- Toxic Colonialism, Environmental Justice, and Native Resistance in Silko’s Almanac of the Dead
Laguna Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko’s epic narrative Almanac of the Dead: A Novel (1991) has been read as a prophetic text, both in its rearticulation of ancient Native prophecies and as itself prophesying such social phenomena as the rise of the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico. I address both these kinds of prophecy as they form part of the work of Silko’s text, but I focus on a different way in which the novel is prophetic —it presages an approach I call “decolonial environmental justice cultural studies.” I suggest that Silko’s rich narrative is, among many other things, a paradigm for a much-needed body of work at the intersection of post- or decolonial theory and practice and transnational movements for environmental justice. I argue not that an environmental justice cultural criticism can be applied to Almanac of the Dead, but rather that Almanac of the Dead was already doing global decolonial environmental justice cultural criticism many years before the field was named, and that critics still need to catch up with Silko.1
When I first used the concept “environmental justice eco-criticism” more than a decade ago, I was describing something that was just emerging (“Environmental”). Now there is such a solid body of this work that prominent eco-critic Lawrence Buell has called it the “second wave” of the field, and has suggested that it is becoming the dominant form (17). This essay builds upon and expands this environmental justice cultural studies wave in crucial ways.2 Postcolonial, or, better, decolonial approaches should now be even more central to the field. Silko’s epic, which models interconnections that have emerged in the network of movements for global justice, was prescient in showing the vital links between decolonizations and environmentalisms on a local/national/global scale.3
Movements linking social justice and environmental degradation can now be found all around the globe. Environmental justice is the most common name in the US for these projects, but a variety of names have been used to characterize these efforts outside a North American context, including liberation ecologies, subaltern environmentalism, global South environmentalisms, environmentalism of the poor, and so forth. These [End Page 25] resistive practices share a fundamental analysis that argues that environmental problems cannot be solved without addressing the drastic political and economic inequalities existing within and between nation states. The massive network of movements opposing neoliberal corporate forms of globalization, the misnamed anti-globalization movement that prefers to call itself the movement for global justice, has greatly shifted the ground of environmentalism. In the context of these global movements for justice, the lines between environmental movements and other movements have grown increasingly and appropriately blurred both in the overdeveloped global North and in the global South.
Even when these movements do not use terms such as environment or ecology, it is clear that they fully understand that the fate of the more-than-human world and the fate of human beings are inextricably linked and that the degradation of certain “primitive” peoples and certain “underdeveloped” places go hand in hand. Anthologies such as David Lloyd and Lisa Lowe’s Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital (1997) and Richard Peet and Michael Watts’s Liberation Ecologies (2004) are rich with examples of how traditional agricultural and stewardship practices have formed alternative epistemological and political bases for critiques of capitalist environmental exploitation. For example, movements to maintain traditional land-based livelihoods and/or to restore traditional lands have ecological implications even when couched primarily in terms of resistance to modern, westernizing forms of “development.” Likewise, the over-used concept of “sustainable development” has vast and varied resonances that join economic and environmental struggles around the world. In turn, the varied struggles coalescing into the global justice movement have redounded back on North America in ways that are reshaping US environmentalisms into more fully transnational enterprises, particularly environmental justice movements in Native communities such as those referenced in Almanac of the Dead.
As I argue in The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil...