While Western narratives of the apocalypse place the catastrophic, earth-ending event in the future, Indigenous stories often cast the end of the world as something that has already happened, the effects of which continue to reverberate throughout Indigenous lives.1 Current apocalyptic fears in the Global North coalesce around an encroaching climate crisis, this crisis imaginary itself a representational form that obscures how the increasing collapse of ecosystems has been ongoing for hundreds of years for colonized peoples both in the Americas and around the world.2 Such fears around natural disaster, even when understood as the result of human activity, rarely cite slower forms of violence or prior existing apocalyptic events such as the dropping of the atomic bomb and ensuing decimation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The atomic bomb is one striking example of a networked, and obscured, apocalypse: the uranium used in the construction of the bomb was mined from the African Congo, the Canadian Northwest Territories, and the Southwest United States, where the first bomb was detonated in testing. Existing alongside and setting the preconditions for these nuclear events are the ways in which the New World was settled in the first place. The Middle Passage and the experiences of enslaved Africans in the Americas can also be described as world ending. Artist and writer Hannah Black sums it up: “The disaster has already happened and this is all aftermath.”3 Indeed, to understand the apocalypse heralded in 1492 is to understand the coconstituted nature of settler colonialism, the transatlantic slave trade, and, as recently argued by Lisa Lowe and Iyko Day, the economics of “alien” (figured by these authors as Asian) labor. I use apocalypse, and more precisely nuclear apocalypse, to further understand and complicate the triumvirate of analytics (dispossession of Indigenous life and land, fungibility of Black flesh, and nonenslaved Asian labor) that structure modernity and make possible its undoing.4 The narratives of Burning Vision and Ceremony, a text I discuss briefly as a resonant narrative of nuclear colonial interconnectivity, prompt a reconsideration of the discrete difference between these categories. The arguments that follow do not call for a flattening into sameness but a stretching and linking of analytic categories to understand how and why colonized peoples worldwide have been harmed by the atomic bomb in its many stages of production and detonation.
The comprehension of networked apocalypse requires representational forms that blur borders and boundaries, both generic and geographic. The 2002 play Burning Vision, written by Métis playwright Marie Clements, strains at the constraints of the stage—of language and action itself—to depict the interconnections of Dene people around the Great Bear Lake region in the Northwest Territories of Canada, where uranium was mined, and the peoples in Hiroshima, where this uranium was put to use for mass destruction.5 Other groups and geographies, such as Japanese Americans and the Southwest bomb test sites, are also drawn into the web of relations. The play has no discernible plot but rather alights on and illuminates different scenes on the ever-moving nuclear frontier—its center, if one must be located, perhaps resting around Port Radium, the site of uranium mines in the territory of the Sahtu Dene. Clements’s “burning vision,” a phrase that evokes not only the flash of the bomb with which the play begins but also the fiery prophecies of a Dene seer who in the 1880s warned of uranium’s harm, is a way of illuminating the obscured bonds and binds created in the invisible force of radiation.
The play, set on a circular stage, begins in the first movement, “The Frequency of Discovery,” with a flash of light illuminating “scenes of human suffering” (the atomic bomb as a moment of revelation, relating biblical apocalypse with nuclear apocalypse and a colonial clearing of the land) accompanied by the sound of a radio dial gliding into different frequencies, “creating different cultural tones and telling different stories.”6 Many of the actors are double cast as both Native and Japanese characters; Japanese, English, and the Slavey language spoken by the Dene are used, sometimes simultaneously throughout the play. In her global telling of nuclear colonialism, “in which conventional boundaries of time and space evaporate,”7 Clements also evokes the atomic test sites in New Mexico, sparking a connection to the interrelated settler colonies of the United States and Canada. This move also brings the play into a literary space shared with the 1977 novel Ceremony by Laguna Pueblo author Leslie Marmon Silko. In the climactic moments of Ceremony, Tayo, who has returned shell-shocked from battle in the Philippines during World War II, is struck with a kind of burning vision at the site of the Jackpile uranium mines in New Mexico, not far from the Trinity test site where the atomic bomb was tested. In the expansive considerations of nonlinear time and space proposed and practiced in Indigenous narratives, there emerges an analysis of settler colonialism that accounts for the global scope of capital and Western imperialism.8 Ceremony and Burning Vision approach the linking violences of Indigenous genocide and imperial war-making through the global dimensions of World War II. Burning Vision, as a performance, allows for a felt sense of geographic reorientation through disorientation, challenging readers and viewers to perceive outside the circumscribed borders of nation, community, and time itself, more so than Ceremony, dependent as it is on a literary plot that both troubles and follows a hero’s journey.
The coeval violence of the settler-colonial world power, realized in the joint relationship between Canada and the United States (the former also a support to US invasions in the Middle East), is manifest in the atomic bomb and the multiple locations from which it is developed, each place bearing some wound from the bomb’s presence, even if the bomb itself has yet to be realized. It is at the preblast stage, when the bomb is yet to be assembled from radiated ore, that the sinister network of unmarked violence might be tracked. If we think of the (now) pan-Indigenous adage “All my Relations,” how might the turn to an Indigenous worldview (emphasis on the world) necessitate a broadening of relations? How is that relationality enacted? How does it change the consideration of what decolonization would entail? This essay proposes forms of global relationality built on shared experiences and understandings of networked nuclear apocalypse.
