An Indigenous Ontological Reading of Cryopreservation Practices and Ethics (and Why I'd Rather Think about Pipestone)
As presented at the American Anthropological Association 111th annual meeting, San Francisco, CA, on the panel: “Defrost: The Social After-lives of Biological Substance.”
Cryopreservation—or deep freeze of tissues—enables storage and maintenance of bio-specimens from whole human bodies, to plant materials, to blood samples taken from indigenous peoples’ bodies. And all of this happens within ontological, ethical, and racial regimes that never belonged to indigenous peoples. It allows the suspended animation and temporal transport of cells and within them DNA, life’s so called code, into realms beyond the bodies whose lives these biologicals helped constitute. That we have barely begun to read that code matters less, as my co-panelist Joanna Radin has pointed out elsewhere, than “desperate” desires “to accumulate fragments of a world whose inherent plasticity, augmented by the corrosive forces of modernity, seemed poised to render certain life forms extinct.
Radin calls for “cryopolitics,“a strategy for grappling with the unresolved problem of the appropriate use of old tissue for new purposes,” a response to the ethical shortcomings of narratives and practices past. In other enlightening ethnographic work, my co-panelist Emma Kowal explains the “biovalue” constituted by the ethical work and network construction of bio-scientists as they build collections of samples and curate them throughout their lives, hoping to cultivate intellectual descendants to whom they might bequeath their treasured bio-valuables—indigenous biological patrimony.
Bioethical responses emerging from non-indigenous institutions and philosophical terrain, including the incisive analyses of my co-panelists, teach me much. And leave me… speechless.
I have found myself these past months unable to think or write or do fieldwork for this project. I have not understood my own resistance. Faced with standing before you today, I had to admit simply that I am weary of having the agenda for what will be responded to set by those who are trying to figure out a way to do things better, but things that indigenous people never asked to have done in the first place. I learn much from my colleagues from around the world who chip away at tired old hierarchical regimes of knowledge production.
And I have been aided in my own critiques of the politics that inhere in the genome sciences by my grounding in feminist technoscientific epistemologies and ethics, including the concept of “feminist objectivity” that calls for inquiry from multiple, especially marginalized, standpoints. The argument is that inquiry from marginalized lives produces a more rigorous reading of the world, and knowledge for the benefit of peoples who have too often been treated not as the beneficiaries of research, but as its raw materials. Indeed, this is an indigenous standpoint talk.
But all of this is focused on response, and I’m running out of steam for that.
So I turn to yet another feminist scholar, Neferti Tadiar, who articulates a concept of faith that enables me to write—to speak here today—in a faithful attempt to regain speech: Informed by the voices of other Oceti Sakowin thinkers within and without the academy. More commonly known as Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota peoples, today we comprise multiple “tribes” in the upper Midwest of the U.S. and south-central Canada. Some of the thinkers who influence me are living and—like the biologicals this panel is attuned to—some are now beyond bodies. As I lean on their thoughts, words, and imperatives, I speak “in concert with” these people I call my own. Tadiar explains this as being “already caught up in the claims that others act out.” Refusing to be excised from them by some imperialistic, naïve notion of exact representation, I try to turn speechlessness into more than response, into claims about the world that I would rather see made.
Tadiar’s particular concept of faith helps me move beyond critiquing a non-feminist politics of objectivity such as pervades the genome sciences. That kind of critique comprised my work of the past ten years. Today, I hope to demonstrate how an indigenous standpoint can take us to an analysis of life and vibrancy that even a Western feminist standpoint cannot take us to.
But let me first highlight three critiques of the technology and practices we consider today, that are in part gestured to in my co-panelists’ analyses, but which I would cast in the shadow of an indigenous standpoint.
Cryopreservation aims to preserve “life,” but is predicated on death
Cryopreservation of indigenous biological samples is about life, the extension of life, the study of life, the preservation of life. But a notion of “life” focused on the largely indecipherable patterns and instructions that comprise DNA’s scaffolding. It is a materialist conception of life that I do not disagree with. Indeed, there is bibliographic beauty in it. But I know now why I don’t want to talk about it.
Cryopreservation recalls the poverty of the genetic articulation of indigeneity that becomes ever more salient in our world of genomics-as-nation-building. Cryopreservation, like genetic indigeneity, emerges not only out of technoscientific innovations but also from a discourse of death. Cryopreservation’s co-constitutive narrative is that gathering indigenous DNA is about staving off certain death, preserving remnants of human groups and their nonhuman relations, defined in molecular terms, and archiving those molecular patterns and instructions before peoples or species “vanish,” the so-called genetic signatures of founding populations obscured forever in a sea of genetic admixture. Death by admixture. Or actual extinction in the case of nonhuman species.
As Joanna Radin explains:
“Groups like the Yanomami or the Babinga did not live on the electric grid in real life—a signifier of their primitiveness—they, or at least pieces of them, could be frozen on it via the laboratory freezer. In this way, these populations would continue to live outside of time, and even outside of death”...Technologies of cryopreservation appeared a powerful way to keep them—or at least their genes—from going extinct.”
Genetic indigeneity, which grounds cryopreservation practices surrounding indigenous samples, and which is implicitly political, might focus on connection to the land and cultural cohesion, like indigenous peoples ourselves do. In biological sampling of a group, the idea of geographic and cultural isolation and longevity in place is paramount. But genetic indigeneity also fundamentally contradicts a definition of indigenous in its explicitly political social movement formation. For indigenous peoples ourselves, indigeneity as an organizing category is added to our people-specific understandings of ourselves. It helps us articulate our resistance as peoples to the assimilative state. It is about indigenous peoples’ survival, a “we are still here, and we are proliferating” discourse. Indeed, numbers of indigenous people have risen worldwide during the past two decades. This is not only about birthrates but about the generative success of the category. It is a source of power for peoples.
My forthcoming book, Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science (University of Minnesota Press, 2013), and the last ten years of work have been about responding to the erasure of indigenous peoples’ survival in bio-scientific research practices and narratives over several hundred years. Notwithstanding recent collaborative efforts, the interplay of genome-focused narratives and the political economy of genome research both pre-suppose and enable the erasure of indigenous peoples and their cultures.
Cryopreservation enables appropriation of indigenous natural resources
Radin explains that the International Biological Program (IBP) that ran from the early 1960s through 1974, and which set the 20th-century scientific stage for the biological sampling of indigenous peoples (along with nonhuman communities) as remnants of a bygone world, an increasingly “civilizing” yet ironically toxic world. She reminds us that “The stated goal of research on primitive isolates was to salvage information that might benefit civilized communities’ understandings of themselves.”
But the conception of indigenous bodies as “natural resources,” the raw materials upon which nations are built, did not begin in 1960. In the 18th and 19th centuries too the U.S. nation building project relied on the appropriation of indigenous peoples’ lands. The U.S. positioned itself—positioned whites—as the rational agent capable of transforming nature in to productive property, and indigenous peoples in these lands as incapable of developing, indeed surviving in the face of the modern industrial state.
Whereas indigenous land (and bones and cultures ready for study) were seen as the rightful inheritance of whites in the 18th and 19th centuries and before—the live Indian has apparently been vanishing since contact, literally meeting death in the face of Westward expansion, or transformed biologically and culturally beyond recognition. Today rare, precious indigenous DNA is the remaining natural resource to be appropriated or stewarded “before it is too late.”
As Jenny Reardon and I wrote in a recent Current Anthropology article, in the 21st century, the goal is to transform the raw natural resources that are genomes into something of value for humans: Genome knowledge supposedly “for the good of all.” But who in pragmatic terms counts as fully human, and as recipient of those benefits is the question. Certainly a vanished Indian cannot make a claim.
Cryopreservation enables social relations, including with indigenous people, even while it continues to de-animate them
We see a partial de-colonization of Western disciplinary thinking and a dismantling of hierarchies between Westerners’ and their non-human others, indeed also their previously less animated human others, in this move to caretake biological samples via cryopreservation. We see recognition of non-human animacy, even if it is not explicitly stated in the analyses of my co-panelists, of human biological substance and the social relations it helps effect, especially that substance derived from indigenous bodies. Stewarded by non-indigenous scientists and institutions, the substance acts as object of mutual concern and desire by both scientists and the indigenous communities that lay claim to it. Inspiring, frightening, challenging and empowering the humans involved with it, archived biologicals help constitute social relations.
Co-panelist Emma Kowal offers something slightly different as well. In the process of stewarding cryopreserved samples, she explains that indigenous people become vibrant in the way that genome scientists newly pay attention to the affective networks and biovalue co-constituted with indigenous DNA. But this is paradoxical as Kowal points out because biovalue, “the production of scientific value from human body parts,” is a form of “surplus value” actually produced when “marginal forms of vitality…[including] the bodies and body parts of the socially marginalized –are transformed into technologies to aid in the intensification of vitality for other living beings.”
So indigenous bodies are both de-animated (After Mel Chen I think in terms of animacy) in the hierarchies of civilizing, scientific knowledge production. And yet, re-animated as living indigenous people become scientists literally or in name as co-authors or co-Principal investigators within new, more collaborative ethical regimes.
Entrance to quarries. Expansive skies (photo: K. TallBear)
Life, blood, and stone
Vibrancy. Animacy. These are among the words through which disciplines are recently articulating the force of nonhumans in our cultural, political, and economic lives. And though this work is innovative, both methodologically and ethically, it only partially engages indigenous standpoints.
Indigenous cultures” have not forgotten that nonhuman organisms are agential beings engaged in social relations that profoundly shape human lives. In addition, for indigenous peoples, their nonhuman others may not be understood in even critical western frameworks as living. “Objects” and “forces” such as stones, thunder, or stars are known within our ontologies to be sentient and knowing persons. This is where new materialisms intersect animal studies, and helps us to see that violence against nonhumans—water, earth, plant, animal—is linked to violence against particular humans who have historically been de-animated, made “less-than-human,” made “animal.”
Koyungkawi poet and acorn mushmaker, Linda Noel, explains to me that she doesn’t mind “being considered part of nature.” But she knows what they mean by that, and that’s not what she means. For Noel, non-human is not less than human, nor less alive.
On that note, I turn from indigenous DNA—human biological substance frozen out of place and time—to stone. I want to talk about stone, the life that inheres in a stone, the social relations that proliferate as that stone emerges from the earth, is carved into pipe, is passed from hand to hand. (You may have heard them called “peace pipes”—that’s not quite right.) I speak of Pipestone, otherwise known as Catlinite after the 19th-century U.S. American artist who painted the site where the red stone is cut from the earth.
There is a story that tells us about the blood in that stone, that along with our loving attention to its materiality enables us to apprehend its vibrancy, its fundamental role in our peoplehood. Unlike with indigenous DNA, this is not a cellular vibrancy. Yet without it, prayers would be grounded, social relations impaired, and everyday lives of quarriers and carvers depleted of the meaning they derive from working with stone. Here is that story:
It rained for many days, non-stop. A young girl saw a high hill and ran up there. Many of her people had already drowned. Alone, she began to pray. The rain suddenly stopped. She stood there, seeing nothing around her but water. Above in the sky she heard and saw a giant bird. He opened his wings. A man emerged. The man told her not to be afraid. He had come to rescue her. All of her people were killed in the flood, he told her. He wanted to marry her. Through their marriage together the humans would begin anew. When the water receded it all drained into one place. There in that place was the blood of all the people who had drowned. That place became the cannupa ok’e. The blood of the people, the red stone. 
Red is a sacred color for the Dakota, and so this place is taken to be sacred. The cannupa ok’e, the quarry, is also special to many other peoples whose members dig there today. The stone there is sometimes spoken of as a relative.
