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Indigenizing philosophy through the land then is more than a culturally distinct way of philosophizing… it is a process of decolonization in the form of a revitalization of the relational modes of Indigenous life grounded in land as the relational ground of kinship and human beings as grounded in and inextricably entwined with this relational kinship ground.

Secwepemc leader George Manuel in his 1974 book, The Fourth World: an Indian Reality, states that the history of the last “four centuries” of settler colonial expansion, and resulting struggle between the settler colonizer and Indigenous people has been between two fundamentally incommensurable “ideas of land.” One, land as a mere object that only has meaning or value in relation to people, where people are conceived of as floating free from the land. This kind of land is something that can be “speculated, bought, sold, mortgaged, claimed by one state, surrendered or counter-claimed by another.” The other idea of land is land as the relational ground of kinship. Land that is “like the water and the air,” writes Manuel, “one and indivisible.” This kind of land is “land as our Mother Earth,” Manuel says. “Animals who grow on that land” are our spiritual relatives and human beings are a part of the Earth that brings them forth, he concludes. “Lurking under this struggle for land,” Manuel also claims, is “a conflict over the nature of [human beings], in particular the idea of people as floating free from the land and the idea of people as fundamentally a part of the land” (6). Thus, there are two concepts (land and people) contained in the ideas of land that are at the heart of the history of settler colonial expansion. The incommensurable ideas of land contain incommensurable ideas of people. It is the interactively constituted notions of land and people that shape the broader incommensurable ideas of land that frame the struggle between settler colonizer and Indigenous people, according to Manuel.

The questions of land and people in the context of philosophy are not just questions of cultural difference, which means that the act of Indigenizing philosophy through the land is not simply a matter of philosophical diversity, of diversifying the philosophical canon or philosophical methodology. The conceptualizations of land as a mere object and of humans that float free from land is a question of colonial difference, which means that these conceptualizations of land and people are created in the context of the original matrix of the coloniality of power that extends with particularity into the power matrix of settler colonialism and the settler state. The coloniality of power, as coined by Anibal Quijano, is the foundation of what Immanuel Wallerstein calls the “modern world-system.” The coloniality of power “arises out of a cosmic reconfiguring of the foundational reality that exists in people (the nature of subjectivity) and the land (the nature of space and place),” as I wrote elsewhere (5). In the context of settler states like Australia, the United States, Canada and others, this cosmic reconfiguring of land and people becomes ubiquitous with the settler state and its fundamental focus on land rather than the mere extraction of resources from traditional and neocolonial modalities. In the context of settler colonialism and the settler state, the colonial invasion is,as Patrick Wolfe puts it, “a structure rather than an event” and “undergirds the historical development and complexification of settler society” (402). The cosmic reconfiguring of land and people undergirds what Wolfe calls “structural genocide” to conceptualize the ongoing nature of settler invasions as a foundational and dynamic component of contemporary settler society (403).

Indigenizing philosophy through the land then is more than a culturally distinct way of philosophizing. More importantly, it is a process of decolonization in the form of a revitalization of the relational modes of Indigenous life grounded in land as the relational ground of kinship and human beings as grounded in and inextricably intwined with this relational kinship ground. It is more than philosophical destination. It is like the actional element of Manuel’s Fourth World concept, which is the movement by which Indigenous people can “travel on our own roads” and “in their own vehicles” (207). In the present decolonial context, Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg philosopher Leanne Betasamosake Simpson describes the process of decolonial revitalization as one of “transform[ing] the colonial outside into a flourishment of the Indigenous inside,” which, like Manuel’s actional Fourth World, must be done “on our terms, without the sanction, permissions or engagement of the state, western theory” or the like. This is not a process of simply discovering ourselves but “re-establish[ing] the processes by which we live who we are within the current context we find ourselves.” Simpson claims further that “[w]e need our Elders, our languages, and our lands” rather than funding, a friendly colonial climate, and allies if we are to truly engage in this decolonial transformation. Even if this transformation does not reshape the current colonial context, “it will ground,” she claims, “our peoples in their own cultures and teachings that provide the ultimate antidote to colonialism” (17).

A decolonial philosophical framework for Indigenous revitalization, from the work of Manuel and Simpson, requires more than a direct or transparent return to Indigenous modes of being or a return to Indigenous land-based practices and teachings. The philosophical modes by which we re-establish “the processes by which we live” must do so in a way that allows us to “travel our own roads” and “in our own vehicles.” These philosophical modes must be capable of re-establishing Indigenous modes of being from “within the current context we find ourselves” and as such must have the power to “transform the colonial outside into a flourishment of the Indigenous inside.” These philosophical modes must operate through our “own cultures and teachings,” from our “Elders,” “languages,” and “lands,” but in a way that reveals the nature of the relation between “the colonial outside” and “the Indigenous inside” in such a way as to provide an “ultimate antidote to colonialism.”

