Indigenous-Washing and the Petro-Hero in Genre Fictions of the North American Oil Boom
This essay investigates how genre petrofictions of the North American oil boom engage with Indigenous perspectives and narratives. We find that most of these texts mirror the abuses that created our petroreality through a process of Indigenous-washing, which involves dismissing Indigenous peoples as complex individuals and sovereign entities and replacing them with strapping petro-heroes. Yet, at the same time, a growing corpus of texts legitimate Indigenous perspectives and highlight Indigenous narratives and so promise to reshape petrofiction into a tool for significant and sustained Indigenous empowerment and environmental justice.
In the last month of 2016, as global media fretted over the meaning of the US's election of a rabidly pro-fossil fuel president, it also turned a wistful gaze on the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. These protests had emerged from the remarkable coalition representing over 300 Native tribes that gathered during the frigid North Dakota winter to protect the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation's water supply, and progressive media outlets latched onto them as a beacon of hope for a reeling environmental movement. For instance, a Huffington Post article opined that the Standing Rock protests "signaled a new stage in evolving community resistance to fossil fuel extraction and transportation" (Pope) and was even "a Native American version of Gandhi's 1930 Salt March" symbolizing "a new and emerging coalition" between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.
The story of the stories of Standing Rock was yet more exalted. Even after the Trump administration pushed the pipeline on over the bodies of the protestors, subsequent commentators, such as journalist Bikem Ekberzade, insisted that, "Standing Rock is a victory" (182) narratologically. Ekberzade, in one of the first book-length evaluations [End Page 78] of the protests, argues, "With [Standing Rock's] individual stories of righteous disobedience and courageous solidarity still resonating, it will continue to inspire similar movements well into the future." #NoDAPL may have failed to stop this particular pipeline, but its "stories" and their unchained power to galvanize others, she avers, "may be our last chance to save [the planet]."
Saving the planet is a tall order, but the grand claim about Standing Rock's power falls in line with a strand of petroculture criticism that singles out Indigenous-associated perspectives and narratives as a counterweight to petromodernity. Although a substantially positive development—at least from the perspective of current environmental and Indigenous movements—this rhetoric of the salvific potential of Indigenous stories does have a mixed history. For over 500 years, settler-colonial societies have used images of Indigenous peoples as foils, reflecting all that is right—or wrong—with the West. As Robert Berkhofer explains in his definitive work on stereotyping over time, "that Indians lacked certain or all aspects of White civilization could be viewed as bad or good depending upon the observer's feelings about his own society and the use to which he wanted to put the image" (27–28). For some non-Indigenous outsiders, standing with Standing Rock became a potent way to critique all that they detested about what their own society had become.
At the same time, however, cross-racial and cross-cultural anti-petroleum protest movements like Standing Rock do emerge from Indigenous cultures and interests and an efflorescence of Indigenous activist organizing that has created what Sourayan Mookerjea terms an "autonomous domain of subaltern politics" (345). Indigenous activist groups like the highly effective Idle No More, for instance, build from a renewed sense of Indigenous sovereignty to provoke a coalitional Native and non-Native environmental activism. As they declare in their vision statement: "Idle No More calls on all people to join in a peaceful revolution, to honour Indigenous sovereignty, and to protect the land and the water" (Idle No More). Or as Cree activist Clayton Thomas-Muller affirms: "We [Indigenous peoples] are the keystones in a hemispheric social movement strategy that could end the era of big oil and eventually usher in another paradigm from this current destructive time of free market economics." Non-Native outsiders have taken inspiration from these narratives of resistance and, perhaps as never before, now appear eager to absorb, amplify, and even engage in Indigenous and environmental struggles on Indigenous terms. [End Page 79]
The Indigenous stories helping to deliver this new paradigm have encountered a peculiar obstruction, however, in the form of what Bart Welling terms "petronarratology" (444). As Welling observes, "petroleum culture is built of narratives as much as it consists of pipelines and asphalt roads" (443), and, while Amitav Ghosh points out that serious culture continues to ignore oil extraction such that it still manifests "almost no presence in our imaginative lives, in art, music, dance, or literature" (75), genre fictions have determinedly filled in that blank. Since oil production emerged as a potent economic and political force in early twentieth-century North America, soap operas, romances, Westerns, and sitcoms have quietly constructed a substantial pro-extraction petronarrative infrastructure predicated on the exclusion of Indigenous stories like that of the resistance at Standing Rock. The primary mechanism of this genre work involves the linkage of what we are calling the petro-hero and Indigenous-washing.
Instead of embracing Indigenous narratives and perspectives and a communal effort by water protectors, genre petrofictions—from the 1934 Buster Crabbe romance The Oil Raider to the latest reboot of the nighttime TV soap Dynasty—have valorized an epic narrative shaped around the individual, environment-conquering exploits of the petro-hero. A latter-day cowboy, the petro-hero is a hard-edged, technologically savvy, self-made maverick who scoffs not just at bureaucratic regulation but also at local communities and nature, which he sees as mere obstacles to overcome on his way to extractive glory. His roots extend deep into accounts of extractive heroes such as Gilgamesh and Beowulf and settler-colonial conquerors such as Hernan Cortes and John Smith, but his first modern manifestation was conjured by the almost mythic coverage of Standard Oil's John D. Rockefeller, the man whom even his great antagonist, Ida Tar-bell, described in heroic terms as a masterful Napoleonic "military genius" ("History" 320) of "dazzling … achievement" both "patient" ("Character" 245) and "daring" ("History" 320), with a "steady … courage" and "unwavering … faith in his ideas."
