This is the sixth post in the series Historians Confront the Climate Emergency, hosted by ActiveHistory.ca, NiCHE (Network in Canadian History & Environment), Historical Climatology, and Climate History Network.
Molly Swain, University of Alberta
Molly Swain is a Métis woman, or otipêmsiw-iskwêw, from Calgary, Alberta (otôskwanihk), in Treaty 7 territory, Métis Nation of Alberta (MNA) Region 3, currently living in amiskwaciwâskahikan (Edmonton), MNA Region 4, Treaty 6 and Nehiyaw-Pwat (Iron Confederacy) territory. A PhD student in the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta, Molly also co-hosts otipêyimisiw-iskwêwak kihci-kîsikohk (Métis in Space), an Indigenous feminist science fiction podcast, along with Chelsea Vowel. She is part of the directorship of the Métis in Space Land Trust and a member of Free Lands Free Peoples, an anti-colonial penal abolition group.
Politically, Molly describes herself as an Indigenous, specifically Métis, anarcha-feminist, with the goal of “total anti-colonial liberation,” including “the destruction of white cis-hetero-patriarchal supremacy, colonialism, capitalism, ableism, and states, as well as the regeneration of both new and remembered ways of living together with the land and with one another,” humans and other-than-humans alike.
Series co-editor Edward Dunsworth spoke with Molly over Zoom on 14 July 2021. Transcript edited for clarity and length.
Edward Dunsworth: Thank you, Molly, for speaking with ActiveHistory.ca. We are thrilled to have you participate in this series. To begin, could you tell me a bit about Back 2 the Land: 2 Land, 2 Furious? But before we get to that, you must tell me: are you excited for the release of F9?
Molly Swain: So, full disclosure, the Fast and Furious franchise is very much my co-host [of Métis in Space] Chelsea’s jam. I can’t really watch car crash movies.
Back 2 the Land: 2 Land, 2 Furious is sort of an extension of our science fiction podcast. They may seem very different, but in our minds, they’re quite intimately connected. When Chelsea and I started the podcast in Montreal back in 2014, one of the things that we wanted to do was to get back to our home territories in Alberta, which finally was able to happen in 2016. Our initial plan was to live outside of Edmonton, in Chelsea’s community of Lac Ste. Anne (manitow-sâkahikan). And things didn’t really work out that way. But it’s something that always sort of stuck in our minds, that it’d be great to have land that we could bring people out to, especially folks who live in the inner city of Edmonton, who maybe don’t have access to non-urban spaces to do traditional activities, learn skills, to form those kinds of relationships that are often harder to do in urban spaces – especially in the inner city which is so heavily policed, both by actual cops as well as by settlers.
So we talked about it and said, “Let’s just put it out into the world and see what happens.” We started a fundraiser, thinking that it would take probably two to three years to approach the amount of money that we would need to buy a piece of land. And lo and behold, a couple of weeks later, a guy from the States, who we call our “sugar settler,” got in touch and said, “Hey, I have tons of money. And I would like to give you money to buy a piece of land.”
And we said, “Okay, buddy, tell us another one. Like, we’ll send you our credit card information, we’ll give you our social insurance numbers, right?” We were like, “it’s a scam.” But as it turns out, he was completely serious. So our two- to three-year timeline shrunk to about three months, and we found a piece of land that is absolutely incredible. Chelsea calls Lac Ste. Anne County an exercise in futility to make it really productive agricultural land. It’s sort of semi-muskeggy, semi-forested – just not the best for agriculture, but it’s perfect for what we’re interested in. So we have most of a small lake, we have sort of a swampy muskeggy area, we have some rolling hills, and we have some forests. The biodiversity is amazing.
ED: How does “land back” relate to the climate emergency? And what role should the return or transfer of land and resources to Indigenous and other historically dispossessed peoples play in climate politics?
MS: The first thing that comes up for me is that well-trod statistic that Indigenous peoples protect 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity. I think that’s a good place to start when we’re thinking about land back in relation to climate change and the climate crisis. But the other thing that we miss out on, thinking about this from a historical perspective, is that while Europe was stripping its land base of things like arable soil, forests, fish, other resources, Indigenous peoples in the Americas were living lives of incredible abundance in balance with the land. You read old missionary journals, and the missionaries are stunned at the abundance and the wealth that they’re encountering. They’ll write about how they can just pick food up off the ground, it’s just lying there ready to eat, right? So we have to understand that Indigenous peoples continue to protect biodiversity and biodiversity is also, in a lot of ways, a form of wealth and abundance. And that so much of European history, particularly in the modern and colonial periods has been about extracting that abundance and that wealth and moving it because they’ve already stripped their own lands of those resources.
Indigenous peoples are [engaging with the land] in balance. There are instances where an imbalance occurs, but you also hear about how Indigenous peoples took active steps to correct imbalances right away, which requires a level of scientific and relational knowledge that really continues to elude Euro settlers and these contemporary settler states. Dr. Paul Gareau has referred to this as the technology of relationality. I think it’s really important that we understand this knowledge as something that’s spiritual and cultural, but that is also scientific and technological.
