Designing Indian Country

Suppose Native America is not over, that there is no “after colonialism.” How do we create public spaces that enable true contact between cultures?

Cahokia Mounds and St. Louis skyline
Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch, in St. Louis, which celebrates the westward expansion of the United States; as seen from Cahokia Mounds, site of the largest pre-Columbian city north of Mexico. [Brandon Shea]

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.

Landscape architecture has always had a complicated relationship with the indigenous. Native plants are all the rage, but native humans are bracketed out.

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 Network, The Center for Art and Thought, and challenge the placement of ethnic artists and designers “outside” mainstream culture. Indigeneity studies examines 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.

Big Mound memorial, St. Louis, Missouri

Big Mound memorial, St. Louis, Missouri
A memorial for Big Mound, the last major Indian mound in St. Louis. [Rod Barnett]

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.

Simply existing as an indigenous person is a political act.

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. 9

Dakota Access Pipeline protest
Dakota Access Pipeline protest at Sacred Stone Camp, Cannon Ball, North Dakota. [Joe Brusky]

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.

Landscapes organize the creation and dissemination of national myths, which are naturalized over time.

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.

Cahokia Mounds view
Interpretive marker at Cahokia Mounds. [Flickr/Commons]

Sign reads 'Prairie in Progress' at Cahokia Mounds
Prairie restoration at Cahokia Mounds. [Daniel X. O’Neil]

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.

This landscape is not so much a reconstruction as a displacement. Indian experience is placed into a past constructed to receive it.

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.

East St. Louis skyline, as seen from Monk’s Mound, Cahokia Mounds, Illinois
East St. Louis, as seen from Monk’s Mound. [Eric Allix Rogers]

Landscape as Encounter

Where do we encounter Native America today? And how do we see it for what it is? Even if we were to find a sizable population of Indians living near the mounds, we might still find their knowledge system to be inaccessible to outsiders or complicated by assimilation into mainstream culture. Lately, anthropology has been invigorated by the notion that cultures are not produced locally, at the site of interaction where fieldworkers make their observations, but rather remotely, through the activities of dispersed ethnic groups at multiple, discontinuous locations. 13

So let’s rephrase the question: Where can we find the material productions of a distributed cultural system called (by its own, as by others) Indian? Historians and archaeologists point to geophysical sites like Cahokia, the Ohio Serpent Mound, and Moundsville in Alabama. Art historians create textual sites such as American Indian Art and First American Art (“for art lovers and supporters of Native American arts and cultures”). But listen to James Clifford:

The 20th century discourses of modern aesthetics and cultural anthropology assume a primitive world in need of preservation, redemption, and representation. The concrete, inventive existence of tribal cultures is suppressed in the process of either constituting authentic “traditional” worlds or appreciating their products in the timeless category of “art.” 14

If Clifford is right, and I think he is, cultural encounter with Native America occurs not in the skewed spatiality of historical or aesthetic representation, but in a contact zone that is ongoing, interactive, and actually constitutive of contemporary indigeneity.

Designers are always working in that contact zone. The question is how we can make the encounter richer and more productive.

Designers are always working in that contact zone. The question is how we can make the encounter richer and more productive. It sounds hard, because many non-Native Americans accept Clifford’s two categories — it’s over, or it’s art. But suppose Native America is not over, that there is no liberation, no “after colonialism.” 15 Suppose it is possible to design public spaces within which there can be true contact. Doesn’t that sound like a perfect project for landscape architecture, whose practitioners famously work with systems that never achieve finality, that are always surging on? Indeed, as ecosystems are most robust when they are far from equilibrium, perhaps we should make our home amidst the agonistic sociality of the contact zone.

We have to be careful, however, that we don’t conflate the indigenous and the ecological, or subsume Indian identity under an eco-nationalist dedication to sustainable design. The emerging field of Traditional Ecological Knowledge can help navigate this difficult territory. Focusing on language development, patterns of resource use and management, and the primacy of oral tradition, TEK researchers relate indigenous epistemologies to pre-contact ecosystem immersion, on one hand, and post-contact resource management, on the other. But the role of TEK in cultural landscape representation must be handled conscientiously. The projection of the “ecological Indian” can obscure the struggle for self-representation that is necessary for the creation of open and unmediated public space.

Jefferson National Expansion Memorial redesign by MVVA
MVVA’s redesign of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, St. Louis, under construction. [MVVA]

Ten miles west of the Cahokia Mounds, on the edge of the Great Plains, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis is undergoing a $380 million renewal that will update the vision of the original designers: architect Eero Saarinen and landscape architect Dan Kiley. The firm leading the redesign, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, is charged with reconnecting St. Louis to the Mississippi River, catalyzing emerging neighborhoods in the waterfront district, developing new uses of the Arch Grounds that cater to residents and tourists, and reaffirming the memorial function of Kiley’s landscape, which celebrates the westward expansion of American society.

