A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Gifts, Ancestors, and Relations: Notes Toward an Indigenous New Materialism

Jennifer Clary-Lemon, University of Waterloo[1]

(Published November 12, 2019)

“If we think of new materialism, then, not as ideational but as a specific material configuring of the stuff of the world, then we can propose that one of its boundary-making practices—its thingification—is colonialism and the Indigenous practices that colonialism says are not there but which it takes up (or takes) anyway. The act of refusing this indebtedness performs—makes—the very same Enlightenment discourses that new materialism insists must be transformed if the devastation wreaked on the West’s Others—‘human’ and ‘inhuman,’ the ‘zoe’ and the ‘geo’—is ever to cease.” (Ravenscroft 358)

Many in the field of rhetoric and composition are now doing the work of the “material turn,” whether in examining approaches to object-oriented first-year writing classes (see Hawk, Counter; Brown and Rivers), re-imagining paradigms for rhetorical (Mucklebauer) or compositional thought (see Hawk, Resounding), engaging with things and practices (see Barnett and Boyle), or learning about communication strategies from and with nonhuman animals (see Bjørkdahl and Parrish). Despite the contributions that such work makes to re-thinking rhetorical agency, ecologies, affect, and ethics (among many others), it is often situated in primarily Western philosophical worldviews to the complete ignorance (often best case) and willful negation (worst case) of the work of Indigenous thinkers and writers. Reading any number of recent compilations or articles on work that spans rhetoric and composition’s captivation with new materialist, posthuman, object-oriented, or affectual thought generates a list of the usual suspects on citation lists: Latour, Bogost, Harman, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Deleuze and Guattari. Perhaps, if we’re lucky, such a list might also include the work of feminist science studies: Haraway, Mol, Alaimo, Bennett, Barad, Ahmed, Braidotti, Tsing. Despite the small widening of the net in this cast of characters, the reach of influential thinkers in rhetoric and composition’s new material gaze has not, as of yet, reconciled that it chooses not to include the work of Indigenous scholars and writers in thinking through material epistemologies and ontologies. Rhetoric and composition is not alone in making these choices; such a critique has already been leveled in social anthropology (see Todd, Strang), geography (see Sundberg), and sociology (see Watts). While it might be said, for example, that “object-oriented criticism and  feminist theory are not easily compatible” (Bordwin 296),  I am less convinced that the same distinction might be made between rhetorical new material projects and Indigenous scholarship—certainly the work of Qwo-Li Driskill or Caroline Gottshalk-Druschke would push towards softening such a  division. In fact, given its situatedness as a site of dappled, interdisciplinary, and flexible inquiry, I’d like to think that rhetoric and composition is the field most able and skilled at imagining the kinds of work that might creatively inhabit these worlds together. These questions are coming slowly to the fore in our scholarly fora, whether in discussing the emergence of relationality as a primary paradigm in cultural rhetorics (Powell et al.) or, more pointedly by Kristin Arola’s question in her 2018 RSA talk: “is it an ethical obligation of OOO/PH/NM/AS [object-oriented ontology/post-humanism/new materialism/affect studies] to cite indigenous scholarship?”

As a scholar invested in and excited by new materialism, and one who has had a long-held interest in identity politics generally and discourses of racism and colonialism specifically—and most importantly, as a settler on indigenous lands—I have come too late to the question that Arola asks. But I am interested in doing better as a settler and a rhet/comp scholar to echo such a question, to make different choices myself in the future, to support scholarship that does the same, and to imagine what might be gained by rhetorical new materialism if we were to resist the reproduction of colonizing worldviews in our excitement and haste to embrace nonhuman agents and what they tell us about being, knowing, and persuading in the world. How might the material turn be enriched by the overt acknowledgement of Indigenous materialism, rather than surreptitious borrowing? Might such a conscious choice on the part of rhetorical scholars to recognize this indebtedness, as Ravenscroft’s epigraph suggests, make it possible for new material projects to be chosen in service of an anti-colonial agenda, and bring together relational worlds cast aside by (and critiqued mightily for) thingification?

