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The Six Mile Knuckle Sandwich
The new issue of Dark Mountain—titled Abyss—is imminent. In its description, these excellent folks say, "Our twentieth book brings an uncivilised eye to the mindset of extractivism." I've ordered my copy. It comes all the way from the other side of the Atlantic, but that shouldn't stop you from picking up a copy for yourself.
I remember when the call for submissions was announced some months ago I wanted to respond, but didn't. Other time commitments kept me from doing so, but also because I had just had a piece called "Superfund" out in their previous publication, Dark Mountain: Issue 19. The achievement of being part of what Dark Mountain does remains one of the highlights of not just this year, but of my entire writing career. I respect their work that much.
I think of "extractivism" all the time, and in all the ways it manifests in the world. In my personal world especially. That "Superfund" piece I mentioned talks about the mill where my dad worked, the remains of which I can see from my front porch. He worked there something like 43 years. It was a paper mill, an enormous source of air pollution for its first couple decades, and now a superfund site in every way except for official designation ... which is likely imminent. Logging trucks and chip trucks were relentless hazards to navigate on the roads where I learned to drive, a constant reminder of the extractive industry that paid my dad a good wage for his entire lifetime. It is never lost on me that I was raised by an industry directly tied to the burning state of the world now, from a facility that makes it inadvisable to eat the fish downstream of its location even today, more than ten years since it shut down.
Now we travel back in time even before this mill. In my work, sweating through these closing days in finishing this first phase of writing Becoming Little Shell, I think about the extractive nature of the very industry that created my people: the fur trade. Where again would I be, would we Métis be, without it? That era ended badly for us but there were some decades where we were the most robust people in the region because of it. Some scholars today say Indigenous people bear as much responsibility for the crash of beaver populations, of bison populations, as white trappers and market hunters do simply because we were participants. Would we have trapped and hunted these animals to extinction? I would say no. But we will never know how things might have turned out because the most dire moments for our relatives, the animals, were the most dire moments for us too. They weren't the only ones being left to rot after what the colonists wanted had been bloodily stripped from them. We paid for our participation with our bodies, with our homelands, with our culture and with our lives.
The extractivism continues today. Not just in land and resources, but in art. In stories, and how these stories erase the extractivism waged against us. I'm thinking of two recent books in particular. The first is written by a guy who worked in the gun industry for a couple decades and has written a book essentially about how guns used to be wholesome and cultural and just "Ah, shucks!" American but now the industry has been taken over by the NRA and their radicalized right-wing sycophants and how terrible that is. Never mind that guns have always been terrible for more than half this country's population. In his narrative, the author fails to mention that guns have pretty much only ever existed to be aimed at brown people. That whatever lethal technology “the sportsman” enjoys from his weapon to efficiently dispose of his target at range was perfected in the killing of Indigenous people. Not just here either—America kills people all over the world and always has. THAT is the story, and when the review I edited of this book was canceled in the 11th hour because it (allegedly) focused more on what wasn't in the book than what was, I freaked out and dropped apron on working with this publication. How couldn't I? To write a book about guns in this country without taking on how they have been historically used to kill black and brown people is unconscionable and the ultimate flex of white supremacy. Especially coming from an author clearly puffed-up with political ambitions to be a new face in Montana's Democratic party, now far and away America's party of elite NIMBY assholes. Fuck this guy. I want to know what's so great about grandpa's heirloom Winchester or Springfield rifle when to me, two generations removed from having my family loaded onto rail cars, or told where to go and where to stay at the business end of those rifles, they are nothing more than signs of a murderous intent we still live in the middle of. Maybe this "Democrat" would sing a different tune if it was his family driven barefoot out into the snow while their home burned behind them.
One more outrage and I’ll be on my way: A few years ago a guy from somewhere else parachutes onto the reservation to my north and writes about a high school basketball team that is kicking every ass and has dedicated their season to a string of suicides on their reservation. He writes about it for a Major New York Publication. As a result, he is selected for a prize that "rewards and empowers two freelance journalists with an unrestricted cash award of $100,000 each, for demonstrated excellence in long-form, narrative, or deep reporting on stories about underrepresented and/or misrepresented groups in the present American landscape."
Somewhere along the line he gets the idea, or has it suggested to him, to follow up with a book. Of course he does! It's kind of a big deal around here, and because it's about Indians I get a number of people who assume I think it's awesome and want to celebrate it.
I think it sucks.
How much of that $100K went to the kids he wrote about? To suicide prevention programs? To anything? How much of the book advance? What percentage of sales is the publisher giving back? What percentage of royalties? Stories are important. How is the plundering of this story any different from an energy company going onto a reservation and sucking out some resource and keeping all the money for themselves? Someone's lights are on for another month because of it and I doubt that person says "Skoden!" unironically. I'd like to share an old school Six Mile Knuckle Sandwich with this guy and every New York publishing industry person who though it was a good idea and I'm not even violent. If this guy and his publisher are sharing anything I haven't seen evidence of it and I would love to be proved wrong. Skoden, bitches.
So where does this guy find the arrogance to think he is justified in coming in and taking this story, even if some Indians say it's okay? And maybe it is, in the short term. These players get their 15 minutes of fame and then it's over. People read it, and are moved, and heap praise on the author for writing about those poor Indians. Maybe another prize, another book deal. The arrogant white guy gets all the money, and another advance to his "career" that he can trade on for the rest of his life. This is all such a perfect microcosm of colonialism in America that I almost have to laugh. Because it is always about the long game, and even here, the white guy is winning that one once again.
There are people who will say it's important that the story be told even if it is told by an outsider. To raise awareness. For exposure. Says who? When a publication asks me to write for free, for the exposure, is that going to turn on so much as my flashlight? Feed me so much as a sandwich? Who are you to ask that of me?
Exposure without consistent, careful action doesn't strengthen tribal sovereignty. It doesn't provide resources to prevent young people from taking their own lives. It doesn't stop million dollar RVs from rolling through tribal lands without being stopped to either pay their fucking way or turned right back around altogether. It doesn't get disappeared Indigenous people the attention of country-wide media coverage the way the disappearance of a single white girl does. And parachuting in, even for a careful couple years, isn't really even exposure at all. It's exploitation.
I know plenty of my Indian neighbors will disagree with me. But sometimes Indians work against our best interests for the benefit of short term gain. It has always been this way, starting with Indigenous people who signed papers and traded for more than they needed in favor of immediate gratification, only to realize, too late, they had been duped.
Oof. There is an emotional toll to pay for thinking about these things. In facing the reality that change will be, at best, infinitesimal in my lifetime in so many ways because Indian lives and perspectives have been so utterly colonized. I have been colonized to the point of utter hypocrisy and it makes me a little crazy, just looking around the room I'm in at all the shit I've accumulated. Books, knickknacks, prints and art and all of it. Who suffered to extract the precious parts of an important landscape to build the marvel of technology that is the Mac I'm writing on? It's endless! It brutalizes the head. A friend once described me as "the worst minimalist ever" because I buy so damn many books. I mean, I led this newsletter with a suggestion to buy a book that has to come from the other side of the world of most readers of this garbage, for crissakes!
I exist because of extractivism and I can't stop thinking about it and I'm trying to be better.