Following the river of stars: Dukarr lakarama

Hello friends! I know I’ve been a little bit absent in the blogosphere lately. This is partially due to the global circumstances to which we’ve all been adjusting, but also because I’ve been working on some new projects, both research-based and artistic (more on that to follow). For the next few posts, I’d like to share some new pieces of work that have recently been published, and the stories behind them. Thanks, as always, for reading!


“The story of Guwak and Sky Country is an unknown story – it needs to be told to white Australians and people everywhere, so they can understand. There already are spirits up there, it’s a spiritual story … ”

– Rrawun Maymuru, “Dukarr lakarama”, 2020

Space colonisation is a hot topic of speculation – both intellectual and economic. For some living in world’s wealthiest countries, it is framed as little more than an indulgent hobby of the mega-rich and ego-maniacal. Indeed, Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person, has publicly stated that he entered the new space race because he could not think of anything else large enough in scale and expense on which to spend his wealth. Despite regular news reports of tests of re-useable rockets and of new collaborations between private space companies and states, much of the global public considers space colonisation a science fiction scenario.

But in fact outer space is and has already been aggressively colonised, not only by Cold War strategists, satellites and space junk , but also by a much longer history of naming and claiming by Euro-Americans. This includes liberal humanists who, since the 1960s, have labelled the entirety of outer space the ‘province of all mankind’ (see the UN’s Outer Space Treaty).

The sense of entitlement to, quite literally, take space, but also to allocate, partition, weaponise or mine it is rooted in the idea that there are no Indigenous peoples in space who might make a prior claim. That is, outer space is seen as the ultimate terra nullius, or empty space, onto which colonisers can project their fantasies.

But this is patently untrue: as Rrawun’s words suggest, outer space is, has and will be complexly inhabited, named, governed, cared for and traversed by plural communities, human and otherwise. “Dukarr lakarama” shares insights from just one Yolŋu community who care for space, or Sky Country, and to whom it is home.

Co-writing in Bellingen, Australia (Clockwise from top right: Kate, Djawundil, Ritjilili, Djawundil, Audra, Sandie)

I was immensely privileged to take part in conversations about outer space, or Sky Country, with Ritjilili Ganambarr, Djawundil Maymuru, Banbapuy Ganambarr-Stubbs, Kate Lloyd, Sandie Suchet-Pearson and Sarah Wright, and, as the paper grew and developed, to learn from the insights of Rrawun Maymuru and Dr. Laklak Burrarwanga. These remarkable folks are caretakers of a homeland called Bawaka in northeast Arnhemland in what is currently called Australia. The women are all collaborators in the unique Bawaka Collective, a group of Yolŋu and ŋapaki (white) researchers and knowledge keepers who have been working together and building relations for over a decade (their most recent book, Songspirals, is out now).

Through our collaborations as part of the Creatures Collective (see here and here), we all realised that we shared a concern with space colonisation. Beyond hearing about space colonisation in the news, its material effects of are part of everyday life in Arnhemland, where there are plans to build a spaceport for use by international actors including NASA. The annexation of Indigenous lands to build installations for the military-scientific exploration of outer space is common throughout Australia and internationally. As exemplified by the struggle to protect Mauna Kea in Hawai’i, the creation of this infrastructure can be deeply damaging to ecologies, Indigenous legal and political orders, and relations between Indigenous communities and non-human kin on earth. At the same time, however, what these actors do in outer space can harm relations there, and on this planet.

Sarah (Wright) knew that I had been working for a few years on the problem of space colonisation from perspectives rooted in decolonial IR theory and global ethics. I wanted to understand why so many people – and not just uber-wealthy white men, but also a diverse group of futurists and even environmentalists – seemed ready to embrace such an explicitly colonial project, and one based on extreme forms of extraction. I had started to talk with BIPOC colleagues and collaborators about how their knowledge systems and legal/political orders shaped relations with outer space, and it was clear that the common argument that there are ‘no humans in space’ was a fiction designed to benefit colonisers. As the NewSpace sector – the private outer space industry, funded largely by tech entrepreneurs – gains ground, the possibilities for hyper-capitalist land-grabbing seemed to be increasing dramatically. Sarah asked if I would be interested in broadening the conversation, we decided to work on this problem as a group, melding insights from Yolŋu Rom (law) and decolonial space studies.

Over more than four years and on three continents – as guests and visitors on Gumbayngirr, Dharug, Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabe, and Attawandaron/Neutral lands – we talked, wrote, revised, reflected and wrote again. In the Yolŋu tradition, we did much of this while sitting in the shade or under trees, weaving – a practice that binds together the weavers and concentrates the mind while linking us all to place through the silky strands of pandanus in our fingers. We also visited, held gatherings, swam in the river, built fires, yarned, laughed and learned. And we spent time with Sky Country, following what we learned is the ‘river of stars’ (aka the Milky Way) from our mirrored hemispheres.

We had several goals for this work of co-creation. First, as Rrawun’s words in the epigram reflect, we wanted to help make it known that outer space is not ‘uninhabited’ or ‘up for grabs’ by would-be colonisers and capitalists. Even if we have highlighted just one legal order that recognises the claims of Indigenous peoples to outer space and their inhabitation of that space, this is enough to undercuts the claim that outer space is a terra nullius, and that there are ‘no Indigenous people in space’.

As the article details, this is a common and rarely-examined claim. It plays into entrenched, racialized associations of outer space with imagery that consigns some BIPOC to the future and others to the past – notably, Indigenous peoples whom colonial narratives have violently elided with pre-history. And indeed, in mainstream Western narratives, space is linked to ‘the’ future, since these societies have only recently begun to travel there. In contrast, within Yolŋu cosmology, travelling through Sky Country has always been part of their relational and ceremonial life.

Of course, there are many BIPOC nations who plurally inhabit, govern and travel outer space. One of my favourite conversations during the co-creation of this work was with Djawundil and Banbapuy on this topic. I mentioned that several of the nations on whose land I have lived have important story and law in relation to outer space. I also made reference to the fraught recent history of Western nation-states scrambling to compete for dominance of outer space. How, I wondered, do the laws, rights and claims of different Indigenous communities interact? The women thought about it and answered that, if they found themselves in a conflict over Sky Country with another nation, they would start by finding a kin connection. For instance, perhaps someone who was kin with wolves on Turtle Island could connect with someone kin to dingos. Starting from this basis of mutual respect, recognition and shared kinship, they would negotiate and accommodate each other’s claims and traditions. My question started from Western colonial notions of ownership, in which claims to territory are unique and several. In contrast, many BIPOC communities understand space (on earth and beyond) in terms of plural occupation and use or usufruct, making possible complex forms of sharing other human and other-than-human communities. Plural Indigenous legal orders offer immense opportunities for this kind of diplomacy. The women’s answer also speaks to the plurality of BIPOC legal orders, worlds, and time-spaces, in contrast to the projection of a Euro-centric vision of territory by would-be colonisers.

Indeed, another hope we have for this article is that it will open up bigger discussions about plural BIPOC law in relation to outer space, including articulations – whether in or outside of the academic sphere – of other BIPOC law, ethics and practice in relation to space. One hope is that it might, in future, help to support the kind of diplomatic work mentioned by Banbapuy and Djawundil – not necessarily due to conflict, but perhaps also in the desire to unite against plans to colonise, mine and exploit space. By sharing aspects of Yolŋu Rom in relation to Sky Country, we affirm and support the claims of other BIPOC nations to outer space.

We also hope that this work honours and respects Rom, the Guwak song spiral and Guwak herself (the kohl bird – our guide through outer space) and, of course, her human carers. This is why we wanted to share the full words of the song spiral in Yolŋu Matha, and to let it structure our piece rather than forcing them into a Western scientific template. Even if you do not know this beautiful language, we hope that when you read it, you will be able to feel, hear and sense Sky Country, and think about what is at stake in disrupting it.

Thank you to all of the collaborators, including, of course, Country and Sky Country themselves.

