On the Intersections of Power, History, and Narrative: Memory as Resistance

by Haleh Zandi

May 2009

          This paper speaks to the power of narratives in organizing relations between people and the land which sustains life. As humans have more impact on the environment than any other organism, what are the ways in which different understandings of nature and of the history of human development shape our responses to the rising ecological crisis? As subaltern communities are disproportionately affected by the violences of climate change, how might counter-narratives of history intervene upon the systemic and structural violences dominating human relations and relations to the land? What are the ways in which memory and diversity are inextricably linked to ecological sustainability and social justice? Through a postcolonial approach to the writings of Carolyn Merchant and Winona La Duke, this section explores dominant historical narratives linked to relations of domination and practices in counter-memory which produce spaces for resistance.

          In her book Reinventing Eden: The Fate of Nature in Western Culture, Carolyn Merchant outlines dominant historical narratives which are meant to explain “how the human species arrived at the present moment in history” (Merchant 2003: 11). The Christian narrative, Modern narrative, Environmental narrative, and Feminist narrative are each recovery narratives containing moral organizing principles which give permission to act in a particular way toward nature and other people. These stories prove to be enormously compelling as they reflect beliefs and hopes for achieving a better world, and the extent to which each narrative lives in relation to power alters the degree of our impact upon the earth and our relations to others.

          The Christian recovery narrative is “a story of upward progress in which humanity gains the power to manage and control the earth” (Merchant 2003: 11). This narrative begins with “the Fall from the garden into the desert, moves upward to the re-creation of Eden on Earth, and culminates with the vision of attainment of a heavenly paradise, a recovered garden” (Merchant 2003: 15). It symbolizes the loss of partnership with the land and an ideology of domination over nature and other people, providing “a justification for the takeover of lands and people and the management and transformation of forest, fields, and deserts” (Merchant 2003: 25). Based upon the assumption and belief in a monotheistic deity who has designated roles for men and women, God as a social construct becomes a justification and an ideology for establishing relations of domination.

          During the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, a more secular version of the Christian narrative was established in which earth itself became the new Eden. This Modern narrative, “aided by the Christian doctrine of redemption and the inventions of science, technology, and capitalism” entails the restoration of health, reclamation of land, and recovery of property (Merchant 2003: 16). Inextricably linked to the power and violence of colonialism, this Modern narrative is what armed European colonialists in their efforts to dominate the whole world. An ideology of domination, it further lives as an ethnocentric attempt to bring development, democracy, and rational morality to others. Notions of stewardship which arise through the Modern narrative live in contradiction with the exploitation of its capitalist methodologies.

          Rather than a story of upward progress, the Environmental narrative and Feminist narrative instead depict “a long slow decline from a pre-historic past in which the world was ecologically more pristine and society was more equitable for all people and for both genders” (Merchant 2003: 11). Piecing together archeological, anthropological, ecological, and mythological data, environmentalists recreate a story of gradual decline which idealizes a prehistoric harmony with nature. According to the Environmental narrative, the first environmental problems arose from “large-scale agriculture in Mesopotamia,” though it “brought fertility to thousands of square miles of cropland…these irrigations waters then evaporated, salts accumulated in the soils, and reduced productivity” (Merchant 2003: 26). This suggests that agriculture marks a decline from the environmentally pristine Paleolithic era. There in the Near East, where “great town-based cultures emerged around 4000 BCE,” rain-based agriculture was practiced and a God above the earth developed, representing an irrevocable break with the natural world (Merchant 2003: 27). To environmentalists, this “intellectual construction of a transcendent God is yet another point in a narrative of decline as the separation of God from nature legitimates humanity’s separation from nature and sets up the possibility of human domination and control over nature” (Merchant 2003: 28).