Of course, such heightened journalistic depictions of Rockefeller and their classic literary successor, Upton Sinclair's Oil! (1926–27), approached the petro-hero with skepticism, aware of his troubling qualities as well as his great ones, and, recently, highbrow films like P. T. Anderson's There Will Be Blood (2007) or Ty Roberts's The Iron Orchard (2018) have begun to swing back toward expressions of anxiety about the petro-hero's hubris or even sociopathy. Yet genre fictions with wide mass appeal were and remain decidedly more starry-eyed, and thus, beginning in the 1940s and 1950s, as the [End Page 80] US exploded into a global superpower, the petro-hero went with it, serving as an important embodiment of this swaggering national dominance. Larger-than-life Texas oilmen like Hugh Roy Cullen, Clint Murchison, Sid Richardson, and H. L. Hunt—that is, "The Big Rich" as Bryan Burrough has called them—grew to epic proportions in the popular consciousness, and Hollywood took its cues from this grandiose image, setting its most iconic and appealing leading men to play the petro-hero and play him, for the most part, as the great American hero. Think Clark Gable's "Big John" McMasters in Boom Town (1940), Jimmy Stewart's Steve Martin in Thunder Bay (1953), James Dean's Jett Rink in Giant (1956), Bruce Willis's Harry Stamper in Armageddon (1998), or Mark Wahlberg's Mike Williams and Kurt Russell's James "Mr. Jimmy" Harrell in Deepwater Horizon (2016). Or, on the small screen, take the international sensation Dallas, which breathlessly recounted the exploits of battling Texas oil baron brothers, Bobby and J. R., over a record-breaking 14 seasons (1978–91).
However, these flashy petro-heroes have a darker side, far more disturbing than an eruption of hubris or backstabbing sibling rivalry. The necessary counterpart to the petro-hero is the "Vanishing Indian" (9), which, as Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker observe, is "the central organizing myth from which most other popular myths about Native peoples arise" (12) and "can be traced precisely to the impulse of the state to eliminate the Native" (11). This murderous myth plays out not only in brutal public policy but in cultural representation—or, rather, misrepresentation—which actively vanishes Indigenous peoples. In the last 30 years, the "Native American Renaissance" (Velie and Lee 3) in serious art and literature has pushed back hard against this myth, building from a resurgent native "sovereignty" (20) and "economic development" (3) to assert a complicatedly human Indigenous presence. Yet the myth maintains a stubborn power, especially in the representations of resource extraction found in genre fictions. Generic petro-hero narratives, in particular, continue to participate in Indigenous erasure and are constructed around the absence and/or the explicit elision or containment of Indigenous presences and perspectives. Echoing classic settler-colonial Westerns that justified appropriation of Native land by using Indigenous characters as one-dimensional props predestined for destruction, these petro-hero narratives undermine Native claims to resources like water or even petroleum itself by erasing Indigenous peoples.
At its most subtle, this erasure takes the form of what we are calling Indigenous-washing: that is, a strategy similar to corporate [End Page 81] greenwashing, when narratives make a show of engaging with Indigenous perspectives but only as a feint designed superficially to incorporate—even while actually undercutting—any substantive Native perspectives or politics. Petro-hero narratives are already almost as slippery and flexile as the substance they glorify, and this Indigenous-washing only makes them more adaptable. Even when the narratives seem to take a critical stance on the petro-hero or court the physical presence of Indigenous peoples by setting the narrative on or near Native communities, Indigenous peoples in these fictions still cease to exist as culturally distinct and politically sovereign entities, and Indigenous individuals appear as stereotypes that trivialize imperative Indigenous claims to natural resources.1
The petrofictions that we are investigating here—a selection of genre fictions inspired by the North American oil boom of the 2000s—rely intensively on Indigenous-washing. Much of the boom's oil extraction occurred on or adjacent to reservation lands, and this proximity, along with the increased pressure to include subaltern perspectives, led some of these genre fictions to soften their petro-heroes and ramp up their Indigenous-washing, settling it more explicitly into the core of their petro-hero's narratives. For Indigenous oil narratives like those of Standing Rock, this meant that they still stepped into a narratological boxing ring, just with sucker-punching opponents who swore they were on their side. For Standing Rock's narrative to "resonat[e]" and "inspire" (Ekberzade 182) as it did, it had to hit back at the petro-hero and challenge his narrative, while dodging his underhanded blows and exposing his Indigenous-washing.2
This essay begins to unpack a genealogy for Standing Rock's narrative victory by examining such recent permutations of the petro-hero and his Indigenous-washing tactics, as well as the inchoate attempts to counter them. Specifically, we focus our analysis on a selection from some of the most popular genres of US and Canadian petrofiction about the Bakken shale and Alberta tar sands, in 2014–15, immediately before the DAPL protests, and we ask if—and how—these petrofictions of the North American oil boom erased, contained, or unleashed Indigenous narratives.
For Indigenous residents of North America's petro-extractive zones, some aspects of reality appear as strange—and at least as disturbing—as dystopian fiction. Colonial gains (whether of land, labor, or minerals) have long ridden on Indigenous losses, but in recent decades [End Page 82] the quest for new sources of oil and natural gas has expanded into new geographies and worked industrial proponents into a frenzy. It turns out that fossil-fueled industrial civilization has already depleted a significant portion of its cheap-and-easy sources of energy. Rather than forsake hydrocarbons, it has done what any dedicated addict would: find a way to satisfy the craving. The race to develop previously unreachable, unconventional hydrocarbon deposits is on, and it is unleashing waves of increasingly extreme forms of extraction. In North America, unconventional extraction has centered on technologies like high-velocity horizontal hydraulic fracturing (known to most of us, simply, as fracking) and bitumen mining. As in fiction, popular petrocultural biographies like The Frackers: The Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters by the journalist Gregory Zuckerman celebrate the heroic quests—and the astounding wealth—of the men who brought this hard-won petroleum to market.
