Hay on Smith-Morris, 'Indigenous Communalism: Belonging, Healthy Communities, and Decolonizing the Collective'

Carolyn Smith-Morris
Amy Hay

Carolyn Smith-Morris. Indigenous Communalism: Belonging, Healthy Communities, and Decolonizing the Collective. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2019. 192 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-978805-41-5

Reviewed by Amy Hay (University of Texas Rio Grande Valley) Published on H-Environment (December, 2021) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56761

In Indigenous Communalism Carolyn Smith-Morris seeks to delineate the hallmark characteristics of Indigenous communalism, examine the tension between communalism and individualism, and highlight the survivance of Indigenous communities in a global post/colonial context. Smith-Morris does this in a concise fashion—six chapters plus introduction in 136 pages of text. Given the work’s focus from the micro (specific native communities) to the macro (United Nations International Covenants), it is an ambitious project. The book’s relevance for environmental history applies in three approximate areas: scholars studying Indigenous communities and the environment; those interested in the connection between environment and health; and more generally, those interested in questions of sustainability and policy.

The introduction outlines the tension between communalism and the West’s more prevalent and radical individualism. Smith-Morris seeks to reset the conversation about these two cultural modes, and she argues that there has always been a symbiotic relationship between the needs of the individual and those of the group. Her examination of the communalism as practiced in Indigenous communities emphasizes it as a “relational process,” and the need to view these cultural practices as common values used by human beings. Smith-Morris describes four key characteristics of Indigenous peoples, a group difficult to define, and she uses them to structure her book. These characteristics are: belonging, which emphasizes culture and a group identity; generational continuity, which addresses continuity throughout and between generations; representation, which addresses who has the authority to represent Indigenous peoples; and finally, Indigenous people's ability to maintain and reproduce specific ways of living. Smith-Morris notes that she does not want to homogenize or enshrine communalism, but rather restore communalism as practiced by Indigenous peoples as representative of human values more broadly, to place communalism as a normative choice practiced by human beings throughout time and space.

Smith-Morris sees her work as “an inquiry into the everyday mechanisms that form community, of communalist decisions and actions, and of the capacities for change that allow communities to hold themselves together and thrive” (p. 5). The introduction ends by defining terms and identifying frames and representations. Some agreed-upon characteristics of Indigeneity include self-identification, historical continuities, distinct social/political/economic systems, distinct language/culture/beliefs, and commitment to reproduce their distinctive communities. Smith-Morris ends her introduction with an introduction to the Akimel O’odham (River People) of the Gila River region of Arizona, known by colonizers as the Pima. This community provides several examples that illuminate Smith-Morris’s study of Indigenous communalism. The next four chapters examine the components (what Smith-Morris calls “features” or “processes”) of Indigenous communalism as defined by Smith-Morris.

Chapter 1, “Belonging,” focuses on culture and membership in a group with shared cultural beliefs and practices—what members will know as their community. Native communities integrate a consciousness of others, a commitment to cooperation, and limiting individual difference as community values. Kinship places one geographically and relationally, a measure of the ways place continues to be an important part of native identity. Smith-Morris recounts how a research project proposed by a renowned expert in diabetes was rejected by the Council while her own more modest request was approved, signified by a question that confirmed her personal involvement with the community beyond a role as researcher/outsider. Her experience uncovers the subtle, relational means by which decisions are made.

Also important to belonging and group identity is a commonly experienced environment—natural, built, familial—as demonstrated in a discussion of the ways residential schools traumatized most native children. Smith-Morris’s third example of belonging looks at syncretic decision-making that functions under the guise of Western forms but preserves community consensus. Smith-Morris notes that the decision to maintain a place-based identity on the reservation has cost the Akimel O’odham, as decreasing water supplies led to several decades of severe poverty. For environmental historians, an understanding of the different ways identity was/is determined, the importance of place in Indigenous definitions of identity, and how communal values inform decision-making can be important when examining internal and external interactions over land decisions, conflicts, and commitment to stay on ancestral lands.

Chapter 2, “Generation,” discusses the ways that communalism requires the (re)generation of the community—its members, its commitment to shared values, and the importance of place-based relationships on the reservation. Smith-Morris examines families and the challenges and choices of younger generations. Despite the economic, educational, and health hardship experienced on the reservation, most families commit to raising their children on the reservation. As Smith-Morris describes it, the Akimel O’odham “living on the rez have chosen relations and kin over the potential wealth of advanced education and the possible comforts of city life” (p. 52). The choice to live on the reservation also shows the community’s rejection of colonizer values, a rejection of commodity capitalism. Community members emphasize experiences that celebrate and reinforce communal relationships. Smith-Morris’s makes an important contribution in the chapter’s discussion of privileging certain kinds of rationality. Wendy Espeland’s The Struggle for Water: Politics, Rationality, and Identity in the American Southwest (1998), provides a good example of an awareness of the ways native peoples make decisions that Western colonialism defines as irrational and which can be redefined as a normal, logical process based upon communalist values.