This essay will attempt to articulate the particular nature of land as kinship that operates in the philosophical mode of Indigenizing philosophy through the land and show how this philosophical attitude can reveal the nature of colonial difference, or in particular the manner in which the notion of land as object is an operation of the colonial outside purposed toward obscuring the Indigenous inside. Indigenizing philosophy through the land as a philosophical methodology and attitude provides then both the capacity to re-establish Indigenous modes of being on our own terms and with our own concepts but also to frame the different ideas of land as fundamental features of the colonial difference and the operations of coloniality. The combination of this capacity to re-establish Indigenous modes of being on our own terms along with a conceptualization of the colonial difference in the operations of coloniality create a philosophical mode that can provide an “ultimate antidote to colonialism.”

Land as Ontological Ontogenesis 

Let us separate the two ideas of land that Manuel speaks of into land as objectto describe the objective notion of land where humans float free from the land and land can be bought, sold, claimed and surrendered as territory and land as kinshipto describe land as a relational ground of kinship (our Mother Earth), where land is not an object but a kinship relationality or a relational ground for kinship and humans do not float free from land but are fundamentally intertwined with this relational kinship ground. In beginning to reflect on my being intertwined with land, I might begin to see how I am materially intertwined with land or Earth.[1] I walk upon the land or Earth. I drink water that comes from the land or Earth. I breath air from the Earth’s atmosphere. All of my sustenance comes from the land or Earth in some way. I am from the land or Earth and return to it, even as told in the Judeo-Christian human creation story of Genesis 2:7, where Adam was formed from the dust of the ground and continues in Christian funeral practices in the phrase “dust to dust.” This understanding of human material intertwining with land or Earth, however, operates through the idea of land as object. Unless human beings are not subjects but, like land, mere objects, then merely being materially intertwined with land or Earth is not the kind of intertwining that would arise from an understanding of land as kinship. 

As long as the human intertwining with land is understood fundamentally through Western notions of materiality, then the land as kinship, where kinship is more than material, cannot be foundational. Either human subjectivity is more than material, or everything, including human subjectivity, is solely material. Often reductive materialism functions to eliminate concepts of kinship beyond mere causality. If kinship is real, and human kinship is more than causal or material, then land as kinship requires a more than material ground and the intertwining of humans with land is more than material. The understanding of human kinship with the land through Western frameworks of materiality will be insufficient. An understanding of human material intertwining with land does provide a starting point for interrogating not only what is missing from a mere material understanding of human intertwining with land, but what is added to a notion of material intertwining that is missing from the perspective of humans as floating free from the land, as belonging to the land in no sense whatsoever.

A place to look for a conceptualization of land that clarifies what is lacking in a perspective of land as object where humans float free from land is in Vine Deloria Jr.’s articulation of land and humans from a spatial point of view. Part of what frames the idea of land as object is a lack of consideration (or, as I will argue, a purposeful obscuring) of “the nature of the world discerned from a spatial point of view” (63). The spatial point of view sees time, history, and human beings as functions of land in locality, or specific relational kinship sites. When we abstract time, history, and humans into time apart from space and humans apart from land, we construct the planetary human and planetary history that float free from the land. The particularities of a locality can then be universalized across all land through an abstracted notion of humans and time. But the abstract movement of time and history is toward the peculiar differences of European philosophy and religion that are now divorced from European lands and places and function as universal ideals across all lands and places.

In contrast to the mistaking of “a particular local situation . . . for a truth applicable to all times and places,” the spatial point of view grounds its forms directly in the world around it. Sealed within the context of place, “revelation was seen as a continuous process of adjustment to the natural surrounding and not as a specific message valid for all times and places” (67). Sacredness is tied to the particularity of land (“a river, a mountain, a plateau, valley, or other natural feature”) that enables people to “relate all historical events within the confines of this particular land, and to accept responsibility for it” (67). These particular localities “are permanent fixtures in [Native] cultural or religious understanding” because the sacredness exists in the locality itself rather than as places, as in “Holy Lands,” that are “appreciated primarily for their historical significance,” in other words, important because of what beings, human or otherwise, did upon the essentially blank and meaningless canvas of land.

The Liberatory Power of Philosophy from the Land

Settler colonialism, because of its ultimate desire to acquire and maintain possession of Indigenous land, operates through “structural genocide” or “the logic of elimination,” in Wolfe’s words (388, 403). The structural genocide and logic of elimination of settler colonialism function on the broadest level to obscure the particularity of land and so hide the Indigenous relationships to particular lands. In the United States as well as in settler contexts around the world, rivers, creeks, lakes, gorges, mountains, hills, valleys, mesa, plateaus, and basins are re-named after the devil (Devil’s Tower, Devil’s Lake, El Diablo Peak, Devil’s Creek, and on and on). Devil’s Lake, for example, takes the Indigenous Dakota name, Mni Wakan(sacred water) and simply replaces “sacred” with “devilry,” which is an operation of both the denial of the particularity of land and the mistaken applicability of a truth that arises out of a particular local situation, within the particularity of other lands far away, to all times and places.

