When I first started reading Empire’s Tracks, I was confronted with a series of memory flashes about my own social and political history—intimate, everyday experiences that are also tied to the racialization of the land that is Turtle Island and the reproduction of a political economy in Canada that is deeply bound to the prose and enactment of countersovereignty. This book transported me to my own past as it is caught in the web of settler claims to sovereignty and nationalism, a claim that, as Karuka puts it, “orients itself toward delegitimizing Indigenous modes of relationship and solidifying a colonial sovereignty unmoored from them” (8).1 It also made me think hard about the present while simultaneously considering alternate pathways to a more just future. It pushed me to consider how racial capitalism works through all of us, the way it becomes entrenched in even the most seemingly benign social practices and ways of being, the way it shapes our collective and individual memories about who we are. Karuka so beautifully and powerfully shows us through his careful and critical anticolonial historiography and theoretical insights in Empire’s Tracks that capitalism plays with what it means to be human—how we develop relationships to one another and the world around us, how we eat, breathe, and love—and that the fueling sources of capitalism are colonialism and imperialism. Capitalism, quite simply, cannot exist without them.
Before I begin charting a few of the things that struck me as especially crucial interventions made by Empire’s Tracks, I want to step back into my own social history for a few moments to partially locate my relationship to the questions and insights about infrastructure, capitalism, and empire that lie at the heart of this book.
Often in the summer, when my father had a break from being the principal in the rural community where I grew up on Treaty Six Cree territory, and my mother wasn’t flying across the world to spend time with our relatives in India, we would travel to the southwestern part of Alberta to visit our close family friends—the Dhaliwals. My parents would load up our two-door maroon 1970s Chevrolet Impala with our luggage and tiffin carriers filled with Indian food and pile my sisters and me in the backseat to begin the roughly five-hundred-mile journey to our destination. After several hours of staring out the window at the rich biodiversity of the prairies, we would enter the Rocky Mountains, following a rather narrow and harrowing unpaved road up over Crowsnest Pass at an elevation of 4,455 feet before descending into the breathtaking valley below.
The Dhaliwals lived in Coleman, Alberta, in a small, white, split-level house built at the end of a steep hill on the edge of town. The backyard rubbed up against the town cemetery. My aunt and uncle had immigrated to Canada from Punjab, India, the same region from which my parents had come. After arriving in Canada and being unable to find steady employment in any of the major urban centers in Alberta and British Columbia, my uncle took a job with the International Coal and Coke Company. He became a coal miner.
Coleman was established in 1903 as a company town by International Coal and Coke, an American corporation looking for additional energy resources for its various industrial projects. It was one of many settlements established by corporations near mine sites so the company could serve multiple roles as the town’s primary employer, landlord, and provider of essential services.2 If you lived in Coleman, your life was structured by and through the corporation and, more importantly, its capitalist interests. You purchased your home through the corporation (with the support of the colonial government, it “owned” the land), paid your utility bill through the corporation, and attended events at the local theatre that was built by the corporation. The “settlement” of Coleman existed because International Coal and Coke put it there.
Not surprisingly, when I was young (and even now, to some degree) I had limited knowledge about what it meant to work in a coal mine. On one of our many trips to Coleman, my father asked me if I wanted to accompany him to visit the mine where my uncle worked. We left very early in the morning, close to daybreak. My uncle was wearing his hard hat with an electric cap lamp affixed to the front, carrying a metal lunchbox, and dressed in heavy-duty work clothes. He had to remove his colorful turban for the hard hat to fit properly on his head.
When we arrived at the mine I saw a number of other workers, all dressed in a similar fashion to my uncle, all wearing hard hats and carrying flashlights. My uncle told me that many of them were also immigrants from India. While we were walking down a dirt pathway to see the shaft where miners entered a vertical opening to descend into the underground mine, my uncle explained the various aspects of coal mining in a vocabulary unfamiliar to me: scaling, roof stress, portal, manway, ground pressure, headframe, regulator, panic bar, and sinking, among others. I learned that lift referred to the amount of coal obtained from a continuous miner in one mining cycle; fill was any material that was put back in place of the extracted rock or mineral to provide support to the place from where it had been excavated; coke was a hard, dry carbon substance produced by heating coal; and ground control meant the measures taken to ensure that the walls and roof of the inside of the mine didn’t cave in while the miner was inside.