Through the making and detonating of the atomic bomb, lands and people are laid waste. Wastelanding is the contradictory process by which colonial powers deem land inherently pollutable while simultaneously securing the land as the righteous property of the non-Native settler to render resources extractable.9 Wastelanding, a term developed to describe the American Southwest, might be seen as one particular kind of “ruination,” what Ann Stoler describes as a process contingent on “imperial formations.”10 Nuclear war in Japan—and, it could be argued, in its threatened forms in Iran and North Korea (where the United States military has intervened and caused mass death by other means)—is an extension of and indeed part of the ongoing and never-ending Indian Wars fought in both Canada and the United States.11 In this way the atomic bomb and the other uses of uranium by Western nation-states highlight the connected projects of settler colonialism and imperialism abroad. The conquest of Indigenous territories generated a durable representation of a savage insurgent that the United States projected and pursued across geographies on a “pathway first to continental and then to global empire.”12 While Indigenous studies has generated profound concepts for understanding the particularity of tribal nationhood under settler-colonial rule, these concepts can themselves be transformed in considering how settler colonialism, reframed implicitly in Haxton’s statement as continental empire, interacts with processes of imperial expansion and war-making. The construction and threatened use of the atomic bomb is a set of extractive and militarized acts that occur both on the domestic foreign lands of Indian reservations and in countries abroad also figured as sacrifice zones.
The sites of fast and slow violence represented in Burning Vision and Ceremony—Indian country, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki—are spaces socially constructed as expendable. These are locations where the end of the world is made to happen so that it can be contained to one location. The containment of cataclysm allows the Western world to thrive. The nuclear apocalypse is allowed to happen in Hiroshima and Nagasaki so America can regain strength by getting revenge for the bombing at Pearl Harbor and guaranteeing absolute surrender. Within the United States’ own borders, the nuclear apocalypse is allowed to slowly leak into the bodies of Indigenous peoples so that the nation, excluding Natives, can benefit from nuclear power without the damaging side effects of radiation.13 These two disparate locations of different but related processes of bodily disintegration demonstrate how settler colonialism has often worked to bolster American imperialism. Fat Man, a bomb-test dummy in Burning Vision who stands in as the everyman of late-1940s America, states this plainly: “If you can imagine the end of the world, you can imagine making the world end for someone else first.”14 America was able to “imagine” the end of the world by imagining and then enacting the technology that brought it about but only for “someone else,” namely, the Japanese on whom they dropped the bombs and the Native peoples on whose land they built the bombs. Wastelanding also illustrates the coconstitution of war abroad and the domestication of once-foreign land.
Those lands conceived of as Indian are used as the depository of settler society’s coal plants, nuclear waste, and other forms of industrial waste produced in energy resource extraction and production. Along with a wasteland, they are also a sacrifice zone. This phrase, popularized by Anishinaabe activist Winona La Duke, when read alongside the contradictory representations of wastelands, harkens to Giorgio Agamben’s space of exception and its primary resident, the homo sacer.15 Through conquest, the US government includes Indian territories within its jurisdiction yet excludes those areas still inhabited with Indians from the considerations and rules of law, on a spectrum of various contingencies, applied to the rest of the country. This inclusive exclusion, which makes possible the expansion and accumulation by dispossession the US economy relies on, applies as well to the figure of the Indian, often collapsed as a natural feature of the landscape of the sacrifice zone. In Agamben’s formulation, a double exclusion allows the sovereign to suspend their own laws through an exclusion of the homo sacer from civil society. The entire United States could be said to be a space of exception, its condition of possibility formed in the reservation as space of exception. As this relies on a continuing relationship to Indigenous peoples, it would seem to exceed or complicate a logic of total elimination often understood as the settler drive to genocide. The United States of exception extends not only spatially but also temporally, constantly working to preserve Indians in a historical past while also constructing settler futurity through the continuation of apocalypse beyond a singular event of conquest. Highlighting the particularly long-term effects of this practice, LaDuke notes that the compounds created by nuclear reaction are “so dangerous to life forms that they must be isolated for 100,000 years.”16 The reservations and reserves where many Indigenous people live are sacrifice zones where apocalyptic effects are contained and thus only harm the lives of those seen as expendable by the settler-colonial project. These practices constitute the kind of “infrastructural warfare” that constitutes necropolitical sovereignty, “the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die.”17 The exercise of settler-colonial sovereignty in America and Canada has been predicated on assigning less value to Indigenous people’s lives—if not always their physical lives then their lives as Indians—to dictate that Indians or Indianness, always indexed as a radically different relationship to land outside logics of enclosure, privatization, and extraction, must die for settler societies to thrive.
The perspective of the apocalypse as an always deferred but emerging event of biological cataclysm is made possible by having already created an apocalyptic situation for Indigenous peoples. Agamben locates the space of exception in the concentration camps of World War II. What Indigenous narratives of this time illustrate is the colonial locations of these spaces in the camps that were first organized to control displaced Indigenous peoples and then the reservations, which exist in a legal limbo between foreign and domestic. The expendable population is then extendable to all other enemies of the United States, along the transit of empire that is also the international route of the Indian signifier. This too connects the life cycle of the atomic bomb, made from materials mined on Indigenous lands by Native workers to be used against foreign populations figured as alien threats to the coherence of the settler borders and way of life.
The nuclear frontier, a phrase that encourages comparisons between the original violence of the frontier myth in American culture and ongoing processes of American expansion, is the boundary between the land sacrificed to the atomic bomb and its deathly effects and the land supported by that sacrifice. In Burning Vision, the frontier is brought forth and bent over on itself. A Japanese fisherman, Koji, is “transformed to the other side of the world” at the instance of the atomic blast, hurtling in the opposite direction of the bomb’s trajectory. The personified Fat Man lives on the test site grounds with a little boy, represented as Indigenous and also described as the “personification of the darkest uranium found at the center of the earth.” The frontier is the location of contact, where confrontation between settler society and Indigenous communities comes to a head in often disastrous ways. The nuclear frontier marks both where lands are laid waste and lands where waste is laid.
