An End to White Supremacy14 Indigenous Voices on Power and Resurgencescroll down arrow

Photo by Matika Wilbur for Project 562

The Disruption of White Supremacy

Why Colonialism is Failing Right on Time

Matika Wilbur, right, and her mother, Nancy, from the Swinomish tribe.

Melba Appawara from the Northern Ute Tribe, born in 1932, is grandma to many beautiful bear dancers. Photo by Matika Wilbur for Project 562

Imagine the end of the United States. It could happen like this: California secedes over a Trump-era order that is a total affront to the state’s citizens. Perhaps people would take to the streets after the federal government sends teams from the Justice Department to close the new marijuana stores and to impound the cash. And by “teams” I mean a military force. Think Standing Rock a thousand times over. Or, the people rise up after a deadly immigration clash, a brutal round-up of human beings that is offensive to every Californian. There are so many things that could spark action: an intractable fight over water, women’s health, oil and gas, and on and on. And what if the Trump administration figures California has a right to go? The nationalists have done the math and know that without California’s electoral votes, the 2020 election will not be a contest. President Donald J. Trump wins re-election.

Mark Trahant

Mark Trahant is a YES! guest editor for this issue. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock tribes. He writes regularly at Trahant Reports. @TrahantReports

That’s not just fantasy. It’s a possibility because we are so divided by our thinking on religion, diversity, immigration, education, work, and, especially, what to do about climate change. And stoking those differences is our nation’s “colonial” mentality, a political domination by the most wealthy, their companies, and their government. The result is white male rule at a time when the country is demographically more diverse than ever. So the logical result is for people on both sides of that divide to say “enough” and go their own ways.

An interesting question remains: Would the end of the United States end colonization and our current oppression of people of color? Or would another version of superiority just take over, one more chapter in a long-running story about power and race?

From the Editors

The Decolonize Issue

“How white allies can dismantle white supremacy is probably the crucial social issue of our current time. White people have the power and the privilege, and nothing will change until we change it.”

Cover of YES! Issue 85

After Standing Rock awakened so many to the idea of decolonization, YES! editors decided to present an issue that explored the extent to which ending economic, cultural, and racial oppression is possible. What movements are countering the colonialist power structures? What’s working to support self-determination? We turned to Indigenous writers and photographers to tell those stories.

Mark Trahant is our guest editor. He’s been a journalist for 40 years. He asks us to consider decolonization more in terms of disruptive forces.

Colonialism is a framework that we think of as forever. It has many names: Pax Romana, the British Empire, Ancien Régime, Manifest Destiny, “Corporations are people, my friend,” hegemony, oligarchy, and white supremacy. These are forces of near absolute power (or so they seem at the time) that have been with us for much of human history. But history also shows how things can change quickly.

Disruption is a force that redefines the norm and brings innovation. Exactly what we need right now.

The best journalism explores “what if?” What would it take for humans to meet the challenges of justice and climate? A more inclusive, democratic path that recognizes global citizenship is the only reasonable answer. The United States is only 4 percent of the world’s population yet consumes so much more than its share, exerting colonial power as if only it matters. What if … that’s no longer the case? What if … the world governs itself as if the planet (and its future) matters? The systems of the past are incapable of bringing us together to solve the problems of today. We need to bury the rule of a few over the many.

The stories in this issue describe what that could look like and how it might be accomplished — how it is being accomplished — and what justice and self-determination would mean not only for the world’s Indigenous people, but for all the people.

Return to the story

Consider how short each wave of colonial hegemony generally is: a few hundred years. That’s only an instant.

Rome was arguably the first global empire. It lasted five centuries until it collapsed from divisions from both within and outside. Every empire thereafter thought it was fine-tuning the use of power and its treatment of Indigenous people for advantage.

Spain conquered the Americas and tapped unbelievable resources only to unravel in two centuries. Internal critics such as Bartolome de las Casas witnessed and wrote about the genocide and cultural rot that infects a conquering power. He described how the 16th-century native population of Hispaniola (the island that is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) dropped from some 3 million people to a couple hundred. And for what purpose? Land and resources for cheap.

The British Empire later did the Spanish better, adding white superiority and a rigid class structure to the concept. The Americans learned from the British.

Greed and superiority go together in what we think of as colonialism.

Sinéad Talley (Karuk and Yurok)
Sinéad Talley (Karuk and Yurok)

“It’s taken a long time for me to get outside of the blood quantum construct of thinking. I’m low blood quantum, and my family was disconnected for a while before we came back to the river. It’s been a returning process. Learning more about history and the fact that blood quantum is a European concept and that’s not how Native people determined who was a community member and who was not helped. When it comes down to it, blood quantum doesn’t mean anything. It’s your connection to place, it’s your kinship ties and how involved you are in the community. It has a lot to do with a lot of things, but indigeneity doesn’t have to do with blood quantum. You can know that and you can feel that, but they’re two different things. For me it’s taken a long time to feel that.” Photo by Matika Wilbur for Project 562

It’s that presumed white superiority that is the rot that undermines American democracy. It is why Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million people do not get a say, a vote, in that process. The 690,000 people living in the District of Columbia have no representation. These are American citizens by law and second-class citizens in practice. Yet only 585,000 citizens of Wyoming get two senators and the power over the lives of others that comes with that representation.

What happens the day Californians wake up to that contradiction? It’s not just Wyoming. You would have to total 22 of the smallest states to match California’s population; reasonably, its population should result in a total of 44 votes in the powerful Senate compared to two. I know the argument is that the United States is not a democracy but a republic. Regardless, a 22:1 voting ratio is not defensible in any conversation about self-governing.

So after a California exit, who might leave next? Why not neighboring allies Washington and Oregon? States in the Northeast?

It could happen fast. The end of the Soviet Union (only 74 years old) was a political shift so sudden that historians now describe the sequence of events as an instant. But the fissures were present long before collapse. The disruption should have been expected.

“Disruption” is an important word to add to a discussion of ending colonialism. It explains the sudden — and not-so-sudden shifts in history — in a way that “decolonization” alone does not. Disruption is what we need to free ourselves from the economic, racial, and cultural oppression that is colonialism’s legacy.

Colonialism, manifest destiny, and hegemony largely chronicle the push and pull between the rich and the poor. “Disruption,” on the other hand, does not have an ideology.

Of course, colonialism has many names. In the United States, “manifest destiny” works as a stand-in for the political, economic, and cultural exploitation and dominance over Indigenous people. And “colonialism” gets messy when you consider the rise of Spanish-speaking people in the Americas. Some of that history stems from colonialism, but there also has been an incorporation of diverse thinking that includes Native language and concepts. For example, food. Authentic Mexican food is largely Indigenous, not Spanish.

Colonialism, manifest destiny, and hegemony largely chronicle the push and pull between the rich and the poor. “Disruption,” on the other hand, does not have an ideology. It’s simply a sudden and dramatic shift from what was considered the norm.

The Indigenous people of North America have experience with great disruptions. There is growing evidence that my ancestors hunted mastodon in the Great Basin some 14,000 years ago. When the massive animals went extinct, the people had to adapt. Later my Shoshone and Bannock people hunted buffalo. And salmon. Disruption was followed by innovation.

A similar story is found starting around 1100 in today’s Southwest, where Ancient Pueblos built extraordinary cities, some on the sides of sandstone cliffs. But there was a disruption of some kind. And by the 1400s the people had moved to the Rio Grande region. An entire civilization, tens of thousands of people, moved and built a remarkable trading network. The Pueblo trade expanded greatly because of their new geography. Disruption. Innovation.

So it was an existing 1,800-mile trade route linking the Rio Grande Valley to Mexico City that the Spanish just tapped when they arrived. The world changed, of course, when the Spanish claimed credit for that trade and appropriated just about every other Indigenous idea from food to place names. The success of colonialism required superiority; therefore, the white story goes like this: There is no way that Indigenous people could have successfully managed that disruption and innovation. The very nature of colonialism requires the erasing of the real story of 10,000 years of strength and resilience, forcing invisibility on Native people.

But deception like that only works when a colonial framework is seen as invincible. The entire system falls apart when the folks running things can no longer pretend they know what they are doing, even with military force to back them up.

For me, that explains Standing Rock.

Wahatalihate (He Made it Warm) Daniel Clay Stevens (Oneida)
Wahatalihate (He Made it Warm) Daniel Clay Stevens (Oneida)

Osk nu·tú (deer) is considered the leader of the animal kingdom. Wahatalihate’s mom, Stephanie, explains: “Shukwayatisu gave us the deer for sustenance. Oneida people used all parts of the deer. The deer are peaceful animals, and it is understood to have peace in our hearts and minds when we eat venison.” Photo by Matika Wilbur for Project 562

That disruption story began without much notice and with only a few people. The Sacred Stone Camp was established as a place of prayer by LaDonna Brave Bull Allard in April 2016. Then a 500-mile run organized by young people let the Army Corps of Engineers know that Natives did not want the Dakota Access oil pipeline constructed across their lands and water. When that didn’t work, those young people ran 2,000 miles to Washington, D.C., and the idea of stopping the pipeline, the idea of disruption, grew quickly.

By summer, thousands of people across the country felt compelled to travel to the camps near the Missouri and Cannonball rivers. Many stayed for weeks and months and participated in small Native-led communities. There was a moment, one that will be carried forward, where people there and people watching wondered, “Why can’t the world be like this?”

The hashtag #StandwithStandingRock was more than a social media meme. It was an idea that connected the world to a story about the end of colonialism. It was a call for a new world.

The colonial reaction was swift and violent because of that. The police state was an expression clinging to the status quo. Oil now flows through that pipeline, and much of the world has moved on. Those in government and industry, enriched by colonialism’s requisite white supremacy and subjugation, remain disconnected from the millions that seek a more just framework.

That disconnection cannot last, not with climate change.

The disruption that is global warming is something that politicians can only pretend to ignore. Every day, headlines reveal the new world. Some are seemingly benign, such as winters on the Bering Sea where the sea ice arrives later in the season and remains thin. One elder told me he almost lost his son when he fell through ice while hunting. Other headlines are more obvious: monster hurricanes, December wildfires, flooding on a scale that’s nearly incomprehensible. Some 600,000 people displaced in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal.

The scale of migration that is ahead, and inevitable, will be the current version of the Ancient Pueblos’ move to the Rio Grande. Residents of entire cities, islands, regions will be forced to find new ground.

