Return of the Elwha

The following is a draft of a paper I am working on. At the moment it is stalled, on the back burner. I am interested in any thoughts, comments, critiques, or paths forward that this line of queer studies engagement in engineering ethics can achieve! Even if this never gets reworked or published, I wish to share this paper I wrote as part of my PHD exams. This is an example of the sort of scholarship I hope to engage in over my career on the side of traditional engineering education research. Engineering ethics is important and is a topic I hope to teach, write about, and research further.

The Elwha River Dam, constructed in 1913, was built upon the land stewarded for millennia by the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. For over 100 years this dam stood in the river’s path, blocking the sovereignty, spirituality, and culture of the Klallam tribe. Sacred sites were buried and life-sustaining rich sediment was held back by the dam. This dam was removed in 2012 what is regarded as the largest dam removal and restoration project in United States history. The dam’s removal was championed by the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and with partnered activist groups outside the tribe. I highlight these co-operative partnerships formed between the tribe and settler environmental scientists and engineers as an example of the critical bonds which we must form in allyship to deconstruct physical and social colonial power structures. The field of queer indigenous / two-spirit critiques are used in this analysis to draw connections between the ongoing settler colonist project and engineers’ role in our projects. I wish to draw attention to these physical objects – their creation, their creators, and what our engineering projects enact. What is the story of this dam? Who benefitted? And drawing from queer indigenous / two-spirit critiques, how did the dam enforce settler gender and sexuality schema?

Engineering – Settler Colonialism’s Tool Box

Spanish missionaries in the Elwha river delta first contacted the Klallam tribes in 1790. In the centuries since then the tribe has been met with broken treaties and forced removal to the benefit of settlers over the land and resources. While the treaty of 1855 ensured the Klallam people would have the “right of taking fish at usual and accustomed grounds and stations” as they did for millennia, this was never the case (Guarino 2013). Immediately upon construction the Elwha river dam violated a law of 1910 requiring fish pathways in all dams. This was not enforced likely due to the booming paper economy the dam would power. Following its construction, a tragic 90% of the salmon population disappeared, with tribal members bearing witness to the horror of salmon which sustained every part of their lives jumping against a dam which they could not surmount. The Klallam nation over two centuries were forced into a small reservation in the delta – it is a mere stamp of the land they stewarded. The cultural and spiritual practices in this ecosystem practiced for time immemorial were obscured due to the flooding, the decimation of the salmon runs, the reduced flow downstream, and the settler occupation.

Most literature paints a narrative of the dam’s positive role in supplying the paper and pulp industry with electricity and “developing” this region for settlers. However, this capitalist land resource extraction is inextricably tied to gender, sexuality, ability, class, race, and Otherized categorizations which surround and permeate capitalism. These categories have existed and evolved for centuries out of classical Greek forms of kyriarchy – an intersectional structure of domination which centers upon one’s structural positions (body and location of birth) and subject positions (adherence or resistance to domination regime and its perpetuation) (Fiorenza 2009, p. 9-18). As Greece and Roman people spread their dominion into Europe and globally through colonialism this system of bio power continues to morph and change to remain dominate, seeking new lands and their bodies to oppress and extract wealth from. This resource extraction is distributed through this kyriarchal intersectional power structure producing the greatest environmental, social, and economic injustice to those at the dominated end of these axis of difference (Osborne 2015). The division of these categories as separate is essential in classifying colonized bodies. Preventing intimacy between categories such as sexuality and gender are necessary for upholding colonialism – the knowledge that gender is racialized, sexuality is racialized, sexuality is gendered stands as a challenge to domination (Lowe 2015, p. 35). Building upon the land required a removal of indigenous bodies and spirits and the imposition of a gender-sexual order through violence over hundreds of years in a process understood as gendercide (Miranda 2010). The brunt of this violence was against the bodies and spiritual practices of those who today may use the term Two-Spirit. Gendercide and dam construction are not separate actions. The design of physical infrastructure by engineers to support this conquest has included tools such as cargo vessels, prisons, weapons, computers, iPhones, washing machines, apartments, clothes, and New York City. Employing these technologies upon colonized subjects is tied to the gender dynamics which are at the core of a system of socialized norms and administrative systems (Spade 2015, p. 52). The consumer capitalist system constructed by engineers and their peers is a “re-enslavement” of colonial subjects substituting local forced labor for global economically / politically enforced participation (Lowe 2015, p. 169). The extraction of resources such as the power of the Elwha river are acts of violence upon the identities of indigenous people who weave spiritual responsibilities and gender-body-sex with the land (Driskill 2016, p. 32). To control the river is to control these bodies and desires.