“Dukarr lakarrama: Listening to Guwak, talking back to space colonisation” is available in Political Geography, Vol 81:

If you would like to read this article but do not have institutional access to scholarly journals or it appears behind a paywall, please feel free to reach out.

apsute’gan (gift)

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She recognizes me,

reads my grief

and reaches for her phone.

She shows me a black-and-white-photo of closed hands

On smoothened sheets

Fingers braided across furry sage.

Then she takes out a grey feather, greased and frayed.

I watch her pinch the filaments in her fist and pull downwards,

roughing them up,

like she’s backcombing badly damaged hair.

She hands the feather to me.

“I like to do this exercise with women

who have healing to do”, she says, “watch.”

Her fingers slide up and down the hollow spine

Aligning each blade until the feather

Reclaims its shape.

“See that?” she says, “You can do that any time, with anyone who needs it.

It shows us everything

can be made

whole again.”



We’lalin, Maura, Early Rising Woman – rest in power. Nmul’tes.

Congratulations, Dr. Judy Da Silva!

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Dr. Judith Da Silva accepts the degree of Doctor of Letters, Honoris Causa, from President Deborah MacLatchey and Chancellor Eileen Mercier of Wilfrid Laurier University. Also pictured, Jean Becker and Audra Mitchell.

A few weeks ago, I had the immense honour of giving the citation for a treasured teacher, mentor and inspiration, Judy Da Silva, as she accepted her honorary doctorate from Wilfrid Laurier University. Knowing Judy has been one of the great gifts I’ve received in my life, and her I know that her work – along with her spirit, determination, courage, humour and love – enriches the existence of a great many people, waters, animals, plants and lands. 

An honorary PhD is not nearly enough to reflect the contributions made by Judy and the many other land defenders, Grandmothers, Grandfathers and Elders, young people, and warriors of all genders, ages and forms with whom she stands. Their knowledge can never be reduced to the degrees awarded by colonial institutions.  At the same time, these institutions have deep influence on mainstream settler colonial society, and so it is important that they recognise the immense contributions made by Indigenous leaders – not only in ways that fit within these systems and make them comfortable for settlers, but also in ways that challenge the status quo. One of the things I’ve learned from Judy is that knowledge of the land and waters and the fight to defend them cannot be separated. It is my deep hope that this degree reflects and honours that teaching. 

I wanted to share the text of the citation.  I’ve also included a transcription of Judy’s address (any errors of transcription are mine alone). If you don’t know Judy, I hope this text will provide the briefest of introductions to the work that she does, that it will encourage you to learn more,  to support her, her community and others fighting similar battles. 

 After speaking, Judy received a powerful standing ovation from the entire audience, which included a cohort of students graduating from the unique rigourous  Masters of Social Work Indigenous Field of Studies program, along with their families, friends and supporters. 

Congratulations, Dr. Da Silva, and, beyond this richly-deserved degree and the title it bears, I hope you will carry with you the sound of hundreds of people standing and raising their voices to honour you, your people, your Ancestors and the futures for which you’re fighting. 

With love and respect,

Learn more about Judy’s work, her community and how you can support at


Citation for Judith Da Silva, Doctor of Letters, Honoris Causa
Wilfrid Laurier University Autumn Convocation 
25 October, 2019 

Boozhoo, aanin! She:kon! Kwe!  Hello!

Thank you all for being here to celebrate this special day, and congratulations to all of the graduands.

Ogimakwe – ‘leader’-  is the word that comes to mind when I think of Judy Da Silva, Anishinaabe Lynx Clan Grandmother from Asubpeeschoseewagong/Grassy Narrows First Nation.

Judy is an Elder, a knowledge keeper, a policy influencer, and a community leader.

She is also a land defender, routinely risking her life to protect her lands and waters, her people and their sovereignty.

She is a nurturer of younger and older generations, a fierce advocate for Indigenous women, girls and children, and a living challenge to colonial violence.

Judy has lived a life of leadership. In the 1980s, she worked to support urban Indigenous women and girls affected by sexual, domestic and race-based violence, helping to found the community-based Bear Clan patrol.

At the Rio Climate Summit in 1992, she was part of a group of visionary Indigenous leaders from around the world – and the only woman in her delegation – who inspired a new generation of action against ecological destruction.

At home in Grassy, Judy fought tirelessly to protect her ancestral land and rights, helping her Elders to resist the dumping of nuclear waste in her community in the 1980s.

Starting in 2007, Judy led the longest-running blockade in Canadian history at Slant Lake, stopping illegal logging that violated her people’s Treaty and Ancestral rights.

Carrying on this tradition, in  2015, Judy, along with the late Josephine Mandamin and other esteemed women Elders, organized a water ceremony next to live rail tracks to protect their waters against the transport of toxic chemicals. They did this under significant threat from police and the national corporations whose privilege they challenged.

Since the 1990s, Judy has shone an international spotlight on the widespread effects of mercury poisoning on her community, the result of industrial contamination of the river system and political inaction ongoing since 1963.

Collaborating with Elders, community members and international researchers, Judy has brought this fight to Queen’s Park; to Ottawa; to Minimata, Japan;  and to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Geneva.

Today, Judy coordinates large-scale clean-up efforts of Grassy’s river system and continues to advocate at multiple levels for a specialized treatment center for survivors of mercury poisoning.

She also organizes public events such as the biennial Grassy Narrows River runs in Toronto, which attract thousands of participants.

Judy is an accomplished scholar: the author or co-author of six publications, partner in several groundbreaking scientific and government reports on mercury poisoning, and subject of dozens of interviews and documentaries.

In honour of her achievements, Judy has received the 2013 Michael Sattler Peace Prize from the German Mennonite Peace Committee, the 2017 Human Rights Watch Extraordinary Activist Award and the Yellowhead Institute’s 2018 Art Manuel Award.

Always rooted in the love of her community, Judy has, for decades, organized gatherings to mentor emerging Indigenous leaders and their supporters, especially grassroots women, youth, Elders and families.

She does this with commitment and humility, creating atmospheres where everyonepresent feels valued, loved, supported,connected to their land and culture, and confident in their power.

Gchi’miigwech, Judy, for all that you do.

Madam Chancellor, I am instructed by the Senate of the University to request that you admit Judith Da Silva to the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.

Dr. Da Silva’s address: 

Boozhoo, I’m speechless! (audience laughs along with Judy)  Wow.

Judy Da Silva nidijinikaz. Pizhiw dodem. My name is Judy Da Silva and I’m Anishinaabe from the Lynx Clan.

Hello to the Dean and Chancellor, and congratulations to all the recipients.

I really feel honoured to have received this degree with you today, because I saw all of you standing in line, and I feel really proud of all the hard work you’ve done.

I’m greatly honoured and touched by your university for this honorary degree. I would like to say: I will carry this degree with great pride with the Anishinaabeg of my community in Grassy Narrows/Asubpeeschoseewagong.

My community is a small Indigenous village located about 2000 km from here in Northwestern Ontario with a population of 800 people on reserve.

Since before anyone can remember, our people lived on the English/Wabigoon River. We took care of the river, and the river took care of us.  It is our source of life, which the Creator put on us.

We were hit with horrific tragedies with the dumping of 10 tons of toxic mercury from a paper mill upstream in the 1960s.

My words can never convey the struggles and pain my people have gone through and are still going through.

But in spite of this, we have always fought back to protect what is sacred to us: our river, our forests, our way of life, our families, our songs and our freedom to be Anishinaabeg on Anishinaabe land.

I’ve always said that our Elders are our professors. To me, their knowledge of riverways, land use, language, history, therapy, healing, are treasures of knowledge to our people and the world.

Our ways of knowing and our ways of being have not been valued by mainstream Canadian society. But I see that knowledge being used in medicines, forestry and so on.

I see that it’s beginning to change with this new generation of academic people – that’s you guys (smiles at graduands). I work with many consultants, doctors, professors, and they have come to our community with tobacco, and gifts, and quiet respect.