My uncle would return home from work at the end of a long day, often a twelve- to fifteen-hour shift, his face caked in what looked like a grayish-black soot. He worked for well over a decade in the underground coal mines before becoming a supervisor, eventually retiring with substantial health problems resulting from his long-standing work in the industry.
But Coleman was not just a coal-mining company town. Coleman was built on Indigenous homelands and communities that existed on that territory long before colonial contact—Indigenous communities that have been devastated by the far-reaching scope and mandate of state and corporate violence. The Government of Canada required this land to build the transcontinental railway, part of a promise that was made to facilitate British Columbia’s integration into the Confederation of Canada in 1871. Huge land concessions needed to be offered to the company building the railway; later, the existence of the line would encourage large-scale immigration to the western prairies. The railway line, of course, traversed Indigenous land, which prompted the “negotiations” around Treaty 7. The obligations and responsibilities to the Indigenous peoples of this territory were clearly demarcated in 1877, when Treaty 7 was signed at the Blackfoot Crossing of the Bow River by five First Nations—the Siksika (Blackfoot), Kainai (Blood), Piikani (Peigan), Stoney-Nakoda, and Tsuut’ina (Sarcee)—and the colonial government.3 While the current status of mining laws in Canada is too complex to explain here, it remains clear that federal and provincial governments in Canada, as well as energy corporations supported by these governments, have in no way honored their treaty obligations. In fact, the story is quite the opposite. Currently, a new coal-mining initiative called the Grassy Mountain Coal Project is being proposed by an Australian company in the heart of the Crowsnest Pass, despite resistance from numerous First Nations communities on this territory who have fought coal mining on their homelands for decades.
Perhaps without knowing it, my uncle had become enlisted in the seductive and insidious project of settler colonialism in both Canada and the United States—and, by extension, in the project of US imperialism. This was made possible in part through Indigenous land dispossession, structural racism, and violence that mark the immigration experience of those from working-class backgrounds coming from the Global South. Just as Paiute and Chinese labor represented a source for colonial revenue, so did my uncle’s labor and the labor of all the other workers in that mine. It was also made possible through the direct linkages between corporations and colonial governments that were (and are) strategically established to feed the beast of racial capitalism that mandates the advancement of colonial exploitation and the development of relationships built on interpersonal, epistemic, and structural violence as opposed to care, interdependence, and coexistence. Karuka reminds us, for example, that “many of the world’s most powerful multinational energy and agricultural corporations had their spawning grounds in the administration of continental imperialism, in the occupation of Indigenous lands and waters, which continue to be places of renewal for corporate profits” (35).
The story circles back to the prairies.
On Treaty 6, in the rural municipality of Tramping Lake, the place I called home until I was eighteen years old, I would often go on long walks with my mother (she told me it reminded her of the open plains she grew up on in Northern India) on the portion of the Canadian National (CN) Railway tracks that were about five hundred feet from my bedroom window. Tramping Lake had been established in part because of the CN Railway branch line that transported grain as well as “resource products” like coal and oil through this part of Saskatchewan; our small town burgeoned around the railway tracks. Ironically, what I didn’t realize until very recently was that the coal extracted by my uncle in Coleman could have very well passed by me on this part of the CN railroad built across Cree homelands. Canada’s railroads move over thirty million tons of coal annually. My story of growing up is also a story that is tied to railroad imperialism and all of the devastating forms of slow and spectacular violence that are associated with this colonial infrastructure.
I share these brief glimpses into my own history not to mark these stories as exceptional but to draw attention to what a book like Empire’s Tracks has the power to do—to demonstrate how the social and political histories of Indigenous peoples and those marked as “alien” in the project of continental imperialism are coconstituted. Throughout Empire’s Tracks, Karuka asks us to animate our memory to understand these coconstitutive relations better; to be attentive to the inherently reactive nature of imperialism; and to build structural analyses of capitalism and imperialism from distinct anticolonial standpoints that make visible particular histories—like those of the Lakota, Chinese, Pawnee, and Cheyenne—that refuse to reproduce the rumors of countersovereignty that are couched in nonnormative evidence. In other words, Karuka asks us to do the much-needed work of rumor control, which demands that we comprehend the history of capitalism through the lens of colonialism and imperialism.