But U.S. Park Service pamphlets from the Pipestone, Minnesota quarry represent pipes as artifacts, as craft objects, and detail the history of white incursion in the area, into the quarry where Natives produced their artifacts, and the regulatory response of the U.S. government. These ways of understanding the stone and the landscape from which it is quarried—these material and regulatory histories—are not unimportant, but like the politics that enabled the production of indigenous biological samples abstracted from living bodies and vibrant peoples, these politics resulted in a de-animating representation of the red stone. Like bio-scientists in the 20th and 21st centuries with their imperative to bleed indigenous peoples before it was too late, a 19th century Euro-American painter and early 20th century geologists and government agents saw the place where the red stone lies as an artifact of a waning culture and time. They produced a “National Monument” to conserve it.
But like indigenous people who insist on their continuing survival and involvement with their DNA, indigenous quarriers and carvers, medicine people, and just everyday people who pray insist on living with the red stone daily. And they make decisions—some of them seen as compromised about how to best work with the vibrant objects of their attention. Some indigenous people agree to engage in research or commercial activities related to DNA. Others sell pipestone jewellery and craft pieces to make a living while also holding the stone and ceremonial pipes carved from it as sacred. Literal red human blood and the blood red stone have been translated into “resources.” And while this characterization is troubled by Dakota and other indigenous quarriers and carvers, it is not undone.
And here I am at the end of this talk with a response after all, because this is the fundamental condition of indigeneity. It is predicated on there being a settler, an invader to whom we must always respond. Yet I hope that I am also moving into a stage of inquiry guided by the needs, desires, arguments, critiques, and material lives of the people from whom I derive. In the next couple of years I will turn my attention to pipestone as an agent in Oceti Sakowin lives, one imposed upon by processes of colonization, but a subject that also preceded such things.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Texas, Austin (where I am a Donald D. Harrington Fellow in 2012-13) for funding support this year as I bring together the threads of multiple lines of inquiry. Thanks to David S. Edmunds for his always incisive editorial feedback and to Chris Andersen (UAlberta) for when I lose faith helping me see that what I know and need to write about is right in front of me. Finally, a big thanks to my colleagues and fellow panelists Joanna Radin (YaleU), Emma Kowal (UMelbourne), Tiffany Romain (Ricoh Innovations), Jennifer Brown (UPenn), and to discussants Jenny Reardon (UCSC) and Warwick Anderson (USydney) for our own productive social relations, and for having such fertile minds from which I can appropriate intellectual resources, transforming them into productive goods for the benefit of indigenous people.
 Joanna Radin, “Latent Life: Concepts and Practice of Human Tissue Preservation in the International Biological Program, 1964-1974," forthcoming, 32.
 Donna J. Haraway, 1991a. "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century." In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: the Reinvention of Nature. New York and London: Routledge: 149-181; Donna Haraway, 2000. “Morphing the Order: Flexible Strategies, Feminist Science studies, and Primate Revisions.” In Primate Encounters, edited by S. Strum and L. Fedigan, 398-420. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Donna J. Haraway, 1991b. "Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privolege of Partial Perspective.” In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: the Reinvention of Nature. New York and London: Routledge: 183-201; Sandra Harding. 2008. Sciences from Below: Feminisms, Postcolonialities, and Modernities. Durham and London: Duke University Press; Sandra Harding. 1991. Whose Science? Whose Knowledge?: Thinking from Women’s Lives. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
 Neferti X.M. Tadiar. 2001. “The Noranian Imaginary.” In Geopolitics of the Visible: Essays on Philippine Film Cultures, ed. Rolando B. Tolentino. Ateneo de Manila University Press: 61-76.
 Radin forthcoming 31.
 Radin forthcoming, 32.
 Radin forthcoming, 22.
 Cheryl I. Harris. 1993. “Whiteness as Property.” Harvard Law Review 8 (June): 1707-1791.
 Jenny Reardon and Kim TallBear. 2012. “Your DNA is Our History”: Genomics, Anthropology, and the Construction of Whiteness as Property.” Current Anthropology53(S5): S233-S245.
 Kowal 7, forthcoming.
 Mel Chen. 2012. Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
 Kowal 29, forthcoming.
 Adapted from the story as told in the Pipestone: An Unbroken Legacy, DVD.
"Survival Horror and Other Colonial Fantasies: American Indians, Video Games, and Popular Genres": A Conversation with Jodi Byrd
Cross-posted from www.oaklakewriters.org, an organization of Oceti Sakowin writers in which I am a member, and on whose behalf I also blog.
On the third day of the Oak Lake Writers Society (OLWS) annual retreat, August 1, 2012, University of Illinois Associate Professor of American Indian Studies, Jodi Byrd (Chickasaw) led a fascinating session by this name. We got down to analytical business pretty quickly and discussed how the zombie/demon/monster narrative, along with Christianity, is a founding myth of the United States. Our tribal writers, most of whom work with more traditional genres (and I don’t necessarily mean “traditional” in the tribal sense here), nonetheless were very lively participants in Jodi’s session.
She explained the links between such narratives, both in film and in (video) gaming and how Indians get designated as monsters. Alternately Indians get erased and the landscape gets represented as empty in many such works. These are ways in which they resonate with more traditional forms, including captivity narratives and westerns, for example. She noted that a surprising number of video games have Indian motifs of both violence and erasure. She cited a game called Prey that features the “agnosia” she spoke of yesterday—a term she borrows from neurological science, a form of blindness in which one’s eyes can see but one cannot comprehend what one sees. In this game a Cherokee named Domasi "Tommy" Tawodi traverses a treacherous landscape to defend the land from invaders from space, aliens. As Jodi points out, "the use of 'prey' is a double entendre of savage Indians on the one hand, and the fact that the invading aliens have upended the food chain and surpassed humans at the top." Jodi argues that it is incomprehensible that the character Tommy could be defending the land from invaders from Europe, from colonialists. I asked what demographic creates games. Jodi responded that the majority of game developers are white and Asian males. Again, agnosia: Colonial violence and history—even what one sees before one’s eyes—cannot be comprehended. Overall, I think our writers found this a useful analytical intervention. Gabrielle Tateyuskanskan noted a slightly different—perhaps related problem. In mainstream classrooms Indian students “analyze in silence” the dominant narratives we’re fed, for example, of Indians as consorting with faeries (i.e. in Peter Pan) and therefore as not real, or Indians as absent from a landscape in which historically there was tremendous encounter and violence (e.g. Little House on the Prairie).
A lively discussion ensued around Jodi’s intellectual challenge in this area: If popular genre—science fiction, fantasy, and horror—are part of how settler colonialism processes its history and its role in this place, what then are the implications for us as Native writers taking up this genre? And what are the implications for how we take this up? Jodi asks, “Are we stuck with realism [and I presume she meant, the decolonial work we do here in the material realm], or can we also decolonize imagination?” We’re really skilled in American Indian Studies (AIS), she notes, at talking about the western and its role in the colonial narrative, but now we have all of these newer forms that now have more popular influence than that form. And Native writers are taking them up. She argues that all vampire and zombie stories are essentially captivity stories—that essentially the captive gets infected or contaminated and transformed. She also notes that the zombie narrative when it emerged with George Romero in the late 1960s was—lit critics have argued—a critique of whiteness. The zombies, pale and (un)dead, represented the advancing infection of whiteness. But she argues that the zombie narrative has flipped to where whiteness takes control of it in the 21st century. The zombie becomes invader, terrorist, the infectious agent that must be controlled, contained, and wiped out. The zombie’s subjectivity has flipped since its first emergence in the popular U.S. American imagination from a critique of whiteness to now being subjected to the nationalist authority of whiteness. I am no longer slightly embarrassed that I love zombie films. There is apparently so much in them for an intellectual to love.
Our regular co-mentor Elizabeth Cook-Lynn seemed less convinced, or perhaps she was just playing devil’s advocate when she asked “Why is it that Native writers are taking all of this up? And what are the implications?” Jodi added, that we should think about whether taking up these new forms is “a mark of assimilation, or does it help decolonize the imagination?” My fellow Oak Lakers are much more erudite fiction readers than I am. I read mostly academic writing and hardly ever fiction. Yet it seems to me that taking up science fiction, fantasy, and horror, given their pervasive influence in popular culture, is not fundamentally different from how our forebears first took up the novel, the short story, and the poem, or from how my fellow indigenous academics and I take up academic forms of writing. Jodi cited a Canadian Anishinaabeg writer, Drew Hayden Taylor, who entangles in a young adult gothic novel form the vampire story with a story of European/indigenous contact and the Anishinaabeg Windigo story. She argues that to take up this genre is to take control of it in a way that centers indigenous experience and knowledges.
Stephens and Sprinkle (center left and right) with friends at Dyke March 2012
We’re changing the metaphor from “Earth as Mother” to “Earth as Lover.”
---Elizabeth Stephens, Artist, Ecosexual, Professor
We aim to make the environmental movement more sexy, fun and diverse.
----Annie Sprinkle, Ph.D., Artist, Ecosexual, Sexologist
“Who wants to fuck a tree?” An attendee at the San Francisco Dyke March asked when she saw Beth Stephens’ and Annie Sprinkle’s flower and vine-laden signs, “Ecosexuals,” which we marched under this past sunny Saturday in the Mission district. Most novices to the idea were less dismissive. Many curious young queer people came up to Annie and Beth and asked, eyes full of curiosity, “What’s an ecosexual?” Many more seasoned folks knew Beth and Annie well. Beth Stephens is a Professor of Art at the University of California, Santa Cruz and co-founder with Annie of the Love Art Laboratory. Annie Sprinkle is Beth’s artistic collaborator and her wife. Annie is especially legend as a former famous porn star—the first porn star to earn a Ph.D.—a former sex worker, a sex-positive feminist, sexologist, and sex worker rights’ and health activist. Annie’s activist work, her intellectual work, and her art humanizes folks in the sex industry, and across a spectrum of sexual identities and practices. Many adoring fans gushed to Annie about how much they adore her and how important her work has been for them. Many wanted to have their photos taken with her on those crowded joyous streets of San Francisco. The most touching were the young queer women and trans men, so out, so effusive, clearly so happy to be who they are or are becoming, and to be amidst many other dykes and their allies.
Beth Stephens, Annie Sprinkle, Earth
Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle are my friends. We were hanging out last Saturday. It happened to be the day of the Dyke March. We decided to go. Plus queer folks’ re-thinking how to be and have family is helping me at this point in my life. They remind me of something I was raised with in my Dakota culture. Family is not only about biology and state-sanctioned legal relationships. We can choose and make our family. It is about love and not ownership, reciprocity and not debt. It is about respect. I am grateful for queer folks’ courage and creativity in challenging oppressive heteronormative kinship standards that too often imply ownership and hierarchy because they enforce rigid categories. (I will come back to that category-hierarchy relationship shortly.) In creatively re-making and living gender and family, they make a better world for all of us. I was happy to be welcomed to go in support to the San Francisco Dyke March.
I am also not an ecosexual. Yet I carried a sign, an ally too in that regard. When Beth Stephens first told me about ecosexuality it did not resonate with me. Earth as lover? But I keep coming back to the concept after meeting Beth 18 months ago when she enrolled in my UC Berkeley graduate seminar on feminist and indigenous approaches to science, technology, and environment. Beth and I have lots to talk about. We both come from economically and geographically marginal backgrounds, from places and peoples with rich cultures, lands, and resources, thus the exploitation of our peoples and lands. I come from a South Dakota reservation and Beth from the coal mining country of West Virginia. We both ended up in Northern California eco-feminist academic worlds. I liked Beth from the beginning, and trusted that she had something to teach me as well.
