To Implicate Ourselves

Two books that are shifting the discourse to dialogue

Heather Menzies

From Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life: A Tar Sands Tale (MIT Press) by Matt Hern and Am Johal

It was a breakthrough for me to learn that Indigenous treaty negotiating and re-negotiating sessions, including with Europeans in the 1700s, customarily opened with a ritual round of condolences – mutual admission and expression of regret at the oh-so-human failings behind them. I began to imagine how differently carbon reduction treaty talks would turn out if they started this way.

To me, the difference this makes is huge. Dialogue as the medium of treaty making shifts the positioning of the bodies involved: from a posture of individualized up-down hierarchy to a sideways-looking one of equality. It brings treaties and treaty negotiation down off a pedestal, closing the distance between the rarefied realm of public policy and everyday life. And it turns the discourse involved into something looser and more inclusive, a dialogue with all its give-and-take. No one is the expert, has all the answers or the perfect plan. Both parties simply seek to hear and be heard.

That’s why I was particularly excited to read the two books I review here – they shift the discourse on important topics like climate change and social justice from an author-as-authority-driven exposition to a more open and personal dialogue. One, Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life: A Tar Sands Tale, has the three authors admitting to being “carbon pigs” and, equally important, admitting to the blinkered thinking they’ve inherited (both as university-trained intellectuals and colonist-settler and immigrants), as they embark on a road trip to Fort McMurray to take on the contradictions of resource-extraction “development.” The other, Speaking of Indigenous Politics, is based on a series of probing, wide-ranging radio interviews between an Indigenous activist-academic and broadcaster, J. Kehaulani Kauanui, and a range of activist intellectuals and academics, most of them Indigenous themselves.

Speaking of Indigenous Politics

Speaking of Indigenous Politics: Conversations with Activists, Scholars and Tribal Leaders,
J. Kehaulani Kauanui, ed. University of Minnesota Press. 369 pp.
ISBN 978-1-5179-0478-4  $25.95

The subject matter here ranges across a host of themes, most of them playing out in the everyday lives of the interviewees. Some examples: Legal advocate, lawyer, and author Sarah Deer (Muscogee Nation)’s work addressing the ongoing sexual violence against native women and the related sexualized racial profiling and the predatory patterns of assaults. The Anishinaabe-initiated wind power being generated on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota that, as author and community activist Winona LaDuke relates, has helped to fund a school and a radio station there. The struggle to see the enactment of Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990, so that the material remains of Indigenous people and communities would no longer be treated as merely artifacts of a dead people, but be honoured as an integral part of a living heritage.

The vanishing, dead, or extinct Indian is a recurring theme in this readable treasure trove of transcribed radio conversations. As Dakota author-activist Philip J. Deloria realized when writing Playing Indian, the long tradition of white people dressing up as Indians in the US (dating back to the Boston Tea Party) was all about Europeans taking over the “native” identity to demonstrate that they were American, not British. While their reconstructed image of the Indian (i.e. as costume; as rituals in men’s groups like The Improved Order of Red Men) prevailed in popular culture, actual Indigenous ways of being, of living on this earth – alternatives to the modern way of competitive, extractive, acquisitive individuality – were being obliterated. Historian Jean M. O’Brien (Ojibwe) pursues this too in her conversation with Kauanui, talking about efforts to “just immerse Indian people by force into the capitalist economy,” and also to undermine and prevent the expression of Indigenous alternative versions of modernity.

Aileen Moreton-Robinson, who describes herself as one of the original “salt-water people” of Australia, unpacks a related supremacy around whiteness in Australia, and how this has served to keep white people’s stories at the centre. Through her writing and activism, she’s pushing back, and speaks hopefully about an emerging Australian Studies in which “white studies” begins with “the epistemological premise of Indigenous Sovereignty.” The closing chapter, featuring a self-described “Gubbah” or white guy in Australia offers some hope for this healing historical revision.

Here the conversation is with Patrick Wolfe, author of the highly unsettling 1999 book Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology, who matter-of-factly tells his talk-show host that Europeans went to Australia “to replace Aborigines and themselves become Australians.” The Aboriginal Peoples’ job is to disappear, if not by dying out, then by assimilation. The desired outcome, he’s come to understand, is “eliminating the alternative, prior Native presence.”

Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life: A Tar Sands Tale

Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life: A Tar Sands Tale,
Matt Hern and Am Johal, with Joe Sacco.
MIT Press. 216 pp (including index)

ISBN: 9780262037648 $19.95

Matt Hern and Am Johal have followed a similar path to Patrick Wolfe’s, though their attempt is to politicize the fields of ecology and environmental studies, rather than anthropology. Self-described settler immigrants (Hern a fourth generation settler, Johal the child of immigrants from post-partition India), they begin by sitting down with one of Canada’s finest Indigenous scholars, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. And they listen as she tells them that asking whether development is sustainable is posing the wrong question, implicitly admitting the biasing tendencies of their thinking, and springing themselves free of the author-as-authority trap.

Next they team up with long-form graphic journalist Joe Sacco and head to Fort McMurray to meet with some of the people who’ve moved there because good-paying jobs are rare elsewhere. Many are immigrants supporting families back home, while others are paying off student loans, mortgages, or vehicle loans.

Then these self-described “nerdy activist types” with backgrounds in ecological discourse gas up their SUV and head to nearby Little Buffalo. It’s home to the Lubicon Cree whose traditional and unceded hunting, trapping and fishing territory now bristles with over 2,600 oil and gas wells and over 2,400 kilometres of pipelines, which regularly ooze toxins into the land and water. The authors cite facts and figures: An oil spill in the territory in 2006, another in 2011. One year, of the 20 pregnancies among the women, 19 ended with stillbirths. They also drive and walk around, taking in all this smelly polluting extractive technology, experiencing it as “a flagrantly hostile presence.”

There are many strengths to this book. They include its intellectual rigour, as the authors deconstruct the links between development and domination/exploitation, and link these to capitalism and colonialism as ongoing global dynamics. But it’s Matt and Am’s willingness to be there, to immerse themselves, to implicate themselves in the lived realities behind these seemingly larger-than-life realities that is the genius of this book. It’s not just that they are bringing the contradictions of “development” alive by going to the land that is being laid waste by it. It’s their holding up their subjective, implicated experience of it – not remote, objective observation of it – as a valid contribution to public discourse. They make the discourse personal and present. They make it an unsettling experience.


Heather Menzies is working on her 11th book, a healing journey toward being a treaty person.


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