Land, Labor, Life
The interconnections that make possible the modern globalized world, what Lisa Lowe describes as intimacies, begins with the production of sugar and tobacco and the use of slave and indentured labor that links together Europe to the Americas to Africa and then Asia. In the twentieth century, a similar intimacy is created through the mining of uranium and the deployment of nuclear bombs. Lowe’s global telling of the European expansion and the attention to purposefully obscured relations created through this expansion harkens to an analysis of the settler colony beyond a binary relationship. The moment of contact is always plural. Theorizing this plurality, Iyko Day argues for a triangulated view of settler-colonial society, expanded beyond the settler-Indigenous relationship to account for “alien” labor, a category mobilized to account for the presence of Asian immigrants in Canada and their representation as abstract capital.18 If, as Colleen O’Neill writes, the “intellectual paradigms for understanding workers and American Indians seemed to be mutually exclusive” in the early 2000s when she is writing on Navajo wage labor, the prevailing paradigm in Day and Lowe locates labor in relation to Indigenous dispossession but continues to discuss only that labor extracted from a non-Indigenous group.19 Burning Vision, however, would appear to disrupt the neat distinction between the Indigenous colonized and alien labor in the play’s depiction of multiple laboring peoples, such as the Dene ore carrier, the white miner, and Native stevedores (pilots of boats carrying uranium ore). In focusing on the coerced role of Indigenous peoples into the labor force of uranium production, Clements subtly and brilliantly depicts the specific local economies of the settler colony in narrative relation to the world-making of American empire that coalesces around the United States’ supermilitary but also draws in its collaborator, Canada. In the reading that follows of Burning Vision, I trace the relations between its colonial and imperial trajectories to demonstrate how the networked nuclear apocalypse forms and is formed by different interconnected techniques of dispossession, exploitation, dehumanization, and genocide. Alongside the history of Indigenous genocide, I dwell with the mass death of civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.20 Alongside the figure of the Native dispossessed, I dwell with the figure of the Native worker. The illogic of nuclear war and, as Sylvia Wynter calls it, the “post-atomic dysfunctional sovereignty”21 of Western nations upends the previous structures and flows established in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as studied by Lowe and Day. To complicate these analytics is not only to reveal the contradiction within what are sometimes described as settler-colonial logics, when perhaps settler-colonial techniques might be more appropriate, but also how those contradictions have created unexpected or illicit moments of connection between groups of people harmed by processes of colonial extraction and settlement alongside histories of imperialism and war.
How does Indigenous labor function in a settler-colonial context in relation to the forms of alien labor discussed by Day? The Sahtu Dene are a people coerced into becoming a labor resource made to extract other resources from the land that has sustained them as a “People” (Dene can be translated literally as “the People”). In the cast listing for the play, a single actor plays a prospector, a Dene ore carrier, and a stevedore. It is a striking choice, casting someone to play both settler and Native. All roles are representative of their labor position, from the prospector—actually one of the Labine brothers, Gilbert and Charles, who first laid claim to “high-grade pitchblende” near what would become the Eldorado uranium mine—to the Dene men who would work for the mine. The latter two job types also function in a different capacity as “the transit” that Jodi Byrd traces in the concept of “Indianness,” in which in the local setting of the irradiated landscape of Great Bear Lake the Native people are conscripted as the workers who turn resource into commodity.22
Burning Vision briefly illuminates how dispossession under settler colonialism functions to incorporate Indigenous peoples into the wage economy of resource extraction on lands that are so transformed in the process of dispossession, they cannot support other forms of life and means of reproducing life. Two of the play’s settings (placed in proximity on the circular stage), the Northwest Territories and the United States Southwest, are represented as radioactive sites of Indigenous labor as well as dispossession. While the settler states of Canada and the United States have carried out long-term policies for the indoctrination of Indigenous populations to “the principles of private property, possessive individualism, and menial wage work,” remarks scholar of Indigenous-Canadian relations Glen Coulthard, the dominant framework for understanding the motives of these states is dispossession. Rather than countering with a different dominant framework, I am suggesting that the land-based focus of Coulthard and other Indigenous studies scholars is not a separate concern from that of labor and proletarianization. The importance of Native peoples to a settler state’s economic growth “cannot be measured solely in terms of the land they lost” but also in how, in part because of that loss, Natives have little recourse to livelihoods outside the market.23 Considered together, wage employment “is a historical measure of the degree of resource loss and dependency.”24 Furthermore, wage employment becomes another arena for the transit of empire, shoring up the conditions for intervention abroad (through military aggression and arms) by enlisting (sometimes literally) the work of Native peoples.
Burning Vision captures the dependency on the market not by depicting scenes of Indigenous labor but rather by revealing the set of disrupted and emergent relations that surround the extractive economy of Port Radium. (The naming of this port itself is an instructive side note: renamed in 1936, Port Radium marks the land’s value through a place name that sounds like a marketing ploy for the nascent uranium extractive industry.) In the play’s second movement, an unnamed Dene ore carrier character banters with his wife, who playfully withholds his clothes from him, before he leaves for work: “My girl, I have to go to work. It is the only job in these parts. Do you want to starve?”25 She counters with the insistence that there are enough trout and caribou to sustain them for many years. Eventually, however, in response to his refrain that “times are changing,” she reluctantly hands him the work shirt and pants he must wear to present himself to what she calls the “white man’s company.”26
This same woman (now a widow), in a later conversation with Round Rose, a Métis woman in the informal economy of selling sandwiches to miners at Port Radium, mentions how the Dene workers are called “coolie,” which she defines as “some word for people that do the dirty work.”27 The Widow describes the Dene men hauling sacks of uranium ore “from one man to the next, one coolie to one coolie, one Indian to another.”28 Here the chain of hauling ore, from rock to commodity, is also a chain connecting workers as men, coolies, Indians. This is a telling expansion of the racialized term most commonly associated with Asian indentured labor. Lowe traces how the figure of the coolie, referred to in the British colonial archive as workers of both Chinese and South Asian origin, marks an alleged transition from slavery to freedom; first introduced in the Caribbean as a kind of buffer in the race war between enslaved Africans and the white ruling classes, the term was then used throughout the nineteenth century to refer to those “imported” to work in Peru, Brazil, Australia, the western United States, Hawaii, Mauritius, South Africa, and Fiji.29 Are we to understand the Widow’s use of the term as a con-fusion typical of the events, locations, and characters in Burning Vision? Or is her use of “coolie” less an erroneous use of the term than a furthering of what has always been a racialized assemblage formed alongside and in opposition to enslaved, read always as Black, labor? This con-fusion then, the putting of two things together, follows from the space-time warp of Clements’s writerly staging. The plural casting of actors in multiple racial roles, the overlapping scene sets, and the multiple language does not fuse things together so much as bring them into a radical coeval presence. In this case, the Dene coolie brings Canada into the history of the coolie’s formation as a nation that is part of the British commonwealth and living in the aftermath of slavery but with no history of plantation slavery.
