we have, you see,

All we have to fight off

illness and death.

Leslie Silko, Ceremony (1977)

 

Developing a subaltern consciousness

The hazard does not disappear by sweeping the dust from their balconies and shutting the windows.

For the Can Sant Joan neighbors pollution is not anymore imagined as a visible dust cloud with clearly defined boundaries from which you can escape. The hazard does not disappear by sweeping the dust from their balconies and shutting the windows. The community perceives pollution as scattered around the neighborhood in multiple and mostly invisible forms. From the thick smoke clouds that are still released from the chimneys of the LafargeHolcim cement plant to the invisible dioxins and furans. From the rain that pours loaded with heavy metals to the tomatoes that were once grown in chemically contaminated soil. Pollution is not discrete anymore, but a continuous entity that not only impregnates everything but trespasses macroscopic physical boundaries. People in Can Sant Joan have developed a consciousness of their bodies’ constant interchange with their environments. Thus, the very place where they live their everyday lives—an environment that has been infected with hazardous toxic pollution for decades—has become a threat for the community members.

During years of tireless struggle against the cement plant—and other sources of pollution—Can Sant Joan neighbors have realized that they are fighting a very unbalanced battle. It is not just a factory that they are opposing, but a whole economic system that fosters inequalities and prioritizes growth before well-being. Political and economic elites dispose of the most marginal, powerless communities in order to increase profit and reinforce their social dominance. The Can Sant Joan community has become aware of this dynamics through first-hand experience. As a neighbor puts it: “they thought it was going to be very easy to pollute and kill a community of poor working-class people, but we fought back and won’t stop until the cement plant is shut”. By recognizing their marginal position—in economic, political, and social terms—and acknowledging lack of autonomy and political representation as the main shortages in to order leave marginality, the community has developed what is called a subaltern identity.

Can Sant Joan has been deliberately burdened with abnormally high environmental impacts.

The leakage in 1984 of the Cerrell Report, commissioned by the California Waste Management Board to a consulting firm, shed light on the relationship between subalternity and environmental health. The report sought to define the type of communities that were less likely to resist the siting of locally unwanted land uses (LULUs) in terms of race, income, class, gender, or religion. It proves that many times the placing of LULUs is deliberately based on political criteria. Since its creation, Can Sant Joan—a neighborhood that was born as a settlement for mainly unskilled migrant workers at the cement plant and the railroad track—has been incrementally burdened with polluting industries and infrastructures. This reinforcing pattern has created a vicious circle: the more LULUs were placed in the neighborhood, the less desirable it was to live in it. As a neighbor described: “people didn’t come to live here because we chose so, but because housing was cheap. Where else could we go?” Thus, Can Sant Joan has been deliberately burdened with abnormally high environmental impacts that pollute the environment, threaten the health of the community and, in short, make the area a sacrifice zone.

Sight of the LafargeHolcim cement plant from the Masia street. Source: AAV Can Sant Joan

The subaltern in Can Sant Joan are contesting this image of the passive and defeated subaltern through their resistance.

The situation for communities inhabiting sacrifice zones is often represented as hopeless. But the subaltern in Can Sant Joan are contesting this image of the passive and defeated subaltern through their resistance. The best way to understand why and to learn about the community and its struggle against waste incineration in the cement plant is, in the fashion of what the Toxic Bios project proposes, through the personal story of a neighbor who has been deeply affected by living in such a polluted environment. It’s time for the subaltern to speak!

 

Toxic storytelling: Manolo Gómez “el zapatero” (“the cobbler”)

I am 74, I was born on January 24th 1943 in a little village in Granada called Benalúa. All my family members were republicans. Two of my uncles were distinguished soldiers during the Spanish Civil War and they went to France into exile, but Franco’s regime had a deal with Gestapo and they were still prosecuted during those years. My family was part of the lowest class. I saw a man starve to death at my doorway, I will never forget that. He came begging for some food while my mom was cooking a stew. But the moment he took the first bite, his body had a bad reaction and it was as if he had been struck by lightning. I came to Can Sant Joan when I was 16 because my family was being punished extremely hard by Francoist local authorities in Benalúa. They were making our lives impossible and we had no possibilities to survive there. I didn’t come to Catalonia voluntarily, I was expelled from my land. I went to the school of Franco until I was 16, ruled by the Catholic church, very Catholic. When I was 9 years old I started working and I combined it with school. I was working at a projection booth in a cinema, because I am a qualified projectionist. Then I also started working as a cobbler. So, during the daytime I supplied footwear to my neighbors and during the nighttime I entertained them. Since I arrived in Can Sant Joan I joined the neighborhood association and I was involved in the struggles. I was also member of a revolutionary left political group during 15 years, in the 1960s and 1970s. We fought the regime and our main goal was to kill Franco. I don’t know if I would call myself an environmentalist… definitely not an “abstract” one, but maybe I could be called a radical environmentalist.

I don’t know if I would call myself an environmentalist… definitely not an “abstract” one, but maybe I could be called a radical environmentalist.

