The Roles for Indigenous Peoples in Anthropocene Dialogues: Some Critical Notes and a Question

We welcome Kyle Powys Whyte, of Michigan State University, as a guest on the blog . . . click for his bio, or go to the “Who we are” tab.

I bet there have probably been more than a hundred events organized for the purpose of fostering dialogue of all kinds on what meanings and futures are presupposed by the “anthropocene.” I have been to some of them. I even just got some money from a funder to host one at the Department of Philosophy at Michigan State University, where I work. However, at least in the North American context, one observation is not lost on me: I have not heard of any Indigenous society or collective, such as an Indigenous people, Indigenous organization, or Indigenous inter-governmental group, holding their own explicitly anthropocene-themed events. I of course could be wrong (and please plug your work in the comments section if I have missed it). Moreover, complete disclosure, I have heard a couple of Indigenous presenters at Indigenous-organized events title their talks with “anthropocene.” But still.

Scholars including Zoe Todd, Heather Davis, Audra Mitchell, Vanessa Watts-Powless, Donna Haraway, Noah Theriault, Karsten Schulz, Chris Cuomo, among others too numerous to reference here, are making critical and nuanced points about the euro, settler, and other oppressive assumptions guiding various visions of the anthropocene. They also point out the dangers of either disappearing colonial and other systems of domination in these visions or even naturalizing them, as Mitchell points out well. Todd and Davis, in a forthcoming paper project, discuss how the anthropocene becomes an issue for settler populations when they see themselves at risk for the types of harms associated with the landscape-scale terraforming that settler societies forced onto many Indigenous peoples.

Having been engaged in the politics of the anthropocene for about 5 years now, I can definitely identify with much of what the scholars referenced above are describing. Especially since I entered into these dialogues as a Potawatomi scholar working on environmental and climate justice. In this world we live in, there are thousands of topics that get created without the initial leadership or involvement of any Indigenous persons or groups. Yet, in many cases, the outcomes of any actions taken on these topics could affect Indigenous peoples (usually negatively) everywhere. Solar radiation management (geoengineering) is one example. So is the anthropocene, in its many scientific and political meanings. Given more of these topics exist than there are Indigenous persons who have the time to get involved in them or even just respond to myriad invitations to participate, I feel we have to pick carefully what we decide to engage with.

Of course, once we decide to engage in dialogues on a topic that was basically created without our leadership or involvement, it is typical that some of the topic’s initiators have already articulated a number of different roles for Indigenous peoples—roles Indigenous peoples can play in absentia or roles they are strongly expected to play when they show up. Indeed, Indigenous persons usually walk right onto well-scripted plots and stages. Regarding the politics of the anthropocene, I have noticed rather informally, through attending events and scanning publications and having text-message exchanges with various people, that there are at least three roles in anthropocene dialogues that are already scripted for Indigenous peoples. And perhaps these roles are not so different from those Indigenous peoples have been expected to play in their engagement with other environmental topics and environmental movements.

The first role concerns Indigenous invitees to events or publications on the anthropocene. The planners are usually people of other cultures and heritages and are usually beneficiaries, either directly or more circuitously, of the forms of colonialism operative in the places in which they live, work and play. They usually say pretty explicitly that they value Indigenous invitees as disruptors of prevailing academic theories and scholarly tendencies regarding the anthropocene. Indigenous engagement is wanted, then, to help throw dialogues into disarray, to trouble them, or, in some cases, to affirm that some non-Indigenous approach to the anthropocene is itself disruptive of whatever the prevailing approaches are (since Indigenous peoples are there!). So Indigenous persons are disruptors or affirmers. I have been in situations where some scholar states that the anthropocene discourse is forcing some people to grapple with a worldview fusing society and nature, and then references how Indigenous peoples viewed the world this way all along through their “nature-cultures.” That statement is the cue for the Indigenous reps to say something, as the audience shifts their glances toward them.

