The Disruption of White Supremacy

The white male-centric colonial system is incapable of the leadership we need, and Indigenous knowledge is essential for the innovation that will follow this disruption.

Resistance and cultural celebration went hand in hand at Standing Rock. The gathering was the largest meeting of Native Americans since the Little Bighorn camp in 1876.

Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images.

Imagine the end of the United States.

It could happen like this: California secedes over a Trump-era order that is a total affront to the state’s citizens. Perhaps people would take to the streets after the federal government sends teams from the Justice Department to close the new marijuana stores and to impound the cash. And by “teams,” I mean a military force. Think Standing Rock a thousand times over. Or, the people rise up after a deadly immigration clash, a brutal roundup of human beings that is offensive to every Californian. So many things could spark action: an intractable fight over water, women’s health, oil and gas, and on and on. And what if the Trump administration figures California has a right to go? The nationalists have done the math and know that without California’s electoral votes, the 2020 election will not be a contest. President Donald J. Trump wins re-election.

That’s not just fantasy. It’s a possibility because we are so divided by our thinking on religion, diversity, immigration, education, work, and, especially, what to do about climate change. And stoking those differences is our nation’s “colonial” mentality, a political domination by the most wealthy, their companies, and their government. The result is white male rule at a time when the country is demographically more diverse than ever. So the logical result is for people on both sides of that divide to say “enough” and go their own ways.

An interesting question remains: Would the end of the United States end colonization and our current oppression of people of color? Or would another version of superiority just take over, one more chapter in a long-running story about power and race?

Consider how short each wave of colonial hegemony generally is: a few hundred years. That’s only an instant.

Rome was arguably the first global empire. It lasted five centuries until it collapsed from divisions from both within and outside. Every empire thereafter thought it was fine-tuning the use of power and its treatment of Indigenous people for advantage.

Spain conquered the Americas and tapped unbelievable resources only to unravel in two centuries. Internal critics such as Bartolome de las Casas witnessed and wrote about the genocide and cultural rot that infects a conquering power. He described how the 16th-century native population of Hispaniola (the island that is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) dropped from some 3 million people to a couple hundred. And for what purpose? Land and resources for cheap.


The British Empire later did the Spanish better, adding white superiority and a rigid class structure to the concept. The Americans learned from the British.

Greed and superiority go together in what we think of as colonialism.

It’s that presumed white superiority that is the rot that undermines American democracy. It is why Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million people do not get a say, a vote, in that process. The 690,000 people living in the District of Columbia have no representation. These are American citizens by law and second-class citizens in practice. Yet only 585,000 citizens of Wyoming get two senators and the power over the lives of others that comes with that representation.

What happens the day Californians wake up to that contradiction? It’s not just Wyoming. You would have to total 22 of the smallest states to match California’s population; reasonably, its population should result in a total of 44 votes in the powerful Senate compared to two. I know the argument is that the United States is not a democracy but a republic. Regardless, a 22:1 voting ratio is not defensible in any conversation about self-governing.

So after a California exit, who might leave next? Why not neighboring allies Washington and Oregon? States in the Northeast?

It could happen fast. The end of the Soviet Union (only 74 years old) was a political shift so sudden that historians now describe the sequence of events as an instant. But the fissures were present long before the collapse. The disruption should have been expected.

The Indigenous people of North America have experience with great disruptions.

“Disruption” is an important word to add to a discussion of ending colonialism. It explains the sudden—and not-so-sudden shifts in history—in a way that “decolonization” alone does not. Disruption is what we need to free ourselves from the economic, racial, and cultural oppression that is colonialism’s legacy.

Of course, colonialism has many names. In the United States, “manifest destiny” works as a stand-in for the political, economic, and cultural exploitation and dominance over Indigenous people. And “colonialism” gets messy when you consider the rise of Spanish-speaking people in the Americas. Some of that history stems from colonialism, but there also has been an incorporation of diverse thinking that includes Native language and concepts. For example, food. Authentic Mexican food is largely Indigenous, not Spanish.

