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Berkeley Talks transcript: Indigenous access, political ecology in settler states

hands hold a plant
(Photo courtesy of Clint Carroll)

Listen to Berkeley Talks episode #153: Indigenous access, political ecology in settler states.

[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Intro: This is Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. New episodes come out every other Friday.

[Music fades]

Laureano Gherardi Arbizu: Yeah, all right. Hello, everyone. So just very briefly, Albert and I have been coordinating the seminar series and we just wanted to thank all the faculty for the nominations and for hosting our speakers, organizing agendas, and coordinating with every speaker. We also wanted to point out that we made efforts in order to try to keep the seminar series as diverse as possible in terms of topics and representation. And I think we got a pretty good line up for the series so I hope every Thursday we have a packed room like this.

Also, I want to thank the graduate students for stepping up and signing up to help us organize the socials and keep building community. And of course Robert and Nicole for helping us with coordinating all this. So today’s seminar is co-sponsored by ESPM and Myers Center for Research on Native American Issues. And our faculty host today, Peter Nelson, who’s affiliated with both ESPM and the center, is going to introduce our speaker. Thank you very much.

Peter Nelson: Alright. [Miwok language]. Hello and welcome, everyone. I’m Peter Nelson. I’m, as Lao mentioned, jointly appointed in ESPM as well as in ethnic studies and affiliated on campus with the Archeological Research Facility and Joseph A. Myers Center for Research on Native American Issues. It’s my great pleasure to be your host today and introduce our esteemed speaker Clint Carroll. Before we get into the introduction, I’d just like you to turn off your cell phones, make sure to have those off so that we have no interruptions. And I’d also like to then give a land acknowledgement as well.

So I want to start by acknowledging that UC Berkeley sits on the territory of Huichin which is the ancestral and unceded land of the Chochenyo Ohlone people. This land was and continues to be of great importance to the Ohlone people. We recognize that every member of the Berkeley community has benefited and continues to benefit from the use and occupation of this land since the institution’s founding in 1868. Consistent with the university’s values of community and diversity, we have a responsibility to acknowledge and make visible the university’s relationship to native peoples. By offering this land acknowledgement, we affirm Indigenous sovereignty and our commitment to hold the university more accountable to the needs of Native American and Indigenous peoples. And hopefully that land acknowledgement will go beyond just words to actions of all of us in the room and beyond to how we can think about supporting Ohlone people and efforts that they have here in the East Bay.

So with that, I’d like to thank our sponsors. So it’s my pleasure to welcome you to today’s event and those sponsors are the Joseph A. Myers Center for Research on Native American Issues, the Native American Studies Program, Native American Student Development, the American Indian Graduate Program, the American Indian Graduate Student Association, and the Department of Environmental Science Policy and Management. And I think both me and Clint have had some interaction with the and involvement in AIGP and AIGSA as well. So it’s really great to have former members of these organizations here speaking today.

We’ve been eagerly awaiting this event, which was scheduled to take place over a year ago, and unfortunately postponed due to Covid, this pandemic that we’re all in. And in the meantime we’ve learned how to do hybrid events so we have this offered on Zoom. But fortunately here again in person. So welcome to those of you also on the Zoom call. We will not ignore you. You have the Q&A feature through Zoom and we’ll be collecting those questions or after the session to ask our speaker today. So the format of the event is going to be, we’ll have 45 minutes for the main talk by professor Carroll, followed by Q&A after that. And then after the event, we’d like to invite you to a reception in the courtyard with snacks and more informal discussion afterwards.

I’m delighted and honored to introduce today’s speaker today, professor Clint Carroll, who is associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. He received this doctorate here at Cal in environmental science policy and management and it’s also very great timing that he’s here with us today and doing this visit now with homecoming this weekend, extra significance.

Professor Carroll is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and works closely with Cherokee people in Oklahoma on issues of land conservation and the perpetuation of land-based knowledge and ways of life. He’s received a number of awards, one of the more current ones is an NSF or National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Award. A number of publications peer reviewed as well as his most current book Roots of Our Renewal: Ethnobotany and Cherokee Environmental Governance. It explores how tribal natural resource managers navigate the material and structural conditions of settler colonialism, as well as how recent efforts in cultural revitalization are informing such practices through traditional forms of decision making and local environmental knowledge.

If you’re interested in following professor Carroll’s career, learning a little bit more about that and how he’s developed his interdisciplinary work, I just listened to this wonderful interview on the Heritage Voices podcast, which is a wonderful podcast, but if you’re interested in professor Carroll’s interview, that’s episode 64, which you can take with you after this presentation. But fortunately we have professor Carroll here in person right now. So please join me in welcoming professor Carroll.