I acknowledge the impossibility of a task that seeks to bring together what many will already assert as separate domains of inquiry—object-oriented ontology, new materialism, affect studies, and posthumanism each distinctly have their own domains, though as Arola (borrowing from Bozalek and Zemblyas) points out, they also have much that they share in common. There is also the well-seated critique that these domains are always already borrowing from Indigenous knowledges without attribution, something I do not wish to contribute to doing by forwarding this particular argument, which draws from many Indigenous scholars and writers, here. I also acknowledge the risk in furthering the idea that there is anything at all on the table to be bridged between OOO/NM/PH/AS and Indigenous ways of knowing: as Annette Watson and Orville Huntington note, the separation of Western and Indigenous knowledges themselves is a Western—and some would also say colonial—bifurcation. We might add to this the separation of nature and culture, or the kind of particular human embraced in posthumanism as, as Ravenscroft notes, a “Western liberal subject” (357). There is certainly much to critique here. Yet these critiques are not, in themselves, enough to dissuade me that there is something that we are all missing if we do not address it—much in the way that I believe we owe it to ourselves every time we elevate Heidegger in our theoretical wanderings that we also acknowledge the fact that he was a Nazi. There are reasons, in other words, that new materialists—especially those interested in rhetoric—examine the question of who we cite and why, examine the move to disassociate from cultural rhetorics and Indigenous knowledges, and move towards work that itself does better in the future.

In this paper, I forward ways of thinking through these divisions that help to attend to a decolonial politics[2] in rhetorical new material projects as a way in to addressing this particular gap. I acknowledge that each of these possibilities come themselves from Indigenous scholars and writers, and I am trying to 1) acknowledge my role as one that synthesizes an approach to these ideas as a settler on Indigenous lands; and 2) not underestimate, in forwarding generative models that seek some degree of reconciliation, the violence of colonial practices in contributing to Indigenous genocide. The first way of thinking through such division is the notion of re-casting our relationship with nonhumans as gifts, as forwarded by Potawatomi botanist and moss expert, Robin Kimmerer. The second, borrowing from Potawatomi philosopher Kyle Powys Whyte, is to think about how we might embrace a decolonizing ethic by claiming different ancestors. Finally, borrowing from Clare Brant, a Mohawk scholar, Margaret Kovach, a Plains Cree and Saulteaux scholar, and Gregory Younging, a Cree scholar, publisher, and author, I suggest that the notion of Indigenous protocol might help rhetorical scholars work to reframe allyship in terms of a difficult relationality.

To bring these voices together when each discusses something quite different in their research is admittedly an act of bringing into conversation interdisciplinary work in service of an Indigenous rhetorical sensibility: such a conversation brings together botany (Kimmerer), philosophy (Whyte), psychology (Brant), education (Kovach, Younging). Yet it is this work that must be done if we are to change the kind of rhetorical scholarship we do; as Dustin Edwards notes, when “we hear Donna Haraway say ‘it matters what stories we use to tell other stories with’ (12), we might also hear Cherokee scholar Thomas King say ‘you have to be careful with the stories you tell’” (10). We are always choosing who we work with, but increasingly—and particularly for rhetorical scholars of new materialism—we need to be clear about why we make the choices we do about who we draw from, and why.

Before I move too far into thinking about these possibilities, I first want to recognize that attempts to acknowledge Indigenous materialism as part of what makes up new materialist practices should not be seen as some kind of “discovery process,” or “new frontier” to be additionally colonized by non-Indigenous people, as Chief Robert Wavey notes of moves made by researchers in ecology, biology, environmental resource management, and anthropology (16). The attempt of such scholars to embrace, understand, or publish on Traditional Ecological Knowledge (often known as TEK), is seen by many as one that simply adopts Indigenous knowledge (often referred to as IK) for the benefit of non-indigenous people and results in the reification of colonial action. Instead, I turn to the idea of Indigenous knowledge, or Indigenous ways of knowing, as those dynamic ways of being in the world that come from Indigenous people, past and present. As Marlene Brant Castellano, Mohawk scholar and professor emeritus, notes of Indigenous knowledge, such ways of knowing are traditional (handed down through generations and memory),[3] (collected through first-hand observation and experiences over time) and revealed (through “dreams, visions, and intuitions,” among other things, and thought to be a gift) (23-4, emphasis added). It is important to note that a framework for understanding IK is not, as Deborah MacGregor points out, the same as knowledge acquisition, of having, knowing, or practicing IK. Critiques of how settlers co-opt Indigenous knowledge are rightfully those that take to task any uses of IK that continue to colonize it in ways that marginalize Indigenous people, and have led increasingly to the call by Indigenous leaders to protect Indigenous knowledge from being used for harm (see Battiste and Henderson).

While a general Euro-western understanding of Indigenous knowledge practices as those handed down from older generation to younger, or those gathered through observation echo many modes of Western education, what Western ways of knowing generally ignore (and perhaps why the material turn is emerging as it has) are that first, Indigenous knowledge “view[s] the people, the knowledge, and the land as a single, integrated whole” (McGregor 395), and that second, not all knowledge can be known from empirical observation. Settlers are coming to terms with Indigenous knowledge, whether they invoke the rejection of the Cartesian mind-body split or re-consider the chōra as a way to re-invent human placemaking to do so.