The current Can Sant Joan neighborhood was born in the 1960s migration boom. We all came from different places, we didn’t know each other, but there were a core of people who started bringing the neighborhood together and convincing ourselves that we shouldn’t accept our living conditions. We were always the most working-class, leftist, united and open neighborhood. We never had problems with anyone, even now that people from abroad keep coming here. We are an open neighborhood. The most tenacious neighborhood has always been Can Sant Joan, and it’s not me saying that, but all the other neighborhoods in Montcada. The neighborhood has been changing for the better during the years by dint of all the struggles that the community has carried out. But nobody ever gave us anything for free in this neighborhood, everything we have achieved has been through constant struggle. The Can Sant Joan neighborhood is everything to me, it has given me everything that was denied to me in other places. I always said that the day that I retire I will keep working for the neighborhood. And after 60 years working, fixing shoes for three generations and screening movies at the Kursaal (the former cinema of the neighborhood, that was abandoned for 26 years and then turned into a popular auditorium after a strong mobilization, author’s note), here I am. I am very grateful to the neighborhood. Then we started to build a real community and today this is not just a neighborhood but a close community. We have a theater association, a poetry group… we were even able to bring the Basque poet Silvia Delgado to the Kursaal. I put a lot of effort into it, because I love poetry. Even if most people work in the city, there is a core group that always organizes public events. Especially around the school and the parents’ association, but also the storekeepers’ association organizes a handicraft fair, we also have a group of gegants i capgrossos, the castellers… (groups that perform different acts related to Catalan culture, a.n.), everyone is involved!

I usually feel a very unpleasant smell from the cement plant and from the sewage treatment plant that is across the river. It is terrible, it is massive, the smell that we feel from time to time is suffocating. In Can Sant Joan there are many people with respiratory problems, especially cancer. This is our biggest problem right now in the neighborhood. And all these sick and deceased people are a consequence of the toxic environment we live in. It’s not just me saying that, it’s everyone here. I have a chronic disease—asthma—because of the cement plant. I have claimed that on TV, on the radio, and wherever I can. I will repeat it 30,000 times if needed: living under that chimney for 74 years is terrible. I don’t even know how I’m still alive.

Montcada hill in 1928. The exploitation of the quarry has almost reached the Mare de Déu de Montcada chapel on top, that was finally destroyed in 1939 in a landslide. Source: AVV Can Sant Joan

The cement plant, which is about to turn 100 years old, was first owned by the Asland company. It was ruled by the Catalan bourgeoisie, who started the company in Castellar de N’Hug, but they didn’t find enough raw material there so they came here. Another reason was the railroad, because they built a branch that connected the cement plant with the main railroad line and they were able to transport their products more efficiently. I still remember years ago that every noon there were terrible explosions in the quarry. Every day at noon a siren would sound off and then a huge blast would follow. Enormous dust clouds would come off the hill, that once was about double the current height. We had to hold the windows with our hands or otherwise they would just blow up. That was every day at 12 a.m. during the 1960s… Moreover, there was a small chapel on top of the hill, owned by the clergy, who made a pontifical Bull and gave the chapel for free to the Catalan bourgeoisie. They just tore it down in order to extract more material. Later on the multinational company came and bought the business, and they still own it. There used to be 40 or 50 regular Asland workers at the neighborhood, and a lot of indirect workers as well. Most of the people at the neighborhood used to work either for the Asland or the Renfe (the railroad company, a.n.). A few years ago we went through all the people we knew from Can Sant Joan who used to work at the Asland and we found out that all of them are already dead, from cancer. There’s nobody left. Currently there are barely 30 or 40 workers at the cement plant. They have a terrible technology, they don’t need people anymore. Trucks get loaded and unloaded automatically. The plant only needs a cheap labor force when they do maintenance tasks, but those people are only employed a few days. The company does whatever is needed in order to avoid paying wages.

We know very well that we are getting into the heart of capitalism, but we are not scared.

The Asland (the cement plant is still nowadays popularly known as Asland, in reference to the former owner, a.n.) has a strong presence in the neighborhood, very strong. These splendid factories know how to buy people, and some people like being sold. The managers even tried to bribe us (us refers to the neighborhood association, a.n.) when we started to say that they shouldn’t start burning waste, that we’d had enough. After 30 years suffering a waste incinerator (the first urban waste incinerator of the Spanish state started to operate in Can Sant Joan in 1974. See next paragraph for further clarification, a.n.) we already knew what was going to happen. They called me and my mate (both members of the direction board of the neighborhood association, a.n.) to the manager’s office, and he asked us what were our demands to stop saying that what they were going to do was dangerous to the people. It was just before they started burning waste. And the Asland also used to have a terrific relationship with the municipality. For example, when the Socialists (in reference to the Catalan Socialist Party, a.n.) were in power they used to organize fireworks contests during the town festival. That costed a fortune, but it was all paid by the cement plant. They even paid the municipal newspaper, which is called La Veu. It used to be financed by Lafarge, you can still see many Lafarge adverts in it. The cement plant also finances all the football teams in Montcada, the chess club, and whoever goes asking for money. The company used to donate 3,000€ every year to our neighborhood association for the annual neighborhood festival. Now the relationship with the municipality seems very different, but we’ll see what happens… Because politicians fear these big companies. We don’t fear them, but politicians are scared because these companies have huge economic power and can buy everything. We know very well that we are getting into the heart of capitalism, but we are not scared.

We already suffered a waste incinerator here, and many people got sick and died because of it. We succeeded in closing that incinerator after a long-time struggle. After that, local politicians assured that waste was never again going to be incinerated in our town. A motion was even signed in 1999 by all the political parties banning waste incineration in the Montcada i Reixac municipality. And when 10 years ago we learned that they were going to start that atrocity again in the neighborhood, we sounded the alarm. I had already been involved in the struggle against the waste incinerator, which was the first one in the whole Spanish state—like a pilot project. We organized a huge demonstration when there were no highways getting into Barcelona yet, and we blocked the only Northern access to the city. We were a buttload of people from the neighborhood, we walked from here to the cement plant and we came back. It was a great day! We also mobilized against the big chimney at the cement plant, which was releasing huge dust clouds 24 hours per day. We forced the Asland to install the first cement filters and the amount of dust decreased. And from those past struggles comes my current involvement.

