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The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

EnviroThursday Paul Bunyan and Settler Colonialism

EnviroThursday Paul Bunyan and Settler Colonialism

On Thursday, Nov. 16, Macalester’s students and faculty gathered at the John B. Davis Lecture Hall for an EnviroThursday lecture given by Niiyokamigaabaw Deondre Smiles, assistant professor of geography at University of Victoria, titled “Paul Bunyan and Settler Colonial Green/Whitewashing of Indigenous Environments.” 

Smiles first introduced himself, his academic background and his field of expertise. He has spent most of his life in Minnesota, having grown up in Minneapolis or Gaakaabikaang, in the Ojibwe language. His current areas of interest include critical Indigenous geographies, political ecology and Indigenous cultural resource preservation. 

In his talk, Smiles focused on the history of the mythical figure Paul Bunyan and his role in settler colonialism in Minnesota. He explained that Paul Bunyan as we know him today, the magical lumberjack “so strong that he could cut down 100 trees is one swing of the ax,” was popularized by an advertising campaign of the Red River Lumber Company, a prominent logging company in the 19th century.

While the story of Paul Bunyan is thought of as a “folksy tale” for children, Smiles argued that his role has been much more harmful than at first sight.

Smiles connected the story of Paul Bunyan to the concept of settler colonialism, which he defined as a “foreign colonization that’s built on the settlement and enduring occupation of land by colonizing power.”

He reminded the audience that the United States is a settler colony. Although many Americans believe they are entitled to call themselves native to America, as their families have lived in this country for generations, Smiles asserted it is crucial to fight this self-Indigenization.

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news,” Smiles said. “We live in a settler colony here in the United States. Canada is a settler colony, Australia’s a settler colony … Palestine in the form of the state of Israel is a settler colony.”

“[If] everybody can be considered Indigenous to this land, then Indigenous peoples don’t have any special distinction,” Smiles said.

Smiles introduced the term ‘terra nullius’ — ‘no man’s land,’ in Latin — which is an important concept in settler colonial mythology. 

“[When] you hear stories about the creation of the United States, [you hear that] the land was empty,” Smiles said. “‘We built a country out of wilderness, right?’ And then people say, ‘well, there were Indigenous peoples here, there were Native peoples here that we’ve displaced.’ And then the narrative turns to, ‘well, they were so bad at using the land productively … [it] might as well have been inhabited or empty or unused.’” 

Smiles explained that settler colonialism not only erases cultures and histories, it also harms the environment. He gave the example of the Dakota Access Pipeline which was one of the most recent environmental scandals which involved the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. 

Smiles also acknowledged that academia rarely credits Indigenous knowledge.

“It’s always really funny [how] every couple of months I see somebody like a white scientist [saying] ‘I have discovered this [new] technology’ or something,” Smiles said.  “There was a paper that came out that was talking about fire management techniques in northern Minnesota, and other folks [said] ‘Wow, they discovered this amazing form of fire management, right?’ Well, they’re writing about Ojibwe fire management techniques that we had been practicing for, like 1,000 years. They didn’t discover anything. They just uncovered the history of what was already there.”

Smiles then returned to explaining how the tale of Paul Bunyan ties into settler colonialism. He presented a theory that Minnesotans have created the myth of Paul Bunyan as a way to whitewash Minnesota’s history and erase the fact that this state was taken from Indigenous peoples and built on Indigenous genocide. 

“We can’t handle that in our collective psyche as Minnesotans, so we’ve come up with this idea,” Smiles said. “We’ve come up with this myth of Paul Bunyan and [we] embrace this myth as a way to kind of self-soothe ourselves. It’s a way to kind of say ‘No, no it wasn’t [us]. The trees didn’t just get cut down from an extractive lumber industry. They were cut down by Paul Bunyan, right? Yeah, Paul Bunyan created these 10,000 lakes.” 

Smiles extended the theory of Paul Bunyan as not only a means of whitewashing but also greenwashing Minnesota’s colonial history. This is particularly relevant in Minnesota, which advertises itself as an “environmentally friendly” and “environmentally conscious” state. In reality, however, Minnesota heavily relies on logging, copper sulfide mining and nuclear energy production, all of which severely alter and harm the environment. 

“I think in some respects, Minnesota might be a resource extraction corporation masquerading as a state,” Smiles said.

To conclude his lecture, Smiles told the audience the forgotten myth of Paul Bunyan’s encounter with Nanabozho, a religious figure of the Ojibwe tribe, who is commemorated with a statue located in Bemidji, Minnesota, right across from the iconic statue of Paul Bunyan. 

According to the story, when Paul Bunyan was cutting down trees and reshaping the state of Minnesota, Nanabozho ordered him to stop, for no one has the right to alter the environment. Paul Bunyan ignored Nanabozho’s warnings. To punish him for his crimes, Nanabozho took a huge fish from one of the 10,000 lakes and punched Paul Bunyan across the face. 

“I think that that’s a very, very important allegory for [how we] contend with this greenwashing and white washing.” said Smiles. “I say that we need to grab a fish and slap settler colonialism [across the face].”

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