Jason Edward Lewis

image of a desolate prairie highway in winter

Jason Edward Lewis


This interview occurred on 13 October 2016 at the Initiative for Indigenous Futures research studio at Concordia University, Montreal. It has been edited for clarity.

Jason Edward Lewis: I’m just going to jump into it. Can you give us your name, your position, and where you’re at now?
Kim TallBear: I’m Kim TallBear. I am a Canada Research Chair of Indigenous Peoples, Technoscience and Environment, and an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta.
JEL: How long have you been at Alberta?
KT: One year, 2015.
JEL: How has it been so far?
KT: I love it. It’s taken me a long time to find a place that I want to stay for a while.
JEL: What is it about University Alberta, or Canada that makes you want to stay?
KT: I grew up in South Dakota until I was 14, in Eastern South Dakota. So I grew up on the prairies. I was born in Pipestone. I went to high school in Minneapolis and St. Paul’s. I’m a prairie person. What I was saying to you yesterday, I need to be where there’s a river cutting through the center. I grew up in a small town, with the Big Sioux running through it, then the Mississippi. I’ve lived on the East Coast and the West Coast; I’ve lived in the South and I’ve lived overseas. I’ve spent a lot of time moving around the world, and taking advantage of a lot of opportunities, but I realized finally I was getting increasingly agitated the older I got, that I really need to be back on the prairie. It’s the skies. It’s the flat land, and then the land is almost like a canvas for the skies. I just breathe easier. I also want there to be a large visible presence of Indigenous people, and that’s on the prairies for me. I’ve lived in a lot of places that you just don’t see Indigenous people with the same kind of presence as in places like South Dakota, or Minneapolis, or Edmonton, or Saskatoon. It’s really important to me, especially as I get older.
JEL: You’d mentioned in one of your talks that we were listening to about how you thought that Indigenous Studies south of the border tend to be very pre-occupied with kind of one or two subject areas, and wasn’t necessarily as, I don’t know, open or interested in the science and technology side of things as you would like, and that maybe this is a better place.
KT: I think so. In the United States, I would say in general, Native American and Indigenous Studies tend to be more dominated by people in the humanities, especially literature and history. That’s great, we need that stuff. There’s just not very much engagement with science and technology, there’s a little bit more with environmental stuff. I’ve been working up here in Canada for about 20 years. Even before I was an academic, I was doing some environmental work up here. It just seems to me there’s more engagement with the land. If you’re engaged with the land and land-based issues, you’re engaging with materiality, you’re going to have to engage with science and technology. You just have to. The other thing I think I’ve noticed—and somebody should study this—I feel like in the United States, a lot of people that are in Indigenous Studies are people who grew up more in diaspora, as opposed to in land-based Indigenous communities. I think that that’s got something to do with their being drawn towards the humanities, they tend to get into issues of identity and culture. I also study Indigenous bio- scientists, and I was very surprised when I started hanging out with biological scientists, Indigenous geneticists, the vast majority of them come from rural, tribal communities.
KT: I was shocked. I think it’s because they’re raising animals, they’re hunting, they’re dealing with the land, they get interested in cellular level issues, so there’s a big divide there. In Canada, I don’t see quite the same divide. I don’t know what that is yet, I’ve only been living here a year.
JEL: It would be interesting to check in five years from now, and see how it’s played out. Can you talk more about how you envision Indigenous epistemologies, and their relationship to Western science, as alternatives or replacements for Western science, or complements?
KT: That’s a big question. I’m going to start out by saying that I’ve actually come to think of Indigenous knowledge, as any knowledge that helps us survive as Peoples. Peoples, capital P. So that can be a combination of what we would call Western science. It’s why I’m interested in Indigenous scientists, people who are doing Western science. I’m interested in aspects of “traditional knowledge.” But I’m really not so interested in making the divides between those things anymore. I really like to think about Indigenous people, whether we’re in the academy, or whether we’re out in communities, as thinkers and as intellectuals. Everybody does theory, and so whatever methodologies, whatever tools, or theoreticalframeworks you want to bring to a problem, I think that’s great. If we think about knowledge or theory methods as a toolkit, we grab the tool that’s most useful to help us access and analyze a problem. If we think about it that way, we’re not going to be staying within these boundaries of, “What’s science? What’s social science? What’s the humanities?” An Indigenous epistemology would be anything used by somebody who is concerned with the survival of their people. As a people, what would they use to help ensure that?
JEL: Are you familiar with Margaret Kovach? She was just here yesterday. She was talking about Indigenous research, Indigenous methodologies, particularly as it pertains to the academy. I think that was one of the points that she was trying to make, was that we don’t have to see it as ‘either/or’, and that Indigenous research is a political project. It’s about addressing the needs of our communities.
KT: Well, all research is a political project. The difference is we know it, and they don’t.
