When did the breath of life start to kill?
As Quechua people, we are taught about the power of one’s breath. The fresh Andean air that we take in is a gift that we have been given to live in this world. Each breath is a reminder that we are alive and most importantly, that with our aliveness comes a responsibility to do good with each thought and each physical movement fueled by this breath. Our breath is powerful because it holds the ability to offer thanks, express reverence and awe, to transfer strength and healing, and to carry the words that we ask to make change through prayer. Individually, as a child, I remember my mother, as her mother did for her, sucking in air around my head space to remove the jumpiness that resulted from trauma. Collectively, when we make offerings to the mountain gods, we blow our breath on the offerings towards their directions. This is cultural protocol that reflects the way in which we honor the spirits of beings and our humble obligation to care for each other. Other Indigenous people also observe the power of breath—I have been moved by Pueblo friends in New Mexico who breathe their gratitude in receipt of the souvenirs I bring to their homes, or Kanaka Maoli and Māori friends who breathe deeply with a counterpart upon introduction.
As I write today, the novel coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic has crossed oceans and lands, carried by human breath. We are asked to exercise social distancing, to avoid the danger of being breathed on and breathing on others. The very exchange of life that we as Indigenous peoples have observed since we were first offered the breath of life has been transformed into the threat of death.
It’s not hard to see how we have arrived at this point. We are not the only beings who were gifted breath of life. The earth’s creatures also breathe and live. Like us, they give and receive, they are conscious of the gift, and they have their own protocols. However, there is a relentless drive towards development and mass voracious consumption that characterizes empire. This is ambition that destroys and hurts: Land is only valued for what can be developed upon it or what can be extracted from it; animals are unintelligent beings seen only to exist for human survival or pleasure; and people’s worth is based on their ability to labor and build economies. This is not breath for life.
One of my mentors, Yupiaq education scholar, Angayuqaq Oscar Kawagley, wrote,
The Yupiat say “Yuluni pitalkertugluni,” “Living a life that feels just right.” One has to be in constant communication with each of the processes to know that one is in balance. If the feeling is that something is wrong then one must be able to check to see what might be the cause for unease or disease…In the Yupiat thought world, everything of Mother Earth possesses a spirit. This spirit is consciousness, an awareness. So the wind, river, rabbit, amoeba, star, lily, and so forth possess a spirit. Thus, if all possess a spirit or soul, then all possess consciousness and the power that it gives to its physical counterpart. (“An Alliance Between Humans and Creatures,” pp. 3-4)
Angayuqaq asked us to examine our lifestyles and technology today, including massive urbanization projects, the complex network of modernity that he referred to as “disjointed” and “given to fragmentation,” and to explore the disconnectedness that causes sickness not unlike what we are facing now. He asked us to consider our local understandings of ecology in order to better comprehend the earth’s ecosystem toward her sustainability and the health of her beings. He knew that alliances are required for this work—between humans and the earth’s creatures, between Western desires and Indigenous sustainabilities, and between science and technology and Indigenous knowledges that underscore morality and ethics towards life loving and giving approaches of/as being in this world. He also knew that these alliances required a shift in our thinking—”They await the time when the global societies evolve from consumerism and materialism to an orientation toward conservation and regeneration” (p. 5).
When will we be ready? Many of us have been kept in the darkness, unaware of our own participation in the psychopathic dynamic of domination over earth, desire to have more, build more, do more, be more. Yet, no one life is above another, Angayuqaq explained, because all of the earth’s creatures are the best at being who they are. Can we say this of humanity? The question does not refer to how we are responding as individuals and collectives to the current health, policy, and morality crisis brought about by the pandemic but rather is in direct reference to what brought us to this point at this time. In more explicit terms—what would we lose if we remembered and observed local natural laws, re-considered the human-nature hierarchy, and studied, as did our ancestors for millennia and as do our scientists today, how the earth’s ecosystem requires balance. What would it be like if we left the bats and pangolins alone? Who stands to gain from our shirking of these questions and our ignorance of this knowledge?
