Julian Reid


Following Donald Trump’s xenophobic and racist electoral campaign, and in the wake of his election to become 45th President of the United States, in November of 2016, the artist Ernesto Yerena Montajana teamed up with fellow artists Jessica Sabogal and Shepard Fairey, and the non-profit Amplifier Foundation, a self-described ‘art machine for social change’ to produce works for the Foundation’s We the People campaign. The campaign’s objective was to flood Washington D.C. with symbols of hope on January 20th of this year, the date of Trump’s inauguration. And indeed, pictures of the demonstrations that took place that day indicate the efficacy of the campaign. Looking at those pictures we see people marching in their numbers carrying the images created by Fairey, one of an African-American woman, another of a Muslim woman, and one of a Latino woman, each titled, “We the People”. We also see Sabogal’s image being displayed, depicting two women, looking at each other tenderly, one above the other, whose neck she holds, and whose hat reads ‘Women are perfect’. The image itself is titled underneath, “We the Indivisible”.


Yerena’s contribution was a stenciled image, featuring Lakota elder Helen “Granny” Redfeather, a protestor fighting against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, where Yerena himself also spent time in the November of Trump’s election. Yerena’s work situates the Lakota elder underneath its title “We the Resilient: Have Been Here Before”.


Contextualizing his work, Yerena explains

“My relationship with the U.S. is very complicated…I was born here, I live here, but the government is like an occupying force on this land. The colonization process was so violent. It outlawed people from being able to practice Indigenous traditions and languages. How, through all that, have people been able to survive? Considering how hostile the attempted erasure was toward everything to do with our people, Indigenous people, it’s incredible. That’s resilience.”[1]

[1] ‘Meet Ernesto Yerena Montejano: Artist Behind Ubiquitous We Are Resilient Poster’ https://www.colorlines.com/content/meet-ernesto-yerena-montejano-artist-behind-ubiquitous-we-resilient-protest-poster (accessed 2/9/17).

The image Yerena created soon became ubiquitous, a symbol of hope and defiance for peoples protesting the white supremacism of Trump’s election. On January 21 Yerena could be seen distributing his ‘We are Resilient’ posters at the Women’s March in Los Angeles. Yerena himself was born in California, close to the Mexican border.[2] Although identifying as Chicano, he expresses solidarity with the indigenous.[3] His work is dedicated to exposing ‘the weight of colonization and the effects of Westernization of Indigenous cultures’.[4] ‘Trump is the Chernobyl of colonialism’, he explains, ‘but I don’t want to make artwork that’s against him; it gets too dark. I want to make artwork that’s for something. I’m for dignity. I’m for resilience. I’m for Mother Earth. I’m for honoring elders. I’m for working with my friends. I’m for making positive messages’.[5]


Yerena’s positive message can be seen to have already spread. Inspired by the image and Yerena’s message, Sarah Bunin Benor, an Associate Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at the Hebrew Union College Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, set to work on a book, now already published, titled We the Resilient: Wisdom for America from Women Born Before Suffrage. The book began life as a website set up in October of last year, designed to give voice to hopeful women voters who had been born in the years preceding the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920, and who were in the lead up to the election of November 2017, not only able to cast a vote in ways that women not long ago were denied, but vote for what could have been the first female president of the United States, Hillary Clinton.[6] The book, We the Resilient, features interviews with fifty-five of the women who appeared on the website, and who respond to Benor’s questions. Questions that included: when in your life have you experienced personal disappointment, tragedy or unexpected loss? How were you able to overcome those setbacks? Though coming from a variety of different backgrounds, the women tell of similar experiences of disappointment, tragedy, and loss, such as losing parents, spouses, siblings and children, and contemplate how it was they were able to bounce back from those difficult experiences.[7]


