The Indian Act and Indian Appropriations Act should be required reading for those concerned about climate change. The reason is simple: it is a study in land-based assimilation that leaves out the land itself. And, while it is easy to cast this as an atrocity of the past, it is impossible to ignore that the same policy procedures continue to trap Indigenous people on land that is flooding, eroding, burning, or thawing. The almost complete absence of land-based knowledge from scores of policy documents only strengthens ongoing settler colonial forms of domination because this absence reifies power structures while turning Indigenous knowledge into a form of nostalgia.
Traditional ecological knowledge and modern science both make claims of healing, and both provide methods for reading the land, growing an understanding of life on our planet. Customs overlap, mingle, and recede in different ways, an analogy of the two worlds. Scientists are trained to use the intellect and the senses, usually enhanced by technology. Spirit and emotion are set to the side, barring participation from their subjects. Historically, scientific training dismisses Indigenous knowledge as folklore, neither objective nor empirical, and thus not valid.
With less and less at hand, or underfoot, we are farther than ever from the land, from the plants upon which we depend, and from one another. But stories create connection, which is why I share my im- pression of Niugtaq Village—perhaps because it feels far or perhaps because scholarship has created more distance. Either way, I am looking to tell the story of retreat, one that is nonlinear and not eas- ily framed. What I know of this case is that the land was sacred, so relocation was not enough. Taken together the distance in approach to risk might give cues as to how healing begins within our common, planetary dislocation. Dis- is a Latin prefix meaning lack of, apart, away, in a different location. If these times link humans to one anoth- er through dislocation and displacement, then re- is probably the only prefix we can turn to.
The focus on human struggle overlooks the most effective weapon of the Bureau of Indian Affairs: The United States did not recognize the legal right of any Indigenous tribe to its land. In other words, the command of the Bureau lies not in its physical brutality or outrageously violent removals, as history tells us, but in the subtle power of policy that dislocates people from place, turning land into property, and plants into resources by preventing access to land-based practices, traditional lifeways, and ancestral places.
Indigenous life is not a passive force adapting to an inert and manipulated environment; rather, indigeneity is found in a co-creation that transforms the land, making it habitable for manifold species. The landscape is alive, activated by and with humans and other creatures over thousands of years. Author and activist Vine Deloria Jr. compares the people-land disruption to a kind of magic that worked on the psyche of each Indian. Thus, the greatest accomplishment of the Bureau of Indian Affairs was not the taking of land, it was the making of Indigenous landlessness.