The Dawn of Everything
27 November 2021 | 12:00 am

David Graeber & David Wengrow

Some books seek to simplify or clarify the past; this one seeks to complicate it. Graeber and Wengrow take as their starting point the “just so” story that primitive, pre-agricultural societies were egalitarian, but that in the progress towards “civilization,” equality was traded away. As they romp through the historical record, they find example after example that shows this story for a myth: large cities with thousands of inhabitants all in identical homes, with no signs of palaces or wealth disparity; societies that moved seasonally between different cultural milieus; places where kings and strict hierarchies and exceptional violence came to be established only to be abruptly and entirely abandoned, spoken of afterwards as a cautionary tale. Along the way they demonstrate that encounters with Indigenous intellectuals in the Americas had a profound influence on Enlightenment thinking, and that such threads continue today, even if their origins are rarely acknowledged as such. I’ve no doubt that among the hundreds of bits of evidence they recruit, there will be those where others profoundly disagree with their interpretation of the archaeological record. But that only serves to reinforce their point: humans were not born in chains, but neither are we doomed to them, and for thousands of years we have experimented with different ways of living together. There is no reason to believe that that experimentation has—or ever will—come to an end.

Braiding Sweetgrass
11 October 2021 | 12:00 am

Robin Wall Kimmerer

In the early pages of this collection, we hear the story of Skywoman, who is said to have fallen to the earth with bundles of plants and fruits and seeds, which she sowed in the ground. Kimmerer notes how Skywoman’s story places humans in a different relationship to the world when compared to the Christian creation story: in one, people are taught to embrace the living world; in the other, they are banished from it. Kimmerer never expresses contempt, but she spares no criticism for the latter world view, and each essay that follows is a a full-throated declaration of a democracy of species—with humans as the minority voice. As the book nears its conclusion, she lets her fear—which simmers through previous chapters—come to a boil, and it’s then that you wonder alongside her whether we have a way off the terrible path that fossil capitalism lays before us. Optimism is, as ever, in short supply. But hope is a discipline, and Kimmerer shows how the practice is itself a gift.

Becoming naturalized
11 October 2021 | 12:00 am

In the story shared by the original peoples of the Great Lakes, Skywoman falls to the earth, flowers and seeds grasped in her hands, a child growing in her belly. She finds a world of water, and geese and beavers and turtles and loons and others all arrive to greet her. A turtle dives into the depths and raises up mud which is placed on his shell and becomes the beginning of the land. Skywoman plants her seeds in that mud, and it turns green and lush, feeding both her and the animals. Kimmerer writes:

It was through her actions of reciprocity, the give and take with the land, that the original immigrant became Indigenous.

Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, page 9

Kimmerer first asks how we could all become Indigenous—but then she questions that framing. Being Indigenous is a birthright, not something you can claim or acquire. But perhaps there is another way to right one’s relationship to a place, without appropriation. Instead of becoming Indigenous, could we become naturalized? Kimmerer continues:

Being naturalized to a place means to live as if if this is the land that feeds you, as if these are the streams from which you drink, that build your body and fill your spirit. To become naturalized is to know that your ancestors lie in this ground. Here you will give your gifts and meet your responsibilities. To become naturalized is to live as if your children’s future matters, to take care of the land as if our lives and the lives of all our relatives depend on it. Because they do.

Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, page 215

In most civic naturalization processes, an applicant has to learn the stories of the new country in order to become a citizen. In Kimmerer’s framing, we would need to learn the stories of the original peoples—not only the stories themselves, but the instructions they carry for being in right relationship with the earth—and learn to abide by them. Perhaps in that model, there is a path to restoration that honors Indigenous wisdom while acknowledging our own story of immigration.

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