Tending to duties across legal orders: committing anthropology while Indigenous

In October 2014, I wrote a piece about citation practices and the relationships between Indigenous people, Indigenous scholars and contemporary anthropology more broadly. The piece went viral and has received well over 28,000 hits from around the world since I posted it. I never thought that my own personal reflections on what it is to be Indigenous and working within Anthropology would garner that much attention.

Since writing the piece I have returned to Canada, where I currently am living and writing within unceded Katzie First Nation territory along the Lower Pitt River, which snakes its way south from Pitt Lake towards from the mighty Fraser River in the province known by the profoundly settler-colonial name British Columbia. Within this territory, much like my home territory in amiskwaciwâskahikan (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada), live fish. Many fish. Specifically: sturgeon, salmon, trout and many others.

As a little girl, I grew up fishing in northern Alberta. I learned about the land, about water, about relationships between humans and the other-than-human from sitting in the wooden boats my Métis dad built by hand. We would cast for jackfish, perch, whitefish and walleye. I still relish the quiet of sitting on the water, casting a Len Thompson red devil spoon or a wriggler lure with a ‘plunk’ at the water’s surface. The inscrutable fish swimming below, determining on their own whether they will bite. My Dad remembers abandoned fishing boats, from bygone Depression-era attempts at Alberta commercial fisheries, sitting beached and bleached against the sandy lakeshore of mânitow sâkahikanihk (Lac St. Anne) in his childhood. He remembers his friend’s family setting lines for suckers along the banks of the North Saskatchewan River, just under the hulking High Level Bridge, in the 1950s/1960s. This landlocked province, famous globally for its bituminous oil, is also a fish place. And whether we, as Albertans, realize it or not, fish have been shaping and influencing many aspects of political, social and legal-governance lives here for millennia (McNeil 1983: 4-5). In fact, my own doctoral dissertation examines the ways that fish shaped and shape colonial engagement in the small Inuvialuit hamlet of Paulatuuq, Northwest Territories, Canada.


Fish are slippery. John Law and Marianne Lien (2013) remind us of this in their wonderful piece on salmon farming in Norway. My Inuvialuk friend Millie taught me that fish carry stories in their bones. These are not my stories to share, neither as an anthropologist nor as a Métis person fortunate enough to work within another Indigenous people’s territory.  However, what I learned from her was to seek out the stories that fish carry in my territory. Within those stories, too, are law (Napoleon and Friedland forthcoming). Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabe scholar Vanessa Watts (2013: 23) reminds us that:

habitats and ecosystems are better understood as societies from an Indigenous point of view; meaning that they have ethical structures, inter-species treaties and agreements, and further their ability to interpret, understand and implement. Non-human beings are active members of society.

 Legal scholar Val Napoleon (who is  a member of Saulteau First Nation (Treaty 8 Territory) and  is an adopted member of the Gitanyow (Gitksan) House of Luuxhon, Ganada (Frog) Clan) advocates for Indigenous peoples to engage with, and actively rebuild, our legal orders (Napoleon 2007; Napoleon and Friedland forthcoming). In a recent conversation, Val Napoleon reminded me that ‘law is a language’ and that ‘law is a verb’. According to Napoleon (2007:3), Indigenous legal orders are practiced through “law that is embedded in social, political, economic and spiritual institutions”. As Napoleon (2007:3) points out:

Indigenous peoples applied law to harvesting fish and game, the access of berries, the management of rivers, and the management of all other aspects of political, economic, and social life. Since our legal orders and law are entirely created within our cultures, it is difficult to see and understand law in other cultures.

In my own work, I employ the concepts of Indigenous legal orders (Borrows 2014; Napoleon 2007), Indigenous Place-Thought (Watts 2013) and ethical relationality (Donald 2009) to examine the ways that people govern themselves within territories populated by a myriad of human and non-human actors. These three concepts—Indigenous place-thought, ethical relationality and Indigenous legal orders— describe what it is to live, accountably, in the land. They also help me to consider what is to live and work, accountably, across legal orders and pluralities. As Watts (2013), Van Camp (2012), Borrows (2014) and so many other Indigenous thinkers and artists teach us: stories, bodies, memory, land, law and knowing are inextricably bound together. These Indigenous articulations of place-story (Donald 2009: 10) and Indigenous Place-Thought (Watts 2013) coincide with, and complement, the theories advanced by anthropologist David Anderson (2000) of ‘sentient ecology’ and Tim Ingold’s (1996: 121) notion of an ‘ontology of dwelling’ and so many other scholars writing about the inter-relation of land, animals, thinking, stories and legal-governance relationships.

