COVID-19 Conversations with Dr. Kim TallBear and Dr. Jessica Kolopenuk
June 8, 2020
The SJRC has been conducting interviews with scholars and community members from our diverse network to try to understand and highlight some of the ways in which they are responding to COVID-19. Last week I had the opportunity to co-interview Dr. Kim TallBear and Dr. Jessica Kolopenuk, scholars and professors at the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta. They are the co-founders and principal investigators of Indigenous Science, Technology, and Society (STS), a research training program based out of the University of Alberta that seeks to “promote Indigenous self-determination” by supporting Indigenous led techno-scientific innovation and ways of inquiring and producing knowledge that support Native peoples and their communities (https://indigenoussts.com/). Among other things, we talked about what a “productive embrace of crisis” looks like, how Indigenous people are positioned well to embrace crisis in such a way, and how we might move forward and “live well together on stolen land” (TallBear & Kolopenuk, personal communication, 15 May 2020; unless otherwise noted, all quotes in this post come from this interview).
Dr. TallBear’s research focuses on the integral role that notions of race and Indigeneity have had in shaping genetic sciences, as well as the role of technoscience in both colonization and, increasingly, Indigenous governance. Her book, Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science (2013) looks at how genetic sciences that purport to be able to genetically identify races may pose threat to Native American sovereignty and claims to land, resources, and their own history. She also writes and speaks widely on decolonial sexuality, and co-produces a project called “Tipi Confessions”, which is described on their website as a “performance laboratory” that incorporates spoken word, storytelling, music, burlesque, erotic fiction, and more into shows about gender, sex, and sexuality informed by decolonial and critical sexuality studies (http://tipiconfessions.com/). Dr. Jessica Kolopenuk’s research also centers around Indigenous people and genetic sciences, focusing on how 21st century biotechnologies are still steeped in the same, unequal colonial power dynamics that define our current political, scientific, legal, and social orders. The core of her work is Indigenous self-determination, which she seeks to foster through Indigenous STS as well as her own research (https://indigenoussts.com/principal-investigator/co-pi-dr-jessica-kolopenuk/).
When asked about the role of Indigenous STS in the context of this pandemic, Dr. TallBear noted that Indigenous people are situated in such a way that engenders a particular “productive embrace of crisis”. Dr. TallBear noted that there has been less lamentation of what is happening in the Faculty of Native Studies as compared to the rest of campus. She says, “We are spending less time lamenting the old world. We’ve been lamenting our old world for hundreds of years, this is just another major transition.” Both Dr. TallBear and Dr. Kolopenuk attributed this to the fact that, as Indigenous people, they are used to crisis: “I don’t mean to be cliché, but I think it’s true, Indigenous peoples often come from communities and families that are living in crisis half the time. This is just another crisis, it’s a big crisis, and it hurts, it’s not like it doesn’t hurt our communities, but my mom once said to me, Native people are best in crisis, we just start organizing.”
In this case, they are organizing with the Faculty of Native Studies and two other faculties on campus to create an online minicourse called “Indigenous Peoples and Pandemics” that will be open to the public this summer. Usually, Indigenous STS hosts a training internship program called SING Canada in the summer that is “designed to build Indigenous capacity and scientific literacy” (https://indigenoussts.com/sing-canada/). It is a “collaborative co-thinking project” designed to train indigenous genome scientists “in the service of Indigenous communities having governance and cultural authority over the kind of research that happens in their communities.” Because of COVID-19, this year’s SING Canada program was cancelled, and in its place the minicourse is being developed. The course will integrate public health, biology, epidemiology, history, sociology, and more for the purpose of understanding how pandemics have affected Indigenous communities throughout history and in this moment, emphasizing that “for Indigenous peoples, epidemics and pandemics have always been syndemic with colonialism and colonial settlement.” They hope to integrate it into a larger course that will be offered at University of Alberta next winter.
