An Indigenous Feminist’s take on the Ontological Turn: ‘ontology’ is just another word for colonialism (Urbane Adventurer: Amiskwacî)

Personal paradigm shifts have a way of sneaking up on you. It started, innocently enough, with a trip to Edinburgh to see the great Latour discuss his latest work in February 2013. I was giddy with excitement: a talk by the Great Latour. Live and in colour! In his talk, on that February night, he discussed the climate as sentient. Funny, I thought, this sounds an awful lot like the little bit of Inuit cosmological thought I have been taught by Inuit friends. I waited, through the whole talk, to hear the Great Latour credit Indigenous thinkers for their millennia of engagement with sentient environments, with cosmologies that enmesh people into complex relationships between themselves and all relations. 

It never came. He did not mention Inuit. Or Anishinaabe. Or Nehiyawak. Or any Indigenous thinkers at all. In fact, he spent a great deal of time interlocuting with a Scottish thinker, long dead. And with Gaia.

I left the hall early, before the questions were finished. I was unimpressed. Again, I thought with a sinking feeling in my chest, it appeared that the so-called Ontological Turn was spinning itself on the backs of non-european thinkers. And, again, the ones we credited for these incredible insights into the ‘more-than-human’, and sentience and agency, were not the people who built and maintain the knowledge systems that european and north american anthropologists and philosophers have been studying for well over a hundred years, and predicating their current ‘aha’ ontological moment upon. No, here we were celebrating and worshipping a european thinker for ‘discovering’ what many an Indigenous thinker around the world could have told you for millennia. The climate is sentient!

So, again, I was just another inconvenient Indigenous body in a room full of people excited to hear a white guy talk around Indigenous thought without giving Indigenous people credit. Doesn’t this feel familiar, I thought.

As an Indigenous woman, I have tried, over the last few years, to find thinkers who engage with Indigenous thought respectfully. Who give full credit to Indigenous laws, stories and epistemologies. Who quote and cite Indigenous people rather than anthropologists who studied them 80 years ago. This is not always easy. I am so grateful to scholars like David Anderson, Julie Cruikshank and Ann Fienup-Riordan, among others, for giving me hope amidst the despair I’ve felt as the ‘Ontological Turn’ gains steam on both sides of the Atlantic. I am so grateful, too, for the Indigenous thinkers who wrestle with the academy, who have positioned themselves to speak back to Empire despite all of the polite/hidden racism, heteropatriarchy, and let’s face it–white supremacy–of the University.

The euro-western academy is colonial. It elevates people who talk about Indigenous people above people who speak with Indigenous people as equals, or who ARE Indigenous. (Just do a body count of the number of Indigenous scholars relative to non-Indigenous scholars in the euro academy, and you’ll see that over here there are far more people talking about Indigenous issues than Indigenous people talking about those issues themselves). As scholars of the euro-western tradition, we have a whole host of non-Indigenous thinkers we turn to, in knee-jerk fashion, when we want to discuss the ‘more-than-human’ or sentient environments, or experiential learning. There are many reasons for this. I think euro scholars would benefit from reading more about Critical Race theory, intersectionality, and studying the mounting number of rebukes against the privilege of european philosophy and thought and how this silences non-white voices within and outside the academy. This philosopher, Eugene Sun Park, wrote a scathing critique of the reticence of philosophy departments in the USA to consider non-european thought as ‘credible’. I would say many of the problems he identifies in euro-western philosophy are the same problems I have experienced in european anthropology, despite efforts to decolonise and re-direct the field during the ‘reflexive turn’ of the 1970s-onwards.

As an Indigenous feminist, I think it’s time we take the Ontological Turn, and the european academy more broadly, head on. To accomplish this, I want to direct you to Indigenous thinkers who have been writing about Indigenous legal theory, human-animal relations and multiple epistemologies/ontologies for decades. Consider the links at the end of this post as a ‘cite this, not that’ cheat-sheet for people who feel dissatisfied with the current euro (and white, and quite often, male) centric discourse taking place in our disciplines, departments, conferences and journals.