Ecosexuality Challenges Dominant Notions of Sex and Nature
This blog post is my first attempt to begin to theorize what ecosexual thinking might mean for me and for the broader intellectual worlds in which I work: indigenous, environmental, and science studies. How can ecosexual thinking be in conversation with indigenous and feminist critiques colonial and chauvinistically scientistic approaches to articulating and studying this thing we call “nature” and its close relatives, “environment” and “race”? What does ecosexual theory offer the world, especially as our institutions of governance and higher learning try to find new ways to solve environmental problems (in addition to continuing to create them), but too often at the expense of those who are less powerful. As an indigenous and feminist scholar of science studies, I continue to search for voices that can provide more inclusive alternatives to the less democratic knowledge practices espoused by nature’s self-appointed spokespersons, the overwhelmingly white, male, heteronormative scientific establishment that mistakenly equates its own historically-specific norms and knowledges with neutrality and universal truth. The dyke march and my first encounters with ecosexuality this past year, it turns out, constitute a pivotal intellectual moment of growth for me. I am learning that queer sexuality and politics—acknowledging and helping love and desire flourish beyond rigidly enforced heterosexuality—not only helps us re-make our human relationships. It provides us tools for living better with the planet.
Beth and Annie refuse to relegate sexuality or sexual identities—like nature—to discrete and essential categories, to something that is only primal or instinctual, to be spoken of in whispers (sexuality), or different (nature), something outside of the cultural dynamism of everyday life, something outside of art. In their own way, Annie and Beth refuse the nature/culture divide. They work to bring into view what we have been told should be kept separate, managed, alternately exploited and violated, or saved and kept pure. In addition to the idea that they are simply found-in-nature categories, this is what “sex” and “nature” have in common. This is what draws me to Beth and Annie’s ecosexual thinking. With the rise of scientific authority and management approaches, both sex and nature have been rendered as discrete, coherent, troublesome, yet manageable objects. Both sex and nature are at the heart of struggles involving ideas of purity and contamination, life and death, but which only scientifically trained experts or rational subjects (read historically white, Western men) are seen as fit to name, manage, and to set the terms of legitimate encounter.
Annie’s and Beth’s art and activism disrupts these dominant ideas. Sexual practices and identities do and should be allowed to take multiple, shifting forms over time as our needs for different kinds of intimacies change. Thus the transformation of Beth and Annie from queer to also ecosexual. Practices and identities are fluid. This is good, something to be open about and celebrated. Likewise, we are in nature. Nature is us. We have close intimate everyday relations with nonhumans, and they do not always accord with the dominant, heteronormative, scientistic view of things. Sex is both nature and culture, both instinct and art. As Annie told my surprised undergraduates at UC Berkeley this past spring when she passed around a flower in full bloom for them to smell: “You put your nose in to smell that flower’s sex organ. You just had sex with that flower.” The seemingly mundane can be revelatory.
As ecosexuals, Sprinkle and Stephens have married various entities of Earth, Sky, Moon, and Sea but they began by marrying each other. Part of their collaborative performance art has been over the past seven years to “orchestrate one or more interactive performance art weddings …then display the ephemera in art galleries.” Their wedding years each incorporate the colors and themes of the chakras. From 2005-2011, they did a red, orange, yellow, green (earth), blue (sky), purple (moon), and white (snow) wedding, one color for each year. Photos of their colorful, choreographed weddings involving lots of community participation can be viewed on their Web site, LoveArt Laboratory.
Yet another Web site features a photo of Sprinkle and Stephens tongue kissing tree bark. And another, the two of them kissing while placing their hands on a rock: “three way kiss with a rock hard rock,” Annie comments on her Facebook page. Giggle. They playfully talk about lying on their backs and gazing at clouds, “having cloudgasms,” or giving “grassalingus.” Now, I don’t get turned on by clouds, or tree bark, or rocks. (I once dead-ended into the tight, closed end of a tunnel inside a rock hard mountain while caving in Colorado and had the realization that this great, old being did not need me poking around inside its body.) On the other hand, some of my UC Berkeley students probably do get turned on by trees if they open up their minds to think about it that way.
But Beth and Annie’s work causes me to get theoretically excited. When I intensely start talking theory, Beth reminds me, “You know this is supposed to be fun, right? We don’t take it (ecosexual performance) too seriously.” Yet it is part of the art that is at the center of their lives. And if Annie and Beth’s agenda is to bring some light heartedness, joy, and fun to what they see as a sanctimonious and dour environmental movement that turns off potentially sympathetic folks, that is serious business, is it not? In my work, I want to diversify who does science, question the divide between science and traditional knowledge, question who gets to name the world and narrate its problems, and who gets to decide how best to solve them. Similarly, Beth and Annie want to diversify the environmental movement, its actors, discourses, and strategies for change. I also increasingly embrace laughter as a response to the absurdly hateful politics of our time. Laughter sustains me when anger wears me down and feels unproductive.
In a slightly different way than an academic strand of queer theory—queer ecologies—intends it, Beth and Annie are both queering the environmental movement and greening queer culture. Like ecosexual thinking, “queer ecologies” (see Mortimer-Sandilands’ and Erickson’s 2010 edited volume by that title) disrupts the nature/culture boundary and it seeks to undermine the heteronormative biases that inform environmental sciences and discourses. Heteronormative bias naturalizes heterosexual relations in nature while ignoring or making deviant queer or same sex relations. But for Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, queering doesn’t just mean bringing LGBTQI folks into the mix. Beth and Annie are also involved in activism against mountain top removal in Beth’s home state of West Virginia. Their film, still in production, Goodbye Gauley Mountain: An Ecosexual Love Story, foregrounds the lives disrupted and the work of resistance of a very diverse group of people in the West Virginia hills who fight this particularly violent treatment of the earth. The film spotlights oppositional local folks and transplants, people whose critical voices the state and coal mining companies render as marginal and therefore illegitimate. Legitimating marginal voices, queering discourses, is something Stephens and Sprinkle do in both their environmental activism and in Sprinkle’s sex worker activism.
Bringing Indigenous and Ecosexual Stories Carefully into Conversation
Sprinkle and Stephens, because of the artistic and sex positive feminist work that they do, emphasize what we think of as sexual relations when they talk about being intimate with trees, rocks, the sea, clouds, mountains. Their ideas of social relations are grounded in their specific historical and cultural backgrounds and detailed in their “herstories” on their SexEcology Web site:
Growing up in the mountains alongside the Kanawha River, the winter, spring, summer and fall nurtured this young ecosexual from the start. The fragrance of the mountains’ forests and waters permeated my every waking and sleeping moment. My body was tuned to the cycle of budding leaves turning to dark green fully unfurled then slowly dying in oranges, reds and yellows and finally cold winter browns dropping off to rot in the emptiness that reveals the naked mountains. Even in their nakedness the mountains were laced with rhododendron, mountain laurel, dogwood, redbuds, magnolias, wild azaleas, hickory, oak, sycamore and sassafras...Hunting salamanders for fish bait in the fresh water creek running down off the mountain and into Daniel Boone’s Bathtub, forming swirls underneath Suicide Rock, then passing below route 60, to empty into the slow, caramel green of the Kanawha, made for some of the dreamiest moments of my childhood.----Beth Stephens
When I knew that I was an ecosexual I was nine. My dad discovered Yosemite and he fell in love. In retrospect, my dad must have been an ecosexual too. Our family visited Yosemite several times a year. That’s when it started, between me, and the redwood trees. I liked them BIG. And they were HUGE! Big, round, hard, but soft, redwood trees. Gentle giants. I loved the scent of the trunk, like vanilla mixed with soil. I have a strong memory of coming across a redwood that had fallen over from a storm. I walked around and peeked at its freshly exposed roots. So soft, so sensuous, so sexy! I had to touch them.--Annie Sprinkle
Another example of an ecosexual experience offered by Annie in her Herstory involves not touching her desired—a “big, erect” saguaro cactus in the Arizona desert, but an exchange of sexual energy nonetheless. Annie explains: “There was no touching of the cactus for obvious reasons, but I swear, that cactus and I exchanged our sexual energies.” This is another playful example that stretches not only who we see our human selves as in intimate relationship with, but it stretches the “sexual” experience into one that transcends matter and physical stimulation. It disrupts that spirit/matter binary that is so locked into our modern scientistic view of the world, a binary that is not so prevalent in indigenous ontologies.
Which leads me to a disclaimer: There are occasional references in ecosex literature to Native American knowledges in ways that are what I would classify as “New Age,” and I would advise caution around the appropriation of Native American knowledges and motifs to the ecosexual ceremonial and artistic repertoire. In plain language: Be cautious when a person calls themself a “shaman” and charges money for their services. Medicine people tend to work within a gift economy. And like many U.S. Americans, I do not see that they are especially open to foregrounding the role of sexuality in their work. Or if you do hang out with the shaman type, you should know that they probably do not have much standing among the very indigenous peoples they identify with. There are no easy, literal translations between indigenous ontologies and ecosexuality, at least among the indigenous people I run with. Rather, there are careful conversations with much careful thought to be had.
That said, in the North American indigenous traditions I have encountered, humans speak of having social relations with nonhumans. Our stories sometimes feature what we today would call sexual relations between humans and nonhumans, thus creating, for example, hybrid human-bear persons. But those relations don’t seem to be cohered into something, i.e. “sexuality” as we know it in Western modernity. Close physical relations do not seem so severed in these stories from other types of social relations. Our traditional stories also portray nonhuman persons in ways that to not adhere to another meaningful modern category, the “animal.” Our stories are complex and not romantic. They feature relationships in which human and nonhuman persons, and nonhuman persons between themselves, harass and trick one another; save one another from injury or death; prey upon, kill, and sometimes eat one another; or collaborate with one another. Speaking as a Dakota, and as I read in stories now documented rather than passed down orally, our peoples avoided the hierarchical nature/culture and animal/human split that has done so much damage. In Dakota thinking, nonhuman persons were both worthy of becoming family and they were worthy adversaries. But our ancestors did not view themselves as the owners of nonhumans, nor as gods who could see, study, name, control, and save everything.
I teach my students to recognize those pervasive boundaries and hardened categories that structure our minds, our College of Natural Resources, and our world today—boundaries between nature and culture and all of the subset binaries within that: animal/human, black/white, woman/man, heterosexual/homosexual, traditional knowledge/science, or society/science. These binaries go hand-in-hand with hierarchy—with the notion that some humans are god-like, capable of gazing on the world from above, from outside of nature, of apprehending it in the one true, universal way. This view facilitated human domination of Earth. It is naïve for those of us in the natural and social sciences to think this same view can save the planet.
To return to Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle, they may use ecosexual language and imagery that sounds to many of us like it is rooted only in San Francisco queer or New Age cultures. I hope I’ve shown you that their language also reflects a more expansive history—oops, herstory—than that. There are also foundational and shared principles in what they do and in more mainstream (if that’s possible) feminist and indigenous critiques of scientific and nature discourses. There is also a possibility for conversation with the ideas of my cultural forebears, and what I do in my scholarship and teaching as a 21st century Dakota and indigenous intellectual. This is what makes me a new ally to ecosexuality in the same way that I have long been an ally of queer people and their work.
This is my first venture into thinking through ecosexuality and the relationship of its underlying principles to indigenous thought and feminist science studies. This is an exercise which will perturb some and excite others to continue the conversation. It is a work in progress. I thank you for your patience, and I welcome the feedback of my fellow thinkers from the multiple fields in which I work, both inside and outside the academy.
