- Reorientations; or, An Indigenous Feminist Reflection on the Anthropocene
Destruction of homelands. Loss of kinship species. Exposure to deadly contaminants. Mass extinction. Transformed lifeways. In the face of these radical changes, a question lingers: How long will life be possible? Recently the academy has also felt the urgency of these environmental problems and proposed to address them within the framework of the term "the Anthropocene." Indigenous studies has offered various responses to the Anthropocene, some arguing that it has utility in framing the violence of colonialism and others critiquing the limitations and assumptions behind the "anthropos" in Anthropocene.1 Since contact, indigenous peoples of the Americas have dealt with an escalation of the forces of environmental change. Consequently, their ability to live has been challenged. Indigenous scholarship has shown that the Anthropocene can bring attention to the violence indigenous people have suffered and continue to resist, [End Page 174] but it can also be used to erase this history of violence. Narratives can conceal other narratives. It is the work of scholars to be attentive to this. The Anthropocene, as a term, has the potential to bolster indigenous critical projects because it can be read as an indexical mark on the planet that makes the violence of imperial projects visible. The environmental, economic, spiritual, and social challenges that indigenous people face are a rearticulation of the violence of living in a capitalist settler state.
To approach the Anthropocene from a position that does not remember the history of empire is a continuation of the system of settler colonialism that erases indigenous peoples so the settler nation can be imagined as empty and occupiable. Indigenous feminisms warn against responses to the Anthropocene that reinscribe this violent erasure, taking as their starting point the intersections of empire, industrial capitalism, and heteropatriarchy.2 In this short essay, I explain how starting at these intersections requires a radical reorientation to three key concepts: time, contamination, and kinship. I theorize these reorientations alongside the work of Navajo artist Will Wilson, whose Auto-Immune Response series (2005–present) addresses indigenous survival and resilience in the Anthropocene. Wilson's work is a call to critically decenter the human in discourses of apocalyptic climate change, challenging the framework of the "anthropos." Indigenous theoretical work, embodied in artworks like Wilson's videos, asks us to refuse the settler state as a basis for relationality and justice, prompting us to imagine solutions to the Anthropocene "outside of the models of governance and community that settler nation-states are founded on."3 Media studies scholarship must also consider these intersections as a starting point for its engagements with the Anthropocene.
Indigenous cultures have different orientations toward time, and theorizations of this alternative time—although they are varied and many—require scholars to rethink the scale of climate change within a longer historical trajectory. Scholars such as Kim TallBear, Grace Dillon, and Kyle Powys White have argued that indigenous peoples are already postapocalyptic.4 That is, indigenous peoples have already faced catastrophic violence, the loss of relationships, and the fundamental alteration of their ways of life to survive in spaces that are physically, emotionally, and spiritually toxic.
The "Orbis spike hypothesis" is a stratigraphic marker, introduced by Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin, that can be interpreted to show that the apocalypse has already happened to indigenous peoples.5 The term refers to the drop in atmospheric carbon, apparent in geological data, that stems from the population decline of the Americas [End Page 175] from around sixty million to six million people due to colonial war, famine, disease, and enslavement—a loss of life that can hardly be described in terms other than apocalyptic. The Orbis spike is an indexical mark of colonial violence upon Earth itself, showing that a colossal loss of human life can result in significant shifts in the environment, the results of which are now visible in the geological strata.
A reorientation to time requires an expansion of the scale of time combined with an understanding about how violence is enacted over and through time. This distinct understanding of temporality is what enables indigenous scholars to read the Orbis spike as having a deep connection...