My experience, as a Métis woman from the prairies of Canada currently working in the UK, is of course limited to the little bit that I know. I can only direct you to the thinkers that I have met or listened to in person, whose writing and speaking I have fallen in love with, who have shifted paradigms for me as an Indigenous person navigating the hostile halls of the academy. I cannot, nor would I try, to speak for Indigenous thinkers in other parts of the world. But I guarantee that there are myriad voices in every continent being ignored in favour of the ‘GREAT WHITE HOPES’ we currently turn to when we discuss ontological matters (I speak here, of course, of ontology as an anthropologist, so hold your horses, philosophers, if you feel my analysis of ‘the ontological’ is weak. We can discuss THAT whole pickle another day).

So why does this all matter? Why am I so fired up at the realisation that (some) european thinkers are exploiting Indigenous thought, seemingly with no remorse? Well, it’s this little matter of colonialism, see. Whereas the european academy tends to discuss the ‘post-colonial’, in Canada I assure you that we are firmly still experiencing the colonial (see Pinkoski 2008 for a cogent discussion of this issue in Anthropology). In 2009, our Prime-Minister, Stephen Harper, famously claimed that Canada has ‘no history of colonialism’. And yet, we struggle with the fact that Indigenous women experience much higher rates of violence than non-Indigenous women (1200 Indigenous women have been murdered or gone missing in the last forty years alone, prompting cries from the UN and other bodies for our government to address this horrific reality). Canada’s first Prime-Minister, proud Scotsman John A. MacDonald (I refuse to apply the ‘Sir’), famously attempted to ‘kill the Indian in the Child’ with his residential schools. Canada is only now coming around to the realisation that through things like residential schools, and the deeply racist—and still legislated!–Indian Act, that it, as a nation, was built on genocide and dispossession. Given our strong British roots in Canada, you can imagine that it’s All Very Uncomfortable and creates a lot of hand-wringing and cognitive dissonance for those who have lived blissfully unaware of these violences. But ask any Indigenous person, and you will hear that nobody from an Indigenous Nation has ever laboured under the fantasy that Canada is post-colonial. Or benevolent. Nor would we pretend that the British Empire saddled us with solely happy, beautiful, loving legacies. For all its excessive politeness, the British colonial moment rent and tore apart sovereign Indigenous nations and peoples in what is now Canada, and though the sun has set on Queen Victoria’s Empire, British institutions (including the academy) still benefit from that colonial moment. We are enmeshed, across the Atlantic, in ongoing colonial legacies. And in order to dismantle those legacies, we must face our complicity head on.

Similarly, with the wave of the post-colonial wand, many european thinkers seem to have absolved themselves of any implication in ongoing colonial realities throughout the globe. And yet, each one of us is embedded in systems that uphold the exploitation and dispossession of Indigenous peoples. The academy plays a role in shaping the narratives that erase ongoing colonial violence. My experience in Britain has been incredibly eye-opening: as far as the majority of Brits are concerned, their responsibility for, and implication in, colonialism in North America ended with the War of Independence (in America) or the repatriation of the Canadian constitution (1982).

Is it so simple, though? To draw such arbitrary lines through intergenerational suffering and colonial trauma, to absolve the european academy and the european mind of any guilt in the genocide of Indigenous people (if and when european and north american actors are willing to admit it’s a genocide)? And then to turn around and use Indigenous cosmologies and knowledge systems in a so-called new intellectual ‘turn’, all the while ignoring the contemporary realities of Indigenous peoples vis-à-vis colonial nation-states, or the many Indigenous thinkers who are themselves writing about these issues? And is it intellectually or ethically responsible or honest to pretend that european bodies do not still oppress Indigenous ones throughout the world?