ADDENDUM: JULY 19, 2012
During the two weeks that followed the original June 29, 2012 post above, an intense discussion occurred on the Facebook page of an indigenous studies scholarly association in which I am active. One person in particular took issue with the post, and focused his critique on Annie Sprinkle. The critic is a non-academic, a self-described Cherokee nationalist, not a spokesperson for the Cherokee Nation, but a citizen of that tribal nation. He is a spokesperson for the cause of protecting Cherokee identity from those who make claims to be Cherokee absent official citizenship or documentable genealogy. Over the course of two weeks he directed several charges at Annie, particularly related to ecosexuality and its potential overlap with New Age practices that, as noted in the original post, many Native Americans see as appropriating and misrepresenting our cultures and spiritualities. This is an important point that deserves further attention in the dialogue between non-indigenous ecosexuals and Native Americans. (We don’t really know whether some indigenous folks might also identify as “ecosexual.”) But it also became clear as the Facebook conversation unfolded that the Cherokee nationalist, himself gay identified, was critical of other non-heteronormative sexual practices. It also became clear, and he admitted, that he didn’t really read my blog post. The convergence of his particular critiques, which I will outline and respond to below (with help from Annie Sprinkle who kindly sent me e-mail responses that she has given me permission to quote from) is a good reflection of one particular response among the diverse and visceral kinds of responses that topics related to sexuality elicit in our society. As I write above, the relatively recent cultural coherence of disparate practices and physical characteristics into this thing called "sex" or "sexuality," like "nature," has produced dichotomies between what is considered civilized and less evolved or animalistic, and what is considered normal and good versus what is considered deviant and bad. Such category-making enables wholesale dismissal of Annie Sprinkle and her sexual politics by the Cherokee critic. In our broader society it enables violence against those who are deemed sexually deviant. Not previously having been a scholar of sexuality, I still recognize the similarity with the way binaries are created between what is nature and what is not nature, and the implicit assumptions that make a category subject to violence without conscience. I was a little unprepared, however, for the ire I incurred in writing about the connections as an intellectual exploration.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been. The Cherokee nationalist was also deeply critical of academia and our practices. His charges were pretty standard fare. I/we are elitists who use inaccessible language. My response: Every field from genetics, to the law, to car mechanics, to medicine, to finance, to hairdressing and yes, even tribal enrollment, has its technical language that is not immediately accessible to novices. It takes work to talk to one another in a world of increasing specialization. This blog is for me, one way of engaging in that work. I wish the Cherokee nationalist had approached it in this way.
I should note that scholars who frequent the indigenous studies Facebook page weighed in on the conversation. Some of them also expressed concern over any New Age appropriation that could potentially occur in the ecosex community. But they also challenged the non-academic Cherokee nationalist on his language that eventually exhibited condemnation of certain women, lesbians, ecosexuals and others. We have nearly four hundred members on that page. Less than ten of us (all from the U.S. and Canada) engaged in this conversation. I do know others followed the conversation closely from private e-mails I received from them.
The Criticisms and Responses
1. False claims to Cherokee identity. The Cherokee nationalist's first charge was that Annie Sprinkle once claimed to be Cherokee. Her response to that charge was unequivocal: that she "never ever" said she was Cherokee, the charge is "erroneous." She offered that perhaps the Cherokee nationalist is thinking of someone else, perhaps Hyapatia Lee, another former porn star who publicly identifies as one-quarter Cherokee. Annie explains that she is of Jewish descent. Furthermore, I responded to the Cherokee nationalist that if a person falsely claims to be Cherokee due to the complex racial politics that lead too many Americans to claim Native American identity absent demonstrable genealogical or political links, I would reject that claim. But I would not wholesale discredit her contributions to a conversation about which she knows something.
2. Ecosex associations with New Age appropriators of Native American cultures? The second concern of the Cherokee nationalist was Annie Sprinkle's professional encounters with Harley SwiftDeer Reagan (HSR from here on out), who the Cherokee nationalist also accuses of identifying inappropriately as Cherokee, and of appropriating Native American cultural motifs through New Age practices. Indeed, HSR, I think it safe to say, from the view of most tribal citizens, seems a bit off. Many--not only the Cherokee nationalist--would characterize his claims as fraudulent. On his Web page, harley-swiftdeer-reagan.com, he seems to identify as "Metis," however, and not Cherokee. Perhaps he has changed his identification. The Cherokee Nation is known to officially challenge claimants to Cherokee identity who cannot prove that lineage. HSR currently writes that he is "a founder of the Deer Tribe Metis Medicine Society." It is no less troublesome in its politics to claim to be Metis absent political affiliation with a Metis community. Like many people in our dominant racialized society, HSR seems to conflate the Metis category with a "mixed-blood" race category, having nowhere in sight the notion that Metis communities, as they exist in Canada for example, constitute peoples or nations. In addition, his Web page bio reflects a hodgepodge of cultural claims. To my eyes, he looks like a classic New Age appropriator of Native American cultural motifs.
HSR says nothing on his personal Web page about his work as a sex educator, which is the work through which Annie has engaged him. Annie writes: “I wrote about a workshop I did with Harley Swiftdeer, for Penthouse Magazine. Penthouse paid for my trip...and for the workshop. I wrote about many workshops and events for many sex magazines. I only did the one workshop with Harley. It was at that workshop that I learned the most important technique about sex of any ever…. the Fire breath Orgasm (he calls it that--although all sex positive cultures have some version of ecstatic breathing to energy orgasm). This said, the fact that I took one workshop with him and wrote about it didn't make me a disciple. Or even great 'supporter.' … I do know that Harley is very controversial. …He's teaching sexuality in very explicit ways… I don't know about the quality of his native teachings/rituals, but as a sex educator, he's pretty brave and powerful...His teaching of the fire breath orgasm changed my entire take on human sexuality. From being about the body, to being about energy flowing into and around and through the body.” Annie Sprinkle writes about HSR as a skilled sex educator. And she does have expertise in that area while most of us in indigenous studies do not. HSR's own shoring up of his authority with reference to tribal traditions should be for us the crux of the problem, rather than Sprinkle's engagement with his sexual teachings. Still a word of caution is in order.
Non-native people should be careful attributing Native American authenticity to folks when they have no basis for really judging that. (I see Sprinkle as being careful in this way in her conversation with us.) And ecosexual practitioners within that will want to be careful. The vast majority of people have very limited knowledge about indigenous histories and sovereignty. Highlighting those histories and authorities is a chief role of scholars in Native American and indigenous studies fields. Knowledge that indigenous peoples constitute nations and citizenries within our legal frameworks and not simply monolithic racial groups is lost on most people who believe we should be able to self identify however we choose. But citizenship is granted by tribal, Metis, and First Nations' governments. Beyond citizenship, tribal communities recognize their own, although not always with love. That’s “community.” A purely individual right or choice to self-identify as something is insufficient in our indigenous world. We're on heavily mined terrain here so we must be delicate in our steps. But let me say indelicately that HSR looks clearly to be a fraud on the tribal identity front. This was basically the critique of all of the indigenous studies scholars (not all of whom identify as indigenous by the way) and not only the Cherokee nationalist, in that Facebook conversation. I think it is safe to say that we in indigenous studies and out there in Indian Country would be happier if he'd drop the mystical Native American motifs in his teaching of sex techniques.
As for any personal charges that she is engaging herself in New Age appropriation, Annie Sprinkle explains that as far as religion goes, she was raised Unitarian. Today, she notes, she "can be partly agnostic" and also enjoys and believes in parts of all religions. She asks, "is this new age?” She further explains in a moving statement that "when AIDS hit like a huge tidal wave of death and illness and pain and I lost many friends and loved ones, I was searching for ways to cope and definitely explored lots of new age healing modalities. I also explored various cultures and how they coped and prevailed. I was very interested in "tantra". I would admit that I've been guilty of some appropriation. However, when I did so, before I was (slightly) more educated, I saw it not as appropriation, but as honoring of other cultures. …I'd be very interested in hearing your take on New Age. Always open to learning more and seeing things from different perspectives.”
That “honoring” inclination is something that we in indigenous studies have criticized in supporters of Native American sports team mascots who often assert that by clinging to characters such as the infamous "Chief Illiniwek" at the University of Illinois, they are honoring us. We in Indian Country tend to disagree. Given the few ecosexuals that I know, all of whom are also scholars and/or accomplished artists (ecosexuality involves performance) I trust that the response of those folks will be much less totalitarian and straightforwardly racist than has been the hyperbole of sports fans and mascot defenders. I hope that they will tell their fellow ecosexuals to exercise caution. This addendum, like the original blog post is my next move in this conversation with my friends Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle and with others. As Annie wrote to me in an email: "Humor and experimentation are a big part of our work...I look forward to talking more about these things. We are learning and growing. Our ecosexuality is relatively new for us. And these critiques are certainly thought provoking. I am not new to controversy however. I like to think of it as part of the fun. That's how I cope with the sex negativity all around in the culture that gets thrown at me. But I do learn from all critiques." Which leads to the third major charge directed at Annie Sprinkle and at ecosexuality by the Cherokee nationalist, that she/it is "repulsive."
3. The controversial politics of non-normative sexualities. After the Cherokee nationalist's first charges, I had expected our indigenous studies Facebook page conversation to stay close to the topics of Native American identity and New Age appropriations. But he eventually issued scathing commentary of non-normative sexual practices and identities, characterizing Annie Sprinkle and others like her (porn actresses and sex workers, I presume) as "nasty women" who have "repulsive lifestyles." He also issued a shocking charge, (I hesitate to quote extensively as I have not asked his permission), essentially that gay identity is marred by having deviant sexualities tied to it. So, being gay should not be considered deviant. I agree! But all/most (?) other non-heteronormative practices and identities should be considered deviant and perverse? He worries that the gay community becomes a haven for "every sexual dreg society has to offer...GLBTIIQLMFAO." And now we should add "E" to that already too multiple term? He also mentions that the problem began when lesbians refused the gay moniker. I and other indigenous studies scholars--indigenous and non-indigenous, queer and straight--argued against such characterizations. Such derisive name-calling seems out of step with both honest academic inquiry and productive activism. And it is certainly not in the spirit of rigorous analysis and conversation that we like to promote in our indigenous studies community.
I highlight our conversation on the indigenous studies Facebook page in order to call attention to the varied kinds and tones of responses that will occur in our society around such issues. I saw intolerance and fear; anger, both righteous and abusive; openness; critical questioning; and generosity. Unlike Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, I am an academic newcomer to controversies having to do with the "sex negativity" that prevails in our contemporary society. (On a personal level most of us are influenced by sex negativity.) The response to my initial post and the politics of sexuality and nature at play in ecosexuality featured there affirms my sense that it is important work to engage in multi-disciplinary ways, carefully yet assertively, and with tolerance whenever possible with "nature" and "sex" topics, and their underlying binaries of nature/culture, purity/contamination, and normative/deviant. Such ways of dividing up the world into essentialist notions of good and evil (rather than defining good and bad, for example, according to suffering) help produce both nature and sexuality as rigid categories that end up doing violence to both humans and nonhumans. On our indigenous studies Facebook page we saw just a taste of the verbal violence that can ensue.
(Please note that some of the comments to this post were posted before the addendum appeared on this page.)
What Your Eyes Can See, and Ours Cannot: UCSC American Indian and Indigenous Graduates Year-End Celebration Keynote (delivered by Kim TallBear in Santa Cruz, 6/16/12)
My teaching assistant this spring in my undergraduate lecture at UC Berkeley, “Society, Environment, and Culture,” chastised me. He told me to stop telling students how much harder they--you have it than did my generation of university graduates. (It’s been 20 years since I was an undergraduate.) He told me not to depress them. That they are not as hopeless as I am, but what I say also affects them. I guess in the age of market-driven education and ratemyprofessors.com, I forget that what I say actually matters on a psychic level to some of my students. We professors can be really out of touch—and I don’t mean with the current circumstances of the so-called “real world.” That’s a myth about academics. We live in this stressful, overworked, under-paid, real world just like the rest of you. The “life of the mind” is for many of us, also increasingly a life of hardship. But I mean that we can be out of touch with what students are actually thinking and feeling. This is especially true in the research-oriented University of California system where classes are large, funds are short, and teaching assistants are on the front lines of undergraduate education while professors are bombarded with service, publication, and fundraising pressures.
