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Supporters of the First Nations led "Idle No More" movement.

Indigenous Stewardship and the Death Rattle of White Supremacy

Native peoples in the Americas understand the universe as alive and sentient. All phenomena in it are understood to be a distinct expression of life force, or spirit. Since all persons – human and other-than-human – such as plants, animals, rivers, winds, and mountains are expressions of spirit, they are understood to be interconnected and contingent.

In the last few years, Indigenous peoples have reemerged as a critical voice advocating not just for environmental justice, but for an entirely different way of living and being with the world.[1] As the descendants of the original inhabitants of lands now dominated by others, they are often entangled in ongoing struggles to protect their lands and sovereignty. Settler colonialism is now famously understood as a structure, not an event, meaning that colonial projects must be continually re-inscribed through discursive and juridical means in order to naturalize Indigenous dispossession. As a Chicana scholar of Apache descent, I am interested in the ways Native peoples in the U.S. operationalize religious action as an expression of refusal – a refusal to acquiesce their religious lifeways and rights to their lands. From nineteenth-century expressions like the Ghost Dance to the sacred goals of the American Indian Movement, contemporary forms of Native protest have woven together these historical strands with new expressions of ceremony as protest, as Lee Irwin and Dennis Kelley have argued. In 2012, the First Nations led Idle No More movement agitated against threats to treaty dissolution by the Canadian state through public facing ceremony. Round dances transformed malls and town squares to spaces of collaborative protest, exploding across Indian country via social media. Within days, Native-led round dances sprang up in the U.S., acting in solidarity with Indigenous relatives to the north in order to publicly decry the continued abuses of settler colonial regimes. 

I attended two of these round dances while doing fieldwork in Albuquerque. Both drew non-Native on-lookers who were curious about their goal. While these in-person conversations were valuable, the ensuing deluge of social media support would be impressive. I taught my first course on Native American religious traditions in 2013. I ended the course with a discussion of decolonization and religious protest, showcasing Idle No More. When creating my slide show, I found over one hundred images online showing support for the movement among Native nations in the U.S., as well as Indigenous allies in Mexico, Central, and South America, Maori and Aboriginal peoples in New Zealand and Australia, Kanaka Maoli in Hawaii, Sami in Northern Europe, peoples in Palestine, Morocco, across Europe, in Japan, and even self-consciously proclaimed settlers in the U.S. and Canada. While there was little to no mainstream coverage of Idle No More in the U.S., social media fed its exposure and a new iteration of global Indigenous solidarity began to take shape. When I presented this data to students, they were shocked. They were left with the distinct impression that an active Indigenous reality existed beyond their purview.

Although 2012’s Idle No More Movement was the first national Native movement to gain international attention in several years, it was the 2016-2017 #NoDAPL movement at the Standing Rock Reservation in North and South Dakota that brought Native sovereignty efforts back into the national consciousness again. One of the major impacts of that movement was the visual narrative it provided: Native peoples on horseback or lined up in prayer in front of dozens of teepees, facing off against hyper militarized police forces. These images parallel those of the last major standoff between the state and American Indian Movement activists at Wounded Knee in 1973. While the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation used news media as a virtual shield protecting them from outright extrajudicial execution, Idle No More used social media as a means to communicate with First Nations peoples organizing protests and eventually with supporters acting in solidarity around the world. 

These more recent articulations of protest are markedly different from Red Power era expressions because they consciously center religious activity. When members of these movements position themselves as “protectors,” they’re citing a sacred responsibility to uphold their end of the bargain to land – to act as its stewards responsible for protecting and nurturing the life force within it. This ethic was most clearly articulated at the Sacred Stone Camp at Standing Rock where ceremony was held continually. Centering religious praxis communicated that the fight to protect the water is about ensuring the future life and wellbeing of the people, all peoples. Ceremony is the deepest expression of who you are and what you value. The Oceti Sakowin (Lakota/Dakota) peoples’ opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline was a sovereignty issue. By responding with ceremony, the people affirmed their sacred relationships to the lands and the spiritual power within them that make them sovereign. Inspired by these acts of refusal, Indigenous peoples from all over the Americas (and beyond) gathered at the camp to collectively honor these metaphysical lifeways and the source of all authority. Together, they supplicated the spirit world and coalescing their spiritual power. Together, they sang, danced, and prayed this protection into being. Soon there were YouTube clips circulating of sacred day to day happenings, such as powwow dancing and processions of various Native nations and peoples entering the camp. This media was for internal celebration, but it was also pedagogical. It was teaching non-Native people about Native land-based ethics and protocols.