We should look closely at the stories we tell about that contact zone. Here’s one version: Prior to the founding of St. Louis by the French fur trader Pierre Laclede Ligueist, in 1764, various Indian tribes were settled along the south bank of the Missouri River. The Missouria, Osage, Ioway, and Otoe tribes were all part of a larger cultural group, the Oneata, which was contemporaneous with the Mississippian culture at Cahokia. The Missouria (“people of the river’s mouth”), 16 hunted and roamed lands on both sides of the Missouri, from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to the river’s confluence with the Mississippi. This vast area is regarded by ecologists as a transition zone where eastern forests merged with western prairies, and the rivers and their tributaries formed a mosaic of bottomland forest, wet prairies, and marshland. 17 The Missouria planted corn in the fertile river flats in spring and hunted in “extensive meadows full of buffaloes” in summer. 18 When French fur traders entered this territory and began building settlements such as Ste. Genevieve, the Missouria were eager to enter into reciprocal relations. 19 In one year alone, the Osage and Missouria fur trade produced eighty packs of tanned deer skins, one pack of beaver pelts, and two packs of bear skins. But their encounter with Europeans ended in disaster. Small pox, influenza, and cholera reduced their population from around 10,000 in the early 1700s to fewer than 400 by 1804. The last full-blooded Missourian Indian is said to have died on the Otoe Reservation in Oklahoma in 1907. 20

Dan Kiley, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, Arch Grounds
Dan Kiley’s original landscape for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. [Andrew Langdal]

So that is one version of local Indian history. Curatorial authorities at the National Park Service could summon Michael Van Valkenburgh and ask how his firm’s redesign of the Arch Grounds engages with that narrative. It’s a fair question, since landscape architecture is devoted to the public expression of cultural systems. And yet it is problematic. The bison are all fenced in, and the last Missourian has been dead for over a century. More useful, more acute, more complicated is the question of how MVVA’s design engages with current Indian identity and cultural practices.

A more useful question is how the design engages with current Indian identity and cultural practices.

The fur-trade story is inflected by a strain of ethnographic history in which outsiders (for example, western academics) argue that insiders (for example, American Indians) are complicit in constructing a narrative of western expansion that authenticates some elements and dismisses others. This strategy enables the outsiders to promote a clear and truthful rendering based on “objective research” or “empirical evidence.” The primary political struggle of Native Americans — for sovereignty — is passed over. The effect is an erasure of current Indian practices of resistance, and of the continuities between societies that interpret and respond to ongoing colonial and imperial projections.

Thus, landscape architects are commissioned to design public spaces that celebrate western expansion but not the decimations that accompanied it. In 1947, Kiley sought to create “a national marker that places St. Louis at the core of the nation’s Manifest Destiny narrative,” 21 but it’s fair to say he missed “the mark when it comes to interpreting the historical processes of western expansion as a whole.” 22 MVVA’s redesign purports to do more, by “connecting” the new landscape to Cahokia Mounds, “the most significant archaeological resource within 12 miles drive.” 23 The nature of this connection is not specified, but it must not be visual, as you can only see Cahokia from the Arch Grounds if you are at the top of the Arch itself. Could it be symbolic? St. Louis is built on the site of over 40 native mounds (of which only one remains). Until 1869, there was a prominent landmark known as Big Mound, 30 feet high and 150 feet long, located one mile north of the Arch Grounds at what is now the corner of Broadway and Mound Street. Perhaps some of the grading operations employed in the MVVA redesign are an echo of this topographical feature. Perhaps not.

Rendering of the new Arch Grounds at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, by MVVA.
A rendering of the new Arch Grounds at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. [MVVA]

Cahokia Mounds
A mound at Cahokia. [Rod Barnett]

Across the Mississippi River, the redesign includes a new East Wetland Preserve, which uses storm-water from East St. Louis to create 60 acres of marshland, or “new wildlife habitat,” while a system of elevated trails allows visitors “to appreciate the boundless horizon of the American Midwest.” MVVA calls the memorial a “pilot project for a new kind of urban National Park, one that is oriented, physically and culturally, toward the life of the city, and one that pioneers new kinds of sustainable urban ecologies.” 24 How this is novel, I’m not sure. A generous observer could argue that the design references a time prior to European settlement in order “to create a unique sense of place not tailored for consumption or entertainment,” 25 but then we might ask whether the rendering shows people not consuming and not being entertained.

