The discourse of apocalypse emerged with a special potency during the early days of 2020’s Covid pandemic. In religious contexts an apocalypse refers to both the destruction of the world and acts of revelation. A 2020 NY Times article on the subject by Elizabeth Dias describes the “original word in Greek—apokalypsis—means an unveiling, a revelation.” As religious studies scholar and contributor to this symposium, Jacqueline Hidalgo, explains, “It’s not just about the end of the world… It helps us see something that is hidden before.” Naturally, scholars of religion like, Jorge Juan Rodríguez V, discussed the pandemic as an apocalypse that visiblizes structural inequities in health care, “class divisions and the fact that the most important workers in American society are among the least paid.” Notions of apocalypse in Indigenous contexts can be found in creation narratives that describe the destruction of one world due to ecological event, such as a great flood, and the creation of a new one. Critical commentary on the notion of apocalypse has also emerged from Indigenous scholars and community leaders.
Potawatomi scholar Kyle Whyte discusses the Anthropocene in apocalyptic terms saying, “some Indigenous peoples already inhabit what our ancestors would have likely characterized as a dystopian future.” Native and Indigenous worlds were so radically altered by genocide and the subsequent loss of political, economic autonomy in the colonial encounter they are nearly unrecognizable. Whyte’s dystopia both visibilizes the violent social precarity Indigenous peoples presently live through and links this violence to the Anthropocene’s imminent ecological collapse. In this sense, Whyte productively indicts the mechanisms of settler colonialism that have exploited peoples and lands as the instigator of climate destabilization, and thus potentially our collective end. While the language of apocalypse may seem excessive or even hyperbolic to some readers, it strikes me as apt in terms of eco crises but also necessary to enable some to really “see” the continued impacts of colonialism. Whyte asks us to collectively consider the stakes of living in a world driven by racial capitalism and the unchecked exploitation of resources. If we understand apocalypse as a period of revelation, revealing that which must be addressed for the social good, that which has perpetuated harm in order to be rectified, then I welcome this “unveiling.”
The discourse of apocalypse is also employed by Indigenous Action, a radical collective of “anti-colonial & anti-capitalist Indigenous media makers, designers, artists, writers & agitators that work together on a project by project basis for the liberation of Mother Earth and all of her beings.” Their admin posted a short article in March 2020 just days into the pandemic’s initial lockdown titled “Rethinking the Apocalypse: An Indigenous Anti-Futurist Manifesto.” It begins with the line “Why can we imagine the ending of the world, yet not the ending of colonialism?” This question acts as a stark critique of the American consciousness—it is easier for the dominant society to assume the pandemic foretells the end of days than to imagine a world free from racialized domination. On the one hand, this critique visiblizes how normative Christian thought operates in U.S. society and on the other, the way Christendom imagines a “new heaven and earth” as a secure future for Christians, foreclosing the need to resolve present harms for anyone else. The author(s) goes on to say “We live the future of a past that is not our own. It is a history of utopian fantasies and apocalyptic idealization. It is a pathogenic global social order of imagined futures, built upon genocide, enslavement, ecocide, and total ruination.” Like Whyte, the author(s) indicts settler ideologies as constructing a world that Indigenous people had no hand in making, a world wrought by violence that fetishized apocalypse as a utopian salvation from its impacts.
They argue that colonialism has perpetuated a centuries long pandemic by imposing an entropic economic system that has no respect for life. Settler colonialism’s teleology of “domination that consumes all for its own benefit” enacts an ontology that is antithetical to life:
This way of unbeing, which has infected all aspects of our lives, which is responsible for the annihilation of entire species, the toxification of oceans, air and earth, the clear-cutting and burning of whole forests, mass incarceration, the technological possibility of world ending warfare, and raising the temperatures on a global scale, this is the deadly politics of capitalism, its pandemic.
