Settler Atmospherics

This essay is part of an online supplement to the Openings collection on “Chemo-Ethnography,” which was edited by Nicholas Shapiro and Eben Kirksey and featured in the November 2017 issue of Cultural Anthropology. An installation featuring artwork in dialogue with the collection will also be featured at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association; see the Facebook event for details.

Breathing in a settler atmosphere is taxing. Some of us can’t breathe. In the fall of 2016 many of us watched shaky Facebook video livestreams that resembled a warscape of heavy military equipment and smoke. Standing Rock and the Mni Sose (Missouri River) were choke points for water protectors asserting indigenous sovereignty, and sites for violent, experimental techniques of control used by police and private security forces.

I went to Standing Rock twice in November 2016 to be in good relation. I went in keeping with Kim TallBear’s (2016) proposal to approach kinship as “a partial and productive tool to help us forge alternatives to the settler-colonial state.” As many indigenous scholars have articulated, relational ethics are based in reciprocity and obligation with the land and other-than-humans. Glen Coulthard (2014, 13) describes this place-based foundation of indigenous decolonial thought and practice as grounded normativity, which ought to “inform and structure our ethical engagements with the world.”

Sunrise at camp. Photo by Kristen Simmons.

The conditions we breathe in are collective and unequally distributed, with particular qualities and intensities that are felt differently through and across time. For indigenous nations, the imbrications of U.S. militarism, industrialism, and capitalism have always been palpably felt on indigenous lands and through indigenous bodies, from extraction to experimentation. The regimes of these foundational violences are the surrounds of settler atmospherics. Christina Sharpe (2016) argues that antiblackness is as pervasive as the climate. This, too, is the surround of settler atmospherics. Put otherwise, settler atmospherics are the normative and necessary violences found in settlement—accruing, adapting, and constricting indigenous and black life in the U.S. settler state.

One of the technologies of governance that capacitated this violence at Standing Rock was the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC), which authorizes states to enter into agreements with other states in order to share emergency management personnel during crisis situations. With some seventy-six law enforcement agencies from ten states dispatched over a four-month period, the compact turned Standing Rock into “a sort of law enforcement laboratory.” Outside of natural disasters, EMAC has thus far only been used to handle the crisis of Indians and the crisis of the Black Lives Matter movement. Joseph Masco (2017, S73) argues that the very notion of crisis is in crisis and that crisis has become a counterrevolutionary idiom in the twenty-first century: “Crisis talk today seeks to stabilize an institution, practice, or reality rather than interrogate the historical conditions of possibility for that endangerment to occur.” The construction of Standing Rock as a crisis ruptures history and installs an event-based logic, rather than inviting structural interrogation. It ruptures our relations. As Nick Estes argues, the #NoDAPL struggle is a continuation of the Indian Wars and of the settler colonial project of indigenous elimination. What, we should ask, is made to get lost? What gets obfuscated? What gets disavowed? What gets refused?

Tear gas and pepper spray (both riot control agents) became the dominant crowd-control tactics deployed against nonviolent water protectors at Standing Rock. Riot control agents are defined in the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention as “any chemical . . . which can produce rapidly in humans sensory irritation or disabling physical effects which disappear within a short time following termination of exposure.” The Convention banned these agents as a method of warfare internationally, but their use is paradoxically permitted by domestic law enforcement. The U.S. Supreme Court decisions known as the Marshall Trilogy nest indigenous nations in a “cramped space” (Povinelli 2016, 6) through their designation of “domestic, dependent nations,” rendering the use of tear gas and pepper spray on unarmed protectors at Standing Rock permissible.

A Freedom of Information Act public records request uncovered a 133-page “field force operations” training manual from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Center for Domestic Preparedness, which was sent between law enforcement personnel in North Dakota. The manual describes riot control agents as designed to accomplish five tasks: disrupt, disorient, disable, distract, and disperse. It lists the three most commonly used types: chloroacetophenone, orthochlorobenzalidene malononitrile (both colloquially known as tear gas), and oleoresin capsicum, or pepper spray. The manual is not much for chemical specificity, noting that “all of these agents produce about the same effects,” emphasizing the immediacy and temporariness that allow them to sever the present.