The design evokes a Native Americanness that has been established by historians, rather than a living culture that defines itself through its actual landscape relations.

Using a landscape language of wilderness, allée, and grove — partially inherited from the modernist Kiley — MVVA proposes a public-friendly landscape memorial nicely complicit with a narrative of westward expansion that excludes the Native American experience, contributing to the view that it’s “over.” Let’s be clear about this. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 gave President Andrew Jackson authority to “negotiate” the resettlement of southern tribes. Six years later, the Missourian Indians signed a treaty stating that the tribes understood “the lands in question” — their homeland, although not recognized as such — “can never be made available for Indian purposes; and that an attempt to place an Indian population on them must inevitably lead to collisions with the citizens of the United States”; they therefore assented to the government’s view that Indian title to the land should be “entirely extinguished.” Like this treaty, the memorial effectively removes Indians from public space and relocates them in another geography — this time underground in the museum as cultural objects on display. 26 Interestingly, MVVA refers to “an incomplete genius loci” that must be finished on the banks of the Mississippi. 27 Given that the project’s Ten Goals make no mention of 1,500 years of Missourian Native American occupation, it is perhaps disingenuous to ask if the designers themselves intend to complete it (as if that were possible).

The problem here, as with other politicized landscapes, is that the promised “connection” is actually a disconnect. References to the Cahokia Mounds evoke a Native Americanness that has been established by historians, archaeologists, and ecologists, rather than a living culture that defines itself through its actual landscape relations. Just how the symbolic frisson between Indians and ecosystems spreads out through connective academic tissue is exemplified by the stir ethnologist Shepard Krech caused when he published The Ecological Indian in 1999, arguing that Paleoamerican cultures were not as ecological as some Indian and some environmentalist cultures like to think. He suggested that the fit between actual Indian behavior and the image of the pre-contact Indian living in harmony with the land (based on evidence from the sciences) is at best “unclear.” The life-size dioramas at the Cahokia Mounds Museum, which show Indians gathering foods selectively from managed ecosystems, may or may not reflect a reality. That museum visitors seem not to care highlights the role of rhetoric in landscape curation. The simulacrum is all. The reality of marginalized communities is obscured rather than clarified by landscape representations in museum (Cahokia) and public space design (the Arch Grounds), because their marginalization is institutionalized and naturalized.

 Cahokia Mounds Interpretive Center
Diorama at the Cahokia Mounds Interpretive Center. [Daniel X. O’Neil]

The Builders, Gateway Arch
Relief sculpture at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. [Melinda Stuart]

Deterritorialization and Projection

Under the terms of the Platte Purchase, completed 180 years ago, the Missouria agreed to “cede, relinquish and quit claim to the United States all [their] right title and interest … to the lands lying between the State of Missouri and the Missouri river,” and to be removed “to the place selected for them.” The six counties they vacated in the northwest corner of the state “rapidly filled with white settlers,” as parks historian Michael Dickey puts it, “and the wild game was quickly depleted.” 28 The Missouria went on their last buffalo hunt in the fall of 1874. Decimated by alcohol, subsisting on what they could forage, on government rations, on the slaughter of settlers’ cattle, taking potshots at boats passing on the Missouri River, “led away by their own lusts and by wicked white men,” 29 they were assigned to a small reservation along the Big Blue River on the border of Kansas and Nebraska. The land was fertile and well-timbered, and hankered after by settlers. The Indians were divided over whether to sell it and get further away from the Americans who “just [kept] coming like ants,” as an Osage headman described the white migration. A government-sponsored sale ended with the Missouria leaving for a new reservation along Red Rock Creek in Indian Territory. Here the children were sent to boarding schools and punished for speaking and acting “Indian.” 30

Are the Missouria now modern? Were they ever anything but modern? How do we expect colonized peoples to find and assert sovereignty?

In the 1890s, the government divided this reservation into allotments and sold the remainder, and by 1922, the Missouria owned less than 10 percent of the reservation land. Many of the tribe’s men and women served in the two world wars, and then in Korea and Vietnam. The Red Rock Cemetery, with its improbable number of veteran tombstones, is perhaps the single most poignant landscape memorial in the United States to the 1,500-year-old Missourian culture. In 1990, the American Indian Cultural Center opened at Van Meter State Park, on a bend of the Missouri River where the oldest Missouria village was sited. A sovereign Indian nation, the Otoe-Missouria tribe now has about 2,200 enrolled members.

