“How might foregrounding the coloniality of land-based relations prepare us to imagine land differently?”

great river road sign

In reciprocity, we fill our spirits as well as our bellies

Land is in the news these days, and along with claims to it, an unimaginable level of violence. So, this seems to be as good a time as any for us to engage (or reaffirm our already-existing engagement) in a study of land—why it means what it means; how our relationship to modernity’s project shapes that meaning; what it means to claim a relationship to land; and the kinds of moral landscapes that emerge out of such claims. As we study, we might ask ourselves—How might foregrounding the coloniality of land-based relations prepare us to imagine land differently? To ask this another way, if we were to un-forget that how land signifies for much (though not all) of the globe is in order to facilitate colonialism’s economic projects, then what possibilities open up for reorganizing how we think about the land, and our relationships to it?

The value of Frantz Fanon’s diagnosis of colonialism as a totalizing system is that it positions us to see ourselves—subjects constituted by colonialism’s interlocking systems—in a kind of unnaturalizing light. That is to say, we’re able to see how we are in the world (as subjects, as selves) as politically constituted—naturalized and given over to feel metaphysically intractable. (By “metaphysically intractable,” here, I mean to convey the sense in which we experience these world-constituting forces and ways of being as the only way things can be, much like how we experience, say, the laws of gravity.) Likewise, under colonialism and its contemporary legacy, the logics of relationality that we operationalize—how I understand myself to be in relation with myself, with other subjects, and with what we refer to as “land”—is also given over as though metaphysically intractable. In Fanon’s speech before the First Congress of Negro Writers and Artists in Paris in 1956, he reminded his audience that the “racist in a culture of racism is…normal.” This served then and serves now as a reminder that, lying behind what we encounter as metaphysically closed (the only way things can be), or as normalized (the only way things ought to be) are cultural and political decisions that create these architectures of signification. Hence, lying behind what feels unmovably normal in a colonially-constituted culture is the (quite shiftable) political nature of colonialism’s constituting forces. And so, though these forces shape just about every aspect of our lives (including, perhaps, our critical capacities to imagine something otherwise), there is nothing metaphysically intractable about a colonial organization of the world. To the contrary (and as is the case with hegemonies in general), colonialism and the orders of relationality it grooms are naturalized phenomena (naturalized in the sense that what is “of nature” or natural is often the source of norming forces). The point is to normalize its orders, make the subject-formations and modes of signification they require feel normal. But this can all be un-normed—rendered un-natural—when subjected to radical, decolonial critique.

It is in this spirit of radical, decolonial critique that we should turn to Indigenous scholars whose work reminds us that colonial conceptions of land—and relations to/with land—did not always feel normal (in the sense of the Fanonian critique cited above). Their work reminds us that other formulations and ways of ordering the world were (and perhaps still are) available to us. (And what a timely reminder that is, given that so much about our world-ordering mechanisms seems to be against our collective thriving and/or best interests.) Indeed, as Lakota historian and co-founder of Red NationNick Estes shows, finding a future elsewhere is often a work of memory, of unforgetting what came before, of seeing that “history is the future.” This is the kind of memory work that Nishnaabeg writer and scholar, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson uses, inspired by the concept of grounded normativity that Glen Coulthard (Yellowknives Dene) develops in his 2014 work, Red Skin, White Masks. In what follows, Simpson and Coulthard will be among a constellation of Indigenous thinkers I highlight, whose work gestures toward alternative ways of thinking about land, our relationship with land, and ultimately toward a reminder of forgotten possibilities for a future without the norming work of coloniality.

In her account of grounded normativity, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson writes that “The land, Aki, is both context and process” (151). In other words, “land” in this particular Indigenous context is ground and grounding as it facilitates a fluidity of relation-based knowledge and ethical responsibility. Simpson tells us that within the grounded normativity of Nishnaabeg world-making, theory (what, she says “in its simplest form is an explanation of a phenomenon”) is both contextual and relational (151). As relational, grounded normativity is both rooted in land as it works through dynamic and expansive networks. What this means, according to Simpson, is that the individual within Nishnaabeg ethical systems understands herself to be reciprocally constituted—her self-conception includes how she is implicated within the network of the life-worlds of her community. And then by extension, that “how” is ultimately an ethical “how,” a networked being in the world that is about responsible doing in the world (a doing that unfolds through obligation). As Indigenous scholars like Glen Coulthard and Mishuana Goeman have shown, it is precisely around this central relation of ethical responsibility that Indigenous claims to land sovereignty are oriented. It is for this reason that Indigenous understandings of sovereignty are regularly mis-recognized/mis-translated when it moves into a settler colonial context. The Indigenous sovereignty claim is a demand for the right to be in responsible landed relation, while the settler colonial sovereign claim points to a right of territorial possession and domination. As Mohawk activist and scholar, Patricia Monture-Angus says, “Sovereignty, when defined as my right to be responsible, requires a relationship with territory (and not a relationship based on control of that territory). What must be understood then is that Aboriginal request to have our sovereignty respected is really a request to be responsible. I do not know of anywhere else in history where a group of people have had to fight so hard just to be responsible” (36, cited in Native Studies Keywords).