To understand what makes possible the description of Dene men as coolies necessitates a complication of the triangulated structure presented by Day as settler-native-alien. In this triangulated structure, Day sometimes conflates both Black and Asian labor as “alien labor” in a way that erases the base dehumanization of enslaved African-descendent peoples by white settlers while simultaneously pointing to the heterogeneity within the alien position.30 Tiffany King has argued that there are “conceptual limits of labor as an epistemic frame for thinking about Blackness (as bodies and discourse) and its relationship to settler colonialism.”31 Rather than labor, King posits “fungibility,” an ability to exchange Black flesh that exceeds the humanist rubrics of labor, as the conceptual frame for understanding Blackness and the position of the Black people within settler colonial societies.32 Citing Patrick Wolfe, Day states, “Mixing alien labor with indigenous land to expand white property was the basis and objective of settler colonialism.”33 However, as the radical others of the settler colony, is it possible that Natives themselves can be refigured as the labor needed to bolster white property? Local conditions necessitated the use of Dene and Dine workers in the areas where mining takes place and then had global effects (the transnational market of uranium and its subsequent use in the atomic bomb). Lowe suggests it was “the instrumental use” of a specific kind of labor that was signified and emphasized by the term “coolie” and not necessarily always their Asian origin. That Asian peoples were most often instrumentalized does not then preclude that Indians whose dispossession made extraction possible could also become the coerced instruments of extraction. Just as the signifier of “Indian” can be a contaminate, marking peoples abroad as enemies of the state, so too does the Indian, collapsed with the wasteland, become porous and pollutable, able to become a coolie so their labor can be extracted (rather than imported) along with the resources of their land. Once it is considered as a potential commodity, the pitchblende becomes a prospect for the Labine brothers that is eventually transformed into what the Widow says the Dene people call “the money rock.” This labor is not just a temporary aberration from the logic of elimination.34 Dispossession allows for the potential for proletarianization. These frameworks can be applied together while acknowledging, as Day does, the heterogeneity of a structural account of “settler colonialism, which requires a disposable reserve army labor force.”35
Lowe’s assessment and troubling of the supposed line of progress from slavery to free labor, progress supposedly accomplished in the British Caribbean by the introduction of the coolie as laborer, helps elucidate the use of coolie by the Widow in Burning Vision as the residue of a complicated backward progression as Indigenous people enter the labor force. The colonial use of soft power after the failures of genocidal war points us to how the Indigenous citizen subject in Canada is also paradoxically poised between genocide and incorporation (through recognition).36 While highly visible “fast” violence is still used against Indigenous peoples, along with the mixed modes of slow and fast environmental harms from radiation that this essay has touched upon, there is also the slower violence of everyday coercion into a foreign capitalist economy. As the Dene ore carrier noted, it has become impossible to live off caribou and trout. The processes of settlement, including industrialization and extraction, disrupt the relations land makes possible. Indigenous communities can no longer rely on subsistence methods and are forced into a new relationship to commodities. The wage economy supplants all alternatives. Incorporation into the state is thus a kind of slow death in that it slowly undoes the capacity and capability for the Dene to live in the manner of Dene, forcing them to present themselves in the manner of white men. And yet their labor is differentiated from that of white men. The work of an Indian, a “coolie,” does not warrant the same parameters of exchange. One of the Labine brothers, explaining to the other why they shouldn’t give the Dene man who led them to the site of the first uranium claim a portion of the profits, asks, “What is an Indian gonna do with money?”37 He offers instead that they will give him bread, which, unlike the black rock that contains yellow streaks of uranium ore, he can at least eat. This suggestion, that an Indian only needs bread, implies that the Indian is only to survive, not engage in the market. This replacement of money with bread marks the uneven terrain of labor in which not all who work are open to the same exploitation in kind or degree. The intellectual paradigm, in O’Neill’s words, for analyzing labor relations within Native American history might also necessitate a reshaping or elaboration of difference within categories of labor and the Native. “Coolie” in the play becomes a reference for dehumanized labor, one that is still historically distinguished from the position of the Black enslaved, whom King urges us to think of as placed violently outside the rubric of laboring person.
In the American Southwest, there was “spatial intersection” of the Japanese and Native that produced a representational blurring between these populations in the perceptions of the colonial-imperial US government. In her 1997 film Strawberry Fields, Rea Tajiri relates her family’s relocation to and incarceration in Poston, Arizona, located on the Colorado River Tribal Indian reservation. According to her film, the shoddy barracks where Japanese were incarcerated were later offered to the tribal members as “compensation for the use of the land.”38 In a related twist, Navajo peoples nearby on their reservation were making “hot homes” from radioactive rock, by-products from the uranium mines that had provided that 15 percent of needed ore for the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.39 The internment of Japanese people is therefore both a “recursive colonialism” and evidence of the multiscalar, diffuse nuclear frontier, which like the force of nuclearism itself operates in a manner different from a strict linear border. While Day notes that Japanese Canadians identified with Natives in a manner shaped by the conflation of “Japanese enemy aliens with native peoples,” another mode of cross-racial identification permits Rose to understand the Dene workers getting their hands dirty and irradiated as coolies.
