125. Zoe Todd, “An Indigenous Feminist’s Take On The Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ Is Just Another Word For Colonialism”

by breavman99

zoe todd

I ran across a reference to Métis anthropologist Zoe Todd’s essay “An Indigenous Feminist’s Take On The Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ Is Just Another Word For Colonialism” in Stephanie Springgay’s and Sarah E. Truman’s Walking Methodologies in a More-than-Human World: Walking Lab. Their summary of her argument states that Todd, “like other Indigenous scholars, insist[s] that ontological discussions of matter must take into consideration not only Indigenous worldviews but material legal struggles over matter and sovereignty” (9). When I read Bruno Latour’s book, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime, I found myself wondering if Todd would consider his approach to the vitality of things to be colonial. Well, let’s take a look at Todd’s argument and see.

Well, the essay begins with a memoir of going to see “the great Latour” give a lecture in Edinburgh in 2013. “I was giddy with excitement: a talk by the Great Latour, live and in colour!” she writes. “Bruno Latour’s work was, in part, the reason that I switched my focus away from a pure science degree in Biology in my undergraduate studies. . . . Latour was (and is) very much a personal hero of mine” (4). Okay, I’m confused by Todd’s apparent sarcasm, directed either at Latour or her younger self’s credulity. Bruno was talking about “Natural Religion,” and he suggested that climate was “a matter of ‘common cosmological concern’” (5). He mentioned the notion of Gaia, and Todd expected that “he would reference Sila, the well-known Inuit concept that is today translated by many non-Inuit as climate but Sila is also ‘the breathe [sic] that circulates into and out of every living thing” (Qitsualik, qtd. 5). (Well-known? I had never heard of it, but it sounds interesting, and Qitsualik’s account might be worth reading.) “The infinitesimal bit of the concept of Sila that I can claim to understand is that it is bound with life, with climate, with knowing, and with the very existence of being(s),” Todd continues. “And, in some respects, it sounds an awful lot like the idea of Gaia to my Métis ears” (5). Todd notes the contributions of Inuit people to activism about and awareness of climate change, and, she writes, “I waited through the whole talk, to hear the Great Latour credit Indigenous thinkers for their millennia of engagement with sentient environments, with cosmologies that enmesh people into complex relationships between themselves and all relations, and with climates and atmospheres as important points of organization and action” (6-7). 

She waited in vain, of course (her narrative foreshadows that conclusion): Latour didn’t discuss Indigenous thinkers or worldviews. “I was left wondering, when will I hear someone reference Indigenous thinkers in a direct, contemporary and meaningful way in European lecture halls?” she recalls:

Without filtering ideas through white intermediaries—apologies to the vast majority of my anthropology colleagues—but by citing and quoting Indigenous thinkers directly, unambiguously and generously. As thinkers in their own right, not just disembodied representatives of an amorphous Indigeneity that serves European intellectual or political purposes, and not just as research subjects or vaguely defined “collaborators.” As dynamic Philosophers and Intellectuals, full stop. Rather than bequeathing climate activism to the Al Gores of the world, when will Euro-American scholarship take the intellectual labour of Inuit women like Rosemarie Kuptana and Sheila Watt-Clouthier seriously? (7)

Todd left before the end of the question period:

it appeared that another Euro-Western academic narrative, in this case the trendy and dominant Ontological Turn (and/or post-humanism, and/or cosmopolitics—all three of which share tangled roots, and can be mobilised distinctly or collectively, depending on who you ask), and discourses of how to organise ourselves around and communicate with the constituents of complex and contested world(s) (or multiverses, if you’re into the whole brevity thing)—was spinning itself on the backs of non-European thinkers. And again, the ones we credited for these incredible insights into the “more-than-human,” sentience and agency, and the ways through which to imagine our “common cosmological concerns” were not the people who built and maintain the knowledge systems that European and North American anthropologists and philosophers have been studying for over a hundred years, and predicating many of their current “aha” ontological moments (or re-imaginings of the discipline upon). No, here we were celebrating and worshipping a European thinker for “discovering,” or newly articulating by drawing on a European intellectual heritage, what many an Indigenous thinker around the world could have told you for millennia: the climate is a common organizing force! (7-8)

