Slow violence on indigenous ground (and the paradox of struggle): Paige Raibmon, ‘Obvious but Invisible: Ways of Knowing Health, Environment, and Colonialism in a West Coast Indigenous Community’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 60, 2, 2018, pp. 241-273

04Apr18

Abstract: This paper interrogates the specific workings and stakes of slow violence on Indigenous ground. It argues that despite similarities with other environmental justice struggles, Indigenous ones are fundamentally distinct because of Indigenous peoples’ unique relationship to the polluted or damaged entity, to the state, and to capital. It draws from Indigenous studies, history, anthropology, geography, sensory studies, and STS, to present results from research with the Mowachaht Muchalaht First Nation, an Indigenous people on the west coast of British Columbia. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, this community used successive strategies to try to render its knowledge about health, environment, and authority visible to the settler state. Each strategy entailed particular configurations of risk, perceptibility, and uncertainty; each involved translation between epistemologies; and each implicated a distinct subject position for Indigenous peoples vis-à-vis the state. The community’s initial anti-colonial, environmental justice campaign attempted to translate local, Indigenous ways of knowing into the epistemologies of environmental science and public health. After this strategy failed, community leaders launched another that leveraged the state’s legal epistemology. This second strategy shifted the balance of risk and uncertainty such that state actors felt compelled to act. The community achieved victory, but at a price. Where the first strategy positioned the community as a self-determined, sovereign actor; the second positioned it as a ward of the state. This outcome illustrates the costs that modern states extract from Indigenous peoples who seek remedial action, and more generally, the mechanisms through which the colonial present is (re)produced.



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