How will the world’s people come together to meet the challenge of climate change? It’s a global problem, and the possible solutions will require a kind of cooperation colonial states are not equipped for.

Recently, headlines have focused on colonialism’s social failings, its patriarchy. Well-dressed and high-powered sexual predators are not new. Hollywood studio executive Darryl Zanuck was infamous for his casting couch in the 1930s. And in politics there was a collective look-the-other-way for men like Clarence Thomas or Bill Clinton. It was acceptable (even if unfathomable) to have a secret fund that used tax dollars to settle with victims.

Clearly the colonial system, which is white-male-centric, is incapable of the leadership we need for our species to confront climate change.

The world in which powerful and wealthy men live by special rules is falling apart. The December resignation of Sen. Al Franken, who has been on the right side of most gender issues, says a lot about this changing narrative. Apologies are no longer enough. Actions will be judged. As New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said: “Enough is enough.”

Perhaps we can extend that idea beyond punishing sexual exploitation, to changing dramatically who leads us. White men have run things for a long, long time. What if disruption of colonialism brings about a new governance, where women lead at least as often as men?

Clearly the colonial system, which is white-male-centric, is incapable of the leadership we need for our species to confront climate change. We need collaboration, not command and control. We need a variety of voices. We need new thinking. We need her.

After one of the resignations of a powerful media figure — Mike Oreskes? Matt Lauer? It’s hard to remember which one now because there have been so many — I took to Twitter to suggest that the media be recreated without the patriarchy. What if women of color finally got their turn? Disruption.

Indigenous knowledge is essential for the innovation that follows disruption. Our people have a history that is rich with stories about survival. We have been tested on conquest, the loss of our lands, our foods, our languages, our ways, and yet we are still here.

Even American ideas of democracy come from Indigenous knowledge. There was no such thing as a political affiliation such as “states” in the 17th century. That was something learned from the Iroquois Confederacy. The first Europeans noted Indigenous political processes were mostly decentralized, consensus-based, and inclusive. Of course, colonizers warped that idea. Instead of a confederacy of equality, the United States opted for a system that preserved colonial power. Instead of a democracy where every citizen has a say, the American model favored the economic power of the few.

But disruption is happening.

Isabella and Alyssa Klain (Diné)
Isabella and Alyssa Klain (Diné)

we will not rest
hoping is not enough
our resilience shall prevail

together we rise
our ancestors always behind us

Poem and photo by Matika Wilbur for Project 562

The Alaska village once called Barrow is now called Utqiagvik, thanks to an initiative led by Inupiaq young people. The name change for the place where people gather roots was first voted on by the people in the community and has since been codified by the state. (According to the Anchorage Daily News, “Say it this way, with guttural back-of-the-throat sounds for the representative “k” and hard “g” in the middle: oot — kay-ahg — vik.”) The paper pointed out that Nunapitchuk, formerly Akolmiut, changed its name back in 1983, and in 2000 the village Nunam Iqua replaced Sheldon Point.

My Facebook feed is full of people reclaiming their own traditional names, reflecting Diné, Shoshone, Hopi, Lakota, Tlingit, Haida, Athabascan. I see morning greetings in Bannock. I see social media finding a way to say there is a world that should be.

The food sovereignty movement is another story of reclamation. The Navajo Nation enforces a soda tax and works to end food deserts. Tribes such as the Tohono O’odham and the Blackfeet have turned to traditional diets to fight obesity and diabetes. Chefs like Sean Sherman in Minneapolis are reinterpreting Indigenous foods to pre-reservation times. (Forget frybread — it’s a colonial feel-good.) Sherman’s new book, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, promotes the idea of “free groceries,” where Indigenous foods are accessible and everywhere. Nuts, berries, wild rice, maple, rabbit, duck, goose, bison, venison, turkey, quail, walleye, trout. Other culinary advocates serve ancient lines of corn, kernels that are deep blue or red.

I don’t mean to be overly optimistic.

Even as colonial systems are failing, people in power will not give up easily. They are rushing to develop and drill and extract in Alaska, in the oceans, on federal reserves and near national parks, even near the Ancient Pueblo villages. Their urgency is a reflection of will. The colonialists know their time is up. That is why the excesses of the Trump administration reflect a parody of intellectual discourse. But here’s the thing: The more Trump and the colonial mindset bully the rest of the population, the more likely people will revolt.

Are we the generation that will end colonialism? And what does that look like?

Perhaps that means a new country. Or perhaps it’s time for a global structure that recognizes a planetary crisis. We do know this: Colonialism is ill-suited for this challenge. We need democratic institutions that share power among diverse people and reflect the range of life on Earth. We need disruption and innovation.

Mark Trahant

Mark Trahant is a YES! guest editor for this issue. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock tribes. He writes regularly Trahant Reports. @TrahantReports

“I’m dreaming about a modern world that doesn’t erase its Indigenous intelligence”

Matika Wilbur, right, and her mother, Nancy, from the Swinomish tribe.

Matika Wilbur, right, and her mother, Nancy, from the Swinomish tribe.

It is important to understand that decolonization is a physical action and that since the creation of the United Nations, over 80 countries have decolonized; which is to say, in over 80 nations, oppressive domination has been dismantled — colonial rule has left the building.

Matika Wilbur is a visual storyteller from the Swinomish and Tulalip tribes and creator of Project 562. She has spent five years on the road aiming to photograph over 562 federally recognized tribes with the goal of accurately portraying contemporary Native Americans.

I try to imagine that kind of dismantling happening here in our homeland. I imagine a Handmaid’s Tale scenario where power is drastically overturned by Indigenous brethren. I see fire and destruction. I see the worst kind of Mad Max or zombie apocalypse that climaxes with 90 percent of our current population gone. The cost of this shift would be so devastating and tragic, it seems anti-American to even imagine it.

But the truth is it’s already been actualized; and it happened here — on this soil, to my people. For some, it was only four generations ago that over 90 percent of our relatives experienced that kind of genocide.

Native America might always feel the grief from that loss because colonial disruption is still here and its violence permeates every aspect of American culture and politics. Every aspect of our lives suffers from this violent structure.

Sometimes I sit in modern spaces and try to imagine a “United States of Tribal Nations.” I imagine that the music overhead would be by a well-known Native hip-hop artist, and I’d shake my head because it lacks the substance of my generation but at least it would be relevant. I try to imagine what it would be like to grow up in a modern longhouse surrounded by my closest friends and relatives at every meal. I wonder if our people would be less lonely. Maybe I would have had the opportunity to know my own “coming of age” ceremony, and at a very young age I’d have purpose and meaning instead of adolescent rage. Maybe we would be driving hydro-powered cars. Maybe corporations wouldn’t have human rights. Maybe ownership of land would look different. Maybe there would be shoe stands to clean my moccasins in the airport. There definitely wouldn’t be a blood quantum; we’d all belong. I imagine that 95 percent of the population would look like me. I imagine walking into spaces where I’m not the only Indian. Maybe our people would be healthier. Maybe I wouldn’t have known alcoholism or trauma or abuse. Maybe there would still be a thousand variations of grasses on the prairie, and buffalo would still have space to roam. Maybe we would have intricate trading systems between the Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee, Pomo, and Miccosukee. Maybe the fish wouldn’t be dying from agricultural runoff. Maybe our children would grow up with fathers.

But these maybes aren’t enough.

So I focus on what I can do.

I become an Indigenous mental abolitionist.

And you can, too.

That begins by imagining that our Indigenous ancestors’ belief systems are worthy of saving. Michael Yellow Bird and Waziyatawin in For Indigenous Minds Only: A Decolonization Handbook say, “Only then will we be positioned to take action that reflects a rejection of the programming of self-hatred with which we have been indoctrinated. We will also learn to assess the claims of colonizer society regarding its justification for colonization and its sense of superiority. When we regain a belief in the wisdom and beauty of our traditional ways of being and reject the colonial lies that have inundated us, we will release the pent-up dreams of liberation and again realize the need for resistance to colonization.”

I keep having these recurring dreams where I’m on a plane or train and all the people around me, Native and non-Native, are speaking different Indigenous languages. I hear Paiute, Lashootseed, Diné, Catawba, and they’re feeding their babies wild rice and smoked fish. I’m dreaming about a modern world that doesn’t erase its Indigenous intelligence, but rather embraces the rich complexity of Indigenous culture.

This can be actualized if we all bring our hearts and minds together. The land we walk on is Indian Land, whether it be suburban cul-de-sacs or city streets. There are echoes of Indian existence all around us. It’s up to us to listen.

Matika Wilbur is a visual storyteller from the Swinomish and Tulalip tribes and creator of Project 562. She has spent five years on the road aiming to photograph over 562 federally recognized tribes with the goal of accurately portraying contemporary Native Americans.

What Standing Rock Gave the World

Americans saw the Indigenous struggle — the violence, stolen resources, colluding corporations and governments — that goes hand in hand worldwide with protecting the earth.

Winter at Oceti Sakowin Camp

“Winter at Oceti Sakowin Camp,” November 2016, Cannon Ball, North Dakota. Photo by Josué Rivas

At the height of the movement at Standing Rock, Indigenous teens half a world away in Norway were tattooing their young bodies with an image of a black snake. Derived from Lakota prophecy, the creature had come to represent the controversial Dakota Access pipeline for the thousands of water protectors determined to try to stop it.

Mark Trahant

Jenni Monet is an award-winning journalist and member of the Pueblo of Laguna in New Mexico. She spent months embedded at Standing Rock and was arrested during her coverage of the final days of the raids. She is executive producer and host of the podcast “Still Here.”

It was a show of international solidarity between the Indigenous Sami and the Lakota. “They got tattoos because of the Norwegian money invested in the pipeline,” said Jan Rune Måsø, editor of the Sami news division of Norway’s largest media company, NRK.

Rune Måsø said the story about the tattoos was just one of about a hundred that his team of journalists covered over the course of the months-long pipeline battle in North Dakota. One of them, “The War on the Black Snake,” was awarded top honors at a journalism conference held in Trømsø in November. That story revealed large investments Norwegian banks had made to advance the $3.8 billion energy project, spurring a divestment campaign by the Sami Parliament.

