In the darkness of the morning, before silver moonlight subsides to golden sun, my son nurses quietly between dreams, his round face softly illuminated in blue while I work at my computer to support O’odham water protectors. We are eight months into the pandemic, and though I’m still adjusting to working full time from home on top of eldercare and parenting, it’s the structural violence illuminated when society slowed down that keeps me up at night. Covid19 has made the unattended impacts of ongoing colonialism, (from climate change, Indigenous dispossession, border violence, war, poverty, medical neglect and malpractice on racialized communities, to the anti-Black police state, etc.,) unavoidable. But this reckoning requires more than acknowledgement. It is a disaster that demands reparation.
We named our child Sgewk I:bdak, Strong Heart. The name came to us in prayer. He grows into it more fully each day with his deeply loving and sensitive ways. This name is also what we call sacred land and water protectors. Calls to sacred site action ask for strong hearts to the front. You must carry a profound love for people and place to put your body before machines of death. Or to be up all night working so another strong heart can step forward and know that should the worst happen – there will be medics, lawyers, journalists, food and water, donations will be distributed fairly, infiltrators and mactivists will be removed, and conflicts will be mediated. It takes a village to support each land and water protector. Sgewk I:bdak will be a difficult name to carry. But we wanted our child to know he comes from strong hearted people and to grow guided by love, even at the risk that his traditional name may be hard to pronounce.
I worry sometimes we are not connecting as much as mother and child should. I worry he will remember that I was working, constantly distracted by a phone or computer, more than I played with him, held him, attended to his curiosity and longing. I practice how I will have to explain one day that the colonial world is trying to kill us, and one of the ways they do that is by killing the land, killing the water, killing our spirits, killing our bodies, killing the bonds we have between ourselves and creation, between our bodies and the sacred, between a mother and a child. All of this is border violence- painful forms of nonconsensual partition and subjection. I want him to know we resisted and that I wasn’t ignoring him to mindlessly scroll social media. I was sewing him back to his ancestral homeland, one text message at a time.
Confronting border violence is where my activism and academic work coalesce. I teach ethnic studies and Indigenous studies. My students are largely unaware of U.S. history, having absorbed the falsehoods of toxic nationalism that make critical thinking of the past and challenging current injustice emotional minefields of shock, guilt, denial, and defensiveness. Many students have never questioned border militarization because they were taught not to. They arrive believing pervasive colonial myths legitimizing violence and discrimination often without even realizing it. They are shocked to learn Indigenous peoples & descendants still exist, having been taught in K-12 that we were a few scattered nomads wiped out by microbes introduced from more evolutionarily fit White people. The idea that Indigenous peoples wilted away like flowers of Eden to clear land for the taking by god’s chosen people is as absurdly racist as it is unfortunately widely believed and promoted.
To get my students to understand how border violence is a social construction and how millions of people were decimated in the largest and most brutal genocide the world has ever known but often doesn’t even acknowledge- the European colonization of the Americas and the slave trade- I talk about current events. I ask them to examine what war has done to Syria, Gaza, and Yemen. I ask them to look at before and after pictures, to see the modernity and cosmopolitanism of these locations while considering just how quickly invasion, extraction, and dictatorship can create a famine, pollute water systems, reduce cities to rubble, and make a world where healthy people starve and die from conditions requiring only a Tylenol to treat.
Bannah alGhadbanah argues that framing wars and humanitarian crises in the Levant as an “indecipherable catastrophe, perpetually represented as chaotic, unknowable” erases the processes maintaining imperialism and dictatorship.
This malicious narrative choice structures justifications for genocide by framing victims as inferior beings fated to disappear or deserving of disposal so the violent can reign.
It can be hard for my students to grasp how surviving Syria under Assad might be akin to Indigenous survival during California’s gold rush, Chinese survival of indenture and exclusion, Black survival of slavery, or the conditions that drive Salvadorian refugee caravans today. Dominant historical and news narratives render these experiences unintelligible. But Covid19 has given us a viscerally illuminating example. Pandemics teach that colonialism and systems of oppression make the othered and colonized more vulnerable to disease. The life and death impacts of colonialism, race, class, gender, and sexuality is one of the greatest lessons of HIV/AIDS. Ebola and Zika have taught us that resources for treatment and management of pandemics will be scarce for non-White majority regions and those that are provided often prioritize the health of colonizers and elites over the colonized and oppressed.