The double function of the logic of elimination in the re-naming ofMni Wakanas Devil’s Lake reveals the double function of operations of coloniality more generally. The obscuring of the particularity of land in the attempted colonial domination of Indigenous space is also the obscuring of the particularity of European land that generates the false universal from the particulars of European time and history that are then understood to float free of the land and so exist outside of or across all lands. The particularities of European lands are both maintained as particularities but also universalized through what Enrique Dussel calls the “Eurocentric Tautology,” by which all the particularities of Europe are viewed as universals while maintaining their European particularity. For example, Sepúlveda claims that Indigenous people are civilized and free from domination only in so far as they are found to worship god within the idiosyncratic particulars of European Christianity. Hegel claims that the American continent is essentially new because of its distance from European land. Locke defines the American continent as “perfectly in a State of Nature” (14) not because Indigenous people did not farm the land, which is absurd given that much of modern agricultural products and practices are developed through Indigenous agricultural science and technology, but because Indigenous peoples did not farm “properly,” which was idiosyncratically and tautologically defined by the particularities of the current European practices over and against an obscuring of the particularity of this land that allows the particularities of those practices to be falsely injected into Indigenous lands. As John Winthrop argues against Indian land title in the 1630s, “they inclose noe Land, neither have any setled habytation, nor any tame cattle to improue the Land by,” by which he proclaims they have no property rights (141).  

Winthrop’s argument indicates another layer of the operations of coloniality, which is that the obscuring of the particularity of land also becomes the ideal by which Indigenous people’s philosophy and practices are considered proper. For Sepúlveda, Hegel, Locke, and Winthrop, the particularities of Indigenous land are not only obscured in order to inject the false universal of the particularities of European land, but the practice of obscuring the particularities of land through false universals becomes that against which Indigenous philosophies and practices are judged. In the particular context of Locke and Winthrop, Indigenous land-use practices are indicative of a state of nature and do not count as property rights because they do not enclose, settle, and improve the land in the proper way, where what is proper is to have the dominating and exclusionary sense of land and humans in relationship to land that is indicative of the idea of land expressed as land as object

The attempted obscuring of the particularities of land that ground these layers of the operations of coloniality is never complete. It is always obscuring but never erasing. As Wolfe claims, the settler colonial “invasion” should be “recognized as a structure rather than an event,” but as a structure this invasion is rooted as well as maintained by obscuring the particularities of land (402). This requires false consciousness on a mass scale, a structural form of bad faith that becomes functionally synonymous with the settler state. In this context there is a settler form of what Charles Mills calls an “inverted epistemology, an epistemology of ignorance” because “the requirements of ‘objective’ cognition” is “more demanding in that officially sanctioned reality is divergent from actual reality.” This epistemology of ignorance is “a particular pattern of localized and global cognitive dysfunctions” that “preclude self-transparency and genuine understanding.” Through the denial of the particularities of land and the constructing of this denial as the principle of truth, settler reality is lived “in an invented delusional world” (18). The particular epistemic practices that serve to conceal the bad faith of this denial are built upon the epistemic practices that give rise to this world in the first place as well as the operations of coloniality within it.

In contrast, epistemic practices from a spatial point of view do not see humans and human knowledge as floating free from the land, and human relationships to land are not seen through conceptions of land that floats free from itself as an object. Knowledge, meaning, history, and culture come to be and continue to exist within the particularity of land and land-based relationships to mountains, rivers, valleys, forests, animals, and so on. These relationships do not laminate onto prior states of being apart from the land but rather are created within the always-already-being-in-motion relational ground of kinship that exists within the particularity of land and the human intertwining with this land. Land as the relational ground of kinship has a being that can only be obscured through notions of land as objectLand as kinshiphas a being that does not float free from itself. To create the invented delusional world of being apart from the land, as based in a view of land that floats free from itself as an object and humans that are then able to exist apart from this now obscured relational ground of BEING and kinship, this most fundamental ground of being and kinship must be obscured so as to be denied. 

The being of land as kinshipis too much. It always remains on the margins and in the midst of the attempted obscuring. In this way, land as kinshipalways resists becoming an object. It not only outstrips the attempted obscuring of it as the relational ground of kinship as a matter of fact; it does so as a matter of its being and even of being itself that arises from the land as the relational ground of being and kinship. The obscuring of the particularities of land in the attempted construction of land as object always leaves a remainder, but a remainder that in the nature of its being is always trying to reveal itself.


[1]I use land as a more localized version of Earth. In the land as object framework, land is a more localized object where Earth is the planet as an object. In the context of land as kinship, land is a more localized kinship where Earth is a the more expansive kinship framework.

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