Indigenous resistance to extractivism and academic allyship: Interview with Sakshi Aravind @sakshiaravind

Sakshi Aravind

Sakshi Aravind is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, working on Indigenous Environmental Justice in Australia, Brazil, and Canada. Previously, she graduated from the University of Oxford, where she studied for the Bachelor of Civil Law (2014-15), specialising in criminal law and evidence. Her research areas include legal and indigenous geographies, comparative environmental law, multispecies justice, and political ecology. Recently she kindly answers some thorny questions from the journal’s social media editor Marc Hudson, on indigenous resistance to extractivism, citational erasure and Marxism (for another interview about indigenous perspectives and academic work see Dr Christine Winter on indigenous perspectives on intergenerational justice).

Who are you, how did you become interested in questions of the “how” of Indigenous resistance to extractivism and the thorny question of allyship/scholarly work on Indigenous resistance?

Well, I think it is the very question of ‘who I am’ in the spaces of Indigenous environmental movements and sovereignty struggle that brought me here! A descriptive answer here would be, I am a lawyer. I am close to finishing my doctoral work, a comparative study of Indigenous environmental litigation in Australia, Brazil, and Canada. During my doctoral work, I had to look at a limited question of environmental litigation pursued by Indigenous communities in the three countries and what implications they may have for framing the idea of Indigenous environmental justice as a legal principle. It seemed like a fairly straightforward doctrinal work at the beginning of the thesis.

However, soon, I realised how important it was for my research questions to be self-reflexive and contemplate the broader nature of settler law and settler courts. For instance, answering questions such as – why should Indigenous environmental justice be a legal principle? How will the environmental jurisprudence transform the future course of Indigenous environmental litigation? How are the legal actors situated in relation to each other, as they relate to settler colonialism, extractive capitalism, and the State – became important. There were often too many confounding questions punctuating the research process. A more complex one amongst those was “what am I doing here?” I had to answer if my role was to be just another researcher, answering the questions I have framed without immersing myself in the legal and moral complexities of the issue, or if it were to ask more questions and disrupt everything. 

These three years have been a momentous journey in learning the wherewithal of environmental movements led by First Nations and understanding where settler courts sit in this process. Each time I thought I had my points of investigation ready, I realised that even within a narrow framing, the recurring questions of who speaks, whose voice is represented, and who articulates the notions of justice were unavoidable. At least for my own sake, I had to restructure the doctoral work into a research concerned with Indigenous environmental justice as a conduit. Something that will be central to understanding and resisting contemporary settler institutions, knowledge forms, ontologies, or whatever form settler colonialism may assume. While my objective is, like any other grad student, to finish my PhD before the funding runs out, there is a more fruitful way of thinking about my work. It is to point out how much each of us has to learn about Indigenous sovereignty and land struggle in order to contribute meaningfully towards articulating justice in our disciplinary fields. 

“Each time I thought I had my points of investigation ready, I realised that even within a narrow framing, the recurring questions of who speaks, whose voice is represented, and who articulates the notions of justice were unavoidable.”

Law has a startling problem in perceiving the complexity of Indigenous environmental litigation. First Nations challenging a mining or logging project has never been a simple environmental question. It is a categorical invitation to fight against the extractive nature of both the economy and colonialism. Such litigation often infuses a straightforward issue of environmental harms with greater moral complexity, bringing forth Indigenous sovereign relations with the land, Indigenous knowledge forms, more-than-human relationships, among other things. If institutions and legal actors pay attention, these litigations provide a chance to reconstruct the settler laws and courts in the new light of Indigenous environmental justice.

Nevertheless, we often see courts presuming there is already an answer in existing laws and processes to address Indigenous concerns without really paying attention to the novelty of either the claims or the solutions. So, while wondering what I could do better (even if it is not palatable to legal theorists or jurists), I realised I might use doctrinal methods for my research, but I cannot think just within existing canons, legal or otherwise. My research and the knowledge I produce had to be allies to Indigenous scholarship and struggle as much as I would be as a human being! Broadly, that is where legal theory and jurisprudence must be headed – to recognise and amplify Indigenous voice when people placed in a position of epistemic privilege find themselves with an opportunity to do so. So, the answer to your first question is bound to be long because I think the answer is complex and ever-evolving.