Further complicating the racial frameworks, largely drawn from Patrick Wolfe, is the labor used to bolster the accumulation and protection of white property that occurs on Indigenous lands outside the borders of the settler colony. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima contained uranium from mines in the Congo. In the following years of the Cold War, “between a fifth and a half of the Western world’s uranium came from African places: Congo, Niger, South Africa, Gabon, Madagascar, and Namibia.”40 The mining conditions in these African nations—associated with high cancer rates, corporate obfuscation, and general bodily dangers—resonate across the nuclear frontier to those conditions that marked many uranium miners and others in the regions of Port Radium and the American Southwest for disease and premature death.
Although not directly addressed in the play, in 1998, as Clements points out in a timeline distributed to the audience at performances and printed in the published play’s front matter, six residents from the Dene territory traveled to Hiroshima to “pay respects on the anniversary of the detonation of the atomic bomb.”42 They traveled, unaccompanied and unacknowledged by anyone from the Canadian government, “to draw a cosmic circle between the events and connect their two communities in a shared discourse of mourning and experience.”43 In this instance, Indigenous peoples actively chose to move across a line previously governed by the lethal desires of war. In understanding their role in the destruction overseas, the Dene people went beyond the obfuscation of the widespread system of violence the atomic bomb activated. Dorothy Purley, a Laguna Acoma Pueblo woman, has also made several trips to Japan to establish her link to the devastation of the nuclear blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.44 These trips are transgressive insofar as these Indigenous subjects travel between and inscribe their own sense of worth onto spaces that have been relegated by the American state as wastelands. In creating this bridge of solidarity between two supposedly expendable locations, the travelers not only bring attention to the network of violence brought on by nuclear weapons but also show ways in which victims of the apocalypse can make meaning and establish relationships out of the rubble of history.
In a 2002 news article about the Vancouver production, Clements is quoted as describing the plays as “like we’re on the radio dial and trying to dial into different worlds.” This is one form of radiation represented as generative, connective like atomic radiation but through communication, not death and immediate or delayed forms of bodily harm. In Burning Vision, this is represented in the prophetic resonance of radio and television communication that begins and interrupts almost every “movement” in the play. Sound itself becomes a material of potentiality in the play, with its capacity to leak and travel over borders, to transit in the open field of air, even one choked with toxicity. The Dene seer whose prophecies I mentioned earlier open the play also broadcasts at the beginning of each of the play’s movements. His voice-over hangs spectral over the action, not only as a historical haunting but as a vision of the future that sees and hears “through the walls of the world.”45
For Tayo, the traumatized Native veteran in Silko’s Ceremony, a similar prophetic vision beyond the walls of the world occurs in an instance in which he sees the face of his uncle Josiah appear on a Japanese man whom he confronts in combat. This overlaying of faces is a moment of sudden revelation that the violence of the American government against his own people is intimately connected to the violence he participates in during the war. Tayo is there as a soldier, his service to the military also serving as his job. This work of war, which Native Americans perform at a higher relative percentage than any other demographic in the states, is another occluded arena of Indigenous labor that conscripts Native people, who have little recourse to make a living on conquered lands, into the campaigns of intervention and aggression abroad. Near the end of the novel, when Tayo finds himself near the uranium mines, he has a vision from “the jungles of his dreaming” and realizes once more the connection between the devastation he encountered fighting in the Philippines and the devastation caused on his own land. Though called a vision, the experience is multisensorial: he hears Japanese voices merging with Laguna voices and sees that “the lines of cultures and worlds [are] drawn in flat dark lines on fine light sand, converging in the middle of the witchery’s final ceremonial sand painting.”46 This sand painting Tayo sees suggests an apocalyptic event in its emphasis on finality. I believe we are meant to read this “final ceremonial” as a fulfillment of a witch’s prophecy told earlier in the text. This prophecy is related by Betonie, a Navajo medicine man (occupying a similar position in the novel to the Dene seer, a connection made palpable by the distant ancestral tie between the Navajo, or the Diné, and the Dene) who is telling the story about how it was Indians who invented white people. In the story, a witch creates white people and wins a “contest in dark things.”47 Her creation is accompanied by a prophecy of mass destruction, particularly destruction brought about by nuclear weapons:
They will take this world from ocean to ocean
they will turn on each other
they will destroy each other
in these hills
they will find the rocks
rocks with veins of green and yellow and black.
They will lay the final pattern with these rocks
they will lay it across the world
and explode everything48
In this passage, Silko “directly connects witchcraft and uranium ore,” making clear the connection between the end of the world in which everything is exploded to the mining activities occurring in the land of the Laguna and other Southwestern Indigenous tribes.49 The global aspect is also present in that the rocks found on Indigenous territory are put into a pattern laid “across the world,” resonating with the ceremonial sand painting Tayo sees as a point of convergence between the lives of Indigenous and Asian peoples in a shifting, sprawling structure.
Tayo’s vision ends with the conclusion that “from that time on, human beings were one clan again, united by the fate the destroyers planned for all of them, for all living things; united by a circle of death that devoured people in cities twelve thousand miles away, victims who had never known these mesas, who had never seen the delicate colors of the rocks which boiled up their slaughter.”50 The “fate [of] the destroyers” is a manifestation of the slow violence, a “circle of death” that extends to and unites people “twelve thousand miles away.” Tayo is remarking also on the blinding force of this violence. The Japanese and Korean and other victims of the atomic bomb are unable to see the origins of their death, those rocks mined, in part, on Indian land. When Tayo overcomes this blindness and sees the face of his uncle on a Japanese man’s face, he is institutionalized, heavily medicated, and given electroshock therapy, essentially punished for his momentary ability to see the web of violence he has become a part of. The Dene seer in Clements’s play has a parallel vision to Tayo’s when he sees that “the people they dropped this burning on . . . looked like us, like Dene,” calling forth how the Japanese civilians targeted by the atomic bomb are another group of people marked as expendable.51 War has created a network of expendable sites, what I called earlier the networked apocalypse, that connects the war zone to the reservation. Like Tayo’s glimpse of his Pueblo uncle’s face in that of the Japanese soldier, this vision makes a connection between the violence created at both ends of the nuclear weapons process.