The backstory can be told simply. As early as April 2016, Indigenous activists protested the pipeline’s threat to the Standing Rock Sioux’s primary water supply, the Missouri River. While battles were fought in federal courts, representatives of hundreds of Indigenous groups from around the world — the Maori, the Sami, and the Sarayaku, to name a few — arrived. Temporary communities of thousands were created on the reservation borderlands in nonviolent resistance against the crude oil project. Police arrested more than 800 people, and many water protectors faced attack dogs, concussion grenades, rubber bullets, and, once, a water cannon on a freezing night in November. Last February, armored vehicles and police in riot gear cleared the last of the encampments. Recently, investigative journalism by The Intercept has documented that the paramilitary security firm TigerSwan was hired by DAPL parent Energy Transfer Partners to guide North Dakota law enforcement in treating the movement as a “national security threat.”

Oil now flows through the pipeline under the Missouri.

But this Indigenous-led disruption, the awakening resolve that was cultivated at Standing Rock, did not dissolve after February. Rather, it spread in so many different directions that we may never fully realize its reach. The spirit of resistance can easily be found in the half-dozen or so other pipeline battles across the United States. Beyond that, the movement amplified the greater struggle worldwide: treaty rights, sacred sites, and the overall stand to protect Indigenous land and life.

To be sure, post-colonization has always demanded acknowledgment of Indigenous autonomy. It’s what spurred months of international advocacy when Haudenosaunee Chief Deskaheh attempted to speak before the League of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1923. He wanted to remind the world that European colonizers had honored Iroquois Confederacy nationhood upon entering treaty agreements under the two row wampum.

The stand at Standing Rock, then, was not anything new — just more modern.

Google the words “the next Standing Rock” and you get a smattering of circumstances, mostly posed in the form of a question: Bears Ears, Line 3, Yucca Mountain. “The Next Standing Rock?” the headlines ask.

The story of White Clay, Nebraska, is indicative. When the last tipis came down at Standing Rock, Clarence Matthew III, a middle-aged Sicangu Lakota man better known by his camp nickname, Curly, spared little time migrating to the South Dakota–Nebraska border. There, another fight for justice was mounting, for families living on the neighboring Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. This one focused on a decades-long dispute over beer sales targeted at Native American customers mostly prone to alcohol addiction.

Demands turned to broader issues: investigation of dozens of unsolved crimes in White Clay against Native Americans. “Once we got down there, they started telling us about the problems they’ve had, more than just alcohol, the murders, the rapes, and everything that was on the bad side of that alcohol problem,” Matthew said. “It just broke my heart to hear all that.”

Matthew had been caretaker of one of the main communities at Standing Rock, and he settled right in at Camp Justice at the edge of Pine Ridge. He was there with his “water protector family,” others who have adopted camping as an active form of protest.

Last prayer at the sacred fire

“Last prayer at the sacred fire,” February 2017, Cannon Ball, North Dakota. Photo by Josué Rivas

For all the momentum that the resistance at Standing Rock brought, the Indigenous rights movement in the 21st century faces increasing challenges. Tribal nations tread cautiously under the administration of Donald Trump. Internationally, the militarized protection of extractive energy projects and theft of land persist, despite glaring media attention paid to the rising number of Indigenous peoples killed or jailed for their activism in the face of it.

In a final push for re-election last fall, Standing Rock’s Dave Archambault II gave what would be his last interview as chairman to tribal radio station KLND. Archambault used the airtime to speak matter-of-factly about how the movement had shifted the tribe’s potent public image away from the reservation. “It used to be cool to be Indian; now it’s cool to be from Standing Rock.

“This movement was significant, not just for Standing Rock, but for all of Indian Country and around the world. We made some noise and now we’re starting to see other Indigenous communities rise up and say, Let us all speak now, and it’s pretty powerful and moving,” he said.

Less than a week later and on the same day that the state of North Dakota accepted a $15 million gift from Energy Transfer Partners, Archambault was unseated by former council member Mike Faith, who has said publicly that he believes the overall movement hurt Standing Rock’s economy and neglected daily life for tribal members.

The difference of opinion between the two leaders is a conflict that often lies at the heart of tribal community: protecting the Earth or protecting the Indigenous peoples.

On the eve of Thanksgiving 2017, when the Keystone pipeline ruptured and spilled 210,000 gallons of oil in neighboring South Dakota, the newly elected Faith remained notably silent while water protectors responded with outrage, most loudly, closest to home.

“Ironically, this week most Americans will be sitting down and giving thanks when last year at this time my people were being shot, gassed, and beaten for trying to keep this very thing from happening,” Chairman Harold Frazier from the neighboring Cheyenne River Sioux tribe said in a statement. Like Archambault and other tribal leaders, Frazier was arrested for participating in the Standing Rock occupation.

Leadership in the Indigenous world is not only a difficult balance, but also dangerous.

In Honduras, activist Bertha Zuniga Cáceres is fighting for Indigenous rights in one of the most militarized regions in the world. She is the daughter of Berta Cáceres, the Indigenous Lenca woman who was assassinated after leading a successful campaign to halt construction of the Agua Zarca Dam. Now she is seeking justice for her mother’s death.

The 26-year-old Cáceres is also campaigning to suspend all U.S. military aid to Honduras. In July, she survived an attack by a group of assailants wielding machetes. Just weeks earlier she had been named the new leader of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, the nonprofit organization formerly led by her mother.

“Many organizations, many NGOs, many Indigenous groups are struggling in how to sustain the work that they are doing in the face of these attacks,” said Katharina Rall, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Woman warrior

“Woman warrior,” February 2017, Cannon Ball, North Dakota. Photo by Josué Rivas

Last year, after the military-style assaults on the camps at Standing Rock, Human Rights Watch expanded its agenda to include a program focused on the environment as a human right. “The fact that we now have an environment and human rights program at our organization is a reflection of this reality that a lot of people face,” Rall said.

Meantime, the organization Global Witness reports that it has never been deadlier to take a stand against companies that steal land and destroy the Earth. In 2016, the watchdog group found that nearly four activists a week are murdered fighting against mining, logging, and other extractive resource development.

As disturbing as this reality is, it is unsurprising then to recall the military-style violence at Standing Rock: the rows of riot police pointing their guns at unarmed activists standing in the river; tanks shooting water in freezing temperatures at a crowd of people gathered on a bridge. In this one regard, Standing Rock was not unique in the world. It had become crucially important. Americans saw the global struggle faced by the estimated 370 million Indigenous people — the violence, stolen resources, colluding corporations and governments that go hand in hand with protecting the Earth.

Sustaining this awakening is the next great task.

Climate change poses one of the most serious reminders of why the sacred fires ignited at Standing Rock must continue to burn: Indigenous peoples and their knowledge and value systems matter.

At November’s COP23 climate conference in Bonn, Germany, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim was dressed in traditional Mbororo regalia when she stood in a conference hall demanding that Indigenous knowledge systems be properly acknowledged in Paris Agreement negotiations. The girl who once tended cattle in the region of Chad bordering northeastern Nigeria has now become a bridge for her people and government officials making decisions impacting the fragile ecosystem of Lake Chad, the lifeline for the Mbororo.

“Traditional knowledge has kept us from century to century to be in harmony with Mother Earth,” Ibrahim said. “These knowledges will make for all the difference, but we cannot wait years and years, because climate is changing, and it’s impacting the Earth.”

Other members of the Indigenous Caucus at Bonn say inserting traditional knowledge into the climate talks doesn’t go far enough. Jannie Staffansson, a representative of the Saami Council, wants what Chief Deskaheh had petitioned to the League of Nations nearly a century earlier: sovereign recognition for Indigenous Peoples on an international scale. It would allow equity at the negotiating table — a level playing field to fairly deal with the consequences of a warming planet in the face of land grabs and natural resource extraction.

“Why is it always that Indigenous peoples need to pay for other people’s wealth?” said Staffansson. She paused to check the Snapchat account she had been using to engage with a young Sami audience while at COP, a demographic similar to the teens who got tattoos of the black snake.

“I had friends that went to Standing Rock,” said the 27-year-old. “I was envious of their trip to support self-determination. Self-determination and a just transition is what we have to take into account.”

“We need climate justice in everything we do.”

Mark Trahant

Jenni Monet is an award-winning journalist and member of the Pueblo of Laguna in New Mexico. She spent months embedded at Standing Rock and was arrested during her coverage of the final days of the raids. She is executive producer and host of the podcast “Still Here.”

“Decolonization starts inside of you.”

Sacred Connection

“Sacred Connection,” August 2016, Cannon Ball, North Dakota. Photo by Josué Rivas

Colonization, at its core, is about creating separation, separation among people and separation from spirit and our connection to the Earth. Humans have been taking more than we need, and we haven’t been giving enough back.

Decolonization starts inside of you. It is a lot about finding compassion and kindness, and less about anger and fear. We should remember that it begins with an internal process of healing and reconciliation. Once we find that peace, then we will be able to move forward and unify as peoples. We must remember that we are all related.

At Standing Rock, we saw a new vision of what it means to be human. The fire and the water were our tools for healing. It was not just a protest; it was an awakening for all of us to return home, back to where our spirit lives in harmony with our past and present. In that way, we can have a healthy future.

The real front lines are within.

Josué Rivas

Don’t Just Resist, Return to Who You Are

Let’s re-experience our homelands the way our ancestors did and regenerate that culture.

When we talk about colonization, we tend to think of brutally stolen land, racism, broken treaties, boarding schools. Those are things that happened. Those are the well-known things that shaped the relationship between Indigenous people and the settler society on this continent. But what was the deeper and lasting impact of those things on nations of Indigenous people? Alienation, separation, disconnection.

Colonization is disconnection from the land, from ourselves, and from our culture. The felt manifestation of this disconnection is the alienation that we feel as a result of being caught between two worlds, not being able to live authentic lives. That is why it’s absolutely necessary to continually remind ourselves: It is all about the land.

To decolonize, we need to reclaim the sacred spaces of our traditional territories. Rename those spaces to sever the emotional and intellectual ties of colonially imposed names and restore the full histories and ancient significances embedded in Indigenous languages. Reoccupy to create a sense of community and purpose and to regenerate our traditional cultural practices. Find a way to give our younger generations access to the lands and waters that are their birthright. Restoring this connection is the crucial task of our survival.