I teach about “naturecultures” around the globe, a term that disrupts the notion that nature and culture, humanity and nonhumans, science and society are mutually exclusive domains. I teach about both violent and loving social relations between humans and nonhumans; about what is extractive and violent and what is inspiring in science. I teach about the uneven power and material relations between dominant and colonized nations, and the planetary fallout of that. Sometimes I find it hard to say anything more to your generation than “I am sorry,” sorry for the state of things as they are left to you.
But that makes for a terrible graduation speech. And this is what my wise teaching assistant, Jason Morris-Jung, gets after me for. He reminds me that I might try to look at things another more hopeful way. His cautionary note takes me back to some of the very same theoretical lessons that we try to give our students.
If it is not already clear, I teach at the intersections of indigenous thought, feminist science and technology studies, ecofeminism, and queer theory. I believe that those who have been relegated to the margins historically have much to offer in terms of rectifying our relationships between one another and with the nonhumans who have suffered so mightily at human hands. Those who live at the margins suffer more. And often they see more clearly for that. This is what feminist theorists such as Donna Haraway and Sandra Harding remind us of when they call for us to privilege a greater spectrum of voices, situated in very different locales as we produce knowledge, or do science, thus producing a “stronger objectivity.” Those who live at the margins not only see differently than those at the center, but they sometimes channel their suffering and their different visions productively into critical, hopeful, and innovative thought.
And so in my talk today, I want to center a voice from your own generation, not necessarily a marginal voice in the same way that indigenous or women’s voices have been marginal, but one from a generation that has yet to come into power. It’s the voice of a young man, a measured voice, a potentially hopeful voice. I want to share some of what he says because I wonder if his eyes see a path that is closer to what your eyes can see. In spirit then if not in body, I haul your generation up to this podium with me in order to have a conversation about where we might go from here, rather than the usual tired process of having some wise old or oldish(?) elder telling you to go forth, do well, and prosper.
At UC Berkeley’s undergraduate commencement back in mid-May, I was moved and reassured by the words of Eric Olliff, a graduate of my own department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management. He is the winner of the 2012 University Medal, which named him Berkeley’s top graduating senior.
One knows what to expect of graduation speeches. Eric Olliff wanted to disrupt that. In trying to find ideas for his acceptance speech, he remarked that: "Naturally, I decided to dig deep into my soul….on Google.com…and when I typed 'valedictory speeches' into that search box, I was pretty disappointed…The results were along the lines of 'tell people to follow their dreams'…'tell a funny anecdote with universal appeal'…pretty standard, run of the mill sort of stuff."
Olliff also noted how the previous year’s winner had it all figured out. He had arrived at Cal knowing exactly what he wanted to do and the courses he wanted to take. Olliff however had a different experience. As a freshman, he had no idea what he wanted to do. He took Chinese language because he wanted one class with less than 500 students. But he ended up doing much at Berkeley. He found close friends. He went to Forestry Camp and learned ecology. He studied abroad in China, took hippie road trips in a rainbow painted bus, longed for a date, fell in love…twice. He had no idea what he wanted when he came to Berkeley but, and I quote, he says “it turned out pretty damn good.”
Yet at the end of his undergraduate career, unlike past winners he is not going to graduate or medical school at Oxford or Stanford. He has a summer research job that pays $13 an hour, and that is nothing to sneeze at in this economy. Although he is not (or not yet) Oxford or Stanford-bound, he loves the environmental learning he’s done and will continue to do, whether that’s in graduate school or whether it will be from a Winnebago and a life on the road for a while.
So why am I telling you this story? Because one would NEVER have heard this kind of speech in my Generation X from a young man with Olliff’s accomplishments. University medalists are judged on grade point—his was a 3.99—and extra-curricular activities. Yet there stood Olliff speaking before a crowd of 16,000 spectators in a football stadium at one of the world’s top ranked university systems, basically saying, “Don’t worry, be happy.” But he was not being frivolous or necessarily even privileged enough to not have to worry. That would have been the quickest response to such a stance among my generation of critical thinkers.
Like many of my own undergraduates in my Society, Environment, and Culture course—and my students are gender, race, class, and sexual orientation diverse—Eric Olliff does so much better what your generation does. He doesn’t have the same expectations as my generation. I don’t fully understand what his/your expectations are. But for many of you, who are tethered to reality, they are certainly not simply the same tired over-consuming, ladder-climbing dreams that proliferated in my day, during the 1980s, and which I have a difficult time letting go of. And Olliff is certainly not certain about how things will turn out. But neither is he pessimistic. I am trying to do what my teaching assistant admonished me to do, to understand how a young undergraduate like Eric Olliff can say “let us not fret or panic, but rather celebrate our accomplishments.” Whatever those are.
I feel my age here in that I have to reach out to one of your own in order to offer you some useful advice. So I stand before you today taking part in a looping form of knowledge and learning. There will be no one way transmission of wisdom here today. I hope my undergraduates learn something from me, but I also learn from them. My hopes and ambitions and dreams cultivated in another century are not befitting for your generation or for this world anymore. We have to find a better way and I trust some of you to find it better.
So I circle back to what Eric Olliff might call a “run of the mill” truism. You are the future. But I don’t say that for your own good or inspiration. I say that, selfishly, for myself and for my generation and my parents’ generation. We need you. We need you to see the possibilities that we cannot see because our eyes are turned with regret towards the past and trying to figure out what happened and what we are to do about it. But I doubt that WE will do much about it when all is said and done. The more pessimistic or aggressive and stuck-in-the-past amongst us will continue to wage war with weapons, with extractive and polluting technologies, and unfettered market mentalities. The centrists among us will commission more research and policy analysis, or attempt to reorganize and downsize outmoded and broken systems. The more liberal among us will lament the supposedly more democratic past and call for a return to that—a greater inclusivity that only some of us really ever had access to anyway. What will we do but bomb, extract, plan, analyze, and lament?
Will all of you help us figure out how to live differently in the 21st century and beyond? What will our homes, our towns and cities, our transit and energy systems, our food and educational systems look like in the coming decades? What will become of the planet?
There is a work of fiction, later a film, called Children of Men that I think signifies why you should take caution and develop a healthy skepticism for the visions of your elders. It portrays the last generation of youth on Earth after a suddenly infertile human race as “Omegas,” as roving bands of nihilistic young adults who with no future roam the countryside committing murder and violence. Cormac McCarthy wrote a novel, also later a film, called The Road, in which an unexplained apocalypse has happened this time leaving the earth and not humankind infertile. Nothing grows and humans have again taken to the roads and countrysides raping, pillaging, and cannibalizing. These are hopeless and violent visions that see our world as ending. There is a proliferation of such films these days and I confess to watching them all with a sick kind of craving, wanting to see and think about how I would respond to such possible futures. I think my teaching assistant was in a gentle way calling me out for standing too much with the purveyors of such visions.
I hope you have something to learn from us. In my own Dakota culture, and through my 43 years of life experience I have learned to respect my elders. Our elders after all of their mistakes and lessons can especially teach us about patience, forgiveness, and letting go of purist, unrealistic ideals. But at this point in history most of them/us have little to teach you about how to live better and more responsibly in relationship with this planet. As best as I can see, many of you, on the other hand, are in the midst of figuring something out. We need you, and we need to support you in the collaborative, democratic, less hierarchical, more sustainable community and technology building that you do. Whether it is just your naturally youthful energy, creativity, and optimism, or whether it is where you are situated geographically (there is so much good thinking on this front in northern and central coast California), or where you are situated in relationship to another century that you were not so much privy to and probably do not lament the passing of its standards and aspirations, we need to support you. We need to honor what your eyes can see, and ours cannot. We need to give way to your ideals and visions for what the world can look like.
On that note, and also helping to keep my own pessimism in check, I want to highlight a different type of work and living that I think promises something better in our future. There are projects going on in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest—multi-generational, multi-disciplinary, and multi-cultural projects in which Native peoples, their youth and elders, their planners and traditional people, environmental scientists, engineers, and architects are working together to develop environmentally and culturally sustainable housing, land and resource management practices. They are breaking down barriers between fields, between so-called “traditional” and “scientific” knowledges, and between the generations. They are learning from one another in albeit difficult processes of exchange in which everyone and no one is an authority. One of the most interesting developments I’ve seen is a tribe that is building both culturally and environmentally sustainable housing that stretches the notions of “green” and “sustainability” to accommodate culturally-specific housing uses, i.e. houses that need to accommodate extended and not nuclear family structures and collective cultural activities, houses designed structurally with knowledge about how spirits might inhabit those houses, and with an attention to how morning prayers need to be performed. In this case, green housing is defined in ways that are less market-tied than our current national green building standards. Ideally, such houses are built by a community of citizens and not by contractors operating within a capitalist system. Again, where you live in California is a hotbed for this type of thinking and work. It’s not only Native Americans who are doing this. Lots of local folks are getting in on this type of living. Being in an environmental studies program, I see many young people living matter-of-factly with this less top down learning and working style and less market tied networks and institutions. This way of working is not a revelation for them like it is for my generation. It is an expectation of how things must work differently.
So I want to say not just congratulations but thank you for working so hard to be here today as graduates. Thank you for believing in yourselves. I know you don’t always feel that way. We all struggle with self-doubt. That never ends, unless you’re pathological and you don’t want that! The trick is to always walk that line between humility and self-confidence. And thank you in advance for the good work you will do throughout your lives. Finally, thank you for the honor of asking me to speak to you today. I look forward to our continuing conversation and our mutual learning.
Congrats to the following graduates!
Devan Amaral, B.S. Health Sciences
Madana Cast (Ojibwe), B.S. Human Biology
Christopher Chavez, B.A. Latin American/Latino Studies
Kirsten Courtney Concha-Moore (Taos Pueblo and Jemez Pueblo), B.S. Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology
Jessi Felix, B.A. Latin American/Latino Studies and Intensive Literature
Gemma Givens (Kaqchikel), B.A. American Studies
Chelsea Hawkins (Duwamish), B.A. English-Language Literatures
Cristal Yeucatzini Cadenas Olivas, B.A. Latin American/Latin@ Studies and Spanish Literature
Lucio Cloud Ramirez (Ho-Chunk, Ojibwe), M.S. Social Psychology
Carolyn Rodriguez (Amah Mutsun), B.A. Literature (Modern Literary Studies)
Tiffany Williams (Yaqui), Feminist Studies/Sociology
Dear readers, this coming Friday and Saturday, May 4-5, 2012 at UC Berkeley we are hosting a graduate student-organized symposium, What's New about New Materialisms? that features talks and conversations by faculty and graduate students largely from within the University of California system.Our keynote speakers will be UC Santa Cruz's Karen Barad and Princeton's John Borneman.
I am excited to be part of the Friday afternoon panel where I'll be joined by UC Berkeley postdoctoral scholar Benedikte Zitouni who is also on faculty at St-Louis University of Brussels and by Mel Chen, assistant professor of women & gender studies here at Berkeley. Benedikte, Mel, and I respectively will bring into conversation continental theories of new materialisms with Mel's notion of queer animacies featured in Mel's forthcoming monograph with Duke University Press, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering and Queer Affect, and indigenous thought on social relations between humans and nonhumans. In particular, nonhumans with which many indigenous peoples' see themselves as having relations with include entities defined within the secular West as nonliving, e.g. stones and spirits. Our panel will keep our formal comments brief in order to have a conversation between us and with the audience about why we bring together such diverse intellectual and cultural threads.