Your article about Andreas Malm’s “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” points to a kind of citational erasure – “there is something terrifying about the citational practice, which fondly studies immaculate theories of white men, but describes the resistance to Dakota Access Pipeline through scattered news reports (again, no reference to long-standing Indigenous struggle against extractive capitalism that precedes even the pipeline).” What are some of the works you think scholars – and especially white scholars – need to not just cite, but actually read and absorb – before they engage in this field?

I must admit that here I have to speak from whatever I have learnt in my fledgling career in environmental law. I also learnt it the hard way! To understand race, colonialism, resistance, decolonisation, there have always been non-negotiables like Fanon, Said, Spivak, Patricia Collins, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Mbembe, Césaire, Cabral and others that most of us end up reading. In this process, we must push the boundaries of non-negotiables to capture Indigenous scholarship that has engaged with race, colonialism, dispossession, erasure, memory, indigeneity on its terms. We need to do broadly two things in terms of categorisation – one, those we should read in order to have robust theoretical foundations. This would include a wide range of academic scholarship that interrogates settler colonialism, race, environment, capitalism, extractivism, et al. It would also provide you with well-developed frameworks for indigeneity, place relations, Indigenous knowledge forms, cosmologies, amongst others, in a language familiar to those in academe. I was coming at this from law, courts, environment, and indigeneity specific to Australia, Brazil, and Canada. Therefore, I owe much to (not necessarily in any order): Kim TallBear, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Chris Andersen, Glen Coulthard, Leanne Simpson, Audra Simpson, Alice Te Punga Somerville, Kyle Whyte, Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Eve Tuck, Zoe Todd, K. Wayne Yang, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Isabel Altamirano-Jiménez, Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Deborah McGregor, Martin Nakata, Jodi Byrd, Irene Watson, Brendan Hokowhitu and so on!

This is where the second category kicks in – the voices of non-academics, such as Indigenous elders, activists, artists, writers, storytellers and all else! I think the transformative and disruptive potential of these voices have been seriously underutilised (or even unrecognised) in our academic work. If decoloniality must achieve what Walter Mignolo calls ‘epistemic reconstitution’, we must first reconstitute our ideas of a valuable source and what must be a starting point for knowledge production. Ellen Gabriel (Katsi’tsakwas), a Kanien’kehá:ka Mohawk activist, recently spoke about her experiences at the frontlines of 1990 Kanehsatake resistance and other contemporary First Nations’ resistance. Gabriel terms the main responsibility at the frontline i.e., ‘the place of seize’ in her words, is to listen – to the elders and the fellow First Nations’ activists – who experience the violence of the settler state and extractive capitalism on the land and their bodies. There is a quality to this narrative that is unlike any other scholarship we have known. In a way, we have to treat academe as a ‘place of seize’, where listening to Indigenous cosmologies, land, environmental and more-than-human relationships is our foremost task. To break the seize, we need different and newer tools, languages, and a whole apparatus of resistance and relationality, which can emerge more powerfully from other than ‘academic sources’. You will have to search for the voices in your field. However, for me, those who can provide this apparatus have been Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, Daniel Munduruku, Ailton Krenak, Raoni Metuktire, Chico Mendez, Vincent Lingiari, Uncle Kevin Buzzacott, Aunty Mathilda House and all other Elders whom I have met along the way.

You write – “Environmental movements are about justice – they must directly address climate and Indigenous environmental justice. Even settler courts are beginning to understand the primacy of Indigenous voices in environmental protection. It would be unfortunate if those who use Marx prolifically fail to see this elementary point.”  What would you say to someone who said “well, that blind spot is baked into Marxism, which after all has a focus on the redemptive/transformational power of technology/industrialisation to ‘lift the masses”out of ‘the idiocy of rural life’- Marxism is just one of the master’s tools which cannot dismantle the Master’s house” – would you agree, would you defend Marxism as a tool that just needs some minor/major tweaks, or take another position?