Equally important in this relational framework of grounded normativity is a responsibility for “self-actualization.” That is to say, I am responsible for developing myself as fully as possible, into the kind of self/subject/“I” who is able to enact grounded normativity. Offered here is a conception of ethical relationality to land, and to other communities (human and otherwise-than-human) on the land that is not a zero-sum game, but rather a relational framework in which self-actualization (full living, thriving) is conceptualized as shared and reciprocal. As Leanne Simpson and Glen Coulthard clarify in their co-authored statement from the 2015 annual meeting of the American Studies Association, “Grounded normativity teaches us how to live our lives in relation to other people and nonhuman life forms in a profoundly nonauthoritarian, nondominating, nonexploitive manner.” As non-dominating and non-exploitative, the relationality is reciprocal—no one party must die/be consumed/dominated/suppressed so that the other might live. My self-actualization does not require me to deny some other life-form their own self-actualization. To the contrary, self-actualization counts as such only when it emerges in a reciprocal, shared context.

Here, we might be reminded of Potawatomi botanist and author, Robin Wall Kimmerer’s moving essay on the Three Sisters (a chapter in her 2013 book, Braiding Sweetgrass). In this account of the Indigenous science of growing corn, bean and squash (the “three sisters”), Kimmerer writes, “The way of the Three Sisters reminds me of one of the basic teachings of our people. The most important thing each of us can know is our unique gift and how to use it in the world. Individuality is cherished and nurtured, because, in order for the whole to flourish, each of us has to be strong in who we are and carry our gifts with conviction…. In reciprocity, we fill our spirits as well as our bellies” (134). Like Simpson’s trace of grounded normativity in Nishnaabeg world-making, the relationally-constituted “I” (or self), Kimmerer’s account of Potawatomi world-making is about developing fully actualized selves who can then engage in a maximally responsible way with the other lifeforms/life-worlds of the relational network. The signature of that “maximally responsible way” is reciprocity—each of the Three Sisters is fully actualized only when all three of them are.

Under such accounts, we see how a relationship to land can be something other than proprietorial, possessive, and consumptive. We also see a formulation of selfhood/subject-formation that is able to relate to land in ways that are other than dominating and exploitative. Particularly in Simpson’s use of grounded normativity, we see how the land can function as ground and moral infrastructure for a way of living in the world without that ground being a first premise for statically atavistic and exclusionary narratives of who belongs (and who doesn’t) on the land. All of this to say—When we expand beyond the limits of colonialism’s imaginary and moral frameworks, such that the terms of the debate are no longer parametered by what those frameworks render as possible/not possible, what “land” is able to mean—and the lifeways that a relation to land can support—can be radically re-envisioned. In Rita Dhamoon’s words (words that cite Coulthard), “Decolonization for Coulthard is about considering ‘land as a system of reciprocal relations and obligations’ not as a struggle for land,” which would be akin to a struggle for territory for the sake of exclusion (24). In other words, centering the meaning of land and landedness in the reciprocal relationality of grounded normativity gives us a system not of exclusionary, “zero sum game” violence, but rather a system of expansive and fluid networks of ethical responsibility.

Philosopher, Brian Burkhart (Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma) also positions us to imagine something other than the equating of land-based world-making with atavistic world-making (world-closing). In his 2019 work on Indigenous conceptions of locality, we’re able to see that this equation—between claims to a landed way of being and an exclusionary relation to land—is one that already concedes (at the level of imaginative possibility) too much to coloniality. According to Burkhart’s analysis, when we acknowledge the land upon which our theories emerge, we avoid the “delocality” that removes philosophical systems of ethical obligation and value out of the contexts that render those systems meaningful in the first place. Building from Lakota scholar and activist, Vine Deloria Jr, Burkhart shows that land in Indigenous contexts is not static, but is rather the dynamic and composite field of conditions for the possibility of emergent knowledges. Again, this is a conception of land as ever-expanding networked relationships, as opposed to land in the Euro-Western sense of territory statically enclosed by nation-state borders. Burkhart’s analysis makes clear that, because the life-relations of which land consists are never static, the meaning-making that emerges in that relational moving locality is also dynamic, “does not happen in disembodied, delocalized” transcendence, and is always (like the land itself) “active and dynamic” (xxiii). In that dynamism, relation-making takes precedence over commitments that foreclose relationships, commitments that often include intractable demarcations of who belongs and who doesn’t.

