Designing Indian Country

A recent article in the Places Journal by Rod Barnett (Chair of the Graduate Program in Landscape Architecture at Washington University in St. Louis) begins with the premise that Native America is not over, that there is no “after colonialism.” With that in mind, how do we create public spaces that enable true contact between cultures? To address this question, he considers the methods of landscape as curation, narrative, and encounter, as well as the implications of deterritorialization. He notes the absence of references to indigeneity in the field of landscape architecture and turns instead to theories developed in art history, cultural studies, anthropology, and geography to examine what might seem on the surface to be a common sense tenent of the discipline: "The creation of public space where ‘you are free to be who you are’ necessarily involves those who would be free as part of the process."

You can read an excerpt of the article below or the full piece here.

Let us start by rejecting the false opposition of settler and native, migrant and inhabitant, bad species and good. Landscape architecture has always had a complicated relationship with the indigenous. Its practitioners work on the front lines of environmental change, often in situations where the meaning of place is contested. They are relativists by training and temperament. Yet in practice they tend to prioritize site and existing conditions, even as they acknowledge that everything is in motion: geologies, ecologies, hydrologies, ethnicities. In the American Midwest, where I live, a curious sort of place-fetishism has taken hold. Native plants are all the rage, but native humans are bracketed out. Landscape architecture reflects (and refracts) a larger culture in which most “nationals” wish to distinguish themselves from the migrant and the indigene — wish themselves, that is, to displace both.

Indigeneity is scarcely mentioned in the field’s seminal texts nor discussed in its conference halls and online forums. So we must turn to theories developed elsewhere, in art history, cultural studies, anthropology, and geography. Projects like the Native Studies Research NetworkThe Center for Art and Thought, and challenge the placement of ethnic artists and designers “outside” mainstream culture. Indigeneity studiesexamines how the world is continually shaped, socially and environmentally, through the process of western encounter with other ethnicities, even as the realities of those ethnicities are not internalized. That encounter shapes every facet of modern life, from hip hop to global trade. As landscape architects strive to “effect real world change” in a century defined by planetary disruption and mass migration, can there be any investigation more relevant than this? 1

But who, or what, is indigenous? The World Health Organization defines indigenous communities as those who “live within, or are attached to, geographically distinct traditional habitats or ancestral territories, and who identify themselves as being part of a distinct cultural group, descended from groups present in the area before modern states were created and current borders defined.” 2 Although necessarily small in population, these groups maintain identities and institutions that are separate from the dominant culture. The United States, of course, is a multicultural nation, settled and unsettled by immigrants, where values and identities are expressed through landscape and blended over time, as Little Italys hybridize with Germantowns and Puerto Rican barrios. My project investigates how indigenous communities are represented (or not) in this process of contemporary American landscape-making. It is difficult work, partly because I am not Native American — I am of Maori descent and have written on this topic in the New Zealand context 3 — and moreover because cultures operate within knowledge systems that are distinct but interactive, which makes it hard to know when you’ve crossed from one system to the next. 4 Cultures often attempt to speak for one another, and so we must be sensitive to questions of representation, appropriation, and self-determination. We must attend, in other words, to curation.

Landscape as Curation

A curatorial framework enables us to see indigenous modes of knowledge as presented, and to ask how indigeneity is affected by institutional practices of writing about, speaking about, and designing landscapes. Art historian Miya Tokumitsu observes that we have all become curators: “Blogs are curated. So are holiday gift guides. So are cliques, play lists, and restaurant menus.” We can say the same of urban parks and plazas. Curation involves “the projection of a certain kind of authenticity — one that is publicly visible and determined by consumption.” We assert an “aura of control” over our subjects, even when we are “just picking stuff.” 5 Setting aside the provocative question of whether designing a public space involves more than picking stuff, it is invariably an act of control. To acknowledge landscape and urban design as a curatorial performance is to underline the roles of the curator and the curated. Power and knowledge differentials are negotiated (but never resolved) through the act of placemaking, a misleading and inadequate practice.