Todd states that what struck her about Latour’s talk was “the unintential (even ironic) evocation of theories about the climate as a form of aer nullius”—in an endnote, she states that this Latin term means “it belongs to no one (20)—“which it often becomes in Euro-Western academic discourses: where the climate acts as a blank commons to be populated by very Euro-Western theories of resilience, the Anthropocene, Actor Network Theory and other ideas that dominate the anthropological and climate change arenas of the moment” (8). 

Her concern, she continues, is less with Latour than with his audience, which “consumes Latour’s argument (and the arguments of others writing and thinking about the climate, ontologies, our shared engagements with the world) without being aware of competing or similar discourses happening outside of the rock-star arenas of Euro-Western thought” (8). “Was it entirely Latour’s fault, therefore, that he did not mention Inuit?” she asks:

If a European audience is not familiar with the breadth and depth of Indigenous thinking and how strongly it influences many of the current strands of post-humanism and the Ontological Turn, can a speaker be blamed for side-stepping a nod towards Inuit climate advocacy in a discussion of the “climate as common cosmological turn”? Should I welcome his silence: better that he not address Indigenous thinking than to misinterpret it or distort it? (8-9)

She cites Vanessa Watts’s article (which I blogged about here) as both a source for her claim that Indigenous thinking influences current thinking about post-humanism and the ontological turn (I’m not sure, though, that Watts’s essay establishes a chain of influence) and cites Watts’s argument that 

the appropriation of Indigenous thinking in European contexts without Indigenous interlocutors present to hold the use of Indigenous stories and laws to account flattens, distorts and erases the embodied, legal-governance and spiritual aspects of Indigenous thinking. So there is a very real risk to Indigenous thinking being used by non-Indigenous scholars who apply it to Actor Network Theory, cosmopolitics, ontological and posthumanist threads without contending with the embodied expressions of stories, laws, and songs as bound with Indigenous-Place Thought. (9)

She has observed, in the academy, Indigenous stories being “employed without Indigenous peoples present to engage in the application of them in European work” (9). Yet, she continues, “there is a risk as well, to Indigenous thinking not being acknowledged at all. How do we hold these two issues in tension and apply the accountably in anthropology?” (9). That’s a good question, and not just for anthropology as a discipline: what Todd describes as “tension” could quite easily slide into a double-bind, in which non-Indigenous thinkers are damned for not drawing upon Indigenous knowledge (assuming that they have any clue of its depth and breadth, or that they know the names of the thinkers Todd cites—we all have our blindnesses, even the great Latour) and then damned for appropriating that knowledge if they do draw upon it. Nobody wants to occupy that kind of space, or be forced into it, and if all you can offer someone is a space of negation, they will simply refuse to occupy it, and rightly so.

“I concede that there are elements of post-humanism, cosmopolitics and the Ontological Turn that could potentially be promising tools in the decolonial project, if approached with an attention to the structural realities of the academy,” Todd continues (9). She cites the work of Juanita Sundberg, who tries to use post-humanism “as a decolonizing tool kit” while acknowledging its Eurocentrism (9). Sundberg sounds like someone I will have to read: Todd suggests that Sundberg and Watts “both provide Euro-Western scholars with practical tools for employing Indigenous ontologies in their work with care and respect” (9). I’m not convinced that’s true of Watts, who (in my reading of her essay) would bristle at Todd’s use of the term “ontology,” but perhaps Sundberg’s notion of accounting for location would be useful. Or, to be fair, perhaps I will need to return to Watts’s essay and think further about her idea, “Indigenous Place-Thought” (9). 

