In anticipation of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) 2023 conference, taking place in Toronto from May 11 to 13, we caught up with Kaitlin Reed, author of Settler Cannabis, over email.
The newest book in our Indigenous Confluences series, Settler Cannabis offers a groundbreaking analysis of the environmental consequences of cannabis cultivation in California that foregrounds Indigenous voices, experiences, and histories. Below, Reed shares about the ongoing effects of resource rushing in the state and how this history can inform the path toward an alternative future, one that starts with the return of land to Indigenous stewardship and rejects the commodification and control of nature for profit.
As part of the Summer Reading Sale, enjoy 40% off and free domestic shipping on all books when you order on our website. Use promo code WARM23 at checkout. The sale ends June 16, 2023.
Can you tell us about your background and how your research for Settler Cannabis took shape?
It was never my plan to write a book about cannabis. Thinking back, my scholarly entanglements with cannabis began within the first few days of my freshmen year of college. Gathered in the hallway of our dorm building, my cohort and I exchanged introductions and pleasantries. I shared that I was a member of the Yurok Tribe in northwestern California—as soon as the word “Humboldt” left my lips, eyes lit up. I pondered: How had this commodified plant relative made its way over three thousand miles from Yurok ancestral territory to the Eastern Seaboard? And who was really paying the price? These questions would take a backseat for the next few years.
In 2014, I was an inexperienced intern working for the Yurok Tribe Environmental Program (now referred to as the Yurok Tribe Environmental Department). One July morning, I was drinking coffee at my desk. I opened my inbox to see a Los Angeles Times article that had been forwarded to all Yurok tribal employees. The headline read: “Massive Raid to Help Yurok Tribe Combat Illegal Pot Grows.” This has come to be known as Operation Yurok. While I sat safely in my office, other tribal members and employees, accompanied by dozens of law enforcement officers clad in camouflage and carrying assault rifles, made their way upriver. Their goal that morning was to eradicate cannabis cultivation and document the resulting environmental damages, both within and beyond the boundary of the Yurok Indian Reservation.
That summer, and several summers to follow, the Yurok Tribe was under siege from illicit trespass cultivation. Illegal and unregulated water diversions were running our streams dry. Chemical pollution and human waste dramatically degraded our water quality. Our wildlife were intentionally and accidentally poisoned. Our traditional gatherers and basketweavers faced threats, physical violence, and intimidation from cannabis cultivators. And yet, all the while, the experiences of California Indian people were largely left out from mainstream cannabis discourse. For me, it became very important to document the ecological and cultural impacts of cannabis cultivation for Indigenous peoples not as a new phenomenon but as a continuation of settler-colonial resource extraction.
Can you share a brief overview of resource rushing in California and describe how this history connects to cannabis cultivation in the state today?
The book aims to connect the historical and ecological dots from the gold rush to the green rush. I argue that resource rushing, or the “rush” mentality, is a violent settler-colonial pattern of resource extraction that must be repeatedly played out—first gold, then timber, then fish, and now cannabis. While it may have started with gold, resource rushing did not end with gold. Resource rushing in California has always been less about the specific resource/relative in question and more about access and control over lands and the ability to assert ecological managerial authority. The real gold is not gold, after all, but the land itself. In Northern California a pattern of resource rushing has left a toxic legacy that shapes the historic context of emerging industries in the state. From the widespread use of mercury during the gold rush and its disproportionate impact on Indigenous fishing communities to the aerial spraying of atrazine over Yurok forests as late as 2013, the use of toxics within settler resource rushing has negatively impacted tribal peoples since invasion. California Indians have watched this pattern play out over and over again.
How does settler-colonial violence against the landscape correlate to violence on Indigenous bodies and cultures?
We are a part of the land, and the land is us. We mean that quite literally. When a group of people live in the same place for thousands of years, our ancestors become the soil, they become the Earth. The gifts we receive from Creator—Salmon, Elk, and Acorns—nourish us and become part of our bodies. In caring for the land, gathering the plants, dancing for the Salmon, we engage in an ancient relationship with our land bases, rooted in a connection and reciprocity that has developed over millennia. Additionally, the health of ecosystems is directly connected to the vitality of Indigenous peoples. For example, Yurok elders have said that as long as our River is sick, our people will never be healthy. This includes the Salmon people swimming upriver to spawn, the Tree people dependent on the marine nutrients their Salmon relatives will deliver to the forest, and, of course, the neediest of the bunch, the human people. Our health and vitality are tied to the health and vitality of our landscapes. If the River is sick, everything that depends upon the River will not flourish.
Is sustainable cannabis production possible? What might that look like?
While working on this book project, I received several invitations to speak at academic gatherings. This question comes up a lot. I tell these folks what I tell my students: here in California, our land was stolen only 170 years ago. Before that, our ecosystems thrived. The Salmon runs were so huge, our elders say you could walk across the River on their backs. To us, 170 years is not very long ago. For a people who have been here for tens of thousands of years—and, by the way, some argue over 100,000 years—170 years is a blink, a flash. So, my sustainable vision of cannabis production, then, is not focused on preserving folks’ ability to continue to cultivate for-profit cannabis.
As a result of the legacy of the settler state’s toxic relationship with lands and waters, coupled with the impacts of climate change, our River systems are reaching their breaking points. Our Rivers are choked and contaminated, yet more is demanded from them every day. Our River systems need time to heal, to recover. Demanding water allocations for yet another industry is like asking your relative, still in the intensive care unit recovering from a heart attack, to help you move your furniture. This is not to say that the cannabis industry, specifically, is the cause of this problem. Rather, it is a worldview that considers our water systems as resources to be plundered for export-based agriculture and other industries. My sustainable vision is land return. Decolonization. Ecologically speaking, I argue this is the only path forward. We need to operate within a framework of radical relationality that rejects the commodification and control of nature for wealth accumulation.
Kaitlin Reed (Yurok/Hupa/Oneida) is assistant professor of Native American studies at Humboldt State University.