Within the health sciences resilience is identified as the ‘trait that enables an individual to recover from stress and to face the next stressor with optimism. Resilient people are considered to have a better mental and physical health’.[8] The analysis of resilience invariably involves examining how people cope with disappointment, tragedy and loss. What divides the resilient self who bounces back from life tragedies from the failed selves who never recover?  Where does resilience come from? What are its sources? Who has it and why? How to build resilience where it is lacking? These are the questions health practitioners of resilience routinely ask. But its growth as a concept within the health sciences can be traced in correspondence to its development in a range of other fields, including the social sciences concerned with the attributes of human groups, as well as the non-human sciences concerned with the study of non-human living systems. Across these different fields resilience is defined as the capacity of any living system, including human systems, both individual and social, to absorb the shocks generated by disastrous events, and respond by either maintaining or changing form, evolving with them, and growing stronger from their occurrence.


The word resilience has existed for centuries. It comes from the Latin word resilire – to rebound or recoil. In the 17th century it described the ability of physical materials to return to their original shape after suffering deformation. Its contemporary use developed significantly in Ecology during the 1970s to describe how living systems recover and evolve following disasters. Gradually it mutated into social science as a way to understand how humans absorb shocks and withstand disasters of multiple kinds. In the era of Sustainable Development it became identified especially with the Global Poor, given their excessive exposure to shocks of a disastrous nature.[9] And more recently it has become a capacity especially attributed to indigenous peoples.[10] This is evidenced not just by Ernesto Yerena’s representation of indigenous resilience in the protest posters, but also by the anthropological literature on indigenous resilience. For indigenous peoples are perceived by western anthropologists to be particularly exemplary subjects of resilience.


Indeed not just anthropologists but policy makers the world over, concerned as they currently are with attempting to formulate policies to help people cope with the coming era of disasters portended by climate change, are attracted to indigenous peoples on account of their perceived abilities to live in a state of permanent crisis. Within the Academy, anthropologists are currently being mobilized to provide ethnographic studies of the practices and forms of knowledge that enable indigenous peoples to do so. For example the Oxford-based anthropologist, Laura Rival, has detailed the ways in which the Makushi, an indigenous people living in the borderlands of northern Brazil and southern Guyana, live with severe drought and flooding as normal conditions of life.[11] This is a people as well adapted to a world of floods as much as it is to extreme drought, Rival argues, and able to cope with whatever the climate throws at them.[12] As such she holds them up as a model for the rest of humanity, faced as it is with a coming era of climate disasters and global ecological catastrophe.


Anthropology has, from its origins, ‘existed in a state of complex symbiotic dependency on government, in so far as anthropologists have been materially and practically dependent on state support to fund research, and the direction anthropological work has taken in any particular period has been influenced by state needs for certain kinds of information with which to govern its Indigenous populace.[13] This is as true today in the context of the mobilization of anthropologists to produce knowledge about indigenous resilience. The arguments and conclusions of academic anthropologists are mirrored in policy reports such as that published by UNESCO, titled Weathering Uncertainty, and which likewise describes how indigenous peoples, on account of their high-exposure sensitivity to extreme weather events, are thought to be especially resilient to climate change.[14] The indigenous are of interest and value to policy-makers because they have a proven track record of what the report describes as ‘resourcefulness and response capacity in the face of global climate change’.[15]


Many are those who interpret this development as a step forwards in the decolonization of relations between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. For it seems to challenge the west’s teleological sense of its own superiority, debunks it even, and places the indigenous on a pedestal once reserved for the western subject of modernist tradition.[16] What such enthusiasts don’t recognize is the problematic nature of the entanglement of this reversal with white western strategies of power. The ascription of resilience to indigenous people is not something being achieved simply by anthropologists working to the left of western states or other colonial institutions. It is a mantra being repeated by colonial states and deeply powerful western actors worldwide. Such that the representation of the indigenous as possessing exceptional capacities to care for their natural environments, to adapt to climate change, and deal with extreme weather events has become a governing cliché of white western neoliberal governance.