Clint Carroll: [Cherokee language]. Peter, thank you. [Cherokee language]. Wow, thank you all for being here. I’m so happy and thrilled to be back. I have a few preparatory remarks. First, gratitude to you all for being here to the Myers Center, the Department of Environmental Science Policy Management. Why am I saying that? It’s ESPM, right? The American Indian Graduate Program and the Indigenous Environmental Studies Lab Group. Thank you, Peter, and all the amazing grad students who I had the privilege to meet yesterday as well as… Oh, excuse me, I’m getting ahead of myself. Deborah, thank you so much. And Martín Sánchez-Jankowski who’s not able to be here today, the director of the Myers Center, I want to extend a thanks to him as well.

Hello, Nancy Peluso. Louise, I think you’re out there. We didn’t have a chance to connect before this started, but I know she’s joining from Zoom. I want to give a shout out to Nathan Sayre, if you’re there, I don’t know, in geography. Tom Biolsi in ethnic studies, and of course Lynn Hunsinger, all of whom were on my dissertation committee. So how awesome is it to be back after all this time and after two years of waiting through the pandemic? And I know we’re still in it, but I’m just thrilled to be back here at Berkeley first time since 2011, so over 10 years.

So, I’m a first gen student. I never thought I’d A, go to Berkeley, let alone graduate, get a job, publish a book, and then be invited back to Berkeley to speak. So, I just want to thank all my advisors, my fellow ESPM grad students, one of whom I know is here, Dan Fahey, I don’t know if anybody else is in the audience. But anyway, hi to everybody and a special shout out to AIGSA members, current leadership, past leadership, and the one who receives the award for the biggest and warmest smile, Carmen Foghorn, who’s the previous director of the American Indian Graduate Program and who helped me get connected to the Native community at Cal and was just a lifesaver in that regard. So thank you all.

You might notice there’s a change of title. I promise I’ll talk about a lot of the stuff that was in the abstract, but for such a homecoming I thought it’s apropos to engage the work of your advisor while you’re here. And this is not new to Nancy. Nancy generously attended a symposium talk in which I was really struggling through some of this and I still struggle through with it, but I just wanted to thank you, Nancy, for all your comments and productive feedback. I’m still working through it. This is very much still a work in progress. Some people may be super productive during the pandemic, but everything for me has just been up in the air. I’ve been working on this since spring of ’21. I presented it in May at a symposium, which I’m working with a collective of scholars that I’ll mention later today on Indigenous political ecologies. But nonetheless, I’m a little nervous but I’m also excited to present this to you and really to hear what you all think. So with that, I’ll go ahead and get started.

The early periods of what is known as the U.S. Federal Indian Policy are defined in terms of the specific type of dispossession they entailed. While the removal era of the 1830s forcibly relocated tribes hundreds and thousands of miles from their traditional homelands, the creation of reservations beginning in the mid-1800s also entailed numerous relocations via treaties and land cessions.

The early U.S. conservation movement, coinciding roughly with the establishment of Indian reservations, excluded Native peoples from former hunting-and-gathering areas in the name of wilderness preservation. The allotment era from about 1887 to 1934 broke up Indigenous systems of communal land ownership and opened Native lands to speculators in the market. Since this time, access has become a principal issue for Native peoples — specifically the ability to access lands and waters through which to enact culturally sustaining practices and ceremonies that are tied to relations of reciprocal care.

This paper aims to think through the myriad challenges Indigenous peoples in North America face regarding access to land and water. I will discuss how numerous and compounding obstacles inhibit our continuation of land and water based practices and ways of life, as well as how Indigenous nations are confronting these challenges using numerous pathways and strategies. The project as a whole engages with work in political ecology on access theory and in doing so seeks to reframe resource access from the unique political and relational perspectives of Indigenous nations and settler states.

As such, I draw heavily on theory and scholarship in critical Indigenous studies, centering work by scholars whose contributions to this field often transgress disciplinary boundaries and concurrently inhabit spaces in geography and anthropology. This paper and my broader research goals are in dialogue with and in relationship to a community of scholars whose work at these intersections is seeking to advance interventions in political ecology that center critical Indigenous analyses of settler colonialism, relationality, resurgence and environmental governance.

First, I will offer a discussion of access theory from within political ecology followed by an engagement with Indigenous studies along two broad categories, coloniality and relationality. Next I will present on current and related projects regarding access for Cherokee people in Oklahoma, and I’ll conclude by gesturing to some future directions and with a brief discussion of the land back movement.

Okay, so a little bit of background. Some of you may have read and heard all this before, but bear with me because it helps kind of set things up for those who may not have. So access theory and political ecology. So access theory arose out of the work of political ecologists Nancy Peluso and Jesse Ribot and their co-authored piece published in rural sociology titled A Theory of Access, and that was originally published in 2003. The theory illuminates the complex and multifaceted nature of access to natural resources and offers a framework for understanding people’s “ability to benefit from things.” Their work opened up new ways of thinking about resource access that account for situations outside of right space, legal mechanisms, or the ownership of property. Beyond the singular view of resource access as stemming from legal rights, Ribot and Peluso assert that understanding people’s access, or lack thereof, must center an assessment of their ability to benefit from resources. In other words, property rights do not always amount to a resource user’s ability to benefit from that which the property contains.

Ribot and Peluso show how power relations embedded in technology, capital markets, labor, knowledge, authority, identity, and social relations have a direct effect on this ability. They conceptualize such powers as mechanisms of access by which people are able to generate abilities to benefit from resources. As such, their framework allows for both structural analyses of access, employing a Marxist political economy approach, to power as shaped by societal forces, and discursive analyses taking a Napoleon approach that locates power in the production of reproduction of social discourses that can determine and reinforce what is deemed legitimate. The theory presents access mapping as a tool to understand the dynamics of these processes in disparate contexts and locations.
A theory of access, the article, has garnered widespread application in political ecology and related fields and was recently the subject of a special issue of society and natural resources. The special issue offers a review of the literature that has substantially engaged or critiqued access theory, original contributions from authors who seek to extend it and a postscript by Peluso and Ribot that revisits the theory in light of the work it has inspired over the previous 17 years. Probably more than that since I first wrote this last year, so 18 years. Clearly Ribot and Paluso’s work has earned a position of esteem and influence and has improved political ecologist’s ability to make sense of how people access and benefit from natural resources.

Access theory offers an expanded set of analytical tools for understanding environmental governance and resource allocation, issues that are central to work and political ecology. As a subfield that spans scholarship in human geography and cultural anthropology, political ecology has centered the political and economic causes of environmental degradation and conflict largely in response to other narratives that seek to explain away environmental injustice in terms of “natural” and therefore apolitical forces.

Political ecology began to solidify as a distinct area of inquiry in the 1980s stemming from work that sought a plurality of explanations and definitions of land degradation in the global south with a focus on a broadly defined political economy, to quote Blakey and Brookfield in their book of 1987. In other words, political ecology began as an approach to understanding the relationship between nature and capital and the implications and manifestations of these forces for marginalized communities. The subfield is still largely informed by a Marxist interpretation of political economy and its approach to human environment relations and politics. These origins of the subfield were also situated within critical development studies, which likewise centered a Marxist critique of capitalism and the global inequities produced through capitalist development.

In this context, political ecology and access theory have provided useful tools and frameworks for understanding the complexities of environmental politics and how marginalized people navigate contested terrains that are influenced by both structural and discursive mechanisms of power and control.

And yet the origins and continued focus of political ecology in the global south, as well as a theoretical approaches many in the field employ and center in their analyses, present limitations when scholars attempt to apply these tools and frameworks to environmental politics within settler states. And this is changing, and Nancy sent me some awesome readings that I’m sifting through and making sense of, and so this again is a work in progress that is adapting to newer stuff that’s come out that does address settler colonialism, specifically in places like the United States and Canada and beyond. With some notable exceptions, political ecology has not made much more headway in its attempt to address so-called first world issues since the original call by Louise Fortman to bring these tools back home to the United States almost three decades ago.

Critical voices in Indigenous studies have sought to address this lacuna as well as scholars writing at the intersections of political ecology and race. However, saved for a manifesto authored by a collective of political ecologists in 2019, the limited uptake of the contributions made from Indigenous studies scholars has led to little influence on political ecology and related fields’ core presuppositions, as I will discuss in the following section.

Political ecology and Indigenous studies share a central focus on land and resource politics that although different in approach can augment each other if engaged thoughtfully. I’m currently collaborating with the scholars collective to advance such an emergent field of theory, empirical investigation, and ethical praxis that draws from anthropology, geography, and closely related fields’ contemporary responses to the conditions of the anthropocine in Native American and first nations. This work is driven by two poor insights.

One, not withstanding the important contributions that I mentioned that are more recent, political ecology has tended to engage indigeneity as case rather than as a concept or theory, thus limiting scholars engagement with Indigenous epistemic and methodological approaches. And two, where political ecologists tend to see the environment as always already political. An Indigenous political ecology approach sees the political as always already environmental. That is to say for Indigenous people subsumed within settler colonial borders, legal orders and ongoing coloniality, political struggles are inseparable from our degree of connection to and therefore our ability to access our lands and waters.

Further, Indigenous studies starts from the epistemic position of relationality with all life. This position emanates from the diverse ontological and ethical frameworks expressed in Indigenous people’s relationships to land, water, and more than human beings, and which challenged Marxist materialist approaches to property and natural resources. While several strands of recent scholarships such as New Materialisms, Actor Network theory, Posthumanism, and Anthropologies ontological turn have sought to engage Indigenous relational frameworks and ontologies, this has often been done to the exclusion of numerous and longstanding works in Indigenous studies.