A second role I have seen out there is more subtle—but not really that subtle. Many conservation scientists use the anthropocene terminology as part of their making compelling cases for why the focus of conservation should change. Instead of preserving “islands of the holocene” through roping off wilderness (i.e. areas no humans can disturb) via national park policies and stopping the occurrence of all species’ extinctions, conservation should work more to balance the needs and goals of human societies in relation to rapidly changing ecosystems as well as urban and other highly transformed landscapes. People in this camp sometimes use Indigenous peoples’ embattled relations with wilderness—and national parks—oriented conservationists to reveal the their opponents’ misanthropy and disregard for humans as integral species in ecosystems. So Indigenous peoples’ are the skeletons in the closets of conservationists who seek to protect islands of the holocene.

Yet, Indigenous peoples’ roles in these polemics are limited to being skeletons as they do not come up in other instances. For example, when some of the same conservation scientists (see previous link again) seek to argue against the idea that all species extinctions, from the passenger pigeon to the American chestnut, are bad for ecosystem functions, they do not reference the layered histories of colonially-driven incursions into Indigenous territories that harmed Indigenous peoples and increased the species’ vulnerability to extinction in the first place. So in these debates it is acceptable to argue that an extinction does not affect ecosystem function without considering (or even referencing) the impacts to Indigenous peoples who may have related to the species and who endured the colonial processes leading to up to the species’ extinction. A curious disappearance.

In other literatures—and many readers probably knew this role was coming somewhere in this piece—we see Indigenous peoples’ roles figuring in narratives that the rest of humanity needs Indigenous peoples’ wisdom, whether that comes from Indigenous peoples’ voices or from archival studies of Indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples’ histories of adaptation in the holocene could teach the rest of humanity how to adapt to disruptive ecological changes in the anthropocene. On this view, the holocene is taken to be a period of time characterized by human adaptation to disruptions.

On another view, Indigenous peoples are among the last populations who have knowledge of harmonious human-environmental relations of the holocene. This is related to the view that Indigenous peoples’ ecological knowledges depend on holocene ecosystems. As these ecosystems go away, so does (now) “humanity’s” knowledge of sustainable practices. So here Indigenous peoples play the role of holocene survivors both in archival and living senses of that term. Archival information about Indigenous adaptation to change in the holocene could help guide the rest of humanity; or living Indigenous peoples today are the last groups depending on holocene environmental conditions, which grounds both Indigenous wisdom but also Indigenous vulnerability.

My point in positing my informal observations on these pre-scripted roles is just to leave the readers to reflect on what the implications of them are for the involvement of Indigenous peoples in anthropocene dialogues. In my experiences, sometimes readers react to these kinds of comments by retrenching assumptions that dialogues about the anthropocene are not for Indigenous peoples. On the one hand, that is a bad reaction.

On the other hand, people have to grapple with an unavoidable reality that high stakes mega-concepts, such as the anthropocene, are discussed in contexts located at a galactically far remove from the everyday work of thousands of Indigenous peoples and persons (and this just counts North America) to maintain persisting relationships and create emerging relationships with plants, elements, animals, landscapes and insects in rapidly changing ecosystems—from the Menominee Tribe’s sustainable forest in the Great Lakes region and the Nisqually Tribe’s salmon fishery in the Pacific Northwest to Ojibwe scholar Megan Bang’s work to create place-based science learning environments for Indigenous students and Standing Rock protector LaDonna Brave Bull Allard’s organizing to defend the treaty rights, water, and cultural integrity of her Tribe against the Dakota Access Pipeline. I have tried to build awareness of this type of work in my own writing.

Indigenous peoples are no less likely than others to hold their own dialogues interrogating the presuppositions of various concepts; “climate change” has certainly been one of them. But in the absence of Indigenous peoples themselves finding value in creating our own dialogues on the anthropocene, what value for us does our participation as disruptors, affirmers, skeletons, and holocene survivors—or any other pre-scripted roles—really have? I’m asking.





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