My name is emsenn and I'm 30 years old, Itažípčo of the Lakȟóta but assimilated into whiteness from birth until my early 20s. I grew up on the unceded traditional territory of the Shawnee, Miami, and Wyandotte Nations, among others, and wrote this on the unceded traditional territory of the Shakori-Eno people, where I live with Indigenous people from many Nations, tribes, and bands, as well as people brought here through diaspora, displacement, and settler-colonization.
In "Of ducks and illusions", I share how my personal decolonizing has led me to believe in unontologizing.
I slept well last night, though with many meaningful dream to unweave this morning. But my spirits feel high, and I’m excited to be writing to y’all, though I’m not yet certain what I’ll say.
I live far from Hé Sápa, my chosen center of the universe. In fact, I’ve only seen them once, driving by in the backseat of my mom’s adoptive father’s Buick car, while his wife read Reader’s Digest in the passenger seat. I would’ve been 10, and my dad had gifted me a Palm m100 – a PDA; precursors to smartphones. I used it to meticulously write out dialog for a simple role-playing game whose source my dad had shown me how to edit and compile. All that to say, I’ve never really been there.
Yet sometimes there are little bits of serendipity that let me feel like that place, and the people of that place, are “home.” Now, I don’t reckon it’s anything mystical. Spend half a decade reading texts about a philosophy, with the intent of culturally, if not physically, immigrating, and you’ll probably develop a bit of a cultural “accent.”
The week before last I drafted a poem, that I’ve lost since my data was lost, but it went something like this.
The things we owe to each other
The things we say to each other
The things we do to each other
These are what give unity,
not our forms of government,
not our acts of labor,
not our faith in ourselves.
Our relationship to each other is interminable,
and that can be a source of strength.
A bit clunky but it hints to a few intertwined ideas. Regardless of philosophy, we are here together – human, animal, plant, stone, and nebula. This morning I was sent a link to Ruth H. Hopkins’s essay, "The Ties That Bind," released on the Web last week. (I’d suggest putting on the song "All Nations Rise" by Lyla June, read Hopkin’s piece, then return here.)
Reading it, I was unsurprised to see Ruth and I appeared to be thinking about the same sorts of concepts. As they explain, Indigenous peoples have a lot of experience with their way of life: it seems inevitable this would lead to multiple people reaching similar conclusion in response to similar information.
The question of decolonizing
Decolonizing, indigenizing. What do they mean, and how do we do them? I feel like sometimes I am writing sheet after sheet just chewing on these questions, and I never give an answer, I just look at the question in a different way. From another perspective, though, I think looking at the question in a different way might be a form of answer.
In Western tradition, divination is often a way of re-imagining a problem through metaphor, and storytelling fills a similar role in many Indigenous cultures. While these aren’t answers to the questions-at-hand themselves, they’re tools for getting to answers, making them answers to the question, “How do I answer questions?”
And it may be that making space for alternative answers to that question is decolonization. It may be that a certain sort of answer is indigenizing.
I get asked in different ways questions about what I think the future will look like, and these questions often ask what we can do to get there. I don’t know if those questions can be related. What I do now, gardening, composting, so on, is what I need to do for today, so there is a home here for future generations. But what I do today is not what I expect those future generations will be doing. Had my ancestors insisted on giving me tools for their time period, I’d be a crack shot with a bow, perhaps, if I lived where one could shoot a bow.
Instead, they worked to pass on tools for dealing with my world of today: tools for building culture and love, not hatchets and tipis.
“What does ‘#LandBack,’ at a global scale, look like?”
“What should I do to practice ‘#LandBack?'”
These questions don’t recognize a knowledge the askers hold:
“I know what global kyriarchism looks like” and “I know how to practice it.”
What is kyriarchal practice? Answering questions with kyriarchal complicity.
What is anti-kyriarchal practice? Looking for different answers.
What is Indigenous praxis? Using answers based in truth.
So what’s truth? Taking a break now, but when I return I’ve got a story about ducks.
Iktomi and the lake of ducks
Illusion and truth
I learned this story from Joseph M Marshall III, where he relates the story to the Lakota concept of “truth,” though I felt Marshall’s explanation did more to explain “illusion,” the concept Marshall contrasts to truth, more than truth itself.