          The environmentalist narrative of decline initiated by the transition to agriculture continues to the present context of environmental crisis. Merchant shows that “despite this destruction, environmentalists hope for a Recovery that reverses the decline by means of planetary restoration…beginning with the conservation and preservation movements of the nineteenth century and continuing with the environmental movement of the late 20 th century” (Merchant 2003: 28). Evidence linking the practice of agriculture and the development of monotheism to humans’ justification for dominating nature and other people is ultimately compelling. But what is problematic about the environmental narrative is its complicity with a linear understanding of history as produced through singular determinative events. It is a monolithicization of the ways in which diverse peoples relate to the land, to agriculture, and to each other. It masks the structures of power from which domination emanates. 

          Similar to the decline within the environmental narrative, Merchant shows how “many feminists see history as a downward spiral from a utopian past in which women were held in equal or even higher esteem than men” (Merchant 2003: 30). In a polarization of the sexes, women become linked to nature and men to domination. As a “story of decline from a past dominated by female cultural symbols and powerful female deities into one of female subordination,” the Feminist narrative captures the imagination through its symbolic force and its dramatic loss of female power (Merchant 2003: 31). Remittent with the hope of Recovery, the Feminist narrative validates women’s power and promises emancipation through the return of powerful cultural icons. Like the Environmental narrative, the Feminist narrative is also compelling but problematic. In categorizing women with nature and men with domination, it universalizes understandings of gender and power, silencing subaltern ways of knowing and relating through its use of dominant constructions. The Feminist narrative also assumes a linear transformation of a presumed egalitarian or matriarchal society to a patriarchal society, silencing the cultural differences within gender relations and the power of colonialism in enabling patriarchy’s ascension to power.

          Though these dominant narratives are powerful in the ways that they shape people’s relations to nature and to others, Merchant suggests that naming them “gives people the power to change it, to move outside it, and to reconstruct it” (Merchant 2003: 36). This is an alienating approach to resistance since the individual is expected to attain some heightened form of awareness through Metaphysical deconstructions which break through the confines of ideological power. The reality of power/violence is structural and complex; it can not simply be liberated through the minds of individuals. Winona La Duke evidences this in her life, in her research, and in her advocacy. Her book, Recovering the Sacred: The Power of Naming and Claiming, honors the vision and capability of indigenous people while situating their struggles within the complex structures of power. Through ancestral memory of ecological and cultural integrity and strategic political advocacy against the control and corruption of the state, La Duke evidences the power of memory as resistance.

          La Duke’s analysis corresponds with Merchant in the notion that indigenous spiritual practices and Judeo-Christian traditions are based on very different paradigms. But what La Duke emphasizes are the structural relations of power which produce disparate conditions of life between dominant and marginalized communities. Her narratives evidence the ways in which Indigenous peoples suffer disproportionately from colonization, Christianization, modernization, and industrialization. From the heart of Wounded Knee, La Duke asks, “How can people recover or heal themselves without reconciliation, without apology, and without addressing the crime?” (La Duke 2005: 90). In a complex and intergenerational process which reaffirms the relationship of peoples to the earth and maintains an acute reflexivity of finding ways to navigate the liberal structures of governance to which their communities are now subjected, indigenous groups are finding spaces of survival through resistance. La Duke describes, “Native American communities are creating momentum for change and providing some critical leadership in the face of global climate change and the energy crisis…as the fossil fuel century has been incredibly destructive to the ecological structures that keep planet earth habitable for humans” (La Duke 2005: 252-253).

          The recovery of traditional agriculture at Cayuga provides an example of the ways in which marginalized communities suffer disproportionately from the policies of the dominant as well as the ways in which memory, advocacy, and alliance are powerful in finding ecologically sustainable and socially just solutions. After 200 years of displacement, the Cayuga people who are now returning to the land that today is held in large measure by the state of New York are bringing with them the three sisters: corn, beans, and squash (La Duke 2005: 154). But as this return is fraught with the complexities of power, with the pain of genocide, and with the fear of deception, it is also steeped in the memory of the sacred and in commitments to the future.