According to Todd, the issue is structural: 

it is a critique of systems and practices that culminate in events such as the one I attended. It is a critique of a discipline and intellectual environment that currently claims to be striving for the worthy goal of “ontological self-determination” but failing to create the conditions wherein many of its practitioners respect our physical self-determination (and right to ensure Indigenous thinking is employed accountably) and intellectual presence as Indigenous peoples within its very own bricks-and-mortar institutions. (9-10)

Yes, there aren’t enough Indigenous scholars (yet) to establish an intellectual presence within the academy (although I would venture that the only people guaranteed of getting tenure-track jobs in Canada at the moment are Indigenous), and decolonization or self-determination are mere dreams in this country, given the progress that has been made (almost none) towards so-called “reconciliation” since the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report almost five years ago. I completely agree. Helpfully, Todd eventually gives her readers a list of Indigenous thinkers they should be reading; without that list, many of us môniyâw wouldn’t know where to begin. 

Next, Todd tells another story to assure her readers “that the problem outlined in this essay is deeper than any single scholar associated with dominant thought in the European academy at the moment . . . but is due, rather, to the European academy’s continued, collective reticence to address its own racist and colonial roots, and debt to Indigenous thinkers in a meaningful and structural way” (10). She notes that on the day in 2014 that a grand jury decided not to indict the police officer who shot black teenager Mike Brown, the American Anthropological Association issued a press release calling for more discussion of structural racism in the United States. What, she wondered, is the Association of Social Anthropologists of the U.K. and Commonwealth up to? She discovered that the call for papers for the association’s upcoming conference used the phrase “going native” (10). She complained, and “a footnote clarifying the use of this term as intended to spark critical debate around historical relationships between anthropologists and the people they researched was added to the website” (10). But the experience left her thinking about how often she “witnessed racially charged phrases used in day-to-day exchanges in the UK academy” (10): all the time is the answer. 

Todd cites the idea of “anthropology as white public space” articulated by Karen Brodkin, Sandra Morgen and Janis Hutchinson in their work on racism in anthropology—an idea that has become central to Todd’s own work (10). “I experience anthropology as white public space,” she writes: “in the subtle but pervasive power afforded to white scholarship that distorts or erases or homogenises distinct Indigenous voices” (11). She notes that she is “a white-passing Indigenous woman” and therefore has “a curious access into spaces where people ‘say what they really think’ about Indigenous issues or People of Colour when they assume everyone in the room is Caucasian”: 

This is a space that must be acknowledged and problematised, for it is a space that deeply influences how Euro-Western thought is produced within the academy. the vast gulf between “what is” and “what can be” within a discipline like anthropology lies within those spaces where whiteness protects itself when it assumes there are no POC (and/or Indigenous peoples) to bear witness to its insecurities, hostilities. (12)

She has seen the ways that “‘white fragility’ manifests and pities and consoles itself when white supremacy is challenged within the academy” (12). This situation gives her “a front seat to the whole spectacle of whiteness—how it is practiced when it claims to be dismantling itself and in turn how it is practiced when it shores itself up against necessary critiques from Indigenous scholars and Scholars of Colour” (12). In such “underacknowledged spaces,” she continues, “official academic discourse and promises of decolonial ethos” mingle with “with the real practice, and prejudice, of our disciplines. Where racism and whiteness are reinforced and reproduced (but also where they can be challenged and dismantled)” (12). She cites Sara Ahmed’s claim that the term “white men” describes an institution “that reproduces itself in its own image” (12-13). She notes that “a critique of whiteness is meant to draw attention to the structural, routinised aspects of ‘white public space’” (13). According to Todd, Ahmed suggests that the reproduction of “white men” as an institution is citational: “one must cite white men to get ahead. In this way, we are conditioned to cite Al Gore before Sheila Watt-Cloutier; to reference Irving Hallowell before we engage with and acknowledge contemporary Anishinaabeg thinkers like John Borrows” (13). Okay, but that’s not my experience: I’ve never heard of Irving Hallowell, but I think John Borrows is fantastic. Perhaps I can credit my supervisors for that fact.