Zygmunt Bauman (1989) takes sociology to task for its role in narrating the Holocaust, and its role in erasing our collective guilt in the possibility for a future Holocaust to emerge. He argues that by framing the Holocaust as either a a) one-off atrocity never to be repeated (“a failure of modernity”) (5) or b) an inevitable outcome of modernity, sociology enables humanity to ignore its ongoing complicity in the conditions that created the horrors of the Holocaust. The rhetoric of the post-colonial is similarly complacent: it absolves the present generation of thinkers, politicians, lawyers, and policy wonks for their duty to acknowledge what came before, and, in keeping with Bauman’s insights, the possibility it could happen again — that within all societies lurk the ‘two faces’ of humanity that can either facilitate or quash systemic and calculated human suffering and exploitation. But the reality is, as Bauman asserts, that humanity is responsible. For all of these atrocities. And humanity must be willing to face itself, to acknowledge its role in these horrors, in order to ensure we never tread the path of such destruction again. 

I take Bauman’s words to heart, and ask my non-Indigenous peers to consider their roles in the ongoing colonial oppression of Indigenous peoples. The colonial moment has not passed. The conditions that fostered it have not suddenly disappeared. We talk of neo-colonialism, neo-Imperialism, but it is as if these are far away things (these days these accusations are often mounted with terse suspicion against the BRIC countries, as though the members of the G8 have not already colonized the globe through neo-liberal economic and political policies). The reality is that we are just an invasion or economic policy away from re-colonizing at any moment. So it is so important to think, deeply, about how the Ontological Turn–with its breathless ‘realisations’ that animals, the climate, water, ‘atmospheres’ and non-human presences like ancestors and spirits are sentient and possess agency, that ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, ‘human’ and ‘animal’ may not be so separate after all—is itself perpetuating the exploitation of Indigenous peoples. To paraphrase a colleague I deeply admire, Caleb Behn: first they came for the land, the water, the wood, the furs, bodies, the gold. Now, they come armed with consent forms and feeble promises of collaboration and take our laws, our stories, our philosophies. If they bother to pretend to care enough to do even that much—many simply ignore Indigenous people, laws, epistemologies altogether and re-invent the more-than-human without so much as a polite nod towards Indigenous bodies/Nations.

A point I am making in my dissertation, informed by the work of Indigenous legal theorists like John Borrows, Kahente Horn-Miller, Tracey Lindberg, and Val Napoleon, is that Indigenous thought is not just about social relations and philosophical anecdotes, as many an ethnography would suggest. These scholars have already shown that Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies represents legal orders, legal orders through which Indigenous peoples throughout the world are fighting for self-determination, sovereignty. The dispossession wrought by centuries of stop-start chaotic colonial invasion and imposition of european laws and languages is ongoing. It did not end with repatriation of constitutions or independence from colonial rule. Europe is still implicated in what it wrought through centuries of colonial exploitation. Whether it likes it or not.

My point here is that Indigenous peoples, throughout the world, are fighting for recognition. Fighting to assert their laws, philosophies and stories on their own terms. And when anthropologists and other assembled social scientists sashay in and start cherry-picking parts of Indigenous thought that appeal to them without engaging directly in (or unambiguously acknowledging) the political situation, agency and relationality of both Indigenous people and scholars, we immediately become complicit in colonial violence. When we cite european thinkers who discuss the ‘more-than-human’ but do not discuss their Indigenous contemporaries who are writing on the exact same topics, we perpetuate the white supremacy of the academy.

So, for every time you want to cite a Great Thinker who is on the public speaking circuit these days, consider digging around for others who are discussing the same topics in other ways. Decolonising the academy, both in europe and north america, means that we must consider our own prejudices, our own biases. Systems like peer-review and the subtle violence of european academies tend to privilege certain voices and silence others. Consider why, as of 2011, there were no black philosophy profs in all of the UK. Consider why it’s okay to discuss sentient climates in an Edinburgh lecture hall without a nod to Indigenous epistemologies and not have a single person openly question that. And then, familiarise yourself with the Indigenous thinkers (and more!) I am linking below and broaden the spectrum of who you cite, who you reaffirm as ‘knowledgeable’.

hiy-hiy.

Zoe Todd (Métis) is a PhD Candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. She researches human-fish relations in the community of Paulatuuq in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, Northwest Territories, Canada. She is a 2011 Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Scholar.

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