In her article “Caretaking Relations, Not American Dreaming” (2019) published last spring, Dr. TallBear cites “making kin” as a potential “creative alternative to nationalist assertions of inherent sovereignty” and to narratives of progress toward a “multicultural” future that neglects Indigenous people and histories of dispossession all together (TallBear, 2019). During our conversation, I asked what “making kin” might look like generally and in the context of COVID-19. Dr. Kolopenuk, who is Cree, Peguis First Nation, commented that the history of her people is deeply intertwined with the history of Scottish settlers, who they sided with over the Métis people. Because of this, “making kin with settlers” has always felt normal to her. Dr. TallBear’s experience, as an enrolled member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, and having been raised on the Flandreau Santee Sioux reservation in South Dakota by her mother and grandmothers, was different. She was “uncomfortable” at first when she moved to Canada and found that the history of Indigenous/settler relations was seen as a history of kin to kin, in addition to a history of treaties between sovereigns. She soon realized, however, that regarding treaties as a “desire to draw people into kinship relations” might be the “only way to live well together on stolen land,”
One of the ways to achieve this is through language revitalization. As Dr. TallBear noted, “It is hard for us to think about better ways of living together in a language that is so incredibly violent…so built around binaries and moral absolutes.” Dr. Kolopenuk gave the example of learning what the word for newcomer or foreigner is in the Indigenous language of the territory you are occupying, and figuring out what kinds of relations you are drawn into with that understanding. For example, the Tsimshian people of the pacific northwest coast’s word for strangers translates to “driftwood.” What role does driftwood serve in this particular area? How can understanding this help us to understand how we can embody our roles with grace and consideration for the people who were here before us, and who remain? Dr. Kolopenuk stressed that making kin is not about disavowing settlers and the US settler nation state of our history of genocide and land theft. It is not about charity, or the “strategic operationalization of virtue.” Rather, it is about challenging ourselves to imagine and develop ways of relating and coexisting that culminate in greater respect for and commitment to the land and First Nations.
We also talked about how we can apply this tactic of making kin in acknowledging our relations to the more than human, such as the virus, SARS-CoV-2, that causes COVID-19. Rather than using the dominant war metaphor to talk about SARS-CoV-2 as a foreign enemy we must beat, how can we recognize it as a being with whom we have co-evolved, or with whom our relatives (bats and other animals) have co-evolved? What implications does this have for shifting our responses? Dr. Kolopenuk made the point that the history of our evolution has been a history of relations, of “evolving with viruses and bacteria” and that often “one often can’t live without the other.” How can we shift the focus away from the virus as the source of pathology towards the conditions created by industrial capitalism, as an arm of the settler state, that have rendered us vulnerable to the spread of zoonotic disease in the first place? A vaccine will do no good if we don’t also take seriously the role of deforestation, industrial meat farming and agriculture, and more in boosting our vulnerability to a virus like SARS-CoV-2. Another virus will just appear. After all, there will be no ‘end’ to the COVID-19 pandemic, the virus will stay with us just as most viruses do. We must challenge ourselves instead to find ways of “living with the virus” that include reframing our relations to each other, the land, and to other beings.
TallBear, Kim. (2019) “Caretaking Relations, Not American Dreaming” Kalfou. 6:1
Re-Worlding in the time of COVID with Mesiah and Little Wind
May 13, 2020
At this point, it is clear that COVID-19 is changing our world forever. Headlines from almost every major media outlet tell us how the future of travel, education, fine dining, work spaces and more will look entirely different. Images of glass dining pods and social distance playground games overwhelm our imaginaries of how things could soon be. However, at the edge of this precipice, we must be careful of what kind of world we collectively envision and work towards. How can we avoid reproducing and reinscribing the same harmful systems and relations that rendered our world particularly vulnerable to a pandemic of this nature, and to the disproportionate effects it is having? As Naomi Klein has shown us, “in times of crisis, seemingly impossible ideas become possible” (Klein, Democracy Now, March 19 2020).
