Cherishing the Impaired Land

Traditional Knowledge and the Anthropocene in the Poetry of Gwen Westerman

  • Joanna Ziarkowska University of Warsaw


In the article I propose to read the work of Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate poet Gwen Westerman from the perspective of environmental humanities and disability studies. Following the insights of Heather Davis and Zoe Todd, I would like to indigenize the field by emphasizing the importance of traditional Indigenous knowledge in the responses to the effects of the Anthropocene. In Westerman’s poetry, the Anthropocene and the accompanying destruction of the environment begin with settler colonialism, which has more serious consequences than the ecological crisis: the loss of traditional lifestyles, foodways, and languages. If Westerman’s speakers believe in Indigenous survival, it can be found in the preservation of traditions and attention to/care for the land that is polluted, altered, and in pain. The emphasis on the need to return the land to the state of balance stands in sharp contrast with the way the discourse of capitalism describes the polluted environment as overexploited, useless, and “impaired.” As Sunaura Taylor has eloquently argued in her presentation “Disabled Ecologies: Living with Impaired Landscapes”, such a use of the “impaired” modifier demonstrates the extent to which Western preoccupation with and privileging of ableism – able bodies which are productive under capitalism – has penetrated thinking about damaged environments. Again, in Westerman’s work, “impairment” is an invitation to  a relationship with the land and its human, non-human, and inanimate beings. The condition of environmental change and pollution necessitates a new understanding of this relationship rather than its abandonment due to the capitalist logic of profit accumulation.

Author Biography

Joanna Ziarkowska, University of Warsaw
JOANNA ZIARKOWSKA is an assistant professor in the American Literature Section at the Department of Modern Philology, University of Warsaw, where she studies Native American literature and culture. Her research interests include literature of American ethnic minorities, twentieth-century American novel, film theory and history of the cinema. Currently she is researching connections between literature and medicine in American writers’ texts. Her latest monograph Indigenous Bodies, Cells, and Genes: Biomedicalization and Embodied Resistance in Native American Literature was published by Routledge in 2020.
How to Cite
ZiarkowskaJ. (2022). Cherishing the Impaired Land. Transmotion, 8(1), 74-97.