Though it is not mentioned in the works of Clements and Silko, the history of the transatlantic slave trade is also a precedent and necessity for how the geography of the Americas and its intimate connection to Asia is formed. The settlement of the United States is inflected by and dependent on slavery and the racial categories that animate the violent structuring of the world. We might also consider how parts of the world and cosmos are not attended to in these narratives. While Ceremony and Burning Vision read together bring Canada, Japan, the Philippines, and the United States into a network of simultaneous scales of fast and slow violence, the presence of the Congo, where the majority of the uranium used in World War II nuclear bombs was mined, is unthought in these works.52
Thus the network of wastelands and the global ruination of coloniality expand beyond the scopes of the works I’ve addressed here. This is not so much a criticism of Silko or Clements but rather a gesturing to the “imminent potential alliances”53 yet to be realized. The connections drawn between the Americas and Asia in Ceremony and Burning Vision are just one trajectory of nuclear colonial capitalism. To consider the full scope of Canada’s and America’s extrasovereign reach may require an expansion of the settler-colonial analytic. For instance, Africa often remains the unthought continent in the context of North American settler colonialism, but the uranium market Gabrielle Hecht describes in South Africa and the Congo and the racialized logics that allow uranium mining to be so harmful for some connect these places within a shared apocalyptic circuit of extracted resources and war-making devices.54 Black Native workers in the Congo were forced into labor in the Shinkolobwe uranium mine, extracting ore for a Belgian company that would eventually be bought by the United States at the beginning of the Manhattan Project. Today, uranium mining continues in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This, too, is a part of the irradiated international, the mass of people worldwide who have labored, lived, or died under the demands of nuclear weapons produced for and detonated by the United States. How does linking the narratives present in Burning Vision to the narrative of uranium extraction in the Congo that is so rarely present challenge stable ideas of indigeneity and race? And beyond the analytical frames of the postcolonial in relation to the ongoing settler colonial, how do shared grounds of nuclear apocalypse make possible broad-based global solidarities? I propose considering these questions through the capacious lens of the irradiated international to further understand what links different but similar sites across the networked apocalypse in their anticolonial, anti-imperial positions. The witnessing performed by Tayo in his vision at the Jackpile mines and the pilgrimage of the Dene elders that also performed a kind of witnessing provide other modes of being together that are not captured under the rubric of solidarity. These ways of seeing, situated while extending beyond the local, are diffuse, disparate, and disunified.
In 2017, eager to find out more about the sensorial textures of a performance I had experienced only on the page, I traveled to the Firehouse Arts Centre offices in Vancouver, British Columbia, where Burning Vision was developed and first staged at the Roundhouse Theatre in 2002. There were two boxes of materials related to the play’s production, including handbill advertisements for its first run, programs from the evening (with the aforementioned timeline), annotated scripts, research materials, and clippings of reviews published in Canadian newspapers. Included in the research materials, covering mostly the effects of the uranium economy on the Northwest Territories, are newspaper clippings collected by Clements. The front-page headline of the National Post from February 27, 2001, reads, “Uranium fear threatens NATO unity.” A smaller side column reads, “Spies warn of growing threat from Iraqi arsenal.” The looming invasion of Iraq becomes an event that proceeds after the play’s timeline, but here in the playwright’s archive it is part of the story of Burning Vision. Within the same box of materials is a preproduction script with a note in Clements’s handwriting: “War [underlined twice] for everyone.” This marginal note emphasizes how the atomic bomb brings the globe into war. In examining how the sites of this warfare and its production are situated and interconnected, I do not intend to collapse them into each other as identical; rather, these sites provoke me to understand the shifting techniques of the postatomic settler colony and the moments both historical and present that allow common discourses among the colonized and victims of imperial war.
Burning Vision makes visible the intimate connection between settler expansion within North America and Western imperialism abroad while also posing possibilities for border-crossing and unlikely alliances that match the violence of the apocalypse in its reach across space and time. Movement three of the play begins with images and sounds of water. The stage directions read, “Worlds swirling in brief currents that throw them together then separate.” Like the radio waves referenced earlier, the capacity for connection is also evoked in the first image in the play of the Dene seer. He appears to Fat Man as the transfigured image of the Indian chief head used as a test signal at the end of scheduled television programming, a clever transformation of iconic Indianness in its role as transit for empire also activated here as a prophetic forewarning.55 The prophecy of the Dene seer, like toxins themselves, threaten but also beckon.56 These are the openings to dangerous intimacies. Just as Lowe’s concept of intimacy seeks to counter the idea of intimacy as the “property of the individual” in which the interiority of the person is tied to the idea of a private household (ensuing right to privacy, most private thoughts, etc.), this irradiated intimacy also seeks to dissolve the discrete national and continental boundaries.57 It is the Dene seer who poses a challenge throughout the play to “read the air,” “look through time,” and “hear through the walls of the world”58—in other words, to expand perception of forces usually rendered invisible through either their geographic distance or their dispersion across time. In his invocation to hear through the walls, there is an oblique foreshadowing of the bordered world that forms physical in addition to sensorial walls between people.