I feel this honourary degree symbolizes the growing respect for Anishinaabeg. It helps us to have hope for a human solution for my people.

It gives honour not only to myself but to the people of Grassy Narrows, and all the hard work we have done in many aspects, at all levels to bring attention to this issue and to fight for justice.

We will never stop raising our voices.

We will never stop defending our families, our way of life and our source of life.

We are all, now (smiles at graduands) educated people. Education brings good, humble power to this society.

I hope that you will use your education for good and to walk alongside the people of Grassy Narrows and others like us who are seeking dignity, freedom, health and justice.

Again, I thank you for this honour you have bestowed upon me. Miigwetch.





flying foxes, moving futures

As another record-hot Australian summer brings temperatures to the mid-40s (celsius), entire communities of flying foxes face urgent threats due to heat stress, along with their daily struggle against injury and disease brought by encroachment onto their territories. This post raises issues about the ethics of settler intervention into the lives of flying foxes (and other non-human communities), but it nonetheless respects the care, commitment and labour of the folks who work to support the survival of these creatures. If you feel an ethical calling to support the folks caring for stressed, injured and sick bats, I would strongly recommend donating to the Australian Bat Clinic.

I would also like this post to honour the work of the late Deborah Bird Rose, who passed away at the end of 2018. Although I never knew her in person, she nourished several people who are dear to me, and her work with flying foxes, dingoes and other beings persecuted by the settler state continues to feed my thinking. 

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Flying foxes by Dinesh Valke

She wasn’t supposed to survive. She had quarantined herself, banished her own body from the protective webbing of her kin. When we met her, she was hanging limp from a low limb, close enough to the ground to be snapped up by dogs, following her Law even in this place shot through by the rules and regs of a land-hungry state. Her kin, above, swung and jagged from branch to branch, some creeping along branches to cat-fight each other with tiny, curled claws, others cling-wrapped into themselves, sleeping, in bunches, like overripe raindrops. She took herself away from them, quietly, to die.

It was clear from the web flesh of her wing, torn cleanly, bloodlessly, from its supporting bone and wrinkling softly against her russet belly fur like a popped balloon. The torn skin telegraphed the wall of barbed wire hugging the side of a brick-walled, municipal building, right behind the roosting tree. Mothers had been snagged here, along with the babies they nursed, clamped on their furred chests, as they flew down the river and back each night to hunt insects. Some starved to death still dangling from the rust-crusted fangs of metal. Signs on the wire warned urban settlers, students and tourists to Stay Off. Dried-out dangling bat-bodies, shriveling up like palm dates, warned everyone else.

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Little red flying foxes (mother and pup) by Duncan McAskill

This fence is part of that heads-on-spikes, bodies-on-wire type of ‘justice’, a slow-motion massacre over hundreds of years, changing shape regularly to fly under the radar. Sometimes it was sponsored and executed by the state, other times it was vigilante justice carried out  by people who called them ‘beautiful’, but were so offended by their smell and chatter that they demanded their removal.


If you’ve never met a flying fox community, have a watch and listen to this beautiful footage by Estraven Lupino-Smith, which will give you a sense of what it’s like to be in their company. ___________________________________________________________

Irony-blind settlers and their sciences call them ‘colonies’, poking at inherited fears of swarm, invasion, overwhelm and disease. News reports fanned out the face of a teenage boy who had died from handling an injured bat. This is the cost of compassion towards vermin, they smirked. Bats are favourite scapegoats for visions of zoonotic doom – vampirism, rabies, devastating outbreaks of Ebola. Here and now it was lyssavirus, spread by the flow of bat saliva into human wounds. Aggression, frenzies of fear, seizures, terror of fresh air and water – just a few of the symptoms to watch for,  if you can distinguish them from the moral panics that regularly judder through white settler culture.  Or the Hendra virus, that tricky sickness that can cause anything from mild flu-like symptoms to fatal neurological collapse. It’s been acknowledged by Western science for a good while now that these diseases are extremely rare – not to mention that the vast majority of their victims are bats. The most recent studies show that only 5.4% of flying foxes and blossom bats – just 7 out of 187 tested– showed since of Australian Bat Lyssa Virus, which led to the deaths of 3 people in the last 34 years. Put in perspective, zoonotic disease transferred by bats is a comparatively miniscule risk in a country where, in 2016-17 alone, falling out of bed killed 523 Australians. But for most of vigilantes, the problem isn’t disease: it’s sound and smell, the disruption of visions of perfect subtropical gardens and fruit undented by other species’ teeth.

We knew this roost community:  they flew over our apartment building at dusk everyday, which crouched under their flightpath to the river banks. Big groups of them would mimic the river, taunting its shape, flowing in currents down its long yawn into the Queensland coast. We’d run for cover when they feasted on the hard white fruits of the tree outside our building’s entrance entrance, dropping pits and half-chewed fruits, or when they tangled with the possums for the ripest mangos. This is part of the joy of living with them, of going out into the night and knowing that you are not alone, sensing the density of eyes, the wing lashes thickening the dark.

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Untitled by Oriijoy

We asked around and found out that the community had moved to their current location, a scraggle of eucalyptuses in a public park a couple of years before. They’d been evicted – in technical terms, ‘dispersed’- many times, in response to changes in city and state policies. As the climate changes, some bat communities have become refugees, organizing evacuations tofeed themselves or stay cool in the leaded heat of 47 degrees Celsius summers. A few years later, just south of here, I would watch a group of them scoop down from the treetops to dip their bellies into the Bellingen River to stay cool enough to breathe and fly. South, in Sydney, their relatives fell from the sky, baked alive by the heat from unrelieved pavement.  It was so hot that January day that we all had to sit submerged in the river – humans, dogs, snakes and goannas – just to keep our blood from over-heating. It was so hot that the federal Minister of the Environment was forced to resign. A few months before I wrote this, it was so hot that 1/3 of the remaining community of spectacled flying foxes was annihilatedin a single, two-day heatwave.  And just as I’m writing this, it’s so hot that over 2000 grey-headed flying foxes– whole family trees and communities – died of heat stress at the southernmost, and usually coolest, tip of their range.

Throughout all of these changes in laws–  Settler law, climate law, earth law, Western science laws – the bat communities hold their own, permanent Law tight to their furred chests like their precious pups, living and dying for it, as this little bat was doing. They carry it with them as they drop seeds across their huge range, literally shitting out urgent, yearned-for futures, splattering the gardens, paths and cars of belligerent settlers. As they move, rest and feed, they tickle heat-sore plants into life with precious pollens clinging to velvet chests and bellies, shifting entire eucalypt forestsas they migrate, re-creating Country wherever it’s needed. But they are moved, too, into cities where they are persecuted, banished and decimated. Still, they follow their Law, with each wing slice eroding the settler state’s.

This was what the little bat was doing when we met her – holding on to her Law even if it meant letting go her own life. We were torn. We understood that she had taken herself away from her community for a reason. Maybe she was sick and she didn’t want to infect her family, or impose a burden on them. But the cause of her injury was so clear: this was part of the violences that made our presence here easy, and hers a daily struggle.

We called the local vet, who had, just a few weeks ago, helped us to treat an electrocuted ringtail and the baby in her pouch. The vet directed us towards a group of volunteers who arrived within the hour, prepped with gloves, soft towels and a spacious box. The surgery to fix the wing was quite straightforward, they said, and she could soon be released back to the roost with minimal handling. They called her Delia, to distinguish her from the other bats in their care.

