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Decolonization in Practice

Lessons from Karuk Nation

Salmon and Acorns Feed Our People: Colonialism, Nature, and Social Action

Kari Marie Norgaard, Salmon and Acorns Feed Our People: Colonialism, Nature, and Social Action, (Rutgers University Press, 2019).

Leontina Hormel is a professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Idaho.
Kari Marie Norgaard, Salmon and Acorns Feed Our People: Colonialism, Nature, and Social Action (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2019), 312 pages, $34.95, paperback.

It is challenging for a non-Native, white scholar to research and write about Indigenous experiences in the United States. Over the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, cultural anthropologists played a key role in objectifying Native Americans and assisted in the commodification of their cultures. Many other academics, whose expertise served the colonial project, also undermined Native nations’ power and sovereignty. The terrain is difficult to navigate, as non-Native researchers seek to be part of centering Indigenous voices and epistemologies, while not treating decolonization as simply a “metaphor.”1

Nevertheless, Kari Marie Norgaard’s Salmon and Acorns Feed Our People is an important guide to achieving this goal skillfully. Norgaard conscientiously connects readers to Karuk epistemologies and illustrates them in the lessons she has drawn over nearly two decades of research and advocacy work with members of the Karuk community, whose ancestral lands stretch along the Klamath River in northern California. Her commitment to legally establishing the book’s copyright with the Karuk Tribe is one I hope other non-Native researchers collaborating with Indigenous peoples will make a standard practice. The combination of her key arguments and guarding the Karuk’s legal ownership of the knowledge generated from the tribe during her research illustrates Norgaard’s sincere and self-conscious efforts to alter the power dynamics of non-Native, white academics’ research practices, which have historically objectified, commodified, and erased Indigenous peoples’ agency.

Fundamental to this story is the seizure of land most evident in the overtly violent era of state-sanctioned frontier genocide and forced relocation of the Karuk. Settler colonialism, Norgaard reminds us, is an ongoing state-led project up to this day—it is not just a moment relegated to the past and, thus, the inherent treatment of Native Americans as relics of U.S. history must be challenged.

Salmon and Acorns Feed Our People details the various dimensions of Karuk life affected by land theft. Despite the unwavering dismissal of the effectiveness of Indigenous ecological practices to this day, which reveals the ongoing colonial relations between tribal nations and state agencies that began with frontier genocide, the Karuk have asserted their ecological expertise and sovereign rights as a nation every step of the way. While Marxists have detailed the capitalist process of primary accumulation, accumulation by dispossession, and even the enclosure of reproductive commons, Norgaard contends that there is still much that Indigenous experiences teach us about the meaning of tribes’ erasure as land and sovereign rights over ancestral areas are stripped. Indigenous peoples, after all, have never related to land and nature as elements that can be owned. She stresses: “Even the term land objectifies, generalizes, and glosses over the complexity of animate beings and their relationships to one another, while the term dispossession is much too rooted in a capitalist logic of ownership in contrast to Indigenous sensibilities of responsibility and kinship.”2 When land is stolen from Indigenous peoples—usually via formally legal and objective means—Karuk reciprocal relations between themselves and nonhuman beings (or nature), who are kin and equally valued, are ruptured. Severed ties to nature not only rob nations like the Karuk of material wealth and power, but they also shape gender relations and physical, emotional, and psychological health.

Land, in other words, is not static. It comprises various life forms and life-generating processes that make up relationships integral to physical, cultural, and spiritual Indigenous survival. It is this human-nature reciprocity and intimacy nurtured over so many years in a specific place that generates ways of knowing—Karuk ecologies—sustained through unique cosmologies, cultural, political, and economic practices. Ron Reed, a Karuk cultural biologist, explains,

You can give me all the acorns in the world, you can get me all the fish in the world, you can get me everything for me to be an Indian, but it will not be the same unless I’m going out and processing, going out and harvesting, gathering myself. I think that really needs to be put out in mainstream society, that it’s not just a matter of what you eat. It’s about the intricate values that are involved in harvesting these resources, how we manage for these resources and when.3

This human-nature interaction nurtured by Karuk over thousands of years was used as a weapon by white settlers to racialize Karuk and tribes elsewhere.

Using Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s influential work on racial formation, Norgaard argues that Karuk were racialized through three different “racial projects”: frontier genocide, failure to honor land occupancy and title, and forced assimilation. The first of these projects violently dislocated “kinship relationships across species,” which initiated “the radical reorganization of wealth and ecology.”4 Often, Marxists recognize that capitalism was able to enter the scene once settler colonialism created some of the conditions necessary for commodified relations. However, Norgaard argues that expropriation and the rise of commodity relations of land and labor represent only part of the story. After thousands of years, Karuk and nonhuman lives were mutually dependent and supportive. Thus, Karuk racialization and eradication not only killed, dislocated, and exploited Karuk tribe members, but, by extension, nonhumans were also racialized and victimized. By prioritizing and overlaying white European value systems on Indigenous communities and landscapes, the settler state and the people who served as its foot soldiers acted on a seemingly natural hierarchy of society, in which Natives and specific features of nature’s landscape were expendable, or, at the very least, in need of significant adjustment through assimilation.