It is true that this book is about railroads, but in many ways Karuka’s anticolonial analysis of railroads can be a metaphor for the infrastructure of empire writ large, which we know takes many shapes and forms. It comes in the form of the destructive mining of the tar sands being fought by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. It manifests as the Dakota Access Pipeline and the fierce resistance against this pipeline project that was waged by the Standing Rock Sioux. And it takes shape in the multitude of “infrastructure and development” projects, couched in the language of progress, being advanced by Canada and the United States in locations all over the globe.
I want to turn now to a few aspects of this book that struck me as particularly noteworthy.
First, Empire’s Tracks pushes back against the pervasive myth of US exceptionalism. The opening line of chapter 3 reads, “The United States of America is profoundly unexceptional” (40). Karuka’s ability to walk the reader through a critical history of railroad colonialism—and he does this by charting the phases of railroad construction in North America, South Asia, and British East Africa, among other places—allows one to see distinct features of global capitalism and to trace, materially, the way that railways enabled the circulation of colonial commodities throughout the world, laying the groundwork for the large-scale export of financial and industrial capital to the colonies of empire.
In my mind, this intervention has great pedagogical significance because it illuminates how the United States functions as part of a much larger constellation of imperial projects that produce great suffering, initiate catastrophic death, and remake Indigenous ecologies and modes of relationship. As Karuka demonstrates with such acumen, railroads, in North America and elsewhere, are instruments of warfare; they are vehicles that police and contain movement of people and products; and they attempt to cultivate a future where countries like the United States retain power over the colonized world.
Karuka’s careful tracing of railroad colonialism, however, does not stop at the story of domination and devastation. We, as readers, are able to witness the ways that railroads were also key sites of anticolonial uprisings. Colonized peoples did not simply accept the terms of colonial domination—neither in the past nor in the present. They rose up. They fought back. This too is a vital part of the narrative that Karuka assembles for us, because it doesn’t let the history of resistance be eclipsed from view. We see that just as financial capital and infrastructure are interwoven across the world through imperialism, so too are anticolonial struggles and the rise of people’s movements.
Coupled with this intervention, Empire’s Tracks also does the crucial work of foregrounding the intellectual prowess and brilliance of Indigenous feminists who provide the reader with the critical tools needed to critique the political economy of imperialism. We learn from Ella Deloria’s Waterlily about the ways that colonialism involves repetitive failures of relationship and how colonialism transforms abundance into scarcity, interdependence into isolation (25). Sarah Winnemucca’s theorizations of colonial modes of relationship teach us to understand colonialism as a relationship of war manifesting in sexual violence and ecological destruction (27). Winona LaDuke offers critical insights into notions of interdependence by mapping how colonialism and capitalism destroy the ways that a place can sustain life and disrupt the process of coevolution among Indigenous peoples, ecosystems, and other-than-human relatives that are thousands of years old (31).
The centrality of Indigenous feminists, as evidenced in Empire’s Tracks, is vital for a number of reasons. Perhaps most obviously, it provides the reader with a window into alternative ways of building relations, a guidepost for beginning to conceptualize and embody decolonization centered on the restoration of Indigenous modes of relationship. Indigenous modes of relationship are antithetical to the goals of imperial expansion, which, Karuka explains, “excel at proliferating capital into progressively fewer hands, and it does so by wrecking the ecological basis of life, through the interrelationship of state and corporation” (31). The perspectives of these Indigenous feminists and others who are integrated throughout Empire’s Tracks also make certain that an analysis of the history of capitalism is always and necessarily intersectional—that it will always be incomplete unless gender, race, class, and colonialism are put into conversation with one another. I was deeply impressed by the citational politics in this book that clearly challenge the dominant forms of knowledge production in the academy across a range of the traditional disciplines—we need so much more of this.