Today it is widely accepted that cultures construct knowledge differently and should be respected for their knowledge systems, or epistemologies, even when those systems diverge. Some writers insist that scientific knowledge-claims stand outside culture, and as such have a unique claim to universality, while others argue that science is merely another social construction. Here’s Foucault:

Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power. Each society has its regime of truth, its “general politics” of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true. 6

Likewise, some landscape architects work within a scientific framework, while others practice alternate ways of knowing. They are ostensibly governed by bodies such as the International Federation of Landscape Architects, which articulates and defends professional activities like “landscape assessment,” “site analysis and planning,” and “protected-areas management.” 7 While such categories can be useful, they delimit the possibilities landscape architects imagine for themselves. Intersectional discourses of race and ethnicity, sexuality, and materialism have challenged these self-conceptions and opened up more radical modes of practice.

If indigenous perspectives are considered at all, they are typically viewed through the prism of climate change politics. The fight to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline, for example, is embedded in larger narratives of political protest. (Even that is a culturally disputed term, as many opposing the pipeline have cast themselves as “protectors, not protestors.”) But there is a more basic politics at work here. Secepemc Nation artist Tania Willard argues that simply existing as an indigenous person is a political act. She debunks the idea that Natives are obliged to confront the dominant culture: “Indigenous art should not have a ‘responsibility’ to engage in political struggle. It should have an opportunity or invitation or availability, but not an obligation.” It is hard enough, she says, “negotiating spaces and places where you can be free to be who you are.” 8 That returns us to the fundamental question of who controls public space. The curators charged with marking and managing terrain must recognize their role in the spatial construction and dissemination of knowledge and power. 

Landscape as Narrative

It often seems that cultural threads are unraveling everywhere we turn. Migration, the rise of relativism, and the spread of atomistic communication technologies have loosened the weave of North American society. Unsurprisingly, we cling to a desire for strong stories. We may be suspicious of narration — with its singular point of view, its ideology masked as realism — but we have not given up on narrative. We deploy designers to defend the concept of collective memory, to stage history as an agreed-upon sequence of marvelous events. Museums, organized and validated by Euro-American historians and archaeologists, fit indigenous lives into narratives that are external to their historical concerns. Most of us know this about museums, and yet we attend their presentations.

What is less understood is how we treat landscape as an infinite canvas for narrating cultural histories. Landscapes organize the creation and dissemination of national myths, which are naturalized over time. A useful parallel is the realist novel, which purports to present its story truthfully and objectively, as if the events exist independently of their telling. The narration naturalizes the plot. Similarly, what was once a highly stylized landscape genre, the 18th century English garden, slid into a kind of landscape realism over time as it became perceived as a natural condition. In the United States, landscapes naturalize the stories we tell about the political relationships between Native Americans and the lands they once occupied.

Consider the example of Cahokia Mounds, Illinois, the largest and most complex archaeological site north of Mexico, and the center of the Mississippian culture that developed around 700 AD, shortly after the glacial retreat. 10 Amid marshy river flats with nutrient-rich soil that was good for cropping, below forested bluffs that supported hunting, the Cahokian people established a sophisticated network of settlements and left behind a complex of 120 dirt mounds. 11 A third of those mounds were destroyed by floods, farmers, and railroads; the rest are under curatorial protection as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, National Historic Landmark, and State Historic Site, administered by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and supported by a private museum society. 12 In other words, a spatial medium for motivated storytellers.

A visit to the site puts you in a pastoral landscape of mature oaks, liquidambars, and mown fescue. The grass is criss-crossed by footpaths; some concrete, many worn by tourists wandering through the mounds. Interpretive signs call out significant features. Inside the museum, archaeologists have reconstructed the Cahokian settlements in remarkable detail. Outside, all that carefully curated knowledge surrenders to a panoramic view from the 100-foot summit of Monk’s Mound. Here you look out over the American Bottom, the Mississippi flood plain where deposits of wind-borne loess and alluvial soils provided pre-Columbian Indians with ideal conditions for developing cropping techniques. On the horizon you see the pylons and stacks of industrial East St. Louis, the sun glistening on aluminum roofs that stretch for miles. This landscape has been sifted and sorted as much as the expensive exhibit within the museum, but it is not so much a reconstruction as a displacement, an ecosystem gradually elided by the picturesque. Indian experience is placed into a past constructed to receive it.

What seems significant here is the narrative that binds an anthropological category called the Cahokian to a national bedtime story masquerading as a place. The interesting dead Indians have receded into the past, while the “uninteresting” living Indians, deracinated and unecological, persist in a cultural vacuum where they are unable to reinvent themselves because they are perceived as both “cut off” from their cultural roots and “outside” the mainstream. The dominant culture has naturalized this situation as inevitable, through the landscapes it creates and defends.

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