Critical Indigenous STS: Technoscience & Transition in Native North America

The meaning and status of technoscientific knowledge in Native North America has undergone seismic change in the twenty-first century. New generations of Indigenous youth have been drawn into technoscientific careers and activism by the Idle No More movement in Canada and by protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in the United States. Ambiguous political victories like the 2014 Tsilhqot’in Land Claim decision in British Columbia, the Daniels decision regarding the legal status of Métis people throughout Canada, and the ongoing Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations in the United States have generated new challenges in environmental stewardship and economic planning for Indigenous experts, many of whom are still negotiating the structural violence and epistemic disjunctures of settler colonialism in their day-to-day lives. Even as Native American and First Nations groups and individuals have established new governing institutions, built careers in technoscientific fields, and increased their standing and visibility in corporations and state institutions, however, the roles played by technoscience in both settler and Indigenous cultural formations and policymaking arenas throughout North America have grown increasingly unsettled. These developments demand new explanatory frames for understanding the place of experts and expert knowledge in contemporary articulations of Indigenous identity and in the political movements and technoscientific work emanating from new sites of articulation.

This workshop will attempt to address this challenge by bringing together scholars from critical Indigenous studies, anthropology, geography, science and technology studies (STS), and other technical disciplines with several Native American and First Nations practitioners and activists whose work has shaped and been shaped by these transformations. STS scholars have repeatedly shown that the foundational claims of technoscientific democracy – transparency, access, universalism, and disinterestedness, to name a few – are always and everywhere contingent on particular moral economies and configurations of practice. These critiques have taken on new urgency as neoliberal economic reforms and processes of regulatory devolution throughout North America have repositioned technocratic authority and introduced new tests of legitimacy for would-be experts and representatives.

Critical research at emergent sites of expertise on Indigeneity demonstrates the complex networks configuring and regulating Indigenous life. Recent scholarship has expanded on earlier influential anthropological work on Indigenous labor, development, and biomedical politics to critically interrogate the co-mingling of Indigeneity and science within contemporary spaces of governance, where engaging with Indigeneity increasingly means negotiating multiple metrics of authenticity and expertise. This workshop aims to build on anthropological work on Indigenous scientific practice and so-called traditional knowledge production, as well as on discussions in anthropology and science and technology studies surrounding how Indigenous social and environmental movements constitute other ways of being in the world. Through their research and reflections on ongoing activism, participants will return to key sites of knowledge production and translation: environmental resource (co-)management offices, court rooms, museums, homes, clinics, job training facilities, tribal offices, and sites of traditional use and industrial development. Work performed at these sites informs both the definition and recognition of Indigenous polities and the configuration of state management processes. The workshop will examine the place of expert knowledge in collective assertions of identity, ownership, and values and in the everyday lives of Indigenous people across North America through panel discussions organized around the following themes and questions:


1. Indigenous Bodies and Biomedical Expertise

How are Indigenous cultural practices and biomedicine intermingling in therapeutic spaces (whether for Indigenous people or others), and how has the emergence of “evidence-based medicine” and its associated accounting practices transformed these spaces? How are pharmaceutical corporations appropriating Indigenous knowledge and biospecimens as resources to create and patent new drugs and treatment methods, and conversely, how do legal-technical counter-practices render Indigenous traditional knowledge legible to state and international legal regimes as a form of intellectual property?


2. Indigenous Law and Techno-politics

How are Indigenous communities and institutions appropriating the bureaucratic forms and epistemic frames of technoscientific discourse and settler colonial institutions, and how are they interpolating them with evolving forms and traditions of Indigenous knowledge production? How do new technical training and education regimes contour Indigenous subjectivities? How are emergent spaces and technologies of representation and storytelling shaping the ways that these transitions enter collective memory?


3. Managing and Imagining Indigenous Environments

What new tensions in the relations between Indigenous traditions of governance and colonial strategies of knowledge mobilization and administration have inhibited Indigenous empowerment in resource co-management? How are the merits of longstanding Indigenous land claims appraised by colonial Canadian and American governance bodies, and how have these appraisals been affected by recent shifts in the ways these bodies collect, analyze, and value environmental data? How are new strategies for economic development, environmental protection, and climate change adaptation shaping the conditions of possibility for life on tribal lands?


workshop organizer:

Tom Özden-Schilling (William Lyon Mackenzie King Postdoctoral Fellow in the Canada Program and Lecturer in Anthropology, Harvard University)