Jose Luis Conejero (right) and Manolo Gómez (center), members of the neighborhood association of Can Sant Joan, during their presentation at the I European Gathering Against Waste Incineration in Cement Kilns held in Barletta (Italy) in 2014. Source: www.ladirecta.cat

We are realizing that this is a common problem, and that everywhere they tell the same lies.

Now I am at the direction board of the neighborhood association, I attend all the mobilizations, I am the secretary of the neighborhood association, and especially, I am just one more in the movement. We have organized demonstrations with up to 3,000 people but there is something even more important. We have been able to raise awareness among the community so when someone gets cancer, and everyday there are more people—especially young—getting sick, they point out to the cement plant and the environment. This is very important. We thought that we were alone in this, but now we are realizing that in the Spanish state there are 36 cement plants and the same thing is happening everywhere. And not only in the Spanish state but also in Europe, in America… They are perpetrating atrocities. They are ruining our lives, poisoning our water and air… and nobody can live without water and air! It is terrible and they are perfectly conscious of what they’re doing. They are criminals. And we are realizing that this is a common problem, and that everywhere they tell the same lies. The politicians, the cement companies… they say the same thing everywhere! They are scoundrels, criminals. We are ruled by criminals. We have had some problems with the local authorities. Not with the new mayor, but with Socialists and Convergents (referring to politicians from the Socialist Catalan Party and from the nationalist electoral alliance Convergence and Union; a.n.) we had some problems. I was prosecuted by the local police. We were calling the neighbors with a megaphone for an assembly, when the mayor sent the police to frisk me. The officer, who was a good person and a casual acquaintance of mine, told me: “look, I’m sorry, but I was ordered to frisk you and ask for your documentation”. But they could not find anything against me.

There are experts of many kinds in this country! I call some of them mercenaries for hire. There are also very honest and professional people, practitioners and scientists who have dared and still dare to talk against this scum. But others… there are some mercenaries for hire and those are horrible. There is a mercenary called Domingo, from the Rovira i Virgili university who says that it is more dangerous living beside a highway than under a waste incinerator. And these mercenaries are those who are hired by the public administration and they make their reports to measure. But we have also been helped by many experts, I could tell you a long list of names. I think they also take something positive from the experience, and they are being very helpful for our movement. Nobody dares to contradict them. And they collaborate in a completely unselfish way, they just fight for the health of the community. There was one, though, whose name I prefer not to reveal, who got scared and gave up. He helped us a lot, but there was a huge dispute with the cement companies and he got scared.

 

Subaltern voices and resistance in guerilla narratives

Manolo’s story shows that sacrifice zones are not only geographical places, but also subaltern human—and non-human—bodies. The toxicity concentrated in these sacrifice zones—whether geographical or organic—is not only embodied in the obvious ecological way, but it is spread beyond. Toxic stories that deliberately distort reality develop in order to boost ignorance about the real environmental health impacts, in a process that constitutes narrative violence. Sacrifice zones thus carry a double burden: they are subjected to accumulative environmental impacts that harm humans and non-humans, and they are usually invisibilized in official narratives. Concerns about narrative violence are easily found in Can Sant Joan, where the neighbors bitterly complain about the wide presence that the cement plant has historically had in local press and municipal leaflets, and where the Asland is portrayed as a valuable contributor to the Can Sant Joan community.

Front and back covers of a booklet distributed by the municipality announcing public activities for the Christmas season. Source: own scan of the original booklet.

Storytelling can become a powerful weapon to sabotage the mainstream toxic narrative and occupy it with counter-hegemonic knowledge.

But above all, Manolo’s autobiography shows how storytelling can become a powerful weapon to sabotage the mainstream toxic narrative and occupy it with counter-hegemonic knowledge based on physical and cultural experiences of everyday life. It can be compared to such an iconic image of sabotage and resistance as the monkey wrench in its twofold purpose: on the one hand it can be used to undermine the mainstream narrative, and on the other hand it can be used in a constructive way in order to build autonomous spaces where the subalterns take back control of their stories and their bodies. The very action of the subaltern telling their own stories of toxicity—described by Armiero and Iengo as “guerrilla narrative”—is loaded with political meaning, as they decide to reject the passive role that they have been given in the mainstream narrative. This kind of toxic storytelling has the power to bring together subaltern communities trapped beyond mainstream concern and redefine environmentalism towards a broader and more inclusive movement that eventually influences political agendas.

 

Sergio Ruiz Cayuela is a Catalan scholar-activist and Marie Skłodowska Curie PhD fellow at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience, Coventry University. His research interests include alternative environmental movements and the political potential of the commons for empowering subaltern communities. 

 

The post-Columbian exchange

When Indigenous and pop cultures meet, as in Civilization VI, subconciously colonial mindsets can cause conflict. Source: Sid Meier’s Civilization VI

 

by Travis McKay Roberts

Grandpa’s voice was weak, forced. I’d never heard him like this, not in the first round of chemo, nor in the weeks after he’d decided that enough was enough and he would let the cancer take its course. Years later, after advanced radiation therapies and hormone treatments and inexorable time, he and I were talking together for what would become the last time.