Unconventional extraction may have assuaged anxieties about peak oil, but it has replaced them with an even more pessimistic array of future prospects. Because these new technologies make it possible to burn more hydrocarbons, which release vast amounts of greenhouse gases for longer periods of time, they have invigorated debates and dire warnings about the consequences of climate change. On the ground, the effects of unconventional extraction are also severe. On Indigenous homelands across North America's northern plains, environmental and social impacts have implications that are profoundly cultural and political.
Fracking has reshaped the physical and social landscape of Wyoming, Saskatchewan, and almost everywhere in between. The fracking process pumps fluid (water mixed with assorted and usually proprietary lubricants, biocides, and other chemicals) into the ground at high velocity in order to fracture deep sedimentary layers and release the hydrocarbons trapped within. Up to 70 percent of this fluid returns to the surface, carrying with it a host of potentially harmful chemicals and radioactivity. Fracking thus poses novel risks to water resources, both in the quantity of fresh water the operation uses and in the very real possibility of spills and contamination. The Bakken shale, which covers a 200-square-mile area surrounding the small city of Williston, North Dakota, has become the illustrious epicenter of an intense fracking boom. Between 2008 and 2014, "hundreds of drilling rigs operated simultaneously in this remote and sparsely populated region, resulting in dramatic changes to both the landscape and socioeconomic composition of area communities" (Junod et al. 201). All of this unfolded in close proximity to members [End Page 83] of the Fort Berthold (Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara, located in northwestern North Dakota) and Fort Peck (Assiniboine and Sioux, located in northeastern Montana) tribal communities. The events at Standing Rock in late 2016 were directly connected to Bakken extraction: It was Bakken crude that the legendary black snake of the Dakota Access Pipeline would transport under the sacred waters of the Missouri River on its way to a terminal in southern Illinois.
The dramatic events opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline unfolded on the homeland of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, but Indigenous people from across the continent quickly converged at the site in a show of solidarity and shared struggle. The most immediate concern in this case was the risk of water contamination if and when the pipeline developed a leak.3 Such leakage would degrade the waters of Lake Oahe, the main source of drinking water for the people of Standing Rock, and pose a serious health risk for local residents. But the problem with the pipeline also extended into much deeper spiritual and psychological anxieties, for water is a sacred entity for the Sioux and for many other Indigenous groups. Linked by water protectors and sympathetic observers alike to the long history of colonial invasion of the West, it was now oil companies—aided by captured government entities—that came to win the land and its resources. In this iteration, environmental injustice is a colonial pursuit dependent on dismissing those who got in the way.
Further north, in Alberta, Canada, an even more outrageous extractive iteration is taking place. The tar sands cover 54,000 square miles and contain 175 billion barrels of recoverable oil, making them the second largest oil deposit in the world (Nikiforuk 22). Although tar sands exploration began in the 1960s, it wasn't until the 1990s that bitumen mining began to make economic sense. Following 9/11—and the oil price spikes and calls for energy security that followed—tar sands production expanded rapidly.4 Compared to conventional extraction, unconventional processes require far more energy to extract the same amount of petroleum. This is true nowhere more than in the tar sands. The substance removed from the Alberta earth is not flowing oil but bitumen—a dense, viscous hydrocarbon that is virtually immobile at normal temperatures. Bitumen can be removed from the ground in two ways: about 20 percent of the bitumen in the Athabasca deposit (the tar sands' largest and most developed area) is shallow enough to be strip-mined, while the 80 percent of bitumen too deep for surface access is extracted using even more energy-intensive in situ processes, such as steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD). [End Page 84]
Tar sands extraction requires massive amounts of energy, in addition to its increasing requirements for land and water. As a result, not only is the production of tar sands financially costly, but its externalized environmental and social costs are also truly exorbitant. In a few short decades, the industry has transformed more than 230 square miles of ecologically and culturally intact boreal forest and muskeg into a denuded industrial sacrifice zone. It is unlikely that this landscape will ever be restored to its original condition. The tar sands cover a vast expanse of land occupied and used by the Lubicon Lake Cree, Mikisew Cree, Bigstone Cree, Beaver Lake Cree, and Fort McKay First Nation, as well as numerous Metis communities. The health risks associated with tar sands mining are enormous and have been well documented. Most remarkable is the fact that leukemia and lymphoma, lupus, reproductive cancers, and (strikingly) a rare form of bile duct cancer called cholangiocarcinoma all occur in the region around Lake Athabasca at rates much higher than in the general population.5
Intergenerational connections to place and the sanctity of culturally-definitive land-based subsistence have been shattered. Here, too, the arrival of the oil companies looked and felt like a new wave of colonial conquest, now in an environmentally unjust form. Given the daily production of 400 million gallons of toxic sludge, tailings ponds that cover 50 square miles, toxic effluent constantly conveyed downstream, and exorbitant greenhouse gas emissions, the tar sands exemplify extractivism on an unprecedented scale (Nikiforuk 83). With environmental and social impacts to match their enormous size, the tar sands have been called "the most destructive project on Earth" (Hatch and Price 2).
The environmental destruction associated with unconventional extraction is only part of what makes it so troubling. The Indigenous activists and allies who stood up at Standing Rock are engaged in a battle that has been fought for generations by people who face continual challenges to their ability to live in their own way and on their own land. While the dominant society's stated goal has shifted from the outright conquest of territory to the large scale removal of resources for profit, colonialism and contemporary quests for hydrocarbons share a common dependence on the active ignorance and violation of Indigenous claims to lands and resources in order to perpetuate extractivist goals and gains, thus continuing the colonial erasure of Indigenous peoples to produce a perpetual terra nullius. Just as historical colonialism sought to remove Indigenous peoples from their lands so that white settlers could claim the resources [End Page 85] contained within, today's resource colonial petroreality uses subtler tactics to clear the way.