Resilience is advancing throughout the west as a major discourse for the implementation of neoliberal governance. Indigenous peoples are but one target population of strategies for the making of resilient subjects. Nevertheless they are a crucial one, given the arguments beings made for their exemplary status. For this reason anyone concerned with indigenous politics must be circumspect when confronting claims about the inherent resilience of indigenous peoples. For the risks in accepting such clichéd representations of the indigenous are vast, and ultimately complicit with colonial power and neoliberal exploitation. We know much by now about the long history of colonial violence that arose from the western desire to destroy indigenous peoples on account of their perceived inferiority. We recognize much less of the violence which arises from the apparent desire to protect indigenous peoples and the ontological alterity they supposedly embody.[17] Yet that is a form which colonial violence now takes. From South to North, indigenous peoples must resist the violence embedded in neoliberal strategies of resilience, while the anthropologists who study them must beware being drawn into the latest ideologically driven project to govern the lives of indigenous peoples.


What then to make of the artwork of Ernesto Yerena Montajana with which this essay began? And what of the people carrying the ‘We The Resilient’ banners on the protests against Trump? Are they also to be condemned, along with the concept of resilience itself, as part of the problem of colonialism today? Is resilience a univocal concept, or is it open to different usages? I recognize the salience of critiques of the critique of resilience that have appeared recently. I read with interest works arguing we must avoid the cynicism of a blanket dismissal of resilience, distinguish between its positive and negative aspects, and recognize its potential to constitute more open and inclusive democratic political orders.[18] The geographer Ben Anderson has made similar kinds of points when asking ‘what kind of thing is resilience?’ and by imploring that we make the connections between resilience and neoliberalism into a question to be explored rather than a presumption from which analysis begins.[19] These are useful interventions the basis for which echoes throughout this problem of discourses on indigenous resilience. The resilience at stake in strategy documents of international organizations is not the same as that enunciated on the streets of American cities as indigenous people and their allies took to those streets to fight the election of Trump. There are differences between claims concerning resilience. For one, the resilience indigenous peoples lay claim to refers to their having survived a project of colonial extermination, while the resilience which colonial states now identify with indigenous peoples refers to their abilities to survive environmental disasters and pays little heed to their own histories of colonial violence.


Nevertheless, there are relations between these different usages of resilience, and while their points of articulation are indeed different and to some extent opposed, they are nevertheless tied by the concept itself. In each case the indigenous subject which resilience refers to is defined by its capacity to survive. Is there anything problematic in that?


Ernesto Yerena Montajana, like everybody else, has also to survive. An artist has to make a living, and art, for the most part pays badly. In Yerena’s case survival requires once in a while a relative sacrifice of principle. Which is why he sold his work to the manufacturer of the energy drink, Red Bull. Some of their cans are decorated with his signature rose symbolizing dignity and a calavera (Mexican sugar skull).


As he explains, ‘sometimes corporations hire me because they want to tap into the “Latino” market. I take some of the jobs because I need to keep paying rent, but it’s a fine line. What I really want is to make critical, challenging work. A lot of times I have to self-fund or work with a small stipend. Unfortunately, the people with the best ideas don’t have a lot of money’.[20]


Many of us know this conflict between good intention and its sacrifice for survival’s sake. Images, concepts and arguments are all open to appropriation by agencies whose intentions are self-interested, as is the case with the profit-maximizing Red Bull, an Austrian company with the highest market share of any energy drink in the world, selling five billion cans a year; a market share that owes in no small part to the distinctiveness of the blue silver design of the cans in which its drink is sold and on which Yerena’s designs appear.