We never knowingly saw Delia again, although the volunteers phoned a few weeks later to let us know that she had been released back. But we wanted to learn more about the people who healed bats, so we drove down to a remarkable bat clinic and rehab centretucked into the lap of the hills just inland from Gold Coast. It’s not normally open to the public, only on annual education days – unlike the many ‘koala sanctuaries’ around the country that are anything but safe or quiet. When we arrived at the bungalow, we were immediately warned not to open a cloth bag that sat on a bench on the verandah. ‘What’s in it?’ I asked. ‘Really poisonous snake. We’ll take him and let him out later once we’ve had a look  to make sure he’s all right’. At the back of the veranda was a metal cage where a large Sulphur-crested cockatoo sat on one foot. ‘Helloooo,” he said, in a perfectly sinister southern English accent. We would find out shortly that this was his way of luring people over to the cage so that he could chomp whatever folds of flesh or fabric passed close enough to the bars. I asked if he was someone’s former companion animal, but our host told us that he was a wild cockatoo whom they’d found, disoriented, in the nearby mountains. He was suffering from a neurological condition that was affecting many of the birds in the region. ‘We don’t know where he got that accent. Probably picked it up from a tourist’. And the instinctively precise biting? “probably the same”. Just as we were passing to the house’s entrance, alongside a pen of bandaged and healing roos who had been struck by cars, I felt claws on my foot. It was difficult at first to tell what kind of creature had climbed onto me. Definitely a bird, but an almost totally featherless one. “That’s Remy,” I was told. Unable to fly, he walked around on foot or hitched rides on shoes, following our host, the volunteers and vets on their rounds. He was another cockatoo, a juvenile, but still only fraction of the average size without the aura of white feathers. He climbed onto my shoe and rode around with me throughout our visit, hopping off occasionally to show me his moon-walking technique.

We entered the bungalow, where there were bats hanging from every possible grip. Thousands of them. We were led to a back room where laundry lines were strung with wing-wrapped bats, orderly and calm despite their immense numbers, some screeching quietly to each other, or to themselves. We watched as our host gently returned one to his place on the clothesline, as he crawled over towards one of his bunkmates. “That one’s a trouble-maker”, she said with affection, “He’s always trying to pick fights with his mate there.” She knew each one of them individually, by personality. And sure enough, a few moments later we would hear the nail-on-metal screech and flap of fighting bats, and she would have to separate them again. These were the bats that were starting to recover, not quite ready to go out to the outdoors roost where 750 others were recuperating, preparing for their return flights home. Next, we were shown into a small, dark room filled with incubators. Rows of baby bats, each neatly swaddled in warm, care-worn cotton washcloths, slept in rows inside them. Our host came back holding a tiny package in her hand, a close-eyed, pink-nosed, golden-fuzzed pup no bigger than my pinky finger. This little one had come down from the far north of the state, she explained to us. This sanctuary was one of a network of bat carers up and down the Queensland coast who do emergency work, sometimes driving twelve hours to pick up heat-stroked, injured or sick bats, to get them to the person with the right skills to care for them.  “I’m not sure if this little one’ll make it,” she said tenderly,” But we hope so.” It almost hurt to see the degree of love she infused into that tiny body, how she calibrated her fingers perfectly to direct a feeding syringe into the wrinkle-clamped lips.

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Large flying foxes #2 by Ryan Poplin

Walking through that house strung and beaded with recovering bats, I couldn’t stop thinking about the sculpture ‘Fruit Bats’ by Yorta Yorta artist Lin Onus. His fiberglass flying foxes, each one unique, shaped and painted with the cross-hatching whose use he was gifted by his Murrungun-Djinang mentors, hang just as neatly from the geometric filaments of a Hills Hoist Clothes line. Below them, circular painted droppings cement their presence, spread their futures, flipping the bird at white suburban cleanliness. Those bats are there for a reason: they are staking their space in the everyday sprawl of suburban settler colonialism. They are shitting all over it, gorgeously, with purpose, with intent, with meaning and with right. They are refusing to be moved along. They are hanging tight, permanently present. In a stroke of ironic genius, Onus’ bats have found themselves centered in the permanent collection of one of the poshest art galleries in the country. For sure, it’s an example of the dominant culture letting itself to be seen to support Aboriginal art. But at the end of the day, the bats, and their droppings, are there on the polished concrete floor and elite lighting, at the center of things. They’re not going anywhere.

Like the bats in Onus’ sculpture, those creatures in the sanctuary hang from clotheslines and wires carefully designed to offer them ease, time, a chance to strengthen – the mirror image of the fanged fences and furnace climates designed to harm erase them, to maximize their fear and anxiety. I am humbled by this effort, by the simple, concrete crucialness of this work of patching up bats and sending them back out into their world-making work. This is harm reduction, for sure, since simply surviving under the violence of settler colonialism is trauma in itself for these bats and their kin. It can be a radical act: to heal and free and strategize for their futures, against the structures that secure our own (since we and our hosts at the sanctuary are all settlers of one kind or another), breaking our own laws in our best attempts to honour theirs (see the work of John Borrows on this subject). But we, as would-be settler healers, are also breaking their Law, imposing our norms about survival and comfort, our queasiness about death and suffering, our destroyer’s guilt. This is especially true for me, an interloper who doesn’t really know this Country, and haven’t been invited by it, the bats and their people. That’s the dilemma that wrestles with me: do I open myself to be confronted by the harm I am part of and step back to let the creatures deal with it in their own ways, knowing that more intervention makes things worse? That I have to live without the comfort of feeling that I’ve helped, the catharsis of caring? Or does taking responsibility mean doing what I have to in order to refuse that harm, to release one more life back out into their struggle, without demanding anything for myself? At the end of the day, the ethical imperative for me and my kin may be as simple as ‘get out of the fucking way’.

I don’t think I will ever find a resolution for this, at least for myself. But I am holding on hard to that image of the bats on the Hills Hoist, and that flying-fox-filled bungalow, and the rivers of diseased but resurgent bats that haunt swamped cities in Alexis Wright’s works of re-worlding. These are images of times to come when the bats reclaim this place, even if they have to move forests and futures – and shit all over settler society – to get it back.


Caring for Kin: Confronting Global Disruptive Change, 22-23 August, 2018 — groundwork

The following blog is by Audra Mitchell, Kate Lloyd, Sandie Suchet-Pearson and Sarah Wright. All photos are by Stan Williams. In August 2018, we were honoured to organize a gathering of Indigenous women/ Two-Spirit (2S) people, knowledge-keepers, scholars, land and water protectors from across Turtle Island/North America and Australia, and four of their non-Indigenous academic […]

via Caring for Kin: Confronting Global Disruptive Change, 22-23 August, 2018 — groundwork

move fast

Screenshot 2018-11-22 at 21.09.02

Sleep by Audra Mitchell, 2013.

Your eyes are fresh with death, tongue and fur still wet with breath that’s just left them.

Your softness is a gut-punch, the swell of your belly, haunches and ears like foothills from a distance.

Blood brightens on the road shoulder, clarified by the cold. I can’t see where it’s coming from.

You look perfect to me.

You were probably born earlier this year, or maybe last,
fat with berries and the dream of sleep.

I know that you are missed, or you will be,
when the rest of them wake up.

I was just talking about the violence of highways, their deceptive breadth,
their dominance thinned by distance, passing themselves off
as natural fractures,
as fault lines,
oil and stone.
But severing paths, migrations, generations,
the concentrated care of drawing out lives
from parallels into tangled lines.

Next to me, in the passenger seat, she was like, no shit Sherlock. But also like, poor settlers – slow learners.

She doesn’t say any of this. She exhales gifts
of painful patience.

I pick up your paw, tracing the curve of a claw with my pointer, pressing the tip into my palm. I’m surprised at its weight, the soft tension of the pads, plush like blistered lips.

Who could leave you like this?

We can’t.

Everyone passing will think that we’ve killed you.

We wish we knew what to do – the proper words, the right ceremony. Or someone nearby who could make good use.

We have to do something.

We dial the ministry for parks, but they’re closed. Then the non-emergency police line in Steinbach. The flat-vowelled voice is confused. I’m glad we don’t get through.

I know what they do with the bodies.

‘Fuck off’

I shout at the blonde family in the red SUV stopped across the highway, gawking, taking selfies, making faces at us, sneering over your stillness.
They do fuck off, but only when they’ve taken everything
they want.