[On the other side], to me, it really boils down to what Aileen Moreton-Robinson has called white possessiveness. Her theory is that whiteness exists in order to possess, to transform relations into possessions, into things to be owned, used, exploited, etc. And so we can really see white possessiveness as this foil to a more relational way of understanding the world and all of the beings in the world. One of the questions that I have and have been thinking about in relation to this recently is: can we start building relationships with settlers? Can settlers start to do the work of relationality without dismantling whiteness?
What are we, as mainstream society, willing to do in order to bring the way that we live in the world back into balance? That’s a big question. But I think one of the tried and true, proven methods of doing that is land back, the literal return of the land. And not just this idea of traditional territories. All of the land is Indigenous land, and all of the land needs to be returned to the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples. That also means the return of Indigenous capacity to make decisions regarding the well-being of the land, and the peoples and other-than-humans that live on the land, right?
A lot of the critiques of land back that I’ve seen are like, “Oh, you just want to have Indigenous ethno-states” and this and that. And, of course, the answer is no. What it’s about is the righting of historical injustice, and about recognizing that Indigenous peoples have the scientific knowledge and technologies to address this massive imbalance that settler colonialism has created.
ED: You speak sometimes on your podcast Métis in Space and elsewhere about “Indigenous futures.” Can you explain what you mean by this, and how the climate emergency informs your perspective on Indigenous futures?
MS: Métis in Space, is an Indigenous feminist science fiction podcast. Well, we do speculative fiction, which is sci fi, fantasy, and horror. But science fiction is our original love in a lot of ways. And science fiction is really all about imagining futures and imagining other ways of being.
It asks some of the big questions, like, what is the nature of life? Of being human? How can we solve our biggest crises? How can we relate to one another better? The genre answers those questions through world building, building worlds where these conflicts and questions can be staged. And both the worlds and what populates those worlds – cool technologies, novel forms of governance, interesting aliens, all of that – has really tended, in the mainstream, to reflect white colonial visions, anxieties, and ideas about what the future can and should look like.
So what we’re interested in doing with the podcast is in part to intervene in these narratives and to offer alternatives by doing world building ourselves. We do that through Indigenous futurism, a term coined by Anishinaabe scholar Grace Dillon that my co-host Chelsea Vowel has adapted to the Métis through her work on Métis futurisms. So, Indigenous futurisms are basically about reading Indigenous people back into the future. So much of what settler colonialism is about, so much of what this mythology is built on, is that Indigenous peoples are disappearing, dying out, not suited to modernity, not able to survive in the future because we’re stuck in the past, etc. Indigenous futurism has this radical idea that Indigenous people will exist in the future, and that our futures can look Indigenous. We’re not going to be assimilated. We’re not just going to exist on the margins, hyper-dispossessed. Radical transformation is possible, and Indigenous peoples can lead that with cool Indigenous technologies, with cool Indigenous forms of governance and ways of relating, by interacting with alien species in a way that is not necessarily about conquering or about being threatened or threatening (thinking about the invasion narrative as a settler anxiety of encountering a species that is going to do to them what they have done to Indigenous people).
So I think Indigenous futurisms are a form of what Daniel Heath Justice has called “imagining otherwise,” but also a form of remembering otherwise. It’s calling back to the relational networks and obligations of our ancestors, to build towards futures for everybody.
There are a few areas where I think where this intersects with the climate emergency. The first is Elizabeth Povinelli’s idea of toxic sovereignty, where no matter what happens, Indigenous relationships to the land are such that we will be on the land and with the land no matter what. She uses the example of uranium extraction sites in Australia that have been essentially abandoned by the state. Nobody’s really supposed to live there. But Indigenous people still go to that land, they’re still on that land, they still live with that land. And they exercise sovereignty in a way that they weren’t previously able to, because the state has basically abandoned it. That’s a form of toxic sovereignty.
As the climate crisis intensifies, there are probably going to be similar spaces where the state does not have the same kind of grip on the land and on the people. So toxic sovereignty, I think, is one really interesting thing to think through, not just for Indigenous people, but about how everybody is going to live on and relate to the land in the future.
I think another key piece is the recognition of the personhood and autonomy of other beings, including those in the spirit world. Eden Robinson’s work – her Trickster trilogy – is fabulous for that. My co-host Chelsea Vowel is releasing a book of Métis futurist short stories, Buffalo is the New Buffalo that I really recommend folks check out when it comes out in April 2022. Another piece is going to be about recentering and honouring Indigenous queer, trans and Two Spirit people in our societies and in our futures. Joshua Whitehead’s Love after the End anthology is so fabulous for that if people are interested in an Indigenous futurist take on that.
ED: Fascinating – I’ve never heard of the concept of toxic sovereignty. It seems like almost like the flip side of the coin of environmental racism. With environmental racism we typically think of people being shunted onto degraded lands, or being restricted to them, whether through government policy or market forces. This is kind of the flip side of that, with lands being damaged by colonial extraction and capitalist activity, and people being linked to those lands not through coercion but because these are their homelands.
MS: I think it’s really important to recognize that toxic sovereignty is something that has, to a certain extent, some liberatory potential but still exists within this framework of intense environmental racism and violence. Toxic sovereignty can only exist through colonial violence, which doesn’t make that okay. But I think that toxic sovereignty helps us to imagine what it means to live on a planet that is not ideal for human life and thriving. In the context of state abandonment, who do we turn to? How do we exercise sovereignty? And by that I mean, how do we fulfill our relational obligations?
Thank you to Megan Coulter for her work transcribing this interview.