I can see the story as a metaphor for the relationship between wasicu and wasicula, the ducks and Iktomi. White folk, the ducks, kyrichists, colonials, dance along to the beat of their society, one that I’ve come to learn that not only do many of its philosophers believe is an illusion, but many outsiders through history have seen it that way too.
Marshall says the truth is death: that which lives will die; all things. All else is either illusion, as in falsehood, or it is a metaphor for that truth. This doesn’t just apply to “living” things, Marshall implies, and I’ll explain: even our universe will encounter its end, which in colloquial English is called its “heat death.” The Lakota truth hints to an understanding of balance poorly captured by “for every action, an equal and opposite reaction,” and “energy cannot be created or destroyed.”
While this appreciation of balance might show up on the fringes of kyriarchist culture, it doesn’t seem to have a place in the wider culture, and what places it exists seem to be shrinking. Esther, my partner, recently was provided reading material from a kyriarchal institution intended to teach the fundamentals of corporate accounting. However, the fundaments involved understanding shareholder dividends as a liability, made no mention of depreciation, and didn’t directly touch on concepts like balancing a ledger or understanding equity. That is to say, where once a concept of balance existed, in the culture of accounting, now its been replaced by bureaucratic concepts. Instead of using their senses, the ducks just follow the tune of Iktomi’s song. I can imagine a more sinister ending to the story of Iktomi and the ducks on the lake.
A darker story
After dancing for a while, and many ducks getting bashed, a few ducks began to get hungry. But they knew to keep their eyes shut. “Iktomi, we’re hungry!” the ducks whined. Iktomi said he would help, and told several ducks to sing along with him. “While you sing, I’ll cook us a feast,” Iktomi declared excitedly. The ducks were too busy dancing and singing, and too tired and hungry, to remember whether they’d seen Iktomi carrying food with his branches, down the hill. And when they smelled a savory thing cooking over a fire Iktomi had built, they stopped worrying about it.
“Keep your eyes shut, and I’ll feed you. After our feast, I’ll play more songs, as long as you keep your eyes shut!” Iktomi waded among the ducks, carefully feeding each a delicious morsel. As he went, he gobbled up bits of food himself, for it was the ducks he’d killed earlier, roasted over the branches Iktomi had claimed were his songs… except the one he was using to kill ducks. After the feast, Iktomi started a new song. This song, the words told the ducks to hunt for little worms and fish in the mud and banks of the lake, but to keep their eyes shut tight. And so there the ducks were, singing to each other and hunting for worms, tripping over roots and bonking into each other. Iktomi made his way through the ducks, singing things like, “this is pretty nice, isn’t it. You’re happy and comfortable. This would be a nice way to raise a family, wouldn’t it?”
As Iktomi sang, he killed more ducks, gobbling some whole and others, roasting and feeding to the other ducks as they lived their new lives, eyes shut tight. And so the ducks went on to have ducklings. Naturally the ducklings, when they got to a certain age, opened their eyes. They saw the lake, and the worms, and Iktomi roasting ducks, but they didn’t understand any of it, for they’d never seen any of it before. And before they could imagine what it might be they were seeing, their parents would shout, “Quick! Shut your eyes! Join the dance!”
The ducklings did what they were told, though some were curious and asked “why?” They were told about Iktomi and the feasts, but it was only some ducklings that asked, and the parents were far too busy with their inefficient blind hunting to explain very well, anyway. So the ducklings grew up, keeping their eyes shut, dancing to the songs of the elder ducks, pecking around at dirt, hoping for a feast. Meanwhile, Iktomi was still going around, filling his belly. Soon, generations of ducks had lived this way, and other ways of living were forgotten. Ducks would disappear, even siblings, but to these ducks, now, that was nothing unusual.
Every so often, another flock of ducks would fly by and notice their kin, bumbling around, singing a cacophony about how to hunt in all the wrong ways. “What are you doing? Open your eyes! Iktomi is eating you!” these ducks would call. But the ducks on the ground were tired – hunting with your eyes shut is tough! They didn’t have the energy to listen, and the few that did listen, and did try and open their eyes, found the world painfully bright, so they’d shut their eyes again.