Todd notes that courses in Black Studies are absent in the UK; universities believe that they lack the ability to offer such programs because of a lack of black faculty. “But the inevitable postponing of critical scholarship about race, racialisation and racism forestalls the ability of Indigenous scholars and POC to invest our careers in these topics within the academy,” she writes. “If Universities are not yet ready to challenge white supremacy, will they ever be? And if a program on critical race thinking is not supported today, how can White Scholars advance claims that the academy is in fact a safe space for Indigenous scholars, let along claim that decolonisation is occurring within the halls of the academy itself?” (13). Todd suggests that she has developed coping strategies to deal with the “colonial and racist trends” she encounters “as an Indigenous person infiltrating the British academy” (13):

Therefore, as an Indigenous woman, I have tried, over the last few years, to find thinkers who engage with Indigenous thought respectfully; who give full credit to Indigenous laws, stories and epistemologies; who quote and cite Indigenous people rather than citing anthropologists who studied Indigenous people 80 years ago. This is not always easy. (13-14)

She names scholars who fit that description and thanks them for giving her hope “amidst the despair I’ve felt as the ‘Ontological Turn’ gains steam on both sides of the Atlantic” (14). 

In fact, she continues, “I think it is time we take the Ontological Turn, and the European academy more broadly, head on”:

To accomplish this, I want to direct you to Indigenous thinkers who have been writing about Indigenous legal theory, human-animal relations and multiple epistemologies/ontologies for decades. Consider the Indigenous and/or POC scholars referred to within this piece as a “cite this, not that” cheat-sheet for people who feel dissatisfied with the current Euro (and white, and quite often, male) centric discourse taking place in our disciplines, departments, conferences and journals. (14)

This shift in attention is important because of colonialism, which continues in Canada. “Canada is only now coming around to the realisation that through things like residential schools, and the deeply racist—and still legislated(!) Indian Act—that it, as a nation was built on cultural genocide and dispossession,” she writes. “Ask any Indigenous person, and you will hear that nobody from an Indigenous Nation has ever laboured under the fantasy that Canada is post-colonial, or benevolent” (15). British institutions, including universities, are still benefitting from colonialism. “We are enmeshed, across the Atlantic, in ongoing colonial legacies,” she continues. “And in order to dismantle those legacies, we must face our complicity head on. I firmly believe we can confront these legacies with a great deal of love and accountability, and build processes and structures that are attentive to and accountable for the ongoing impacts of colonial rule” (15). European thinkers are also “embedded in systems that uphold the exploitation and dispossession of Indigenous peoples,” and “[t]he academy plays a role in shaping the narratives that erase ongoing colonial violence” (15).

Can Europeans simply absolve themselves from any guilt over the genocide of Indigenous people, “[a]nd then . . . turn around and use Indigenous cosmologies and knowledge systems in a so-called new intellectual ‘turn,’ all the while ignoring the contemporary realities of Indigenous people vis-à-vis colonial nation-states, or the many Indigenous thinkers who are themselves writing about these issues?” (15-16). The answer to this rhetorical question is obviously “no”—but that’s what’s happening, according to Todd. I would still need to see evidence that the contemporary intellectual currents she is addressing are actually based on Indigenous knowledge systems and cosmologies; after all, it’s not impossible that systems of thought that begin in different places could arrive at similar conclusions. Todd’s reference to Watts isn’t enough for me. Of course, she could argue that the failure or refusal to cite Indigenous thinkers hides the origins of post-humanist thought, but there evidence for influence (or plagiarism) must be there somewhere. I’m not sure one can attack Eurowestern scholars for ignoring Indigenous thinkers and also attack them for borrowing from Indigenous thinkers without giving credit. Perhaps I’m misreading Todd, and that’s not what she’s doing.