At this point, readers might be hearkening to the whisper of the ambient, to Thomas Rickert’s call that we “attend to memory, networks, technologies, intuitions, and environment” (67). Rhetoricians who study new materialism may or may be not be shocked to note that a holistic ontology and an emphasis on the non-rational, the embodied, the affective, or the power of things not only resonates with Indigenous knowledge, but it is emerging from it directly in non-attributed ways. As a move toward not only reconciliation but a better new (Indigenous) materialism, new materialist scholars would do well to hone their understanding of IK, not just to diversify their citation lists, but also to unseat the colonial attitude that to invoke Indigenous ways of knowing is to place Indigenous people within the realm of the past, the shamanistic, the mystical instead of the present, the political, the rhetorical, the material. Perhaps, in turning overtly towards, rather than away from, Indigenous thinkers and Indigenous ways of knowing, scholars might better align the material turn with the tenet of new materialism forwarded by Diana Coole and Samantha Frost: not only that we seek out projects that engage in the liveliness of matter or within the realm of bioethics, but also that we acknowledge that new materialism is an explicitly critical project, one overtly concerned with politics and social justice (30-32). In exploring conceptually the work of gifts, ancestors, and protocol, I argue that it is critical for rhetoric and compositionists to imagine the work of new (Indigenous) materialism as equally concerned with decolonization, not only to engage in more ethical and just scholarship, but to better address the knowledge problems of our time.

The Gift

While Western notions of gift-giving often focus on commodity exchange, by “gift” here I seek to instead engage with the idea of the gift forwarded by Robin Wall Kimmerer, who offers up a rethinking of the separation of worldviews between Western and Indigenous science.[4] It is this thematic—examining together Eurowestern models of science and Indigenous ways of knowing—that characterizes all of Kimmerer’s work. Whether she reflects on Western science and TEK both as “methods of reading the land” in which one has a singular focus on measurement where the other “brings together the seen and the unseen” (Tonino), blends Indigenous and Western scientific knowledge claims to come to conclusions about how best to restore sweetgrass in degraded natural habitats (Braiding),  or reasserts the importance of a “grammar of animacy” (“Speaking”), Kimmerer is grappling not only with humanness, non-humanness, and personhood, but also its close link to colonialism and loss. As Kimmerer describes learning the Potowatomi[5] language as an adult and how centrally it changed her notion of vitality, subjecthood, and objecthood, she reflects on her loss of language through her grandfather’s forced attendance at the Carlisle Indian School (“Speaking”). In doing so, she acknowledges how bound up colonization and linguistic imperialism are in constructing an understanding of nature as an object, which we already know to be problematically central to notions of Western science and the development of a relationship to nature as those “natural resources” fit only for human consumption. Kimmerer's ideas speak clearly to Rosi Braidotti’s re-examining of the human and posthuman: “the concept of human has always been associated with relations of power, of exclusion and inclusion,” says Braidotti. “It has never been a neutral or inclusive concept” (Andrés).

To read Indigenous scholars this way, in tandem with or in doing the work of new materialism (with or without the explicit branding) helps us build toward a re-thinking of our commonplaces about being, about, as Braidotti suggests, “what we are capable of becoming” (Andrés). One of the most valuable re-examinations of the way that we relate to/with non-human others can be found with the idea of the gift. What I especially like about the idea of the gift is that it has a fundamentally material bent: gifts are knowable as things. They are also objects of relation that bespeak new ways of thinking. Unlike defining gifts only in terms of function, Kimmerer offers instead the possibility of the gift as a way of relating with non-human others.

In an interview with Leath Tonino, Kimmerer discusses the ways in which she and her students listen to the teaching of plants by being able to recognize the gifts that each one offers.  As Tonino asks Kimmerer to reflect on conservation, “ecosystem services,” and the teaching of the Honorable Harvest,[6] she responds,

I prefer to ask what gifts the land offers. Gifts require a giver, a being with agency. Gifts invite reciprocity. Gifts help form relationships. Scientists aren’t comfortable with the word gifts, so we get ecosystem services instead….But you also asked, How do we take only what is given? That’s a philosophical challenge: How do we know when something is given? The only way to identify an offering is to get to know the giver. And can we receive the offering without causing damage? (Tonino)

While Kimmerer suggests the question of the gift is a philosophical one, and we may see it even as an epistemological one, here I emphasize it is also an ontological one. As Rauna Kuokkanen notes, knowledge of the gift is “better understood as specific ways of knowing, relating to, and being in the world” (265), not simply an object in a commodity-based exchange system. Instead, the gift exists as “the manifestation of reciprocity with the natural environment, reflecting the bond of dependence and respect toward the natural world. . . . foregrounding the values of interdependence, reciprocity, and responsibility toward others” (258). Kuokkanen argues that this way of being in the world “establishes a specific form of circulation,” one that I suggest forwards a material turn towards the agents of giving, toward restoring relationality into the energy of the assemblage: in Kimmerer’s work, the sweetgrass; in Watson and Huntington’s work on hunting, the moose (262); in Trinh Mihn-ha’s work, the story (2). In recognizing the gift, we are forced to recognize the non-human giver: the plant, the animal, the thing.

