12 Min Read
August 18, 2023
Shouhei Tanaka is a Postdoctoral Scholar at the University of Southern California in the Thematic Option Honors Program.
In 1971, the Government of Canada announced plans for the James Bay Project: the development of hydroelectric power stations on Cree and Inuit homelands in the region currently known as Northern Québec. Led by the public utility company Hydro-Québec, the mega hydroelectric dam on La Grande River—one of the largest in the world—was met with decades-long protests from Cree, Inuit, and other Indigenous nations and peoples. The story of the James Bay Project crystallizes the links of modern energy systems to past and ongoing histories of extractivist settler states. It helps us see the history of energy modernity as a history of empire, and the future of energy as a necessary future of decolonization.
Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan’s Solar Storms (1995) fictionalizes the story of the James Bay Cree hydroelectric conflict and places it in the longer histories of North American settler colonialism, illuminating the imperative of Indigenous energy justice. By showing how energy extraction takes place at the conjuncture of race, colonialism, and power, the novel unearths the colonial ecology of energy systems under extractivist settler regimes. At the same time, it chronicles the long and ongoing histories of Indigenous resistance that situate energy justice as decolonization.
A coming-of-age and environmental narrative, Solar Storms chronicles the seventeen-year-old teenager Angel Wing, as she travels from Oklahoma to her ancestral homelands of the Fat-Eaters in James Bay, following a history of displacement in foster homes, poverty, and abuse. Reunited with her family and community, Angel aims “to put together all the pieces of history, of my life, and my mother’s, to make something whole.” Eventually, four generations of Indigenous women—Angel, her grandmother Agnes, her great-grandmother Dora-Rouge, and her friend Bush—travel by canoe up the region’s waterways. They undertake the journey for a variety of reasons: to find Angel’s mother, to allow Dora-Rouge to die in her home village, and to protest the hydroelectric dam construction developed by the Canadian energy company BEEVCO.
The novel’s double-plot structure—Angel’s northward waterway journey as she learns about her ancestral homeland, and her participation in the dam protests at journey’s end—illustrates how settler energy systems dispossess Indigenous bodies and lands alike. Accumulative cycles of violence generate cultural, historical, and environmental ramifications. Environmental and gender violence are understood as twinned forces that propel modern energy colonialism. The novel juxtaposes environmental violence on the land with Angel’s own personal history of abuse and violence, marked by scars on her body. By braiding body to land, Hogan shows how gender violence to the body is violence to the land. This inseparability of body and land in Indigenous lifeways and cosmologies articulate the centrality of cultivating multispecies kinship and crafting more-than-human relations and worlds.
By braiding body to land, Hogan shows how gender violence to the body is violence to the land.
Angel’s discovery of her ancestral origins emerges hand in hand with her knowledge of the region’s waterways and ecologies, such that personal biography becomes inseparable from land geography. “I began to feel that if we had no separate words for inside and out and there were no boundaries between them, no wall, no skin, you would see me,” Angel writes, “you would see fire; other days, water. Or earth.”
A carousel of state-sanctioned violence sets in motion BEEVCO’s dam project: militarized police forces engage in the surveillance, harm, and imprisonment of Indigenous protestors and residents; homes are destroyed to clear land; roads are blocked to inhibit travel; and new electricity systems are promised in return for land appropriation. Solar Storms shows that these modern energy regimes are part and parcel of the settler-colonial genesis of Canada and the United States. Energy modernity and racial capitalism are propelled by treaty and land rights violations that operate on past and ongoing logics of white settler possession.
Against these extractivist enterprises, Indigenous resistance impedes BEEVO through a series of blockades and protests. Fighting on the front lines, Angel asserts, "[a]s certain as it was that the bulldozers would move earth, it was equally certain that we would stand in their way.” The novel narrates AIM and other activists who flock to the region to join the front lines with other water and land protectors, thereby juxtaposing the hydroelectric protests with the Wounded Knee Occupation to re-periodize the emergency of the 1973 energy crisis through Indigenous decoloniality.
During the protests, Angel recalls reading about Nikola Tesla in a textbook and wishes he were still alive: “He knew turbines and force fields and generators. He knew how to do all this at no cost. No one would profit from that kind of power. No one would steal. Tesla had known a force, a cosmic and earthbound power, a stunning light.” This passage articulates a decolonial energy commons in which energy is understood not as an extractive resource nor commodity but a cosmology oriented by Indigenous relationality in which the web of life catalyzes energy’s flows: “Now I thought about it, and of all the things that glow in the dark and have power: fireflies, lightning, eels.” Angel reimagines energy infrastructure not as technical systems of extraction and control but as what The Red Nation calls “infrastructures of caretaking [that]...will replace infrastructures of capitalism” by taking up “healing as a revolutionary concept.” Indigenous feminist praxis and thought, as Hogan illuminates, work toward just energy futures in which caretaking, relationality, and kinship become central tenets of energy justice and sovereignty.
The “simple truth” and “choice that confront us,” The Red Nation writes, “is decolonization or extinction.” Reading Hogan’s novel in the current flashpoint of the climate crisis—amid ongoing Indigenous struggles against fossil fuel pipelines across the United States and Canada—illustrates a key point about energy justice: decarbonization must also be a process of decolonization, as an economy decoupled from fossil fuels is no less colonial if it is still premised on the refusal of Indigenous liberation. Indigenous energy justice demonstrates that energy politics is land politics and that energy sustainability means land repatriation. By mapping the relationalities that traverse body, matter, and planet, Indigenous energy justice situates energy as a form of life, futurity, and cosmology. Or as Dora-Rouge teaches Angel, “A human is alive water, that creation is not yet over. If you listen at the walls of one human being, even if that one is yourself, you will hear the drumming … Maybe earth itself is just now starting to form.”