A hunter in a pickup truck, chill-chapped skin and camouflage, pulls over to ask if we hit you. That makes sense to him – two women driving down the highway,
only one of them white.

We tell him no.

He says he wishes he had his trailer with him, as if you were
his to take.
He leaves us with an ironic ‘good luck’.

A crow passes and she asks him to bring some help.

She sings a bear song that she knows, her liquid voice
roughed-up by the windchill and crackled with tears.
I listen,
but not kin.

We stroke you, gold-leaf your fur and nose and feet, dapple them with tobacco.


Two women and a man pull over in a pickup. They look for a while, put down their own medicine, speak some words in language.

We stand, together,
with you.

The man lifts your hind legs and pulls you, light, like sliding ice, into the stiffened grass and hunched shrubs.

‘Where are you headed?’ one of the women asks. ‘Grassy’. ‘The reserve?’ ‘Yeah’.

The woman nods slowly, hugs her,
receives her grief,
hugs me too.

“You should have taken one of the paws and kept it. That keeps the strength of the bear with you. Honours its spirit,” we are told when we get there and tell everyone about you, ask if they know your family.

I know I couldn’t do it. I don’t have the guts, the blood, the stomach, the right, the rage, the pain,
the visceral empathy
to do what needs to be done.

I’ll bet she does.

I talk about all the animals I’ve seen on the roads, that I will keep seeing
as long as I keep driving.

‘Keep tobacco in your car. Always have some ready”, Bizhiw says,

‘What if I can’t stop and pull over?”

“Put it out the window. It’ll get to them.
spirits move fast”.

For Ni Nok Cuma Gook and Gishiime Makwa. 


Screen Shot 2018-08-31 at 11.38.04You have a reputation — a clique of stories chatters you back into being. The most popular one says that you were found in a clay ball on Menominee lands, dug up after 850 years by a group of students from my parents’ hometown, who brought you back to life in their university garden. A Diné writer tells us that the Miami people held you through centuries, sheltering you with their bodies, ceremonies, stories and silences as violence scraped their lands like  glaciers or receding seas. Others say that Miami women cultivated you all along, for 2000 years, tucked safely into the folds of your presumed extinction. Then, when you were ready to resurge, they shared you, made other peoples your pollinators. You were not taken, discovered, or removed without your will. You were shared and shared yourself freely, circulating with intent.

I prefer, and desire, these latter stories. But some of the Grandmothers and Aunties like the first one. This is one of the bumps that jar our conversations, that make our meanings slide just shy of each other. I need to be kinder, they keep telling me, to my own people, to myself. I need to let myself be claimed by our violence, our intentions, our estrangement. Even if these are the conditions of our kinship.

I have become an uncertain surrogate of your seeds. J. gave them to me. She wanted me to grow you and share your seeds and fruits with people who will resurge with you, absorbing your pungent energy as they sit on blockades, walk shorelines or care for the land beneath the streets. You are an unexpected part of the medicine I went to gather and learn how to make for an Aunty moving through her final seasons. She was supposed to come up north with us – the trip was a parting gift to her. Instead, in her absence, J. showed me how to make pain medicine for her from the inner bark of a certain willow, a teaching recently returned to her. Other women donated their fragrant peelings to bring back to our Aunty, even though they have their own pains to nurse. I had hoped she could grow some of your seeds  in the spring, amongst the tobacco plants, grass, and figurines in her urban hill garden. I wanted her little gray cat, the one she took for midnight walks around the block, to roll around your roots, to sniff and bat at your vines and flowers. I wanted her to see you grow, to be a part of your return, for you to be a part of hers.  Now,  I’m asking you to grow in my unfamiliar hands.

My torn thumb throbs as I chip away at the roots of the grass to widen your bed, but I want to make this space for you. I get used to the taste and scents of the soil bruising my cuticles, my callouses, the pads of my feet, the blood blisters on my fingertips. I learn how to move my fingers with just the right pressure to tense one of your ringlets around a pole. I wonder how long I will be in this place, whether I can care and commit with the abandon I want. I am embarrassed by my transience, and by my still- presence. I shift heavy cans of water, knowing that I am disrupting my healing, and that I need to feel the pulse of falling water as much as you do. But you don’t really need me; you will reclaim this land on your own. You have everything you need: every gender and gene, uncurling in the length and lean of your tendrils, in the pursing and breath of your blossoms.

I feel guilty to be living with you, to have the pleasure of this time and space, this growth. But A. tells me to be careful about assumptions, that his kin can’t be expected to do all the work. I have to learn and help and sweat and dig and deal with setbacks, too, if I want these changes to happen, and these beings to return. Two of your seedlings are growing in his new garden. You release yourself there, with the ancient corns and tobaccos and sunflowers etched into the slope of the hill. A. tells me that you can still bear fruit, even though July is ending, even though my gift was late.

It alarms me, sometimes, the ache of you breaking the ground, your tendrils crying towards the next branch or leaf, even if it is part of your own body. Sometimes you pin down twigs, stones and grasses, gather up the ground around you, or wrestle the beans sliding up the dowlings. Exactly the kinds of spats you’d expect between sisters. Or lovers.  You are always pulling your kin close to you, holding them tight, binding them to yourself and to each other. I have to let myself be held, too, in ways that don’t come easily to me. I learn to peel back your folded blooms and spread your pollen with my own finger tips, standing in for the missing bees, for the disappeared.

Screen Shot 2018-08-31 at 11.38.59

I wish I could see you move. You are living much faster and slower than I am, vining and dying in a less than a year, and growing so slowly that I can’t see your motions and gestures. I can only sense their echoes in the curves of your spines, or the twisting of your bodies as you interpret the light. You are hundreds of seasons younger than me, and thousands of years older. We share space and moments, our bodies touch, but I can’t fall into time with you.

Sometimes a part of you dies, and I have to accept that, open your roots to the air, offer that piece of twisted flesh or early fruit to the earth, make space, so that the rest of you can thrive.

I was nervous when I planted your seeds, just three at first, staring each morning at the short row of pots and watching you push, stubbornly stooped, through the surface of the soil. I was too late in the planting season, partly because I did not know how to think time in reverse, to let you feel the seasons fully, and partly because I was afraid of failing you. At first I covered you with netting, hoping to discourage but not hurt the racoons and rats, the big skunk that slopes out from behind the rotting shed and devours the peanuts we leave at the base of the big sugar maple. It was only weeks before your tallest leaves grasped at the mesh, pulling it down around you, penetrating it with your vines. Reminding me that you are there to share yourself, that this is your choice and right. I learn to think of your growth in this way, as a deliberate gift for other plants and animals, for the pollinators, for the soil and air. Even then, I come back after five days away to find gnaw-marks in your largest fruit – squirrels who have mistaken you for green nuts – and I feel punished, as though my own skin were punctured. D. came over with a bottle of capsaicin water to drizzle around your fruits and the soil beneath them, to warn off nibblers, to give you a chance to see your descendents. She knows how much they are needed.

I didn’t bother to deter the crows – I know I’m no match for them. They snipped the heads from all of the corn sprouts earlier in the spring, leaving you to grow around the roots of your missing sisters. They were suspicious when I set up the garden in this spot near the maple, croaking and hopping on the limbs above you. But they seem to have made their peace with our presence, or at least with yours.  H. reminded me to offer them shiny gifts, and I did, leaving them pieces of glittering copper, a few strawberries and fallen blossoms, beans and roots. I put them a little distance from your bed, acting casual, not wanting to deprive them of the pleasure of theft, of taking what’s theirs.