          In 1779, Major General John Sullivan had described the Cayuga longhouses as “large and elegant…beautifully situated…covered by the most extensive fields of corn and every kind of vegetables that can be conceived” (La Duke 2005: 154). During that year of flourishing crops, Sullivan implemented General George Washington’s “scorched earth policy” which ordered “the total destruction and devastation of their settlements…. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more…Our future security will be in their inability to injure us, the distance to which they are driven, and in their terror” (Washington quoted in La Duke 2005: 154). As one of the many untold stories of the Revolutionary War, La Duke re-presents the Sullivan campaign as a counter-narrative of history and describes how “for generations, the Cayuga families who had survived the ‘ethnic cleansing’ continued their dream of return to their traditional lands” (La Duke 2005: 156).

         As the state of New York had illegally took possession of the land “through an agreement known as the Cayuga Ferry Treaty of 1795, five years after the federal Non-Intercourse Act of 1790 had barred states from signing treaties with Indian nations,” the Cayuga’s 1980 lawsuit against the state of New York sought the return of the 64,000 acres as well as $350 million in trespass damages. Four years later, a panel recommended that the Cayugas should be given 8,000 acres, which was publicly owned so no private landholders would be impacted, and a cash settlement of $15 million (La Duke 2005: 156). The Cayuga people are witness to the states of exception within the process of seeking justice through the structures of liberal governance. As the state of New York continues to exert its legitimacy despite its conception through a federally illegal process, the process of reparation is fraught with racism. Upon learning about the proposed settlement between the state of New York and the Cayuga, there was an “outcry by a group of non-Native landholders who complained at a public meeting that they didn’t want their children going to school with “dirty Indians suffering from dysentery and head lice” (La Duke 2005: 157). The racism of these citizens’ voices fuels the state of New York to continuously appeal the federal judgements which legally award the Cayuga for the loss of their ancestral lands. This evidences the disparate access to power and representation between dominant and subaltern communities who seek justice through the liberal structures of the nation-state.

          Alongside this legal battle, La Duke explores the grassroots movement for justice which extended across communities of difference in resistance to the violences of the government. La Duke tells of a white woman in the Cayuga area who had purchased some land from her family, who had taken a class on Native American Studies, and who felt uncomfortable about the organizing work of citizens against the land reclamations of the Cayuga (La Duke 2005: 158). Resisting alienation, assimilation, privilege, and domination, she “posted a notice on a local current events listing saying, ‘Anyone interested in a positive, peaceful solution in the Land Claim, meet at Cayuga Lake State Park, Thanksgiving Day, 9 am. We will share information and opinions, and we will be home in time for dinner. Pumpkin pie and coffee will be served.’ (La Duke 2005: 158). Through that meeting formed a group called SHARE: Strengthening Haudenosaunee-American Relations through Education. La Duke describes how “the emerging group talked to the clan mothers and other leaders of the Cayuga and Onondagas, who agreed to work with the group on the condition that the group not get involved in a battle with the anti-Indian organizing groups” (La Duke 2005: 159). By sending a white male to the bank to get a mortgage for a 72-acre organic farm located in the heartland of the Cayugas, SHARE was able to buy back the land for the Cayuga people, where the two groups in alliance with some neighbors are able to grow enough organic produce to sell at markets, hold fundraisers, and make the mortgage payments as a community (La Duke 2005: 159). This is a radical example of the kind of work white people can do in alliance with indigenous people in order to empower subaltern communities and achieve social justice. As Haudenosaunee seed and plant varieties return to the land, the biodiversity of the region expands and the health of the Cayuga people returns. In the words of Winona La Duke, it is “a recovery of the sacred”.

Works Cited

La Duke, Winona

2005 Recovering the Sacred: The Power of Naming and Claiming. Cambridge: South End Press.


Merchant, Carolyn

2003 Reinventing Eden: The Fate of Nature in Western Culture. New York: Routledge.