If settler societies have colonized our atmospheres and, in the language of Christina Sharpe, made a weather of anti-Blackness, what might those living in its airy wake also diffuse and spread through the invisible waves that make us felt to others?59 This pervasive weather, Sharpe writes, borne in the hold of the slave ship, necessitates a kind of improvisation in response to its always changing conditions that push toward Black death. Linking this history to that of extractive industrial landscapes, Kristen Simmons writes that those suspended in the deferred lifeways copresent in the afterlives of slavery and colonialism “arc toward one another—becoming-open in an atmosphere of violence.”60 We are already porous. The work to be done now is to understand our complicity in each other’s porosity: the vulnerability of recognizing how an American citizen is not vulnerable in certain ways. How do we become responsible to each other even if not responsible for the atmosphere of violence? The trip of the Dene is one route to this global understanding. Byrd calls for us to “unmap” the logics of conquest and sovereignty as taking of territorial power.61 This in part is what Burning Vision as text and performance and “transnational countergeography” does to make “previously invisible relationships explicit and meaningful.”62 This opening, this illumination, takes its form from the journey the play references that the Dene elders make to Hiroshima to account for their unwitting and coerced participation in nuclear war.
Koji, a Japanese fisherman in Burning Vision who is killed in the atomic blast, comments on the notes left for missing persons around Hiroshima, musing that “even in this charred landscape of hell, hope remains nailed to what has survived.”63 Though he is surrounded by wasteland, Koji sees signs of survival and a persistent will to be in touch not only to people but to environment. Not surprisingly, it is also Koji who ends the play, saying, “They hear us and they are talking back in hope over time.”64 Koji looks beyond the apocalyptic moment to a future when “they” (seeming to refer to future relatives) look back at the cataclysm of the past with the hopefulness of one who has survived. This “talking back in hope” is a message from the future that there exist possibilities beyond the state of violence, a state of exception the characters in Burning Vision inhabit as they are variously and simultaneously assigned the position of alien and Indian.
“You can’t beat a bug or an Indian. I mean they breed like rabbits and if a big bomb were to come down on us right now they’d be the only thing left.”65 Despite his insulting view of Indians as less than human, there is no denying that in this monologue the personified Fat Man is also referencing a kind of power inherent in Indian survival. This is a revision of the typical narrative of nuclear frontier stories (Fat Man is delivering this account near the Western frontier) in which the racism of Darwin’s arguments is repeated in depictions of “superior Europeans winning the struggle to establish a new, better civilization.”66 There is the implication that white people will die, destroyed by their own technology or the “big bomb,” while Indians, and the alien outsider whose subjecthood has become increasingly overlaid with their own, will continue to live on and reproduce: “the originary necropolitical affect of the living dead brought back to haunt cosmopolitan colonialism.”67 They are joined by those like Koji, who though dead from the blast lives on in another world and speaks to those in the living realm.
The Indian contamination can become the Indian connection, to reference another work by Silko, her seven-hundred-plus-page indictment of European domination, The Almanac of the Dead. This work, like Burning Vision, has front matter to orient the reader to another way of comprehending the world and world history. It is called “The Five Hundred Year Map.” In the bottom right-hand corner, where one might on another kind of map find a legend, is a small box with the heading “The Indian Connection” that reads, “Sixty million Native Americans died between 1500 and 1600. The defiance and resistance to things European continues unabated. The Indian Wars have never ended in the Americas. Native Americans acknowledge no borders; they seek nothing less than the return of all tribal lands.”68
The Indian Wars have also not yet ended in the spaces abroad deemed enemy territory by the United States and its ally to the north, Canada. To account for this networked apocalypse, with its historical roots in the mass genocide Silko gives number to, we must also acknowledge no borders in our thinking and reading, or rather we must account for the borders that we might undo them.
Lou Cornum is a doctoral candidate in the CUNY Graduate Center English program who is currently completing a dissertation titled “Skin Worlds: Rethinking the Planetary in Black and Indigenous Science Fiction from the 1970s to the 2000s.” They were born in Arizona to the Dine’ people and now live in Brooklyn, New York.
1. Grace Dillon, Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2012), 144. In her work on Indigenous science fiction, Dillon writes that the “sense of Native apocalypse extends beyond the more commonplace sf Armageddon . . . drawn from a Eurowestern biblical tradition, which informs mainstream sf in notable instances such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), Albert and Allen Hughes’s 2010 film The Book of Eli, and television series such as Survivors.” Rather than apocalyptic narratives that “feed into the desire for a new frontier,” Indigenous apocalyptic narratives are “often marked by the nostalgia of what was irrecoverably lost”—not only tens of millions of lives but also the ability to live on land in ways that are different from and counter to Western settlement.
2. Disaster movies, which make spectacular the climate collapse, are another medium of the apocalypse narratives Dillon mentions. Themes of world-threatening weather appear most famously in The Day after Tomorrow, Geostorm, and to a more oblique extent, Snowpiercer, which begins with the backstory of geoengineering gone awry and bringing permawinter to the entire planet.
3. Hannah Black, “New World Disorder,” ARTFORUM, February 27, 2017, https://www.artforum.com/slant/hannah-black-on-the-new-world-disorder-66897.
4. I am drawing on Tiffany Lethabo King’s conception of fungibility, which in turn comes from Black studies thinkers like Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, and Frank Wilderson, to describe, in distinction to the category of labor, the unfettered use of Black people’s bodies, enacted through violence to actualize the human. Tiffany Lethabo King, The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Blackness and Indigeneity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019), 24.
5. The play, first produced by Rumble Productions, premiered on April 26, 2002, at the Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver, British Columbia.
6. Marie Clements, Burning Vision (Vancouver: Talon Books, 2002), 7.
7. Theresa J. May, “Kneading Marie Clements’ Burning Vision,” Canadian Theatre Review 144 (2010), 5. I also pause to wonder how, in reading Burning Vision primarily as a written text, “no amount of text analysis could clarify the meanings of this play” (5).