How can we go beyond focusing on glass dining pods and social distancing methods for cubicles, towards more capacious conversations about the nature of our global situation and how we got here? Is it possible to imagine and fight for a world where relations of care are central, and all lives are equally valued? Can this world exist in the context of the persistent colonial power relations, racialized hierarchies, and massive wealth inequality that characterize our current situation? Thinking about the so-called United States specifically, my work centers the importance of decolonization, as action not metaphor, as it is grounded in mutual aid organizing and long term visions of BIPOC (Black/Indigenous/ People of Color) organizers (Tuck & Yang, 2012). I believe that an equitable, liveable world is not possible within the context of a settler colonial nation state where racist vigilantes are able to murder black men for running, and Mashpee Wampanoag reservation land is able to be revoked in the midst of a pandemic. We must decolonize. Because of this, I am choosing to center the work of individuals who are doing community centered, frontline organizing with a goal of “healing the land and healing ourselves” (Mesiah, personal communication, May 4 2020)
This week, I am focusing on the work of Mesiah, 24, and Little Wind, 23, two Indigenous youths who are engaged in a vital project of providing COVID-19 crisis relief to hundreds of families on Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, all the while keeping their eyes strongly fixed on the horizon. As Mesiah noted in our conversation, COVID-19 felt like a door opening into a space where they could “implement some of their greatest ideas” to liberate their community from structures that were never built to support them (Mesiah, personal communication May 3 2020). Their work is connected to the broader legacy of mutual aid in BIPOC lifeways prior to capitalism and colonialism, and in struggles for life and liberation under the eventual racialized, colonial, capitalist world order. As Regan De Loggans writes in a zine titled “Let’s Talk Mutual Aid” this legacy is one of “Indigenous lifeways and sovereignty, Black thrivance and power” (De Loggans, 2020). Mutual aid is a long term commitment to the safety and viability of the community beyond the crisis of COVID-19 and into the crisis of capitalism in the everyday.
Born and raised between the Bay Area and New York, Mesiah identifies as Afro-Indigenous and Two-Spirit. Little Wind is Northern Arapaho and was born and raised by their mother and grandmothers on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. After meeting at Standing Rock in 2016, they began organizing together and are now partners, leading this essential work while deeply rooted in love. The following is based on a lengthy conversation I had with them over zoom earlier this month, where we talked about their work right now and how it will extend into the visions of future sovereignty and sustainability they have for themselves and their community.
Little Wind and Mesiah began organizing in early March when they realized that many of the people on the reservation would not have the ability to shelter in place if asked to do so because of high levels of scarcity. In Little Wind’s words, they wanted to “show up big” for the grandmothers and grandbabies who were in imminent need (Little Wind, personal communication, May 3 2020). Aware that the situation at Wind River was unique, and that there was no information specifically curated for their community to understand their predicament, they took matters into their own hands and began developing a survey to assess the situation.
Beginning around March 22nd, they began distributing a survey which included questions about pre-existing health conditions, how much food and potable water was already in the home, what was needed and in what quantity, etc. The data they collected showed that almost 70% percent of households who filled out the survey have someone with a pre-existing health condition that renders them more vulnerable to contracting the virus. Little Wind emphasized that “these diseases were introduced to us,: and that their great great grandparents had not known conditions like kidney disease or cancer to such a degree (Little Wind, personal communication, May 3 2020). Their survey also included forward facing questions such as whether they have access to running water and land to plant food, or whether they would use seeds if provided. Their survey was intentionally modeled this way to collect data that had the longer term in mind. They immediately received a flood of responses and in the following weeks provided essential resources to 300 households, doing all of the shopping, sanitizing, sorting, and delivering. They fed around 2,600 people in total with stores to last a month.
Their plans to continue their work beyond this imminent crisis and towards tackling “the challenges that keep our people dependent on the system” include developing educational centers for youths on Wind River Reservation to learn about the extraction that is going on on their land, the conditions that have rendered them vulnerable to poverty and disease, and what they might be able to do about it. These spaces are not just to foster radical education, but also sustainable forms of support. They want to encourage a more radical vision of solidarity, one that does not assume that Indigenous communities can not and do not organize for themselves, but that asks academics and organizers to orient their work toward justice as articulated by Indigenous communities themselves, not the agenda of the academy or the left wing. They want to open a water center, and continue to fight against extraction that poisons the soil, so that they might be able to provide seeds to those wishing to grow food, and be free to care for the land and each other again. Linked below is their fundraiser, where I encourage anyone who can to donate and contribute to their efforts, both right now and in the long term.
De Loggans, Regan. “Let’s Talk Mutual Aid” Online Zine. Accessed May 2020. https://dochub.com/rloggans/jo3xELpR3ZO8yz8wJBa7nr/loggans-mutual-aid-zine-pdf?dt=Ls_myQXhz6RrrzS59DVW
Tuck, Eve. Yang, Wayne K. “Decolonization is not a metaphor” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, & Society. vol. 15, no. 1, 1996.