There is no direct connection between Yerena’s work for Red Bull and the ‘We Are Resilient’ poster that he made for the campaign against Trump. In effect the former served the latter. Selling to Red Bull meant Yerena could pay the rent and paying the rent meant Yerena could design for the Amplifier Foundation and its political campaign against the particular formation of white racist neoliberal capital that Trump’s presidency represents. We have no reason to believe Red Bull saw any capital in hiring an artist with his politics or with his links to indigenous peoples and political struggles. As Yerena states, Red Bull were interested in tapping into the Latino market and it is the resonance of his designs with Chicano culture that attracted them. But there is some faint sense of a connection, in this collaboration between Yerena and Red Bull on the one hand, and the collaborations taking place between resilience and neoliberalism on the other. Red Bull, as the most iconic energy drink of its generation, epitomizes resilience culture. It is what you drink when you are struggling to cope, stay awake, or persevere amid stress, physical or psychic. If you need resilience in a liquid form you drink Red Bull. It is also the drink that besides giving you resilience, gives you stereotypes. On the website, Native Appropriations, a forum for discussing representations of native peoples, including stereotypes and cultural appropriation, a commercial campaign of Red Bull is described as reading like a ‘check list of native stereotypes.’[21] Amid tipis, smoke signals, war whoops, and “tom-tom” drumming, two natives, Brown Bear and White Dove, express in third person broken English their frustrated sexual desire for each other.


‘Greetings White Dove, my heart is heavy’, says Brown Bear. ‘Mine too, Brown Bear’, replies White Dove. ‘The end of the year is near, and we still can’t get together. Brown bear can’t jump that far!’ complains Brown Bear. ‘And White Dove can’t fly! We are only united in mind’ concludes White Dove. ‘Yes, but my body longs for you too’, confirms Brown Bear. White Dove sighs. ‘No Red Bull, no happy ending’, warns the narrator. Yes, Red Bull is not only the drink that gives you resilience. It’s the drink that gets you laid. Or it’s the drink that gives you the necessary resilience to get laid. And, which in sexualizing resilience, also sexualizes indigeneity, making a commercial stereotype out of indigenous perseverance, and stoking colonial myths.


Red Bull is responsible for mythic representations of indigenous peoples, but what about resilience itself? In March this year the Journal of Multidisciplinary Healthcare published an article titled ‘Mental Resilience, Perceived Immune Functioning, and Health’. The article is a classic of its kind, describing resilience as the ‘trait that enables an individual to recover from stress and to face the next stressor with optimism’.[22] People with resilience, it argues, ‘have a better mental and physical health’.[23] People with reduced immune functioning tend to be those who are less resilient, while people with resilience tend to have better functioning immune systems, is the conclusion it draws on the basis of a large empirical study.[24] Like a lot of medical research the article had as many as eight authors, among who is named a Dr. Joris Verster from the University of Utrecht. In the Disclosure section of the article the authors list the sources of financial support that have funded their research. Verster, a proponent of resilience lists among the many different funders he is in the patronage of, Red Bull. Which is interesting. In fact Verster is also the author of a another study, published last year, in the Journal of Human Psychopharmacology, titled ‘Mixing Alcohol With Energy Drink: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis’. The article addresses the belief that people who mix energy drinks such as Red Bull with alcohol end up drinking more alcohol than they ordinarily would. Reassuringly, Verster and his colleagues conclude that their research proves that mixing energy drinks with alcohol does not increase the total amount of alcohol consumed.[25]  Which is interesting. What to make of these connections between the science of resilience, so assured in its conclusions concerning the reality of resilience as property of healthy people everywhere, and an energy drink manufacturer which funds the science of resilience, and which employs the same science to defend itself from mythic representations of the properties of the product as a source of alcoholism and ill health? A corporation, and icon of the neoliberal economy, furthermore, which sells its products on the basis of colonial representations of indigenous people, as well as by decorating its cans with the designs of an artist who, unwittingly no doubt, is himself a proponent of indigenous resilience, and the creator of what is the most iconic image of indigenous resilience, the picture of Lakota elder Helen “Granny” Redfeather, carried on banners by the many people who showed up to protest the election of Donald Trump, in Washington DC and other American cities in January of this year.