Other symposium speakers include Jenna Burrell, Donna Jones, Ruth Tringham, Peter Eckman, Lindsey Dillon, Ashwin Mathew, Mather George, Eliz. Goodman, Mara Green, and Liz Kelley (all of UC Berkeley), Jenny Reardon (UC Santa Cruz), Tim Choy and Nicholas D'Avella (UC Davis), Jean-Francois Blanchette (UCLA), Cynthia Schairer and Maria Cristina Visperas (UC San Diego), Jordan Kraemer (UC Irvine), and Shannon Meyer (UC Santa Barbara).
10/30/12 Update: A new Indian Country Today article highlights recent results of UC Berkeley Native graduate students' work to call the UC Berkeley Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies Department (TDPS) to respond to and engage in dialogue after its production of the John Fisher Ishi play last spring. The play re-told the Ishi story with fictional embellishments that deeply offended Native American students and tribal community members in central coast and northern California. As a UC Berkeley faculty member, I was so impressed by key Native grad students who led the way in mounting an intellectually sophisticated analysis and response to the production.
I attended a teach-in last evening co-organized by members of the UC Berkeley American Indian Graduate Student Association (AIGSA) and faculty from the Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies Department (TDPS) regarding the play, Ishi: The Last Yahi produced by TDPS. Here is a link to an apology written by TDSP Chair, Peter Glazer, and published in The Daily Californian. The play, which closed this past weekend, raised the ire of Native American students at Cal and California tribal community members alike. I was unable to attend the play and so I will refrain from making my own analysis here of the play and scenes that apparently portrayed in a highly fictionalized account Ishi and his sister as incestuous, Ishi as a rapist, and the killing of a resulting baby. The scenes particularly offended many in the UC Berkeley Native American community. Ishi is the name given by UC Berkeley anthropologist Alfred Kroeber to the man ("ishi" meant "man" in his indigenous language) who emerged from the wilderness near Oroville, California in 1911. Ishi was the last survivor of his particular group, although cultural relatives survived then and today.
In response, three Berkeley graduate students and AIGSA members, Tria Andrews (ethnic studies), Kayla Carpenter (linguistics), and Peter Nelson (anthropology) wrote an op-ed, "American Indian graduate student association calls for art with ethics," also published in The Daily Cal. The students analyze key problems with the play. Nelson is a student in my graduate seminar, Indigenous, feminist, and postcolonial approaches to science, technology, and environment, and a promising young Native American archaeologist who does such work precisely to help his California tribal community participate more fully and critically in repatriation and cultural resource management. During the teach-in he called attention to a persistent problem in both scholarly and popular representations of Native Americans: the stories told by whites about Native Americans are really usually about white people themselves, their own angst, and their own histories and identities. But why must native peoples, our bodies and histories, repeatedly serve as the raw materials upon which Euro-Americans explore their own identities and past, especially in ways that seem to forget that we are still here? Who presumes the authority to tell which stories, how, and to which ends?
Unlike social and natural scientists, actors, directors, and scriptwriters can produce knowledge (fiction too is knowledge) without adhering to the kind of informed consent and increasingly collaboration with the human subjects caught up in their productions. I am not calling for artists to be held to the same human subjects protocols as we in the "hard" and "soft" sciences are held. Rather, I reiterate the question posed by Berkeley graduate student Tria Andrews at the end of the teach-in last evening: "Do we produce art just for the sake of art? Or do we want to become better human beings? What kind of human do you want to be?" Her questions, to my ear, asked for more self-reflexivity and accountability by artists and writers to those whom they make the objects of their knowledge production. Andrews' questions challenge us profoundly. With artistic (and academic) freedom, she and other graduate students noted, comes responsibility.
In a similar analytical vein, I just published with my colleague, Jenny Reardon (sociology and biomolecular science and engineering, UC Santa Cruz) an article in Current Anthropology, "Your DNA is Our History." Genomics, Anthropology, and the Construction of Whiteness as Property. Our article takes on some of the same issues that Peter Nelson calls attention to, but as they pervade the fields of biological anthropology and human population genetics. Reardon and I and the scholars on whom we draw answer that question of why not only Native American lands and valuable resources, but also bodies, histories, and cultures are continuously appropriated by whites in their research, always a kind of storytelling. While whiteness and blackness have been defined in the U.S. American racial imagination as mutually exclusive, American Indians were racialized differently in relation to whiteness. Native Americans have been seen as culturally ancestral to whites, and during an earlier racial science regime as farther along on that road to civilization than Africans were seen to be. Our biological and cultural patrimony were then seen as the rightful inheritance of whites and a white nation that sought to use them on the road to greater development. The 19th century doctrine of Manifest Destiny--that moral imperative for the U.S. to develop--has appropriation in common with the 21st-century scientific imperative to produce knowledge "for the good of all." But as both genetic science and this recent incarnation of the Ishi story show, such knowledge serves the needs and desires of some in our society more than others, and too often at the expense of those others.
L to R: H. Arai, M. Hakoda, M. Yamaguchi, K. TallBear, K. Kinase, and K. Ando
Through a UC Berkeley-Meiji University exchange program, I have had the honor this month of leading a seminar at Meiji's School of Political Science and Economics. On the first day of the seminar, “Indigenous & Feminist Approaches to Technoscience & Environment,” the students and I began by “situating” ourselves. The exercise accomplished the task of introducing us to one another, but it did more than that; it introduced students to a key body of theory in feminist science studies, one of my fields of expertise.
I take the term “situated” from feminist science studies scholar, Donna Haraway, and her seminal chapter, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” In class that first day, Meiji students and I had a conversation—not easy given Haraway’s highly theoretical language, the students’ intermediate English, and my illiteracy (!) in Japanese—about “partial knowledges” and what it means to be not “biased,” but rather “situated” within particular historical and cultural streams. As feminist philosopher of science Sandra Harding explains, as scholars we inquire from within our particular lives. We stand somewhere. The usual understanding of “objectivity” assumes that researchers or scientists can play God—that they can stand nowhere and everywhere at the same time—looking out at a world and naming it in some universal scientific language. The Meiji students and I combined theory with our personal stories to have a conversation about how we are all situated in specific ways in relation to our fields. As individual cultural beings, we come to ask particular research questions (or get interested in the disciplines and majors we do) and not others. We are attracted to certain methods and ethics and not others because of the lives we live and our histories. Thus the knowledge we produce will be partial. However, that does not mean that we cannot strive for objectivity. Indeed Harding and Haraway call us to strive for “strong objectivity,” or “feminist objectivity,” an objectivity that is not conflated with neutrality but one that is more rigorous than that by virtue of laying out and discussing how our different experiences shape what we see and how we see it. Feminists are critical of science that is dominated by men and by class-privileged European (American) cultural values. They advocate making room for a greater diversity of voices, experiences, and standpoints in science. If we diversify who does research, we stand a chance of capturing a broader array of hypotheses, and of developing new research methods and ethical frameworks. We will understand more, and work more effectively – thus the claim to strong objectivity. Science might also then become more “democratic,” meaning it might serve the interests and needs of a broader set of societal actors.
Whew! We had to get through all of that theory during our first meeting, and it was not easy. But Meiji students work hard. Their persistence was a call to me to work very hard, especially to speak more slowly and carefully. I am from the upper Midwest of the U.S. where we are famous for speaking quickly. (My students at the University of California, Berkeley also tell me that I speak too quickly.) I am also a professor who reaches for the most theoretical term on the shelf of words. It is easier. I need to think hard to find plainer English. But Meiji students and I struggled together to communicate across our language barriers. As we went around the room, each of seven students situated themselves as young scholars. Three women and four men, they explained their interests at Meiji University and how their particular experiences growing up conditioned their particular interests in economy, environment, and politics. Born during the 1980s, a decade of economic difficulties in Japan, a couple students spoke of becoming interested in economics. One of the women spoke of becoming interested in gender politics and analyses because of gender dynamics she had encountered in her own life.
I also situated myself. I am a Native American woman who was born in 1968, a year of political upheaval in the U.S. and worldwide. I was raised by my grandmothers and by my young mother who was also a college student in a small South Dakota university town. I was politicized at a young age by my mother and her student activist friends who protested against the Vietnam War and U.S. imperialism and colonialism at home and overseas. Native American scholars were also important in my politicization. At the age of five I asked my mother, “What does it mean, Custer Died for Your Sins?” I referred to the title of Vine Deloria Jr.’s important 1969 collection of essays by that title. In that book, which I heard mentioned many times by my mother and her friends, Deloria, the most prominent 20th century Native American scholar, analyzed the role of policymakers, Christian churches, and academics in the colonization of Native Americans. In his darkly humorous essay, “Anthropologists and Other Friends,” he especially criticized the role of Anthropology as a discipline in the U.S. colonization of Native Americans. Yet despite understanding that universities were culpable in colonization, my mother also emphasized to me that a university education was the best route to a better life, to opportunities beyond the racism and poverty in South Dakota. One can perhaps see why I will publish a book next year about the colonial politics of biological anthropology and other genetic research on Native Americans. I was situated in a very particular way and found it quite easy to ask the research questions that I do. Not just anyone would think of these questions in the way that I think of them. That is because no one else stands exactly where I stand. And yet because of that, my vision is also partial. It is both open and limited in ways that are different from the visions of other scholars. That is why we need diverse persons and views to make the disciplines and the university more rigorous in its knowledge production. We need to also not be chauvinistic about our own disciplines. We need to find trusted intellectual allies across fields and work together to craft knowledge that is multidisciplinary in a way needed to solve problems in our multicultural world.
The feminist and indigenous (or Native American) scholars that I assign my students also help them re-think relations between humans and animals as “social relations,” thereby according more agency to nonhumans that shape and make our lives as humans possible. The human/animal split is a violent split in Western “ontologies” or knowledges. It is a split that implies hierarchy and that is used to justify not only the mistreatment of the Earth and destruction of the environment, but it is also a split used historically to de-humanize and oppress some humans. These ideas set the tone for our seminar at Meiji University. For their final paper, I assigned the students to write about a relationship that they have with a “nonhuman.” They could choose an animal or organism, but also any other nonhuman that scientists might not classify as “living.” The important thing is that the students should explain the “life force” or agency of that nonhuman in a convincing way. As the students read in class, some peoples, including indigenous peoples, understand stars, rocks, and spirits to be living beings in ways that Western science would reject.
I assign Berkeley students this same paper. Meiji students and UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources students both choose to write about nonhumans with which they interact regularly and to which they are ethically committed. But because they stand physically and culturally in very different places, students from the two schools choose some very different nonhumans about which to write. My Berkeley students often do environmental science and tend to be “outdoors” people. They often write about the trees, fish, wildlife, or particular ecosystems with which they work and to which they are committed. Likewise, Meiji students this year thought of paper topics that are so very situated in their particular lives and experiences in Tokyo. To me, their projects are surprising and fascinating. With their permission, I share a couple of insights from student papers based on conversations we’ve had in class. As I write this, their papers are not due until tomorrow.
A second year student, Masato Yamaguchi, is writing about his relationship with trains. As I understand him, trains are not simply mechanisms of convenience, not simply physical matter, a collection of materials and parts assembled into a useful technology. The train as a figure has been central to his life since before he can remember. His family tells him that when he was a baby he would instantly stop crying when a train passed by. He speaks also of the destruction caused by the tsunami at Sendai, and the desire of the people there to get the trains back on line as soon as possible. Masato indicated that like him, the people of Sendai were not only concerned about convenience, but the train’s role in everyday human practice. The sounds and feelings of its movement through geographic space are central to peoples’ very sense of a normal life and to inner well-being. The train he indicates has a life force of sorts. It is not only people who made the train but the train helps make a good and normal human life. His analysis is simply brilliant, and so different from what I read from Berkeley students, or what I hear in Native American communities. Of course, it took us some time to communicate these complex ideas across our language barrier, with my shortcomings being much more profound than those of my students who are working hard to learn English. (I should take a Japanese language class back in Berkeley!)