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The people, moments and presences I wish to cite, first and foremost, when discussing human-animal, human-environmental and cosmopolitical matters in my home territory are those I grew up with as an Indigenous person in the prairies. My first teachers–the fish, the water, the land, my family–remain my most powerful ones. Viveiros de Castro (2003) calls for anthropologists to strive ‘to create the conditions of the…ontological self-determination of  people’. This is an important principle for anthropology to engage. However, as an Indigenous scholar, I argue, too, that Indigenous self-determination, within the plurality of legal orders I am responsible to in Treaty Six territory, pre-supposes the ontological. Self-determination encompasses the myriad relationships between people, land and the laws that are generated from relationships between people and place. In North America, it is almost funny to imagine anthropology creating the conditions for self-determination considering the often negative connotations and legacies it carries for so many Indigenous peoples (see, for example, Audra Simpson’s work for a study of the negative implications anthropology can have on Indigenous self-determination.  In her research, she examines the experience of Kahnawake Mohawks asserting sovereignty vis-à-vis settler states (Simpson 2014)). In many ways, self-determination is possible in spite of the structures and processes of the academy. In fact,  scholar Sarah Hunt (2014:30) (who is a member of the Kwagiulth band of the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation) argues (and I cite this piece frequently in my work now because it is so well articulated):

The potential for Indigenous ontologies to unsettle dominant ontologies can be easily neutralized as a triviality, a case study or a trinket, as powerful institutions work as self-legitimating systems that uphold broader dynamics of (neo)colonial power.

If Anthropology is to engage Indigenous legal orders and self-determination effectively, it must also seriously address the structural violences of the academy itself.  Following the work of Sara Ahmed (2013, 2014), one very direct way in which to dismantle the structural violences of our work is to tackle the citational practices of our disciplines. Who do we cite when discussing Indigenous legal orders? Who is sitting on the panels about these matters at our conferences? Who is vetting these discussions in our journals?

Through the duties people posses to one another, to sentient and knowing lands, to the water, to the air (or climate), to animals and other-than-human presences, we also currently encounter one another across colonial realities. I argue that we negotiate simultaneous and often contradictory ‘sameness and difference’ across these legal orders.  This can produce friction, particularly when trying to translate legal orders and embodied experiences within an academic system that presupposes the logics of Euro-Western law and ethics. However, through the plurality of legal orders that animate Turtle Island, I am accountable to you, to the land, to other Indigenous peoples, to the fish.

Since posting my critique of the ontological turn, I continue to puzzle through my role as an Indigenous person from Alberta complicit in ‘committing anthropology’ within another Indigenous people’s territory in northern Canada. Perhaps I move through these academic and ethical entanglements and meshworks (two concepts I borrow here from Ingold 2010) like a northern pike. Slippery. Trickster-y. On the move. Hungry.

What I continue to think about within my own work, both as a researcher but also as a political agent moving between Canada and the UK, are my duties to the Indigenous legal orders, and those who think them and rebuild them, that animate sovereign Indigenous territories and nations/societies throughout Turtle Island. And I firmly feel that in my own work, in order to commit to the ongoing decolonization of Indigenous-State relationships in Canada, requires that I unambiguously confront the legal-governance implications of my role as researcher, as Indigenous feminist, as family member, as student, peer, as critic, colleague, artist, daughter, sister, cousin, friend. It is not enough to simply write about self-determination—I have a duty as a Michif/Otipemisiwak/Métis person living in amiskwaciwâskahikan/pêhonan to embody, every day, my reciprocal legal-governance duties to human and other-than-human actors alike. To the land. To the water. To the fish. To the plurality of legal orders (Borrows 2014) and the people who think them into being across the entire continent. These are ongoing and nuanced living relationships that require constant tending to and will require constant tending for the rest of my life. But in that tenderness, reciprocity, and care are the conditions for an accountable and ethically robust anthropology that is attentive to what it means to embody an ‘ethical relationality’ (Donald 2009) across legal orders.