8. The Philippines is a particularly telling location as a site of connectivity between the Indian Wars and the ensuing wars fought by the United States, having been incorporated as a United States territory at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War. However, the periodization of the Philippine-American War, if one considers guerrilla warfare, far exceeds the standard time frame of the Spanish-American War and was later used as a staging ground for further imperial endeavors.
9. Traci Brynn Voyles, Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 7.
10. Ann Laura Stoler, “The Rot Remains: From Ruin to Ruination,” in Imperial Debris: On Ruins and Ruination, ed. Ann Laura Stoler (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 8–9.
11. These crises are themselves manufactured from ongoing interventions by the United States that have leveled entire regions of the world, such as the military campaigns in the Korean peninsula both prior to and after the Korean War.
12. William Haxton, American Settler Colonialism: A History (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013), 198.
13. This is not to say only Indigenous peoples were harmed by the side effects of nuclear fallout. Radiation did not end at the reservation border, and those considered settlers have been affected by its harms as well, particularly in Utah. The possibility for cross-colonial relations opens here if only on the contingent and fraught basis of being a uranium community. See Stephanie Malin, The Price of Nuclear Power: Uranium Communities and Environmental Justice (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015).
14. Clements, Burning Vision, 84.
15. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998).
16. Winona LaDuke, All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life (Boston: South End Press, 1999), 97.
17. Achille Mmembe, “Necropolitics,” Public Culture 15, no. 1 (Winter 2003): 1.
18. Iyko Day, Alien Capital: Asian Racialization and the Logic of Settler Colonial Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 25.
19. Colleen O’Neill, Working the Navajo Way: Labor and Culture in the Twentieth Century (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2005), 4.
20. Christine Hong informed me that during their trip to Japan, the Deline visited with Korean hibakusha, conscripted workers, with whom they found common effects from nuclear apocalyptic harm.
21. Sylvia Wynter, “The Ceremony Must Be Found: After Humanism,” boundary 2 12, no. 3 (1984): 38.
22. Jodi Byrd, The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).
23. O’Neill, Working the Navajo Way, 4.
24. Martha Knack and Alice Littlefield, “Native American Labor: Retrieving History, Rethinking History,” in Native Americans and Wage Labor: Ethnohistorical Perspectives, ed. Alice Littlefield and Martha C Knack (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996), 42.
25. Clements, Burning Vision, 60.
26. Clements, 60.
27. Clements, 70.
28. Clements, 71.
29. Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), 24.
30. Day, Alien Capital, 25.
31. Tiffany King, “Labor’s Aphasia: Toward Antiblackness as Constitutive to Settler Colonialism,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, June 10, 2014, para 11, https://decolonization.wordpress.com/2014/06/10/labors-aphasia-toward-antiblackness-as-constitutive-to-settler-colonialism.
33. Day, Alien Capital, 31. See also Patrick Wolfe, “Land, Labor and Difference: Elementary Structures of Race,” American Historical Review 106, no. 3 (2001): 866–905.
34. Day insists that Indigenous assimilation into wage labor as a surplus labor force is in spite of, not because of, the settler-colonial primary mission to eliminate. I am arguing that they are connected.
35. Day, Alien Capital, 32.
36. Glen Sean Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 6.
37. Clements, Burning Vision, 26.
38. Day, Alien Capital, 134.
39. Voyles, Wastelanding, 3.
40. Gabrielle Hecht, Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012), 3.
41. I adapt this phrase from my 2018 essay: see Lou Cornum, “The Irradiated International,” Data and Society, June 7–8, 2018, https://datasociety.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/ii-web.pdf.
42. Clements, Burning Vision, 5.
43. Anthony Burke, Uranium (Cambridge: Polity, 2017), 98.
44. Connie Jacobs, “A Toxic Legacy: Stories of Jackpile Mine,” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 28, no. 1 (2004): 43.
45. Clements, Burning Vision, 65.
46. Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), 228.
47. Silko, 123.
48. Silko, 127.
49. Jacobs, “Toxic Legacy,” 47.
50. Silko, Ceremony, 228.
51. Clements, Burning Vision, 119.
52. Jasmine Owens, “The DRC and America’s Nuclear Weapons,” Outrider, accessed November 24, 2019, https://outrider.org/nuclear-weapons/articles/drc-and-americas-nuclear-weapons.
53. Lowe, Intimacies of Four Continents, 35.
54. Hecht, Being Nuclear, 56–57.
55. The “Indian Head test pattern” also appears in the novel There There, by Tommy Orange of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2018). The narrator of the prologue relates the history of colonial settlement through different historical accounts of settlers decapitating and mutilating the heads of Native people. The image of the head in crosshairs as it is depicted in the broadcast is both a harbinger and memorial to other forms of broadcasting violence (showcasing a head on a spike, for example). The nightly appearance of the Indian Head test pattern, the narrator of There There says, is the icon of discovery beckoning to sleeping Americans as they set sail “from our living rooms . . . to the shores, the screens of the new world” (6). The medium here is television rather than radio.
56. Mel Chen, “Toxic Animacies, Inanimate Affections,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 17, nos. 2–3 (2011): 265.
57. Lowe, Intimacies of Four Continents, 28.
58. Clements, Burning Vision, 75.
59. Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 106–7.
60. Kristen Simmons, “Settler Atmospherics,” Society for Cultural Anthropology website, Member Voices, November 20, 2017, https://culanth.org/fieldsights/settler-atmospherics.
61. Byrd, Transit of Empire, 228.
62. May, “Kneading Marie Clements’ Burning Vision,” 7.
63. Clements, Burning Vision, 51.
64. Clements, 122.
65. Clements, 83.
66. Patrick Sharp, Savage Perils: Racial Frontiers and Nuclear Apocalypse in American Culture (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007), 172.
67. Byrd, Transit of Empire, 229.
68. Silko, The Almanac of the Dead (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991), front matter.