Dr. Clint Carroll is an Indigenous political ecologist in the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of Colorado Boulder. His work deals with issues related to Indigenous environmental sovereignty (particularly in regard to the Cherokee Nation, of which he is a citizen) in settler states and the concept of environmental production, or the way the environment is influenced by the social constructs that govern a people’s relation to it. His book, Roots of Our Renewal (2015), focuses on how Indigenous Americans can employ existing governance models (i.e. the state) in order to practice environmental sovereignty.
I chose to interview him because of my own interest in the concept of sovereignty and how different “ways of knowing” manifest in material or physical terms. I am sympathetic to critiques of sovereignty as a legal form of recognition, but Carroll offers ways to reimagine or reclaim sovereignty on a peoples’ own terms. This kind of practical political solution features throughout Indigenous theorists’ writings: the immediacy of the problem is brought to the fore and theory is forced to contend with what is happening on the ground. This is evident, too, in the notion of “environmental production,” which shows how an epistemological orientation or imaginary shapes the physical landscape in profound ways. The environment is not merely a backdrop against which debates play out; it is inescapably a product of social relations.
Waring: When reflecting on identity and identification, people often observe that the extent to which they feel connected to a particular community fluctuates over time. In some of the earlier narratives that we were reading in class, authors described how, at times, they would embrace their Indigenous identity while, in other moments, they would try to shy away from it because theirs isn’t the dominant culture. I was wondering if your own identification with and connection to the Cherokee Nation fluctuated or evolved over time and, if so, how and why?
Carroll: OK, I’m just curious. It seems, from these questions, like you’ve read some of my book. I don’t know if Professor Gordon assigned it in class or if you just read it on the side, if it’s something that you sought out on your own.
Waring: So, I haven’t read the book, but I read about the book. I read an article called “Shaping New Homelands.”
Carroll: Okay, got it. That gives me a little bit of a perspective on what works of mine you’ve read. My preface to the book talks a little bit about where I’m coming from as a scholar and my relationship with the communities, and then, on a broader level, the Cherokee Nation as a tribal nation. There’s a lot of history around Native identity as being informed by or affected by colonial policies that attempted to assimilate Native peoples. To varying degrees, you see communities who have experienced relocation, and a lot of times this was the impact of federal policies like termination relocation in the 1950s, and even policies before that that really sought to take families out of tribal communities and therefore encourage assimilation into the mainstream of society. Cherokees have seen a lot of that as well. In my family, it was relocation to California, for jobs in Northern California. Ever since my father and his generation, we’ve been separated from the land base of the nation. I say “land base” intentionally (rather than “homelands”) because we’re a removed tribe, originally from the southeastern United States and what is now North Carolina/eastern Tennessee. All these kinds of histories are really important in thinking about identity formation, leading up to my approach to the work. I was raised in Dallas, Texas. It’s about four and a half hours away from Tahlequah, which is the capital of the Cherokee Nation. Part of the processes of movement was for economic opportunities for my mother and father who relocated there. So I am a first-generation Texan, you know, from Dallas. Some of my upbringing involved reconnecting with family in Oklahoma.
But it really was the initial experience that I had as an intern fresh out of my BA working for the tribal environmental office that reconnected me in a significant way as an adult. That really starts the story of the book, of how I came to arrive in Oklahoma with an academic background in Anthropology and American Indian Studies. That led to some preliminary field work that eventually informed my graduate studies at Berkeley and the dissertation. So getting at your question, being Cherokee has always been part of my identity, but being raised as part of what we call the “at-large” Cherokee community or, you could say, diaspora, certainly there were elements missing in terms of the cultural, linguistic, place-based parts of my identity. These formed later on when I was doing that deep ethnographic work. Acknowledging these colonial histories and the work of reconnecting brought about the work as a whole.
Waring: That caused you to reconceive of your own place in the broader scheme of things?
Carroll: Well, I would be a citizen of the Cherokee Nation regardless of my interaction with the community. By and large, Cherokee people, or at least citizens of the Cherokee Nation who live outside of the state, outside of the tribal land-base, go back and connect with family to the extent possible. My extended family, my immediate family, and I would have that connection regardless. But I think my work, in terms of its focus on culture, language, place, ecology, and politics informed my ongoing identity-formation processes and my own understanding of my position within my nation. For someone who was born and raised in a Cherokee community, that’s a different subjectivity from what I will ever have. But, at the same time, as a nation, we’re all pretty aware of differing political, social, and cultural identities within our pretty diverse national community.