And while political ecology has recently made important headway in critically engaging Indigenous studies work, and I’m thinking of Nick Haanan and Magani Baro’s relatively recent piece in Antipote, a number of other scholars including Charlene Molet and many others, scholarship on access has yet to address how Indigenous legal, political, and ontological difference reframe poor questions and analytical assumptions. Taking the recent revisiting of access theory and the special issue of society and natural resources, which I think came out in 2020 as a point of departure in what follows, I discuss points of both difference and convergence with critical Indigenous studies with the intent to illuminate further areas of engagement in both access theory and political ecology broadly. I do so by focusing on two main categories of analysis, coloniality and relationality.

Peruvian decolonial scholar, Anival Picano describes coloniality as the ongoing relations of domination that persists even after colonialism as an explicit political order has ceased. The particular form of coloniality that we’ve come to discuss in places like the United States and Canada is of course settler colonialism. Drawing from Patrick Wolf’s description of settler colonialism as a fundamentally destructive structure geared toward eliminating Indigenous peoples, I’ve highlighted the Cherokee words above to help frame my discussion. Although they don’t serve as exact translations for coloniality or colonialism, it’s notable that they closely resemble our words for hunger, death, and broken. So you see here, ayostanohvsgo’i, uyostanohvsdi. So it destroys something habitually, to destroy it. Hunger is [Cherokee language], death, [Cherokee language], and broken [Cherokee language]. So this ayo, uyo is very common or similar throughout these different words that express these concepts and kind of help make sense of how Cherokee people think of destruction, death, things that are bad, essentially.

Beth Rose Middleton writes, “Investigating coloniality is central to Indigenous political ecology, prompting researchers to engage fully with Indigenous epistemologies and decolonial futures.” Given that both access theory and political ecology are situated within Marxist political economy, they therefore tend to frame their analyses around resource users and their interactions and negotiations with extra local and state networks of power, rather than centering indigeneity per se. In the context of settler states especially, this approach neglects the role of coloniality as a relevant and interrelated dynamic of capitalism that weighs heavily on issues of land, property and enclosure. And so once again, I acknowledge the recent work by folks like Sharlene Mollett and others that have begun to significantly change this tendency, at least in the context of political ecology, and I hope I can add a little to this today.

Dene scholar Glen Coulthard’s work in Redskin, White Masks engages Marxist theory through a framework of ongoing colonial relations of power in settler states. I draw from his work to elucidate how we might reexamine access theory using the insights he provides. Coulthard presents correctives that help adjust Marx’s theory of primitive accumulation to account for the unique political context of Indigenous peoples in Canada. He reframes primitive accumulation as an ongoing process of Indigenous dispossession from the land that creates the conditions for a politics of state recognition which produces and maintains colonial forms of domination.

Central to my discussion here is how Coulthard rejects notions of normative developmentalism that take for granted the commons as a tabular rossa for class centered anti capitalist resistance. Instead, Coulthard shifts the focus to the colonial relation as a key component of capitalist accumulation, illuminating the grounded forms of Indigenous resistance that center radically different relationships to land and exceed a standard Marxist materialist framework. From this approach, From this angle, Coulthard views the colonial frame as “the inherited background field within which market, racist, patriarchal, and state relations converge to facilitate a certain power effect.”

Redirecting analysis from the capital relation to the colonial relation and access theory opens up room for engagement with the unique political context and status of Indigenous nations in settler states as they’re informed by both colonial histories and ongoing coloniality. Here, coloniality takes on distinctive forms that complicate issues of legal rights, power, and resource use. For example, Indigenous treaty rights are not necessarily property rights. They are reserved rights to hunt, fish, and gather beyond reservation boundaries. They carry obligations to care for the land and are based in legal and political relations between Indigenous nations and settler states.

Further, there are multiple scales and registers of power created by settler coloniality that complicate this area of access theory, namely the internal dynamics of tribal governance and the nested sovereignty of Indigenous nations, to borrow a phrase from Audra Simpson. Lastly, the practice of using resources for subsistence may differ drastically due to increased levels of capitalist incorporation and encroachment that Indigenous nations have been subjected to by virtue of settler occupation of their homelands.

In other words, Indigenous people may find themselves without the time to gather wild plants due to the demands of wage labor as well as restrictions imposed by property and fence lines, the overgrowth of brush due to colonial policies against cultural burning, and/or the presence of a parking lot where the desired plants once grew.

Diné geographer Andrew Curley discusses another important aspect of access in the colonial relation with regard to Indian water settlements throughout the western United States. Curley describes how massive water development projects like the Central Arizona Project have diverted water to settler metropoles, changing ecosystems and thus negatively impacting customary modes of water access, use, governance, and sharing among and between Indigenous nations. The water settlement process, as controlled and defined by Western water law, disregards this history of Indigenous water governance and seeks to codify tribal water rights in terms of acre feet and productive use.