In chapter 3, “Representation,” Smith-Morris wants to “decolonize representations of Indigenous communalism and communities” (p. 68). She does this by discussing authority—who has the right to speak for the Pima, and the problem of power and Western legal codes; what is Indigenous knowledge and how does it appear in contemporary circles; and lastly, Indigenous bodies and genetics as represented in medicine, science, and policy. The second and third discussions are of particular importance to environmental historians with respect to privileging of written legal texts (treaties, court opinions) and the ways colonialism has profoundly affected the health of the O’odham and other Indigenous peoples. There are many problems with the immutability of written legal documents with respect to Indigenous peoples who negotiate communal interests. Capitalism rests upon individual property and the right to accumulate more property (e.g., wealth). Smith-Morris suggests that one way to address this historic legal codification might be to allow legal agreements to be renegotiated.

Smith-Morris’s discussion of communal knowledge and Indigenous genetics offers environmental scholars interested in authority (and policy) and the connection between environment and health much to consider. Indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants represents one challenge to Western understandings of intellectual property. Indigenous communities have started to challenge previously held understandings of who owns knowledge produced by research on Indigenous peoples. Increasingly, Indigenous communities have declared ownership of such research along with communal sacred/secret knowledge. Native communities have been successful in achieving a status as co-creators and co-owners of the research produced about and by them. “Ultimately for research, the question of ‘Who owns cultural knowledge?’ is being reclaimed by the tribes” (p. 75).

Colonization destroyed the health of many Indigenous communities by depriving them of land and healthy foods. The contemporary stress on genetics, on individual and ahistorical conditions, adds insult to injury. Smith-Morris argues that for the Pima, diabetes represents a “scar at the molecular level” (p. 76). The Pima’s ability to live in places and times of scarcity made them vulnerable to the devastating effects colonization would have on Native American (and Latinx) diets. The fraught relationship between Western medicine, with its reliance on curative rather than preventative measures, can be seen in the Gila River Indian Community Council’s decision to close the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases reservation offices and changes in clinical programs. Indigenous communities like the Pima have begun to push back against the Western medical narrative of individual culpability, and have begun to assert the historic (and environmental) reasons for their communities’ illnesses as resulting from the collective trauma experienced by colonization.

Chapters 4 and 5 focus on detailed discussions of communal values as seen in Indigenous communities. Chapter 4 looks at the concept of “hybridity,” which allows Indigenous peoples the survivance skills to mediate their communal and individual identities, and the negotiations undertaken by the communal community with broader societies’ individualism. Smith-Morris includes an extended discussion of female cutting (pejoratively known as female genital mutilation) in challenging readers to understand communal values that may be in severe conflict with individual human rights. Smith-Morris offers several examples of the ways Indigenous communities successfully practice communalism in the face of individualism in chapter 5. She continues her discussion of female cutting and societal responses to such community practices. In the process, Smith-Morris highlights the problems with informed consent, most particularly in such contracts’ absence of context or communal issues. Smith-Morris revisits her earlier discussion of Native American communities’ assertion of ownership over research and control of practice and knowledge. This can be seen with dual informed consent processes—one for the individual and one granted at the community level. Native communities recognize and have begun to address the relational production of research and need to renegotiate consent over time. Smith-Morris considers two communal healing practices that differ from Western medical approaches, in the communal healing ceremonies of the !Kung San (Kalahari Desert) and the Aja peoples’ (Benin) understanding of illness as both external and internal disruptions.

Smith-Morris’s concluding chapter 6, “Global Indigenous Communalism and Rights,” provides the most sustained discussion of environment and land in the book. The discussion proves both important and frustrating, as issues of land remain fundamental, and contested, for Indigenous communities. Given Indigenous communities’ identification with place, this abbreviated examination may be the most significant problem with Smith-Morris’s work. But overall, Indigenous Communalism challenges scholars to rethink the ways Western individualism has disadvantaged Indigenous communities, and perhaps more importantly, the successful responses Indigenous peoples have begun to make. The book offers the intellectual space to consider concepts important to environmental history: identity, place, authority, colonization, decolonization, health, and community and communalism. Engaging with this work is time well spent for both specialists in Indigenous studies and nonspecialists.

Citation: Amy Hay. Review of Smith-Morris, Carolyn, Indigenous Communalism: Belonging, Healthy Communities, and Decolonizing the Collective. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. December, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56761

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