JEL: You talk often about the integration of science into Indigenous communities, in order to understand our own peoplehood and sovereignty. Can you talk more about that connection between science, Indigenous science, Western science, science in general, that way of operating in the world; and how it plays into projects of sovereignty, or of defining and supporting ourselves as a people?
KT: Scientific thinking and scientific projects have been part of the colonial projects since the beginning. We have been most often, as Indigenous peoples, on the receiving end of the scientific gaze. We have been looked at as less agential, less civilized. As this sort of the raw materials for knowledge production of the colonial state. So engaging with science, at the very least, in a way that is politically resisting, that is important. But in order to resist, you have to have a sense of what you’re resisting. At a very baseline, we need people who are educated in science so we can resist colonial forms of science better. That’s where I started out. When I was working for Department of Energy, for the US Environmental Protection Agency, and I was hanging out with a lot of scientists, I wasn’t a scientist myself. I first began to notice the ways in which we could resist. But then as I got to know more scientists, and I met tribal environmental scientists, then I started to think about the ways in which we could use science to actually expand our self-determination, our self-governance.
KT: I really came to be a believer that we’re a nation, both the US and Canada, which is governed by science. You need to be able to speak a scientific language, and I include the policy sciences and social sciences within that, in order to sit at a decision-making table. That’s just the reality that we face in a colonial state. We’re better able to advocate on behalf of our peoples, our land bases, and our cultures if we can sit at that table and speak in those languages. We cannot, I think, expand Indigenous self-governance without engaging in science and technology, because that’s what’s being used to shape states, it’s being used in extractive industries, it’s being used to develop the state. If you look at both of President Obama’s inaugural addresses in 2008 and in 2012, he talked about the role of biotechnology and genetics. This is central to national economic development platforms, and we need to be figuring out how that’s going to be used in ways that are going to benefit us, and not just hurt us. And usually genetics has been used to hurt Indigenous people, either inclusively or exclusively.
JEL: Can you talk a little bit about that? That goes back to your early work on DNA. It’ll be good to have some kind of engagement with that, though I know you’ve evolved in other directions.
KT: Well, if you look back into nineteenth and earlier centuries, and even the twentieth century, it was Indigenous land that was the raw materials for the development of the state. But in the late twentieth and twenty-first century, you begin to see Indigenous bodies being treated in very much the same way. You see the same kinds of narratives structuring the kinds of property claims that scientists are making on Indigenous bodies, in the same way that they’ve made property claims to land, minerals, and resources in the early twentieth and nineteenth and earlier centuries. We’re still the raw materials for the production of the states. They’re looking to produce value out of our bodies, they’re looking to produce value out of our lands and resources in order to build the states. Then Indigenous people get portrayed as less evolved, as incapable of ourselves producing value, when we’re sitting over here thinking about, I think, being in more ethical and intimate relations.
KT: When you’re in relation with your human and non-human relatives, and when you’re in relation with what the white man calls the natural world, it’s much less of a relationship of treating something else like this non-agential body of natural resources to be mined and exploited. You have to live in a—I hate to use these overly-used buzzwords—but you have to live with more reciprocity. There are a lot of Indigenous scholars who talk about, and people in general, who talk about a spider’s web as a good metaphor for relations. What happens on one part of the web is going to affect what happens on the other part. If you’re thinking about living in a set of relations, a web set of relations, you’ve got to be more careful about what you take, who you eat. [chuckle] Right? We all need to eat our relatives, in order to survive. But that’s a really different kind of idea if you’re talking about an Indigenous notion of the world then when you’re talking about treating other bodies as less evolved, less agential. “I can go take what I want because they’re lower in an evolutionary hierarchy.”
JEL: Even using the term “relatives,” right?
KT: Right. I think these Western ideas about how humans relate to non-humans are much more hierarchical. We obviously kill and eat our relatives, but histor- ically, Indigenous people have had to think very carefully about how they do that, because we depend on them for our life. We recognize that we’re taking something, and there’s an exchange going on there. I may have gotten a little off track from the original question. [chuckle]
JEL: No, no. That’s great. It’s good because it actually feeds into the next question. Which is, you’ve spoken about the critical relationality between human kin, non- human kin, and contesting settler relations. How do you envision this as being applied to all kin, and breaking down the non-human, human binary? Really the question is, to have you go a bit further in what you’ve been talking about over the last at least four or five years in what I’ve seen and read, about how do we get back to a situation where we are able to think of our non-human and non-biological kin, as kin? Why should we be trying to do that? What are the consequences of living in a world where that’s the case?