Moreover, they limit access to settler water infrastructure such as the Navajo-Gallop Water Supply Project, which exacerbates current inequities experienced by tribal communities, namely the absence of running water in many Diné homes. Thus, as Curley writes, Indian water settlements seek both to enclose Indigenous water resources and to redefine Indigenous relationships to water itself through the politics of recognition.

Elsewhere, I’ve explored the politics of access in the Cherokee Nation within internal processes of gate keeping limited tribal lands for the purposes of sustainably managing sensitive plant populations. In the context of a group of elders who work to influence tribal land policy, I describe how access to authority impacted the ability to benefit from resources, in this case their proposal for establishing gathering permits on tribal lands. In such cases, access theory offers useful tools for understanding how people gain, maintain, and control access to land and/or water and the benefits they may accrue in doing so.

And yet, as I mentioned previously, numerous scales of power complicate the heuristic ability of access theory. What I’ve termed a double state dynamic, referring to the use of state forms by tribal governments within a larger colonial state, poses questions about the coloniality of access when tribal resource managers are tasked with gate keeping a greatly reduced and checker boarded tribal land base as a result of settler encroachment and land theft. Thus, by engaging with Indigenous studies scholarship and thereby accounting for the complexities of coloniality and the colonial relation in settler states, political ecology and access theory can enhance and expand their current theoretical and empirical reach.

I was supposed to show this so that you all wouldn’t fall asleep or at least you could have a pretty picture to fall asleep to. I’ll promised to advance the next one a little quicker. An expansive notion of kinship and relationality is expressed in the Cherokee language as nigada gohusdi didadadvhni, we are all related. This phrase is understood to extend beyond the human realm to include more than human beings and teaches us to acknowledge the interdependence and sacredness of life in all its forms. Cherokee elder and spiritual leader Crosslin Smith refers to these concepts as original teachings that provide moral, ethical, and spiritual guidelines for how we treat each other, the land and waters, and our more than human plant and animal relatives. They also provide insight for how we acknowledge our connections to the past through our ancestors’ spirits and our responsibilities to the future through those who have not yet come into the world.

Numerous other Indigenous scholars have discussed at length land-based ethical frameworks and relationality in their work stemming from their own cultural and ontological positionings. While Mushkegowuk (Cree) scholar Michelle Daigle describes the law of [Cree language] as a distinct, and forgive me if I butchered that word, but as a distinct way of life that honors one’s kinship relations, including those with the natural and spiritual worlds. And that informs a collective, [Cree language] notion of self-determination. Rarámuri scholar Enrique Salmón explains the notion of [Rarámuri language] as the interconnected kinship of all life acknowledged through the sharing of breath and the earth itself. Such grounded notions of kinship and responsibility to land and life contribute to theories at relationality that animate and inform Indigenous studies work on environmental governance and earth-based ways of knowing and being.

Cutcha Risling Baldy, who is Hupa, Yurok and Karuk, and Melanie Yazzie who is Diné, discussed what they term radical relationality, which articulates an Indigenous feminist framework of care and kinship among all beings and guides a collective vision of counter hegemonic and decolonial Indigenous resistance. In their words, “radical relationality is simply the ontology of being in relation to. That describes all life and futurity. Keeping ourselves open to the possibility of making new relatives is one of the essential functions of life and indeed decolonization.” Goenpul scholar Aileen Moreton-Robinson states “relationality forms the conditions of possibility for coming to know and producing knowledge through research in a given time, place, and land. For Morton Robinson, relationality is the core presupposition of the Indigenous social research paradigms.

These and many other scholars and Indigenous studies reaching back decades, most notably through the foundational work of [inaudible – name of tribe] scholar [inaudible – scholar’s name] Jr. have articulated a critical Indigenous studies framework for relationality that has served to guide our methodologies, theoretical approaches and scholarly practices which are themselves in relation to the communities with whom we work.

Indigenous theories of relationality offer access theory and political ecology additional framings for understanding benefit flows that include the land, waters, and more than humans, as well as human communities. As Sybil Diver and her co-authors have articulated, such framings have also account for reciprocal relations, that’s their term, with lands and waterways that many Indigenous and local communities are obligated to uphold for their mutual well-being and flourishing. This allows for a shift in the units of analysis and access theory when appropriate and applicable from resource users to land caretakers and from the ability to benefit from things to the ability to enact practices that promote mutual flourishing. A shift of this sort rather than what some might view as eschewing political ecology’s focus on power and politics actually enables clearer understandings of how colonial power operates in relation to Indigenous epistomologies.

Returning to Coulthard, when we reframe Marxist analyses to center the colonial relation and thereby reject the notion that modernity is exclusively cast in post enlightenment in western terms, it opens up space to consider radically different forms of resistance and governance that are based in relationships to the more than human world and that include but also exceed materiality. When land and water are viewed, as in many Indigenous ontologies, as sentient and adjunctive sources of knowledge, teachers, and persons then access to land and water also becomes access to knowledge, access to the authority and jurisdiction they possess as rights bearing persons and access to kin, both in the sense of viewing the land and water as relatives and in the sense of understanding waterways as kin connectors barring from the work of Michelle Daigle again, who writes about waterways in that way, as being routes, like R-O-U-T-E-S, of access to other communities and therefore human and more than human kin via those waterways.