Racialization served to subordinate Karuk members and specific nonhuman species, which were deemed to lack value in the capitalist market. Opening Karuk land for market-oriented manipulation and taming was and continues to be an important means of constructing whiteness while subordinating Karuk and their nonhuman relations.5 In the second chapter, Norgaard describes the role family-managed burnings have played in Karuk forest management, food provisioning, and cultural customs. This fascinating study illustrates how Karuk administer fires to encourage food-producing species, manage forest understories, and sustain these systems with ceremonies. While settler-colonial and capitalist practices suppress fires, seeing them as uncontrollable and burning up profits, Karuk use and, thus, perceive fires differently. Fires, in Karuk ecological practices, were a means to promote growth of food and to slow down elements of the forest floor that may make it susceptible to intense fire events, such as the ones we have been witnessing on the U.S. west coast. Karuk-nature relations are mutually reinforcing in this practice, with fire representing a positive force in which “fire is medicine for the natural world, which includes people.”6

Norgaard repeatedly demonstrates how Indigenous epistemologies and practices offer a different path forward. In this, she also critically assesses the tendencies in Western European notions of modernity that hinge on binary, hierarchical constructions of social relations that shape power structures and the institutions that have evolved to reproduce unjust relations.

Karuk community members have challenged non-Native agencies’ efforts to suppress fires for a variety of reasons. By focusing on protecting profit making through encouraging single-species forests (for example, Douglas firs), non-Native agencies eradicate important food-producing species, including tanoak. Swift fire response simply to maintain future timber results in food and water destruction through fire-retardant poisoning. Further, the mountain ridgeways that include many of the most spiritually important Karuk sites are altered and destroyed as fire lookout stations were erected and fire response crews rip them up when digging fire lines. The bitter irony is not lost in Norgaard’s multilayered description of the centrality of fire in Karuk culture and economy, since all these efforts of fire suppression are likely the most harmful acts to pursue as the western United States anticipates increasing, heat-intense fires in the midst of climate crisis. The singular focus on manufacturing a commodified forest only exacerbates the vulnerability of western U.S. forests to catastrophic fire events. Yet, there is hope we can derive from Indigenous knowledge and experiences. If we listen and learn, tribes like the Karuk can teach us alternative methods of forest management, though such changes will require a paradigm shift that no longer colonizes peoples and exploits lands and their ecocommunities via private accumulation of profit.

When we understand relations of human-nature reciprocity—the fact that Indigenous peoples do not see or treat nature as separate or inferior—we are more capable of grasping the various ways in which losing land and relations with more-than-human communities is a violent process. For example, such violence disrupts diets that Karuk developed over thousands of years. The sharp decline of salmon populations, as well as the settler-colonial state’s efforts to control traditional Native fishing practices, is believed to be correlated to increases in diet-related illnesses like diabetes among Native Americans. At the same time, losing traditional means for food and medicine has negative effects on tribes beyond physical health, as ceremonial traditions and everyday cultural practices are significantly altered and threatened. Layered onto the historical and ongoing experiences of overt acts of violence and genocide, these stresses result in mental and emotional trauma, which in turn can further disrupt traditional ceremonial practices. Sophie Neuner, a Karuk member, explains how, “if someone isn’t in a good space, they aren’t supposed at be at ceremony—let alone cook. This is also the case for basketweaving or gathering, but especially when we cook. We have to have good thoughts—not talk smack about someone, you know?”7

When nature is vital to your community’s existence, settler-colonial land theft takes away more than space for living, the food you need, and the customary and ceremonial practices of harvest and preparation; it intrudes on the health of social relations, including gender relations.

Just as attributing inferiority to nonhuman beings and communities is a foreign way of thinking for Indigenous peoples, it appears many tribes do not necessarily attribute domination to masculinity and subordination to femininity. This nonbinary understanding of gender roles and relations is observed in the widely noted recognition and honoring of Two-Spirit Queer members of Native communities. Moreover, the mutually beneficial human-nature relations of Indigenous cultures lead us to consider the possibility that gender is constructed not only by social relations and interactions, but also by nature. For this reason, colonial ecological violence is deeply racialized and gendered.8 As Norgaard argues, “theorizing the symbolic and material importance of the natural environment is necessary to understand both the constructions of traditional Native masculinity and femininity, and the operation of gendered and racial colonial violence in the form of environmental degradation today.”9