Take, for example, the application of the concept of the gift and how it might work with a re-casting of contributions to a rhetorical ontology, as presented in Marilyn Cooper’s “Listening to Strange Strangers, Modifying Dreams,” a chapter in Barnett and Boyle’s edited collection Rhetoric, through Everyday Things. In her piece, Cooper draws from Latour, Merleau-Ponty, Rickert, Whitehead, and Haraway, to assert that “things are rhetorical” (1), focusing first on her own encounter with a dragonfly, then on Michael Chorost’s experience with a cochlear implant, species attunement through Julie Zickefoose’s encounters with hummingbirds, and finally Bill Green’s involvement with the element cobalt in Antarctic lakes. Through each example, Cooper asks how we might listen to these non-human “strange strangers,” drawing our attention to the range of nonhuman persuasion and to the idea that “being persuaded is not something that happens to someone; it is something listeners do in response to what has been encountered” (19). Here I would pause to say what if we re-imagine listening to strange strangers—dragonflies, implants, hummingbirds, cobalt—as the gift each one offers that depend on our attuned ability to receive it? In Kimmerer’s words, we might work to know what is given, in each case. We might work towards a relationality that requires, first, that we work to know the giver. We might extend Cooper’s assertion of the persuasion emerging in relation between listeners and what they hear to the ways in which getting to know a dragonfly—what she asserts twice drew her out of herself—as the gift the dragonfly had to offer, the gift that gave rise to Cooper’s re-thinking of other strangers like implants or hummingbirds or cobalt. What if we imagine Cooper’s extension of knowledge—the publication of “Listening to Strange Strangers” itself—as the gift that the dragonfly had to offer?

I imagine that to attribute all of Cooper’s work in that article to a dragonfly might seem a bit of a stretch to some. To others, it perhaps offers an example of how non-humans exercise agency through human conduits, of how writing is produced in relation with a variety of nonhuman others. I wonder if making this move to some extent encourages us to examine more closely our own relation to the question that Kimmerer asks, “how do we know when something is given?” How do we identify an offering when we establish a way of being in the world that cannot imagine being given something by a nonhuman agent, only a listening-to, only attunement? If we cannot imagine what Kuokken calls “gift relations with the land” (265), of establishing kinship with nonhuman relations? How might working to acknowledge gifts and those who give them re-cast Chorost’s relation to his cochlear implant, Zickefoose’s relation to hummingbirds, Green’s relation to cobalt? As I write this, trying to locate Castellano’s quote that defines Indigenous Knowledge as revealed (rather than only empirical or traditional)—“sometimes knowledge is received as a gift at a moment of need” (24)—I propped open a book with a newly acquired paperweight birthday present from my daughter. There is a dragonfly on it.


Figure 1

Terrible Gifts

If we imagine the notion of the gift as lying outside commodity and within the realm of worlding, relationship building, and indeed, maintaining a balance of obligation and reciprocity between people, knowledge, and land as a whole, we also open up the possibilities of reception for gifts we do not want to receive. Such an example can be found in the case of Watson and Huntington’s description of a moose hunt in “They're Here—I can Feel Them: The Epistemic Spaces of Indigenous and Western Knowledges,” in which “the image of the dying bull had not been the kind of ‘nature’ or ‘gift’ Annette [Watson] had been brought up to appreciate” ….  “The Nature that I had been educated to know,” Watson writes, “could be known at a distance. Not through actual killing. And not through the animal’s act of giving itself to you” (267). Such an example of difficult knowledge, of gifts whose obligation for response or reception confronts us with choices we don’t wish to make, is reminiscent of Roger Simon’s notion of the terrible gift, “a gift that sets forth the difficult work of inheritance” (Bonnell and Simon 68, emphasis added).