Native peoples in the Americas understand the universe as alive and sentient. All phenomena in it are understood to be a distinct expression of life force, or spirit. Since all persons – human and other-than-human – such as plants, animals, rivers, winds, and mountains are expressions of spirit, they are understood to be interconnected and contingent. Relatives. The spiritual dimension of the universe is referred to as the spirit world. Native peoples seek to honor this life force through prayer and ceremony because it has given them life and continues to secure their survival as Vine Deloria, Jr. explains. The spirit world responds dialectically to minute (and concentrated) propitiations by the people in order to effect change on their behalf. As a result, the people act as stewards of the land, protecting and nurturing the life within it. This reciprocal relationship is mutually self-sustaining. While spirit is understood to be everywhere, some spiritual forces are particular to place. We can understand certain places to be a conduit for the spirit world. Native peoples have built relationships with the spiritual power of those places over time. The spirit world communicates to the people through the land and greater cosmos, instructing the people on the protocols for living in this place, as Deloria stresses elsewhere. The foundation of Indigenous religious life is maintaining an individual and collective relationship to local bioregions and the spirit world. These bioregions may be culturally significant to the tribe as a place of origin, revelation, and/or collective memory. Protecting sacred places is important because it ensures the future life and wellbeing of the people. 

While many assume that Native dispossession has destroyed or compromised religious life, the opposite is true. Religious life acts as a grounding point in the face of continued colonialism, strengthening community relationships and mobilizations of land defense. These land-based struggles have only escalated since Standing Rock. Indigenous land defenders in the U.S., Canada, and around the world are criminalized and often targets of violence. The recent stand-off between the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Wet’suwet’en land defenders illustrate how hypermilitarized overreactions by settler states are clearly invested in protecting the production of capital at the sake of the people.The murder and extrajudicial death of Indigenous leaders has become commonplace in Abya Yala (Central and South America), but also in places like “Nigeria, Congo, Gabon, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.” The environmental dispossession of Indigenous peoples is directly produced by specific but overlapping histories of colonialism. The dispossession that founded the Americas is born out of the same set of ethics that bore unmanaged resource extraction. If we want to understand how to effectively address climate change and other forms of environmental destruction, then we have to interrogate settler colonialism as a structural dimension of modern life. We have to understand the ways it is predicated on racialization, white supremacy, and myths of development in order to monopolize power. 

If we want to fight climate crises, then we need to reevaluate our ethical relationships to the land and the other-than-human. In essence, we have to understand land-based ethics. These ethics are earth-centered, meaning they are driven by the immediate needs of the land, not peoples. While many have become acquainted with the Gaia hypotheses, or the idea that the earth is a living, self-regulating system, they assume that the land is totally autonomous. Not quite. In a Native context, the land relies on its human relatives to care for it. Ceremonies produce power that contribute to the wellbeing of the peoples, human and other-than-human, but also the land. In the classroom, I position Indigenous philosophies of land as the starting point to understand earth justice as an existential goal tethered to human/land survival. I encourage students to challenge materialist assumptions of the natural world and re-evaluate its role in relation to human life. In essence, we thoughtfully consider Native views of the land as having a sacred dimension that must be attended to and even celebrated. For instance, in an Indigenous view, plants, particularly medicinal plants, are understood to be not only persons but also teachers and relatives that provide the people with instructions on how to live in right relationship with one another. For example, many Northeastern tribes (and well beyond) have a sacred relationship to the Three Sisters: corn, beans, and squash. Their familial relationship asks that they be planted together, producing a natural nitrogen cycle that fertilizes the soil, preventing depletion. As we consider the symbolic meaning of these three sisters, students recognize the value and mutually beneficial outcomes in their interdependence. 

The dialogue that takes place after these insights allows us to reconsider the nature of reality and think about the world in a new way – as a place that is sentient and alive, even invested in our collective wellbeing. As a place that is in conversation with us, not just a passive object for us to do with as we will. Native American religious traditions, specifically, have been described as revelation based. Revelation implies an ongoing conversation. Here, we consider how spiritual power informs human life, and remind ourselves that in this context, humans are not alone. It is understood that humans must ask for, but can also expect to receive help in the form of direction, advice, maybe even the receipt of a new ceremony. For Native peoples, spiritual intervention is understood to operate in ways that may not be immediately seen. Students soon note that we are not only devoid of any coherent land-based ethics (besides around the recreational), but that our social world is teeming with inconsistent messages about the nature of the immaterial in general. Even when they remain skeptical of this immaterial world, they are left with the realization that we can no longer leave the burden of environmental wellness to Indigenous peoples. 

When we, collectively, think deeply about Indigenous stewardship and ask “What might earth justice look like?” we are forced to grapple with what it means when Indigenous peoples assert that the land – and its inhabitants – are sovereign. We are forced to rethink the hierarchical nature of power that produces racialization, colonialism/imperialism, and Native dispossession. We are forced to reevaluate the stigmatized assumptions of Indigenous knowledge, specifically ecology and science, which are rooted in religious worldviews. In the process, Indigenous stewardship as a political project that refuses continued settler colonial violence is made legible, even tenable. Indigenous land-based movements remind us that Native peoples are not only still fighting for their land, they’re fighting for the protection of lands more generally. I read them as waging a metaphysical war against the structures of white supremacy, using prayer and ceremony to provide us all with an actual future. 

[1]Portions of this essay draw on a previously published work. See Natalie Avalos, Sandy Grande and Jason Mancini, “Red Praxis: Lessons from Mashantucket to Standing Rock,” in Standing with Standing Rock: Voices From the #NoDAPL Movement, edited by Jaskiran Dhillon and Nick Estes, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019).

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