In the coming weeks as a guest blogger for Savage Minds, I will share with you the insights of Kyle Mays Wabinaw, Catherine Clune-Taylor and others as time allows. We will explore what it means to be critical, present and accountable within an academy that still struggles with reproducing disciplines like anthropology as ‘white public space’ (as per the work of Karen Brodkin, Sandra Morgen and Janice Hutchinson 2011). We will ask what it is to ‘be ethical’ within an academy that, for all intents and purposes, remains firmly planted within a very particular legal-governance and ethical paradigm.

Ahmed, S. (2013). Making Feminist Points. Accessed April 24, 2015. http://feministkilljoys.com/2013/09/11/making-feminist-points/

Ahmed, S. (2014). White Men. Accessed April 24, 2015. http://feministkilljoys.com/2014/11/04/white-men/

Anderson, D. (2000). Identity and Ecology in Arctic Siberia: the Number One Reindeer Brigade. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Borrows, J. (2014). Physical Philosophies: Freedom and Indigenous Peoples. Public talk, Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Summer Institute, Osoyoos: Canada.

Borrows, J. (2014b). John Borrows on indigenous legal traditions: ‘We need to explore how we can take that law and carve it in new and beautiful ways’. Accessed May 07, 2015: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/john-borrows-on-indigenous-legal-traditions-we-need-to-explore-how-we-can-take-that-law-and-carve-it-in-new-and-beautiful-ways/article21960774/

Brodkin, K, Morgen, S. and J. Hutchinson. (2011). Anthropology as White Public Space? American Anthropologist 113(4): 545-556.

Donald, D. (2009). Forts, Curriculum, and Indigenous Metissage: Imagining Decolonization of Aboriginal-Canadian Relations in Educational Contexts. First Nations Perspectives 2(1): 1-24.

Hunt, S. (2014). Ontologies of indigeneity: the politics of embodying a concept. Cultural Geographies 21(1) (2014): 27-32.

Ingold, T. (1996). “Hunting and Gathering as Ways of Perceiving the Environment”. Pp. 117-155 in Redefining Nature: Ecology Culture and Domestication. Katsuyoshi Fukui and Roy Ellen, eds. Oxford: Berg.

Ingold, T. (2010). Bringing Things Back to Life: Creative Entanglements in a World of Materials. NCRM Working Paper. Realities / Morgan Centre, University of Manchester. (Unpublished)

Law, J and M. Lien. (2013). Slippery: Fieldnotes in empiricial ontology, Social Studies of Science, 43(3): 363-378.

McNeil, K. (1983). McNeil, Kent. “Indian Hunting, Fishing and Trapping Rights in the Prairie Provinces of Canada”. (Report). Saskatoon: University of Saskatchewan Native Law Centre.

Napoleon, V. (2007). Thinking About Indigenous Legal Orders. Research Paper for the National Centre for First Nations Governance. Accessed via the internet April 14, 2015: http://fngovernance.org/ncfng_research/val_napoleon.pdf

Napoleon, V. and H. Friedland, (forthcoming). “The Inside Job: Engaging With Indigenous Legal Traditions Through Stories”. Tony Lucero & Dale Turner (Eds.), Oxford Handbook on Indigenous Peoples’ Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Simpson, Audra. (2014). Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life ACross the Borders of Settler States. Durham: Duke University Press.

Watts, V. (2013). Indigenous place-thought and agency amongst humans and non-humans (First Woman and Sky Woman go on a European Tour!). DIES: Decolonization, Indigeneity, Education and Society 2(1) (2013): 20-34.

Van Camp, R. (2012). Godless But Loyal to Heaven. Winnipeg: Great Plains Publications.

Viveiros de Castro, E. (2003). And (Manchester Papers in Social Anthropology, 7). Manchester: Manchester University Press




Zoe Todd

Dr. Zoe Todd (Red River Métis/Otipemisiwak) is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. She was a 2011 Trudeau Foundation Scholar. She researches Indigenous feminist (Métis) perspectives on the anthropocene, extinction, human-fish relations, colonialism and Indigenous legal orders/governance in Canada.

