Faculty Favorites: Readings For an Anticolonial Environmental Syllabus

Stylized globe centered on western North America overlaid with colored shapes over Indigenous territories

Each semester we here at Edge Effects invite scholars from a range of fields to share with us the environmental books and essays they are most excited to teach in the weeks ahead. This fall, we’re highlighting work that contributors find useful for thinking through the complex relationships between colonialism and environmental change as they design an anticolonial environmental syllabus.

Amid mounting calls to “decolonize the academy,” there is growing interest in designing syllabi that grapple with histories of dispossession and center Indigenous knowledge. The texts listed here represent just a small sampling of the work that’s inspiring scholars today. We offer them in the hope that they can contribute to a more anticolonial environmental education both in and out of the classroom, while heeding the warning of Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang that decolonization is not a metaphor. To accompany the texts below, we recommend this short post from Pollution is Colonialism author and CLEAR lab director Max Liboiron (Michif-settler) about common missteps educators take when attempting to decolonize their syllabus.

For more reading suggestions, you can browse our full archive of recommendations.

Kasey Keeler, Tuolumne Me-Wuk & Citizen Potawatomi, Assistant Professor in Civil Society & Community Studies and American Indian Studies, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Recommendation: Detours: A Decolonial Guide to Hawaiʻi, edited by Hōkūlani K. Aikau and Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez (Duke University Press, 2019)

A cityscape on water is visible through a cracked fence, with the text Detours: A Decolonial Guide to Hawai'i

This fall I am teaching an undergraduate seminar titled Indigenous Histories of Place, which is intended to help students think critically about the Indigenous peoples and histories of a diverse range of places. From California, to Lake Superior, to a nineteenth-century plantation in Georgia, students are exposed to American Indian and Indigenous scholars. Simultaneously, I am hard at work helping them consider the relationships that exist between land, belonging, placemaking, and settler colonialism. To do so, students will wrap up the semester reading Detours: A Decolonial Guide to Hawaiʻi. Detours works to reconceptualize Hawaiʻi from its familiar pop-culture imagery of tourism and Disney cartoons (think Moana, Lilo and Stitch) to a place of rich history, culture, and beauty. With numerous and diverse kānaka maoli (Native Hawaiian) contributors, this edited volume, in the form of a travel guide, resists the romantic and sanitized narratives associated with the Hawaiian Islands. Instead, Detours centers kānaka voices and perspectives, asking readers to reflect on the complex legacies of U.S. imperialism, extraction, and consumption, including land loss and climate change.

Heidi Amin-Hong, Assistant Professor in English, University of California, Santa Barbara

Recommendation: No Country for Eight-Spot Butterflies by Julian Aguon (Astra House, 2022)

Book cover depicting a butterfly surrounded by photos of people's faces masked by colored ink splotches

Julian Aguon’s collection of essays is essential reading for understanding the devastating environmental effects of U.S. military occupation in Guahan (Guam) and the broader Pacific region. Drawing from his childhood in Guahan and his work as an Indigenous rights and environmental justice lawyer, Aguon powerfully weaves the personal and political to illuminate Indigenous Pacific struggles against colonialism and climate change. These essays condemn the military buildup in Guahan, including the construction of a firing range that would desecrate the remnants of ancient Chamorro villages and destroy more than 1,000 acres of limestone forest. Aguon’s writing is bold, lyrical, and accessible, reminding us often to look for beauty as we dream and build a world that is rooted in justice and reciprocity.

Matt Henry, Assistant Instructional Professor in the Honors College & School of Energy, University of Wyoming

Recommendation: The Unbearable Heaviness of Climate Coloniality” by Farhana Sultana (Political Geography, 2022) and “What Green Costs” by Thea Riofrancos (Logic Magazine issue 9, December 2019)

Magazine cover depicting an abstract topographic map of a blue and green landscape, overlaid with the text "LOGIC NATURE ISSUE 09" in white letters

