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Emotional impacts of environmental decline: What can Native cosmologies teach sociology about emotions and environmental justice?


This article extends analyses of environmental influences on social action by examining the emotions experienced by Karuk Tribal members in the face of environmental decline. Using interviews, public testimonies, and survey data we make two claims, one specific, the other general. We find that, for Karuk people, the natural environment is part of the stage of social interactions and a central influence on emotional experiences, including individuals’ internalization of identity, social roles, and power structures, and their resistance to racism and ongoing colonialism. We describe a unique approach to understanding the production of inequality through disruptions to relationships among nature, emotions, and society. Grief, anger, shame, and hopelessness associated with environmental decline serve as signal functions confirming structures of power. The moral battery of fear and hope underpins environmental activism and resistance. More generally, we expand this concern to argue that neglecting the natural world as a causal force for “generic” social processes has limited not only work on Native Americans, but also work sociology of emotions and theories of race and ethnicity, and has masked the theoretical significance of environmental justice. Taking seriously the experiences of Native people and the importance of the natural environment offers an opportunity to extend sociological analyses of power and to move sociology toward a more decolonized discipline.

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  1. 1.

    The ideas presented here emerge from the information and perspectives shared by many people in the Karuk community via interviews, surveys, and public testimony. We have learned from listening to each of you and are deeply grateful for the time and insights without which this article could never have been written. In keeping with sociological tradition, names have been omitted from interview quotes.

  2. 2.

    Following literature from sociology of the body (e.g., Sutton 2010; De Casanova 2013; Eisenstein 2001) we use the term “embodiment” to denote both a metaphoric and literal expression of power. The term is metaphoric in the sense that emotional experiences are understood as representations of power structures. But because emotions literally have a physical dimension in the body, we can also understand their occurrence as a direct manifestation of power, see Sutton’s (2010) discussion of how neoliberal economic policies are manifested in women’s bodies in Argentina, De Casanova (2013) on embodied inequalities of domestic workers, and Eisenstein (2001) discussion of breast cancer and bodies as sites of power.

  3. 3.

    Wolfe (2006) writes that “the question of genocide is never far from discussions of settler-colonialism” (p. 387) and yet terms such as cultural genocide or ethnocide fail to capture the ways that the elimination of indigenous people is structurally ongoing even after the end of “frontier homicide.” See also discussions of this term by Woolford and Thomas (2011), Ellinghaus (2009), Hitchcock and Totten (2011) and Kingston (2015).

  4. 4.

    E.g., the issue of mental health has yet to be included in the many anthologies, college courses, and journal review articles devoted to the field of environmental justice. See, e.g., Mohai et al. 2009. Note however that Robert Bullard’s (1990) landmark text Dumping in Dixie did include mention of psychological impacts of toxic exposure.

  5. 5.

    Note that for our respondents the natural environment is more than just a stage for action; it is an animate actor itself.

  6. 6.

    The US government negotiated a treaty with the Karuk in 1851 but it was never ratified. Meanwhile, in 1851 and 1852, California spent $1 million per year to exterminate native peoples. Following direct genocide, Karuk children were separated from families and taken to Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools for the specific purpose of assimilation. People were prevented from speaking their native language and practicing their customs, and they were forced to eat a diet of “Western” foods.

  7. 7.

    Eight of the individuals in the first round were re-interviewed with the new focus on emotions, e.g., these individuals were “duplicated.”

  8. 8.

    Note that we elaborate on elsewhere on this important theme of masculinity (see Norgaard et al. 2017).


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Thankfully none of us think, work, or exist in isolation. This article could never have been written without the assistance of a great many people. Yôotva (thank you) to our families for supporting our work, to the earth that is the source of our lives, and to all who shared their time and thoughts via interviews. Yôotva to Leaf Hillman, Lisa Hillman, Kyle Powys Whyte, Linda Fuller, Barbara Sutton, Kirsten Vinyeta, JM Bacon, and the Theory and Society Editors and reviewers for their thoughtful feedback on the manuscript. May the Karuk and all Tribal People achieve full sovereignty over their relationships, lands, and spiritual practices.

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Correspondence to Kari Marie Norgaard.

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Reed and Norgaard have been working closely together since 2003, conducting policy-relevant research on tribal health and social impacts of environmental decline. Their 2004 report The Effects of Altered Diet on the Karuk Tribe was submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as part of the opposition to the relicensing of the Klamath River dams. This action represented the first time a tribe had claimed that a dam had given their people artificially high rates of diabetes and other diet-related diseases. Since that time Ron and Kari have continued to work on policy-driven research projects including work that established Tribal Cultural and Tribal Subsistence beneficial uses in the TMDL water quality process in California for the first time. Together they have co-supervised over a dozen undergraduate and Masters theses and have several co-authored publications. They continue to work actively together on new projects.

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Norgaard, K.M., Reed, R. Emotional impacts of environmental decline: What can Native cosmologies teach sociology about emotions and environmental justice?. Theor Soc 46, 463–495 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11186-017-9302-6

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  • Colonialism
  • Emotions
  • Environmental justice
  • Inequality
  • Natural environment
  • Native American