Our ancestors didn’t fight and die for American or Canadian citizenship. They didn’t fight and die in wars against people who came to take their land and steal their children in order to be just like everybody else. They fought to live fully as Mohawks and Gitxsan and Salish. But when the wars were over, they suffered generations of genocide. Who are we to turn our backs on the vision of nationhood that our ancestors endured so much to preserve?

It’s not easy to be continually in a position of struggle. Resistance is psychologically and physically exhausting. You are always up against something, fighting against intrusion, pushing back against all kinds of violence. Being in a position of resistance for so long has made it a part of our collective personality, our cultures. We define ourselves as being in resistance mode. And in doing so, we have neglected who we are.

The recent recognition of this problem is what has led to the idea of Indigenous resurgence.

Resurgence builds on the idea of resistance and deepens the understanding of decolonization. It is a way of thinking and being and practicing politics that roots resistance in the spirit, knowledge, and laws of our ancestors. It links pushing back against oppression to cultural restoration and healing practices at the individual, social, and national levels.

This is not to say that straight-up resistance is no longer necessary, or even that there’s no value in moderate efforts at reconciliation or action on any point along the political spectrum. But it is not enough to just reform or push back. We also need to focus on the core of our existence, maintaining the fire of our nations and our families. It’s our language, our ceremony, our relationship to each other. It’s our bonds of communities, the things we do together. It’s the trust that we have. Maintaining that fire, and keeping that fire strong is the most important thing we need to do in order to continue to exist as Onkwehonwe, Indigenous peoples.

This kind of existence is rooted in place, particular territories defined by unique webs of relation between plants and animals and spirits and people. These unique spiritual and social environments are our homelands, and our deep connection to them defines us. This is why return of our lands and the restoration of our relationship to those lands are critical.

Let’s begin to relate to our homelands in the way that our ancestors did, and re-experience that, reinvigorate it, regenerate that culture. The things that we experience as wrong in our communities, the gaps that we feel, the wrong we do to each other, all come from not having that relationship to our homelands, or not being able to because of contamination, pollution, displacement. We must focus on reconnection.

The idea of Indigenous resurgence is resonating with young people. Secwepemc women are not just suing pipeline companies, but they are building houses and living in the forest, in the way of pipelines. Wet’suwet’en women are creating networks of support for parents who want to educate their children in traditional culture. People all over the continent are starting language nests, they are confronting misogyny in our institutions, they are reviving traditional body arts.

They are doing these things outside of formal structures because they understand how colonialism infuses all of our institutions. They know that working in resistance mode or in legal battles or in bureaucracies to reconcile our collective survival within the colonial system is futile. Even if you negotiated a legal settlement or self-government agreement addressing an illegality or breach of treaty obligation on the part of the settler society, how does that fundamentally affect the lives of your people? Are your children or your grandchildren going to have a healthier and happier life or a more Indigenous life because of some monetary compensation or increased scope of authority for a tribal government? Not likely, not unless that money or that authority is used to help the people re-root themselves in the land.

The new generation of Indigenous activists have an understanding that is strongly connected to the original vision of our ancestors in their struggle for survival. The generation of people defining our struggle today through movements like ones that are opposing pipelines or trying to achieve justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women understands that decolonization is not something that happens in a courtroom or boardroom or even a classroom. Decolonization means restoring culture and presence on the land — and revitalizing our way of being on the land — and using the strength that we achieve in doing that to confront the forces that seek to oppress and harm our people.

Too, there is a role in Indigenous resurgence for non-Indigenous people. They can play a part in the decolonization of this land simply by disassociating themselves from the privileges that are built into being part of the settler society, softening the stifling grip mainstream society has on Indigenous existences. Forgoing the need to be right, to be in charge, and to possess. Embracing the discomfort of the unsettled existence of an ally committed to the strength and well-being of Indigenous nations.

Just as with the Indigenous people who are defining resurgence through their unscripted creative contention and generative acts of love for the land, there is no template or menu for allyship. For all of us, Indigenous and settler alike, there is only self-questioning and embracing this commitment: Listen to the voices of our Indigenous ancestors channeled through the young people of our nations, learn from Indigenous culture how to walk differently, and love the land as best you can.

Taiaiake Alfred

How the Kashia Got Their Lands Returned

Sacred Connection

The Kashia Coastal Reserve, just south of the Stewarts Point Rancheria. Photo by Terray Sylvester

The Kashia Band of Pomo Indians has called the coast along what is now Sonoma County, California, home for more than 12,500 years. There, the “People from the Top of the Land” occupied lands that stretched out about 30 miles along the coast near Fort Ross and about 30 miles inland.

Like many California tribes, the Kashia were violently removed from the best portions of their lands during the formation of the U.S. In 1915, the U.S. government allocated 41.5 acres of nearly waterless land, of which only 12 acres were buildable — and none directly on the coast — as the Kashia’s reservation. But in 2015, 688 acres of ancestral land on the Pacific Coast were returned.

“We’re a coastal people,” says Kashia Chairman Reno Keoni Franklin. In summer, the Kashia traditionally collected seaweed, abalone, mussels, and urchins from coastal villages. Winters were spent upland, where they hunted and gathered foods, medicinal plants, and basketry materials.

After the allocation of their reservation, the tribe’s access to the coast was restricted. “We had to ask permission to go to our gathering places,” Franklin says. “That was a big hurt for us.” At first, people who lived along the coast were understanding; then newer owners cut off access. “Only one or two landowners would allow us to go out,” Franklin says. “We were losing our ability to go to our lands.”

So the tribe made a plan: purchase a nearly 700-acre property from a family with whom the Kashia had a longtime relationship. That family, the Richardsons, had lived there since 1925. They “were the ones who always said yes to access requests,” Franklin says. “They came to us and said, ‘We want to sell it, but we’d rather [sell] it to you.’”

But the non-gaming tribe had few resources, so it partnered with Trust for Public Lands to work through the process of acquiring the land, securing funding, and ensuring the tribe would hold the deed. And through negotiations with Sonoma County and the California Coastal Commission, easements were granted for the tribe to perform management and rebuild traditional roundhouses on the property. The approval of those easements was “a righting of a wrong when the land was taken from the people,” Franklin says.

Today, the Kashia Coastal Reserve is owned and managed by the tribe. Franklin believes this to be the first time that a tribe in the U.S. has held a private deed — as well as management rights — to their ancestral lands. The key to success was identifying and forming relationships with entities that respect the Kashia’s rights. Franklin hopes this experience could serve as a model for other tribes.

“When we bring elders out to the property, even my own grandmother, they ask me, ‘Do we need to get permission to go out to the property?’ I tell them, ‘No, we own this property — people have to ask us for permission to come here.’ The impact of that realization will be felt for generations.”

A Coastal People

At right, Laila McCloud of the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians and her mother, Kayla Pinola

At right, Laila McCloud of the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians and her mother, Kayla Pinola, explore the Kashia Coastal Reserve.

The Richardson home

The Richardson home is seen on the Kashia Coastal Reserve just south of the Stewart’s Point Rancheria on the California coast.

Bill Richardson

Bill Richardson stands on his porch on the Kashia Coastal Reserve.

The Kashia Coastal Reserve

The Kashia Coastal Reserve on the California coast.


Succulents on the Kashia Coastal Reserve.

The Kashia Coastal Reserve

The Kashia Coastal Reserve just south of the Stewart's Point Rancheria.

The Kashia Coastal Reserve

The Kashia Coastal Reserve on the California coast.


Forest on the Kashia Coastal Reserve.


Forest on the Kashia Coastal Reserve.

A meadow on the Kashia Coastal Reserve

A meadow on the Kashia Coastal Reserve.

Members of the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians

Members of the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians pose near the dance grounds on the Kashia Coastal Reserve. Pictured, from left: Laila McCloud, Kayla Pinola, Billyrene Pinola, Chris Elliot, Reno Franklin, Clayton Lokva Franklin.

A Pre-Colonial View of America

Travel in “The New World” Often Misses Its Ancient History.

In 1503, not long after arriving in South America for the first time, Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci wrote a letter to his friend describing the lands (now the Americas) that he had “discovered.” His words, not mine.

Chelsey Luger

Chelsey Luger is a journalist currently based in Scottsdale, Arizona. She is from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. She is the co-founder of Well For Culture, an Indigenous wellness movement.

Mundus Novus, he called it. “The New World.”

The letter became an instant hit in Europe and was published widely in several countries. What followed was an unprecedented thirst for “discovery” of “new” territory and “exotic” people and resources, the age of colonialism. The idea of “old world” versus “new world” stuck and remains a common description of Europe versus the Americas. Several centuries later, here we are. A nation that nearly wiped out its Indigenous population in order to settle wave after wave of Europeans.

Americans appreciate the “old world” history. We’ve all heard friends mention it before: the thrill of seeing “old” buildings in Paris or “ancient” ruins in Rome. It is precisely because of their age that these places remain intriguing to world travelers. The clear consensus is that the U.S. is too new to be interesting. The high-visibility culture and history are post-colonial.

But take a closer look. This may be a young nation, but its Indigenous history is ancient, measured in tens of thousands of years. To ignore this perpetuates the harmful idea that the land was empty. It denies genocide and discredits the countless civilizations and millions of people whose home this was for centuries prior to European arrival. Who are still here.

Whose Land Are You On?

You cannot find a corner of this continent that does not hold ancient history, Indigenous value, and pre-colonial place names and stories.

Read “Whose land?”

Whose Land Are You On?

“You cannot find a corner of this continent that does not hold ancient history, Indigenous value, and pre-colonial place names and stories. And every place we occupy was once the homeland for other people, most of whom didn’t leave willingly.

Whose land are you on? Start with a visit to Native Land is both a website and an app that seeks to map Indigenous languages, treaties, and territories across Turtle Island. You might type in New York, New York, for example, and find that the five boroughs are actually traditional Lenape and Haudenosaunee territory.

On the website and in the app, you can enter the zip code or Canadian or American name for any town. The interactive map will zoom in on your inquiry, color-code it, and pull up data on the area’s Indigenous history, original language, and tribal ties.

The project is run by Victor Temprano out of British Columbia, Canada. A self-described “settler,” he said that the idea came to him while driving near his home — traditional Squamish territory. He saw many signs in the English language with the Squamish original place names indicated in parentheses underneath. He thought to himself, “Why isn’t the English in brackets?”

