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“Like oil and water”: extractive industry, water rights, and aesthetic activism in native american interactive digital narrative

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Presented at Pour des humanités environnementales, Journée d’étude facultaire, Faculté des lettres, Université de Genève. Genève (Suisse) - vendredi 4 mai 2018 - . 2018
Abstract Idiomatic English expressions such as “oil and water don't mix” or “like oil and water” – to describe a profound incompatibility – take on a specific political meaning in the context of water rights and Indigenous opposition to the extractive oil industry. Most recently, opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline (the #NoDAPL movement, which started in 2016) highlights the threat to clean water supplies to the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation. Originally planned to run further north, near the city of Bismarck, North Dakota and thus avoiding the reservation, the pipeline route was changed because of the risk of toxic crude-oil leakage into the city's water supply. This redirection – and the transfer of risk from US to Sioux communities – has been termed “environmental racism” and an expression of “environmental colonialism” by activists, to which is added the charge of cultural genocide because construction of the pipeline desecrates tribal burial grounds and has destroyed other sites of sacred and archeological value. NoDAPL protesters emphasize that while the environmental threat posed by the pipeline impacts the Sioux Nation most immediately, it is not restricted to the Standing Rock Reservation but affects the quality of water supplies to all communities downstream of the point where the pipeline crosses the Missouri River. The powerful public response to the NoDAPL movement – by Indigenous activists and non-Indigenous allies – was provoked in important ways by the mobilization of social media specifically and digital media more generally. Evoking the title of the United Nations International Decade for Action (2005-2015) – “Water for Life” – activists gathered, physically at Standing Rock and virtually through online platforms, under the slogan "Mni Wichoni" – “Water is Life” – to protest environmental destruction, the erasure of Sioux tribal sovereignty (Sioux jurisdiction over the Missouri River and its shorelines as defined by the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie, affirmed by the US Supreme Court in 1904) by the US Army Corps of Engineers, and also the global threat to water posed by extractive industries. A significant recent deployment of digital media to raise public consciousness of such urgent environmental issues is Anishinaabe/Métis artist Elizabeth LaPensée's Open Access video-game Thunderbird Strike (2017), which has been condemned by Republican Minnesota State Senator David Osmek as “an eco-terrorist version of Angry Birds.” The game uses interactive digital narrative to perform Indigenous concepts of environmental care-taking and social justice, concepts that motivate ethical action – if only within the virtual diegetic environment of the game-world. This presentation engages the notion of “aesthetic activism,” in the context of “social impact” video-games, by exposing the primary narrative strategies by which the player is positioned in the virtual role of “eco-terrorist” or Water Protector. By rehearsing a restorative Indigenous relation to the environment and other-than-human nature, based on the values of respect, reciprocity, and preservation, Thunderbird Strike proposes an alternative to exploitative, colonialist, and literally toxic valuations of environment.
Keywords Environmental humanitiesIndigenous rightsWater rightsExtractive industryOil industryPollutionAesthetic activismDigital narrativeVideo-gamesElizabeth LaPenséeThunderbird Strike
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MADSEN, Deborah Lea. “Like oil and water”: extractive industry, water rights, and aesthetic activism in native american interactive digital narrative. In: Pour des humanités environnementales, Journée d’étude facultaire, Faculté des lettres, Université de Genève. Genève (Suisse). 2018. https://archive-ouverte.unige.ch/unige:108960

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Deposited on : 2018-10-09

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