Constructing a Creator Class

If colonial society can be understood as intersectional domination, engineers exist within the upper rungs of this ladder. Engineering in its modern academic and ideological incarnation emerged out of the U.S. military industrial machine to produce war implements (Blue 2013, p. 3- 9). The term engineer dates to the 14th century as “denoting a designer and constructor of fortifications and weapons.” The enculturation of engineers in the United States now occurs within the University structure whose role is to produce a cohesive “bureaucratic class” since the inception of the Roman Grammaticus (Stover 2017). Engineering’s location within the academic industrial complex serves to fuel the engines of imperialism through the design and construction of a global colonial society, from which technological innovation can be theorized as a “soft weapon” of colonization. The professional culture and epistemology of engineers is characterized as masculinist, sexist, homophobic, hierarchical, depoliticized, meritocratic, disengaged from social activism, and driven to suppress non-dominant identities stemming from the post-WWII military culture (Blue 2013, p. 44, Riley 2008, p. 85-96, Cech 2013). Engineers overwhelmingly believe society is well-functioning and fair. These logics and ideologies are tools of settler colonialism adopted by those who find success and belonging within engineering culture, which is seemingly beyond critique (Driskill 2016 p. 35, Seron 2018). There is little space in a conservative masculine culture of superiority and objectivity for the emotive, the spiritual, the sensual, the political, and the relational. The economic power of this class is pronounced – young graduates of engineering programs are readily employed in the oil, defense, civil construction, and technology industries and offered salaries over twice the national average, upwards of $80,000. Even the Elwha dam removal project awarded nearly $27 million to engineering firms and related contractors. This can be attributed to heterosexual colonial logics which frame native as submissive and “less-than” subjects for conquest (Driskill 2016, p. 66). These framings are conceptually related to colonial gender regime which has become dominant in Euro-Anglo society of the masculine domanince over the feminine. These connections can be drawn to implicate the discipline as a significant contact site between indigenous queer bodies and racialized gender violence.

The dominant gender, race, indigeneity, and sexuality order in engineering is enforced through its distributed social norms. There is not a single “diversity” effort which can change this – it is the very essence of settler colonialism’s tool box of engineers. The transphobia, sexism, and homophobia I witnessed first-hand in engineering environments are displays of this dominant kyriarchy. Every morning and afternoon I walked through the nightmarish fascist display of war and flags at Tinker Air Force Base. The casual hallway billboard entirely full of transphobic, anti-native, and sexist cartoons at The Dalles Dam ultimately lead to my resignation from the federal government. I have heard supervisors talk about my co-worker in the most sexually objectifying terms. I was at meetings where engineers joked about the native peoples and salmon in the Columbia river basin. In 2014, Ed Arnold closed his office door and joked that bullets are “the (cheap) solution” to the “border problem.” I have felt this research in my body and before my eyes, so unreal I had to capture them with pictures throughout the years (Figures 2, 3, 4). I am moved to presume that Thomas Aldwell who constructed the Elwha Dam in 1913 for his businesses embodied these traits, seeing settler colonial law as objectively just by an imposed legal system, with the Klallam as submissive, naturally subjugated, and not placed within the ethno-class required to be treated as equals. He seemingly felt no moral or ethical concern building a dam unattached to the bedrock upstream of the tribe’s villages. The dam’s faulty foundation did break once in an event called “the time when there were salmon in the trees” and could burst again at any moment. As former Tribal Chairperson Frank Bennett said, “I guess they don’t care if a few Indians drown” (Winter 2008). It is clear that settler capitalists who constructed this dam and their engineers were the sole beneficiaries of this land occupation and dam construction.