Bonnell and Simon focus explicitly on the curation of museum exhibits and acts of witness that leave indelible marks for future generations to carry, such as the Museum of World Culture’s No Name Fever: AIDS in the Age of Globalization, which build on Simon’s prior work with Herman Kruk’s chronicle of his last days in a Nazi concentration camp.[7] Although their scholarship focuses on the difficult work of memorializing what we may not wish to remember, it also suggests that some gifts are those that are “neither… welcomed nor wanted, burdening us as it does with the complex task of coming to terms with the historical specificity of systemic violence and the unbearable suffering of others” (Bonnell and Simon 68).

When we acknowledge gift-relations with non-human others, we are also forced into contemplative relationships with the suffering of those others—both human and more-than-human—advanced from a language of capitalism and a history of colonialism: with genocide, with extinction of species and languages, with a rapidly changing climate—all that we have inherited as a part of being-with. These are terrible gifts, and we must work to know both the givers and when something is given as we contend with suffering and difficulty. This is where, I suggest, the notion of the gift might help move new materialists not only toward a critical attunement towards the “suasive force of the material,” (186) as Jodie Nicotra has it, or to connect solidly the work of rhetorical new materialists with studies of affect, but also towards projects that engage differing temporalities (the gifts of past to present, present to future), or terrible inheritances, such as those left in the wake of the Anthropocene. We might situate such terrible gifts as those that purposefully re-attune our attention to objects of study like “deforestation, forced removal and relocation” of peoples, containment of peoples and loss of mobility, dispossession, destruction, and pollution of land, climate destabilization, commodity agriculture, and food security (Whyte 208-211). These are all decolonial projects because they are actions that have been predicated on the genocide of Indigenous people. They invite a new kind of attention, suggest we must get to know the givers of terrible gifts. In order to attune ourselves toward giving such a new kind of attention, it is perhaps useful to surround ourselves with different ancestors.

Claiming Different Ancestors, Sitting with Different Time

In May 2018, I sat in on a fascinating panel on rhetoric and science at the Rhetoric Society of America conference.  It was populated by brilliant scholars, many of whom were discussing “ambient methodologies”—in other words, those that let us think more meaningfully about the liveliness of matter. During the Q and A, Lynda Walsh, who had recently acted as the interviewer in RSQ’s interview with Bruno Latour, asked the presenters (many of them who had used Latour’s work, or Deleuze and Guattari’s work, to frame their projects) if they agreed with Latour in that interview, who says in response to the critique that actor-network-theory ignores identity-based human matters of things like race, class and gender—and I’m paraphrasing here—“we have sociology for that” (421). I was grateful that Walsh asked the question, as it gave rise to scholars in the audience invoking the work of, for example, Robin Kimmerer and Kim TallBear.

I’d read the interview with Latour, and it had brought up the same complicated feelings I had when I first read Rebekah Sheldon’s critique of Object-Oriented-Ontology in which she clearly lays out how “the speculative turn” absents women from its history (203), focusing on Heidegger, Derrida, Foucault, and Deleuze to the exclusion of the work of feminist science studies scholars such as Donna Haraway, Stacey Alaimo, Annemarie Mol, Karen Barad, and Rosi Braidotti. I’d been thinking about it when I taught Timothy Morton’s Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People, in which he invokes Kant and Hegel and Marx while objecting to the critique that OOO appropriates Indigenous cultures. Morton spends time in his book objecting to the pathologizing scholars as racist who, perhaps unreflectively, incorporate OOO into their work. Yet he dedicates Humankind “for the water protectors”—a nod to the Indigenous bodies at Standing Rock who protested the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines. A few pages later in that book, Morton claims that our pronouns do not allow us to describe ecological beings, mired as they are in I and we and you and he and she (3). He suggests that we embrace solidarity, claiming that such a move might be able to restart temporality, that we might be “freed from…being caught in the past and . . . ente[r] a vibrant newness in which the future opens” (19).

While I acknowledge that Morton might stand in to some as a strawperson argument of the ways in which OOO/PH/NM/AS tends toward a myopic view of ignoring identity-based work (another way of saying “we have sociology for that”), the fact that rhetorical scholars draw on Morton’s work while the scholars he himself draws on are the usual Western, white male suspects should give us pause.[8] Rather than think about citation lists as simple ethical practices of having read widely and diversely, I also wish to frame citation practices as drawing from particular intellectual ancestors, past and present. Although ancestry suggests those-who-have-come-before in such a way as to invoke those-who-are-no-longer-with-us, there is much to be gained if we engage ancestors as those we gather with us to form something like “the living past,” or “living future” as recognized by the Eastern Cree and the Runa people of Ecuador, respectively (Reid and Sieber 250).