KT: I think we’re really hamstrung actually, this world that we live in. So you see these pockets of resistance or practice, like we were talking about Dechinte Centre for Research and Learning earlier. You’re looking at communities of people, scholars, students, young people who are trying to learn those things again. We’ve been cut off, through the colonial project, from those relationships with our non-human relatives. You can’t expect Indigenous people to have knowledge about how to relate in that way, when they’ve been taken off the land, when you’ve had the land cut out from beneath your feet. It’s not just our children that were stolen from our communities, our families we’re disrupted in that way. Our non-human relatives were also. Those relations were severed as well. All of our kinship relations were severed, as settlers attempted to force us into these settler state institutions.
KT: I think those are really great efforts to try to rebuild some of that knowledge. I don’t think in terms of grand revolutions. We’re boxed in by the settler state in a really rigid way. I’m really interested in people who are looking for those little spaces where they can kind of put cracks in that edifice. I also really think that doing theoretical work is important. And I have to say, where I take the most theoretical direction from is not actually from academics, but when Idle No More started to do the work that they did. Now looking at Standing Rock and the resistance to the Dakota Access pipeline, I see those two communities of activists, largely Indigenous, but also with non-Indigenous participation, theorizing what living in a different kind of world looks like. What was really interesting for me with Idle No More was when you have those women, and then other activists who teamed up with them, tying the welfare of all Canadians to the defense of Indigenous treaty rights. Because if you defend Indigenous treaty rights, if you defend Indigenous land, you’re going to defend non-human bodies that are necessary for all of us to live. You’re defending the soil, the water, the sky, and I thought that was really, really important.
KT: Then there’s a whole other bunch of rhetoric that happens in Canada too, which was kind of foreign to my American ears. This notion of governing in partnership. I realize in the west of Canada, that’s a little bit more prominent I guess than it is in the east. But it’s really interesting, that whole kind of kinship. Developing kinship relations even with settlers, that’s a little discomforting to me, but we certainly do it in practice. Settler and Indigenous people have been having sex and making babies for a long time. So why not think a little bit about what those kinds of kinship relations mean.
KT: I just wrote an article for Anthropology News in the US recently, where I was drawing on Rob Innes’s work at the University of Saskatchewan actually. I was thinking about moving into a space a little bit more where we’re talking as Indigenous peoples about governing and diplomacy through making kin. We can make kin, again, not only through those biological ways, but we can also think about how we make kin with other kinds of communities. I was thinking about the United States. To think back to my own history, and this is where I actually went back and reread about the 1862 Dakota War. That was the pivotal moment that changed the world for my people back in Minnesota, so I was rereading those histories. We have family oral histories, but there’s also historians that have extensively treated that war, and the role of my ancestor, Little Crow, in that war.
KT: If you go back and look at the way that Little Crow and other Dakota leaders were thinking about treaty relations, after reading Rob Innes’s book, and listening to people in Western Canada talk about governing in partnership, I started to see that perhaps Little Crow’s expectations of kinship by settlers were not just naïve, that there had been kinship relations before the settler state came in with previous European or European Americans. I’m right in the middle of rereading these histories, thinking about kinship as a framework, not only about Indigenous sovereignty or Indigenous self-determination in this twentieth century way that we think about in the US. We talk about a government-to-government relationship, nation to nation relationships. That’s very strategic, and there’s a good deal of truth to those, to that framework, as an understanding history. But I also think we should think more about how we’re making kin, and that as another sort of diplomatic strategy. That’s what I’m thinking right now.
KT: I’m starting to also think about how we do that though without resorting to this language of multiculturalism, that requires everybody to be absorbed intothe settler state, with their values and ontology at the center of the world. I think most Indigenous communities are not interested in that. We’re interested in thriving Indigenous societies, I think we’re also interested in making kin, but we’re tired of doing it on their terms. Their terms don’t work. That’s what I am maybe talking about tomorrow. They’re not environmentally sustainable the way that they’ve created this world, it’s not emotionally sustainable, it’s not economically sustainable. They’re terrible, terrible relatives. The settler state has been a terrible set of relatives. They’re oppressive, they’re extractive, they take too much. [chuckle] So yes, I do want to think about making kin as a strategy, but also I really want us to center Indigenous worldviews more, because I do think there are things our ancestors got really right.
KT: I was really thinking about this. We’re going to Minneapolis for the American Anthropological Association this year, and I wrote a piece for Anthro News, saying, “When you come to Minneapolis, and you see the burning of sage, and you see an opening of a ceremony, and you hear the territorial acknowledgements, you’re not just getting a little taste of a Dakota or Anishinabe culture.” Those are the two peoples there, primarily. “But you should understand that there’s a way in which they are sort of telling you, ‘Look, this is our space.’” There’s an attempt I think at kin making, and drawing people into a reciprocal relationship there. This summer Philando Castile the African American man was killed in Falcon Heights, a suburb of St. Paul, by that cop. His partner got it all on video.