Finally, one of the most inspiring things I took from reading Empire’s Tracks is the importance of thinking about solidarity and resistance through a framework and practice of internationalism, a solidarity that is guided by a deep commitment to anti-imperialism. In the epilogue to this book, Karuka once again convincingly makes the argument that the history of capitalism is the history of imperialism (185). In doing so, he reminds us that a consistent anti-imperialist critique necessitates a sustained critique of both state and corporation. Through this analysis, Karuka invites us to reconfigure how we go about crafting the aim and scope of insurgent politics and movement building that centers Indigenous decolonization and at the same time sharpens our anticolonial analysis of how the war-finance nexus ties the United States and Canada to Africa, to the Middle East, to South America, to Asia, to all places where international finance capital moves. States do their best to carry out projects of colonialism and imperialism, but the people are never conquered. So we too must conduct our research, writing, and political organizing in a way that actively works to bring colonized people together.
All this reminds me of a line I read in the introduction to a special issue of Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society centered on water politics. In this piece, Melanie Yazzie and Cutcha Risling Baldy, the coeditors of this special issue, write, “It is in our interdependencies and reciprocities that we derive our greatest power and secure a future for all.”4 The lessons of Empire’s Tracks speak loudly to this interdependence and set forth a challenge for us to do the hard work of (re)education and confronting head on our blind spots about history and present, to begin to see linkages between social issues and places all over the world that are often positioned in isolation from one another, and to remember the potential that lies within imagination and creativity when we consider the political strategies we employ to collectively advance change. The guidance offered by Indigenous feminists that is embedded throughout much of this book gives us both the tools of critique and the blueprint required to construct a decolonizing pathway forward.
Indeed, Empire’s Tracks does not soften the blow about what is at stake as the world teeters on the precipice of climate catastrophe and ongoing war on a planet where millions of people are dispossessed and live in conditions of severe deprivation—a planet where fascism and authoritarianism are on the rise and where access to water is becoming increasingly precarious. The predictions in India as a case in point are devastating. According to a report issued by Niti Aayog, an Indian think tank, twenty-one Indian cities—including Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, and Hyderabad—are expected to run out of groundwater by 2020, and 40 percent of India’s population will have no access to drinking water by 2030.
Arundhati Roy writes in her conclusion to Walking with the Comrades, “If there is any hope for the world at all, it does not live in climate change conference rooms or in cities with tall buildings. It lives low down on the ground, with its arms around the people who go to battle every day to protect their forests, their mountains and their rivers because they know that the forests, the mountains and the rivers protect them . . . the first step towards reimagining a world gone terribly wrong would be to stop the annihilation of those who have a different imagination.”5 Anticolonial knowledge has the power to activate; it moves us toward political organizing and praxis. It reminds us that it is possible to craft relationships with our relatives, human and other-than-human, that are built on mutual respect and interconnection. Perhaps most importantly, Empire’s Tracks is a book that gives us the courage to rise up toward revolution.
Jaskiran Dhillon is an anticolonial scholar and organizer who grew up on Treaty Six Cree Territory in Saskatchewan, Canada. Her work has been published in the Guardian, Cultural Anthropology, the Nation, Feminist Formations, Environment and Society, Social Texts, and Decolonization, among other venues. She is the author of Prairie Rising: Indigenous Youth, Decolonization, and the Politics of Intervention (2017) and coeditor of Standing with Standing Rock: Voices from the #NoDAPL Movement (2019). Dr. Dhillon is an associate professor of global studies and anthropology at the New School in New York City.
1. Manu Karuka, Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019). Page references are given in parentheses in the text.
2. See “The Early Development of the Coal Industry,” available on the province of Alberta’s Culture and Tourism website: http://history.alberta.ca/energyheritage/coal/the-early-development-of-the-coal-industry-1874-1914/coal-town-formation/coleman-a-company-town.aspx#page-1.
3. See the Government of Canada history on the treaty: https://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100020670/1100100020675.
4. Melanie Yazzie and Cutcha Risling Baldy, eds., “Indigenous Peoples and the Politics of Water,” special issue, Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 7, no. 1 (2018), https://jps.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/des/article/view/30378.
5. Arundhati Roy, Walking with the Comrades (New York: Penguin, 2011), 214.