To draw from my prior sections, perhaps the way we gather ancestors around us in citation lists are gifts that we carry forward in ways that distribute the agency of a sole author, perhaps even decentralize who is speaking at any one time. We might imagine the agency of ancestors as spoken through time, “influenced by a future that manifests itself through relationship among humans, animals, nature, and more-than-human beings” (250). We might similarly imagine the living past through versions of ancestors that are with us, often in the form of terrible gifts, particularly if we examine the very real role that epigenetics play in, for example, intergenerational trauma. Yet as Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash, a Canadian Cree activist suggests of changing the common pronounciation of the Mik'maq people from Mic’mac to the correct “Meeg-Maw,” we must “decolonize one text at a time” (Dubé), perhaps beginning with an examination of what ancestors we bring with us, and where we bring them.  

I have yet to come up with, or hear, a good answer as to the question posed by Marilee Brooks-Gillies that she asks with Malea Powell and colleagues in “Our Story Begins Here,” “why do we claim some ancestors and not others?” (11) in our scholarship on rhetorical new materialism.  New materialist scholars, broadly conceived, can as easily be intrigued by Deleuze and Guattari as by the work of Vine Deloria or Viola Cordova, as Arola points out. To return to Morton, his argument falters when looking at grammars other than English, invoking different ancestors who speak Potawatomi or Anishanaabemowin, neither one of which I’m an expert in, but both of which rely on the same “grammatical forms for all living beings,” as Robin Kimmerer points out (Tonino). “Personhood,” as Kimmerer asserts, “is extended to all who breathe and some who don’t” (“Speaking Of”)—as Labrecque-Saganash notes of iiyiyuu ayimuun, spoken Cree, “in my language, there is no feminine/masculine, there is only animate/inanimate” (Dubé). Morton might have acknowledged the “hierarchy of being on which English grammar is built” (Kimmerer “Speaking Of”)—or invoked the 1960 work of Alfred Hallowell who reported that, at least in the Ojibwa (/oʊˈdʒɪbweɪ/) language:

more important than the linguistic classification of objects is the kind of vital functions attributed to them in the belief system and the conditions under which these functions are observed or tested in experience. This accounts…for the fact that what we view as material, inanimate objects - such as shells and stones - are placed in an ‘animate’ category along with ‘persons’ which have no physical existence in our world view. (22)

Drawing on these ancestors, Morton might have rescinded his argument about pronouns that cannot describe ecological beings. He might have even made his a decolonial—and indeed, I argue, a more interesting—argument. Instead, in invoking solidarity, he claims for it that we might be able to restart temporality. Yet such an invitation into now locks us into a particular temporality, a linear settler-colonial now, that has the particular privilege of even entertaining the thought of being freed from the past.

I think about what is lost when we embrace an exclusive present that gives no thought, as the Inuvialuit do, not only to quangma, the present, or taimami, the recent past, but also Ingilraani, the long past or time immemorial (Arnold et al.). I am compelled by the way we might gather different ancestors with us who may help us think through time as something that cannot restart because time itself is cyclical, seasonal, spatial—a coil, triangle, branch, or double spiral as easily as a line (Reid and Sieber 249). What might it mean to carry the future with us and through us by calling on different ancestors, and how might that shape the messages we develop, or the material analyses we perform? I have found Kyle Powys Whyte’s notion of his ancestors’ dystopia, of the Anthropocene in which we are living being the very dystopian future that Indigenous people have worried would come to pass (207) particularly useful to the notion of gathering different ancestors with us and sitting with different time. This convergence of time, culture, and history allows Whyte to examine human and nonhuman entanglement within a particular settler-colonial now, and to imagine generative ways into them by acknowledging nonhuman actors (sturgeon [Nmé], wild rice [manoomin], and water [nibi]), Indigenous perspectives on survival, and species conservation with non-Indigenous allies. Whyte’s answer is not solidarity, but activity—survivance during a time of deep loss—that stands against what he terms “industrial settler activities” in service of environmental justice (214). 

What Whyte offers rhetorical new materialists, in particular, is thinking through time as something not either present or geologic in examining epochs/arguments like the Anthropocene. Instead, he invites thinking through this historical present as one pattern of convergence of what he calls “deep Anishanaabe history and the vast degradation of settler colonial campaigns occurring in such a short time” (209). In doing so, he, like Kimmerer, finds moments of productive material intersection between nonhuman others and the disruptive power of settler colonialism in this moment of his ancestors’ dystopia: examining how nmé restoration changes the relationship between settlers and Anishanaabek; letting the past cultural significance of manoomin argue for its the need for its rights and invocation into the legal system today by observing that “what serves the rice is law; what harms the rice is illegal” (Wild Rice White Paper 3); and noting the ways that nibi is generating contemporary collective action, particularly for Anishanaabe women. From these non-human others, Whyte gathers particular gifts that, as he says, “are not based on dread of certain futures; rather, they arise from [I]ndigenous perspectives on how to respond to anthropogenic climate destabilization based on having already lived through local losses of species and ecosystems” (213). Whyte draws our attention to our own entanglement with both non-human others and settler colonial histories as we move toward particular futures, embracing particular practices as we go.