Colonialism is difficult to describe and theorize because it is so vast and accommodating of a system, ranging from extremes to subtleties and everything in between. This is why we still argue over terms like internal or external colonialism or settler vs extractive colonialism and why more broad terms like coloniality of power may actually be more precise when applied to specific places and temporalities like Assad’s Syria, the U.S.-Mexico border, or the Covid19 pandemic.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by police after he managed to survive Covid19, the Black Lives Matters movement has identified anti-Blackness as its own pandemic. BLM supporters seeking to protect the sanctity of Black life face the impossible choice between staying silent in the face of lynching or risking Covid19 by taking to the streets. Prisons and immigrant jails become corona virus incubators decimating refugee communities. Border wall construction man camps, state forces, and White supremacists bring gendered violence, racial harassment, and Covid19 to Indigenous border communities. This month I watched live stream videos in horror as White drivers rammed vehicles into O’odham water protectors and their allies blocking a road to protect a sacred spring from border construction. I opened O’odham social media pages to find death threat comments from hundreds of white supremacists proclaiming “run them over” and “build the wall” in response to the minor inconvenience of a temporary traffic delay, illustrating that the wall is meant to facilitate White movement and non-White death.
While White supremacists demand to vacation abroad, the intersecting synergies of the two pandemics of Covid19 and colonial racism have merged into a syndemic, meaning that Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people are dying more and getting sicker. White supremacists argue they are superior, but this disparity is entirely due to the material conditions of colonialism and racial capitalism, not biology. This is how millions of Indigenous, African, and Brown peoples were decimated by disease during the early colonial period and why we continue to be now. State and border violence, racial capitalism, and colonialism are killing us.
My family is from a border town. The border symbolizes the power to create colonial binaries through acts of violence. Border violence can happen anywhere, over spaces and relationships that are occupied, partitioned, and ranked in oppositional hierarchies– from dividing Indigenous lands, to dividing humans from nature, or separating the rational mind from emotional and experiential knowledges. Border violence is severing in order to devalue, extract, and control. It is an inherent violation of all things sacred, regenerative, and sustainable.
Journalist Naomi Klein popularized the term disaster capitalism in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine to explore how states and economic players utilize moments of vulnerability, such as a natural disaster, to force through plans for extraction and exploitation that would be more robustly countered if people were not in crisis. In the wake of Hurricane Maria’s horrific devastation of Puerto Rico and the U.S.’s response of intensified privatization and denial of aid scholars and activists from the Caribbean began popularizing the term disaster colonialism to consider how capitalism and colonialism utilized crises to deepen exploitation and dispossession. Border colonialism is similar to disaster colonialism in its violent exploitation of perceived social crises.
Systems of oppression reinforce each other by constantly transfiguring each other’s logics and technologies, such as how oppositionally ranked binaries are utilized by heteropatriarchy, classism, ableism, and racism. Covid19 has starkly illuminated how transfigurations of these systems intersect. Border violence transfigurations can be seen in two ways. First, competing regimes transfigure each other’s technologies of possessing and claiming legitimacy over territory, such as by using similar checkpoint practices, building walls, or hiring the same surveillance tech firm. Second, the use of demarcation and severing to make a border deepens other logics of violence and domination. At the U.S.-Mexico border both Anglo and Spanish colonial heteropatriarchy is deepened and transmuted. The border has become a space of impunity to commit feminicide, incarcerate queer and trans refugees, and murder and disappear Indigenous women and two spirits. It is a region where violence upon land becomes violence upon life, where relations between land and life are cut and survival often depends upon impossible choices between inseparable necessities.
Covid19 brought rapidly intensified white supremacist & state violence, material deprivation of vulnerable communities, and aggressive demolition and extraction of sacred Indigenous lands to build a medieval fortress against people of color. In Syria, Puerto Rico, Black America, and Indian Country Covid19 plus colonialism means more hunger, violence, illness, and destruction. These are not indecipherable catastrophes constructed by the hand of God; they are man-made crises and as such, they can be undone.