For Indigenous studies then, we can view the term access as an idiom for the need to maintain relationality with the more than human world. The issue for Indigenous strategies and movements to regain access to land and waters is the threat of lost relationships and the negative effects this has on Indigenous peoplehood governance, mental and physical health, and what Potawatomi scholar Kyle Whyte terms “collective continuance” or “an Indigenous community’s capacity to adapt in ways sufficient for its members’ livelihoods to flourish into the future.” So what follows is the discussion of my ongoing research, with my tribal community, around issues of access in Oklahoma. So I hope to kind of anchor some of what I’ve been saying way up here into the actual practice and the work that we do together.

My current research complicates and adds to political ecological theories of resource access in settler state context and also seeks to contribute to Indigenous conservation strategies and land education programs that are informed and inspired by decolonial and Indigenous resurgence scholarship. Much of my work is born out of and an ongoing relationship to the Cherokee nation medicine keepers, a small group of Cherokee elders whose mission is to protect Cherokee lands in Oklahoma and to perpetuate their land-based knowledge among future and younger generations. The group formed in 2008, spurred by meetings that I helped to facilitate, to discuss critical issues surrounding Cherokee plant knowledge. Within their mission, they conceive the statement [Cherokee language] or to keep the medicine going, which along with their formerly adopted name, the Cherokee Medicine Keepers, acknowledges the role that traditional medicine plays in maintaining Cherokee’s relationships to land.

Cherokee plant medicine includes not only the chemical properties of the plants that act as medicine, but also the faith and spirituality of the patient and healer. It is especially important to revitalize Cherokee plant knowledge because it sustains a way of life centered on spirituality and relationships to the land and cosmos. So I’m currently working on a five year national science foundation project that Peter mentioned that seeks to understand how cherry key people in northeastern Oklahoma are responding to limited resource access in the context of checkerboarded landscapes and a changing climate.

Another image here of the Cherokee Nation reservation, but this gives you a sense of geographically where I’m talking about if you know the polygon of what is now called the state of Oklahoma, this cutout here and this image here represents the Cherokee Nation reservation lands, which are about 4.42 million acres in their totality within the border, but this is what I’m talking about when I say checkerboarded and fractionated land bases is that the image shows in the dark gray or the black area, that’s the extent of the lands that we’ve maintained. The rest has been opened up as a result of the allotment policy to privatization. These are tribal trust lands and so this map doesn’t include individual trust lands, but it’s still a representation of the stark loss of lands that Cherokee people experience as a result of Oklahoma [inaudible] and the allotment policy.

We are building a multi-sided community based project to understand, one, how Cherokee people are navigating and responding to ongoing social and environmental challenges, including knowledge loss, language loss, and the decreasing access to and availability of subsistence resources; two, how Cherokee people see this influencing their overall health; and three, how their actions might inform comprehensive strategies for climate change adaptation, tribal land conservation and cultural revitalization. As an integrated research and education project, the medicine keepers and I, along with the team of tribal biologists and specialists, are working with a cohort of five Cherokee students to train them in Indigenous and western approaches to science, employing Cherokee knowledge and language, botany, biology and tribal natural resource management strategies. This educational component draws from other models of Indigenous land-based education and aims to build a cohort of tribal environmental leaders that can creatively address future issues from both grounded and diverse perspectives. And I’ll get into what I mean by that in a second.

For Cherokees, as is common among Indigenous communities, traditional use of the land’s gifts entails sustainable harvesting practices that are vital to their wellbeing. In turn, the transmission of such practices to younger generations ensures the sustained relationship that Cherokees have with a particular plant or animal. Through our project, we take the approach that research on tribal resource access can inform tribal policy and management and thus contribute to both what I call resource and relationship based approaches to tribal environmental governance. In other words, approaches that are both mindful of the discourses and power relations and working with state and federal agencies and that can uphold as well traditional Cherokee relationships to the land.

For example, Cherokee elders stress that when seeking plant medicine, one should not uproot the first identified plant, rather one must pass over at least four plant individuals before commencing to gather.

This ensures that one does not inadvertently remove the last remaining plant of that species in that specific area and thus fosters its continued flourishing. Through our current research, my students and I are asking how might impeded resource access affect such a principle? Does it intensify as one might expect in a situation of limited resources or is the principle compromised in cases when an individual only has access to two or three plants of the desired species? Could tribal resource managers help address these issues by targeting specific areas for conservation? If so, by what mechanisms would these conservation areas be established? How could such protected areas leverage tribal resources while also respecting local community autonomy and authority? And I’m thinking about Beth Rose Middleton’s work again on cultural conservation easements and Native land trusts that acknowledge that act of just gaining access to a place as being significant significant even if it’s not an outright reacquisition of property.