‘I’m working on a story,’ I told him. I had never told him about any of my writing before. ‘It’s sort of a re-telling of Cherokee history but fictionalized. There’s a seed of a story this anthropologist recorded, and I want to dive into it a little bit.’

‘I always thought the story of Louis Riel would make a good movie,’ he told me. That script would be one of the last that my grandpa would work on before he passed away.

Raoul McKay was a documentarian, historian, and a champion of Indigenous education in Canada. He was also Metis, and passionate about sharing our people’s stories with the world. Time was, you could see an exhibit he helped put together at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. I would make the pilgrimage every other month or so, from my home in the northwest of the city. There’s a new exhibit there now. I haven’t been.

What I have been doing is continuing on my grandfather’s work from a different perspective. Over the past few years, I have been blessed enough to pursue passions in both fantasy worldbuilding and Indigenous representation via prose, tabletop game design, and conversations in conferences and forums like this. Through it all has run a single thread: while the culture and history of native North America has been repressed, it cannot be forgotten.

We can imagine the stories of Indigenous peoples burning like bonfires across the Americas. Each one distinct, with its own fuel, smoke, and flame. Many have been dashed to embers when colonists rolled across the continents like a wave. But despite displacement, forced assimilation, and even genocide, there are embers yet alive. They have been handed down from elder to child, again and again – and now, they are being relit.

But from time to time, just as a fire is starting to go, someone powerful comes in, admiring the flame and wanting to make it their own. So, in it goes, into a great heap of other torches, and a unique glow is lost amidst a pyre of a hundred thousand stories.

When Indigenous stories are separated from the communities that made them, they often lose what made them special in the first place.

To the untrained eye, the act of appropriation might look like salvation. A tiny flame is coaxed into something much bigger, even more significant and impactful by western standards. But a closer look betrays the truth: when Indigenous stories are separated from the communities that made them, they often lose what made them special in the first place.

JK Rowling illustrated this for us in 2016, when she published a brief history of magic in the Americas on Pottermore. The most controversial part of the passage had to do with Skinwalkers, or as they are known to the Diné (Navajo), yee naaldlooshii. The Diné have traditionally taught their people about this shape-shifting witch as a stark contrast to what is held as good and proper in Navajo society. In JK Rowling’s retelling, she writes:

The legend of the Native American ‘skin walker’ – an evil witch or wizard that can transform into an animal at will – has its basis in fact. A legend grew up around the Native American Animagi, that they had sacrificed close family members to gain their powers of transformation. In fact, the majority of Animagi assumed animal forms to escape persecution or to hunt for the tribe. Such derogatory rumours often originated with No-Maj medicine men, who were sometimes faking magical powers themselves, and fearful of exposure.

The outcry was instantaneous. Dr. Adrienne Keene, a Cherokee academic who writes on Indigenous appropriation summed up the general outcry well:

What you do need to know is that the belief of these things has a deep and powerful place in Navajo understandings of the world. It is connected to many other concepts and many other ceremonial understandings and lifeways. It is not just a scary story, or something to tell kids to get them to behave, it’s much deeper than that… What happens when Rowling pulls this in, is we as Native people are now opened up to a barrage of questions about these beliefs and traditions (take a look at my twitter mentions if you don’t believe me)–but these are not things that need or should be discussed by outsiders. At all. I’m sorry if that seems “unfair,” but that’s how our cultures survive.

Navajo writer Brian Young responded to the Pottermore piece with anguish, tied to the vital role traditional Navajo culture has played in his survival:

I’m broken hearted. Jk Rowling, my beliefs are not fantasy…. my ancestors didn’t survive colonization so you could use our culture as a convenient prop.

Young responded with more than critique. He also took the moment as an opportunity to self-reflect and live out a best practice, writing:

I’ve decided to seek advice from the diné medicine men association for their opinion on how I depict my culture in my young adult book.

Young demonstrated the antithesis of what Rowling practiced. Rowling’s writing lumped the hundreds of nations, tribes, and bands Indigenous to North America into a single people group, and took a vital piece of their culture out of context without consultation. Young went to the source of the stories. Doing so allowed him to ensure that when he took real cultural practices into a fictional setting, he was doing so with humility and respect.

Of course, JK Rowling hasn’t been the only one to take a stray step in terms of appropriation. Last year, when Firaxis announced the inclusion of the Cree chief Poundmaker in Rise and Fall, the latest expansion to the 4x strategy game Civilization 6, a headman from Poundmaker’s own band responded in force. In an interview with the CBC, Milton Tootoosis lambasted the game, saying that it ‘perpetuates this myth that First Nations had similar values that the colonial culture has, and that is one of conquering other peoples and accessing their land. That is totally not in concert with our traditional ways and world view’. He also noted that Firaxis hadn’t approached Cree peoples as they developed the character and associated nation, but didn’t seem surprised, saying ‘This is not new. Hollywood has done a job for many decades of portraying indigenous people in a certain way that has been very harmful’.

To understand Tootoosis’s critique, you need to understand a little bit about the Civilization franchise, and the 4x genre. 4x games are strategy games, built on four core mechanics: exploration, expansion, exploitation, and extermination. Civilization plays this out by having players control a nation, exploring a blank map, conquering rogue barbarian tribes, extracting resources, and developing a network of cities that allow the nation to exert cultural, scientific, religious, or military dominance over the world. To many Indigenous observers, these mechanics are rooted in the same colonial mindset that brought European colonizers into ‘the New World’, and lead to the breaking of treaty bonds in pursuit of oil extraction in places like the Athabascan oil sands in Canada’s Treaty 8 land today.