This semester I am teaching an undergraduate class entitled Climate Change and Colonialism. The course explores how the climate crisis both emerges from and reinforces historically inequitable power relations established and upheld by colonial regimes. For our week on climate colonialism, students read Farhana Sultana’s article “The Unbearable Heaviness of Climate Coloniality,” which considers how false climate solutions perpetuate colonial regimes of power and oppression “through global land and water grabs, REDD+ programs, neoliberal conservation projects, rare earth mineral mining, deforestation for growth, fossil fuel warfare, and new green revolutions for agriculture—which benefit a few while dispossessing larger numbers of historically-impoverished communities, often elsewhere” (4). We followed this with Thea Riofrancos’s article “What Green Costs,” which explores how lithium mining in Chile’s Salar de Atacama, as the “extractive frontier of the renewable energy transition,” wreaks havoc on fragile ecosystems, draining scarce water resources and harming Indigenous communities. The message for students is that for the global energy transition to be just, it must prioritize decolonization.

Katrina Phillips, Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, Associate Professor in History, Macalester College

Recommendation: Sustaining Lake Superior: An Extraordinary Lake in a Changing World by Nancy Langston (Yale University Press, 2017)

A book cover featuring the sandy beach shore of a large lake with people in the distance.

My current research looks at the connections among activism, environmentalism, and tourism, and I’m especially interested in the role of Native nations in these historical and ongoing conversations. I’m reading everything I can find that relates to these topics, and I’m so glad I found Nancy Langston’s Sustaining Lake Superior. She’s a professor of environmental history, and the book does a phenomenal job interweaving both historical and scientific elements—but it’s not designed solely for historians or for the STEM disciplines. I never thought I’d be so engrossed in a book that references bioaccumulation, the regulation of paper waste, and the dangers of herbicides in water, but this work is incredibly important for anybody who researches, knows, and loves the greatest of the Great Lakes.

Mara Dicenta, Assistant Professor in Anthropology & Integrative Conservation, William & Mary

Recommendation: Black Ecologies, Subaquatic Life, and the Jim Crow Enclosure of the Tidewater” by J.T. Roane (Journal of Rural Studies vol. 94, August 2022)

Journal of Rural Studies cover featuring a drawing of a field with soil and green growth against a backdrop of trees in the distance

We will discuss this article in my Environmental Anthropology and Conservation Ethics classes this fall. I highly recommend it to anyone teaching anticolonial methods, histories, and environments.

J.T. Roane explores the settler violence that has intertwined Rural Black communities, labor, and environmental degradation in the Tidewater. Analyzing Jim Crow discourses since the 1880s, he shows how the Black commons (and its antipathy for overwork and overuse) was portrayed as inefficient. Black families who had been able to control their labor after the Civil War with small-scale oystering practices started to be defined as “indolent” and displaced from access to water, sustenance, and leisure. Large-scale operations based on exploitation and profitability reorganized the Black commons while choking waterways and making labor precarious.

Roane also finds sites of fugitivity, showing how Indigenous and Black people keep cultivating waterscape relations of reciprocity, care, collectivity, and part-time leisure, “working against further erasure of specificity and difference” (229).

Brian Hamilton, Chair of the Department of History and Social Science, Deerfield Academy

Recommendation: Seeing Red: Indigenous Land, American Expansion, and the Political Economy of Plunder in North America by Michael John Witgen (Omohundro Institute and UNC Press, 2022)

The words "Seeing Red" in red colored text are superimposed over a newspaper clipping about "Indian Land for Sale"

Following his pathbreaking An Infinity of Nations: How the Native New World Shaped Early North America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), this new book by Michael Witgen (Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe) follows the money in the story of settler colonialism in the Great Lakes homelands of the Anishinaabeg. Unlike in the Southeastern United States, here there was dispossession without removal. In a credit-starved region, white economic development depended on wrestling away from Native peoples the federal cash flowing to them for treaty-mandated land sales and annuity payments. Witgen places this history in a long tradition of state formation through plunder that stretches down to Ferguson’s revenue-raising racist policing. But this accessible and richly storied book also reveals how Anishinaabe peoples navigated such exploitation and “forced the United States to see itself as a nation of settlers living on stolen land.”

Featured image: Screenshot from Native Land, an app to help map Indigenous territories, treaties, and languages.