Colonialism, manifest destiny, and hegemony largely chronicle the push and pull between the rich and the poor. “Disruption,” on the other hand, does not have an ideology. It’s simply a sudden and dramatic shift from what was considered the norm.

The Indigenous people of North America have experience with great disruptions.

There is growing evidence that my ancestors hunted mastodon in the Great Basin some 14,000 years ago. When the massive animals went extinct, the people had to adapt. Later my Shoshone and Bannock people hunted buffalo. And salmon. Disruption was followed by innovation.

A similar story is found starting around 1100 in today’s Southwest, where Ancient Pueblos built extraordinary cities, some on the sides of sandstone cliffs. But there was a disruption of some kind. And by the 1400s, the people had moved to the Rio Grande region. An entire civilization, tens of thousands of people, moved and built a remarkable trading network. The Pueblo trade expanded greatly because of their new geography. Disruption. Innovation.

Colonialism requires the erasing of the real story of 10,000 years of strength and resilience.

So it was an existing 1,800-mile trade route linking the Rio Grande Valley to Mexico City that the Spanish just tapped when they arrived. The world changed, of course, when the Spanish claimed credit for that trade and appropriated just about every other Indigenous idea from food to place names. The success of colonialism required superiority; therefore, the white story goes like this: There is no way that Indigenous people could have successfully managed that disruption and innovation. The very nature of colonialism requires the erasing of the real story of 10,000 years of strength and resilience, forcing invisibility on Native people.

But deception like that only works when a colonial framework is seen as invincible. The entire system falls apart when the folks running things can no longer pretend they know what they are doing, even with military force to back them up.

For me, that explains Standing Rock.

That disruption story began without much notice and with only a few people. The Sacred Stone Camp was established as a place of prayer by LaDonna Brave Bull Allard in April 2016. Then a 500-mile run organized by young people let the Army Corps of Engineers know that Natives did not want the Dakota Access oil pipeline constructed across their lands and water. When that didn’t work, those young people ran 2,000 miles to Washington, D.C., and the idea of stopping the pipeline, the idea of disruption, grew quickly.

By summer, thousands of people across the country felt compelled to travel to the camps near the Missouri and Cannonball rivers. Many stayed for weeks and months and participated in small Native-led communities. There was a moment, one that will be carried forward, where people there and people watching wondered, “Why can’t the world be like this?”

The hashtag #StandwithStandingRock was more than a social media meme. It was an idea that connected the world to a story about the end of colonialism. It was a call for a new world.

The disruption that is global warming is something that politicians can only pretend to ignore.

The colonial reaction was swift and violent because of that. The police state was an expression clinging to the status quo. Oil now flows through that pipeline, and much of the world has moved on. Those in government and industry, enriched by colonialism’s requisite white supremacy and subjugation, remain disconnected from the millions that seek a more just framework.

That disconnection cannot last, not with climate change.

The disruption that is global warming is something that politicians can only pretend to ignore. Every day, headlines reveal the new world. Some are seemingly benign, such as winters on the Bering Sea where the sea ice arrives later in the season and remains thin. One elder told me he almost lost his son when he fell through ice while hunting. Other headlines are more obvious: monster hurricanes, December wildfires, flooding on a scale that’s nearly incomprehensible. Some 600,000 people displaced in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal.

The scale of migration that is ahead, and inevitable, will be the current version of the Ancient Pueblos’ move to the Rio Grande. Residents of entire cities, islands, regions will be forced to find new ground.

How will the world’s people come together to meet the challenge of climate change? It’s a global problem, and the possible solutions will require a kind of cooperation colonial states are not equipped for.

Recently, headlines have focused on colonialism’s social failings, its patriarchy.

Well-dressed and high-powered sexual predators are not new. Hollywood studio executive Darryl Zanuck was infamous for his casting couch in the 1930s. And in politics there was a collective look-the-other-way for men like Clarence Thomas or Bill Clinton. It was acceptable (even if unfathomable) to have a secret fund that used tax dollars to settle with victims.

