Jaskiran Dhillon, Assistant Professor of Global Studies and Anthropology at the Schools for Public Engagement, has joined the cohort of Tishman Center Affiliated Faculty. Her research and practice focuses on decolonization, Indigenous rights, and environmental justice. She shared her thoughts on decolonization and the future of the pipeline protests.
Q: What lead to you researching and working in decolonization and justice?
A: I grew up on Treaty Six Cree Territory in the province now known as Saskatchewan (Canada). My parents migrated to Canada in the 1960s, fleeing from their own inheritance of British imperialism in Northern India. Not unlike many first generation kids, I developed an innate curiosity and awareness about difference and power by virtue of the complex terrain in which I grew up. My father was an atheist, immigrant principal in a small, almost entirely homogenous, white farming community of approximately 300 people. I lived alongside him, my mother, and my two sisters as we tried to make sense of the dislocation and tensions we encountered as individuals positioned on the borderlands of Canadian nationalism.
Growing up in this environment, however, also allowed me to witness ruptures in the dominant trope regarding Canada’s “peaceful history.” I began to notice first-hand how discussions about Indigenous and white relations pervaded local newspapers, educational debates, and federal concerns over place, land, and belonging. Over the years, I watched my father, the principal of the K-12 school struggle to support the few Indigenous students who attended, youth who were placed in foster homes in farms close to the town. I also remember visiting small prairie cities where there was a significant urban Indigenous presence and witnessing my father’s respectful and inquisitive interactions wherever we travelled—positioned as alien himself, he always seemed to be seeking answers.
These experiences were formative in shaping my awareness of the complicated terrain in which my family and I were living. It allowed me to see, first hand, that the land was contested and that Indigenous Nations had been subjected to (and ongoing) an immense state violence through the processes of conquest and occupation. I feel a sense of political responsibility, as someone who knows she is residing in a settler state, to support efforts advancing Indigenous justice and freedom. I have an article coming out in June or July 2017 that speaks to all of this more robustly— it’s called Notes on Becoming an Accomplice.
Q: How does environmental justice relate to decolonization? How do these intersect?
A: Over the last few years I have really been trying to understand, more fully, the political ideologies that frame the dominant environmental justice movement as it has developed in Canada and the United States—and to look at its evolution as a movement. More specifically, I’ve been interested in uncovering an answer to the following question: how might “environmental justice” work to (re)inscribe hegemonies of settler colonial power by foregrounding white settler interests?
In my view, environmental justice and decolonization are intimately linked. Part of the way that the conquest and theft of these lands was justified in order to create the United States and Canada, through immense violence I might add, was through a belief—fueled by the Doctrine of Discovery—held by white settlers that Indigenous peoples were not using the land for the betterment of civilization, that they were incapable of dominating nature. The heavy reliance on fossil fuels and the extractive industry in order to feed the development and expansion of settler states, a kind of accelerated capitalism on overdrive that is directly tied to the accumulation of wealth for white settlers, is an outgrowth of these beliefs that surfaced in the early days of conquest.
This, of course, gestures towards a different kind of relation between Indigenous peoples and what we call the “natural world.” It’s a different epistemology guiding the way we think about human relations with other sentient beings as well as the land, water, and air. For Indigenous peoples here on Turtle Island, the environmental justice movement began in 1491, it is a not a new movement that has erupted in the recent past. They have been fighting for the protection of their homelands since the point of first contact.
I believe that if we were all to support and foster Indigenous sovereignty and governance systems, environmental justice (as we understand it) would become a reality. The terms of land “ownership” would change and consequently the laws guiding “usage” of the land and water would also change. There is a great deal more I could say about this but I encourage people who are interested to read Dene scholar Glen Coulthard’s Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting a Colonial Politics of Recognition as well as Tracy Voyles’ Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country. The Standing Rock Syllabus also has two sections dedicated to answering this question.
Q: In your opinion, what is the future of the pipeline protests?
A: I expect resistance pipelines to continue to grow—I think there is a broad cross-section of society that understands what is at stake when we expand the “sacrifice zones” for white capitalist accumulation, to use Naomi Klein’s words. And as I mentioned, Indigenous peoples have been leading these resistance efforts across the world. We have some huge battles ahead of us, here in North America, with the approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline (although this is still being fought against), the potential resurrection of Keystone XL, and Kinder Morgan and Line 3 in Canada. I have been encouraged, however, by the epic resistance at Standing Rock, initiated by the Standing Rock Sioux, and I believe that there have been some important lessons learned about how to build strategic coalitions, how to develop a strategy for resistance that is multi-pronged (direct action, divestment campaigns, on-site encampments, political, popular education just to name a few), and how to carry the fight forward for the long haul. I don’t believe that anyone has given up and with the recent election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, I expect this resistance to garner even more support both inside and outside US borders—despite the passages of his executive orders that deny the reality of climate change and are opening the door for even more environmental devastation.
Q: What are some of your latest projects?
A: My latest ethnographic project focuses on theorizing how conquest and ongoing settler colonial violence necessarily factor into debates over the climate crisis. How are Indigenous political struggles for decolonization and freedom made both audible and powerful within the broader scope of impending planetary dystopia? I have been attempting to understand these questions through the resistance at Standing Rock and also through longstanding resistance to the fossil fuel industry led by Indigenous peoples in the Northwest Territories in Northern Canada. I’ve also begun a related project that explores the leadership of Indigenous youth in these resistance efforts, with a focus on Indigenous girls who are foregrounding an analysis of the ways that colonial gender violence continues to go hand in hand with extractivism. And finally, I am in the early stages of developing a collaborative project with an international environmental organization that will center on documenting the human rights violations occurring as a direct result of extractivism, environmental degradation, and climate change. This documentation, as well as the follow up advocacy, will take place at multiple sites across North America.