KT: This summer, and still into this fall, you’ve had these highly visible murders of African American men by police. I was writing about that, and how it’s actually… It’s really incredibly heartbreaking, as a Dakota person, to see the kind of police state that settlers have brought to our land, to our land. You don’t see any kind of discussion of that. When all of the media around us, what you see is this kind of racial lens, which is true. There’s a black-white racial lens, that binary is the central racial binary operative in the United States. But that binary is in part dependent on erasing Indigenous people, it erases red. There used to be, in the early twentieth century, it was red, white, and black. There’s this racial triad, if you look at histories of race.
KT: It’s largely now a black-white binary. Watching this, as a Dakota person, this happened on our land, and I imagine Indigenous people all over the country feel this way. I can imagine the heartbreak of my ancestors, in terms of the kinds of really violent relations that were brought into the Americas by settlers. These are not things that make us feel very good, because they’re happening in territories that are our historical lands. That’s what I wrote about. I think it’s important. I’m not sure how to do this, because I don’t know that black people think of themselves as a people, in the way that you have Indigenous peoples thinking of themselves as peoples. But we need to try to find languages to relate to each other in whatever sorts of making kin ways we can. I’m not interested in everybody trying to say they’re Indigenous, that’s not what needs to happen; but rather, can we relate people to people in some way?
KT: One of the important links that I made intellectually, was I noticed you had women at the center of Idle No More. I found out queer Black women founded Black Lives Matter. There’s something interesting going on with women here, and the ways in which they’re organizing. Then the sort of influence of queer communities as well. Because they’ve had to make kin, because they’ve been ostracized from their birth families much of the time. Indigenous people are still good at making kin, so I think there are all these really complex networks that need to be nurtured and massaged. That kinship framework for me is really, really generative right now in helping me think about how to do some of that work.
JEL: It’s exciting.
KT: It is exciting, yeah.
JEL: That’s a good way to the next question, which is, do you envision feminist epistemologies as integral to Indigenous futures? And why is feminism important in imagining an Indigenous future? What does a feminist Indigenous future look like, a queer future?
KT: My students and I talk about this a lot. Because I’ve got a Cree student who is really resistant to the word “feminism,” as many Indigenous women are. But she knows she acts like a feminist, and thinks like one, when she thinks about what that means. We talk a lot about what feminism means among my students. For me, I came to feminism through the side door, through feminist science studies. I didn’t come through this typical academic genealogy of feminism, within the academy. A lot of my other Indigenous scholar friends came to it through woman of colour feminism. I did not. I was looking at the way feminist critics, queer critics, crip theorists or disability study scholars, they were doing the same thing I was doing as an Indigenous scholar, which was critiquing the objectification of our bodies and our communities by science. They had very similar critiques about those kinds of exploitative scientific practices.
KT: When I come back then to Indigenous feminism, that’s what I’m bringing into it. How are feminists critiquing those kinds of hierarchies? They’ve done a great job of theorizing modes of resistance, I think, and so that’s been really useful for me. But in terms of my Cree student, who’s uncomfortable with the word, I said, “Well, if what we’re talking about are better relations, better obligations to one another, if we’re talking about consent, if we’re talking about reciprocity, are there words in Cree, or is there a concept in Cree that you can begin to use? We need to theorize in our Indigenous languages. That will really help us do some of this very complex intellectual work, where English is limiting us. Maybe someday,” I said to her, “I’ll be a post-feminist with you, if I can find a better Indigenous term to encompass what I think feminism does a pretty good job of.”
KT: It’s got the baggage of white feminism, but we work through that. Right now, it’s central, and it’s key. And then also, queer theory is another…. That’s also been a really fruitful area for me, and I feel like I’ve learned so much from what queer theorists have done in terms of similar kinds of critiques. But queer for whom? What’s queer in the West isn’t queer in the cultures of our ancestors. So again, these are imperfect kinds of terms or concepts, but we are operating in English. We don’t have a choice but to make use of the available tools and concepts in English. But at the same time, I encourage my students who speak their Indigenous languages, to think about working as much conceptually in those languages as they can, and then it has to be translated back into English too. It’s very complicated.
JEL: Do they take to that work? Are they enthusiastic about it?
KT: Yes, and they’re really thinking about it. Quite often, they’ll say, “Oh, but I need to go home and talk to my grandma or my uncle, because I don’t know the language as well, and I’m not sure what this word means.” Then they end up having these amazing conversations, where they’re prompting their elders to sit down and think about, “What does that term mean?” Even if it’s not exactly what it meant two generations ago, language is an alive thing. If you’re sitting there thinking about what a term means, and what it can encompass, language learning happens, knowledge transfer happens. They learn that everybody does theory. This is not just the domain of white guys with beards and tweed jackets.
JEL: Hopefully we’ll have time tomorrow to show you one of the VR productions we’re working on with an Anishinabe artist, Scott Benesiinaabandan. It’s a project that’s thinking, imagining the world 150 years from now. Part of what he’s trying to do is imagine the future of the Anishinabe language, how the language will evolve.