For Tootoosis, placing Poundmaker in this genre was inherently counter to the man’s legacy of striving against colonialism. Although the game’s mechanics encourages a player controlling Poundmaker to develop alliances with other players, those alliances are still created in the context of the 4x genre, and lead to eventual global domination.

However, there were in fact positive aspects to the portrayal, which were done via a process of consultation. Each civilization is given a unique, unfolding, soundtrack that develops over the course of the game and is rooted in a traditional song of the nation. In order to develop the Cree theme, Geoff Knorr worked with the Poundmaker Singers, including one Clyde Tootoosis. The CBC reports that Clyde saw his work with Knorr as ‘an awesome experience’, though he ‘felt sorry that certain people were offended’. In contradiction to Milton, Clyde sees the game as an opportunity to share the name and culture of Poundmaker and his Cree – a clear sign that consultation can go a long way towards making a people feel heard and respected.

The balance between Clyde and Milton’s views has led me to the unique challenge of attempting to tell my own stories inspired by the cultures of the Americas, while still respecting the communities who made them in the first place.

Atohi and Nanye

The story I told my grandfather about has grown into my own story of Atohi and Nanye. In this work, I seek to retell a traditional Cherokee story, but in the fantasy genre (a similar pattern was followed by George RR Martin when he plopped the War of the Roses into Westeros). In it, a woman named Nanye roots out a corrupting force at the heart of the priestly clan’s power, and her beloved Atohi starts a revolution to bring her safely home. I first learned of this bit of history through American anthropologist James Mooney, who in turn learned it from the Cherokee:

The people long brooded in silence over the oppressions and outrages of this high caste, whom they deeply hated but greatly feared. At length a daring young man, a member of an influential family, organized a conspiracy among the people for the massacre of the priesthood. The immediate provocation was the abduction of the wife of the young leader of the conspiracy. His wife was remarkable for her beauty, and was forcibly abducted and violated by one of the Nicotani while he was absent on the chase. On his return he found no difficulty in exciting in others the resentment which he himself experienced. So many had suffered in the same way, so many feared that they might be made to suffer, that nothing was wanted but a leader. A leader appearing in the person of the young brave whom we have named, the people rose under his direction and killed every Nicotani (Ni-go-ta-ni), young and old. Thus perished a hereditary secret society, since which time no hereditary privileges have been tolerated among the Cherokee (Myths of the Cherokee, James Mooney, p. 393).

The events described here are ripe for fiction. There is romance, corruption, and revolution. A chosen one defeats his enemies utterly and brings lasting salvation for his people. A story grows out of such fertile ground quickly. But it has never been my goal to simply tell a good story. I want to tell a good story that illuminates the better story about the people behind it. I want to guide readers towards the living people who have inherited the legacies of my inspirations, and let those people speak for themselves. To do so, I must avoid stereotype and colonialist tropes. As much as possible, I must allow the Indigenous worldview to seep in, breaking apart the frameworks I learned from my favorite fantasy authors. To achieve my goals, it is not enough to tell American stories in the European tradition. I have to go beyond. And to go beyond, I go to the community.

In 2016, I was connected through the Smithsonian with the archivist of the Cherokee Nation, a bright and caring storyteller named Jerry Thompson. As I pitched the idea of my story and goals to Jerry, he was patient in explaining to me the various aspects of Cherokee culture he wished others would focus on, and places where Mooney and others had gotten the story wrong. He introduced me to the Cherokee concept of lying – or storytelling. In Cherokee culture, the word does not necessarily have the same negative connotations that it has for us. Instead, it offers up a unique paradigm on narrative and truth, and admits the two may diverge, and it is up to the listener to determine where they do, and how that affects him or her. It’s also a tool of respect, and a way to safeguard precious knowledge. For example, a young boy may come to his grandpa many times before his persistence is rewarded with the “real story”. Even many of the formulas for ceremonies that Mooney recorded simply aren’t accurate. They are true in form, but the specific medicines are held as property of the families, so as not to be shared with outsiders. They told Mooney the truth about the general form and function of the ceremonies, and “lied” about the details.

Paradigms like this offer us a unique insight into the culture of the Cherokee, and they help me as a content creator. Given this knowledge, I can layer it in with my own ideas. This led to me fleshing out the concept of another race I’ve developed – the Aghazi nomads. The Aghazi travel my world to bear witness to disaster and atrocity and record the stories of those they meet. When they travel to Tsalagi lands (inspired by Mississippian cultures like the Cherokee), they find themselves called – what else? Liars. From that small seed grows a whole bevy of questions that must be answered as Tsalagi and Aghazi collide. Can the Aghazi be trusted? Are their auguries genuine, or just tall tales? How might the priestly class use this appellate to discredit them, and how might that backfire?

As I continued to investigate Cherokee culture, I stumbled across the practice of a young man learning his clan’s skills and role from his mother’s male relatives. Parallel research for a tabletop RPG setting (looking to the Lakota, Pawnee, and Kiowa for reference) brought me to Plains Sign Language. The byproduct of interviews with Thompson and this research brought me one of my favorite characters: Rayoteh Hanging-Jaw, Atohi’s uncle, and a veteran of wars with a neighboring nation. In those wars, he both learned the art of his enemy’s sign language, and found need to use it when his face was mangled by a brutal attack. A brief excerpt with him in focus follows:

 

Rayoteh Hanging Jaw wrapped a scarlet scarf around his old war wound, and set to preparing a fire as the first rays of light came darting in through the cracks in the daub walls. A few coals still glittered in the pit in the middle of his home, and there was still wood enough for the day’s needs.

