This second instalment of a 2+ part post is adapted from a presentation at the 2018 Cultures of Energy Symposium at Rice University. Many thanks to everyone who responded to my call for entries into the Indigenous Studies Glossary. Gunalchéesh also to Kristen Simmons and Teresa Montoya for thinking with me for this panel, for your brilliant anger and scholarly generosity and continuing support.
Toxicity is violence.
The etymology of the word “toxic” comes from the greek word for bow and arrow, to the word for arrow poison. I don’t often turn to etymology for meaning, but I think it is worth keeping in mind the direction and agency and intentionality of the poisoned arrow in discussions of toxicity. So often, we speak about the toxic as something already-there, a latent substance in the environment or in our food or in our bodies. I want to trace the poison back to the flight path of the arrow, to the archer. I want to remember that he aimed to kill us when he raised his bow.
Toxicity refers to the capacity of a substance to harm or debilitate or kill an organism. Another word for toxicity is “poison,” but this is not how industry likes to talk about toxicity, perhaps because “poison” is a verb.
My work is with and for Indigenous land defense. Currently, the most vicious attacks on our territories, the biggest threats to our lives and futures and lands, come from resource extraction. Our opposition to oil and gas and mining is twofold:
- to prevent the (further) toxic contamination of our land, water, and air in light of the toxic effects of mine tailings spills, pipeline breaks, and air-borne poisons
- to re-occupy our territories to assert Indigenous sovereignty and to protect these territories for Indigenous use, including hunting, fishing, trapping, medicine gathering, and ceremony.
The more toxic our territories become, the harder it is to live on them. When we can’t hunt or fish or gather medicines, how will we fulfill our responsibilities as Indigenous peoples? Toxicity harms us as individual bodies, and also as social and cultural bodies. It threatens our existence as peoples.
Toxicity is violence. More specifically, it is settler colonial violence. Toxicity and the invasive infrastructures it spills from separate us from the land by damaging our relations to it. If our lands are toxic, the more we engage in our cultural practices, the more we risk harming our bodies. Toxicity turns our relations against us. It kills us through connection. It eliminates us as Indigenous peoples by making Indigenous practices dangerous. Don’t eat the fish, don’t drink the water, don’t gather the berries. It does the work of settler colonialism by destroying to replace. Our ways of sustaining ourselves, our local economies, our food provision, our medicine, are cleared for the expansion of an economy based primarily on oil and gas. Here, the pipeline spills and toxic emissions, while perhaps “accidents,” are not without direction or intent. Trace the poison arrow back through its flight path, to the archer. Who is holding the bow?
Chemical toxicity harms us through contact. Our intimacy with the land and water and air and other-than-human relations means we ingest the poison. It is absorbed through our porous skin. We breathe it in.
Settler toxicity and toxic masculinity also operate through intimacy. Regimes of property ownership that naturalize the theft of Indigenous land take form in settler men. The cowboy. The pipeline man camps. The john. It is no wonder that the rates of sexual violence against Indigenous women and girls increase at the frontiers of oil and gas expansion. Settler toxicity harms us through contact. Our intimacies turn dangerous.
While chemical toxicities from resource extraction and industrial and military development cause slow death for Indigenous peoples, either through the illnesses produced by environmental destruction or the generational elimination of Indigenous ways of life, toxic settler masculinities have already fully infected settler state governance and law. As Indigenous feminist scholars (Joanne Barker, Jennifer Denetdale, Mishuana Goeman, J. Kehaulani Kauanui, Audra Simpson, Leanne Simpson, to name only a few) have pointed out, the sexualisation and sexual exploitation of Indigenous women served/ serves to destabilize Indigenous political orders by removing women and two-spirit people from the realm of decision makers and leaders. Reduced to property through heterosexual marriage, removed from leadership by the imposition of patriarchal settler governance structures, pacified through the threat of violence, Indigenous women and two-spirit people are transformed into white possessions, much like the land itself. Toxic settler masculinities harm our bodies, and (as L. Simpson points out), target the reproductive potential of autonomous Indigenous nations. They target the existence of alternatives to heteropatriarchal white possession. Our intimacies are regulated. Our relations are a technology of control.