At the actions in which I participated, riot control agents were used in spray form and water protectors did what they could to shield themselves with the materials at hand: cloth bandannas, surgical masks, goggles. These materials could be picked up at various stations around camp by those who didn’t come prepared. People leaving the action to go back to camp would often pass off what they had. However, most techniques were insufficient for fully protecting against exposure and treating the aftermath of the injury became key. Medics would treat exposures with a 50/50 mixture of liquid antacid and water to soothe the eyes, nose, and mouth. On November 20, which became known as Backwater Sunday, over three hundred people suffered injuries, and most suffered both hypothermia and chemical exposure. Pepper spray was mixed with water in the water cannons and tear gas canisters were deployed as projectile weapons, fired directly at protectors at close range. Medics described how the mixture the police were using pooled on the asphalt road and froze as black ice in the freezing temperatures.

A horrifying email chain with the subject line “Fwd: Israelis Crowd Control Method” circulated among police officers in the early fall. The email was brief, linking to a YouTube video titled “Skunk: A ‘Degrading Form of Abuse’ or Safe, Nontoxic Alternative to Rubber Bullets?” The written text accompanying the link extolled the virtues of Skunk: “the Israeli biomedical engineers have done it again.” Skunk is classified as a malodorant, nonlethal weapon, and it has been used by the Israel Defense Forces since 2008. While there is no proof that Skunk was used at Standing Rock, it is available in the United States and was purchased by the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department after the Ferguson protests. With substances like these, the atmosphere becomes not only a medium for violence and control, but also one through which affects to demean are engineered.

The atmosphere is increasingly a sphere to be weaponized. Peter Sloterdijk argues as much with his conception of atmoterror, in which the environment becomes a coercive object of technological mediation. Sloterdijk (2009, 41) emphasizes that humans “simply cannot not breathe,” which is why atmospheric weapons are a profound form of terror(ism) that create atmospheres of apprehension. To this end, it is indigenous nations that disproportionally contend with the toxic legacies of late industrialism in the air (Fortun 2014). There are 532 Superfund sites on tribal lands, nearly one for each of the 562 federally recognized indigenous nations in the United States. The settler colonial project of U.S. Empire is, after all, to place indigenous nations and bodies into suspension. Treating Indians as crisis or colonial residue, regulating them, as Jodi Byrd (2011, 20) argues, “to the site of already-doneness that begins to linger as unwelcomed guest to the future,” suspends large-scale processes of capitalism, militarism, racism, and colonialism. We become excessive and need to be managed, or else we are ghostly traces that must be pushed aside.

Differently put, suspension is a condition of settler colonialism—it suffuses all places, and keeps in play the contradictions and ambiguities built into the colonial project. This essay aligns itself with the larger political project of attuning to and staying with those contradictions and ambiguities (see Haraway 2016). Audra Simpson (2014, 3, 12) describes the “strangulated political order” of indigenous nationals, noting that “under the conditions of settler colonialism, multiple sovereignties cannot proliferate robustly or equally.” Some of us cannot breathe.

Our attunement to settler atmospherics can perpetuate further injury (see Stevenson 2014). It can be pathologized as anxiety, paranoia, or conspiracy in an atmosphere of uncertainty and half-knowing. At Oceti Sakowin, too, we experienced various suspensions: of time, bodies, affects. Anticipation of state violence became a rhythm, with constant low-flying helicopters, floodlights, and a large militarized police presence creating a tension that settled deep into muscles. The forces of strangulation were viscerally felt at Oceti Sakowin camp as water protectors faced

attack dogs, handcuffs, flex cuffs, stress positions, water cannons, fists, feet, assault rifles, arrest warrants, rural county jails, felonies, misdemeanors, private property, body armor, drones, private security, tear gas, mace, armored Humvees, the intentional defilement of gravesites, the North Dakota National Guard, the North Dakota State Patrol, Border Patrol riot shields, billy clubs, concrete barricades, airplanes, Blackhawk helicopters, Caterpillar earthmovers, and media censorship and harassment. (Estes 2017)

Alongside the asphyxiation of “indigenous governmental forms, philosophical practices, and gender roles” (Simpson 2014, 155), I would argue that colonial governmentality necessarily strangulates other forms of relationality and coalition building. Key valences of this relational severing are toxic strangulations—social and chemical—that indigenous nations and other marginalized communities endure (Murphy 2017). These materials are difficult to trace, require multiple forms of expertise to negotiate, and we have been trained to not see them.