Designs for (De)constructing Engineering

If engineering is concerned with designing the tools of colonial and imperial subjugation, what would an engineering which dismantled these tools look like? I would like to use the concept of radical imagination to put forth my own developing thoughts and proposals for a culture of Decolonial Engineering: a field of academic study, inter-disciplinary endeavors, and community collaboration. I believe in a complete reconstruction of the epistemology of engineering to move away from homonationalism, settler rule, and white nationalism, not a repurposing of engineering. bell hooks in her essay “feminist theory: a radical agenda” positions this agenda:

“When Audre Lorde made that much quoted yet often misunderstood cautionary statement warning us that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” she was urging us to remember that we must engage in a process of visionary thinking that transcends the ways of knowing privileged by the oppressive powerful if we are to truly make revolutionary change. She was, in the deep structure of this statement, reminding us that it is easy for women and any exploited or oppressed group to become complicit in structures of domination, using power in ways that reinforce rather than challenge or change.” (hooks 1988, p. 35-41)

Revisioning the engineering discipline from the bottom up may be one of the most powerful tools as opposed to reformation of the discipline. Using the concept of engineering as an iterative process to design and implement change to solve a given problem, often with teamwork and communication at its core, I present the following preliminary design proposals to continue the work of dismantling “the master’s engineering.”