Temprano emphasizes that Native Land maps are constantly being refined by user input, and he welcomes data submissions. On the website, he also cautions about the nature of mapping. “I feel that Western maps of Indigenous nations are very often inherently colonial, in that they delegate power according to imposed borders that don’t really exist in many nations throughout history. They were rarely created in good faith, and are often used in wrong ways.”

Reorientation to the Indigenous perspective, though, just might offer an entirely new way to experience this continent. — Chelsey Luger

Return to the story

In the interest of resource extraction, President Trump last year slashed two of Utah’s best known landmarks by 2 million acres. Perhaps if more Americans understood how sacred Bears Ears is to the Navajo, Hopi, Ute, Hualapai, Shoshone, and Pueblo peoples — that’s a huge number of tribes — the land wouldn’t be at risk of destruction today.

There’s a movement to hold on to ancient place names. Trump has stated his desire to reverse Obama’s decision to rename Mount McKinley to Denali (“the high one” in the Koyukon language), the name local Athabascan people have used for thousands of years. Trump has said the renaming was disrespectful to President McKinley, America’s 25th head of state, who was born and raised in Ohio and had no significant ties to Alaskan territory.

It’s not too late to explore our ancient history, and we can begin by grasping a better understanding of tribal perspectives on landmarks, place names, and the historical people and events that make them significant. A deeper understanding of our lands and the diversity of Native cultures that have occupied them nourishes a collective American culture and gives us all something to be proud of: a history far richer and older than what we learn in our textbooks.

Here are five landmarks significant to Indigenous people but renamed by white explorers. The ancient history of these places is often overlooked and not well known, but like so many places on this continent, they tell stories.


English translation: “The Mountains Emerging From the Earth; Dark, as Seen From a Distance”
American name: The Black Hills

Just outside of the Black Hills in Wyoming, a stunning massive rock formation protrudes 1,267 feet from the earth. It is a sacred place to more than 20 tribes.

The first non-Indigenous record of the site comes from an 1876 book detailing an Army expedition. The writer, an Army colonel, made a mistake in translating the Indigenous place name, Bear Lodge. But the book became popular quickly, and the name stuck. In 1906, Devils Tower became the first official national monument.

The Arapaho, Cheyenne, Crow, Kiowa, and Lakota all maintain varied versions of oral histories surrounding this ancient wonder. The Kiowa version tells of a group of young girls who were out playing when a bear started to chase them. They jumped on a small rock and asked for its help. The small rock then elevated itself hundreds of feet in the air, and as it rose, the bears scratched at it, forming the unique texture of ridges. As the National Park Service points out on its website, non-Indigenous viewpoints might consider this a myth, but a more appropriate acknowledgement of ancient American history would elevate the Indigenous perspectives as historical accounts.

In 2014, the Oglala Sioux Tribe submitted a petition to Congress to correct the name. No action has been taken, although the National Park Service does include the Indigenous name in its literature.


English translation: “Bear Lodge”
American name: Devils Tower

Rising from the Great Plains in South Dakota and extending into Wyoming, the Black Hills have hosted civilizations dating as far back as 11500 B.C.

It has been described as the holy land of the Great Sioux Nation as well as by many other tribes that have revered it. The creation story of Lakota/Dakota/Nakota begins in Khe Sapa. For these nations, it is considered the birthplace of all that is. Indigenous people from many Great Plains nations visit the area to pray, to hold ceremonies, and to pay respects to their ancestors and the traditions they fought to carry on.

In a famous 1980 Supreme Court decision, justices agreed with the Great Sioux Nation and other plaintiffs that the Black Hills had been unconstitutionally seized from Native people. The court said that an act of Congress in 1877 violated the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty and effectively stole 7 million acres for American development.

Justice Harry Blackmun wrote in his opinion at the time, “A more ripe and rank case of dishonest dealings may never be found in our history.”

The courts ordered a cash settlement of more than $105 million. But today, the money still sits in a bank because the Lakota will only accept the return of the Black Hills. As of 2015, interest has brought the account to $1.2 billion. “The Black Hills Are Not for Sale” remains a common saying among Lakota/Dakota/Nakota people, many of whom struggle daily with the poverty and economic development that have plagued their nations since colonialism. Refusing the cash is a testament to just how sacred Khe Sapa remains for Native people.


English translation: “The Rocks That Swirl and Twirl”
American name: Lower Antelope Canyon

“The American name is sort of funny because there were never actually any antelope there,” said Siera Begay, a Navajo citizen and a former guide at this famous landmark located on private property on the Navajo reservation. “What the settlers saw were the North American pronghorn. They mistook them for antelope, and the name stuck. But even those are no longer in the area because of too much human traffic.”

The Navajo, or Diné, now own and operate the tours of Hasdeztwazi, which translates to “The Rocks That Swirl and Twirl” — an apt name for this dreamily beautiful desert gem. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, visit the site each day. For the past three years, staff say, visitation has increased each year. “It’s crazy how popular it has gotten with tourists,” Begay said. “I think Instagram has a lot to do with it.”

Although Begay enjoyed guiding visitors through the canyon, she said she was cautious and entered the area with “good thoughts.” Traditional beliefs, she said, indicate that the canyon is too powerful a place to visit, and that people should stay out for their own safety. It is a matter of both spiritual energy and the practical reality of nature: The canyon was carved out by flash floods, which still pose a risk.

“They say that if you go in with bad thoughts, the bad thoughts might never leave your head,” Begay said.

There are other canyons like it, less popular or even unknown to tourists, scattered throughout the Navajo Nation territory. In the 1800s, when Navajos were being forced from their land by the U.S. government on what would become known as “The Longest Walk,” a treacherous journey on which many people died, some hid in these canyons to avoid capture. Today, the canyons continue to hold significance in the hearts of many Diné.


Yurok / Tolowa Dee-ni’
English translation: Non-translatable
American name: Redwoods

Visitors might look around and see redwood trees, but for the Yurok, Keehl (pronounced “Keesh”) are basically their relatives.

“Keehl are one of our most sacred and valued resources, as we consider these majestic giants to be living beings,” said Rosie Clayburn, cultural resource manager for the Yurok tribe.

“Today, we continue to use fallen trees to build canoes, traditional sweathouses, and many other cultural items,” Clayburn said. “The spirit of these trees eternally exist in these handmade objects, which are constructed with love and a positive mindset. For this reason, we take care of each like they are part of the family.”

For the Tolowa Dee-ni’ people, according to Marva Pete, whose heritage is from several tribes in Northern California, an albino K’vshchu was the first known redwood tree. It is a part of their creation story. She believes that the specific tree that marked the beginning of their history would still be in existence were it not for the area’s heavy deforestation.

Many visitors might associate the forests of Northern California with Smokey the Bear or John Steinbeck, but it is important to acknowledge that Indigenous people are still living there among their ancestors, the redwoods.


English translation: “Almost Red” or “Woman Mountain”
American name: Camelback Mountain

If you travel to the Phoenix metropolitan area in Arizona, you can’t miss Camelback Mountain. As prominent as any urban skyline, its silhouette creates a captivating natural backdrop for the suburban town of Paradise Valley, an upper-middle-class enclave. Professional sports teams like the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals utilize the challenging slopes for training, and 300,000 people hike the mountain each year, making it the most popular urban hiking center. It’s in a Phoenix city park.

But before urban hiking was trendy, before the city of Phoenix existed, and thousands of years before America was a nation, the O’odham people (now commonly known as Pima) were there. They still are.

The English name comes from its shape, which appeared to newcomers as a kneeling camel. No O’odham would have ever seen a camel. The O’odham maintain several different words for the mountain. Some call it “Almost Red,” for its almost-red color, which is a lyric that appears in one of their ceremonial songs. Others call it “Woman Mountain” for its shape when observed from the east.

Much like non-Indigenous visitors, many O’odham are avid hikers. But the O’odham approach hiking Camelback Mountain with perhaps a heightened level of caution and reverence, acknowledging ancient warnings of the power and danger of the beautiful mountains. Each year, emergency helicopters evacuate hikers who approach the mountain cavalierly and underprepared.

Chelsey Luger

Chelsey Luger is a journalist currently based in Scottsdale, Arizona. She is from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. She is the co-founder of Well For Culture, an Indigenous wellness movement.

A poem by Craig Santos Perez

SPAM’s Carbon Footprint II

Winter at Oceti Sakowin Camp

Photo from Tannis Toohey / Getty Images

SPAM was born on July 5, 1937, in Austin, Minnesota — the home of Hormel headquarters and the SPAM museum #cubistartyoucaneat. Eight pounds of SPAM die in every Chamorro stomach each year, which is more per capita than any other ethno-intestinal tract in the world. Motto: “Guam is Where the Impure Pork Products of America Begin!”

Our guttural love of SPAM was born in 1944, when cases of the shiny cans were berthed from aircraft carriers. That fateful day when my grandparents first tasted SPAM is commemorated as the Feast Day of the Immaculate Consumption. St. Hormel, pray for [us]. The rest of the story is a gestational genealogy, a delicious cycle. Sadly, military recruiters are now worried that young Chamorros have become too unhealthy and obese to enlist in the armed forces.

My food philosophy is simple: I eat therefore I SPAM. How can I prove that I’m an authentic Indigenous person and not a SPAM script? At this year’s Hormel SPAM Cook-Off in Guam, the Polish-inspired “Pika Pierogi” ousted the “Crispy Wanton Spam Ravioli” for first place. I’ve eaten turkey SPAM, smoke-flavored SPAM, hot and spicy SPAM, garlic SPAM, SPAM lite, Portuguese Sausage flavored SPAM, and more! When did our lives become so complicated and post-modern? WSFWJE? What SPAM Flavor Would Jesus Eat?

Come closer, closer, and I will whisper to you, in my sexy voice, “Google the SPAM factory’s dirty little secret.” Oooo baby here I am, come rub up on my belly like SPAM jelly, Spam-Spam-Jelly, Spam-Spam Jelly! #mandatorymarley. In the morning, we can bring our SPAM labels to the Sorensen Media Group Offices in Hågatña, and redeem 12 labels for a SPAM shirt and 9 for a SPAM hat. Guam is an acronym for “Give Us American Meat.”

My favorite scene in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (b.1939) is when the tractor driver takes a lunch break near a tenant house and eats his sandwich of white bread, pickle, cheese, and SPAM. The curious, starving children surround the driver, watching his hands carry the SPAM to his mouth.