H. has grown you now for a few years, for feasts and gatherings, so she’s figuring out how to help you get along with others. She helped me to separate your seeds from the slime of your cooked flesh, which we had eaten in heavy darkness at the gathering up north, zipped into winter sleeping bags and gloves but still numb with cold. It was October then, and I had months to think about your future. I took you back down south to the city, where I lived then, surrounded by spit-and-salt stained concrete, aggression, and open-wounded earth. We could survive there, we could exhale after years of clenched breath, but we couldn’t grow. In the belly of that autumn, I dried you tentatively, following the instructions, turning each seed several times, careful not to disturb the onion-skin slip that covered your sleeping seedbodies. In the spring, I offered your seeds as gifts to people who would know better than I did, who knew how to help livings live and let beings be. I kept a handful to grow, so that I could keep spreading your seeds, uncertain of the soil you would find for us. Screen Shot 2018-08-31 at 11.38.31

Since I’ve lived with you, I’ve begun to pay attention to insects, wondering which ones you nourish, which ones will carry your future generations, dirtying the fur of their legs, and which will hollow your body, nesting, possessing it for their own offspring. I wonder which ones you will allow to feed on you, which ones you invite and shelter, which ones you help to die. I learn which ones you need me to destroy, and I learn to kill. I barely noticed insects before but now when I sit outside in the evening I am immersed in their intimacies.

I have started speaking with you, knowing that you are fluent in vibrations, even if not in my colonial tongue. I am beginning to speak again without stuttering or scattering my words. But now I can feel my brain shifting and clunking; my thoughts are heavier, less playful. When the weather changes, when the clouds plume and darken, I am dizzy, sometimes too nauseous to read or write, so I crouch down next to you instead. As your biggest leaves drape themselves into the 43 degree heat and stiffen again into the dew, I am trying to learn to move with the weather, too. I feel anxious for you, overprotective, during the storms, even though I know you love the rain. L. is worried when I run into the thunder with my metal-headed shovel to dig a trench beside your bed, so that the runoff coming down the hill won’t overwhelm you. I do it anyway, and so does he.

L. says that this is a love story, and I think he’s right. Sometimes I love you too roughly, cleaning crumbs of soil from your leaves and peeling back leaves in search of future fruit. One day in early August, I snap off one of your buds while trying to clean the dirt from her furred curves. But you are not broken by me or my struggling love. You continue reaching, grasping, creeping, blossoming, offering yourself into futures that I can’t feel, that you will enter without me. You are taking your time, your space, your land, your lives. Preparing the ground.

* I live on the Ancestral lands of the Neutral/Attawandaron, a confederacy of Iroquois peoples who are no longer with us, largely due to the effects of diseases brought by French and other European fur traders in the Great Lakes region. These are also the treaty lands of the Six Nations of the Grand River and the Mississaugas of the New Credit. In Onkwehonwe/Haudenosaunee gardening practices, Corn, Beans and Squash are known as the Three Sisters because they help each other to grow. The corn provides stalks up which the beans can grow; the beans fix nitrogen to feed the corn and squash; and the squash leaves and vines offer shade and retain moisture, which helps the corn and beans to flourish. The peoples of the lands around the Great Lakes have depended on this type of gardening – this sisterhood – for thousands of years.

All photos of Gete Okosomin by Audra Mitchell, 2017-18. Please do not reproduce without contacting me first.


water is not a weapon

water is not a weapon

water is not a weapon, 2018 by Audra Mitchell 




About six months ago, I was in an accident which resulted in a brain injury and torn ligament in my hand. These injuries stopped me from participating in my regular writing practice, including my monthly posts on this blog. During this time, I’ve been focusing on  artistic practices as a way to maintain my connection to the people, places, beings and thoughts I care about, when I can’t join them physically. One of the ways I’ve been doing this is through weaving, a meditative practice that has helped me to keep my brain active and to re-train my hands, eyes and thoughts to align.

This is the main piece I’ve been working on over the last few months. It’s called “water is not a weapon” and it is dedicated to the water protectors fighting to protect the Salish Sea, to stop the Kinder Morgan/Justin Trudeau TransMountain Pipeline, and to all of the water protectors and water walkers, in gratitude of their labour and the risks they take to protect the beings on which we all depend.



Survivance, resurgence and refusal against extinction

I was honoured to share the stage with Elder and educator Sherry Copenace (Anishinaabekwe, Onigaming, Treaty 3), Kyle Powys Whyte and Julie Libarkin in this talk at MSU. Miigwech to all for their generosity.

Decolonizing against extinction, part III: white tears and mourning

Growing up as a white settler child in unceded Musqueam and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh territory toward the end of the 20th century, I was regularly overwhelmed with grief for beings I had never met.  I was raised to ‘love animals’ and ‘nature’ at a time when it was becoming clear that they were ‘disappearing’ at alarming rates. At school and through educational programs, I was taught to be ‘aware’ of endangered species, and encouraged to raise money for conservation efforts. As gifts, I was given cuddly toys and figurines that represented – and fetishized – endangered species. Clinging to these symbols both soothed and sharpened my feelings of futility. I couldn’t reach these beings, or do anything meaningful to ‘save’ them. So, instead, I generated sadness and anxiety, as if inhabiting these states was a form of action. When it became too much, I buried those feelings for almost 20 years. This made it possible for me to get on with my life, learning and working within the colonial-capitalist systems that privileged me – and that continued to drive patterns of ecological destruction.

This is a common story. The emotions of white and other privileged children (and adults) are continually mobilized to generate support for global conservation efforts. Grief amongst white and other privileged people for the

polar bear

Photo by Paul Nicklen

plight of ‘endangered’ or ‘soon to be extinct’ life forms is amongst the most potent of these emotions, along with anger and frustration. The social power of these emotions became obvious in the international furore over the 2015 killing of ‘Cecil’ the lion by an American recreational hunter. More recently, video footage of an emaciated polar bear, released by  photographer Paul Nicklen, went viral, igniting an outpouring of regret and anger on social media. Nicklen described the footage as ‘soul-crushing’ and related that his entire team had to ‘push through tears’ as they watched the bear scrounge for food in the last hours of its life. (See this article in which Inuk hunters peer review the video, showing how a lack of understanding of polar bears is often manipulated by conservation discourses)

The emotion generated by white and other privileged people when confronted with images of impending extinction is real, and quite powerful. It makes its participants feel as though they are involved, that they care about the beings at stake. And it may generate substantial donations to conservation organizations with good intentions and a genuine desire to ‘save’ the ‘endangered’.

But these releases of emotion can also be deeply problematic, and can entrench the forces and structures that drive global patterns of extinction – including racialized patterns of ecological violence. I am beginning to understand them as manifestations of ‘white tears’.

‘White tears’ refers to the eruption of emotion that occurs when white people are confronted with the violence and harm that our ways of life and the structures that benefit us enact against People of Colour. It is an expression of distress and frustration that emerges when we find that we are complicit in deep injustices, in spite of our professed values or conscious intentions. Whether or not they are expressed as a gesture of solidarity or caring, white tears have serious and destructive implications for People of Colour.

First, as Robin DiAngelo notes, they involve the appropriation of grief and other emotions from those who are directly experiencing violence and harms to their communities, relations and worlds. They divert attention and social resources such that “rather than focusing on the lived experiences and traumas of People of Colour…the focus is placed on the host of emotions that white people go through when confronted with racism”.

White tears involve the colonization of emotional space, along with the labour required to attend to those experiencing grief. Indeed, one of the most insidious aspects of white tears is that they make People of Colour responsible for dealing with the guilt their white friends or colleagues feel – for participating in systems that oppress them. Instead of directing this energy towards their own emotional wellbeing and healing, or performing the hard work of mourning (which I’ll return to in a moment), People of Colour are pressured to shoulder the weight of white guilt in liquid form.

In many cases, white tears can be (re)traumatizing, and they can remind People of Colour of the depth of white peoples’ indifference to their struggles. In particular, DiAngelo points out that white tears tend only to emerge in times of public crisis, or when harms to People of Colour puncture the protective boundaries of white privilege. This downplays everyday structural violences (including environmental racism) which People of Colour confront in societies constructed to privilege white needs and aspirations.