So, our work in this project seeks to inform and enhance theories of access through an in-depth analysis of Cherokee communities that have been severely impacted by arguably one of the most complicated and devastating colonial land policies, the General Allotment Act of 1887 that I mentioned previously. The Allotment Act broke up many American Indian land bases that were formally communally owned and forcibly replaced them with a system of private property. The policy was intended to assimilate American Indians into an agrarian way of life via Euro American notions of industriousness and private land ownership.

The act disregarded former tribal property law and in many cases marked the near obliteration of tribal sovereignty. Each head of household received 160 acre plot, lands that were not allotted to individuals were declared surplus lands and were sold and opened to non-Indian settlement. The allotment policy ultimately resulted in the loss of over 4 million acres of land for the Cherokee nation due to “surplus sales, land swindlers, and foreign system of property taxes. Today, both rural Cherokee communities and tribal resource managers must contend with the legacy of this era of federal Indian policy in the form of limited access to resources and limited jurisdiction within historical tribal boundaries.

So, as I mentioned previously, sparse tribal lands inhibit access to natural resources like medicinal or nutritional plants and complicate tribal systems of resource management that must balance granting tribal citizens access to limited lands with the conservation of limited resources. The legacy of allotment has also created severe impediments to tribal land conservation and environmental governance. Fractionated lands pose an obstacle for the creation of consolidated conservation areas without bisecting ecosystems or plant population locations. The presence of hostile neighboring landowners creates tensions and doubts surrounding the effectiveness of such tribal conservation enclosures. And perhaps most significantly, climate change threatens the vitality and availability of important plants within known areas of tribal and individual trust lands.

Inherent to maintaining relationality with the land is continuing the practices associated with environmental knowledge. In a recent project I carried out with the medicine keepers, numerous elders stressed that if the people don’t use the plants, the creator will take them away. This philosophy assumes that proper respectful use of plants for medicine, food and crafts contributes to the wellbeing of plant communities through care taking practices that sustain them. Thus, many Cherokees feel a profound obligation to care for their Oklahoma lands even while maintaining relationships to the original homelands in the East.

And I didn’t mention that, but I’m assuming many of you already know that these aren’t our homelands; these are the lands that we were forcibly relocated to in the late 1830s and other cases, in fact, my ancestry, I’m descended from people who moved out even before the Trail of Tears because of all the violence that was happening in the homelands that preceded the Trail of Tears.
As one of my elders put it, we were obligated to “honor the spirit of this land,” as in the current reservation land. And that’s a matter of upholding our relationships with the non-human world, with place, and with the creator. Doing this entails passing on the gifts that the creator gave Cherokees embodied in both the ancient environmental knowledge that remains from the homelands. There’s a lot of similarities between the southeastern U.S. where our homelands are located, present day, Great Smoky Mountains, and what is now known as northeastern Oklahoma, as well as the new knowledge that Cherokees received and developed after their arrival in the western lands.

It entails maintaining the responsibility to act as caretakers of a place that, while it is not the homeland, is nevertheless a homeland. To honor the spirit of the land is to acknowledge and act on the responsibilities that come with being Indigenous, displaced from our original homelands or not. And so this is just kind of a preview of the previous title that I’d actually published that work already in an edited volume that came out I think in 2021. And it’s exploring this concept of relational continuity. And so if you want to find out about that, I’m happy to share that with you.

And yet as many other Indigenous Nations know, human induced climate change and contemporary agricultural and development practices compromise our ability to maintain our relationships to the land. The Cherokee Nation is located at the confluence of two vastly different climate zones. To the west, a semi-arid tall grass prairie zone, and to the east, an eastern deciduous forest zone. Documented and projected rising temperatures along with landscape fragmentation caused by human activities are creating significant stress on native plant habitats across the great plains and the Southeast. These forces threaten the health of plant communities supported by eastern deciduous forests, which Cherokee people continue to rely on for medicine, food, crafts, and other cultural and economic purposes. The resulting species lost and shifting species’ ranges further inhibit our people’s access to these plants. And as our tribal biologist Pat Gwin has noted could be viewed as no less than another forced removal, only this time we’re staying put.

These issues call for a more complete understanding of resource access in rural Cherokee nation communities and an assessment of where the Cherokee Nation tribal government could best direct its energies toward ameliorating current conditions for resource access. As expressed in the questions I posed earlier, the project seeks to incorporate the legal and technical expertise of tribal officials who operate from within the Cherokee Nation’s formal governmental structure and can leverage the corresponding political capital to aid in enabling increased access to lands and resources. We also aim to center the agency and resiliency of rural Cherokee individuals and communities through a participatory mapping phase of the project that will privilege local knowledge and priorities for resource access as well as decentralized community governance of local conservation areas.
Okay, almost to the conclusion so bear with me. Am I good on time, relatively?