The earth itself, as a sacred being and infinite set of sacred relations, undoes colonial, racial, and ecological violence all the time and we can choose to be in solidarity with her. The desert monsoons habitually wash away sections of the white supremacist border wall. Hurricanes topple white supremacist confederate statues when local governments fail to remove them. Natural disasters expose systems of injustice, just as Hurricane Katrina exposed white supremacy or Hurricane Maria exposed colonialism. If Mother Earth uses the force of natural elements to expose and undo man-made violences, we can do the same. As one of my collectives, the Center for Interdisciplinary Environmental Justice, argued in our recent statement, now is the time for what we have termed disaster decolonization.
The current conjuncture of crises – climate change and mass extinction, pandemics, fascism and state violence, white supremacist and heteropatriarchal backlash against equality, mass incarceration and deportation, etc. – can be dismantled, swiftly, like a flood, hurricane, wildfire – if we organize ourselves. Disasters clear the landscape. The accumulators and colonizers hoped that the pandemic would rid them of our resistance but it hasn’t. Disasters are a time to decolonize. Instead of letting colonialism exploit our vulnerabilities, let’s use the changed conditions to make colonialism feel weak.
In their anti-future manifesto Indigenous Action Media collective asks, “why can we imagine the ending of the world, yet not the ending of colonialism?” On the one hand, colonialism has been seen as an apocalyptic force destroying Indigenous ways of life. Yet, “our ancestors dreamt against the end of the world,” and we are also dreamers, seed savers, world-makers. If time is circular and all of its tenses exist together all at once as many Indigenous epistemologies instruct, then our future is within our hands now, uncolonized, unending, a seed pregnant with possibility. Decolonization is a clearing away, a material revelation, that allows for the regeneration of land and life. Indigenous futurism is not a colonial utopia but rather a “re-emergence of the [Indigenous] world of cycles” – where the magnificent force of the elements- a hurricane, an earthquake, a wildfire- clears the landscape in order to bring new life. Disaster decolonization is a process of direct action abolition in order expedite the regeneration of Indigenous, Black, Brown, and colonized land and life.
Living in Southern California I’ve been thinking about fire. Indigenous peoples use controlled burning to manage land in a way that increases biodiversity richness and thrivability. A giant sequoia tree seed needs fire to germinate. Intentional fire management prevents the devastation of wildfires. There is wisdom in fire. There is much in the colonial reality that needs to be burnt down so something healthier can emerge. Onk Akimel O’odham writer Anna Moore Shaw explains in the traditional story of the potshard that disasters are made of natural elements like the sandstorm and the rain like to walk together as a complex dualism of destruction and creativity who cannot do their regenerative work without each other. In the desert, storms can bring life. Covid19 has taught us that racist obelisks need to be toppled, racist walls need to be dismantled, and police defunded for land and life to thrive.
The movement Defend O’odham Jewed emerged during the pandemic to protect the sacred. Indigenous peoples from the Carrizo Comecrudo to the Kumeyaay have also launched sacred protection movements against border violence. I remember my family elders’ stories of how lushly living the desert was before the mines, missions, plantations, railways, freeways, dams, cattle ranches, settler towns, bombing ranges, prisons, solar farms, wind ranches, RV parks, all-terrain vehicles, check points, surveillance towers, racist walls, paramilitaries, smugglers, and invasive species. In my elders’ stories O’odham jewed was a place of water, trees, community. It was a place of life and story, of sacred relations connecting the bodies of people and place. I fear for children in this new landscape made by colonial violence. But I dream that my son will know the land of his ancestors as his ancestors knew it- sacred, regenerating. I dream he will move in a world where no child has to choose between land and life.
Disaster decolonization is a movement led by Indigenous women, queer, trans, and two-spirit water and land protectors putting their bodies in front of the machines of white supremacy and extraction. Disaster decolonization is also led by women, queer, trans, and two-spirit abolitionists putting their bodies in front of racist mobs, state violence, and mass incarceration. Though not all are at the front lines. It takes a village to support each one who puts their body at risk, especially now during the pandemic. It takes a strong heart to protect the sacred, in whatever capacity we can do so. Many of us who are not visible in these movements are also mothers and caregivers, caretaking for the land, our elders and children, our most vulnerable, each other, and our futures. We do the hard work of transformative relationships, centering care and connection instead of ability and productive capacity. Disaster decolonization needs strong hearts to the front, but it will also require strong hearts as back up- organizing, saving and planting seeds, dreaming into being a healing reconnection between sacred land and sacred life. Disaster decolonization is open to accomplices.