A fourth year student, Manami Hakoda turned her paper in early. Yes, early. She speaks and writes of her relationship with the English language and how she not only learns to wield English, using it and shaping it to her own ends, but how she is reconfigured as a different kind of person as she engages the English language. Manami writes of becoming more assertive and outgoing in English than she is in Japanese. English and the way it is spoken also causes her to gesture, to move her body more as she speaks it. She also writes of Japanese language being “softer” and more “polite.” She writes of the way in which language and culture construct one another, and the way in which an individual and a language also construct one another. Similarly to how Masato describes the train, Manami speaks of coming to see English as a living thing in and of itself and not simply as a tool for human use. She also takes a lesson from Sandra Harding about strong objectivity and writes of using both languages to be more intellectually rigorous in how one engages with the world. She values both languages for the different things they can see and do.
Kim with friend Jun Kamata: writer, professor, photographer
I learned much from Meiji students. Their insights reinforce in me the sense that a stronger, truer understanding of the world emerges when we listen to and value knowledge produced from within very specific experiences and situations, rather than trying to filter out our differences, hoping to find a “neutral” language. I look forward to reading the rest of their papers, and I am grateful for the opportunity to have shared the past few weeks with them. I hope they feel similarly. I would be proud if I could speak and write Japanese as well as my Meiji students speak and write English.
This piece was originally written for publication in the Seikei Forum of the School of Political Science and Economics, Meiji University. It is posted here with permission.
I blogged last week about my new research project with Native American bio-scientists who explicitly situate themselves within histories of marginization from the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and within histories of oppression more generally. This leads them to more sophisticated understandings of the role of the technosciences historically in colonial projects. They tend not to be under the illusion that there are hard lines between scientific knowledge production and politics. They give me hope that the STEM fields in which they participate can be made more multicultural and democratic.
I noted in that same blog the testimony of my own colleague, an environmental scientist in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM), Wayne Getz, who witnessed the violence perpetrated against UC Berkeley students by the Alameda County Police Department. I do social studies of science and have been demoralized in the past by what I see as unreflective and problematic politics of race in the genome sciences. I've more recently begun to look for scientists who give me hope, who are conscious of the political histories of their fields or who clearly do not view their lab as a retreat from the messy, political world. I also know the work of explicitly feminist and anti-racist engineers and scientists who are clear about the relationship between diversifying who does science and changing science, folks who want to make their fields less hierarchical, less male dominated, and more class, race, and gender diverse. I am trying to be hopeful, and positively engaged.
However, I also notice that a disproportionate number of university administrators now come from the STEM fields, a sign of the growing power of those fields in the university, and the under-funding and marginlization of the social sciences and humanities. And I wonder if there is a link between the particular way that UC administrators are managing this difficult political situation and their immersion in technoscientific fields that explicitly de-link investigation of the nonhuman material world from society or "politics." Do they come to their positions ignorant of, or even allergic to, social issues and conflicts? Or is the problem not the administrators' fields of origin, but rather the emphasis the university places on cultivating administrators who might be good at raising money to build hi-tech lab facilities (big science as the savior of the university and the national economy), but who have too little to offer us in terms of a deep social-historical perspective needed to manage a complex and highly politicized institution like a UC campus? Do they see us - faculty, students and staff - too much as a potential economic engine and too little as a diverse group of intellectuals and societal actors? Pehaps they are too busy linking the university to the big money that dominates the full range of institutions the students are protesting against. Is the problem the STEM fields broadly, or those particular individuals culled from within the STEM fields to run our university, as it is constituted in this moment in history? Witness Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi here, deep in political waters that are clearly over her head, departing the UC Davis campus yesterday after calling in police who abused the courageous young students she is supposedly there to serve. Katehi has all three degrees (B.S., M.S., and PhD) in electrical engineering. Our own Chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, (B.S. in mathematics and Ph.D. in physics) recently characterized students linking arms as NOT non-violent protest. He thus appeared to justify the use of batons by police to assault students, and to ignore an important history of non-violent protest in the U.S. I believe he's recently revisited that mistake.
In short, my question is, does the the common, willful representation within STEM field cannons of their approaches as universal and therefore outside culture and politics have anything to do with the greater numbers of STEM faculty now swelling the administrations of universities, and then the particular political choices being made by such administrators that are helping to visit police violence on our students?
Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) (close to 4,000 registrants), held October 27-30, 2011. An overworked assistant professor, I am just now getting around to finishing this post. SACNAS focuses on preparing students for research careers in the biophysical sciences and mathematics. Indeed, in addition to 1000 poster and speaker presentations and 38 multidisciplinary science symposia, there were 58 professional development sessions at this year’s meeting. Like other scientific meetings, SACNAS features presentations of scientific papers and posters, plenary sessions, networking luncheons, receptions, big name keynote speakers, and a huge exhibit hall where universities and other research institutions and agencies recruit graduate students and employees (over 300 exhibitors this year). It also features big time technology, which is noticeably absent at the social sciences and humanities meetings I attend.I began writing this blog in the sterile, spacious, marble-floored San Jose, CA Convention Center, where I attended the largest ever annual meeting of the SACNAS 2011 exhibitor hall. UC Berkeley & UC Davis recruitment and display tables
Fundamental Differences: Scientists Situating Themselves and Mentoring
But SACNAS is also different. Atypical of scientific meetings in the U.S., this one is heavily populated by brown people. And many of them talk about bringing science together with culture. I heard little of that common ideology that “science”—or the systematic, empirical investigation of the natural/material world—happens ideally with humans and their cultures abstracted from the process. Histories of exclusion from scientific fields and feelings of cultural isolation in relation to normative practices were front and center at SACNAS. But so were personal historical narratives in which culture (however one defines that) is a source of strength and a reason to not only do science, but to change science.
Mentoring is a core function of SACNAS. It brings to the fore, more than in other scientific communities I’ve encountered, systematic and open discussion about personal history, and the importance of family as both a source of support and a reason to achieve. It goes without saying that Native American and Latino scientists do science because they are deeply curious, and want to prove, in response to racist contrary assumptions, that they could. But I also heard a lot of talk about giving back, even when one’s family or cultural kin don’t understand or are leery of the decision to become a scientist.
In a panel on the “real life adventures” of SACNAS scientists, four established scientists—two bioscientists, a chemist, and a mathematician gave off-the-cuff talks recounting their personal, familial, and systemic (e.g. racism and poverty) challenges on their way to achieving PhDs. One panelist, a Chicana professor of mathematics, recounted, growing up poor in East Los Angeles, but with a close-knit family, a charismatic and hard-driving high school math teacher, enabling her journey to an elite private women’s university and on to a PhD in mathematics. But the moment in her talk that encapsulates the SACNAS difference is when she stated unapologetically that she may not be at the cutting-edge of new mathematical theory. She has come to realize that she got a PhD in mathematics “to produce great mathematicians.” She will graduate her first PhD soon. For those who were not in the room, it may be hard to understand how it felt to hear that, but the room immediately erupted into applause. Her tone was powerful, her heartfelt openness a testament to the centrality of mentoring in this community. I was moved almost to tears.
On the same panel, Professor Wilfred Denetclaw, Diné (or Navajo), from San Francisco State University told of growing up on the Navajo reservation and earning PhD in zoology at Berkeley, and the culture shock he encountered along the way. The difference-making part of the talk for me is the way his “marginal” culture was made normative. Professor Denetclaw spoke a bit of Diné language in his talk, and not in that way I often see at social science or humanities conferences or agency meetings, where Native American languages seem to be treated as sacred artifacts, and not everyday things. Professor Denetclaw recounted his lineage and clan, then spoke with a jovial tone that indicated even to a non-speaker like me that there were enough folks in the room who actually understood him that he could use the language to actually communicate, and not simply as protocol or to demonstrate respect. Denetclaw was of course in a privileged position. There are more Native language speakers among the Navajo than in many other tribes in the U.S. I also find that Diné are over-represented among tribal people in the biophysical sciences. At one point I encountered six Diné scientists talking in a circle before a session, probably power broking! They were all laughing and in a good mood. It felt like the Diné scientific mafia. I felt tickled. What a different scene from the American Association of Physical Anthropologists or American Society of Human Genetics meetings that I also attend.
In between panel sessions and keynotes, at dinners and lunches that are served to thousands in a gigantic banquet hall, SACNAS members shared their personal stories and the role of SACNAS in their lives. Every graduate student and professor I talked to, most of whom had been coming to SACNAS for years, spoke of the affirmation and encouragement they receive there. Some spoke of hard times in science when they considered leaving their labs or their fields entirely, times when they felt like social or cultural curiosities. But SACNAS colleagues continued to network them and help them find opportunities to stay in science, and encouraged them to stick with science and to make it different. Several told me that they didn’t get this encouragement with their primary advisors at their universities, but did from SACNAS where people understand where they come from, and where they can be who they are. I was astounded by the power of this organization in the lives of the Native American and Chicano scientists I met. During one of the meals, the Executive Director of SACNAS, the impressive Judit Camacho, asked all newly graduated PhDs in the crowd to “please stand and be recognized by your community.” Individuals all across the hall stood to applause. At that same banquet, a twenty-something student from Salish Kootenai College of the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana introduced her mentor at the college (a non-Native, middle-aged, male scientist) who was there to receive an award for developing the first fully accredited Bachelor of Science degree in a molecular science at a tribal college. She explained that “connecting science to culture is very important to Native students. It keeps us interested in coming back for more.” (I thought in response that “science”—meaning high-tech Western science—is always connected to culture of course, just not our Native American cultures.) She was so confident, and her mentor so humble. Both clearly articulated the complex connections between culturally resonant science education, tribal institution-building, and flourishing in Indian Country.
Listening to SACNISTAS (their affectionate name for themselves) situate themselves and their institutions reinforces my sense that having more diverse scientists might make scientific fields and institutions more explicitly conscious of their cultural presumptions that work for some and not others. Scientists from historically marginalized groups might more clearly see the development of scientific fields as entangled with not only the good, but also the violent and oppressive aspects of human history than their colleagues. They are less likely to displace blame onto “politics” and “religion.” I hear this claim in the Q&A after every talk I give about the politics of human genome diversity research. “It’s not the science that’s the problem,” some audience member will claim. “It’s the scientifically uneducated public, or the science reporters who skew our words and findings!” Scientists who are able and willing to be more critically reflective of their fields give me hope that scientific fields and practices can be made more tolerant, multicultural, and democratic.
This idea and hope is central to my current research project, Constituting Knowledge across Cultures of Expertise and Tradition: An Ethnographic Study of Indigenous Bio-scientists and Their Collaborators. A key hypothesis of this new research is that diverse scientists  will open up scientific fields to more diverse research questions, methods and ethical innovations that will better serve the research priorities of a broader array of individuals and communities (the meanings for me of “democratizing” science). Indeed, a couple of the Native American scientists who work with ancient human DNA make a case that Native American tribes might want to reconsider doing genetic research on ancient remains. What are their reasons? That Native Americans have the incentive to develop research methods that are less destructive of bone and that are more respectful to the being whose remains are being studied (they are not viewed as simply lifeless bone). Native American genetic scientists also tend to be much more interested in what happened over here, and not so much in how, when or how many people crossed the Bering Strait. How are tribal peoples today related to one another? What were their associations historically? How does the genetics correlate with their oral histories about how they are related and associated? How can both human genetics and plant genetics illuminate those relationships? And how can they do genetic research in ways that are respectful and appropriate, and which accord more intellectual property rights to Native peoples and not simply to non-indigenous institutions?