Once upon spiral time, a Chamorro brother and sister refused to eat SPAM, so their Authentic Chamorro Grandmother banished them into the diaspora and cursed them to a life without meat. The vegetarian siblings migrated to Minnesota, where they opened the world’s first vegan butcher shop and sold meatless meats at farmers markets and pop-up events. They dedicated their lives to creating the perfect vegan SPAM. They tried vital wheat gluten. They tried garbanzo tapioca flour. They tried peanut butter. “The flavor’s good but the texture’s off,” they say in unison. “SPAM is just a difficult whale to catch.” If they succeed, I will never eat it.

Taiaiake Alfred

Guidance from the Past Is Written on Our Bodies

Spirit writing holds a primal power to reconnect us to our responsibilities to each other and to Earth

Arnaquq-Baril, far right, came to the gathering with, from left, Celina Kalluk, Trina Qaqqaq, Gerri Sharpe, and Marjorie Tahbone, Inuit women who have chosen traditional face tattoos.

Arnaquq-Baril, far right, came to the gathering with, from left, Celina Kalluk, Trina Qaqqaq, Gerri Sharpe, and Marjorie Tahbone, Inuit women who have chosen traditional face tattoos. Photo by Mary Annette Pember

It was the Thunderbird Woman image that caught my eye at the Standing Rock water protector camps. As an Ojibwe woman, I immediately realized that the depiction was an example of my ancestors’ ancient spirit writings, or symbols, recorded on birch bark scrolls and on rock faces along the Great Lakes long before Europeans landed in America. Thunderbird Woman, with her winged arms outstretched, seemed to float on the canvases at Standing Rock, portraying a cosmology in which dynamic spiritual forces are depicted internally, as if through an X-ray. Water rained down from her wings and thunderbolts surrounded her head. Her shape was a simple outline, and it was her heart that anchored her image.

Mary Annette Pember

Mary Annette Pember is a journalist who has covered Native American people and issues since 2000. She is a member of the Red Cliff Band of Wisconsin Ojibwe. @mapember

Images like this one represent the resurgence and reclamation of Indigenous art — in this case, spirit writing. And this resurgence isn’t just happening at Standing Rock. The artists of the Onaman Collective are reclaiming and sharing traditional art outside of Standing Rock, too.

Members and supporters of Onaman, based in Ontario, Canada, use art to portray traditional wisdom that serves as a counterpoint to the Western, colonial worldview. And they’re using the symbols in their art as traditionally intended: as guidelines for our spiritual connection and responsibility toward the Earth and each other.

Isaac Murdoch, who created the Thunderbird Woman image, helped found the Onaman Collective. In addition to Murdoch, who’s a member of the Serpent River First Nation Band of Ojibway, Christi Belcourt of the Michif Manitow Sakahihan Nation, and Erin Konsmo of the Metis/Cree Onoway/Lac St. Anne Nations also founded Onaman.

For members of Onaman, spirit writing symbols offer a desperately needed portal through which Indigenous peoples may reclaim and reconnect with their cultures and spirituality. This alphabet of the soul offers insights into the dynamics of the natural world and nuances of human nature, and offers an Indigenous-centered path to health and recovery.

Onaman is an Anishinaabe or Ojibwe word that refers to a red ochre paint also used to clot the blood of wounds. Created by cooking red ochre with animal or fish fat over a low flame for a long time, onaman is both medicine and art.

The members of Onaman coordinate a host of Indigenous activities, including language immersion and traditional arts camps. They also coordinate art builds to address social inequality all over the U.S. and Canada. Recently, Collective members joined Greenpeace in protesting Wells Fargo Bank investment in pipelines by painting a giant image of the Thunderbird Woman at the company’s world headquarters in San Francisco.

Tattooing is one type of symbol-based art that the Onaman Collective is helping revitalize. Over two days last September, Onaman organized an Indigenous tattoo gathering at Nimkii Aazhabikoong camp.

Nimkii Aazhabikoong — “Thunder Mountain” in the Ojibwe language — is a potent example of Onaman’s mission to create a sense of empowerment and unity among Indigenous people that they can, indeed, change themselves and by example, the world.

Located near Elliot Lake in Ontario, Nimkii Aazhabikoong is currently a seasonal culture camp that Onaman members are working to develop into a “forever camp,” according to Belcourt, where people can live year-round. Guided by Indigenous elders, camp participants focus on cultural and language revitalization by creating art and regalia, and by learning traditional cooking and hunting methods. “We are guided by elders, visions, and ceremony in all that we do here,” Belcourt said.

left double quoteSo much of our culture was hidden and shamed for so long. It’s been really empowering and healing to get my tattoos and to see a resurgence of the practice.” — Alethea Arnaquq-Baril

About 100 people joined the camp for the gathering; many got tattoos. Indigenous tattoo artists from the Nlaka’pamux, Anishinaabe, Mi’kmaq, Secwepemc, Inupiaq, Inuit, and Zahuatlán nations traveled to Nimkii Aazhabikoong to share their skills and knowledge. Funding for the artists’ travel, lodging, food, and access to safe places to tattoo was provided by volunteers. An HIV coordinator with the Union of Ontario Indians was on hand to provide information and guidance about preventing infection.

These tattoo artists are part of a movement to reclaim a tradition that, for many tribes, was largely abandoned after European contact.

“We were shamed by the church and government to stop our tradition of tattoo,” said Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, an Inuk from Nunavut, Canada.

Arnaquq-Baril, a documentary filmmaker, explores the history of Inuit tattooing in Tunniit: Retracing the Lines of Inuit Tattoos. In the film, she interviews elders and delves into her own controversial decision to get traditional face tattoos. She attended the gathering with several other Inuit women who have also chosen to decorate their faces with traditional tattoos.

“It wasn’t our decision to give up our traditions,” Arnaquq-Baril said. “So much of our culture was hidden and shamed for so long. It’s been really empowering and healing to get my tattoos and to see a resurgence of the practice.”

“Indigenous peoples had tattoos for warriors, healing, birthing, fasting, and visions. They were based on deeply moving symbols, often associated with pictographs that reflect the spirits that exist in the earth,” Belcourt said.

These symbols, she said, remind us that we are not alone on the Earth and underscore our responsibility to care for the Earth and water.

“Tattooing is one of the latest efforts to rekindle and restore pride and traditional knowledge for Indigenous peoples. The use of art and symbols is the conduit to the spirit of the Earth and the lessons of responsibility taught by our ancestors that predate the Western written word,” Belcourt added.

In some examples of spirit writing — such as the symbols found on wiigwaasbakoon, or “birch bark scrolls” — the messages were likely created by medicine people to describe and instruct in the practice of certain Ojibwe rituals. In other examples — such as petroglyphs etched into rock faces and painted pictographs along the Great Lakes — the symbols may have been intended to foment action and change in response to environmental or other challenges.

Spirit writing symbols and messages have influenced and inspired generations of contemporary Indigenous artists.

James Simon, Ojibwe artist from the Wikwemikong Reserve on Manitoulin Island in Ontario, draws heavily from spirit writing symbols in his paintings. Simon’s work is an example of the Woodland or Legends style of painting that gained mainstream recognition in the 1960s and 1970s. This art is deeply influenced by the symbolism found in spirit writing. Simon describes the symbols he uses in his art as gifts and guidance from the Creator. Simon, whose Ojibwe name is Mishibinijima (“Birch Bark Silver Shield”), makes art that draws on ancient symbols to convey visions, dreams, and spiritual teachings. (Simon is not affiliated with the Onaman Collective.)

Said Simon, who has used this visual grammar in his paintings for nearly 50 years, “Each pictograph or symbol is like a book. Our job is to take time to understand the messages and visions they give us.”

“Our ancestors who made these symbols always put the Earth at the top. But in today’s society, humans are on top. If we don’t listen to the messages instructing us to be caretakers of the Earth, the only thing left of us will be the symbols; humans will be gone,” he said.

There is no cell phone reception at Nimkii Aazhabikoong, so during the tattoo gathering people were free to sing traditional songs, eat, visit, work, get tattoos, and simply be together. There was no agenda for events.

“Our people have been ‘workshopped,’ ‘consulted,’ and ‘agenda-ed’ to death,” Belcourt said.

A rigid program would lose the spirit of an Indigenous gathering, according to Belcourt and Murdoch.

“The white man’s way hasn’t worked for our people; it’s time to turn our backs on those practices and embrace our own way that leaves room for ceremony and whatever else needs to happen,” Belcourt added.

Woman warrior

Mary Loonskin of the Cree Nation decided to get a facial tattoo, three lines on her chin. “I’m sick and tired of being ashamed of being Indigenous,” she said. “With this tattoo I am saying, ‘Yeah, I’m Indigenous!’” Photo by Mary Annette Pember

Another way Onaman counters colonial culture is in its funding. Although Onaman members accept government-sponsored arts funding for some of their projects, they refuse other government money.

Belcourt explained: “It’s a matter of principle and pride; we’re not going to beg money from the same institutions that oppressed us and created many of our problems in the first place. We have to rebuild ourselves in our own way. If we have to make do with less, then that’s just the way it is.”

Mary Loonskin of the Cree Nation traveled to the gathering from Sudbury, Ontario, after learning about it via social media. “Me and my family have been struggling with the fallout from colonialism for decades,” she said.

After her mother, an Indian boarding school survivor, lost custody of Loonskin and her siblings to the Canadian child welfare system, she was raised in an abusive foster home. Loonskin also lost custody of one of her own children.

She found a rideshare to the gathering via social media and joined a group of supportive Native women at the camp. “I came here for healing,” she said.

Loonskin decided to get a facial tattoo, three lines on her chin. “I’m sick and tired of being ashamed of being Indigenous,” she said. “With this tattoo I am saying, ‘Yeah, I’m Indigenous!’”

“When we tattoo, we mark not only our bodies, but also our souls,” Arnaquq-Baril said.

Therefore, artists like Arnaquq-Baril ask that non-Indigenous people refrain from getting tribal tattoos. “I ask that people show respect for our symbols and designs. There are many other ways to honor our culture without appropriating it,” she noted.

To Murdoch, the ancient knowledge and spirituality of Indigenous people is key to leading the way in saving the Earth and its water from the West’s destructive hunger for fossil fuels.

