“Emotional impacts of environmental decline: What can Native cosmologies teach sociology about emotions and environmental justice”

Kari Marie Norgaard and Ron Reed. 2017. Theory and Society, vol. 46, pp. 463-495.
This article extends analyses of environmental influences on social action by examining the emotions experienced by Karuk Tribal members in the face of environmental decline. Using interviews, public testimonies, and survey data we make two claims. We find that, for Karuk people, the natural environment is part of the stage of societal interactions and a central influence on emotional experiences, including individual’s internalization of identity, social roles, and power structures, and their resistance to racism and ongoing colonialism. We describe a unique approach to understanding the production of inequality through disruptions to relationships among nature, emotions, and society. Taking seriously the experiences of Native people and the importance of the natural environmental offers an opportunity to extend sociological analyses of power and to move sociology toward a more decolonized discipline.

View Northward from North Overlook of the Illinois River

In the Cherokee language, a river can be referred to in ceremonial contexts with the name yvwi ganvhida (ᏴᏫ ᎦᏅᎯᏓ), which breaks down into “long” (ganvhida) and “person” (yvwi).  The river is the long person that travels through the land, connecting people, plants, and animals, carrying and creating life-giving and life-transforming power.  In ancient and contemporary Cherokee spiritual and environmental practices, the river is one of the key relational sites of healing, knowledge, and transformation.  Describing the river as a site is quite an oversimplification though, since as Standing Rock Sioux philosopher Vine Deloria Jr. has articulated, Indigenous people regard nonhuman relatives as “people in the same manner that various tribes of human beings are people,” including in many cases “plants, rocks, and natural features that Westerners consider inanimate” (Deloria 1973, 88-89).

In this article, Norgaard and Reed foreground this perspective of Indigenous people, in the voices of Indigenous people as they articulate their experiences and feelings.  The essay begins with the voice of one Karuk person who speaks of the “spirits in every living thing and the rocks and the soil and the river.” The salmon is not “just a piece of food,” this person continues. Rather, “it is a living spirit, like the spirit of a person.”  Beginning with this perspective allows these authors to view Indigenous perspectives on environmental decline through the lens of personal relationality, rather than as an abstract issue of environmental changes and general harms that arise from such changes.  The emotions described by those Karuk who speak in this article express a loss of something much more than resources, livelihood, habitats, species, and the like.  Reed puts it this way: “You can give me all the acorns in the world, you can get me all the fish in the world, but it will not be the same unless I’m going out and processing,… harvesting, gathering myself.” Quoting Brave Heart and DeBruyn, the authors note that since “land, plants, and animals are considered sacred relatives, . . . [t]heir loss becomes a source of grief” (1998, 62).

Understanding the nature of these emotions within the framework of the embodiment of power, oppression, and resistance is the challenge these authors take in this essay.  Using ideas drawn from Native American and Indigenous studies scholarship, environmental justice research, and the sociology of emotions, they describe the importance of emotions as embodied expressions of knowledge and social power.  

American Progress

John Gast, “Spirit of the Frontier,” Autry National Center [Public domain]

In the context of Native American and Indigenous studies scholarship, the key concept is “settler colonialism,” which according to Wolfe and others frames the reality for Indigenous people in settler states like Australia, the United States, and Canada.  The form of colonialism is permanent, according to Wolfe and others, and is focused around the acquisition of land rather than mere resource extraction.  The permanent nature of this form of colonialism means, according to Wolfe, that the colonial invasion is “a structure rather than an event” and it “undergirds the historical development and complexification of settler society” (Wolfe 2006, p. 402).  Wolfe proposes the term “structural genocide” to describe the ongoing nature of invasion as a foundational component of contemporary settler society (403).

The combination of the sociology of emotions scholarship with the settler colonial structural framework allows Norgaard and Reed to investigate the manner in which the natural environment influences the emotions of Karuk people but also how Karuk people, like many other Indigenous peoples who live within the settler state structure, understand the processes of environmental degradation as operations of ongoing colonial violence.  Using in-depth interviews with Karuk tribal members, responses to open ended survey questions, and archived testimonies, the authors identify various emotional responses to the natural environment and its decline.  For example, tribal members “vividly expressed emotions of joy from being in nature and grief, anger, hopelessness, and shame from the decline of the Klamath River.” (474)

Part of the power of this kind of sociology of emotion work is that it provides reflective space to enrich decolonial and environmental justice research.  Decolonial theorists have identified how emotions like guilt and shame operate to inscribe colonial power, but also how emotions like anger and resentment can inspire deep forms of resistance to colonial power (Fanon 1963, Coulthard 2014, Alfred 2009).  The combination of this kind of sociology of emotion research with a foregrounding of Indigenous environmental cosmologies provides a powerful framework for a new kind of environmental justice scholarship and practice.

In that spirit, I concur with the authors when they say: “may the Karuk and all Tribal People achieve full sovereignty over their relationships, lands, and spiritual practices.” (490)



Alfred, G.R. 2009. Peace, power, and righteousness: An indigenous manifesto. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Brave Heart, M.Y.H., & DeBruyn, L. 1998. “The American Indian Holocaust: Healing historical unresolved grief.” American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health Research, 8 (2), 56-78.
Coulthard, G.S. 2014. Red skin, white masks: Rejecting the colonial politics of recognition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 
Deloria, V. 1973. God is Red: A Native view of religion. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing.
Fanon, F. 1963. The wretched of the earthNew York: Grove.
Wolfe, P. (2006). “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research, 8(4), 387-409.


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