“Sometimes it’s bright, like when there’s lots of snow on the ground. You’ll get used to it!” the other ducks would encourage. But it’d been so long since they’d seen the snow, with their eyes closed like that, they didn’t know what the other ducks meant. And their songs said their way of life was very comfortable, they didn’t have to get used to anything. So the ducks kept their eyes shut, and in between naps, Iktomi gobbled up as many as he wanted.
The Collaborator's dance
A lot of my writing touches on the question of how can a duck open its eyes, without a close encounter with, or losing a family member to, Iktomi. I think an answer might be that the duck needs to ask itself if there is a different way to do what they’re doing. And that has to start with a recognition of what they’re doing. When they peck at dirt with their eyes closed, they aren’t “hunting,” they’re not feeding themselves: they’re dancing to the song Iktomi gave them, and feeding themselves is just a consequence.
This is reflected in the speech of Collaborators, and their dance move is “money.” Collaborators don’t need food. They need money. They don’t need shelter. They need money. “Money just buys those things!” is how it’s commonly sung, but attempt to raise shelter without paying money for land access, and your shelter will be destroyed. Look at the endemic destruction of “homeless camps” across Turtle Island. And there are more mechanisms for enforcing food apartheid against those without money than I could ever document.
The world of Collaborators is an illusion, maintained by songs like “rights” and “rule of law,” and its up to each person to “open their eyes” and look for the true world, where shelter is shelter regardless of magic scrolls.
This inability to live outside an illusion doesn’t end at a term of phrase. I was reading a report compiled by a coalition of academic scientists and engineers, recently. It stated that the active sequestering of atmosopheric carbon needed to occur, or several mechanisms of climate dissolution would be unavoidable.
While I think “sequester” is too precise of a verb for the issue, I agree that carbon must be transferred from certain parts of our environment. That’s a truth. However, the report went on to endorse a specific and immediate set of actions which I think indicate how completely these folk live within an illusion, here implemented in part through academic specialization. The report suggested the establishment of oceanic kelp farms, which they say would sequester carbon while solving world hunger, as the kelp is edible. But if the kelp is distribtued as food, the carbon in it is not sequestered; it’s just trapped in small ways: in the kelp, in our gut, in the soil. Each time, carbon comes back into the environment from which it was removed.
As they explain it, their plan violates their fundamental physical laws, yet it is their recommendation. The numbers balance for the climate scientists, who see carbon leave the atmosphere and get trapped in kelp. And the numbers balance for the engineers, who see carbon enter the kelp farms and leave as a market commodity. But it so clearly doesn’t work if you focus on reality: pin your focus on one carbon atom you want to sequester, and walk through this plan. Your carbon atom will ungracefully end back where it started, after being offgassed through some organic function. But the lyrics of the song have no place for that, and the singers are too tired to find it, and those that do find it, find it painful.
There’s a paper, infamous among a certain group, produced in the 1960s, that looked at the intersection of computers and society. It cautioned that integrating computers into the workplace could have a consequence that was going to be negative: a cooling of imagination. As workplaces digitized, that which was unable to be quantified would become less and less important, until it wasn’t cared about at all. The application of such limits, coupled with an explicit drive for short-term profits, would leave these corporations unable to perceive and adapt to anything not captured within the quantified data they were already tracking.
More recently there have been similar claims made about the digitization of personal life, coupled with surveillance. They’re the same story as Iktomi and the duck pond, just from different perspectives. I apologise if I overstate my case, but I want to be clear, we live in a world in which most people know nothing but Iktomi’s song. I apologise if I understate it, I could go on about semiotics and Simulation, but I am writing by hand and that is less fun than stories about ducks.
Those free ducks
At this point I feel it has been well-established that Collaborators are the ducks of the story, and their culture is Iktomi. This raises questions about who are those who are indigenous to the truth, and who are those indigenizing to it? I like Marshall’s telling here, because it shows indigenous as a natural culture of humans, and kyriarchism as something temporary, just a trick. This speaks past the illusion: Indigenous or not, we all have the capacity to live human lives. But that is outside of our time, and our time requests strong work toward clear answers.