Todd cites Zygmunt Bauman’s attack on sociology’s “role in narrating the Holocaust, and its role in erasing our collective guilt in the possibility for a future Holocaust to emerge” (16). The rhetoric of post-colonialism is as complacent as sociology:

it absolves the present generation of thinkers, politicians, lawyers, and policy wonks for their duty to acknowledge what came before, and, in keeping with Bauman’s insights, the possibility it could happen again—that within all societies lurk the “two faces” of humanity that can either facilitate or quash systemic and calculated human suffering and exploitation. The reality is, as Bauman asserts, that humanity is responsible, and humanity must be willing to face itself and acknowledge its role in these horrors. We must do so in order to ensure we never tread the path of such destruction again. (16)

Todd takes Bauman’s words to heart, she writes, and she asks her “non-Indigenous peers to consider their roles in the ongoing colonial oppression of Indigenous peoples” (16):

The colonial moment has not passed. The conditions that fostered it have not suddenly disappeared. We talk of neo-colonialism, neo-Imperialism, but it is as if these are far away things (these days these accusations are often mounted with terse suspicion against the BRIC countries, as though the members of the G8 have not already colonised the globe through neo-liberal economic and political policies). The reality is that we are just an invasion or economic policy away from re-colonising at any moment. (16)

Therefore, she continues, “it is so important to think, deeply, about how the Ontological Turn—with its breathless ‘realisations’ that animals, the climate, water, ‘atmospheres,’ and non-human presences like ancestors and spirits are sentient and possess agency, that ‘nature’ and ‘culture,’ ‘human’ and ‘animal’ may not be so separate after all—is itself perpetrating the exploitation of Indigenous peoples” (16). Can thought be decolonized if “the academic structures through which this decolonisation of thought is being carried out continue to reproduce the white supremacy of the academy” (16)? No: “the proponents of the discipline themselves” must be “willing to engage in the decolonial project in a substantive and structural and physical way, and willing to acknowledge that the colonial is an extant, ongoing reality” (17). 

“What I am critiquing here then, really, are the silences,” Todd writes:

It is not that current trends in the discipline of anthropology or the Euro-academy more broadly are wrong. It is that they do not currently live up to the promises they make. I do think many people making claims regarding the promise of current turns in anthropology have very good intentions. However, these cannot always easily translate into long-term structural change. Our interventions as Indigenous feminists are thus necessary to hold our colleagues up to the goals they define for themselves. (17)

“Why is there still a bias towards citing white male scholars?” she asks. “What are the political-legal implications for Indigenous peoples when our stories, our laws, our philosophies are used by European scholars without explicit credit to the political, legal, social and cultural (and colonial!) contexts these stories are formulated and shared within?” (17). She cites the work of Sarah Hunt on the “epistemic violence” of the use of Indigenous ontologies in erasing “the embodied, practiced, and legal-governance aspects of Indigenous ontologies as they are enacted by Indigenous actors” (17). In other words, “Indigenous thinking must be seen as not just a well of ideas to draw form but as a body of thinking that is living and practiced by peoples with whom we all share reciprocal duties as citizens of shared territories (be they physical or the ephemeral)” (17). She cites Borrows, Kahente Horn-Miller, Tracey Lindberg, and Val Napoleon to argue that “Indigenous thought is not just about social relations and philosophical anecdotes” (17). Rather, “Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies” represent “legal orders, legal orders through which Indigenous peoples throughout the world are fighting for self-determination, sovereignty” (18). Colonial dispossession is still happening: “It did not end with repatriation of constitutions or independence from colonial rule. Europe is still implicated in colonial exploitation, whether it likes it or not” (18).