Extreme energy extraction is colonialism in a new guise, and petronarratives are one of the most important tools of this new colonialism. No longer do we see removal acts, bans on Indigenous spirituality, and residential schooling. Instead, it is ancestral homelands overwritten by imaginings of a great white northern wilderness, versions of history that vanish Indigenous stories, biased environmental/social assessment structures that render meaningful Indigenous participation impossible, and lost access to life-giving land and resources that now serve to separate people from place.6 Despite the obvious evils of unconventional extraction, Randolph Haluza-Delay argues, petroleum extraction in the tar sands and beyond is facilitated by corporate/government production of narratives that seek to convince us that there is "no alternative" (36) to exploiting these resources. The unquestioned necessity of oil and the erasure of Indigenous people who say otherwise combine to create a future in which continued extraction is all but guaranteed. As we will see, this future is produced not only by industry-friendly regulations and sanguine company propaganda, but also by popular petrofiction and its heroic petronarratives.
The Soap: "Step Away from the Moose"
The petro-hero loves a good soap opera, and the first two decades of the twenty-first century have been frothing over with oil soaps. These include reboots of traditional series such as Dynasty and Dallas but also a plethora of reality TV shows about heroic oil workers set in the new North Dakota and Alberta fields, such as Boomtowners and Licence to Drill. (When the Alberta oil boom busted in 2014, the Canadian workers relocated to South Louisiana, and the show was rechristened using the American English spelling of the word "license.") Even though these series engage with the northern oil boom and take place near or even on reservation lands with significant Native populations, they largely ignore the Native presence, and none of them features a recurring, named Native character—with one exception.
ABC's Blood and Oil, the soap opera that briefly revived Don Johnson's acting career, had two named Native characters played by Indigenous actors, although their appearances were fairly fleeting. The first Native character is only named on IMDb, not in the plot, and she appears for a single scene in the pilot. Steph Black Crow's one scene, however, emblematizes an important containment strategy [End Page 86] of Indigenous-washing: gesturing at a Native perspective and struggle only to trivialize that perspective and use the struggle to contrast the supposedly bad oil man's disrespect for Native culture with the supposedly good petro-hero's ersatz concern for the racialized other. Such a strategy still aims to legitimate an only superficially more progressive petro-hero and his narrative at the expense of Indigenous peoples.
Blood and Oil follows the adventures of one such plucky, progressive petro-hero, the handsome, white, all-American Billy, who, along with his blond, nymph-like wife, Cody, chases oil and the American Dream in the Bakken. Billy has no money, but lots of nerve—mixed with surprising shrewdness—which he uses to turn himself, almost miraculously, into an independent oil baron. The series, however, faces a bit of a challenge: the systemic violence and environmental devastation wreaked on North Dakota towns and Native American reservations by the oil boom and their bleak man camps (especially noted for their violence against Indigenous women) is legendary, and oil barons have come under criticism in recent years for their role in this horror and for their toxic masculinity and scheming exploitation of local communities (in There Will Be Blood, for instance).
The series undermines these critiques by putting a Hollywood soft focus on the setting and characters. It portrays the boomtown as a cheerful carnival, strung with glows of colored lights and filled with a happy multicultural chaos of hopeful, hard-partying men-on-the-make, all of them Hollywood attractive. It also softens its petrohero. In spite of his western cowboy name, Billy has a distinctively feminine, teen-heartthrob look, characteristic of actors on The CW; his appearance and his romantic attachment to Cody make him less threatening. At the same time, the series goes out of its way to point out that he is a racial ally. He befriends a struggling African American couple and uses his newfound wealth to help them pursue their American dream as restaurateurs.
Billy's benignity as a socially progressive petro-hero is highlighted and established in that key scene in the pilot with Steph Black Crow. When Billy and Cody stop by the town bar on their first disorienting night in North Dakota, they are invited to witness a colorful altercation: the cultural insensitivity of a bad oil man. A bar patron yells out, "Hey, anybody wanna see cowboys versus Indians?" signaling to the viewers that they are about to see a scene reminiscent of an old, racist Western, from which the current show intends to distance itself. Billy and Cody rush outside to witness one of the series' villains, the privileged white scion of oil, Wick Briggs, standing beside [End Page 87] his pickup and showing off the sacred white moose he just shot. An outraged Steph Black Crow confronts him, screaming, "You have no idea what you've done. … We are taking this animal. … Whoever kills a spirit animal is cursed!" To which Wick and his goons respond with silencing derision ("Ain't no one cares what you got to say. Pipe down, lady") and then violence ("Step away from the moose," he says before getting his rifle; "You want to get shot, lady?").
Thanks to the intervention of the no-nonsense sheriff, the row ends peaceably before any blood is spilt, but the scene allows us to see Billy's disgust with Wick at the same time that it showcases the triviality of Native concerns over expropriation of their resources—quaint superstitions about a snowy ungulate—both of which provide cover for Billy's subsequent acts of dispossession. Billy will, in fact, make his first million with a far more substantial legal theft. When the Briggs family learns that the local reservation sits atop an ocean of oil larger than Saudi Arabian fields, they realize they can get to the oil without consulting the Native American residents if they slant-drill under their land from a property they own. However, they need to access that property from another parcel of land, which, through cleverness and daring, Billy now controls, and so our petro-hero strong-arms the Briggs clan into bringing him in for a share of the venture.