Frankly, there are so many Marxes because of his interlocutors! Some have called it Marx 2.0., 3.0 et al. You can number him, accessorise him whichever way, but all we need is to admit that Marx has made the meticulous and the most protean contribution to understanding the economic and social ordering of our worlds. I would defend Marx to the end of the world because the old man was hardworking, thorough, and always learning. In Capital alone, from understanding the organisation of modern factories to steam engines, water power, locomotives, extraction, imperialism, exploitation, and the human lives behind all of these, Marx worked through every intricate detail of past and present societies to understand the contemporary political and economic apparatus. We must also understand, Marx could only work with the primary materials he had (or he could access!) at that time. Marx did not know of Indigenous cosmologies, and he did not read Indigenous scholars. He certainly did not think there would be Indigenous scholarship that would engage with issues within and beyond settler colonialism. So, my quarrel would not be with him. The problem would be with later Marxists, who benefit from greater insights and materials to understand capitalism, colonialism, and the law but choose to ignore them. It is a relief that while moving away from reductive understanding of Marx’s theories, a significant number of his interlocutors have already taken up the task of reading Marx through renewed understanding of political economy of the global south, race, imperialism, gender, amongst others. Marx threw us a lifeline, and we cannot insist on being dead. We cannot hope to find every answer within the body of Marx’s collected works. Silvia Federici did this in terms of gender, labour, patriarchy, and social reproduction long ago. We are responsible for building on theories, understanding why land embodies more than property relations, and why sovereignty is complicated many times over with respect to First Nations. 

An important starting point would be to start learning from Indigenous movements in the late capitalism, examining how they fight for justice and recognition against the State while at the same time engaging and negotiating with it productively. The matter of Indigenous ‘voice’ being heard is not important only with respect to the law, the State and the liberal constitutions. It is also critical for reassessing and reconstructing theories. Marxism will not be an exception. If Marx had lived for a hundred years longer, he would have done all this homework himself. He probably would have given a flawless, polished understanding of eco-socialism and the means to save the world. Every time I pick up a new book on Marxist ecology and look at an acknowledgement page that is glaringly white and tediously repetitive, I wonder why this blindness continues to haunt us.       

Some of us from the Global South have engaged with Indigenous resistance, solidarity, revolution, labour, exploitation and the whole lot through the writings of those who wrote and theorised as rigorously as Marx. Most of these are in regional languages and have never even been translated! We read people who were at the frontlines of anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, and agrarian movements. Whether we do this in our formative years or later on, it only helps us see things differently. While there is much usefulness in reading Marx until the spines of all volumes of Capital are broken, each one of us must be careful about our blinds spots that we may have inherited from our privileges. The blindness in academic spaces will not handicap those who possess it but only those that bear the enduring consequences of whiteness – the Black, Indigenous bodies. This blindness can influence the exegeses of texts and theories. We always need to ask what or who does a theory serve (owe my thoughts to Aimé Césaire here). Only then we can bring dynamism and justice into the things we write. Marxism now is not merely about understanding economic, or even social, relationships. All of us must work towards defining and achieving justice in variegated ways. I feel things will fall in place if our collective and individual aim is less about producing theories but more about blurring the boundaries between theory and praxis (likewise, between academia and activism!).

What next? What are the big puzzles and debates in this that are yet to be resolved/engaged in? What aren’t scholars doing that they should be doing?

Tough question! Intuitively, I want to say, ‘I don’t know, I am learning!’. Nevertheless, that may just be the right answer. With the decolonisation movement now finding its feet, I think some of us are thinking about decoloniality, Indigenous sovereignty movements, land back and other key issues of our times. It is certainly not happening at a scale that one would wish to see, especially when talking about planetary collapse and ecological crises. There is a need to channel this sense of urgency from conversations around climate emergency to a more constructive conversation around what Kyle Whyte calls ‘epistemologies of coordination’. Whyte asks us to understand and focus on kinship relationships (which is central to Indigenous cosmologies) that have been displaced, erased, unsettled due to colonialism and capitalism. Resurrecting or reinvigorating them must be our central project. I just finished reading Bikrum Gill’s paper (A world in reverse: The political ecology of racial capitalism) as I was answering these questions. Gill draws our attention to the fact that restoring the earth-worldly abilities of Black/Indigenous peoples and recognising their sovereignty over land and nature would be a critical act towards addressing the exhaustion caused by the latter’s erasure (p.14). This is not a conversation one can have just on a planetary scale. Each of us must look at it in epistemic terms within our discipline and start thinking of ways to fix it.  

It is easy to write this here, and people who have thought on similar lines and agree with these propositions will read and understand it. However, to make a substantive change in the world we live in (or just academia!), we need to go back to learning and rethinking the process of knowledge production. This would also help configure where we stand with social movements or how we must stand with them. To relinquish our assumptions, biases, and privileges is not easy. To do that, while thinking about justice and working towards it, takes a lot of hard work. Perhaps, that is the reason why we do not see more people treading this path. If only we can start thinking about justice as our individual responsibility as much as it is a collective one, and our research and writing’s sole objective is to bring a transformation in places of seize, exploitation, and dispossession, that is a good beginning. 

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