For Timothy Choy and Jerry Zee (2015), suspension is a method for orientation in an atmospheric problem-space. A life in suspension generates multiple openings and entryways into structural conditions, and allows for the challenging of our assumptions and disbeliefs: our common sense. In a colonial settler state this questioning must come with an awareness of the pervasiveness of settlement in shaping ordinary life. Such a phase shift from existing forms of settler common sense brings out displacements with different qualities: what can you willfully unsettle in relation with others?

Those in suspension arc toward one another—becoming-open in an atmosphere of violence. Porosity thus becomes a site of potential, exposure, and entanglement all at once, questioning the stability of our worlds, human and nonhuman. In a porous relationality—attuning to how others (cannot) breathe, our haptics are enhanced and we develop capacities to feel one another otherwise. Choy (2011) reminds us of the Latin root of conspire, as a breathing together, declaring: “Breathers of the world, conspire!” We need to conspire to strategize logics of agitation, which displace and unsettle. Doing so calls us not to ignore difference, but to create alter-relations with one another. As Choy underscores elsewhere, “breathing together rarely means breathing the same.”

What would it take for individuals to reconceptualize the embeddedness in which we all already are with and have the potential to be for—to stage the grounds for a collective reimagining, a conspiration, an atmospheric otherwise? Or, what Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s (2013, 11) terms, “a mode of thinking with others separate from the thinking that the institution requires of you”? While EMAC enabled massive police-state coalitions that most likely will continue, so too did massive #NoDAPL coalitions coalesce. Christina Sharpe (2016, 106) argues that “the weather necessitates changeability and improvisation . . . it produces new ecologies.” To this end, on September 2, 2016, Black Lives Matter’s national chapter released a statement in solidarity with water protectors at Standing Rock, avowing: “We are clear that there is no Black liberation without Indigenous sovereignty.” New ecologies are forming for liberation in a settler atmosphere.

To liberate, in chemistry, is to release a gas or energy as a result of a reaction, or else to release from combination. Our liberations are entangled—they are not pipe dreams and never were.


Byrd, Jodi A. 2011. The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Choy, Timothy. 2011. “Atmospherics: On Substances and Subjects in Suspension.” Paper presented at the “Fact/Value” workshop, University of Chicago, June 3–4.

_____, and Jerry Zee. 2015. “Condition—Suspension.” Cultural Anthropology 30, no. 2: 210–23.

Coulthard, Glen. 2014. Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Estes, Nick. 2017. “Mni Wiconi, Water is Life: Standing Rock and #NoDAPL.” Paper presented at the “Decolonizing Nature” conference, University of New Mexico, April 21.

Fortun, Kim. 2014. “From Latour to Late Industrialism.” HAU 4, no. 1: 309–329.

Haraway, Donna J. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Harney, Stefano, and Fred Moten. 2013. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. London: Minor Compositions.

Masco, Joseph. 2017. “The Crisis in Crisis.” Current Anthropology 58, S15: S65–76.

Murphy, Michelle. 2017. “Alterlife and Decolonial Chemical Relations.” Cultural Anthropology 32, no. 4: 494–503.

Povinelli, Elizabeth A. 2016. Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Sharpe, Christina. 2016. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Simpson, Audra. 2014. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Sloterdijk, Peter. 2009. “Airquakes.” Translated by Eduardo Mendieta. Environment and Planning D 27, no. 1: 41–57.

Stevenson, Lisa. 2014. Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian Arctic. Berkeley: University of California Press.

TallBear, Kim. 2016. “The U.S.–Dakota War and Failed Settler Kinship.” Anthropology News 57, no. 9: e92–95.