Heeding Protocol: Moves Toward Embodied Practices

We might view Whyte’s work as a call for a particular kind of allyship or kinship between nonhuman others, Indigenous, and settler peoples. Here, I’d like to extend outward from premises of gifts and ancestors into thinking about what these calls might enable for our research practices, practices that desperately hearken toward embodied practices that see all bodies (human and nonhuman, Indigenous and settler) as “flawed, incomplete, vulnerable, and unique, always in need of others, interdependent” (Dolmage 114). To frame such practices—what we might choose to study, how we might select our methods, in what ways we might best represent what we find—I draw on the work of Clare Brant, Margaret Kovach, and Gregory Younging, all of whom work with Indigenous concepts of protocol to imagine a middle ground of what we might more generally call appropriateness, or ethical principles of behavior in order to build respect, promote consent-based interaction, and protect what is sacred.

While Western academic notions of protocol usually frame research ethics, and certainly those working with Indigenous people draw on a similar range of practices to scaffold their research,[9] my invocation of protocol here is a bit different. I’m invoking instead those moments of “official etiquette” (Sunder 459) that bind Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities together in moments of difficult, unknown, and in-process contact, behavior that clues the outsider in to what is appropriate, courteous, right, and suitable in a particular moment. Indigenous protocols are concerned with rights to group sovereignty, and in regard to research practices in particular often orbit principles of knowledge ownership, control, access, and safekeeping (see Schnarch, Kovach). Though the word protocol has come to describe a series of conventions in service of diplomacy, I also like to think of its linguistic roots, from the Greek proto (first) and kolla (glue), the first glued-in sheet of a manuscript on which table of contents and errata were written (Sunder 459). In all cases, the primary principle binding all different kinds of protocol is one of respect.

Yet the problem with protocol is not only that it differs from place to place, situation to situation, people to people, as Brant explains about the relationships between Mohawk and Mi’kmaq, but that it is often, and on purpose, implicit:

I won’t describe what they [protocols] are for you, because they are for your village, for your own group. And you have to be very careful about following the prescribed rules and regulations of your own group. They are never stated. They are never told to you directly, because to do so would violate the ethic of non-interference. So the white person who interacts with us hardly ever opens his mouth – and I have noticed too that a Mohawk hardly ever opens his mouth – without breaking some rule of Mi’kmaq etiquette and decorum… you can’t tell us what we are doing is wrong; because to tell us what we are doing is wrong would be to interfere with our right to behave as we see fit. So it creates a double bind – you cannot tell us . . . Apropos of that, with this protocol…We have to have a sense of innocence about us, that we do not know the rules of etiquette of protocol and behaviour. . . . As white people you must not go into a situation and think what you are doing is correct. You must have a sense of innocence, and believe and know that you are going to break all the rules of etiquette and decorum, and you must be forgiven. But if you mean well, if you don’t interfere, and share, and don’t show your temper, then you will be forgiven for this lack of correct protocol. (“Native”)

In invoking Brant’s notion of protocol, I’m not intending to create a space for another kind of shallow and bumbling pre-apology of white folks as they appropriate Indigenous work, or even to offer it as a kind of intervention into the current conversations surrounding land acknowledgement statements.[10] I’m more interested, instead, of the ways that thinking about protocol might inform new materialist work, might deepen substantive knowledge making, or promote new ways of being a scholar in this field. What kind of first sheet of a manuscript, table of contents, erratum might we keep with us as we move forward, as we work with human, nonhuman, and more-than-human others? What might it look like if every new materialist scholar, as a matter of etiquette and decorum, alluded to connections with, instead of distance from, Indigenous work—or allowed the possibility to see themselves as mistaken? Would that allow all of us working with these theories a chance to get to know a different giver, receive different and more complex gifts, both lovely and terrible?

In thinking through this idea of protocol—of moving in and out of ontological world-making with some deference to making mistakes, acknowledgment of errata on the first page, and with goodwill toward humans and nonhumans—I am also drawn to what it might mean as a tenet of new materialist research practices. What if scholars used protocol as an umbrella practice in new materialist work in selecting objects of study, claiming ancestors, receiving and making choices about sharing particular gifts? How might protocol help us to embrace and perform—bumblingly, on occasion—indebtedness to Indigenous Knowledge in the service of resisting settler-colonial nows? And what might some examples look like?