The series appears to celebrate Billy's collusion in dispossessing Indigenous peoples as a clever move, and none of the characters, including our kind Billy, ever stops for a second to wonder about its monstrosity. We are not certain if the series is playing an incredibly deep game of critique, or if it is purposely trying to normalize the oil industry's environmental racism, or if such exploitation is already so normalized that none of the writers even noticed. We tend to think that it is the last. If so, the Steph Black Crow scene was an act of legerdemain, serving to distract us from Billy's subsequent exploitive extraction by establishing that he is a good petro-hero in contrast to the villainous Wick Briggs, and the pilot skips almost immediately from joyful, well-lit, and sunny scenes of Billy and Cody depositing their payout to Wick's dark-and-stormy-night attempt to steal crude from his father's drilling rigs.
One unfortunate aspect of this Indigenous-washing, however, is that the camera knows that Steph Black Crow—like the moose—is meant to be symbolic, rather than a complex individual with a unique perspective. And so, it keeps her face distant and slightly out of focus. If it had been more in focus, viewers might have recognized her as Stefany Mathias, actor, director, and a hereditary chief of the Squamish nation, born and raised in northern Vancouver, British Columbia. [End Page 88] This recognition would have been significant not just because Mathias is an important Indigenous artist but because, in the same year she appeared in Blood and Oil, she also did a more substantial turn in another petrofiction, Netflix's acclaimed Western/detective series, Longmire. That series and Mathias's performance in it approach the oil boom's petrofiction from a purposefully more critical angle and with a genuine, rather than comically superficial, attempt at Indigenous representation. It produces a very different petronarrative.
The Western: "Sheriff, These Are Good Guys"
Mathias appears in a powerful cluster of episodes at the end of Long-mire's fourth season as Linda Laughton, an impoverished, hardworking single mother living on a Cheyenne reservation in Wyoming. Steph Black Crow may have been just a cardboard cutout, an impractically noble stereotype scrapping over a symbolic moose, but Laughton is another story. Referred to as "that bitch," hard-eyed and bitterly practical, she responds to the rape and subsequent kidnapping by white oil workers of her daughter, Gabriella, with an unhinged rage she directs at the teenager and at community leaders (both tribal and white) who try to seek justice for Gabriella. She is presented as a terrible mother—verbally abusive unless she is abandoning her traumatized daughter to drudge at cleaning hotels or to escape on drug-fueled benders—but Mathias and the series's writers will not let the audience comfortably hate her. Viewers come to understand that her fury flows from the pain of being trapped in an impossible situation, in which resource extraction and the white men who do it are privileged at the expense of Native women's bodies.
The work of theorists such as Audra Simpson and activist groups like the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women highlight the dynamic that Laughton suffers: settler colonialism and the heroic petronarratives that are perpetuated in conjunction with colonialism can happen only after a legal, narratological, and sexual subjection of Native women, and so they are purposefully left vulnerable by an impossible tangle of jurisdictions, a lack of resources, and a refusal to hear their stories. In fact, by the same token, the greatest rhetorical threat to these extractive structures is the resurgence of those women and their stories. Taking Indigenous perspectives seriously, especially the experiences of Indigenous women, profoundly disrupts the petrohero's story and exposes him as a rapist and abuser, not a hero. That reversal of Indigenous-washing is precisely what Longmire attempts, particularly in the arc of episodes featuring Laughton and Gabriella. [End Page 89]
Longmire is a surprising show. Based on Craig Johnson's bestselling novels, it burst out on A&E in 2012, at the height of the North American oil boom, as the network's "highest-rated original drama series" ever (Marechal). Nonetheless, A&E decided that it appealed too much to a demographic of people 60 and older that failed to delight advertisers, and so they dumped the show at the end of season three into Netflix's eager arms, which carried the acclaimed series for four more seasons. That fan base of older viewers is surprising as well, since that demographic tends to skew far more conservative in the US, including on racial issues, and Longmire develops an explicitly progressive, antiracist narrative, driven by its most surprising attribute: its extensive cast of Native American characters played by Native American actors.
This inclusion and centralization of Indigenous voices is unprecedented in mainstream American television and can be challenging for some of its viewers. One Google reviewer, "Brad Brexit," for instance, complains that "the 'white guilt' aspect of this show is a bit off-putting at times. That is, constantly being reminded about how the native americans [sic] suffered at the hands of white European settlers. Indeed, the show occasionally points an accusatory finger at white viewers. I'm on season 6 now, and it's happened more than a couple dozen times already. We get it." Nevertheless, he rates the show a five out of five and decides that "it's a small complaint," which suggests that he is imbibing the narrative, taking his medicine, even if he does not like it.
The show can pull off this feat because it packages its message so carefully. The spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down is not just the stellar acting and writing but also the Western genre and its white title character, Walt Longmire, a rigorously decent, small-town sheriff who wears a Stetson and does not own a cell phone, who has been described as a "romantic hero" (Leydon) standing tall among the grotesque crop of anti-heroes popular in the early 2000s. But in spite of the hat and boots, the series is not quite a Western. The show is a noir, focused on exposing the underbelly of power and its enabling myths, such as a heroic petronarrative, and Longmire himself is far more than a cowboy: he is a reformed petro-hero. We discover that Longmire, along with his best friend Henry Standing Bear (played by Lou Diamond Phillips), worked in the Prudhoe oil fields, but instead of embracing global extraction and making his fortune, he rejects it and instead comes home to serve his small community. [End Page 90]
The service he chooses, of course, is the pursuit of justice, which puts him at odds with petroleum interests and entails exposing the petro-hero narrative as a cynical cover for the abuse and exploitation of Native American women. This contradiction emerges in the episodes that deal with the oil workers' rape of Gabriella, most especially in Longmire's interactions with his primary antagonist, a sleazy oilfield manager, Walker Browning, played by the Scottish actor Callum Keith Rennie, who is doing his best impression of Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis's rig manager character in Armageddon). The script helps him along, letting him echo Stamper's constant homo-social harping on "my guys" and how "outstanding" they are and how they need to "blow off some steam" and how he is just there to protect them. Of course, in Armageddon, one of the "guys" (Steve Buscemi), along with his penchant for raping underage girls, is played for laughs. Not so much in Longmire, and, when Browning jollies up to Longmire, trying to convince him to release Gabriella's rapists, the sheriff is deeply unimpressed with the folksy grandstanding. Using an interview technique that just lets the mark jabber until he exposes his own narrative flimsiness, Longmire remains stonily silent as Browning rattles on: "Sheriff, these are good guys."