These Native American scientists understand that scientific narratives have much authority in policymaking. It is therefore prudent to have a voice in the construction of historical narratives that are increasingly genetic with research questions and hypotheses, methods and ethics that are consonant with our cultural practices and knowledge priorities, rather than shaped solely by non-tribal research priorities and Western bioethical assumptions. Native scientists provide the antidote to the discouragement I felt when I first started researching the politics and cultures of human genome diversity research involving “Native American” migrations into the so-called New World. The assumptions, priorities and technical language I encountered suggested to me a lack of real investment in the flourishing of the indigenous communities whose DNA was required for study. Perhaps in the abstract scientists like the idea of indigenous flourishing, but like philosophers, naturalists, and federal agents before them, they too often presume that indigenous peoples are doomed to vanish and then define us out of existence, in this case according to degrees of genetic admixture. These politics set the stage for the urgency to sample. The conceptual frameworks of the Native scientists I've encountered seem more critical than those of those non-indigenous scientists who privilege myopically constructed genetic narratives of the “history of the Americas” while our creation narratives and our incisive analyses of colonial history on these continents get ignored. But the binary thinking that shapes genetic research sometimes shapes our responses to that research. Genetics OR creation narratives is unsatisfying. So is the concept of accepting (tolerating?) “multiple truths.” I’m looking for a more fundamental conceptual overhaul.
I want to learn how to learn, see, and speak in new ways with Native American scientists. I began this new research with hope that Native American scientists (and scientists who work in long-term collaborative arrangements with indigenous peoples) might be different from others I had encountered, and might be willing participants in a more complicated, constructive, even anti-colonial conversation. I worried that Native American bio-scientists too would be indoctrinated with overly simplistic notions of neutrality vs. bias, or that research is primarily about freedom of inquiry. Would they understand that “research” is always also the extraction of resources (be they biological or cultural or intellectual) often primarily for the benefit of those who inquire and their institutions? I have been pleased and a little surprised by the scientists I have interviewed and observed—that I can have this kind of conversation. My social science chauvinism has been thankfully undermined when I speak with them.
Critique, Productively Aimed: Heteronormativity and Political Economy
Much of my research involves interviewing scientists. Attending the SACNAS meeting was a form of participant observation. But I am no distant observer of scientists. I interact as someone who is positively invested in their project and a productive participant in their community. Next year I will propose a panel on some of the very issues I write about here. Like the SACNAS scientists, I need this differently-thinking community to help me stay in the academy. I conceived of a project to research Native American scientists because I needed to care for my subjects. I came to a point where I began to feel demoralized by what and whom I studied. I did not like how it felt to not care, indeed even to hope sometimes for the projects I studied to fail.
Because the SACNAS scientists give me hope, I want to help their cause, to diversify who does science and how we do it. If I am a member of their community, I have a responsibility to offer supportive critique, critique that is productively aimed. I have two such critiques to offer after several panel sessions and two award ceremonies this year. First, it struck me that things felt heteronormative at SACNAS. That is, every person’s story presented on a panel or in an award ceremony featured the family unit that consists of heterosexual married couples with children. Everyone was married. Everyone had children. Granted, there were plenty of women scientists. Indeed the gendered patterns of colonialism have produced higher levels of formal education amongst women than men in some communities. Still I didn’t see a queer scientist in the bunch, or a non-normative family form aside from the extended family. At the social science and humanities meetings I’ve attended queer academic presence and politics are everywhere. Then I investigated the SACNAS program, and lo and behold I saw a reception hosted by the National organization for Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people, and their allies.” I had to get home to my own child and so could not attend the reception, but I am curious to go next year and to hear more about the role of LGBT scientists at SACNAS. How might they make science more multicultural and democratic, including by questioning the imposition of heteronormative assumptions onto nonhumans in research.
SACNAS meeting is the political economy of big science and technology. We in the academy all know the economic disparities between the social sciences/humanities and the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Those disparities were in my face at SACNAS. Multi-course meals with banquet staff were served throughout the meeting. SACNAS was able to give 1000 travel scholarships to students: amazing. Sponsors included major scientific research agencies and foundations and donations in the tens of thousands up to $100,000 by several universities. Like the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) meeting that I sometimes attend, this meeting was kitted out with lots of expensive technology. At regular panel sessions and keynotes, two gigantic overhead screens flanked the stages where speakers sat in television talk show-style chairs or spoke at podiums. Presentations were slickly programmed with all kinds of special effects that you just don’t see in the technologically staid PowerPoint presentations of most social scientists. There were precisely programmed musical clips playing as speakers ascended and left the stage and for the photo ops that followed each award. As at the ASHG Presidential Address I blogged about last year, there were camera men on platforms filming the keynotes. The different political economic reality at play in the STEM fields was particularly noticeable when the lights in the cavernous banquet hall were turned completely down and the Star Wars theme began playing. Two astronauts hovering mid-air in the International Space Station appeared on screen, so much larger than life. They had recorded a personalized welcome for the 2011 SACNAS meeting participants. The room swelled with laughter and applause, mine included. I understood like never before how intoxicating can be the nectar of big science and technology. I was certainly not the only person at my banquet table to feel like I’d traveled a long way from that reservation border town where I grew up. Sharing the moment with the promising and gregarious young Diné scientist sitting next to me, my critical perspective was definitely mixed with pleasure.But my big struggle at the
But pleasure turned to sadness for me when the big name speakers took the stage. Two middle-aged white males from a highly ranked university, both in positions of great power in that university, and with esteemed scientific careers, gave talks meant to inspire. For some of the scientists in the hall, I am sure they did. What I heard was the gospel of neutral, universal science unencumbered with critical reflection on the histories of exclusion that condition the disciplines, all of our disciplines. One of the speakers, a prize-winning scientist, projected photographs of his prize-winning team, all white males except one male from China. Yet no histories of exclusion in his scientific field were acknowledged. To the contrary, he spoke to the room full of brown faces and said “You too can win this prize someday.” Deploying a “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” narrative against a depoliticized history of his field seemed so unfitting a gesture before this crowd. Hadn’t we just heard from SACNAS members about the importance of personal and social histories shaping the questions asked, the methods used, the way analysis is done?
The other big man of science, also an administrator, delivered the second sermon of the night: big science and technology as salvation from our economic and political woes. He focused on the role of science and technology in U.S. global capitalist competitiveness. And he spoke of the role of “diversity and inclusion”—of giving people of color access to all of this opportunity and economic largess. He noted nothing about how diversifying science can also make scientific questions and methods more robust and our interpretations more rigorous, and help science serve a wider array of people. Nor did he note the current political economy of the university in which class divisions get deeper and deeper between fields of inquiry.
The problem with the line “diversity and inclusion” in use at so many universities around the country is that it can refer to gender balance or to the browning of the laboratory, but it doesn’t mean changing how science gets done. While the famous guys who came to speak at SACNAS may not get that, the SACNISTAS I talked to do get it. The conceptual distance between those who control the university and those who work for “inclusion” is vast. I drove the 47 miles home to Berkeley feeling profoundly weary. I hope that SACNAS scientists as they ascend to places of power in research and funding institutions think harder about the current political economy of research, and how to help narrow those gaps. I ask them that while they take pleasure in their own fields, not to become STEM chauvinists. I trust that they will do better at avoiding the myopic and dangerous view that big science and technology are objective goods, unconditioned by histories and ongoing relationships of oppression and exclusion.
Postscript: Writing and Studying While the Occupy Movement Simmers around Me
A couple of weeks ago, I entered the San Jose Convention center feeling conflicted about my privilege. I thought not simply of “poor masses,” but of close friends and family who are unemployed, facing unemployment, who do not have health care, or enough money to pay their bills every month. I thought of the Occupy Oakland folks who were at that very moment downtown at Oscar Grant Plaza, just a few miles from my house in Berkeley. (Oscar Grant was the young African American man who was killed while he lay prostrate, unarmed, in a subway station by a BART cop on New Year’s Eve 2009.) In San Jose, in that gleaming temperature- and socially-controlled convention center, I felt a distance between what I am doing and what those folks were doing and continue to do—that multi-racial, multi-generational, multi-class group of citizens who are apparently putting their bodies on the line given incidents of police aggression against non-violent protestors. While I was at SACNAS, just like all of those SACNAS scientists and scientists-in-training, I chose to be in a research community, to do work that is personally fulfilling, but that I hope makes a difference for the communities I care about. I have always understood research to consist of political acts, and I feel the need to explicitly link my everyday work inside the hallowed halls of Berkeley with critical “everyday” events in our world. The negative links between powerful research institutions and the lives of the less powerful are for this social scientist always clear. The history and political economy of the disciplines is intimately linked with war-making and exploitation and land and resource-grabs in the development of nations. (Increasingly the STEM fields grab the power while the humanities and social sciences get increasingly marginalized.) But the positive links between research inside an institution such as Berkeley and social struggles can be hard to see, or the positive links seem farfetched or too costly to folks who live in immediate material deprivation and with daily violence .
I stare out the window of the small Vietnamese restaurant where I now write, and I try to think of a convincing response to that challenge. Across the street I see a Bank of America branch with a cop standing in front of it, protecting the interests of the powerful. I’ve noticed these past days increased police presence outside the big banks, no doubt in response to the protests against the role of bank corruption in our current economic crisis. At the same time I now hear the helicopters beat the air overhead as student protestors gather at nearby Sproul Plaza. I bring up the San Francisco Chronicle online and read: 21 minutes ago, “Dozens of campus police in riot gear…descended on students outside UC Berkeley’s Sproul Hall and arrested several protesters as they attempted to set up an ‘Occupy Cal’ encampment.” A campus spokesperson notes that “tents and overnight encampments will not be tolerated.” The police, of course, are not there to protect the interests of the students—those who are not very powerful and who are in solidarity with the Occupy movement. Police are there to stand in a line against them. Students, like bank protestors are too often seen as always already about-to-be criminals. As I write, I receive a department-wide email from a senior colleague, a bio-scientist coincidentally (quoted here with his permission):
“I [and a colleague] have just returned from Sproul Plaza, where we had the misfortune to witness the apparent unnecessary use of physical force by the UC and Alameda Sheriff's PD against peaceful protesters assembled on the lawn. [We] observed repeated incidents of baton jabbing and overhead baton hitting of students whose apparent crime was to be physically present on the lawn in support of the placement of tents. Several individuals were arrested, including one well-dressed women in her mature years. All arrested individuals were roughly handled. We were both disgusted by these acts and question the wisdom of our university's leadership (noticeably absent) that set up this type of confrontational situation between students and police (with at least one of the latter carrying out his duty with some reluctance). The time has come when we should openly question some of the decisions being made by our academic leaders in allowing confrontational situations between police and the university community to unnecessarily arise.”
Wayne Getz, Professor
Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management
(November 9, 2011)
Like the young scientists at SACNAS, the Berkeley students inspire me. The sciences, like the university more broadly, are both culprit and fertile ground for change. I have to hope that this is the case, and so I write against a dominant narrative that would over-simplify the role of the sciences and scientists in this history unfolding around us. I write about alternative assumptions and practices, and those individuals amongst us who are able to imagine a different future.
*This material is based in part upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 1027307.
 For science studies folks it goes without saying that any references to “situated” refer to Donna Haraway’s seminal essay “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York and London: Routledge 1991: 183-201. My references to the democratization of science are much informed by the thinking of feminist philosopher of science Sandra Harding and by my previous exposure to the field of community planning, a field in which research and doing are one-in-the-same. And it is assumed that communities should research and do for themselves. Finally, my understanding that research is always a set of political acts was developed early on. I was five years old when I was first exposed to the ideas of Vine Deloria, Jr., particularly in his famous essay, "Anthropologists and other Friends." In Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto.1969. Reprint, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.
 In this case Native Americans, but we can extend the hypothesis to scientists from multiple race, class, and religious backgrounds, and to sexuality.