Rayoteh prayed that his portion would be fair today, and began to work.

In minutes, a fire was lit, and sage leaves tucked in the coals let off opaque white smoke that danced in the motes of the morning’s first sunbeam. The smell of char filled the home, and the old warrior knelt in the earth by the fire. He breathed the scent in, and closed his eyes. The moment Rayoteh’s eyes shut, smoke billowed out the door, and his nephew stormed in.

Dustu sputtered and wiped his eyes as smoke rolled over him. He feigned a salute, and quickly crouched under the smoke. “Uncle, Athoi is- “

Rayoteh swept Dustu’s legs, and he went sprawling. Crouching next to Dustu, he signed: Do not move to sit before your elder bids you welcome.

“Of course, Uncle,” Dustu said.

Now, how can I help you? Rayoteh patted the ground next to him, bidding his nephew to sit under the smoke.

Dustu paused, and took in a deep breath. He coughed, and started again. “Atohi’s gone. He was out on hunt with Nanye this morning, and I think,” he cradled his head in his hands. “I think they took her.”

Rayoteh’s eyes flared, and his hands moved furiously. They? He signed each letter individually now, slowly and methodically. K-A-T-U-N?

Dustu nodded, and Rayoteh groaned, his voice rasping with years of disuse. Standing, he motioned towards the door. We need to be clear-headed, he signed. Atohi will be rallying for warriors. If he strikes now, they will roll off the mounds like a wave breaking on stone.

“Atohi’s a fine warrior, uncle.” Dustu stood opposite Rayoteh, feet planted, arms crossed.

I didn’t say he wasn’t.

The two men stood in silence for a few moments. “We can’t let him stand alone.”

We can’t let him stand at all. Not yet.

“But what about Nanye?”

Rayoteh stopped and slumped. His fingers began moving, once, and once again. His shoulders sagged, his eyes fell. I don’t know, he finally signed.

“That’s not good enough,” said Dustu. “We can’t- “

Rayoteh’s hands snapped up, and his nephew stopped cold. He finished the sentence for Dustu. We can’t do anything.

“I won’t accept that.” Dustu had wheeled around to Rayoteh, standing in the old warrior’s face. Dustu was young, taller than Rayoteh had been at his age. He had the same fire in his eyes, and a reckless edge to his voice. Rayoteh dropped his eyes.

There is nothing for you to accept. There is only what is, and what cannot be.

Rayoteh’s hands were still moving when his nephew turned his back and stomped out from the hut, war club unslung and ready in his hand.

 

Though this is still in rough form, I know Rayoteh will play a vital role in the story to come, in no small part because of research and consultation. Not only did consultation help me avoid a trite adaptation of Cherokee culture, it actually made my world more complete and led me to characters I wouldn’t have otherwise considered. Thompson’s help wasn’t relegated just to culture, but also to historical knowledge that’s almost impossible to find anywhere else. Thompson himself has done a great deal of research into the history of the Ani-Kutani and the similarity to legends found far away from the Cherokee’s homeland in the Appalachian foothills.

Not only did consultation help me avoid a trite adaptation of Cherokee culture, it actually made my world more complete.

Ani-Kutani, according to Thompson, translates to something along the lines of ‘People of the Dragon’. Dragon might be better translated to horned serpent, a crucial figure in Cherokee mythology. As it happens, similar creatures are found in stories throughout North America. Thompson indicated that the oral tradition regarding the migration of the Ani-Kutani maps well to the existence of the stories of horned or flying serpents elsewhere, particularly in regarding the feathered Quetzecoatl of Mayan and Aztec mythos. Similar mythological migration can be found with tropes like Spider Grandmother, shared by Navajo and Aztec cultures (though expressed in different ways), or the figure of the coyote trickster, found in Ojibwe and Yakama cultures. These bonds have inspired similar bonds in my constructed world and have led me down paths to create content inspired not just by the Cherokee, but by the Navajo, the Lakota, the Pawnee, the Olmec, the Aztec, and the Ojibwe.

These cultural exchanges help illustrate that stories from one culture can be told in a different setting. They push against the idea that any one people group truly owns a story. At the same time, they reflect a different paradigm than what’s commonly practiced now. These cultural exchanges were just that – exchanges. People told each other their stories and received stories or shelter in turn. There’s a deep network of respect and relationship that lies behind these common figures, and there’s not a 1:1 representation of that in the modern day. It’s impossible to compare googling about a culture on the internet and slapping traditional beliefs into colonial settings with the ancient patterns of trade and reciprocity that led to stories being shared far and wide. It is possible to mimic those patterns, enter into genuine relationship, and enrichen the narratives authors and designers create. Those same relationships can guide us to aspects of culture that can and should be shared and proclaimed and guide us away from teachings that are sacred and require protection and custodianship by the community. Though it can be difficult to hear that a piece of culture is off-limits, the cost to the content creator is much lower than the risk the community is concerned with.

Because of the relational nature of the process and the potential risk for creative constraints, cultural consultation is often depicted as a painful, expensive, and unnecessary step, foisted on creators by a PC culture run amok. I’ve found that it’s almost entirely the opposite. Consulting with the communities you find yourself inspired by is not only a way to build relationships and mutual respect, it’s a way to improve the product. And when content grows richer, communities feel respected, and stories guide readers to Indigenous peoples on their terms. Everybody wins. Consultation isn’t a burden, it’s a blessing – and one that basic human decency demands.