Both Longmire the series and Longmire the character are simply not interested in playing along with the oil man's story and see through it to the corruption and murderous self-interest it hides. (Browning is a killer and a crook who keeps the sheriff of the neigh-boring county in his back pocket, letting him parrot enabling party lines like the following: "That oil company provides a lot of revenue and a lot of jobs in this county.") Instead they spend time trying to hear Gab's story. Gabriella, called "Gab" because of her former chattiness, has gone silent because that is the role imposed on her by her rapists and the structures of extractive power they represent: she writes that one of her attackers told her "to scream as loud as I wanted because no one cares to listen. He was right." Her mother reinforces this silencing after she takes a bribe from Browning to shut down the investigation: "Gab's not gonna talk. … 'Cause I don't need justice. I need to pay the rent. … Women on the Rez are taught to keep their mouths shut. That's what my mother taught me, and that's what I tried to teach Gab."
Laughton's painful calculus emblematizes the double-bind of many Indigenous communities faced with the inevitability of powerful interests fracking or drilling them, terms widely noted by antifracking activists for their violently sexual connotations. The best you can hope for from the violation of land and body is just a pay-off, a [End Page 91] tiny sliver of the pie that you can use to pay rent or purchase some temporary numbing, like a new TV or drugs. Gab, however, ultimately refuses the rotten deal and instead shoots her attacker and escapes, a vigilantism of, by, and for the oppressed that the show, after some thinking, heartily endorses. Longmire thus suggests that the petro-hero and his narrative are met with profound skepticism, that validating Indigenous perspectives, especially those of Indigenous women, means that the hard-driving, plain-talking oil man emerges as a corrupting, bullshitting rapist, a villain of the darkest dye. But what if he could be transformed into something less threatening? What if he could be just a sweet schlub? Instead of Walker Browning or Harry Stamper, what if he could be Brent Leroy?
The Comedy: "If Corner Gas Can't Survive, None of Us Can"
Canada's genre petrofiction, in spite of the occasional manly reality show like Licence to Drill, appears far less enamored of the classic petrohero than its southern neighbor is, but that does not mean that it lacks its own particular and arguably more modern version, one that reflects the nation's latter-day ascension to the status of petrostate.7 Brent Leroy, the balding, bespectacled, paunchy, and much put-upon proprietor of the only gas station in the small town of Dog River in Saskatchewan, is the unlikely petro-hero at the warm heart of "the most popular Canadian sitcom ever" (Vlessig) and its most popular genre petrofiction, Corner Gas. Corner Gas was created by its star, the comedian Brent Butt, and it ran from 2004 to 2009 and became a film in 2014 and then an acclaimed animated series in 2016, which is still going strong. Its immense and unprecedented popularity and devoted fanbase stunned Canadian broadcasters, with episodes regularly pulling in at least one million viewers and snagging guest appearances by multiple prime ministers. It even made it into the US market after Amazon picked it up.
Corner Gas promotes an oddly civic and at least superficially inclusive vision of petroleum, which utilizes a subtler form of Indigenous-washing than genre petrofictions like Blood and Oil. Like Billy or the Briggs family, Brent makes his money from petroleum, but, like Longmire, he returns home to serve his community, and that community does include a significant Indigenous presence. That presence comes, however, in the form of just one named and recurring character, who veers toward the stereotype of the lazy Indian and whose narrative is a bit too happily and seamlessly integrated with his white neighbors. Sergeant Davis Quinton, played by Cree actor Lorne [End Page 92] Cardinal as charmingly goofy and almost irrepressibly cheerful, is actually a figure of authority in Dog River as the sheriff, although a harmless and inept one, and he emerges in a beautiful fantasy space apart from a history of racism or exploitation with almost none of the issues that come with the Native characters in the other series we have discussed. His ethnicity and cultural background add color but no drama, as they hardly factor into the plot at all.
The petronarrative that Corner Gas promotes thus draws a line from the petroleum industry to a community of a quirky but utopic and harmoniously multicultural kind, with no real tensions and no real Indigenous perspective. This equation between oil and a unified community becomes most apparent in the 2014 film, created just as the Alberta tar sands boom that had transformed Canada into a petrostate was teetering on bust, and the film both reflects on and works to contain the anxiety of that moment. The film begins with a subtle acknowledgement of a petrostate's inherent instability, when it is revealed that Dog River has gone bankrupt because its mayor had invested all the town's money in another petroleum-adjacent enterprise, Detroit real estate. As a result, Quinton is forcibly retired, and utilities like electricity and water are shut off. Businesses like Ruby's Café and even Corner Gas cannot operate and may have to close or relocate.