Her argument, she continues, is “that Indigenous peoples, throughout the world, are fighting for recognition-fighting to assert their laws, philosophies and stories on their own terms” (18). When they pick and choose the parts of Indigenous thought that appeal to them “without engaging directly in (or unambiguously acknowledging) the political situation, agency, legal orders and relationality of both Indigenous people and scholars,” social scientists (including anthropologists) “become complicit in colonial violence” (18). When European thinkers “who discuss the ‘more-than-human’” are cited, but “their Indigenous contemporaries who are writing on the exact same topics” are not, “we perpetuate the white supremacy of the academy” (18). “In order for the Ontological Turn, post-humanism, cosmopolitics to live up to their potential,” Todd writes,

they must heed the teachings of North American Indigenous scholars who engage similar issues such as Dwayne Donald, John Borrows, Val Napoleon, Audra Simpson, Kim TallBear, Chris Anderson, Rob Innes, Tracey Lindberg, Sarah Hunt, Vanessa Watts, Glen Coulthard, Leanne Simpson, Eve Tuck, Cutcha Risling Baldy, Violet Lee and so many other brilliant thinkers (this list is not exhaustive!). And they must heed the teachings of Indigenous and racialised scholars from all around the globe. (18)

Non-Indigenous thinkers “would do well” to incorporate Dwayne Donald’s notion of reciprocity, which he outlines in his work on “ethical relationality,” which “invokes a reciprocity of thought” (18-19). “Reciprocity of thinking,” she continues, “requires us to pay attention to who else is speaking alongside us. It also positions us, first and foremost, as citizens embedded in dynamic legal orders and systems of relations that require us to work constantly and thoughtfully across the myriad systems of thinking, acting, and governance within which we find ourselves enmeshed” (19). This ethical relationality, she writes, “means that more than just the Indigenous scholar in the room would have expected Latour to reference his Indigenous interlocutors on a topic as broadly discussed and publicised, and as intimately linked to political claims by many Indigenous nations and peoples, as climate change” (19). 

So, she concludes, “for every time you want to cite a Great Thinker who is on the public speaking circuit these days, consider digging around for others who are discussing the same topics in other ways” (19). Decolonizing the academy means considering our own prejudices and biases as expressed in systems like peer review and hiring processes. “Consider why it is okay for our departments to remain so undeniably white,” she writes. “And then, familiarise yourself with the Indigenous thinkers (and more!) I reference here and broaden the spectrum of who you cite and who you reaffirm as ‘knowledgeable’” (19).

I’m glad I read Todd’s article, and not only because it provides a starting point for reading Indigenous thinkers (some of whom I’ve already read or heard about, and some of whom are new to me). That reading list is a little daunting. Here I am, at the end of the reading for my comprehensive examinations, and yet there is so much I have not read or even known that I should read. I also appreciate the permission to read and think about Indigenous ontologies and epistemologies that she grants her readers—with the proviso that we acknowledge the political situation, agency, laws, and relationality of Indigenous peoples. I don’t think that means that Indigenous methodologies are simply available to Settler scholars; I agree with Kathleen Absolon that they aren’t. However, while I agree that scholars should read the work of Indigenous thinkers who are writing on topics related to their research, I’m not convinced that someone like Bruno Latour (or name some other post-humanist scholars) is borrowing from Indigenous thinkers without citing their work—plagiarizing them, to be blunt. I don’t think you can argue that someone is both ignorant of a body of scholarship and that they are stealing from it. But perhaps that’s not Todd’s argument; as with everything I read, I would have to go over it again to get the nuances. In many ways, this project has been a first attempt at understanding a broad range of texts, and a process of identifying what I want to go back to. Maybe that’s its purpose. In any case, I plan to take the weekend off; the semester begins on Monday and I’m still exhausted from the last one.

Works Cited

Absolon, Kathleen E. Kaandossiwin: How We Come to Know, Fernwood, 2011.

Latour, Bruno. Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime, translated by Catherine Porter, Polity, 2018.

Springgay, Stephanie, and Sarah E. Truman. Walking Methodologies in a More-than-Human World: WalkingLab, Routledge, 2018.

Todd, Zoe. “An Indigenous Feminist’s Take On The Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ Is Just Another Word For Colonialism.” Journal of Historical Sociology, vol. 29, no. 1, 2016, 4-22. DOI: 10.1111/johs.12124