Peter Nelson: You should be closing.

Clint Carroll: Okay, I’m going to skip ahead to the conclusion so I can wrap up and we can have a little time for Q&A. So this is an image that is an excerpt of a photo voice video project that I did with the Medicine Keepers. It’s available on YouTube and if you Google my profile page, you’ll find a link to the project website that has this on there. Anyway, I’m just highlighting this picture to show a quote and an image taken from one of the medicine keepers about access.

This is a generated code cloud from some of our preliminary surveys that we were doing. Again, the pandemic really paused our work for two and a half years and so we were only able to get to the survey work before that hit. We’re going to start in depth interviews in the fall so I’m excited that we’re resuming the project activities as of early August this year. I’m going to skip over this, but this is also an element that I had written about regarding access through an agreement that was established with Buffalo National River.

So you see the park service person, the staff person, on the right. This is Gary Van and a University of Arizona researcher talking about, I think that’s poke, and it’s a type of plant that’s used for food when it’s young and fresh. Anyway, the Cherokee Nation established an agreement to gather plants within Buffalo National River, which is pretty monumental and is only about three hours away to the east of Tahlequah, which is the tribal capital in Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation.

I know it’s kind of a cumbersome URL, but if you want to know more about the project, there’s a link. This is just an image of the students and Cherokee Nation staff doing ethnobotany hike through attractive tribal land that was recently put into conservation status by the Cherokee Nation. Also a pretty monumental thing. Again, it’s not reacquiring land, it’s using existing tribal tracks but marking them, designating them for cultural use only as opposed to some of the other issues with land use that we struggle with regarding the inherited practices from the BIA, like cattle grazing leases and then clear cutting oak, hickory forests to plant loblolly pines for the market. Just an image of one of our activities at that same place, the conservation area. The Medicine Keepers named it, they christened it. In the language it [Cherokee language], which means the peaceful place of medicine.

And this is Anna Sixkiller and John Ross teaching the students and me how to make kanuchi, which is a, I mentioned this yesterday at lunch, but it’s a traditional dish that’s made from hickory nuts. You crack them in that mortar pestle, and then you kind of pound them down in this [Cherokee language], what we call a canone. It’s a wooden stump that’s been hollowed out and you use a pounder, a [Cherokee language], to pound that into a meal that you then form into a ball and you can cook that later. It’s delicious. You can typically flavor it with sugar or you can make it salty. You add hominy or rice, whatever you prefer.

Okay, so I’m skipping ahead. Maybe give me five more minutes and I’ll be done. So, I’ve hoped to constructively engage access theory from Indigenous studies and in the process point to some important considerations that account for the different political and ontological context of indigeneity in settler states. This holds true for political ecology too. I maintain that there are fruitful possibilities in such engagement, specifically in understanding how the critical theoretical tools of Indigenous studies can be useful for political ecology and vice versa. In some, more than an application of access theory to Indigenous contexts, I’m arguing for pushing the concept of access to be in dialogue with Indigenous thought and theory.

As a concluding gesture toward future directions and possibilities, I’d like to end with some thoughts on land back, a recent hashtag but a movement that is centuries in the making. The multiple and nuanced registers for land back have direct relevance for Indigenous access. For example, take this statement from the land back editorial collective published in their special issue of Briar Patch magazine in September of 2020. “When we say land back, we aren’t asking for just the ground or a piece of paper that allows us to tear up and pollute the earth. We want the system that is land to be alive so that it can perpetuate itself and perpetuate us as an extension of itself. That’s what we want back. Our place in keeping land alive and spiritually connected.”

So, we can think of numerous pathways toward this goal, including one, the assertion of jurisdictional authority to protect and care for our lands and thereby enact ontologies of care to use Shiri Pasternak’s phrase. Two, the reclamation and revitalization of our knowledges and languages that are born out of such ontologies. And three, the demand for remediation and restoration of lands that have been contaminated beyond recognition by settler capitalist extractivism among many others. Not least of which is of course the material demand for the return of stolen lands and wealth. Thus, land back is at once confrontational and aspirational. It poses a vision of the future that asks what happens when authority is shifted.

Granting Indigenous nations access to and authority over lands based on Indigenous principles of care promises to shift the conversation from inherent rights to inherent responsibilities to the land and water that center their wellbeing and that of all human communities as well. This is the radical relationality that this movement offers and insistence on alternatives rather than a replication of settler colonial land relations. Therein lies the strength of Indigenous political ecologies, or better, Indigenous political relationalities to help understand the potential of, and therefore do the theoretical and empirical work to help envision futures in which Indigenous nations can fully enact their relationality with a sentient and living land inhabited by more than human relatives and spirits and radical solidarity with all peoples. Wado, thank you.

[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions]

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