While such models are relatively few—how can you know how to do the appropriate and right thing before you do it? is always the limit of a protocol—there are some. Just as any point of decolonial reconciliation requires a starting place guided by Indigenous principles of self-determination and respect, so we need different starting places for our research and good guidance on how to get there. This might look like putting into practice in our own teaching and research an acknowledgement of those gifts that are given through highlighting and laying plain better practices: reading writers who navigate cosmology, ethics and colonialism in thinking through research practices, as Margaret Kovach does in Indigenous Methodologies or Shawn Wilson does in Research is Ceremony; using Younging’s Elements of Indigenous Style when we think through how words and things go together; reading Zoe Todd and Alison Ravenscroft and Kim TallBear and Vanessa Watts alongside Latour, Deleuze and Guattari and Graham Harman. We might apply the same practices of protocol as we think through messy areas of human-nonhuman sovereignty in working with our chosen research bodies that make the separation of the material and the cultural impossible: heritage objects, for example, or burial sites, or culturally modified trees (see Jones). We might, as a matter of protocol, be more deliberate about our citation practices by a wide and expansive call to ancestors to join with us as we write through these arguments (as they write through us), even if it is uncomfortable, even if we might get it wrong. We might explain why we are purposefully leaving out another argument made by another non-reflective, colonial standpoint. We might apologize, issue errata, as we do the work of difficult inheritances in producing new and better rhetorical theory. We might work to be the givers of less terrible gifts, ourselves.

Such thinking is a move to acknowledge that to work within new materialist rhetorics, broadly conceived, requires an accounting for the encounter—all the bodies, affects, chemistry, and relations that it entails, not just certain bodies, certain ancestors, certain Others. It means a move toward recognizing new materialist patterns of claiming some ancestors over others, ignoring gifts, disregarding protocols, and resolving to work harder on the notion of allyship and indeed kinship, not just because we should, but because our very lives depend on it. For those who assert that relationality is the primary way that meaning is made in the world, as new materialist scholars do, such thinking is key. Yet this is a difficult relationality. It asks, as Donna Haraway and others do, that we make kin with a range of human and non-human actors. It means asking the difficult questions about getting to know the giver, about claiming which ancestor, about telling which secrets, about learning what is sacred. It means choosing a decolonizing ethics as a grounding to our research, embracing Indigenous materialism as a matter of practice, acknowledging that the settler colonial threatens us all.

[1] I’d like to offer my sincere thank you to Marilyn Cooper and one anonymous reviewer for their reading of this piece for enculturation and guidance for its revision. I’d like to thank, too, Erin Rand, for providing feedback throughout the development of this piece.

[2]By a decolonizing ethic, I mean one that moves from a Eurocentric and Western imperialism that suggests the locus for thinking and “civilization” rests in European colonization. Such imperialism has restructured time with the idea that “Europeans generated a new temporal perspective of history and relocated the colonized population, along with their respective histories and cultures, in the past of a historical trajectory whose culmination was Europe” (Quijano 541).

[3]Note that “traditional” is not mean to simplify the important aspect of knowledge creation that emerges through storytelling, which also invokes passing on technology, and is linked intimately with land, conceptions of time, training, and community sanctioning and agreement (see Castellano; Wheeler; Ray).

[4]Note that the use of the gift is not Kimmerer’s alone, but has a long history across various Indigenous epistemologies. For a greater discussion, see Kuokkanen, “The Logic of the Gift.”

[5]Native Languages of the Americas notes fewer than 100 speakers of Potowatomi exist today (“Native”).

[6]According to Kimmerer, the Honorable Harvest dictates that that we “take only what we need and never more than half of what’s available, to use everything that we take, to minimize the harm that is done, to share what we’ve taken, and to be grateful and always return the gift, giving something back in return” (Tonino).

[7]For a full account, see Simon, “The Terrible Gift: Museums and the Possibilities of Hope without Consolation."

[8]In this volume, Morton draws on Deleuze, Heidegger, Derrida, Foucault—though to his credit, Haraway and Barad do get a bit of airtime.

[9]For those interested in these research protocols, see, for example, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People’s Ethical Guidelines for Research, the Tri-Council Policy Statement on Research Involving the First Nations, Inuit and Métis People of Canada, the Canadian Institute of Health Research’s Guidelines for Health Research Involving Aboriginal People, and Schnarch’s “Ownership, Control, Access, and Possession (OCAP) or Self-Determination Applied to Research.”

[10]For a popular press overview of some of the arguments around land acknowledgment and reconciliation, see Smoke.

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