Those indigenous to truth are those Indigenous to place, and so those decolonizing are those indigenizing to truth. The ducks who fly by and call out, in my version, are the Indigenous, and those who force open their eyes are the Decolonial. The Indigenous person’s role, then, is to live life, and this is reflected in our world: the resilience of Indigenous peoples across the globe is proof of their commitment to their way of life. They live within truth, and so their relationship to illusion is one of vigilant disbelief. And the Collaborators live within illusion, so their relationship is one of vigilant belief.
I hope y’all don’t mind the language, but I assume my readership consider themselves, in some language, decolonial. Decolonialism, while radical, is different from radicalism because it implies a specific set of beliefs about radicalism. And so I have the question: what is our relationship to illusion, us decolonials? What is our relationship to Iktomi? And how much control do we have in this relationship?
As far as I know, the folk I’m sending this letter to, you all, were raised like me, by people themselves raised generations deep inside kyriarchism, and our relationship to the illusion is near-total dependence. When I speak to dependence here, I don’t limit it to dependence for material needs like food and shelter, though that’s definitely a consequence of our dependence. But we didn’t stumble into relying on Iktomi for food. First came the belief in his songs.
The words that bind us
There’s a series of essays being written online by someone whose name I don’t have on hand, dealing with, in a sense, programming languages as linguistics. The first essay, the only released as I write this, includes in its introduction a statement similar to the following: “Perhaps programming is akin to writing in Ancient Egypt: known only by a few, yet enabling culture at-large to flourish.”
An interesting perspective, but one that relies on a belief in at least a few illusions. We have a really subjective opinion of when a culture can be said to flourish, and a lot of ignorance about every culture, contemporary or historic. It’s a big claim to say writing allowed for civilization to get going, but its one a lot of folk are taught and even if they don’t actively believe it, its reinforced throughout our perspective.
We won’t know what the culture was before writing, nor do we know much about the cultures of the time that didn’t write. Maybe the oral histories were regarded by all, even the literate, as far more civilized. I have heard myself compelling stories about the risks writing can put on a culture’s ability to create. If comptuers limit the abilities of the workplace, over time, to what can be digitally encoded, does writing limit the abilities of a culture to what can be encoded in literature? And going futher, can the same be said for linguistics generally?
"What’s the matter with you; feel right! Don’t you feel right baby? Hail, yeah, get it from the main vine, all right. I said find it, find it, go on and love it if you like it.” - "Come and Get Your Love," by Redbone.
A certain perspective argues these, each, are a layer of illusion over the truth of a culture, and its this perspective that says writing marks a death of a relatinship between a people and their culture, replacing it with a relationship to illusion. The ducks, by putting their way of life in song, stopped having relationships with the worms, and started a relationship with the verses of their song. After many generations, the ducks have no relationship with any of their true relatives. They relate only to their song, which might have some perspective on the world-that-is, but often exists only within itself.
So the illusion doesn’t just provide food, it defines it, as something you get with money, from stores and restaurants. And while a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet, with no name at all, a rose becomes a confusion, reference possible only through common metaphor.
This highlights the totality of our dependence. We need the kyriarchy for food, to understand the concept of food, and to relate that concept to others. If, somehow, we remove any of those dependencies, broader cultural frameworks like our metaphors fill the gap with illusory references.
So enclaved within a culture, that disallows relationship without itself as intermediary, how much control do we have over our relationship with Iktomi?
Culture is an environment, and how much control I have over an environment is largely a matter of perspective. Magic wasicu scrolls say I have no control over the land near me, the trees I’ve plant say something else. There are limits obviously, and an unfortunate truth is so many folk are singing with the illusion that they can inhibit all control in a place for a time. But another truth is that all power diminishes, and that doesn’t have to be our problem. We need to know the mechanisms of the power, but an intimacy with its illusions is mental baggage I think we can safely let go of.
Instead, lets get back to developing control over our relationship with our culture. Until now, culture has mostly been a metaphorical song, but allow me to replace or mix the metaphor with the other I’ve used: culture is a place.
I had the fortune to receive SERE training and in my own words in order to control a physical environment you need to be familiar, engaged, and imaginative. Those first ducks who saw Iktomi coming down the hillside were familiar with him enough to know to be careful, but the many-generations-later ducks were totally unfamiliar with Iktomi, let alone the rest of the natural world. We lack the necessary familiarity with our culture, outside itself, to control it. We can learn it, though, from those who have maintained a knowledge of their culture as it relates to the natural world, not its own songs. That sort of familiarity can be powerful, such as when it lets us see ourselves as playful ducks.