KT: That’s interesting.
JEL: Looking at how it’s evolved since contact, and then thinking about what’s going to happen with it over the next 150 years, given some speculation about what might be happening around it.
KT: It’s interesting to think about moving from a recovery mode, into a…
JEL: A generative mode.
KT: Yes. That’s actually more inspiring to me, to think about language maintenance or revitalization. If we can get people from recovery, into generating new language. I imagine that would get young people really excited.

JEL: I think so. I think that’s part of what we’ve done with the workshop, is it’s not specific about language, but part of what we talk to them about is the idea that they’re now the makers of the next generation’s traditions. It’s not just about recovering the old traditions, and learning them, and respecting them, and honouring them, but it’s also about the fact that they are the culture now. Part of their responsibility is not only to pass on those traditions, but they have to develop new traditions that respond to twenty-first century. In the case of Kahnawake, it’s an urban reserve that responds to the conditions they find themselves in. Those aren’t the conditions that their ancestors found themselves in, and so it’s about generating that culture, as well as honouring and passing on culture.

KT: I’m writing now about how the fact that we’ve lost knowledge of what we would now call sex or sexual practices because those things were so shamed out of our ancestors. But I do think we’ve retained fundamental ethical frameworks, that can serve as a ground from which we produce new practices. I’ve talked to other colleagues as well, and we all feel like, “Yeah, there’s something our families have retained about an orientation to the world, a fundamental way of being that’s still there, despite the loss of surface-level practices.” So I’m interested, and I was thinking about that as well.
JEL: You’re developing this language around human, non-human kin, life, not- life. How do you see that intersecting with the new materialism, or object-oriented ontology from the philosophy side? These are things that when I first started encountering, particularly the object-oriented ontology stuff, a couple years ago, I was like, “You’re just ripping off… ”
KT: Exactly. [chuckle]
JEL: Our people have been talking about this forever.

KT: Zoe Todd has that great blog too. She did her PhD at Aberdeen, and she talks about Bruno Latour coming in, to talk to all these science studies people and famous philosophers. And she said the same thing, “What are you talking about? Indigenous people already know their strength…But we use different language.” They’re not ripping us off, in the sense that they don’t know. What they don’t realize is that those ways of being in the world, of understanding that non-humans actually have life paths, and there’s cultural transfer that happens, and that there’s a whole lot about them we don’t understand, and how they are in the world, and we’re deeply entangled with them. I don’t think Western thinkers often understand how much has been lost.
KT: When I began engaging with the new materialism stuff, that’s the first thing I noticed. Any book or article that I read, I’ll add my own index point, which is Indigenous thought. I think in Jane Bennett’s book I found 117 instances in which she could have referred to Indigenous thought, and yet did not. It’s not a willful omission. Literally, I just don’t think they know that we’re here. So yes, a lot of Indigenous scholars are saying that. For me, again, if I’m trying to operate in the academy, Western academic language is really useful for me; but when I engage with this stuff, my first response is, Indigenous people need to be at the table, and we need to be leading the way and theorizing around this.
KT: It’s also that I’m really happy that we’re at this moment in the academy, where people are realizing that they can’t just simply continue to operate as if humans are at the pinnacle of everything. I appreciate the fact that non-Indigenous people are struggling mightily to find a language that’s helping them accord agency to non-humans now. Because they’re mostly secular, they really struggle. That whole secular spiritual thing as well, I’m looking to get away from in my work. We don’t have a problem as Indigenous people with ascribing what you might call in English a life force to a non-human, or a soul. We know that that’s an inadequate term, we probably wouldn’t talk about it in the language of our ancestors like that, but we just don’t have a problem doing that. You see them really contorting themselves intellectually, trying to find a secular language to do this sort of thing.
KT: This is why there’s such impenetrable theoretical languages. But I appreciate how hard they’re working to try to do that. It’s not easy with the tools that they’ve left to themselves, to try to find ways of talking about this. Mel Chen’s book, Animacies, is fantastic for trying to get at some of this in a way that’s thinking about race, that I think mentions Indigenous thought, and is thinking about queer theory.
JEL: You talked about this a little bit before, and you may not have much to add. But I think it’s a really important point, pulled out as a separate point. Which is talking about the need for deep engagement with the academy. As Indigenous people and as communities we can’t ignore it. On the individual basis perhaps, but as communities who are trying to build our communities, and thrive in this space, in this territory. The effect of the academy is profound and we need to find ways to engage with it. Can you talk a little bit more about that, about why you see academics, Indigenous academics as being an important part of this larger struggle to define ourselves, to take control of our own communities, and our own lives?