This consideration enables us to challenge colonial associations of masculinity with dominance, both dominance over women and dominance over nature. If women’s and men’s roles are centered on the responsibility of sustaining culture and, simultaneously, Karuk ecologies, then maintaining traditional tribal gender roles can be understood as acts of resistance against a settler-colonial state bent on a continued process of erasing Natives. For this reason, Norgaard presents how tradition and traditional roles are highly valued among people in the Karuk community in light of “a context of genocide and forced assimilation.”10 Thus, gender and race are woven together when Karuk affirm their identities in traditional practices. This is illustrated in a Karuk mother’s explanation: “I think that that’s one of the things we end up with today is because we have a limited view of roles. It’s like OK, you’re either a fisherman or…if you are a guy, you gotta be a fisherman. You don’t want young boys to think, ‘I’ve never been to the falls to fish’ you know ‘so maybe I’m not quite the Indian that someone else is who goes to the falls and fishes.’”11

When access to river falls and healthy fish populations is denied—the environmental conditions necessary to fulfill your community responsibilities in your masculine role—this experience is emotionally troubling and experienced as an intimate, internalized form of colonial violence. Norgaard delineates emotional responses that members of the Karuk community have had as they have been forced to change their roles and bear the costs of settler colonialism’s goal of assimilation. Her interviews include members expressing grief, anger, shame, and hopelessness as environmental decline changes their opportunities, as Reed indicated, “to be an Indian.” Emotions are not only relegated to Karuk experiences, but to their more-than-human kin. Leaf Hillman, director of the Karuk Department of Natural Resources, describes the effects and human-nature emotional responses in this way:

We believe that we were put here in the beginning of time, and we have an obligation, a responsibility, to take care of our relations, because hopefully, they’ll take care of us. And it’s an obligation so we have to fish. They [non-Native agencies] say, “Well, there aren’t that many fish this year, so I don’t think you should be fishing.” That is a violation of our law. Because it’s failure on our part to uphold our end of the responsibility. If we don’t fish, we don’t catch fish, consume fish, if we don’t do those things, then the salmon have no reason to return. They’ll die of a broken heart. Because they are not fulfilling their obligation that they have to us.12

This particular passage from Salmon and Acorns Feed Our People offers a clear view of Karuk ways of knowing and what is meant by human-nature reciprocity, whereby nonhuman beings are equally important and, sometimes, even more important to sustenance and cultural resilience than humans.

As noted, Norgaard insists on integrating such Indigenous ways of knowing and a recognition of the history of settler colonialism into research and theory to imagine alternatives to exploitive capitalist practices. She also urges us to recognize the incredible strides tribes across the United States and the globe have taken toward survival, resilience, and environmental justice. In fact, as she points out, Indigenous efforts to assert sovereignty and resilience is always tied to environmental justice work. When non-Native agencies focus on manufacturing single-species forests and suppressing fires, completely ignoring species that do not have a market value, this is part of an ongoing process of stripping Karuk of their ancestral lands and, consequently, their ability to assert self-determination as a nation. In opposition, Karuk continue to affirm their authority and resist by conducting their own burnings, even though the U.S. state has criminalized these acts if done without formal licensing. In one example, Karuk research ecologist Frank Lake notes that “burning is a spiritual obligation and becomes also an act of political defiance in the context of governmental oppression and regulation of retained cultural rights.”13 Organizing efforts to remove Klamath River dams and, I would argue, working with researchers like Norgaard and others are tools of resistance and declarations of the right to self-determination.

Norgaard’s project is ambitious in its complexity and in its bold challenge to sociologists and academics to reimagine their disciplines and interrogate historical and contemporary processes in U.S. society through the lens of Indigenous experiences and settler colonialism. In a moment of candor that I appreciated, Norgaard confides in her acknowledgments that her challenge to sociology may even be “delusional.” Her risk is a boon to those of us seeking to push for a paradigmatic shift from capitalist relations as we know them, and I believe Marxist scholarship will benefit from the lessons that members of the Karuk community have generously shared in this book.


  1. Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, no. 1 (2012): 1–40.
  2. Kari Marie Norgaard, Salmon and Acorns Feed Our People: Colonialism, Nature, and Social Action (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2019), 104.
  3. Norgaard, Salmon and Acorns, 93.
  4. Norgaard, Salmon and Acorns, 47.
  5. Norgaard, Salmon and Acorns, 33.
  6. Norgaard, Salmon and Acorns, 91.
  7. Norgaard, Salmon and Acorns, 150.
  8. M. Bacon, “Settler Colonialism as Eco-Social Structure and the Production of Colonial Ecological Violence,” Environmental Sociology 5, no. 1 (2018): 1–11.
  9. Norgaard, Salmon and Acorns, 177.
  10. Norgaard, Salmon and Acorns, 177.
  11. Norgaard, Salmon and Acorns, 183.
  12. Norgaard, Salmon and Acorns, 213.
  13. Norgaard, Salmon and Acorns, 91.
2020, Volume 72, Issue 07 (December 2020)
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