But the peoples with that familiarity live their own lives, and they cannot be intimate with every consequence of every cultural habit. So we must supplement their experience with an active engagement in our reality. We must look, as carefully and as honestly as we can, at what is really in this world, and what is a song we’ve made up along the way. For many of us, living in physical environments entirely constructed by kyriarchists, that can be really tricky. So we need to look to at what truths we can trust. Like mathematicians trying to build a proof, let us start with an axiom:
Life leads to death; there is a balance to everything.
To make our proof, we have one tool, our first tool, though many have put it down to focus on singing the song. To build a culture of truth, we need to imagine new relationships between things. Reimagine your relationship to food, work, land, language. Be so imaginative that you lose concepts, past the bounds of language, to answer simple question: where does today’s food come from. Be so imaginative you ask the question in a hundred ways. Imagine how other things might see and solve your problems. Stone was crushed and burnted, turned to gasses that will kill us, to bring these words to you. Imagine breathing noxious fumes, and imagine using that breath to explain to the uncrushed stone why they’re next.
I don’t know what the future will look like. I don’t know what #LandBack looks like. My imagination is more than full with today, trying to imagine things like what this settler means, really, when they say they “need a new car,” or what this bird means with its screams. I can, and will, share the illusions and truths as I see them, and the actions I take, but I don’t know if I can imagine the future, the way some of you all have asked.
And this against the grain of many contemporary futurists, with whom I’m sometimes grouped. It might even seem to place me with the Luddities, especially as I write this by hand feet away from a working computer and complain that maybe learning to speak killed culture. But I think that would be a mischaracterization. While I don’t imagine “the future,” I do keep in my mind my relatives, and that includes those related to me across time.
All the people that will come after me now will be affected by my actions and inactions, forming our relationship. And their choices, of interaction or not, with the effects of my life, change that relationship. As example, my relationship with my ancestors changes by me learning, or not, Lakota. They risked beating and worse to speak their language, so it would be available to me. Our relationship changes when I accept that gift, just as if it were a sweater from a cousin.
I say this to highlight the extent to which imagination, with real-world utility, can be pushed. It is one thing to imagine a source of income that isn’t your dayjob. It’s another to imagine the relationship between you, your food, and humans that’ll be around seven generations from now. And I think its that sort of imagination that’ll be what lets us change our relationship with our culture. And until we can change our relationship to culture, changing the culture, we can’t choose our relationship with that culture. And until we have that choice, we can’t change how we’ll move into the future, as individuals or as people.
We need that choice, that imagination, to be able to adapt to the opportunities and limits of our relationships, with the world and each other. A friend, one of us, asked if it was illusory to view the work of decolonization as a “megaproject.”
I can’t think of any project given more labor than our many cultures. The hours spent hacking at English dwarf the Pyramids or the Apollo Program, and that’s one facet of one culture. In this way I think the work of building culture is certainly a megaproject. However it is also certainly too large to centrally manage. Instead, we can look at it like another type of megaproject humans have experience conducting in a decentralized manner: terraforming.
It might be there’s almost no continental land which hasn’t been terraformed. What hasn’t been intentionally developed has had its waterways changed, to say nothing of discrete projects like the Mounds or the Amazon. These projects were enabled not by bureaucratic quantification but cultures. Cultures which encouraged their people to develop a familiarity, engagement, and imagination toward their relationship with the world, centered on the land around them, not self-referential cultural illusions.
And so that’s our Land Back megaproject: to center the land and our relationship to it, as a global conglomerate of cultures. How that looks will vary by time and place, like any project of that scale, but it will all be a transition to a culture that centers truth.
This letter has taken a while to draft, and while its quite long, I feel like, perhaps for the first time, I have vocalized why I am resistant to answering certain questions. And hopefully I have established a good framework for future letters. I would prefer to spend more time talking about ethnopedology and the plants I see in my day, but I was – and am – concerned that without providing a thorough introduction, I will be misunderstood, however unintentionally.
Thank you all for taking the time to read this. I know many of you are actively interested in performing this sort of work with me. Hopefully this will give us the necessary footing for me to do more than agree that its a nice idea.