If the Covid pandemic portends anything, it is that this world of “unbeing” is ending and with its end comes the start of a new life for Indigenous peoples: “Our world lives when their world ceases to exist.” Indigenous worlds are cyclical, so the end of one world is nothing to fear. The author(s) asserts Indigenous people will outlive this fetid world and await the re-emergence of a new one. And so, they are “Indigenous anti-futurists,” meaning they will continue to mobilize against the present world where a “plague of colonialism” reigns and act as its “antibodies.” They know this world is not for long.
Whyte’s observation of the “dystopian future” that Indigenous peoples have been navigating for centuries hints at a similar survival. They have managed to survive despite these violent conditions—not necessarily unscathed, but many restoring their religious lifeways, enabling spaces to thrive beyond just basic survival. It is these navigations within precarity that we must look to as our current apocalypse of revelation reveals all that must be rectified. And this, I think, may be the true goal of an apocalypse. To witness all the wrongs of the one burning, dying, and fading away and envision a new kind of world together. If we consider the Indigenous religious ethics of mutuality that drive contemporary stewardship movements, we understand how they act as a direct challenge to the teleology of white supremacy. Standing Rock and other mobilizations of stewardship have “revealed” the colonial harms that must be rectified. In the U.S., we have collectively lived with the lie that Indigenous dispossession is justified—that the treaties the state negotiated with Native peoples would be honored. And that a fair exchange between the state and Native people has settled the question of land. These lies are embedded in American myths of both terra nullius, that the land was empty of legitimate political agents (Christians) and white exceptionalism, that white settlers were destined to be the true inheritors of these lands due to their innate superiority. As these Indigenous thinkers have told us, this teleology of domination has sown the seeds of its own undoing.
So, then what might a new world look like? We could look to the religious ethics of Nishnaabeg scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson who tells us in her book Dancing On Our Turtle’s Back that a new world will be born out of the seeds planted by Indigenous elders from the pre-colonial one. In Nishnaabeg thought the process of returning to the ontology of the old one is described by the verb Biskaabiiyang, which means “returning to ourselves.” This concept is operationalized in the community to help people return to a way of being navigated by their ancestors, “conceptually, they are using Biskaabiiyang in the same way Indigenous scholars have been using the term ‘decolonizing’- to pick up the things we were forced to leave behind, whether they are songs, dances, values, or philosophies, and bring them into existence in the future.” She explains this is not a literal return but “re-creating the cultural and political flourishment of the past to support the well-being of our contemporary citizens.” In a non-linear world, the past is still present. There is no need for a literal return, just a bridge of communication to be built between worlds. The work of Hoopa scholar, Cutcha Risling Baldy, tells us that ceremonial knowledge is embedded in the land and can be called forth when the people collectivize to receive it again.
Simpson observes that like many other Native narratives of re-birth, Nishneebeg peoples recognize this time as one where their lifeways will be restored. They “believe we are in the period of the Seventh Fire. It is the responsibility of the new people, the Oshkimaadiziig, to pick up the pieces of our lifeways, collectivize them and build a political and cultural renaissance and resurgence.” Indigenous lifeways are demarcated by their sense of metaphysical mutuality. Human persons are given first instructions that ask them to care for the land and its inhabitants in exchange for continued life and wellbeing. This sense of mutuality developed lateral socio-political systems that “were profoundly non-hierarchical, non-authoritarian, and non-coercive.” While not all Indigenous peoples lived without hierarchy, the cultural logic of Biskaabiiyang intimates that the contemporary Nishneebeg community can return to these ontological values and embody them in a new way in the present. This kind of resurgence is significant because like the Indigenous stewards centering ceremony at Standing Rock and elsewhere, it is understood that these practices of power have the ability to make material change. They wage an ideological challenge to this corrupt world but also a metaphysical one. Simpson says, “It is also foretold that if this is done in a good way, it has the power to transform settler society generating political relationships based on the Indigenous principles of peace, justice, and righteousness as embodied in mino bimaadiziwin.” And so, we are left with the possibility that this time of revelation can not only visibilize the harm that colonial relations have wrought but also enable a resurgence of counter practices and lifeways that actively build a new world out of the ashes of this one.