decolonizing decolonization (or, how many grad students does it take to change a light bulb?)

Cascadia is finally getting some of that “extreme weather” you’ve all heard about on TV.  It seems Mel and I made it back from the Decolonizing Cascadia? conference at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver just in time to avoid the worst of it (or best of it, depending on your perspective).  Of course this is nothing we haven’t seen before.  Earthquakes, floods, windstorms, volcanos: that’s just who we are.  Even back home in Bend we’re getting dumped on, and the wind never stopped all day yesterday.  But in a town flanked to the south and west by active volcanos that will erupt again as sure as the sun rises, this is just some harmless fun.

Cascadia is real.  Cascadia is alive.  We live on a sleeping giant who, from time to time, wakes up and shakes.  If you listen to so many of the oldest stories from this place, the living reality of what we call “Cascadia” is clear as day.  Cascadia is a term of endearment for the beauty of floods and earthquakes and volcanos.  For rivers that writhe like snakes within human memory, not just geological time.  Cascadia is the humility the settlers learned from a place who’s job it is to humble you.  And Cascadia is the word spoken by those who, in falling in love with a place that embodies serenity, tumult, and defiance simultaneously, chose to betray the laughably foolish (and heart wrenchingly tragic) attempt to domesticate this place.  Cascadia is a one word love poem.

Our genealogy is clear:  those of us born as “Americans” or “Canadians” have only become Cascadian when we betray the settler colonial endeavor and fight to protect and restore this place.  This action transforms our identity, as only this action makes us allies with the Indigenous struggles to protect and restore this place.  Notice how those who have sought to “protect” land by creating “wilderness” or UNESCO reserves free from Indigenous human inhabitants have been patriotic environmentalists.  Neocolonial treehuggers, if you will.  But the Cascadians have been the ones putting their bodies in the path of destruction and helping to bring the salmon back home for as long as the word “Cascadia” has been adopted by the humans living here.  So when the Cascadia “meme” starts to be recuperated by the colonialists in order to sell alcohol and tennis shoes, do we Cascadians abandon our word for the place we love and would die for?  Or do we just need to smack somebody?

I’ll cut to the chase.  The “Decolonizing Cascadia?” conference had little, if anything, to do with actually decolonizing the lands and waters of the Pacific Northeast Rim.  It appears that “Decolonization” is the new buzzword among post-modern academics who want to remedy (or in action, just apologize for) their positions of privilege within a colony.  And even though this specific conference made direct reference to Tuck and Wang’s profound essay (see Decolonization is not a metaphor),  the “renaming the conference” fiasco was about “decolonizing” the conference, not the lands of the many Indigenous Nations within this bioregion.  And to top it all off, references to Cascadia were ovewhelmingly derogatory and reactionary in regards to the flag-waving, beer drinking, soccer fans who have adopted “Cascadia” without knowing what Cascadia is.  OK.  I understand that.  But it felt like the soccer fans know about as much in regards to real, bioregional Cascadia as most of these graduate students from the geography departments at the universities in Cascadia.  And this was supposed to be a “critical geographies conference”, not a “ignorant post-modernism conference.”

Now, I’ll be the first to demand that we need to be as critical as we can be in forging a bioregional practice that actively dismantles the colonial reality of the present, and this means recognizing the neocolonial potential in all regionalisms.  But this does not mean we let academia turn us into politically correct piles of guilt and goo, incapable of doing anything without apologizing for our lamentable ontological status all the time and never actually doing anything.  So I should say that there were some wonderful speakers at the conference who were clear on this and did address real decolonization (Glen Coulthard and Harsha Walia addressed this quite directly).  And Coll Thrush gave an all too brief presentation that skillfully addressed the neocolonial potentials (and now present) of regional separatisms in the Northwest, and how this white-wash is being adopted as “Cascadia”.  But Coll’s love for this place was clear as anything, and he freely admitted to having a ‘Free Cascadia’ sticker on his office door.

The incongruence between these moments of light and the overwhelming academic doldrums of the rest of the conference was nearly depressing.  But the tangential happenstance of a conference for grad students to present geography papers on topics ranging “from anything to whatever” getting called Decolonizing Cascadia seems to have aroused an interest in continuing to follow these specks of light to see where they lead.  I, for one, am going to defend myself as a Cascadian from getting thrown away with the white-wash.  It seems clear to me that a Bioregional Decolonization is in process, regardless if we use the name “Cascadia” or not.  But what else, in the name of friggin’ gaia, may we  call this place?  When we say Cascadia, people from here tend know what we mean, intuitively.  Why do you think that is?  And there is a history of defense and restoration that is explicitly Cascadian that needs to be validated and vindicated.

The colonizers have taken enough, let’s not let them take “Cascadia” too.


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