Meanwhile, the murderous violence of white men is excused and legitimized by the state, affirming settler control over indigenous land (as property) and Indigenous women (as property). As I prepared this piece, two landmark cases went to trial. In each, a white man was acquitted after killing an Indigenous person. I’m going to briefly describe the two cases, here. I focus on the toxic settler masculinity that permeates these decisions, and not on the spectacle of Indigenous suffering they caused. I focus on the violent men. I’m going to hold the names of the Indigenous victims until the end of this article, because I believe they deserve to be held apart from anecdote and the analysis of their killers.
Toxic settler masculinity 1: white men and defense of property
On August 9, 2016, Gerald Stanley shot and killed a young Cree man. The young man was sitting in a car that his friends had driven onto Gerald Stanley’s farm in rural Saskatchewan. The driver and other passengers had exited the car. Stanley claims they were attempting to steal his property. He approached the car with a handgun, fired several shots in the air, and then shot the young man in the head at point-blank range. He claimed the gun misfired—forensics experts found no evidence of this. When the young man’s girlfriend, distraught, ran up to Gerald Stanley’s wife asking why he had killed her boyfriend, she replied “that’s what you get for trespassing.” The public debate following the murder exposed a widespread sentiment among white settlers in Saskatchewan that Stanley was justified in the murder of an Indigenous man in order to protect his property/ because the man was “trespassing.” It is worth noting that this “trespassing” happened on Treaty 6 Cree territory, territory that can only be considered “private” after the signing of Treaty 6 under conditions of forced starvation, the confining of Indigenous peoples to reservations, and the sale of Indian land to pioneers. Stanley continues the pioneer mentality by protecting his “property” against the perceived threat of Indigenous attack. On February 9, an all-white jury acquitted Gerald Stanley of all charges. There will be no appeal. He murdered an Indigenous man to protect property stolen from Indigenous people, and the courts found him not guilty. He walked.
Toxic settler masculinity 2: white men and sexual violence
On August 17, 2014, police pulled the body of a 15 year-old Indigenous girl from Winnipeg’s Red River. She had been wrapped in a duvet and weighed down with rocks. Raymond Cormier was charged with second-degree murder. In secretly recorded conversations, he admitted to wanting sexual relations with the teen. He admitted that she was killed because he “drew the line,” because he “found out she was 15 years old.” There was no forensic evidence or eyewitness testimony linking him to her death. On February 22, a jury found him not-guilty. He walked.
It is hard to convey the fury and grief that these two cases have caused north of the colonial border. The toxic settler masculinity has so fully permeated the Canadian legal system that it was legal for Gerald Stanley to shoot and kill an Indigenous man for trespassing, and the sexual abuse and murder of an Indigenous girl in Winnipeg is apparently nobody’s fault. Here, the violence of Indigenous death is recast as toxicity. It is removed from agency or intention.
Toxicity refers to the capacity of a substance to harm or debilitate or kill an organism. Another word for toxicity is “genocide” but this is not how the state likes to talk about toxicity, perhaps because “genocide” has perpetrators.
We can trace this violence back through the flight path of the arrow, to the archer. The poison on the arrow is a toxic settler masculinity that sees Indigenous land and Indigenous bodies as property. That sees white men as the natural owners, that deems them not-guilty for regrettable Indigenous death. That continues to push the frontier into Indigenous land and Indigenous bodies through extractive industry and the chemical toxicities that follow. Processing and removing these toxicities is work that often falls to Indigenous women. Our physical, mental, and emotional health strain with the labour of removing these toxins from our Indigenous communities. They manifest in violence against us. Indigenous women are the heart of our movements; they are also the liver. (more on the gendered work of *processing* to come in a later post)
I want to end by honouring the lives of Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine, young Indigenous peoples loved by friends and family. I want to hold up their families, who have not and will not find justice in this toxic settler colonial system, who deserve better than what this system can offer to Indigenous peoples. We will continue to fight against this violence, and to build alternatives. We owe it to you, and to all the young Indigenous people who deserve a future on their sovereign territories, a future free from chemical toxicity and sexual violence and colonial disease. A future free.
he shot colten
the jury says
that the land
is so fragile
that it must
at all costs
so you trade
for a casual
while he lies
I am building a place
where you will be safe
I started planning thinking building
but it was too late
too late for you
the white men too early
and we are too late
gather your rage
gather your sadness
wrap it in
your own sacred skin
we will waste
no more time
we have always been