“We are in a time of great upheaval in the Earth,” Belcourt said. She points to the impacts of climate change from burning fossil fuels as well as overharvesting timber, fish, and animals.

“Although we are not on the front lines of pipeline projects here at Nimkii Aazhabikoong, we know that our best defense for the Earth and the water is to pass down our traditional knowledge to our youth,” she said.

Mary Annette Pember

Mary Annette Pember is a journalist who has covered Native American people and issues since 2000. She is a member of the Red Cliff Band of Wisconsin Ojibwe. @mapember

Written on Their Face

Entrance to the village of Thunder Mountain

Entrance to the village of Thunder Mountain, the culture and language camp established on Crown land north of Elliot Lake, Ontario, by the Onaman Collective.

Dion Kazsak

Dion Kazsak, one of the Indigenous tattoo artists, co-founder of Earth Line Indigenous tattoo.

Inuit women from Nunavit are revitalizing and reversing shame of traditional face tattoos.

Inuit women from Nunavit are revitalizing and reversing shame of traditional face tattoos.

Ojibwe woman sings during tattooing.

Ojibwe woman sings during tattooing.

Christie Belcourt and Isaac Murdoch

Christie Belcourt and Isaac Murdoch, co-founders of Onaman Collective.

Women who received their face tattoos were honored.

Women who received their face tattoos were honored.

Mishibinijima, Silver shield man

Mishibinijima (Silver Shield Man), a well known Ojibwe artist, discussed the meaning and importance of spirit wriing symbols in his art.

Tattooing was performed in traditional settings at gathering.

Tattooing was performed in traditional settings at gathering.

Isaac Murdoch wears moose hide shirt created by elders of Nimkii Aazhbikoong

Isaac Murdoch wears moose hide shirt created by elders of Nimkii Aazhbikoong with symbols inspired by traditional Ojibwe spirit writing.


Native and European — How Do I Honor All the Pieces of Myself?

There’s a memory that comes to me like a photo. It’s a snapshot of my mom’s kitchen, the lights dimmed with just the glow of the stove in the background. A line of women, covered in flour, gather together: my grandmas, great-aunts, family from all backgrounds. They read a recipe card from my paternal grandma, mix and roll dough, then pass it down the line to the pierogi molds. My aunt alternates between sauerkraut, potato and cheese, and prune fillings. My maternal grandma seals the dough pockets on a tray. She’s not Eastern European, but her grandkids are — and that’s how we’ve grown up.

With so many traditions within extended family, we all learn from each other.

Within my family circle, I never questioned my identity. I was just a DeVault. Some of my ancestors emigrated to find the American Dream; others have had to defend themselves against its impacts. Some ancestors planted churches; others fled religious persecution.

My ancestors include Shawnee, Anishinaabe, Eastern European, Scottish, and Irish. I’m an enrolled Shawnee who must participate in annual ceremonies as part of my membership; I’ve also participated in Scottish culture, dancing competitively in the Highland Games and celebrating with haggis.

I grew up identifying with all of these pieces of myself.

When I was older, the questions came, which made me question myself. And it wasn’t just questions of tribal blood quantum or how long I’ve lived on a reservation; I’m questioned about my Scottish heritage, as well. People would ask how I could identify with so many backgrounds, if I spoke any of the languages, or if I spent time among those communities. As I study Indigenous research methodologies in graduate school, the question of community belonging resurfaces constantly. I began to wonder how to authentically participate in my heritages when I cannot physically live in them all at once. How can I honor my many identities?

The non-Indigenous members of my family are largely ignorant of my Indigenous cultures, whereas the Indigenous members of my family tend to belong to multiple tribes, including Comanche and Navajo. Sometimes it’s hard to keep the traditions straight. And despite having participated in “Celtic (Gaelic) culture” my whole life, I grew up knowing very little about where those ancestors came from.

In 2013, I traveled to Europe to trace my European heritage. What I found were Scottish and Irish ancestors with experiences similar to my ancestors on this side of the Atlantic. Because the population there is considered white, I never considered their relationship to British colonizers, who perpetuated stereotypes and enforced genocidal policies on the Gaels. In Belfast, I experienced a sterilized Northern Ireland, one meant for the tourists and that doesn’t reveal the gaping wound left by 800 years of British oppression. And in Scotland, I found myself searching for the classic image of untamed Scottish Highlands. Later, I realized this image is a stereotype that served to facilitate British conquest over “savage” lands.

People who leave their communities tend to lose touch with traditions, their language, sometimes the meaning behind what they do. This includes people with Indigenous heritage, non-Indigenous heritage, or both. In fact, looking out across the Scottish Highlands, I could only wonder what had really happened there — and what relationship the people still living there today have with that history. These questions are what led me to explore the histories in my own family — on both sides of the ocean.

It doesn’t matter how many pieces make up my whole; rather, it’s my relationship with those pieces that matters — and that I must maintain. Simply saying “I am this” isn’t enough. To truly honor my heritage, I found I must understand and participate in it.

Growing up, my extended family was the glue that made those pieces work. But now that I am older, the picture of our kitchen is fading. One by one, a relative vanishes from the image as I lose another connection grounding the parts of my whole in reality, in a cohesive mosaic. Without these people and the food rituals we shared, I’ve found myself feeling disconnected from tradition — and the pieces of my identity. Learning about my roots has helped me understand intergenerational trauma and cultural resilience related to my genetics — and now, I think, I must also rekindle my relationship with my family traditions.

I am entitled to my multiple heritages, and I’m beginning to embrace all the corners of the world my ancestors came from, every woman before me who lived, ate, and gave birth.

Kayla DeVault

In the Role of Life-Giver, Women Take Back Power

“We’re just beginning to bring those Indigenous perspectives forward again”

Arnaquq-Baril, far right, came to the gathering with, from left, Celina Kalluk, Trina Qaqqaq, Gerri Sharpe, and Marjorie Tahbone, Inuit women who have chosen traditional face tattoos.

This portrait of Zintkala Mahpiya Win Blackowl and her daughter, Mni Wiconi, was created by Indigenous photographer Tomás Karmelo Amaya on Nov. 16, 2016, moments before a women’s meeting at Oceti Sakowin. Photo by Tomás Karmelo Amaya

What Zintkala Mahpiya Win Blackowl didn’t plan was to have her sixth baby in a tipi on the windy plains of North Dakota during a historic resistance. Thousands of people had gathered for months in camps sprawled along the northern borderlands of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to protest the Dakota Access pipeline. But Blackowl already knew that she would birth her babies outside of a hospital, in the comfort and safety of a sacred space.

Mary Annette Pember

Sarah Sunshine Manning is an independent journalist and an enrolled member of the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes. @SarahSunshineM

“So much of how women experience birth today has to do with how we are socialized,” says Blackowl, 36, whose first five children were born at home with the aid of certified and traditional Indigenous midwives. “We are told that you have to be hospitalized, that doctors know best, and that you can trust them with your life.”

In August 2016, having traveled from her home in Ashland, Oregon, to the Sacred Stone Camp on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation borderlands, she felt overwhelmed by the energy of the movement. Blackowl is Sicangu Lakota and Ihanktonwan Dakota, with origins and ancestral ties in the Dakotas, but she had spent most of her adult life in Oregon and Idaho. “I was pregnant, and I hadn’t been home [to the Dakotas] for 12 years,” she says, “but I saw that I was capable of coming to Standing Rock, and I had a responsibility to provide that support. It was about responsibility to my people.”

When she returned to the resistance camps in the fall, Blackowl was in her third trimester. Early on Oct. 12, while everyone slept, she delivered her daughter alone in her tipi, not long after her husband left to get female relatives. The baby girl was born without complication and in perfect health. She was named Mni Wiconi, “Water of Life.”

The arrival was a momentous event in the camps. But also in the larger Indigenous birth movement as Native American women take back their roles as life-givers and birth-workers and reclaim rights to their bodies, their traditions, and their birthing experiences. Interest is growing, from Indigenous certified nurse midwives — 14 total, today, trained at the the American College of Nurse-Midwives — to mothers educating themselves and choosing to have unassisted births at home.

Though it is impossible to measure the complexity and scale of this grassroots movement, evidence is plentiful. The Facebook page Indigenous Midwifery was launched in December 2013 and has since grown to almost 10,000 followers. Several popular artworks honoring traditional birth and motherhood, most notably by ledger artist Wakeah Jhane of the Comanche, Blackfeet, and Kiowa tribes, have been exhibited at the Smithsonian and the Santa Fe Indian Market.

Since the late 1800s, Native Americans’ lives largely have been dictated by federal government policies designed to stamp out traditions and create dependency on white institutions. Many traditions and ceremonies were outlawed, and families were separated as Native American children were forcibly removed from their homes to be placed in Indian boarding schools, where their language and culture were forbidden. Then, in 1955, the federal Indian Health Service was established to manage the health care of Native Americans. Birth became a medicalized affair and was, more often than not, directed by white male obstetricians.

But that morning in Standing Rock, intersecting movements for Indigenous self-determination and human rights created the backdrop for an extraordinary traditional birth with women at the helm.

“A lot of the time in hospitals, people don’t approach women in a way that says to them that they are the center of the birth, or in a way that gives the woman control,” says Nicolle Gonzales, 36, a Navajo nurse midwife from New Mexico who was nearby when Blackowl gave birth. “When a woman is birthing, it’s her space, and we have to honor that space. But nobody tells you that.”

Gonzales traveled to Standing Rock to show solidarity and to help provide culturally responsive and respectful care for women at camp. While working as a nurse for two years in an IHS hospital in New Mexico, Gonzales recognized a need for better prenatal and birthing care for Indigenous women, and this inspired her to pursue training as a midwife.

Gonzales is a mother of three and the founder and executive director of the Changing Woman Initiative, a nonprofit organization in Santa Fe working to renew Indigenous birth knowledge. The initiative is planning a culturally centered clinic and birth center committed to providing family-centered care where the woman is the decision-maker.

“Indigenous midwifery is not a new thing,” Gonzales says. “It has always been here. We’re just beginning to bring those Indigenous perspectives forward again.”

In the span of just a century on reservations, Indigenous women were stripped of their power as matriarchs, once foundational to their communities — as knowledge keepers, decision-makers, and birth workers. Native American communities overall had been threatened by genocidal government policies from the early colonies to the 1970s. At least 25 percent of Native American women who received care in IHS hospitals were involuntarily sterilized, according to a 2000 American Indian Quarterly report.