KT: We need Indigenous people everywhere. I was a planner in a previous life, and I worked for tribes, federal agencies, national tribal organizations. Those are also important places to be. I just realized that I was going to become an alcoholic if I stayed with those institutions. I’m not a good bureaucrat. Lo and behold, I ended up being better as an academic. I never would have understood or thought that. I work with Indigenous scientists; I work with Indigenous attorneys. I know a lot of people in Indian country, in the US especially, who work in all of these different areas. We need people everywhere.
KT: In terms of the academy, I don’t think it’s a particularly special place, but it’s one place in which we need people. Since a lot of scientific research and scientific knowledge production happens in the academy, we need to be there, and trying to influence that, so I more recently worked with research scientists. Also in my previous work as a planner, I worked with more applied scientists and engineers, so people who are out in industry working. I think it’s also important to have people there. I just went down the academic path, and that’s my community now that I feel best able to intervene in, talk about decolonial science and technology. But there are people out there in industry as well, trying to do that work. Or I hope so anyway.
JEL: Yes. I think so, more south of the border, from what I know. But another interesting border difference I feel is, part of the history up here, which it was that if you went to university, you got your native status taken away.
JEL: One of the things that surprised me when I moved up here… Down there, there was a big push in almost all the communities I was familiar with, to get educated. To create doctors, and lawyers, and engineers, both for the work that needs to be done in the community and to be effective in interfacing with these larger structures that were around us. I come over the border, and it’s a very different feel. It took me a while to really click in and understand the history enough and hear it enough times to realize that part of it is that for some of the older generation there’s a taught aversion to the idea of going and getting an academic degree. Because if they had done that, and they had relatives who did that, their Indian status was taken away. That’s part of the reason why I think it’s particularly important thing to talk about the academy, as opposed to some of these other places within Canada. I do think that there is still work that needs to be done at the community level, in terms of making it okay, and making it a positive thing to go off to university, and get a degree.
KT: We still have resistance at home, to people saying, “We’re going to come back and act white, or talk white.” Where I think because the academy has its own culture, and in order to thrive here, you have to learn that language. I’m an advocate of being multilingual. I can talk like that, and then go home and talk another way. But you acclimatize to the culture here, and that does look white compared to the communities that we come from. We have that as well. But there also was definitely an emphasis on doing applied degrees. Becoming a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher,those are the big ones, because those people will need it at home. The idea of doing a PhD often will get looked upon as maybe irrelevant. For me, I have a hard time telling how different that is from the broader American public who thinks that way.
KT: To what degree, for me, is that an American thing? I don’t yet understand how this works in Canada. So that’s really interesting to me, that little bit of different history up here.
JEL: It has some profound effects actually. In regards to the work that you’re doing around relationality and kinship and stuff like that, why do you think this work is so important in the face of the Anthropocene? Or what you want to call the phase that we’re moving into now, of increasing environmental duress and possible environmental catastrophe, at least in some ways. How do those things work together in your mind?
KT: I think we’re going to need broader, more sustainable kin relations to get through what we’re going to face. We live in a world that has encouraged us to live individually, to live in these small nuclear families, to live in these individual homes. I just don’t see how that’s going to be a sustainable way of living in the coming century. People are going to need to be on the move, they’re going to need to relocate. I also think about the fact that as Indigenous people, we’re already post-apocalyptic. For my people, we’re post-apocalyptic 155 years. Really 1862 is it, when everything changed. Not that we as Indigenous peoples are not going to face some of the extreme hardships that the broader society is going to face, we are, because we’re living inside this society. But I think we will come to see that we have developed strategies for surviving in crisis. My mom always says to me, “There’s nothing like a crisis to make Natives get organized.”
KT: Look at what’s going on at Standing Rock, super organized. I’m really a fan of zombie movies. When I watch The Walking Dead, I’m like, “That’s how white people are going to handle it. The people of colour have been living in crisis for centuries. We’re going to have shit under control.” I think there will be opportunities for organizing, and bringing to the fore these kind of extended kinship and community ways of living. I’m focused on that: What have we learned in the apocalypse that we’ve already been living through now? My people… For seven generations, my daughter, and my nieces, and nephews are the seventh generation after 1862. When you look back at what leaders, including Little Crow, were saying, wanting to survive seven generations out, we’re at an interesting moment right now.
KT: It’s an interesting time for us to begin thinking then about the next seven generations. He was making decisions at that moment, at that apocalyptic moment, about how just to survive. If you look back historically, there were decisions that were made by leaders that look incredibly compromised, but they were living in a world in which survival was really at stake. I’m taking lessons from that history to think about how we operate now. I have a lot of non-Indigenous colleagues, or friends, or relatives as well who are thinking about, “How do we begin to live in community, in different ways?” The Indigenous feminists I hang out with in Edmonton, are also talking about that. “What kinds of skills are we going to need to survive?” Those aren’t just land-based skills, those are important too, but there are also organizing skills. It’s learning how to live together in these more diffuse networks. I don’t know if that’s a real answer to your question. [chuckle]
JEL: That’s a great answer. Like I said the first time we talked on the phone, one of the things you said to me when I said we want to do this in the context of talking about the future, you expressed some skepticism. You sort of pushed back a little bit, in a sense that you were like, “Well I’m not sure if that’s how I think about time.” I’m wondering if you can talk a bit more about that.