In this crisis, Quinton should be the logical authority, but his haplessness means that he cedes community leadership to Brent and his girlfriend Lacey. The townspeople approach them with a variety of bad ideas, including strategies that mimic the different approaches to neoliberal precarity in an era of ecological crisis, from exploitation to selling out. Brent's best friend, for instance, tries to involve him in a scheme to engage in what Naomi Klein famously termed "disaster capitalism" (540): "To capitalize on this … we could set up a pipeline, you know like for oil, but for water, from a place with water, and so then we would have the water and we would be the ones charging for that water." Brent's father turns full blown post-peakoil survival-prepper, rejecting what he declares "big oil's trap" and buying a horse and a "Hunger Games Starter Kit." As for Quinton, at loose ends without his napping desk, he wanders off and considers becoming a private investigator, while living in comfort with a generator in his man-cave resource bubble. In a bit of a reversal, the Indigenous character is the only one with access to resources, but, even then, another character—Brent's always-on-the-make employee Wanda—appropriates them, using his man-cave to run a bar and gambling den behind his back. ("Wow, there is serious money to be made in this town-going-to-hell business.") [End Page 93]
These options, however, only insulate individuals—and not very well. Brent and Lacey search instead for a communal solution to save the whole town, which means the residents need to overcome their animosities and apathy and recommit to the public good. This effort comes to a head when Brent, having overextended himself in an attempt to keep the town afloat, goes bankrupt and has to shut down Corner Gas. Lacey confronts the townspeople and asks them to rally around and support "the person who has tried the hardest and fallen the farthest." She pleads, "I think the least we can do is help him get back on his feet. Because, honestly, you guys, if Corner Gas can't survive, none of us can."
She could not put it more plainly: the town may be called Dog River, but the show is Corner Gas. The community's cohesiveness and identity, its very survival, depends on oil, and their heroic center is a petro-hero, although of a gentle and self-sacrificing modern brand that is perhaps more acceptable to contemporary Canadian audiences. After Lacey makes this statement, the normally fractious residents of Dog River, along with the Canadian media and other small towns (including Dog River's rival, Wullerton), come together to bail out Brent and save the gas station. This weirdly communal petronarrative is reinforced in the final images of the film, with the sun glowing over Corner Gas as electrical and railroad lines stretch across green fields and oil tanker cars go chugging neatly past. Then, while the credits roll, joyful fans from all over Canada join the cast in the streets of Dog River, dancing and singing the Corner Gas theme song together, and a petroleum idyll merges into a loving affirmation of national community.
This cheerful petronarrative, however, leaves a couple of intriguing threads hanging, which stretch like the electrical and rail lines to further corners of Canada's petro-scape and suggest a potential unraveling rather than a unification. The first is Lorne Cardinal, whose next project stands as a purposeful, First Nations counterpoint to Corner Gas's idyll, which we will explore in the concluding section. The other odd thread involves Wanda and her bratty son, Tanner. Throughout the series and the film, Wanda works and schemes frenetically to get the cash to take care of Tanner and fund his education, but in the movie's final moments Brent finds her looking at cruise adverts, planning a nice trip for herself. She informs him that she can finally take a vacation because Tanner's skipped college to go north for work, and he is sending her money now. The north, of course, means Fort McMurray and the massive tar sands of Alberta. It is a deliberately precious moment of closure that actually opens [End Page 94] up to reveal how the small town of Corner Gas connects to the larger engine of the petrostate.
Not everyone, however, has been able to transmute work in the tar sands into a pleasure cruise, and that complicity is not always sweet or nice. Another group of Canadian petrofictions have taken on this issue of community-wide complicity with oil to unravel the Corner Gas petronarrative, and it starts with Tanner's work in the north. What that oilfield work means economically, physically, psychologically, and morally for the people who do it and for the community of people connected to it, like Wanda, becomes a nexus for critiquing the nice petro-hero and his story. These critiques, more and more often, are taking the unlikely form of comics.
The Comic: "I Feel a Lot of Things"
Nicole Burton, artist and founder of Toronto-based publisher, Ad Astra Comix, argues "that social commentary is baked into the comics medium" (McCurdy, Goldring, and Burton), and, as Sean Carleton contends, "graphic novels are fast becoming a popular and accessible tool of activism in the 21st century" (Carleton). This includes Burton's own critical take on the tar sands, The Beast (2018), as well as mixed media experiments like Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life (2018). However, these activist graphic novels and comics shape their anti-fossil fuel critique around an interrogation of complicity that casts a sharp eye on nice guys like Brent Leroy.
An important precursor to these kinds of activist petrofictions is Kate Beaton's five-part online series, "Ducks," which records her experience of working in what her comic avatar calls "the oil sands" in Fort McMurray. ("Oil sands," of course, is the less threatening term the industry pushes the media to use to make their product sound abundant, accessible, and clean.) The subtitle of this section is the last line Beaton (through her unnamed avatar we will call Kate) says in the series. Back east, sipping fancy cocktails at a bar with her friend, Kate admits, "Yeah, the oil sands. I was there for two years." Her friend replies with shock and a question: "Oh wow—isn't that where like a thousand ducks flew into a toxic lake. … Do you ever feel, like, bad about working in a place like that?" Over three panels, which focus on the shifting expressions on her face, Kate struggles with inarticulate confusion and a complexity of emotion: "Well, it's … I mean … I feel a lot of things." The next panel ends the series by juxtaposing her befuddlement with the image of an oiled and dying duck, but roughed out so that it is less a real living being and more [End Page 95] an image. It is an image that, of course, has subsequently become shorthand for the horrors of the tar sands.
Throughout the series, Beaton had portrayed the workers in Fort McMurray with a sympathy that also invited a kind of navel-gazing critique. They are all so nice, watching out for Kate and taking her to get salads when the place becomes just too much. They are also victims—missing families and suffering from workplace accidents, toxins, or, in the case of a sex worker, drugs—and heroes—with one worker throwing himself off his crane during a heart attack so he would not fall on the controls and endanger his coworkers. But Beaton also indicates that all these good and decent petro-heroes are simultaneously complicit with an industry that is killing the planet, causing massive pain and suffering, and the ducks are just the most visceral image of that larger horror.