Waring: What prompted you to start thinking about the issues of sovereignty and its relation to ecology
Carroll: It was a strong emphasis in my undergraduate education that, in turn, made me direct my attention back home, as it were. I say “home,” in the sense that I consider the Cherokee Nation my home just as much as I do Longmont, Colorado or Dallas, Texas. But, turning my attention back home was informed by other environmental anthropology projects that I’d been working on. It prompted a lot of questions for me: How can I apply this type of training to communities back home and what kind of difference will it offer? What kind of difference will it make? What will it offer the people?
Waring: Given that you’ve now been working on these issues for years, how do you conceive of that relationship?
Carroll: Well, there’s definitely a connection between sovereignty and the ability to protect tribal lands or the ability to enable the flourishing of local ecology. The way that sovereignty is wielded by tribal nations to assert claims to land will, in some cases, seek to conserve these landscapes in a way that preserves cultural “resources,” for lack of a better term. That’s one of the reasons why I, in the book especially, engage this conversation between Native American and Indigenous studies and political ecology. That engagement, from these two different approaches, really drives the book as a whole in terms of looking at how the Cherokee Nation specifically, but also more broadly how Indigenous nations, are using sovereignty or articulating sovereignty. In the case of the Cherokee Nation, this articulation is on a nation-state formation and that defines our sovereignty. We have a Secretary of State and we have this tribal governmental apparatus that presents this political positionality as a nation-state. These types of dominant formations are based, at least in their origins, in Europe. But how can Indigenous nations in North America wield these tools in ways that ultimately protect culture, but also connections to land, plants, and other-than-human beings? That’s the way I see this relationship between sovereignty and ecology and political ecology as a field. Political ecology is a field that I spent a lot of time exploring through my coursework and my relationship with my primary advisor as a grad student at Berkeley in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management. The questions are, What is this approach to environmental issues missing in terms of engagement with Native communities? By and large, even though Native studies is critical of sovereignty and the baggage that it carries philosophically in regard to it being a term of European origin, there’s still an emphasis on sovereignty because in our settler-colonial reality tribal sovereignty is always vulnerable. So how do you go about defending tribal sovereignty? How do you go about upholding and asserting tribal sovereignty? If you put that up against political ecology, which tends to be highly critical of ecological sovereignty in terms of how the dominant state system tends to marginalize and oppress internal minorities, including Indigenous peoples and peasant populations, it creates an interesting dialogue. How can we use the tools of political ecology as well as Native studies, both being interdisciplinary fields, in order to really understand our contemporary issues as Indigenous nations in the United States and the type of work that we’re doing to protect tribal lands and resources?
Waring: I’ve been reconsidering how claims to sovereignty or claims based on sovereignty are always very complicated. So it’s interesting to hear the concept of sovereignty applied to political ecology.
Carroll: There’s a scholar who I engage with in the book named Thom Kuehls. He critiques making environmental claims in relation to sovereignty. My perspective acknowledges that there is certainly a lot of baggage that comes with that political claim to sovereignty, but that it can be used in many different ways according to Indigenous nations that have a very different understanding of what sovereignty means, or at least are able to articulate it very differently.
Waring: So it’s kind of like redefining or reconceiving the existing terms.
Carroll: That’s the way I see it. The meaning of sovereignty is not a given. In our own field of Native studies, we have scholars who are highly critical of that term, and rightly so. It’s an important discussion to engage in as far as identifying some of the critiques of these vehicles or tools that we’re using to further Indigenous claims.
Waring: That brings us to the next question. Obviously land is really important to Indigenous studies, Native studies, and questions of colonialism and occupation. In different texts there are different conceptions of a people’s relation to the land. I’m wondering whether, in your view, there is an authentic relationship to the land or one that is proper or natural as discovered in Native American or Indigenous thought or whether there are competing claims and one could be better depending on certain goals that one has?