4 thoughts on “Tending to duties across legal orders: committing anthropology while Indigenous

  1. Once again content in this blog is too centered in North-American debates. I am glad the post is written by an Indigenous scholar. However, it’d be much more interesting to be able to understand the debate fully. Reading you from Brazil (as a non-Indigenous graduate student), I can’t quite understand what “Indigenous legal orders” are. I know you listed bibliography at the end of you post (a rather large list for I blog, I must say), but since I read you on a blog, I wonder whether you could explain it in a way those not familiar with the concept/idea/theory/notion could follow the argument.
    I found you piece on indigenous scholars and feminists and ontological turn (in your blog) to be centered in debates more anthropologists could understand, independently of they being or not familiar with Native North-American debates. I and other colleagues of mine working with Indigenous peoples in South America are very interested in learning how Native scholar from other parts of America relate to contemporary anthropological theories and debates. I am certainly looking forward to reading you again.

  2. Thanks for the comment. You’re right–it would be great to see discussions within anthropological circles that encompass the issues raised by Indigenous nations/peoples around the globe. In fact, this is what is already happening within contexts such as Indigenous Studies and/or Indigenous legal and literary scholarship where scholars are working across continents to examine the divergent and convergent experiences of different Indigenous peoples vis-a-vis past and present colonialism. Indigenous legal orders are a well-established line of thinking and inquiry that Indigenous scholars in Canada such as James Tully, John Borrows and Val Napoleon have written extensively about. Here’s an excerpt from an forthcoming article about Val Napoleon’s legal work that I wrote for the Canadian art Magazine C Magazine (issue 126) that explains why I choose to think with Indigenous scholarship and why I centre Indigenous framings of our thinking, sovereignty and engagement with the human and non-human world in my writing:

    “So, what is Indigenous law, for those who are not familiar with this work? Through her work, Val demonstrates that Indigenous law is dynamic, alive, robust and integral to the assertion of Indigenous self-determination and sovereignty in Canada. It is also, as Val points out, a set of processes that require constant intellectual engagement. It allows Indigenous peoples to tackle complex internal community issues as well, from how to address intersections of violence and gender to the management of watersheds and lands in the context of extractive economies. It is the set of processes through which Indigenous peoples actively engage and shape the world. Indigenous legal orders “describe law that is embedded in social, political, economic, and spiritual institutions,” as Val writes in a 2007 paper for the National Centre for First Nations Governance.[3] It is from reading and engaging with Val’s work and the work of other Indigenous legal scholars that I have come to prefer to use Indigenous legal orders in my own work over the far trendier Eurocentric notion of ontology (so common in anthropology and art scholarship at the moment). As Val’s work teaches me, Indigenous legal orders centre action and engagement and unambiguous confrontation with colonial realities rather than simply acknowledging that other ways of being exist. Legal orders place the onus on an active engagement across difference and sameness rather than just describing difference or alterity. As Val articulates, “law is a verb.””

  3. Thanks for your reply and the excerpt from your forthcoming article. I’ll try to get familiar with this literature.
    I imagined – but again I don’t know discussions being made by Indigenous Studies scholars – that ideas such as “law” and “legal orders” would be as ethnocentric and Eurocentric as “ontology”. I guess I was wrong.

  4. Thanks for this post Zoe. There’s a lot to think about here. Several of your lines from this post have been on my mind all week.

    There’s something about an expressed desire by anthros to “create the conditions of the…ontological self-determination of people” that is deeply ironic, if not paternalistic (all things considered). You make that very point when you write, “In North America, it is almost funny to imagine anthropology creating the conditions for self-determination considering the often negative connotations and legacies it carries for so many Indigenous peoples.”

    There’s a certain amount of speaking for others (in the name of those others, for their supposed best interests) that has been ongoing for a long, long time in anthropology. The issue of citation practices that you mention gets at the heart of the matter, at least in terms of practices within the academy/anthropology.

    Your post also has me thinking back to some of the core issues and contradictions of the whole “ontological turn” in anthropology.

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