KT: I don’t think about time as going on a progressive path. I wish I had had the math skills to study physics, I would have dug into this more, but I don’t have those skills. I believe in an ever-changing present. I’m going to think out loud here. If I think about what I’m taking from the new materialisms, what I’m taking from thinking that ascribes vibrancy or agency to earth and to water, those energies and things are always there in different forms. I think about things moving around, or changing form, but I don’t think about… I really resist this notion of linear time, because it’s too deeply welded to the notion of progress, and I don’t see any progress. That’s not to say that I don’t see change that is sometimes for the better, but I just see change. But what that does as well, that point of view helps me to not dismiss the presence and validity of non-humans more. It also helps value the agencies of persons that are no longer embodied, so you might call that spirits.
KT: If I’m not thinking about linear progressive time I’m thinking about an ever- changing present, I can value those shifting forms and energies more. When I talk about sitting at a conversational table, at a table where I’m in conversation with different thinkers, those might be actual other humans at the table, they might be texts, they might be the words of my ancestors as documented through oral and written history. To me, all of those thinkers and doers are at the table, and I’m in conversation with them. Me not thinking about linear progressive time helps me bring a broader array of voices into the room, into this sort of figurative room that I’m in, where I’m having these conversations, and where I’m learning. I feel like what feminist method has done for me is taught me that we’re always co- producing knowledge, we’re never just responsible for the words we’re producing, for the knowledge we’re producing, for the art that we’re producing. We always do these things in community. It’s just that some people don’t explicitly acknowledge that.
KT: I’ll write more about this, I’ll try to think through this in writing a little bit more about how resisting the notion of time, or future, or past is productive for me. I think it is, and I just haven’t put it into words yet.
JEL: Okay. I would like to see that. I think it would be good for the project that we’re doing. We’ve taken a particular approach towards thinking about time, and the future, and why that might be productive. But we’re also very much interested in other ways of trying to get at the same things, that is not necessarily coming through this kind of linear temporality but coming at it from different directions, or different languages.
KT: I think technology also often gets wed to these concepts of the future. But technology exists across time and space. It’s just that we think about high technology versus low tech. But technologies are tools. They’re not only material tools or digital tools, but they’re conceptual tools. I think about theory as a form of technology, so it also helps me. I love technology. It’s not that I’m not thinking about that, but I’m thinking about the technologies my ancestors had that might not look the way that we envision future technology. By wedding technology to the future and these notions of high tech, I think that might help us lose sight of the really profound dynamic things people in the “past” were doing.
JEL: You touched on language earlier, and you talked about encouraging your students to go back home and try to figure out the language for describing these sort of intellectual or academic concepts. I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit more about that. I think that’s a really powerful methodology in a number of different ways.
KT: I’m working on a book about the pipestone quarries in Minnesota, where we harvest pipestone for ceremonial pipes. There were some pretty intense conversations happening there between quarriers and carvers, and then tribal people that are not in the quarries, but that are away from the quarry. People are really concerned about the commercialization, the selling of pipe and jewelry and artifacts, and pipes as arts. But the quarriers have to make a living, and the carvers have to make a living there. Them living there, helps protect that space. So there’s these deep kind of contradictions in how we keep that space somewhat within our governance, and purview.
KT: Albert White Hat passed away, and I think he was from Rosebud. He was Sicangu Lakota. He was teaching at my tribal college, on my reservation, which is a Dakota reservation in the eastern part of the state. He is in one of the films about pipestone. He uses a word that we use to mean creator, or great spirit quite often. He translated it, and he said, basically it means relations. There’s also a word that means, that gets used as “sacred,” translated as “sacred” into English. That was a real ‘aha’ moment for me, because I had begun thinking about relations just through observing the way that people live and interact with stone. Some of the quarriers and carvers talk about the pipestone as a relative. When I was watching Albert go back and forth between Dakota and English, and trying to do this translation, and he was really focusing on the concept of being in good relation, a light bulb went on for me.
KT: Because growing up, I had always heard about being in good relation, doing things in a good way. It sounded vague, and I never really understood what it meant. But I’m beginning to understand what it means when I look at the very thoughtful and anguished way in which people at Pipestone are thinking about how to relate to that space, how to relate to that stone. Then to have Albert, who’s an expert in the language, center in on the concept of relations. Not having grown up speaking the language, there’s a lot I was hearing but not really getting. And actually through anthropology, or through observing people at the quarries, I’m beginning to get it.