But Indigenous women are trying to regain that power. Jodi Lynn Maracle, 33, a traditional doula from the Tyendinaga Mohawk nation, says the effort is fivefold. “We talk about reclaiming language, and ceremony, and tradition, but it’s also about reclaiming our bodies and our relationship to our bodies, especially as women.”

Maracle is mother to a 3-year-old boy. She is a doula with training from the Seventh Generation Midwives in Toronto and from the Six Nations Birthing Centre. She is pursuing a doctoral degree at the University of Buffalo in New York, centering her research on Haudenosaunee midwifery and birth work.

“During the boarding school era, there weren’t many choices for Indigenous people,” Maracle says. “Today, there are so many choices. I think the empowerment is just in having people say that you have a choice.”

For women who choose to have their babies in hospitals, there are still ways that they can incorporate traditions. Simple adjustments can be made during birth: singing traditional songs; facing the bed toward the east, where the sun rises; squatting versus lying down; or cleansing the area with sage or other traditional medicines. The key is for women to ask a lot of questions and to educate themselves as much as possible about their options before, during, and after birth.

Yet reaching back to traditions, or decolonizing birth, is not so straightforward in many Indigenous communities. Some tribes have fewer teachings intact today, and it may not be as simple as asking an elder. Women may have to consult historical records or reach out to sister tribes, and above all, re-establish a relationship with their bodies and intuitive power as women.

After the births of each of her children, Blackowl chose to root her newborn babies to the physical world by burying their placentas in the ground — a tradition tied to Lakota/Dakota birth. During the Standing Rock resistance, Blackowl buried the placenta that nurtured Mni Wiconi near the place of her birth, at the height of a movement for Indigenous self-determination.

Mary Annette Pember

Sarah Sunshine Manning is an independent journalist and an enrolled member of the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes. @SarahSunshineM

“Above all else, I am kanaka.”

Zintkala Mahpiya Win Blackowl

Photo from Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu

Kanaka is the term for Native Hawaiians. And what does it mean to be mahu? It just means that I am myself. Gender identity is secondary for me. I’m not trying to put myself out there as a warrior for the LGBT cause. Instead, I’m putting myself out there as a Native Hawaiian, living in my homeland, standing up for the diaspora of things that require vigilance and attention in our community. The only reason why I wear the label mahu is because I’m surrounded by Americans. When I wear that label, I’m reminded that I am a Native in an illegally occupied country. Yes, the word mahu describes elements of my sex and gender. But it’s not about being mahu. It’s about being kanaka.

The Western perspective on sexuality and gender expression is unhealthy for my people. Transgendered people are diagnosed by a doctor and, somewhere along the course of their lives, labeled as having gender dysphoria. And I don’t understand the purpose of that: to say that you have some sort of disorder or that you’re confused? That’s not a Native perspective on gender expression. Or there’s this idea of “coming out.” Hawaiians don’t come out: We simply exist.

Aloha supersedes anger, and aloha allows us to always have a commonality, regardless of our politics or gender expression.


Let’s be Honest, White Allies

The resilience of settler power and privilege gets in the way of meaningful action.

Indigenous environmental movements in North America are among the oldest and most provocative — from the Dish With One Spoon Treaty between Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee peoples to the Mni Wiconi (“Water Is Life”) movement of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. As a Potawatomi environmental justice advocate, I often get asked by other environmentalists in the U.S. to share my views on what they can do to be good allies to Indigenous peoples. The askers usually identify themselves as being non-Indigenous, white, and privileged. They are U.S. settlers: people who have privileges that arise from the historic and ongoing oppression of Indigenous peoples.

Kyle Powys Whyte

Kyle Powys Whyte is the Timnick Chair in the Humanities, associate professor of philosophy, and associate professor of community sustainability at Michigan State University. He is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

Whether one participates in settler colonialism is not entirely a matter of when or how one’s ancestors came to the U.S. Having settler privilege means that some combination of one’s economic security, U.S. citizenship, sense of relationship to the land, mental and physical health, cultural integrity, family values, career aspirations, and spiritual lives are not possible — literally! — without the territorial dispossession of Indigenous peoples.

How then can settler allies move beyond being sympathetic beneficiaries of colonialism? What approach is legitimately decolonizing?

The resilience of settler privilege is a barrier. Gestures toward allyship can quickly recolonize Indigenous peoples. Some people have tried to create bonds of allyship by believing that Indigenous wisdom and spirituality are so profound that Indigenous people have always lived in ecological harmony. This is the romantic approach. Other allies have tried to create solidarity through claiming that Indigenous and non-Indigenous environmentalists should not distinguish their efforts. In this view, environmental issues threaten us all, and we should converge around common problems that affect all humanity, instead of wasting dwindling time on environmental racism. This is the same-boat approach.

The romantic approach assumes that lifting up Indigenous wisdom and spirituality constitutes action. But this approach does not necessarily confront ongoing territorial dispossession and risks to health, economic vitality, lives, psychological well-being, and cultural integrity that Indigenous people experience. This is why scholars Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang say decolonization is not a metaphor. Yet, the empathetic responsibility to support others’ self-determination and well-being is a major lesson in many Indigenous environmental traditions. Subscribers to the romantic view are unprepared to respond to criticisms of supposed Indigenous hypocrisies, like the alleged contradiction of tribally sanctioned coal industries. Responding to these critiques requires an understanding of colonialism, yet some romantics are unwilling to take the time to learn how the U.S. forcefully reengineered tribal governments to facilitate extractive industries. This understanding is key if one’s goal is to undermine the levers of power that undermine Indigenous self-determination and well-being today.

The same-boat approach also misses the colonial context. The conservation movement has been as damaging to Indigenous peoples as extractive industries. National parks, ecological restoration projects, conservation zones, and even the uses of certain terms — especially “wilderness” — are associated with forced displacement of entire communities, erasure of Indigenous histories in education and public memory, economic marginalization, and violations of cultural and political rights. Though certain sectors of conservation have improved greatly, newer movements, such as the international UN-REDD+ Programme, still repeat harms of the past. Almost every environmental achievement in the U.S. — such as the Clean Air or Clean Water acts — has required Indigenous peoples to work hard to reform these laws to gain fair access to the protections.

A decolonizing approach to allyship must challenge the resilience of settler privilege, which involves directly facing the very different ecological realities we all are dwelling in. Sometimes I see settler environmental movements as seeking to avoid some dystopian environmental future or planetary apocalypse. These visions are replete with species extinctions, irreversible loss of ecosystems, and severe rationing. They can include abusive corporations and governments that engage in violent brainwashing, quarantining, and territorial dispossession of people who stand in their way.

Yet for many Indigenous peoples in North America, we are already living in what our ancestors would have understood as dystopian or post-apocalyptic times. In a cataclysmically short period, the capitalist–colonialist partnership has destroyed our relationships with thousands of species and ecosystems. Zoe Todd and Heather Davis characterize the ecological footprint of colonialism as seismic. The ongoing U.S. colonial legacy includes forcing Indigenous peoples into grid-like reservations that empower corporations and private individuals to degrade our territories; fostering patriarchy and conditions for sexual violence in Indigenous communities; brainwashing Indigenous children through boarding schools; and brainwashing everyone else through erasing Indigenous histories and experiences across U.S. culture, education, and memory.

The 6th World

The 6th World

So Indigenous people awaken each day to science fiction scenarios not unlike the setup in films such as The Matrix. Yet in Indigenous science fiction films, such as Wakening and The 6th World, the protagonists are diverse humans and nonhumans who present unique solutions to daunting environmental problems. They are not portrayed as romantic stereotypes or symbols of a common humanity. They do not presuppose naive notions of Indigenous spirituality. They see environmental protection as possible only if we resist the capitalist–colonialist “matrix” of oppression and build allyship across different human and nonhuman groups. These films differ greatly from, say, Avatar, where the protagonist is a white male who passes as Indigenous and uses romantic Indigenous wisdom to save everyone. Indigenous people learn to ignore his difference, embracing a common foe together.

These films differ greatly from, say, Avatar, where the protagonist is a white male who passes as Indigenous and uses romantic Indigenous wisdom to save everyone.

Decolonizing allyship requires allies to be critical about their environmental realities — and about the purpose of their environmentalism. To do this, allies must realize they are living in the environmental fantasies of their settler ancestors. Settler ancestors wanted today’s world. They would have relished the possibility that some of their descendants could freely commit extractive violence on Indigenous lands and then feel, with no doubts, that they are ethical people. Remember how proponents of the Dakota Access pipeline sanctimoniously touted the project’s safety and that it never crossed tribal lands? On the flip side, when more sympathetic (environmentalist) settler descendants lament the loss of Indigenous wisdom without acting for Indigenous territorial empowerment; buy into the dreams and hopes of settler heroism and redemption in movies like Avatar; or overburden Indigenous people with requests for knowledge and emotional labor yet offer no reciprocal empowerment or healing — then they are fulfilling the fantasies of their settler ancestors.

Nobody can claim to be an ally if their agenda is to prevent their own future dystopias through actions that also preserve today’s Indigenous dystopias. Yet how many environmentalists do just this? I do not see much differentiating those who fight to protect the colonial fantasy of wilderness from those who claim the Dakota Access pipeline does not cross Indigenous lands. Indigenous environmental movements work to reject the ancestral dystopias and colonial fantasies of the present. This is why so many of our environmental movements are about stopping sexual and state violence against Indigenous people, reclaiming ethical self-determination across diverse urban and rural ecosystems, empowering gender justice and gender fluidity, transforming lawmaking to be consensual, healing intergenerational traumas, and calling out all practices that erase Indigenous histories, cultures, and experiences.

Perhaps these goals and values are among the greatest gifts of Indigenous spirituality and wisdom. I want to experience the solidarity of allied actions that refuse fantastical narratives of commonality and hope. Determining what exactly needs to be done will involve the kind of creativity that Indigenous peoples have used to survive some of the most oppressive forms of capitalist, industrial, and colonial domination. But above all, it will require that allies take responsibility and confront the assumptions behind their actions and aspirations.

Kyle Powys Whyte

Kyle Powys Whyte is the Timnick Chair in the Humanities, associate professor of philosophy, and associate professor of community sustainability at Michigan State University. He is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.