Unfinished Business

Decolonizing Nature conference pits imaginative defiance against a reactionary agenda

The border line glows red like a re-opened scar ripping through flesh-colored earth, a reminder that the process of colonization is never complete so long as there are people around to resist it. This is the image featured on the poster advertising the Decolonizing Nature conference at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, where activists, scholars and members of the public have converged to confront the threat that colonialism's legacy poses to our future.

Against a backdrop of mass extinction in a warming world and a federal government packed with strongmen and carbon fiends, the very title of the event invites controversy. For some Indigenous academics, the reduction of "decolonization" from a bloody and chaotic historical process to a metaphor for good environmental stewardship can obscure the hard sacrifices decolonization would actually entail; compare the San Juan medicine man Popé leading the annihilation of the Spanish settlement at Pecos in 1680 to contemporary demands for "decolonizing" public schools through eco-friendly curricula. For the oil industry and its proponents, even metaphoric decolonization, with its emphasis on de-carbonized living, poses a threat to New Mexico's largest sources of state funding, not to mention profits.

But such detractors did not make their presence known at the conference, and attendees seem convinced that the habits and assumptions imposed by centuries of colonial force are still malleable enough to change. Over the course of four days (April 17-22), panelists presented on topics like the sanctity of water, eco-violence, colonial legacies along borders and food justice, all with the aim of promoting traditionally Indigenous ways of interacting with the Earth and its life forms.

To Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, a panelist and the environmental manager of the native village of Nuiqsut off the Arctic coast in northern Alaska, decolonization means active struggle against American oil development in her region. "It's about recognizing the migration of the animals that come from every continent in this world to the Arctic for renewal," she told me. "It's about connecting and growing the goodness of the life and health of our communities, and growing the importance of tradition and culture to keep our people safe and healthy."

Students and faculty at the University of New Mexico had already been planning the event since last fall, but the ascension of Donald Trump and his neocolonial agenda to the White House heightened the urgency of coming together. Its lead organizer, and the most popular guy at the conference, was Subhankar Banerjee, a fast-talking professor of art and ecology at UNM and a seriously good environmental photographer. Banerjee said that he and his team had originally expected for planning to take two years, but they were able to pull it together in just three and a half months.

"We already had to deal with environmental injustice and species extinction," he said, as he paused from greeting attendees. "But after the election, the significance of it became much more amplified. All of us have been more energized to deal with this, and now it's not just environmental issues, but it's also that public media and the arts and humanities are getting defunded."

Run down the list of sponsors of the conference and you'll see what's at stake. The New Mexico Humanities Council and 516 ARTS would be gravely threatened if Trump's proposal to nix the National Endowment of the Humanities is approved by Congress. Same with KUNM and the local PBS affiliate if public broadcasting was cut, and several other organizational supporters dependent on the National Endowment for the Arts.

Even so, Jamie Blosser, executive director of the Santa Fe Art Institute, is confident that her organization will survive. The institute heavily promoted the conference following its partnership with University of Mexico's Land Arts of the American West program, which sent some of its artist residents to speak with Diné activists and farmers about water rights. Several other institute artist residents have continued to work with Native communities struggling for environmental justice in New Mexico; one woman, Albuquerque-based artist Asha Canalos, makes portraits and broadcasts the stories of activists on the front lines of the anti-fracking movement for a blog called New Mexico Story Power. But while Blosser does not believe the institute will go under if its federal funding is eliminated, she does fear it will lose its ability to offer residency and programs to underserved populations, which would undermine the institute's commitment to social justice.

Artists interested in decolonization, Blosser said, must "look at the much broader system that allows these deep structural inequities to flourish, and ask themselves difficult and uncomfortable questions—but through the lens of art."

Although the conference began with a film series and will end with an arts exhibition, there were surprisingly few artists around. The interests of attendees ranged from feminist intersectional theory to eco-religious practice. The point of agreement among everybody was that the industrial systems bequeathed to us since colonization are not only deeply unfair, but are leading to our demise through global warming and related extinction. The contradictions of colonialism, based on a growing need to extract resources from the Earth, are particularly stark in New Mexico, which was conquered and reconquered and today remains one of the poorest states in the country.

"We're a profoundly colonial state," said Gregory Gould, a food historian and board member of the Santa Fe- and Albuquerque-based food co-op La Montañita. "It's important a conference like this is happening in New Mexico so we don't feel so isolated." Through his research, Gould came to conclude that people who feed off an industrial agricultural system suffer from "low grade insecurity and stress" because we don't know where our food comes from. Only about 3 percent of the food New Mexicans eat is grown in the state. For Gould, advocating for broader access to sustainability grown food is key.

Recasting our understanding of food as a part of the same organic process as our ever-decaying bodies was also indicative of another fundamental takeaway from the conference: The atomization and siloing of everything, from commodity supply chains to academic disciplines and even the conception of "nature" as something we can opt out of are the reasons the Earth is shaking us off like a bad case of fleas (to borrow from George Carlin). And with the fattest fleas digging in at the heights of American power, at least one younger attendee was feeling the rumblings under their feet.

After an early Thursday panel titled "Species, Place, & Politics," 23-year-old Ebrahim Nourestani hobbled up to the microphone on crutches to challenge what he saw as ineffectual talk.

"How can we stray away from traditional ways of making change, and how can we make some type of revolutionary movement here that will invoke some type of serious action?" he asked the panelists. "Because these are serious times."

Later, the bushy-haired Albuquerquean explained that what he envisioned as a way out of our contemporary suicide pact wasn't too different from the ol' think-globally-act-locally values proposed by others at the conference.

"We want to promote the universal connection around one another," Nourestani said. "By creating an influential movement here [in northern New Mexico,] we can possibly pioneer a process that rolls over into other countries and other continents. I am working my best to gain knowledge and skills so I can positively have an impact."

Let's hope that Nourestani is hard at work, because at this late stage in the climate crisis, we need all the help we can get.

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