We live within a state of conditions created by coloniality. Coloniality refers to a system of desire and material aspiration linked with a global project of modernity through capital gain; these have shaped the domains within which we struggle and are defined by our relationship with empires—economic, institutional, normative, and knowledge systems that crush diverse ways of thinking and being in favor of a singular approach to human advancement. That nature has been violated, that our roles as caretakers of the land and her creatures have been denigrated, and that the very risk factors that make our peoples vulnerable to the virus (the direct result of colonial policies of land stealing, cultural loss and language genocide, food system disruption, Indigenous governance dismantling) are historical processes of which Indigenous peoples must be aware. Scientists from various fields have also been witnessing, studying, and advocating for us to rethink our roles in this world as they advance proposals for identifying major challenges and understanding our interconnectedness through empirical research.
But interconnectedness is complicated and personal. These days we see “we are in this together” and “we will get through this together” banners on social media. While such mantras are uplifting for some and may spur ground action, they are not realistic for all with regard to our current and daily realities. Popular media warns that the virus attacks all—young and old, rich and poor, urban and rural. (Note that as a social scientist, I am compelled to critically question each of these categories for their connotations and the real policy implications behind them. For example, what value is placed in association with these terms, and how does this impact who we implicitly prioritize?) I understand that the intent behind messages of togetherness constitutes appeals to think about individual and collective responsibility. However, certain factors make people more susceptible to complications emerging from the virus—the elderly, those with compromised immune systems, those with other “underlying health” issues that imply weakness and the absence of healthfulness.
When I hear these terms, I think of my own and other Indigenous villages. When I hear “the elderly,” I see my great aunts and the elder Quechua women with whom I farm—many of whom are survivors of domestic and sexual violence. I see my disabled uncle who survived polio as a child, who is epileptic and a respected person of knowledge about our Native ecology. They are my elders from whom I still have so much to learn, and to whom I am not yet done giving through my listening and work. When I hear “compromised immune systems,” I see my family and community members who are survivors of cancers and those currently struggling through radiation treatments. When I hear “underlying health issues” immediately followed by heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, I see my family and the friends with whom I work across Indigenous communities, including where I live in Ojibwe country. I think of the remaining elder language speakers who care for their grandchildren and who show up for other people’s kids every day to pass on the language. In some moments, my impulse is to push these thoughts aside, to deny the possibility of our Indigenous worlds changing in unthinkable ways. Reaching out to other Indigenous researcher friends, we don’t try to console each other that everything will be okay because as Indigenous people, we know that things haven’t been okay for a very long time. Sometimes we share a laugh, and sometimes we are just very quiet, respecting the silence between us.
The big and small ways that we cope counter what Nelson Maldonado-Torres has called coloniality of being, which is “a process whereby the forgetfulness of ethics as a transcendental moment that founds subjectivity turns into the production of a world in which exceptions to ethical relationships become the norm,” resulting in “giving birth to a world in which lordship and supremacy rather than generous interaction define social dynamics in society” (2007, p. 259). From our current vantage point, we can see that what has brought us to this point and how we respond reflect human internalization of coloniality as a state of being. Violation of nature is the norm. Choosing who gets a ventilator is the norm. The virus is referred to as an enemy, part of a larger discourse of war so proudly touted by dominant political leaders.
What is the opposite of this? Postcolonial and anti-colonial scholars have long argued that those of us dehumanized, the subjects of colonial dominion, the so-called damned are the ones who must drive transformation of the world. Maldonado-Torres wrote that the damned are made because “what she or he has has been taken from them…a subject from whom the capacity to have and to give has been taken away,” which eliminates gift-giving and generous reception, a “fundamental character of being in the world” (2007, p. 258). I don’t think the postcolonialists are wrong, especially if we take a deep and difficult dive into the ongoing threats to Indigenous self-determination, which isn’t just about what is done to us and what has been taken, but also how we participate or resist. And, there are also important stories—Indigenous community members, activist-scholars, health researchers, teachers, ordinary people who do what they can for others every day, now amplifying their efforts. We the damned still have something to give—that is, our breath towards life, our animation towards honoring the spirits of other beings. It is not too late for us.
Take a moment. Sit still. Listen. Do you hear the sound of your own breath? Where governments fail, you will not. You still have something to give your loved ones and the world in each breath of life. For those whose breath is leaving them through no fault of their own, offer them your hopeful breath from where you are. With each inhalation, accept the responsibility to do better, and with each exhalation remember our shared humanity and love. Never stop asking—What will you do with your breath?
Elizabeth Sumida Huaman
Associate Professor of Comparative and International Development Education, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities