- Sounding Silence in SundownSurvivance Ecology and John Joseph Mathews's Bildungsroman
In 2013 a photo of twenty-eight-year-old Amanda Polchies at a Mi'kmaq antifracking protest in New Brunswick, Canada, became iconic as a symbol of Indigenous resistance to industrial extraction. The image draws power in juxtaposition: Polchies silently lifts a delicate feather before a hard horizon of Royal Canadian Mounted Police, whose humanness is lost in the line of force with which they mean to protect the interests of the oil and gas industry. The dissonance captured in this photo is disturbing but not unique. Recent images of militarized police blasting water cannons at unarmed water protectors at Standing Rock in subfreezing temperatures also elicited shock and rage. Anger is justified. Surprise is not.
The use of excessive violence in the name of extractive industry is altogether foreseeable in the history of US and Canadian settler–Native relations (Brown). Indeed, David Grann's 2017 work of historical nonfiction, Killers of the Flower Moon, reveals how settler desire for land and resources has always been deadly. Grann narrates the Osage Reign of Terror, a period in the 1920s when the Osage were poisoned, shot, and bombed for their headrights to oil-rich land.1 Through Grann's deft archival scrutiny, Killers of the Flower Moon uncovers complex collusions between settler law enforcement, oil-industry tycoons, and white communities that seem eerily prescient of the riot-gear-clad police shielding the frontlines of settler capitalism today. Grann's narrative nonfiction details the historical backdrop of Osage writer John Joseph Mathews's 1934 bildungsroman Sundown. Both Grann and Mathews's texts regard the Osage Reign of Terror as a gruesome example in a long history [End Page 439] of structural violence linking the settler state to land theft and resource extraction. Still, Sundown offers a story of survival that goes beyond the tragic history of Grann's vital study to articulate-quietly, profoundly—with Indigenous resistance today. The novel stretches across time and space, silently testifying to an unbroken environmental justice tradition committed to Indigenous sovereignty and survivance.
Sundown forecasts the exhaustion of the settler-state's resource extraction but navigates this time travel in an ironic vehicle. It prophesies the emergence of a different social world through the narrative genre most associated with the inevitable teleology of Western modernity, the bildungsroman. Also known as the novel of education, the bildungsroman is a genre bound to the rhetoric of the forward march of "progress," developing from its original landscapes in German romanticism's "melding primitive naturalism and German nationalism" to the ideologies of individual subject formation and social assimilation (Wimborne).2 Sundown does follow an individual's formative psychological and social growth. However, instead of abiding by the conversational constraints often assigned to the bildungsroman, where talk functions as a sign of "development," Sundown shows the ways silence can both indict and out-wait the genocidal logic of natural resource extraction and nation building.
The novel traces an Osage male, Chal, coming into adulthood following a typical bildungsroman arc. Chal is frustrated, alienated, and threatened by the abrupt (and murderous) transition into modernity precipitated by the discovery of oil on the Osage reservation.3 However, instead of articulating with the classically assimilatory arc of the genre, Sundown's bildungsroman uses silences to predict what Stephanie LeMenager calls "the last gasp of oil aspirations," prophesying a time when the oil industry will consume itself. The novel's silences stress and splinter US settler colonial capitalism's seeming ubiquity, its invisibility like the air we breathe, exposing the violent pollutions of extractive, exhaustive, and exhausting modes of capital accumulation. In Sundown, silence is more than just a powerful marker of acquiescence to a culture of violence gasping for short-term gain. Silence can signal the refusal [End Page 440] to be speechless, refusal to be unheard, refusal to go away. In this, silence in the novel articulates resistance to, and resilience through, the white-world-making of CO2lonialism's choking atmosphere.4 Sundown imagines beyond toxic environmental atmospheres to a time and a world where a feather can stop a bullet and a silence can speak...