That kind of self-critique (the kind that asks, "How can us nice guys do this?") has infected subsequent activist comics, including the work of Indigenous creators who interrogate even Native complicity in the tar sands. For instance, author Warren Cariou and artist Nicholas Burn's "An Athabasca Story," included in the Indigenous comic collection, Sovereign Traces, features a Native Elder Brother who is seduced by the promise of warmth and comfort that a white oil worker/owner says is in the tar sands. Elder Brother, of course, is a figure for Indigenous peoples, and he can hear the Earth and, as Cariou implies, should know better, especially as the oil man's glorious story plays across illustrations of Indigenous dispossession and anti-tar sands activism. Yet he foolishly decides to dig out some for himself. Even after the land screams, "Elder Brother, you're hurting me!" he continues, only responding to that plaint with an obvious moral dodge: "Not nearly so much as they are" (51). The parallel to Indigenous peoples who have entered the oil industry or who try to get their sliver of the petroleum pie (as Laughton did) is fairly overt, as is the threat: Elder Brother gets "stuck" and cannot "back out" once he has plunged his arms into the tar sands (52). He gets scooped into a truck and put through the refinery—reduced to just another natural resource to be exploited and used up. In this petrofiction, there is no space to become a petro-hero, kind or callous, and any Indigenous-washing is exposed as the gothic monstrosity that it is: an absorption of Native people, who, like Elder Brother, become only the "rattling" ghost in petroculture's machine (54).
At this point, we have ventured beyond Standing Rock and into petrofiction that is beginning to filter its influence to help Indigenous creators capture the petronarrative. Cariou and Burns's comic, for [End Page 96] instance, includes an image ripped straight from Standing Rock, a famous photograph of a Native water protector on horseback facing down rows of armed police and their military-issue tanks. Or, take another thread from Corner Gas: Lorne Cardinal's next project, a starring role in Ojibwe director Trevor Carroll's award-winning short film No Reservations. Cardinal and Carroll seem to be abandoning Indigenous self-critique to flip the script on Standing Rock, imagining what would happen if an oil company led by Indigenous people decided to lay a pipeline through a white suburb. As the tagline of the film asks, "What if the moccasin was on the other foot?" What would the nice Whitemans of Sitting Pebble do? Carroll wonders, "Would they be activists? How does it feel?" (Monkman). This query and the film's satirical plot suggest that Indigenous-authored petrofictions like Carroll's shift from critiquing a shared complicity to sketching out a shared victimization designed to provoke a shared activism, like that evinced by the coalitional promise of Standing Rock.
In this essay, we have investigated the petrofiction of the North American oil boom in its myriad genres. We have examined how most of these texts mirror the abuses that created our petroreality through a process of Indigenous-washing or dismissing Indigenous peoples as complex individuals and sovereign entities and replacing them with strapping petro-heroes. In so doing, these fictions reproduce colonial history and perpetuate the contemporary resource colonial status quo. Yet, at the same time, we have seen that the hopes for Standing Rock-inspired narratives are not entirely illusory. Legitimating Indigenous perspectives and highlighting Indigenous narratives promises to reshape petrofiction into a tool for significant and sustained Indigenous empowerment and, ultimately, demands that we keep alive the dream of someday achieving environmental justice for all.
SARA L. CROSBY <firstname.lastname@example.org> teaches at the Ohio State University at Marion and is the author of Poisonous Muse: The Female Poisoner and the Framing of Popular Authorship in Jacksonian America (2016) and Women in Medicine in Nineteenth-Century American Literature: From Poisoners to Doctors, Harriet Beecher Stowe to Theda Bara (2018). Her current book project investigates how extractive industries have contributed to the representation of South Louisiana as a place of ecohorror and so enabled the region's destruction.
1. In coining the term Indigenous-washing, we intentionally evoke connections to the history of coercive assimilation and abuse at residential schools, where children were scrubbed not only physically but also symbolically in efforts to strip them of their identities as Indigenous peoples. Just as the most insidiously and explicitly coercive attempts to assimilate Indigenous peoples sought to separate children from families, believers from beliefs, and speakers from words, contemporary erasures of Indigenous peoples from narratives concerning the destruction of their lands and lives paves the way for continued dispossession.
2. For instance, the 2017 documentary Josh Fox's Awake: A Dream from Standing Rock presented an affirmative, Indigenous narrative that was welcomed by sympathetic segments of the North American public; however, the film failed to reach a broad, entertainment-seeking audience. Although the film is finally on Netflix and has received an IMDb audience rating of 7.1 out of 10, that ranking is the product of only 175 votes. This contrasts significantly not only with the vastly larger responses to petro-hero genre fictions but even with Fox's other two water-related (but white-oriented) documentaries, Gasland (2010) and Gasland, Part II (2014), which, although ranked comparably at 7.7, received 9,956 and 1,517 votes respectively.
3. In fact, the Dakota Access Pipeline has developed multiple leaks in its first years of operation, as Brown has reported.
6. See Baldwin, Cameron, and Kobayashi for a reconsideration of the racialized geography of the northern wilderness; O'Brien for a discussion of how Indigenous peoples have been erased from histories of New England; Westman for an analysis of the failures of social impact assessment; and Baker for engaged research on the cultural significance of wild foods.
7. In a 2013 editorial, environmental political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon wrote that oil and gas extraction "is relentlessly twisting our society into something we don't like. Canada is beginning to exhibit the economic and political characteristics of a petro-state."