Hope and Expectation on Turtle Island

Toban B., "At the Aamjiwnaang native reserve," Flickr

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Editor’s note: This is the third post in a mini-series on hope and environmental history. To read the series’s other posts, click here.

Hopeful settler stories about the environment tend to involve a fair bit of hype. At the 2016 Great Lakes Public Forum, which was also attended by many First Nations, EPA advisor Cameron Davis said that “we agree on a whole lot here … in fact, we want to go out all the way … we’ve written into the agreement … that we want to act on behalf of all future generations … and we want to make sure that … their lives are better than ours even … it’s not which people, it’s not which place or which political borders, it’s future generations that really have the jurisdiction over the Great Lakes.” The Indigenous representatives at the meeting took a very different approach, speaking of nibe, the water spirit, and of struggle. Chief Dean Sayers from Batchewana First Nation focused on the fact that “we have been fighting to protect our Mother the Earth for a very long time, for the last 500 years and beyond.”[1]

Tending to poisoned environments is what Indigenous peoples do all the time by surviving in their homelands and carefully — one wild rice bed and spawning ground at a time — rebuilding communities. There is no forward-pointing arrow of time on which to catch a ride, up and away to a brighter future. The original covenants with the non-humans remain in place for all time and are also the basis for treaty. These are worlds unified by culture, even though the individual organisms in it have different biologies.[2] Providing care in the wastelands, as Erica Violet Lee describes it, is to “piece those worlds together from gathered scraps” and to recognize that “there is nothing and no one beyond healing.”[3] Two Aamjiwnaang sisters giving toxic tours of their community enact this approach in a place where people often find it hard to breathe from the smell of plastic, burning rubber, and sulphur. “Let’s show you what our reality is like,” they say. “Let’s lay our tobacco down for the water and for the land together and let’s pray in ceremony and let’s set up a sacred fire and let’s talk about solutions.”[4]

Settler notions of hope are usually about some form of progress, where time is an empty future field upon which managerial solutions can be projected. Its latest instance – neoliberal, postnatural conservation – sees ruination as inevitable, and as an exciting new baseline from which to launch future managerial interventions.[5] Postnatural conservationists want us to embrace all manner of strange, mutated organisms and degraded landscapes as sources of untapped potential, rather than as part of a history of ruination and ongoing violence. Nature itself is entrepreneurialized, offering services and new markets in biodiversity, clean water, and carbon. As settlers we believe ourselves to be forward-thinking, allocating space, land, and money to endangered ecosystems and species, as we hope to escape the consequences of the progress unfolding behind our backs.[6]

Having not yet learned how to live on Turtle Island, we settlers ignore Indigenous law and continue to flee the past, which is why we have so little basis for imagining the future. This is an orientation that fosters expectation, rather than hope. “Hope,” Ivan Illich wrote, “in its strong sense, means trusting faith in the goodness of nature, while expectation … means reliance on results which are planned and controlled by man. Hope centers desire on a person from whom we await a gift. Expectation looks forward to satisfaction from a predictable process which will produce what we have the right to claim.”[7] Indigenous hope is tied up with the logic of the gift, where humans and non-humans are related through ties of mutual obligation, respect, and reciprocity. We tend to see these understandings as metaphors or cultural constructions – ideas that we left behind when nature came to be at our disposal, and we began testing planetary boundaries.[8] We expect to be able to corral all of nature’s ills and reshape the world in terms of future demand.[9] Thus hope, and Indigenous understandings of reciprocity, continue to elude us settler peoples.


[1] See http://www.greatlakesnow.org/2016/10/including-first-nations-and-tribal-voices-in-great-lakes-environmental-policy-decisions/.

[2] For a brief overview of this idea, and how culture (rather than nature) could become the basis of a new universality, see Bruno Latour, “Perspectivism: type or bomb?” Anthropology Today 25, no. 2 (2009): 1-2, available at http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/P-141-DESCOLA-VIVEIROSpdf.pdf.

[3] See http://gutsmagazine.ca/wastelands/.

[4] See http://www.anishinabek.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Enviro-youth-booklet-1-1.pdf.

[5] The politics of neoliberal conservation is discussed in detail in Rosemary-Claire Collard, Jessica Dempsey, and Juanita Sundberg, “A manifesto for abundant futures,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 105, no. 2 (2015): 322-330.

[6] Bruno Latour argues that the Moderns have never contemplated the future because they are too busy fleeing their past in terror (moving forward, while facing backward): “This is why … their future was always so unrealistic, so utopian, so full of hype.” See Bruno Latour, “An attempt at a compositionist manifesto,” New Literary History 41 (2010): 471-490, available at http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/120-NLH-finalpdf.pdf.

[7] Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society, available at http://preservenet.com/theory/Illich/Deschooling/chap7.html.

[8] For more on the challenge of accepting Indigenous knowledge as literal truth, see Paul Nadasdy, “The gift in the animal: the ontology of hunting and human-animal sociality,” American Ethnologist 34, no. 1 (2007): 25-43.

[9] As Illich notes in Deschooling Society, “it is the history of the Promethean endeavor to forge institutions in order to corral each of the rampant ills.”

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I'm interested in settler colonialism and Indigenous-settler conflicts over fisheries and wildlife management. My work lies at the intersection of ethnobiology, the anthropology of science, and environmental history. I live in Tiohtià:ke (Montreal), and work on projects with First Nations communities in Quebec, Ontario, and BC.

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