There is a lot at stake in this nexus of relations between colonialism, capitalism, neoliberalism, the fight against fascism, and the science of resilience, both in the forms it is attributed to indigenous peoples, as well as people everywhere struggling to recover from stress and to face the next stressor with optimism.


Resilience, I agree, is not a univocal concept, and like all concepts in fact, is open to different usages. We should never condemn, or at least be content with condemning concepts. But wherever it is used, and however it is used, resilience is a dangerous concept. Beneath the surface of the seeming positivity with which it has been invoked this year as a defining characteristic of indigenous people everywhere, fighting their dispossession by colonial powers, and struggling to persevere against the racism of colonial states, there lurks a great deal of danger and malign investments. It’s not my place in the world to tell indigenous people who they are or what they are. All I have to say to them is this; be careful. And when you listen to the next anthropologist, the next statesman, the next well-meaning activist, or corporate brand manager, who talks about indigenous resilience, treat the term with the circumspection it deserves.

[2] Ibid (accessed 2/9/17).

[3] http://www.hechoconganas.com/bio/ (accessed 2/9/17).

[4] ‘Meet Ernesto Yerena Montajano’.

[5] Ibid.

[6] ‘Wisdom of the Aged Offers Hope to Clinton Voters’ http://jewishjournal.com/culture/lifestyle/50_plus/219159/echoes-election-2016-women-resilient/ (accessed 2/9/17).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Van Schrojenstein Lantman M, Mackus M, Otten LS, et al. ‘Mental resilience, perceived immune functioning, and health’, Journal of Multidisciplinary Healthcare (10, 2017),107-112.

[9] Julian Reid, ‘The Disastrous and Politically Debased Subject of Resilience’, Development Dialogue 58 (2012), 67-79.

[10] Marjo Lindroth and Heidi Sinevaara-Niskanen, ‘The Biopolitics of Resilient Indigeneity and the Radical Gamble of Resistance’, Resilience (4:2, 2016).

[11] Laura Rival, ‘The Resilience of Indigenous Intelligence’ in K. Hastrup (ed.) The Question of Resilience: Social Responses to Climate Change (Copenhagen: The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters), 293-313.

[12] Ibid, 302

[13] Melinda Hinkson, ‘Introduction: Anthropology and the Culture Wars’ in Jon Altman and Melinda Hinkson (eds.), Culture Crisis: Anthropology and Politics in Aboriginal Australia (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2010), 5.

[14] Douglas Nakashima et al, Weathering Uncertainty: Traditional Knowledge for Climate Change Assessment and Adaptation (Paris: UNESCO, 2012).

[15] Ibid

[16] Tess Lea, “Contemporary Anthropologies of Indigenous Australia,” Annual Review of Anthropology (41, 2012), 196.

[17] Luc Bessire, Behold the Black Caiman: A Chronicle of Ayoreo Life (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

[18] Peter Rogers, ‘Researching resilience: An agenda for change’, Resilience: International Policies, Practices and Discourses (3:1, 2015), 66.

[19] Ben Anderson, ‘What Kind of Thing is Resilience?’, Politics (35:1, 2015), 60.

[20] Meet Ernesto Yerena Montajana’.

[21] ‘Red Bull Gives You Stereotypes’, http://nativeappropriations.com/2010/07/red-bull-gives-you-stereotypes.html

[22] Marith Van Schrojenstein Lantman et al, ‘Mental resilience, perceived immune functioning, and health’, Journal of Multidisciplinary Healthcare (10: 2017), 107.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid, 112.

[25] Joris Verster et al, ‘Mixing alcohol with energy drink (AMED) and total alcohol consumption: a systematic review and meta-analysis’, Human Psychopharmacology (31: 1: 2016).

2 thoughts on ““We The Resilient”: Colonizing Indigeneity in the Era of Trump

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