The world in which powerful and wealthy men live by special rules is falling apart. The December resignation of Sen. Al Franken, who has been on the right side of most gender issues, says a lot about this changing narrative. Apologies are no longer enough. Actions will be judged. As New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said: “Enough is enough.”

Indigenous knowledge is essential for the innovation that follows disruption.

Perhaps we can extend that idea beyond punishing sexual exploitation, to changing dramatically who leads us. White men have run things for a long, long time. What if disruption of colonialism brings about a new governance, where women lead at least as often as men?

Clearly the colonial system, which is white-male-centric, is incapable of the leadership we need for our species to confront climate change. We need collaboration, not command and control. We need a variety of voices. We need new thinking. We need her.

After one of the resignations of a powerful media figure—Mike Oreskes? Matt Lauer? It’s hard to remember which one now because there have been so many—I took to Twitter to suggest that the media be recreated without the patriarchy. What if women of color finally got their turn? Disruption.

Indigenous knowledge is essential for the innovation that follows disruption. Our people have a history that is rich with stories about survival. We have been tested on conquest, the loss of our lands, our foods, our languages, our ways, and yet we are still here.

Even American ideas of democracy come from Indigenous knowledge. There was no such political affiliation of “states” in the 17th century. That was something learned from the Iroquois Confederacy. The first Europeans noted Indigenous political processes were mostly decentralized, consensus-based, and inclusive. Of course, colonizers warped that idea. Instead of a confederacy of equality, the United States opted for a system that preserved colonial power. Instead of a democracy where every citizen has a say, the American model favored the economic power of the few.

But disruption is happening.

Even as colonial systems are failing, people in power will not give up easily.

The Alaska village once called Barrow is now called Utqiagvik, thanks to an initiative led by Inupiaq young people. The name change for the place where people gather roots was first voted on by the people in the community and has since been codified by the state. (According to the Anchorage Daily News, “Say it this way, with guttural back-of-the-throat sounds for the representative “k” and hard “g” in the middle: oot—kay-ahg—vik.”) The paper pointed out that Nunapitchuk, formerly Akolmiut, changed its name back in 1983, and in 2000 the village Nunam Iqua replaced Sheldon Point.

My Facebook feed is full of people reclaiming their own traditional names, reflecting Diné, Shoshone, Hopi, Lakota, Tlingit, Haida, Athabascan. I see morning greetings in Bannock. I see social media finding a way to say there is a world that should be.

The food sovereignty movement is another story of reclamation. The Navajo Nation enforces a soda tax and works to end food deserts. Tribes such as the Tohono O’odham and the Blackfeet have turned to traditional diets to fight obesity and diabetes. Chefs such as Sean Sherman in Minneapolis are reinterpreting Indigenous foods to pre-reservation times. (Forget frybread—it’s a colonial feel-good.) Sherman’s new book, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, promotes the idea of “free groceries,” where Indigenous foods are accessible and everywhere. Nuts, berries, wild rice, maple, rabbit, duck, goose, bison, venison, turkey, quail, walleye, trout. Other culinary advocates serve ancient lines of corn, kernels that are deep blue or red.

I don’t mean to be overly optimistic.

Even as colonial systems are failing, people in power will not give up easily. They are rushing to develop and drill and extract in Alaska, in the oceans, on federal reserves and near national parks, even near the Ancient Pueblo villages. Their urgency is a reflection of will. The colonialists know their time is up. That is why the excesses of the Trump administration reflect a parody of intellectual discourse. But here’s the thing: The more Trump and the colonial mindset bully the rest of the population, the more likely people will revolt.

Are we the generation that will end colonialism? And what does that look like?

Perhaps that means a new country. Or perhaps it’s time for a global structure that recognizes a planetary crisis. We do know this: Colonialism is ill-suited for this challenge. We need democratic institutions that share power among diverse people and reflect the range of life on Earth. We need disruption and innovation.