In addition, white tears are a powerful move to innocence. They offer white folks confronted with injustices in which they’re implicated release, relief and a sense of having ‘responded’ to the suffering of others. However, they do not tend to translate into concrete action against racism or other forms of structural violence, which cause the harms in question. In some cases, they might detract from this kind of work by making white folks feel as though they have already ‘done something’ (see my story above). What’s more, this sense of having ‘responded meaningfully’ may be used to mask complicity and to disavow one’s responsibility to dismantle structural violence.

How do white tears function in the context of extinction? Let’s look at each of these aspects in turn.

Appropriation, displacement and colonial crying:

When white and other privileged


Tears by Fips (Creative Commons 2.0) Flickr

people grieve for the beings destroyed by the structures and forces that privilege us, we take space from those who are directly affected. As I have discussed in previous posts (Decolonizing Against Extinction P I and P II, ) ‘extinction’ is a deeply  racialising phenomenon. Driven by modes of global structural violence such as colonization and extractive capitalism, it targets and primarily impacts Indigenous and other peoples of colour – and their other-than-human relations. In particular, the plants and animals threatened with what Western science calls ‘extinction’ are the relatives – Ancestors and offspring, sisters, brothers, cousins and kin – of these peoples. Their ‘extinction’ is the destruction of these relations, and of the (human and other) peoples nourished by them. Indeed, in my research I argue that one of the hallmarks of what Western science calls ‘extinction’ is the destruction of these relationships.

For the most part, the white and other privileged people who cry ‘for’ ‘endangered species’ in the abstract simply do not have these relations with the beings in question. We are not directly experiencing the destruction of the intimate relationships – with plants, animals, Ancestors, land, water air and more – that have sustained our collective existence for millennia, and that are necessary for its continuation. We do not daily tend and depend on these relationships, or put their bodies on the line to defend them. In short, the beings targeted for extinction are not ‘ours’ to mourn.

Crying for someone else’s kin is problematic in (at least) two senses. First, as in other manifestations of white tears, this dynamic diverts attention, energy and resources away from the people (human and otherwise) who are directly affected, channeling it toward anxiety and guilt of those who benefit from the harms in question. Note that the global conservation movement focuses on protecting ‘biodiversity’ for ‘humanity’, rather than directly addressing the harms, losses and violence experienced by specific peoples whose relations face extinction. However well-meaning, these efforts are oriented more towards securing and reassuring donors and their futures – whom the term ‘humanity’ interpellates – than to addressing the direct trauma of extinction in ways appropriate to the communities affected.

Second, this kind of crying can be deeply dispossessive: it asserts proprietary claims over grieved beings. Indeed, this sentiment – worry over losing ‘our’ ‘biodiversity’, or my childhood anxieties about not ‘having’ rhinos or koalas when I grew up – embodies the colonial impulse in which the global conservation movement has its roots. As Bill Adams’ critical history shows, the global conservation movement was rooted in colonial policies, initially in southern Africa and India, then later in the west of Turtle Island, designed to protect ‘stocks’ of large game for elite hunting. Contemporary conservation organizations have largely moved away from this approach. In fact, the case of Cecil the lion demonstrates the extent to which contemporary supporters of conservation oppose the killing of what they consider to be ‘their’ endangered species, protected by their donations. Yet the proprietary impulse remains: anger and sadness over Cecil’s death relates directly to the belief, propagated by conservation organizations, that the ‘world’s biodiversity’ is a commons, to be protected as a source of enjoyment, economic stability and scientific knowledge for ‘humanity’. This is particularly clear in the case of UNESCO ‘World Heritage Sites’, which actively name and claim areas of ‘particular cultural and biological significance’ as the property of ‘humanity’.In a related sense, many conservation strategies – in particular zoos – involve an implicit tradeoff in which support for conservation grants open access to the life forms in question. Indeed, it is rare to hear of strategies oriented towards the protection of beings for the sole use of the communities who depend on them, or in ways that restrict the access of white and other privileged people to them. Within this global regime, conserved lives are the property of ‘humanity’.

As I have argued elsewhere, the idea of humanity enshrined in global governance discourses is framed in terms of Western ideals such as individualism (or ‘identity’-based collectives), self-sufficiency, integration into market economics and biopolitically-regulated forms of health. In other words, it is modelled on liberal-universalist norms that map well onto modern Euro-American social imaginaries – and exclude or marginalise others. So, when land, life forms or even peoples are claimed as the property of ‘humanity’, it is a very particular version of homo sapiens (one that possesses these qualities by birth or assimilation) that is intended to benefit. By mobilizing the tears of white and other privileged people, global conservation encourages these members of ‘humanity’  ‘save’, annex or accumulate other peoples’ relations for their own (future) use and enjoyment. At the same time, treating these beings as part of a ‘commons’ belonging to a ‘humanity’ defined in their image erases relations between Indigenous peoples and their kin. In this sense, the mobilization of white tears contributes to a globalised dispossession of kin that helps to sustain contemporary global colonialism.

Offloading labour onto those most affected

Screen Shot 2017-12-21 at 22.58.43

PMJT regularly engages in white tears, often during formal apologies to the people he’s crying about.

When white and other privileged people cry for beings who are not our relations, and whom we continue to colonize, we make our feelings someone else’s problem. Specifically, we offload them to the communities who are directly affected by the destruction of their relations, expecting them to absorb the costs and labour of protecting them for ‘humanity’ (meaning us). This is not primarily to ensure the ongoingness of these communities and their relations, their sovereignty or well-being, but rather to assuage our guilt, and our fear of ‘losing’ beings that might prove essential to our own well-being (or that of an abstract ‘humanity’).

In the context of global conservation movements, this can take many forms. One of the most common is the expectation that Indigenous people give up their land, practices of hunting, gathering and growing or other ways of life in order to create parks or other ‘protected’ spaces. Indeed, as Dan Brockington and Jim Igoe have shown, the creation of national parks in southern Africa involved the eviction and displacement of thousands of Indigenous people from their Ancestral or traditional lands, continuing well into the 1990s, in order to meet goals derived from Western conservation practices. In other cases, the process of offloading responsibility is more subtle. It may involve framing Indigenous people as ‘stewards’ of ‘biodiversity’ and simply presuming that they will take on the labour of protecting it; or encouraging Indigenous communities to engage in ‘biodiversity banking’ or offsetting. These strategies are essentially means for stockpiling biodiversity to hedge against its continued destruction and ensure the ‘sustainability’ of the systems that exploit it.

Indeed, white tears for extinction not only divert attention away from those who are directly experiencing the harms, and the violent nature of those harms, but also from the structures that perpetuate them. By outsourcing the labour of conservation to Indigenous communities, this system expects those communities to provide cushions and guarantees for the same systems that oppress, expropriate and target them.

The tears themselves are also a potent move to innocence. They enable white and other privileged people to feel that we are performing constructive emotional labour that generates empathy, compassion or solidarity with the others whom our structures have harmed. In some cases, these acts may (re-)traumatize or provoke anger amongst those whose relatives and worlds are targeted for destruction. Having to deal with this additional emotional labour, or the need to ‘educate’ and confront those shedding white tears, drains vital energy from the crucial work of resurgence and caring for one’s relations carried out by Indigenous and People of Colour.

We only care in a crisis, or when it affects us

The primary reason that I and other white children were taught to ‘love’ endangered species was that we grew up during an era in which extinction had been identified as a crisis that might effect us. Specifically, extinction was, and continues to be, framed as a trend that might endanger ‘human security’ or the wellbeing of ‘humanity’ as a whole. In other words, the crisis was becoming large enough to endanger the futures of some of the most privileged people on the planet. The same kind of fear animates contemporary concerns with ‘global catastrophic risks’ – phenomena so enormous in their scale and totality that they even threaten the global elite. Indeed, if billionaires such as Elon Musk consider it necessary to colonize other planets as an ‘insurance policy’ against the total destruction of earth, then it is clear that the threat has spread to the world’s most privileged niches. Preoccupation with moments of spectacular collapse or disruption that puncture the protective bubble of white and other forms of privilege can be deeply destructive. Specifically, they draw attention away from the everyday, persistent, ‘slow’ and deep forms of everyday structural violence that drive global patterns of extinction.

