Climate Fictions / Indigenous Studies Conference, Cambridge 24-25 January 2020

Climate Fictions / Indigenous Studies Conference, Cambridge 24-25 January 2020

On 24-25 January 2020, the SouthHem team participated in the ‘Climate Fictions / Indigenous Studies’ conference, convened by organisers at the University of Cambridge and held at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities (CRASSH). With writers, artists, scholars, researchers, and activists hailing from around the world, the conference stimulated robust conversations on climate change as it is conceived by and within Indigenous literatures, and raised important questions that resonate beyond the field of Critical Indigenous Studies with relevance for Settler Colonial Studies regarding the methodologies for thinking through the complex cultural entanglements between Indigenous and settler cultures from the nineteenth century up to the present day.

The keynote was delivered by Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar, writer, and artist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson using contemporary revisions of traditional stories to critique a current within mainstream discourse which reads the climate crisis as a sudden, novel, apocalyptic event. Reading the persistence and success of Indigenous ‘world building’ against the violence of settler epistemologies based on logics of destruction and elimination, Simpson performed her talk through a delivery of four stories culminating in the eerily good stop-motion film Biidaaban, directed by Amanda Strong and based on writings by Simpson, which follows a queer Indigenous youth guided by an ancient trickster-figure as they navigate obstacles of contemporary urban culture in order to revive traditional maple sap collecting practices. Through framing and voice, Simpson performed her stories in ways that emboldened thematic aspects associated with practices of ritual intervention and revival of ceremonial practices. Many of these aspects—including consent, obligation, permission, being in right relation, and restraint—echo key axioms of Indigenous research methodologies.

The two roundtable sessions provoked thoughtful questions and discussion while consolidating many of the emergent themes that had been raised in the traditional paper panels. Roundtable A was initiated by Goorie poet, researcher, and educator Evelyn Araluen Corr, who opened by invoking Eve Tuck’s work on the principles of colonial inquiry as forms of invasion, and went on to describe how Aboriginal protest poetry, as a body of texts with a long textual history, resists critical tendencies to rigidly compartmentalise Indigenous writing. Michael Griffiths called upon Daniel Heath Justice’s idea of ‘Wonderworks’ to stage a debate on the historical novel versus the speculative novel. Textual interpretations proceeding from the concept of time as trans-temporal widen the range of possible readings and can expose, for example, colonial modernity’s dysfunctional adherence to linear time. What forms does knowledge take now? What does a critical Indigenous presence within different academic institutions look like? What different readings become possible when form is read as the modes of transmission which support survival?

Roundtable B, ‘Towards a Transnational Indigenous Imaginary’, continued conversations about the limitations and possibilities for using transnational methodologies in Indigenous studies. Wiradjuri writer and critic Jeanine Leane staunchly made the case that transnational conversations of trans-Indigeneity be Indigenous-led on trans-temporal time scales and challenged the notion of an ‘imaginary’ transnational Indigenous perspective, offering some suggestions from Indigenous schools about how non-Indigenous people can usefully contribute to analytical work in Indigenous studies. These suggestions included emphasising cumulative analyses (as opposed to speculative ones), using the term ‘First Nations Realisms’ (in favour of ‘Indigenous Futures’), shifting towards modes of reading that account not just for survivance but also for confidence and thriving co-existent with trauma that is not all-defining, and abstaining from creating hierarchies among Indigenous people.

Jonathan Dunk read William Charles Wentworth’s Australasia (1823) as a text in which the many terrors of settler colonialism were fused together, underscoring the continued importance of settler criticism to do the work of unsettling settler tropes of linear time, ownership of land, and the silent wilderness as standing for anything other than a screen signifier for colonial guilt and complexity. Pivoting with Alexis Wright’s words from ‘Politics of Writing’ (2002) that ‘All times are important to us. No times are ended and all worlds are possible’, Dunk centred work by Indigenous poets Barry Corr and Evelyn Araluen Corr to show how their writing positions the violence of settler culture as leading to climate change as ancestral retribution. David Stirrup spoke on the web of relations between Choctaw and Irish famine victims, describing a nuanced version of Irish resistance to/complicity with British colonial rule and the impact of this on the development of radical transnational solidarity movements.

Many other themes surfaced through the conference discussions including politics of citation, affective modes, and tensions between theory and practice. Protocol appeals for Indigenous writers, scholars, and critics to be cited first when doing Indigenous studies recognises a broad and practical value in promoting Indigenous work through and beyond academic indicators. In the mode of reconciliation, when using non-Indigenous theories to do work within Indigenous studies, it can be purposeful to underscore instances in which concepts have clearly been shaped by Indigenous epistemologies but citation of Indigenous sources is omitted. This may be relevant to, for example, those working with New Materialism and Object Oriented Ontology in ways that do not necessarily detract from the analytic power of these theories to effectively challenge settler colonial epistemologies.

Some participants noted the difficulty of the present-moment for the land rights movement as the world suffers the deficits of the planetary damages done by particular colonial settler structures which continue to prevent Indigenous people from doing traditional land-use practices on unceded land. While this moment may open up spaces for inventing new form of extinguishment alongside inventing new forms of creation, how can decolonising concepts like world-building, relationality, and kin-making maintain analytic power and resist co-option and being emptied of meaning and intent of thinking structural transformation? Is structural change possible in institutions premised on extraction and built on the creation of earth deficit? Why is so much of eco-poetics still overwhelmingly focused on ‘empty’ spaces and people-less landscapes? What texts and methods are helpful for bringing to the surface deeply internalised beliefs that have severely constrained the imagining of healthy relations between humans and land?

This conference featured some of the important and rigorous work being done in the area of rethinking current approaches to Indigenous studies as a field in its own right, and highlighted a range of implications and possibilities for how Settler Colonial Studies and Critical Indigenous Studies can be in productive dialogue with each other.

Dr. Megan Kuster

ERC Postdoctoral Fellow, SouthHem

Image: Tommy McRae and Mickey of Ulladulla, ‘Sketch of Squatters’, (1864), State Library of New South Wales (CC BY 4.0).

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