Interrupting Industrial and Academic Extraction on Native Land

From the Series: Standing Rock, #NoDAPL, and Mni Wiconi

Photo by Vanessa Bowen.

As an Indigenous scholar, I work with land defenders against the incursion of resource-extraction projects—people who are asserting their right to ways of life that pre-existed the settler nation-state and endure despite the poison seeping into our lands and waterways. Since the first colonial footfall on Turtle Island, people have resisted the violent theft of land, the massacre of our relations, the abuse of our children, the erasure of our languages and traditions, the appropriation of our sacred objects and medicines, the criminalization of our ceremonies, the seizure of our hunting and fishing grounds, the destruction of our sacred sites, the surveillance of our communities, and the contamination of our lands and waters. The Oceti Sakowin Oyate—Seven Council Fires People—are resisting these same forces in their fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline (see Woolford, Benvenuto, and Laban Hinton 2014).

Over the past few months, as attention to the Dakota Access Pipeline has increased, numerous colleagues in anthropology have approached me about the sudden timeliness of my work. But characterizing #NoDAPL as academic “good luck” is a form of violent erasure—of both the work that water protectors at Standing Rock have done to elevate their struggle in the public eye, and the innumerable Indigenous land defense movements that have shaped the current moment. Anthropology, in fact, emerged in the United States from an engagement with these land defense movements, from Lewis Henry Morgan’s (1851) collaboration with Seneca attorney and diplomat Ely Parker (Donehogawa) to the linguistic work cowritten by Franz Boas and Yankton Dakota anthropologist Ella Deloria (Aŋpétu Wašté Wiŋ), who was herself born at Standing Rock. Ethnologists in the mid- to late nineteenth century built the scientific validity of anthropology on the social structures, political organization, and cultural practices of Indigenous peoples who were simultaneously under attack by an aggressive military and civilian settler force (Baker 2010; Brown 1970). The so-called founding fathers of this discipline created and defended university positions in anthropology by writing about native peoples, while their native informants, students, and collaborators struggled to make a living in academia, their voices eclipsed by white anthropologists like John Wesley Powell, Frederic Ward Putnam, Lewis Henry Morgan, Franz Boas, and Alfred Kroeber (see Finn 1995). With the notable exception of James Mooney’s (1991) work on the Ghost Dance, most of these early anthropological writers omitted Indigenous political resistance to colonial violence in their analysis. Instead, Indigenous peoples were often portrayed as static cultures on the verge of extinction, despite fervent and powerful efforts to resist erasure and assimilation.

Then, as now, Indigenous communities were fighting for survival against a ruthless structure of elimination (Wolfe 2006). Then, as now, Indigenous lives and cultural practices were made into ethnographic material to advance academic careers. And although native people have been key to the production of anthropological theory all along (Ely Parker, Francis La Flesche, George Hunt, Ella Deloria), today the discipline has a renewed opportunity to honor the contributions of Indigenous scholars by supporting our embedded analyses of Indigenous resistance. In a moment when Indigenous communities across the continent are threatened by state-supported extractive industry, anthropology must not mirror this with extractive scholarship. If Indigenous land defense and solidarity movements are timely, it is because it is time for us to act, not to ruminate. We need you to support our work as Indigenous activist scholars. This means centering and citing our research and writing, but also acknowledging that our commitments to land-defense movements extend beyond ethnographic description. We are working to help our nations survive, on the page and on the ground.

I fervently believe in our collective right to refuse to let yet another river be contaminated, to let more land be stolen and destroyed. The fight against the DAPL is fundamentally about a refusal to disappear as Indigenous peoples (see Simpson 2014). The Oceti Sakowin are exercising a right long denied by colonial settler states—the right to say no. No to the pipeline, no to the poison, no to the vacuous political theater of reconciliation (Coulthard 2014). No, perhaps, to anthropological study, to representations of the noble savage that still pervade environmentalist accounts of native activism.

But the responsibility to protect the land and water that emerges from our positioning as community members and relatives is too often subverted by the structures of anthropology departments, the precarity of our academic labor, the devaluation of our activism in relation to our scholarly work (as if those things are neatly separated), and the policing of our academic voices. A decolonizing anthropology of course needs to reform the way in which others are represented, but it also needs to detail its entanglements with the structures of settler colonialism in the past and in the present. Anthropology must recognize that the political expressions of Indigenous peoples can no longer be contained in the field, but are an integral part of how native scholars think and write and act within and beyond the ivory tower (Simpson 2016). The ivory tower, after all, was also built on stolen Indigenous land—as well as chattel slavery.

As ethnographers, we must take the interruption of settler capitalism enacted by #NoDAPL seriously. Oceti Sakowin are not engaged in some transitory, passing moment. Neither are the people I work with at Unist’ot’en camp, where Wet’suwet’en peoples have been living on the land and stymieing pipeline construction for over seven years. Nothing was or is fleeting about Oka, Wounded Knee, Alcatraz, Gustafson Lake, Elsipogtog, the Peace River Valley, Oak Flat, Klabona, Lelu Island, Mauna Kea, or Muskrat Falls. While these movements may appear to be interruptions of the normal progression of relations between settler states and Indigenous peoples, they are in fact continuations of hundreds of years of Indigenous resilience and resistance. What other structures of industrial expansion, of academic capital, and of knowledge production need interruption in order to remake our relations beyond extraction? I will leave this question to you. In the meantime, see you on the front lines.

About the Author

Anne Spice is a Tlingit member of Kwanlin Dun First Nation. She grew up on Treaty 7 territory in Alberta, and has earned degrees at the University of Lethbridge and Dalhousie University. She teaches and studies in New York City as a doctoral student in anthropology at the City University of New York, Graduate Center.


Baker, Lee D. 2010. Anthropology and the Racial Politics of Culture. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Brown, Dee. 1970. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

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

Finn, Janet L. 1995. “Ella Cara Deloria and Mourning Dove: Writing for Cultures, Writing against the Grain.” In Women Writing Culture, edited by Ruth Behar and Deborah A. Gordon, 131–47.

Mooney, James. 1991. The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. Originally published in 1896.

Morgan, Lewis Henry. 1851. The League of the Ho-dé-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois. Rochester, N.Y.: Sage.

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

_____. 2016. “Consent’s Revenge.” Cultural Anthropology 31, no. 3: 326–33.

Wolfe, Patrick. 2006. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4: 387–409.

Woolford, Andrew, Jeff Benvenuto, and Alexander Laban Hinton, eds. 2014. Colonial Genocide in Indigenous North America. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.