Understood in this way, tearful fear and anxiety about the ‘loss of species’ is linked to the desire to protect white futures, and the beings that are considered necessary – or simply desirable – to them. The selectiveness of globalized grieving for the extinct is telling here. The poster children of conservation campaigns are disproportionately megafauna that dwell in places colonized by Europeans – from polar bears and lions to koalas and lemurs. Through colonial education systems, they have become so thoroughly embedded in cultural imaginaries that Western children are more likely to recognize megafauna from other continents than plants endemic to the lands where they live. The ‘loss’ of these beings creates ruptures in this possessive imaginary and the models of global political order it supports.

In this way, the stimulation of white tears for ‘endangered species’ privileges certain relationships and futures over others. Indeed, while it is common for conservation organisations to promote the protection of animals that white tourists find ‘majestic’ or scientifically fascinating, it is much rarer to see global campaigns to protect life forms that primarily enable Indigenous food sovereignty. For instance the decimation of the buffalo on the great plains of Turtle Island  is not often held up as an example of extinction, nor are the buffalo prioritized as images of the urgency of conservation. This is almost certainly because this attempted buffalo genocide was integral to the foundation of settler colonial states of Canada and the United States, and does not fit within the passive, non-violent, ‘natural’ notion of extinction upon which global conservation focuses. More to the point, the buffalo are integral to Indigenous futures on Turtle Island, but not to white imaginaries of how this land should be occupied. This helps to explain why there is relatively little grieving for them, or demands for Screen Shot 2017-12-14 at 16.34.45their urgent return, amongst the settlers of Turtle Island.

Moves to innocence, or, crying away complicity.

White tears for ‘endangered’ or ‘extinct’ life forms help to gloss over one’s complicity in the structures of destruction. As mentioned above, focusing attention on spectacular crises that affect the world’s privileged helps to distract it from the formations of everyday, cross-cutting violence – land-based, gendered, racializing and more – of which ‘crises’ are one aspect. This is one of the reasons why ‘extinction’ is so rarely understood as a manifestation of violence. Failure to recognize the nature of the oppressive relations that drive extinction precludes meaningful responses to it. In short, performing grief for beings with whom we do not have intimate relationships – either out of guilt and shame or fear of ‘loss’ – is unlikely to translate into concerted action to dismantle the systems that drive the violence in question. Instead, it enables white and other privileged people to feel that we have cared, or responded, without having to make substantial changes to our own conditions or lives.

This dynamic can be observed in the environmentalism of the rich, a system in which guilt can be translated into financial support for projects that ultimately confirm and bolster existing political economic structures. This is the case, for instance, when oil companies fund scholarships to support environmental research, or when multi-national corporations participate in corporate social responsibility measures that slightly moderate their ecological impact. It is also reflected in more seemingly grassroots initiatives. Widespread strategies such as ‘raising awareness’ and ‘building community’ to support conservation projects hide an important fact: these strategies are undertaken almost exclusively on our terms. We decide how much money or labour to give, which life forms we deem crucial, what means will be used to ‘protect them’, and what means will be used to constrain others’ interactions with them. This is another way of securing futures designed for us, rather than working against the structures that preclude the futures of others.


White tears should not be confused with mourning: the tender, brutal, intimate and collective work of remaking worlds that have been ruptured by the death or destruction of cherished relations. The settler scholar Deborah Bird Rose, collaborating with the Yarralin community in what is known as the Northern Territory of Australia, shows that mourning is a profound form of work carried out in order to “turn death back into life”. Within this world, life and death are braided and must be re-joined in order to ensure their ongoingness. Through mourning, grief is embodied in ways that make and sustain shared worlds in the absence of the beloved. For this reason, it is carried out by those who are co-constituted by their relations with the grieved. It is literally a way of renewing those relations – even with beings that Western science considers to be long-extinct, such as sabre-toothed tigers or plesiosaurs to ensure the continuity of worlds.

Although it may involve crying, including ceremonial forms of keening, mourning cannot be reduced to the physical release of grief. According to the laws and protocols of each community, it may entail exhausting ceremonial labour, such as prayer, feasting or fasting, the performance of Ancestral songs or dances, journeys, preparation and care for the remains, and efforts to ensure the safe passage of the dead to another world. Mourning may also involve efforts to heal those surviving relations deeply hurt by their loss. For instance, Haudenosaunee communities (on whose lands I live and work) engage in condolence ceremonies in order to heal the community from the loss of loved ones and leaders. A ‘big’ condolence ceremony involves three steps: Journeying on the Trail, which recalls the installation of the original 50 Chiefs; Welcome at the Woods Edge, which prepares those who are lost (in this case, bereaved) for their return to the longhouse community; and the requickening address, in which the 15 sympathy strings of the wampum belt are offered to the grieving family in order to relieve their pain and clear their minds. The entire ceremony can take six to eight hours to perform and may be spread across two days.

These forms of mourning are specific: they express and affirm particular forms of spiritual, political and social order, upholding the laws and protocols through which humans and other beings co-constitute one another. They are oriented towards (re-)building unique relationships, and so they cannot be performed by just anyone – they are carried out by the bereaved, the kin of the deceased. What’s more, they are not performed in the abstract, for categories such as ‘species’, but rather for particular beings and the worlds they make possible. Indeed, mourning is about loss, but it is also future-oriented, promoting healing and the continuity of worlds ruptured by loss or violence.

Clearly, it is not possible for many of those who shed white tears for the ‘endangered’ or ‘extinct’ to take part in mourning – they simply do not have the necessary relationships, Ancestral knowledge or authority to participate in this work. To attempt to do so without explicit invitation by the communities affected would be highly inappropriate and damaging.

None of this means that white and other privileged people should not experience or express grief and other forms of distress when confronted by the destruction that our ways of life are driving. As Diangelo writes, “white people do [italics mine] need to feel grief about the brutality of white supremacy and our role in it. In fact, our numbness to the racial injustice that occurs on a daily basis is key to holding it in place. But our grief must lead to sustained liberatory action”. Indeed, how we choose to express and channel these emotions, and how we address the conditions that prompt them, matter greatly.

We can respond to our emotions (and begin to process them constructively) by asking ourselves a series of questions: who, and whose relations (human and otherwise), are being harmed? How can we support them, on their terms (even if this means staying out of it)? What structures, conditions and processes are enabling that harm? How, and in what ways are we involved and complicit in those structures? How, and in what ways can we identify, hold to account and, crucially, take concrete actions to dismantle these structures of harm? How, if appropriate, can we support and hold open more space, relieve excess labour, or transfer resources, to those who are carrying out the crucial work of mourning? This latter question does not suggest that those who are in a position to mourn should undertake this labour for us. Rather, it suggests that we put ourselves in service to those communities as part of our efforts to take responsibility for the structures of destruction that support our lives.In some circumstances, the work of mourning and resurgence may be supported directly through careful, respectful solidarity work carried out under the leadership of those directly affected, and only at their invitation. However, I believe that our more important role is in critiquing and weakening the structures that secure our existences at the expense of others – including colonialism, racism and extractive capitalism.

We can also direct this energy towards forming meaningful, direct relationships with, and assuming responsibility for the care of, the beings on whom our lives depend. Crucially, this will most likely involve learning to respect the laws, treaties and protocols – including those between Indigenous peoples and other life forms – that have created and sustained the land on which we are settlers, or at best guests. If we live on the land of our own ancestors (for instance, in Europe), this approach may involve working to revive land-based ways of living, including small-scale agriculture.

What matters, I think, is taking concrete responsibility not only for the violences in which we are complicit, but also for the other beings who make our lives possible. This can only happen when we form, or recognize, strong relationships and kinship bonds, ones on whom our lives and existences depend, whom we are willing to care, sacrifice and suffer for – and whom we are thus able to mourn when they die.



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