Carroll: We have to acknowledge stereotypes and romanticism, and this idea of the ecologically noble savage that can overshadow real, deeply political claims. I think that Indigenous philosophies and perspectives toward the land are distinctive from dominant Western ones in the sense of how these dominant, Western philosophies or perspectives toward land have evolved over time. You could highlight, as we often do in the field of Native studies, the European Enlightenment and how the ways dominant philosophers came to define land—in the Lockean sense of property based on the individual’s work; mixing labor with the land to create property—evolved and really informs and buttresses capitalism. You can identify a radically different understanding of land in many Indigenous perspectives throughout the globe as emphasizing relationships, reciprocity, and respect. The term “land” contains myriad relationships that Indigenous peoples and communities are engaging with. How do you acknowledge gifts from the land and therefore offer some sort of reciprocal exchange when taking from the land? That’s something that is entirely absent from capitalist thought, even if things are changing, with environmental studies and the greening of Christianity, for example. But still there are some radically different notions between Western thought and Indigenous thought in regard to land. So I think it’s worth emphasizing that while romanticized and deterministic understandings of Native peoples in relationship to the land can be identified and critiqued, it can be a slippery slope. When you hear Indigenous people attempting to articulate via the dominant language or discourse a true or, I guess you could say, authentic Indigenous connection to a place, it’s not necessarily coming from this kind of cynical leverage of stereotypes. I’m happy to refer you to other sources that I’m drawing upon there. That conversation is also in the preface to the introduction of the book.
Waring: Is there a distinct ontological position associated with an Indigenous conception of the land when compared to Western or enlightenment conceptions?
Carroll: It’s a really interesting question. Many of the most pressing problems are ontological by nature. However, I think the changes in the way dominant institutions and nation-states approach environmental issues don’t necessarily require a new ontology. I think that the recognition of other ontologies and really the affordance of their legitimacy is at the root of how dominant perspectives and policies might better account for alternative approaches to environmental management and governance. I’m thinking in terms of anthropologist Marisol de la Cadena and her work in the Andes of Peru and the way that she describes this engagement between Indigenous spiritual leaders who are advocating on behalf of earth-beings. For instance, mountains that have personhood, mountains that are recognized in Quechua culture or ontology as having agency, and how that does or does not get taken up by the Peruvian state. There is the denial of the legitimacy of those claims, that type of what she calls cosmopolitical landscape. But one of her arguments I agree with is that what’s needed is not complete buy-in or adoption or even a hybrid ontology. What’s necessary is the legitimacy or the legitimating of voices of Indigenous peoples that have a lot to say about these types of global politics.
So part of the problem is the complete eschewal of Indigenous thought, theory, or ontology, and relationships to place and other-than-human beings. In New Zealand, the Whanganui River has been established as a person, legally speaking. There has been a legal recognition of the Whanganui River’s personhood. What does that say in relation to typical Western approaches toward the environment? It was highly informed by Maori Indigenous thought and relationships to this river, and I see it as being one of these huge statements that provides this glimpse at what an alternative might look like in terms of the relationship between settler societies, settler states, Indigenous peoples, and the land. It doesn’t necessarily require a new ontology, but it definitely requires that Indigenous voices are given equal standing in this political realm.
Waring: Would that play into what you were saying about sovereignty, that, for instance, they had to articulate the river as a person in a legal sense, in order for them to have legitimate rights? That would be articulating one’s view in the language of the state?
Carroll: There are many different opinions about this issue. If you go to other scholars in Indigenous studies, you’re going to find different approaches, some of which may advocate for completely divesting and disengaging from the state and proposing to focus on the revitalization or indigenization our own pre-colonial governance structures. But, I think, if you go that route completely, you’re missing a huge opportunity to engage. I would say my perspective is somewhere in the middle ground where the work that I do is grounded in cultural revitalization and reindigenization of our own governance structures, but in ways that strategically engage with state forms of governance, state-based resource management, or environmental governance. I think this is related to the previous response that I gave in terms of how tribes are navigating this political landscape, articulating sovereignty, and articulating relationship responsibilities, including, for example, translating into policy and law the responsibility to treat the Whanganui river as a person-being.
Waring: In The Fourth World, George Manuel makes reference to a people’s birthright. I’m wondering how you understand the relationship between a people’s claim to land and their birth or ancestry? Is this the basis on which Native claims to land should be made or is it more about proper stewardship or the relationship to the land?
Carroll: I haven’t read that book, but, in reference to this specific argument, I would say that this idea of birthright clearly has very nationalistic implications. There’s something to be said about ancestry and how that situates Indigenous peoples in relation to the land, but I also think that there are good opportunities to think beyond nationalism as a birthright. Vine Deloria, Jr. oftentimes advocated, instead of looking at rights, to look at responsibilities. I’m drawing from that approach. With that said, I don’t think that this idea of nationalistic birthright and relationship responsibilities are necessarily mutually exclusive. The idea of maintaining responsibilities to the land tempers the simplistic notion that someone has a birthright to a particular claim which I think can also be problematic and play into a liberal understanding of political subjectivity, where rights are found in the individual. I think birthright is slippery.