Travis McKay Roberts is a writer and public health social worker in Washington, D.C. Born in Canada, Travis is a citizen of the Manitoba Metis Federation. You can find more of Travis’s writing at callingallwayfarers.wordpress.com and at Relevant.com, and can reach him on twitter @TravisWMRoberts.

Dreaming spaces

A Ber tree (Ziziphus mauritiana) – a thorny, stubborn little plant that shelters small birds and yields lovely edible berries. From a scrub-plot in India. Photo: Zareen Bharucha.

by Zareen Bharucha

I was eight when I found it. It was one of those long summer afternoons when everyone, drugged with heat, was fast asleep. Restless, I snuck out through the back door. I struggled over the garden gate and dropped quietly across the wall into the outer world.

Alone for the first time in the lane behind my house, I walked further along it than I ever had before. I passed houses with shades drawn, old trees murmuring quietly with crickets and turtle doves. And suddenly, I found it: an open plot of rough scrub, a square not more than half a football field along each side.

I had never seen such a place. It was not a garden, nor a field, nor a park.

I had never seen such a place. It was not a garden, nor a field, nor a park. There were no flowerbeds, and the ground was broken up with rocks, and patches of gravel. I looked at the empty lane behind me, expecting someone to be standing there, calling me back. But I was alone. I felt a brief thrill of fear and then I walked in. This is the story of what I found there; what I took with me and carry with me still.

***

I grew up accustomed to green, and to growing things. A good piece of land was lush, fecund, greens of every shade punctuated by flowers of fuchsia, scarlet, saffron, violet. A good garden had flowers, fruit, herbs, vegetables, medicine, and sacred elements too: holy basil, an auspicious mango tree, the Brahma Kamal that flowers shyly at midnight.

Across the road lay my grandmother’s farm and fields. On her grounds grew trees hundreds of years old. There was a grove of Sandalwood, slender trees with profusions of tiny deep green leaves. A row of Australian Acacias, with curly brown seed pods inside which hid black seeds wrapped in a startling yellow scarf.  A Gulmohar that carpeted the ground beneath it with thousands of orange orchid-like flowers. And my favourite: a towering Peepul, under whose branches stood a tiny white tumbledown temple. At the center of the farm, Raintrees canopied so much ground that it took my eight-year-old legs half an hour to walk from one edge of the shade to the other. In her gardens, my grandmother had a shaded square for ferns, and a dark green pond in which guppies flashed their jeweled tails amongst the water-weeds. Indoors, every table, cabinet and shelf held a vase, bowl or tray of flowers cut from the beds outside.

At home, we had Silk-cotton with buttery-yellow blossoms and a wild almond and a laburnum. We even had a sort of strange, out of place Pine, that someone had rescued from a Christmas tree shop and planted. It grew twenty feet high. Outside my bedroom window, a shrubby Raat RaniQueen of the Night—had ghost-pale, star-shaped flowers that filled the darkening garden with perfume in the evenings. I had a tiny patch for myself, and into it I crowded ferns and a climbing vine that frothed with strawberry-pink flowers. My father called it the ice-cream plant. We grew vegetables one year, all along the perimeter wall, and every summer we planted flowers for the butterflies. Decades later, when we moved, we carried the trees with us, and every precious bulb, bush and creeper. They flower now in my mother’s new garden and we know them as old friends.

To garden is to knit oneself into the earth. The longer you know a garden, the closer the knit, and the finer the patterns you can see.

To garden is to knit oneself into the earth. The longer you know a garden, the closer the knit, and the finer the patterns you can see. On my hands and knees amongst the flowerbeds, I saw startling forests of moss, like bright emerald pine in miniature. The birth of velvet-smooth black caterpillars that fed on the monsoon crocuses. The funeral processions of crickets lying on their backs, their arms neatly folded, being carried off to the underworld by ants. The more I gardened, the closer I came to the mud. Nose-level, until I could smell it. Dirt under my fingernails, inside my pores, and in my blood too, after I decided to stop washing every cut. (Sorry, Ma).

As we gardened, my grandmother, my parents, and I, I think we found ways to conjure up new patterns on our patches of land. We made shade against the white-hot sky; we drew in birds and flowers, butterflies, moths and bees. We perfumed the night with star-shaped flowers. That is a form of wizardry. And perhaps, that is why I have often heard it said, of untamed plots or open countryside: There is nothing there. There were two ways we talked about unfarmed, unplanted places: either as grand wilderness, where we’d have a picnic or go on holiday, or as a wild waste. But I think there’s another way. Nature is also knitting, all the time, everywhere. There is no nothing.

***

I spent ten years going up the lane to the scrub-plot. I saw it in all weathers and at all times of day.

I spent ten years going up the lane to the scrub-plot. I saw it in all weathers and at all times of day. Without the constant stream of a garden hose or the attentions of any gardener the plot stayed dry most of the year. Where I grew up in India, we use dry to mean dead.

But this land was not dead.

What grew?

A group of short thorn trees, which I now suppose were Indian Acacia. A stunted Karvanda—Conkerberry—bush, amongst whose thorny green foliage grew sour berries, ruby-red when raw. Under every crumple of rock, using what water I can’t imagine, the tiniest flowering plants emerged in a palette of rust and gold. You’ve seen them too. Tiny yellow flowers, green or rust-coloured leaves like clover, creeping along the ground. They grow everywhere on land that was once disturbed, then abandoned.

At sunset, the dry grass was turned suddenly into a wash of honey and caramel. My favourite time, a sudden throwing back of the veil of the day in a flash of gold, before everything turns blue. I watched these things for many hours, doing absolutely nothing.