  1. Liberatory Engineering Education – “in, but not of”
    The university although often described as flawed and oppressive is a site we can envision as “a central site for revolutionary struggle, a site where we can work to educate for critical consciousness” using “a pedagogy of liberation” (hooks 1988, p. 31). An engineering academia which crosses the political-scientific borders, the spiritual-technical boundary, and the affective-rational colonial logic division would enter the decolonial borderlands of education (Anzaldúa 2015, p. 63). This could transform the culture and identity within engineering and the souls within it. The neoliberal STEM centered university framework currently outputs capitalist tools without love, compassion, and liberatory purpose. Not all can benefit from biomedical engineering innovations nor well engineered cell phones. We can see in Flint the colonial racial engineering values which deny them of water – life – free of poison. Decolonial Engineering pedagogies can be those developed by Paulo Freire which unsettles engineering education that claims Western Euro-Anglo science is a “rational, objective” enterprise (Fieire 1970, p. 71-86). We need to educate students that the engineering discipline has mythicized one story of a permanent reality to conceal the oppressive conditions of human existence. This in turn can create critical consciousness for decolonial engineers. For example, Fick’s First Law of Diffusion must include fostering feminist reflexivity to engage engineering students to consider their place within global power relations, the settler logics which have constructed engineering, and the way that diffusion technology has been employed to further capitalist colonial conquest through the development of various weapon systems. Preparing students for career fairs should at the very least include the inseparable knowledge of historical violence that employers such as Haliburton (where my distanced brother works) and Lockheed Martin are connected to the ongoing settlement of Palestine (Davis 2016, 79-83).
  2. Research Method Interventions
    Feminist research methodologies are described as a framework which follows four themes – the role of reflexivity, action orientation, attention to affect, and use of the situation at hand (Crawley 2008). Typical engineering research works on characterizing polychlorinated biphenyls and naming their usage in semiconductors and the tragedies associated with. Feminist engineering research on PCBs would include the systems of power which necessitated their creation, the imperial weapons which capacitors and transformers utilized PCBs, and the racialized environmental injustice that has disproportionately lead to PCB poisoning tragedies within East Asia. It would cause the engineers who research and who have developed PCBs to reflexively consider their role as settler oppressors and use their research towards active change within the profession. Whose land? Integrating Indigenous and Decolonial methodologies will orient work will have colonized and oppressed communities “lead the research and organizing efforts that will impact (their) lives” (Jolivette 2015, p. 65). Tribes are “the foremost experts on protecting the natural resources in their traditional territories” and are situated to “take the leading role in the political process, which many like the Lower Elwha Klallum have chosen to do” (Wood 2008). In this dam removal the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe worked for decades to conduct surveys and collect samples to characterize the hydraulic patterns and environmental conditions (NPS 2011). The tribe currently participates in the Nisqually River Task Force, and runs a sophisticated Natural Resources Department, which manages several programs, including a Salmon Recovery Program, a Salmon Enhancement project, an Environmental Management project, and a Harvest Management Program. Centering the expansive body of indigenous knowledge is critical in a new engineering paradigm.
  3. Transforming Engineering Activism
    Women in engineering organizations such as the Society of Women Engineers are actively engaged in the solidification of the settler white-centered binary gender regime. LGBTQ+ efforts such as OSTEM (Out in STEM) and Safe Zone Training rely upon this gender system and colonial logics of categorization and pathologizing sexuality (Lowe 2015, p. 215, Phipps 2007). “Without a legitimate space for reflexive critique of the ways in which its epistemologies bleed into social and political interpretations, diversification alone is unlikely to promote cultural change” (Seron 2018). Decolonial critique and decolonization are not terms which can be used as a casual metaphor for social improvement, which has become a common framing in academia by settlers wishing to continue their settlement through emotional evasion and easement of guilt. Decolonization can be described as “the repatriation of land simultaneous to the recognition of how land and relations to land have always already been differently understood and enacted,” with sovereignty explicitly including erotic sovereignty, land-body sovereignty, sexual desire (Morgenson 2015, p. 52-53, Tuck 2012). It is the removal of unethical colonial cultural and literal rule and it does not happen on settler terms or with settler approval, but with a centering of indigenous knowledge-spiritual-practice within activism (Lowe 2015, pg. 240-241). Replacing diversity rhetoric – which serves as a neoliberal engulfment of the other into hegemony – with involvement in racial justice, environmental justice, indigenous justice, and body-sovereignty justice will orient engineering against the resettlement of colonial power arrangements (Furguson 2012, p. 51). Student and professional chapters of Engineers without Borders and self-identified humanitarian engineering programs must not ask the question “How can we help these people?” and instead ask the harder question, “Why are conditions this way?” (Bickford 2002). International aid, itself, is a form of neocolonialism which imposes new governmental structures to support the newly built infrastructure (Furguson 2012, p. 21). These efforts must instead create long term co-operative arrangements with non-natives “organiz(ing) with a mandate from the community and an understanding for the parameters of the support being sought…. a commitment should be made for long-term support” (Walia 2012).


The removal of the Elwha dam is one step towards sovereignty for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. This does not absolve the engineers who designed the tools and infrastructure of this subjugation of the hundreds of years of settler colonial violence they enacted. This history is not removed like a dam. The 70 miles of restored river habitat and the flourishing salmon occur on occupied land and bodies. Removing the dam is one small piece of an anti-colonial struggle which has existed since settlers arrived… the whisperings of engineers moving towards coalitional activism towards a decolonial future. Drawing from Routledge, “the point is not to escape our institutions or locational identities, but to subvert them, or make them work for us in political ways that attempt to effect social, environmental, and political change” (2004, pg 84). I intend to use my location to subvert engineering and do the important work of formulating analysis that pay attention to colonialism-homonormativity in the discipline (Driskill 2011, p. 19, Driskill 2016, p. 37). It is a spiritual endeavor. Within my own spirituality I believe in the concept of ahavah rabbah (that there exists an expansive universal love we can draw upon). I want the work I engage in moving forward to be continuous acts of baal teshuvah (our inherent human tendency to “miss the mark” and a commitment to constantly change towards loving-kindness). It is through doing that I will move towards an understanding of feminist and queer indigenous theory – naaseh v’nishma. I cannot see another path ahead of me. The spiritual endeavor of social justice can be liberatory to embrace within engineering activism as we deconstruct academic boundaries. Tikkun olam – the world is broken and it is our task to repair it. Subversion and accountability within engineering will grow, new tools will be created, a thousand dams will go down, and the rivers will be free.

