Cherishing the Impaired Land
Traditional Knowledge and the Anthropocene in the Poetry of Gwen Westerman
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.
Copyright (c) 2022 Joanna Ziarkowska
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