KT: So that was really profound for me. For the the Dakota language I have studied we use the Riggs dictionary. He was a missionary. When you look at the translations of those dictionaries, you see very clearly the imposition of nineteenth century settler ideas into the way they’re translating the language for their worldview, and that’s what we’re left with now. Which gets back to your earlier point about the fact that, we’ve got some baseline and some speakers but there’s a lot of language… I don’t want to use the word “revitalization,” but language creation almost, that needs to be done according to a Dakota worldview and not simply a nineteenth century settler civilizing project worldview.
JEL: This is earlier work where you’re still mainly talking about the Native American DNA, and the research around that. You have that tableau, where it’s the National Geographic geneticist, Spencer Wells. He’s talking to the Aboriginal elder, and trying to convince the Aboriginal elder that there’s almost a moral obligation on the part of the elder and his people to provide the data to Spencer Wells and his people so that they can create a story. They can create a creation story in the way that the Aboriginal elder and his people had a creation story. I realized when you were talking about that, that there’s certain ways I was holding our creation stories kind of in a metaphorical box. And then there’s this scientific story which was tracing the movements of people. I was fine holding both of these things together, but there’s something really profound that the elder talks about. His story isn’t even addressing [Wells’] story, because his story isn’t about that migration and movement. His story is about the place, and the place where his people define themselves. It’s a very different way of thinking of a creation story than the Western way. I thought “I can hold these two things in my head at the same time, and I can operate in both ways.” But it’s the first time for me where I thought “Okay, actually these are like apples and laptop screens, the story that them over there are trying to tell, and the story them over here are telling.” I just wanted to share that with you, and see if you had any thoughts.
KT: It’s interesting. I see some profound differences, but also some real similarities between say, an Indigenous origin story and a scientific origin story. The scientist thinks they’re dealing largely with materiality though, and they’re looking at the migration of markers around the world. Whereas the scientist, or the Western thinker would say that Indigenous people are dealing with mythology or spirits, and they don’t have material evidence for those things. There’s a lot of narrative in it, there’s a lot of origin stories that structure the very way in which scientists tell the story of their data. They come to the data, they come to the questions with an origin story. Which is a story of migration, it’s a story of immigration. It’s not a story of being constituted in place, it’s a story that privileges the movement of human bodies. Even though they’ll talk about environmental effects on genes, they’re really privileging the agency of the human body, the agency of peoples.
KT: Whereas Indigenous people, in the way that these stories get told, they’re not privileging humans as above, they’re looking at humans as constituted in relationship with other relations, with place, with particular landforms, or other non-human bodies. That to me is kind of a fundamental difference. That can’t be understood by, “Here’s mythology and creation,” versus “Here’s materiality.” They’re different narratives, both of them have different narratives, both of them are treating materiality, but they’re treating materiality in a different way. I see a more co-constitutive synergistic treatment of materiality in the Indigenous origin story. For the scientific origin story, I see much less synergy, and I see a sort of focusing on the agency of the human, as I said. That human nature divide is always there, even though they might give some credence to the interplay, in terms of environ- mental effects on genes.
KT: But I also think we have been hampered in our ability to tell these narratives in ways that… I think we’ve been affected by that spirit-material divide, in the way that we talk about them now, and I don’t think that was probably always the case. Because if we didn’t have a spirit-material divide, if we didn’t have a divide in which there’s narrative and story, and then there’s real history, I don’t think our ancestors necessarily had that, right? I found this with interviewing Indigenous scientists from many different tribes, there’s a deep tolerance for ambiguity, for not knowing, for waiting until something is known, and maybe it’s not my right to know. Doesn’t mean that the answer isn’t out there, but I may not be the one that needs to know it. There’s no tolerance for that in Western science.
KT: It’s almost like an affront to their value in the world, if you tell them that they don’t have the right to know something, or maybe they’re not going to be able to know because of this, that, and other ethical issue, or financial issues, or whatever. This deep need to know I think really limits them being more expansive in their thinking about what counts as truth. I may be getting away from the answer, but yeah, I don’t think Indigenous creation stories or origin stories are materially without truth. I don’t think they’re just mythology.
KT: I think we need to focus on our emergence as peoples in particular places, because that’s a lot of what’s happening. I wouldn’t be a Dakota person absent the space from which Dakota people come. Which leads us into all other kinds of questions about how far out into diaspora you can go and remain Dakota. I’m not sure. It’s not just about my body and me passing on a Dakota cultural practice or identity to my kids absent that place, you can only do that for so long. I think we need place. But that’s a whole other argument.
JEL: That’s another half hour.
KT: That’s a whole other hour.
JEL: That’s over wine, and food. Okay. Thank you, Kim. That was really a pleasure.
KT: Thanks.
The author wishes to acknowledge with gratitude the background research and question preparation contributed by Lindsay Nixon.

the video of this interview is available at www.indigenousfutures.net/outputs/future-imaginary-dialogues.

Shopping Cart
Scroll to Top