And that, I think, is what people really mean when they say there’s nothing there. They mean nothing is going on there.

And I think about that often. Not once did it occur to me to transfer some of my fevered gardening onto the scrub-plot; to make a flower bed, plant seeds. I knew how. But I didn’t want to. Nor did I ever take my nature journal, a constant companion when I walked through the farm. What I saw in the garden and field, I spoke of and wrote of.  I named, labeled and drew. I dried, pressed and catalogued. I traced bark patterns and the outlines of leaves and stuck feathers next to pictures of birds, and once I took three days to try to draw the mouse skull I found under an owl’s tree-burrow (no good, that sketch. I kept the skull though).

On the scrub-plot, there was no name, no rank, no serial number.

But on the scrub-plot, there was no name, no rank, no serial number.

Instead, there were palettes and canvasses, large and small. There was the sunset gold-dust hanging over everything. Or blue mist curving around the thorn trees early on winter mornings. When I lay back on the rocks there was an open sky, un-fringed by friendly trees. But there was comfort too. I fell asleep often, against a gently rising rock in the middle of the plot. I frequently woke with my arms around it. A habit I shudder at today, after I have learnt about cobras and kraits and scorpions, all of whom I’m sure habited my plot but strenuously avoided me.

Coming from a world of greens and bright flowers, I was surprised at how fiercely I came to love the palette of pale sand, grey grit and gravel, exposed rock, dry grass and dusty sage. The colors of ringed doves, and sparrows, and a dozen other pale birds with backs of grey, silver, fawn and camel.

Behind the walls, in the neighbours’ gardens, was another world, where English ferns grew in moss-crusted terracotta pots. Even orchids, in hanging baskets. And I loved them. But I also loved this world, here, with those nameless thorn trees and that baked earth that scalded my hands.

***

To sit for long enough on a scrub-plot is to rest. To rest is to suspend judgment. You just watch. The alchemy of such places is in how just looking becomes enough; suddenly a dusty old scrub-plot turns to gold.

Suddenly a seedling has taken hold that ten years from now will be a tree.

How many scrub-plots there are in the world, great and small! Cracks in the pavement, the borders of parking lots. Abandoned railway stations, and quarries and construction sites. The quietest corner of a garden, where you were too tired to plant, dig and hoe, or even to water. And still, suddenly a seedling has taken hold that ten years from now will be a tree. Some patches last longer than others. In India, legal disputes over some sites can last decades. So in the middle of the city, in the pits where foundation-stones would have been, tiny forests grow.

Photo: Zareen Bharucha

Not all patches are forsaken as wilderness. Some feed families. Thorn-scrub gives fodder and firewood. For some it is the only shelter they can access, to—quite literally—commune with nature. Closer to the curbsides, tiny flower beds can appear, with mint, parsley, and lemongrass for tea. Papaya, banana, pomegranate or lemon trees that sprout on sidewalks will feed anyone who tends them, and we have dozens of sacred trees—usually climax species—that become living shrines by the roadside.

But not all patches can be tended or used. Those where nothing useful grows are Jungli, connoting something both wild and empty. Perhaps, in India, to appreciate them only for their beauty is to betray a deeply privileged upbringing. But there it is. I had the luxury of sitting on Jungli land, and watching it move from gold to blue as the day passed. To me, the scrub-plot formed a magical counterpoint to our gardens, fields and grand landscapes. It was where I was an audience, watching the world forming itself. And with or without me, the thorn-trees grew, and sparrows nested in them. The rocks gathered grains of dust, and flowers grew in them that could not grow on watered ground, and moths drank their nectar.

***

Now, decades later, I read about connection to nature and how to foster an ethic of care. Gardens are vital to this, as is reconnecting people to farms. It is on gardens and farms that most of us have our first encounter with all manner of beings other than human. And many of us have our first sensation of awe when looking up or out into a panoramic landscape. Many of us work very hard indeed just to escape away to an immense openness: a valley from on high, the night sky, swathes of forest, a deep canyon, the murmuring ocean.

Let’s not forget, nature is everywhere and even now it is doing what it does, with or without us.

But let’s not forget, nature is everywhere and even now it is doing what it does, with or without us. What does a weed, flowering in the pavement, or a thorn-forest in a scrub-plot teach?

That there are no empty spaces. Everywhere is filled with the dream of what could grow, slowly coming true.

It is a truism, repeated to the point of banality, that ‘nature abhors a vacuum’. But wait. Do we know what that really means? There are a million little pinpricks, and some great gaping wounds, and all of them are being knitted back together by tiny flowering foot-soldiers. To me, they are what resilience looks like. Just look, really look, at the little thorny thing that is pushing its way through the concrete. Could you do that?

To experience this matters more and more in this world which lies at the brink. We need to see how life constantly  covers over everything with more life. To sit out on a Jungli scrub-plot is to marvel at it, to be heartbroken, a little, over how quickly, how beautifully, how relentlessly, any empty patch is taken over by life. Seen in this way, the thinnest sliver of green and gold, the finest crusting of moss, becomes precious: nature cupping her hands over every tiny ember, and letting a spark take.

Zareen Pervez Bharucha is a Research Fellow at the Global Sustainability Institute (GSI) at Anglia Ruskin University and a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Essex. She leads the Global Risk and Resilience strand of research at the GSI. Her research explores issues of resilience, vulnerability, and climate change adaptation amongst small farmers in India. She also works on the concept of sustainable intensification of agriculture, and has a growing interest in the links between nature and well-being.