Works Cited

Anzaldúa, G. (2015). Light in the Dark / Luz en lo Oscuro: Rewriting Identity, Spirituality, Reality, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Bickford, D., Reynolds, N. (2002). Activism and Service Learning: Reframing Volunteerism as Acts of Dissent. Pedagogy, 2(2), 229-252.

Blue, E., Levine, M. Nieusma, D. (2013). Engineering and War: Militarism, Ethics, Institutions, Alternatives. Synthesis Lectures on Engineers, Technology, and Society. Morgan & Claypool.

Cech, E. (2013). The (Mis)Framing of Social Justice: Why Ideologies of Depolitization and Meritocracy Hinder Engineers’ Ability to Think About Social Injustices. Chapter 4 in Engineering Education for Social Justice, ed. Lucena, J. Springer.

Crawley, S., Lewis, J., Mayberry, M. (2015). Feminist Pedagogies in Action: Teaching beyond Disciplines, Feminist Teacher, 19(1), 1-12.

Davis, A. (2016). Freedom is a Constant Struggle. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books.
Driskill, Q., Finley, C., Gilley, B., Morgenson, S. (2011). Queer Indigenous Studies: Critical

Interventions in Theory, Politics, and Literature. Tuscon, AZ: University of Arizona Press. Driskill, Q. (2016). Asegi Stories: Cherokee Queer and Two-Spirit Memory. Tuscon, AZ:

University of Arizona Press.

Paulo, F. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum Publishing Corporation.

Fiorenza, E. (2009). Prejudice and Christian Beginnings: Exploring the Intersections of Race, Gender, Status, and Ethnicity in Early Christian Studies. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

Gambetta, D., and Hertog, S. (2009). “Why Are ere So Many Engineers among Islamic Radi- cals?” European Journal of Sociology, 50(2), 201-230.

Guarine, J. (2013). Tribal Advocacy and the Art of Dam Removal: The Lower Elwha Klallam and the Elwha Dams. American Indian Law Journal, 2(1), 114-145.

hooks, bell. (1988). Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. Boston, MA: South End Press.

Jolivette, A. (2015). Research Justice: Methodologies for Social Change. Policy Press, University of Bristol.

Miranda, D. (2010). Extermination of the Joyas: Gendercide in Spanish California. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 16(1-2), 253-284.

Morgenson, S. (2015). spaces between us. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press National Park Service. (2011). An Interpretive History of the Elwha River Valley and the Legacy of Hydropower on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Report.

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Seron, C., Silbey, S., Cech, E., Rubineau, B. (2018). “I am Not a Feminist but…”: Hegemony of a Meritocratic Ideology and the Limits of Critique Among Women in Engineering. Work and Occupations, 0(0), 1-37.

Spade, D. (2015). Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Stover, J. (2017). There Is No Case for the Humanities. American Affairs, 1(4), 210-224. Tuck, E., Yang, K.W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor, Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1), 1-40.

Walia, H. (2012). Decolonizing Together: moving beyond a politics of solidarity toward a practice of decolonization. Briarpatch Magazine, accessed from

Wood, M., Welcker, Z. (2008). Tribes as Trustees Again (Part I): The Emerging Tribal Role in the Conservation Trust Movement. Harvard Environmental Literature Review, 32, 373-375.

Winter, B., Crain, P. (2008). Making the Case for Ecosystem Restoration by Dam Removal in the Elwha River, Washington. Northwest Science, 82(1), 13-28.


Author: Andrea Haverkamp

Andrea Haverkamp is a doctoral candidate in environmental engineering with a minor in queer studies. Her dissertation research explores the support systems and community resiliency of transgender and gender nonconforming undergraduate students in undergraduate engineering education.

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