Certainly ancestry, for example, as in the Cherokee Nation, plays a role in how we define ourselves as nations and what connects us and makes us who we are. But there’s something missing when that’s an exclusive focus. When you think about it on solely the individual or individualistic level, there are many folks who are uninformed about ancestral knowledge or values. How can you make a certain claim when that knowledge is lacking? In a similar way, there are other articulations of nationhood that we would be missing out on if the individual and this idea of birthright were privileged over, for example, adoption or the naturalization of other individuals into the Cherokee Nation. I’m not necessarily advocating for that, but I’m saying these are other ways of looking at how to define a nation as an extended network of relationships rather than just a Euro-Western model that comes with this individual perspective or, as you say, a birthright.
Waring: If we’re emphasizing a people’s relationship to the land and responsibilities rather than rights, do you consider a people’s connection to land, including those responsibilities to it, as essential to its culture?
Carroll: The short answer is yes, but not deterministically so. The idea that land or environment determines a people’s culture is an antiquated theory in anthropology, most often referred to as “cultural ecology.” We typically point to Julian Steward, who put this theory forth. It’s not necessarily all bad, but there are problems when you say that a specific landscape determines a specific people’s culture. So acknowledging that caveat, I think, yes, for Indigenous peoples, land is central not only to culture but to the future integrity of Indigenous communities as peoples and nations. This idea is pretty widely shared among scholars in the field for a variety of reasons, but, this is fundamentally about that relationship to other-than-human beings as informing Indigenous cultural outlooks or ontological views. The expropriation of land often went hand-in-hand with the U.S. government’s attempts at Native assimilation. The allotment policy in the late 1800s, which divided up tribal land bases into systems of private individualized property, went hand-in-hand with assimilation policies like the boarding school system. So yes, land is a foundational part of Indigenous peoplehood, but it’s not necessarily, as in the case of Cherokees in Oklahoma, that these territories are our homelands. They are places that we have forged a connection to through the establishment of relationships and also the processes of land tenure and land management that were developed by Cherokee people and in governance institutions. So, the short answer is yes, this connection to land and place is one of the pillars of Indigenous peoplehood, but, at the same time, acknowledging that there’s environmental determinism that I don’t want to imply.
Waring: That brings me to the last question. You emphasize the value of Indigenous self-determination. I’m wondering how you define this concept, mainly because I’m thinking a lot about communist perspectives, that there were debates in the early 20th century between Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin about self-determination and whether or not it, as a principle, is at the heart of all emancipatory politics. “There’s not a particular content to self-determination” is one argument, with the implication that it is not enough because you can have self-determination with exploitative content. So I’m wondering, in your view, is Indigenous self-determination the goal at the very center of an emancipatory project, or is it simply one of many fundamental or orienting aims or principles?
Carroll: The development and ultimate ratification of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is really significant in how it highlights these questions around self-determination. I wrote a piece called “Articulating Indigenous Statehood,” that speaks directly to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples regarding not only how these instruments developed, but also the shortcomings of this instrument of international law. The idea around the “s” in “peoples” was a contentious debate because Indigenous People or Indigenous Peoples defines if you’re looking at this global, more liberal understanding of minority populations within nation-states or if you’re looking at collectivities. I think that debate around the rights of collectivities versus the rights of individuals is really key. There are a lot of shortcomings with the UNDRIP because of its complete lack of acknowledgement of Indigenous sovereignty. It uses the term “self-determination” at the expense of acknowledging sovereignty. That’s where it gets sticky in terms of having efficacy for Indigenous nations who find themselves in settler colonial societies like the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. To get back to the question, I think my definition of the concept would draw on some of the standard ones: the ability to make free decisions, determine the future of the people collectively, of being able to fulfill certain relationship responsibilities with the land and non-human beings. I’m not really familiar with the debate you referenced.
Waring: Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg.
Carroll: Oh, Rosa Luxemburg. I think that self-determination, as I’ve defined it, does have a central role to play in liberatory politics for Indigenous peoples. I would reference a statement that I make in the introduction to my book in terms of looking at the political as environmental. In a nutshell, many, if not all, of the political issues for Native nations in the United States and in North America are connected to our relationship to the land and to the degree that we’re able to assert those relationship responsibilities with land.
My best way of getting at the question is pointing back to that. My answer would be yes, self-determination is central. It may not be the only avenue, but I think that if we think about self-determination as it’s been articulated by Indigenous nations, that opens up a spectrum of possibilities.
Dabney Waring is a Ph.D. student in Political Science at the University of Connecticut. His interests include automation in relation to Marxism, legal theory, and subject formation in the context of hegemony.