Association for Political and Legal Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
For settlers and their descendants in northwestern North Dakota, “land” regularly refers to space that provides the biophysical resources necessary for survival, things like commodity crops, gold, coal, water, hydropower, and most-recently, hydrocarbons. In the small oilfield town where I conducted my fieldwork, producing these is central to many valued cultural and ecological practices. Drawing from scholarship on settler colonial politics in North America (Simpson 2014, 2017), I consider how and to what effect settler culture generates “land,” and argue that process of environmental politics is based on settler refusal. Ethnographic and archival data inform my description of settler refusal as antagonism to (bio)political practices inconsistent with settler ideals.
From alienating “land” via the cadastral grid, to government responses to the #NoDAPL movement, settler culture in North Dakota continuously rejects Native American “spatiality” (Massey 1999). That refusal extends further, to people and institutions who wield financial and/or cultural capital (e.g. environmental movements, urban dwellers) in ways considered injurious to settler biopolitics and the spaces they generate. Extractivism and agriculture, fracked wells and waves of grain, the land they require: these matters of identity, I argue, are inextricable from settler ideals. The rural and overwhelmingly white population of northwestern North Dakota’s Bakken region naturalizes the American empire in the Dakotas through such cultural and ecological commitments to “land.” Tracing contemporary food and energy production to colonial spatial government, this paper offers insight into the environmental politics of today’s conservative U.S., including its dedication to the fossil fuel industry.