In a similar vein, Pacific Indigenous scholarship gives us frames to think about land in an archipelagic sense—an “other than mainland” Indigenous architecture that grounds a relation to land that is already in terms of travel (movement across the sea between/among lands). In this Indigenous archipelagic sensibility, landedness is as much about rooting as it is about routing (“uprooting and reseeding”), as Vicente M. Diaz tells us. Under this reframing, instead of land signifying as a stable, absolute space, Diaz’s “island thinking” frames land as fluid (such that its dynamism reflects the fluidity of the connective sea itself). This Indigenous conception of land informs Glen Coulthard’s conversation with Harsha Walia in a 2015 interview when he says, “One thing that I have come to learn is that when Indigenous folks speak of their relationship to land we don’t usually do so in an exclusionary sense…. Land is a relationship based on the obligations we have to other people and the other-than-human relations that constitute the land itself.” Out of these relations of obligation (what Coulthard names a grounded normativity) the land itself conditions moving negotiations among life-worlds, and is as expansive as those grounded relations call for.

From Vincent Diaz’s more “island” way of relating to land, we’re invited to consider the sea as connector among landedness (instead of a sequestering of landedness). And to be quite frank, when we un-footnote the centrality of the Atlantic in the making of modernity, this re-framing also asks us to think differently about Europe—perhaps there is more connectivity between Europe and its “Other” than Europe self-constitution is ready to contend with. But in any event, this conception of land ultimately positions us to consider a way of being in the world (as subject, or self, or “I”) in terms of both grounded roots and moving routes. We get a normative architecture that is grounded (connected to land and place) as it encompasses dynamic networked relations of reciprocity and responsibility. Grounded but never static, land-based but always emergent.

To conclude…

And so, to return to the question posed at the beginning—How might foregrounding the coloniality of land-based relations prepare us to imagine land differently? From the above brief sketch, what opens up, perhaps most immediately, are alternative conceptions of what it means to be in the world. In other words, in foregrounding the orders of coloniality (so as to denaturalize them), we’re able to create some critical distance from our colonially-constituted ways of being in the world, so as to imagine different possibilities for who (and how) we want to be. The relation to land called for in a colonial architecture—one that positions land as a resource to be mined and exploited rather than ground of ethical relationships between/among communities of livingness—requires subjects for whom that relation makes sense, feels right, in a kind of “how else could things possibly be.” Indigenous thinkers like Leanna Betasamosake Simpson, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Glen Coulthard, and Brian Burkhart give us ways to think about precisely this “else”—an elsewhere and otherwise. To read their work is to have opened up alternative and decolonial ways of thinking about world-making, subject-formation, and community relations. To read their work is to find guideposts for how to think differently about land.

As we un-forget coloniality’s grooming of our imaginative capacities, so as to (possibly) reconstitute a future-oriented memory of what was coloniality’s “before,” we might ask ourselves: Why allow settler colonialism to have the last word on how all of this ought to be constituted? Why allow settler colonial conceptions—where rooting can’t also be routing; where landed relations can’t also ground norms of dynamic/emergent sharing; where self can’t be conceived without some enemy Other—to domesticate our imaginations? As always and perhaps now more than ever, it is good to remember coloniality for what it is: overdetermining of the theoretical tools at our disposal but not the only toolkit available. The knowledge-systems of Indigenous peoples across the globe build from a different kind of toolkit, one that is decolonial and richly endowed with a memory of a different future. This is why land returned to the sovereign caretaking of Indigenous peoples is perhaps our best hope for moving beyond the colonialism’s legacy. A move that will be the gift of a better future for all of us.

*Title of post comes from Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass

The Women in Philosophy series publishes posts on those excluded in the history of philosophy on the basis of gender injustice, issues of gender injustice in the field of philosophy, and issues of gender injustice in the wider world that philosophy can be useful in addressing. If you are interested in writing for the series, please contact the Series Editor Alida Liberman or the Associate Editor Elisabeth Paquette.