The descendants of the Otoe-Missouria, who self-identify as a tribe and a sovereign nation, face, according to Dickey, “the same challenges and opportunities that most Americans do.” They invest in business enterprises and “contribute to contemporary American society.” 31 Are the Missouria now modern? Were they ever anything but modern? Were they — and this is key — ever “traditional”? When they dress in traditional clothes and play traditional drums at ceremonies “reawakening their cultural heritage” (or, as Krech might have it, inventing their tradition), are they not creating cultural practices — complicated but embedded in the historical present — that mix the logical and the ontological? How do we expect colonized peoples to find and assert sovereignty? If, as Darren Ranco, claims, sovereignty “is the primary political struggle of Native Americans in the contemporary era,” does the making of landscapes that reference and evoke tradition, by Indians and non-Indians alike, blot out current identity practices? 32 Is it possible for such practices to be validated through intrinsic social and cultural norms that are not invented by the colonizing powers? Can such transformative identity practices actually exist, given that there is never an “after colonization”? This is the classic colonial dilemma: to frame Indian identity struggles within the civic norms that landscape architecture serves is to contribute to the ongoing usurpation of Native American sovereignty. Not doing so achieves the same end.

Borrow pit, Cahokia Mounds
Borrow pit where soil was removed to create the Cahokia Mounds. [Eric Allix Rogers]

Where does this leave the thoughtful landscape architect who wishes to acknowledge thousands of years of occupation of historical ground? 33 Brian Davis offers a relevant thesis. He places the modern practice of landscape architecture within the “long, sophisticated tradition of landscape-making in the Americas,” thus establishing continuity and dissolving the boundaries between us and them, then and now. (Note, however, the distinction between modern and traditional remains.) American landscape, he continues, should be understood as a “cultural artifact” that results — and is always resulting — from a “syncretic process.” Mashing Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis with literary theorist Mary Louise Pratt’s concept of a contact zone, Davis argues that seeing American landscapes as “frontiers-as-contact-zones” causes a radical shift in the way such artifacts can be thought and, presumably, made. This frame enables the public, agonistic, contingent dynamics of landscape construction to move to the foreground. In this space, reminiscent of Chantal Mouffe’s public realm marked by eternal conflict, processes that are characteristic of American landscape formation can, Davis asserts, continue to occur: transculturation, genesis, discontinuity, conflict. 34

Where does this leave the thoughtful landscape architect who wishes to acknowledge thousands of years of occupation of historical ground?

Now we come to the difficult part. The heart of Davis’s project of revaluation, by which we might seek a way out of our dilemma, is transculturation. This is the process “whereby members of subordinated or marginalized groups select and invent from materials transmitted by a dominant or metropolitan culture.” 35 Transculturation, according to Davis, leads to the construction of “entirely new practices, forms and landscape types.” Today, a slow-growing number of landscape architecture firms identify as Native American. McCormack LA “specializes in the sensitive design of cultural, interpretive, recreational, and resort facilities.” Their work at the Hibulb Cultural Center in Marysville, Washington, is an example. John Paul Jones, of Cherokee-Choctaw descent, is a founding partner of the firm Jones and Jones, which recently completed the National Museum of the American Indian, on the Washington Mall. Can these professional firms, working in a social field determined largely by commercial and political forces beyond their control, do anything but “select and invent” from the materials made available to them by the dominant culture? Do we get new practices, forms, and types?

No, what we get is a capable blend of current planting practices in association with functional structures sometimes based on 19th century Indian material design culture. Where is the agonism? It may occur in informal and vernacular landscape construction — and it does — but here we are looking at the professional practice of landscape architecture. Can professional work ever produce Pratt’s contact zones, “where peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish relations, usually involving coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict?” 36 Davis thinks it can. His main example is the Parque General San Martín, a 19th century municipal park in Mendoza, Argentina, where a French botanic garden conceit reformulated as a public tree nursery celebrates the “great undertaking” of the cultivation of an urban oasis in the desert. Here, a frontier landscape gave rise to novelty through transculturation. Novel, yes. But hardly a subversion of power dynamics, or an establishment of intractable conflict relations. More a passive blending (with a little modest clashing, perhaps). So, where to from here?

Parque General San Martín, Mendoza, Argentina
Parque General San Martín, Mendoza, Argentina. [Micah MacAllen]

Art and design, according to Tania Willard (quoted earlier as saying that indigenous art is political because indigenous people make it), is not itself a form of decolonization. It can be an instigator of social justice, “but it needs to be part of a community” if it is to be “decolonizing.” 37 In landscape architecture, 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. But, as Willard argues, indigenous artists and designers don’t have to be transcultural in this way. There is no obligation to engage in political struggle, especially (but not only) when politics is merely an ongoing invitation to renegotiate public space in the favor of the colonized.

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.

At the same time, we have to acknowledge that Natives and non-Natives live in a continual contact zone. Pratt’s concept basically describes the whole colonized world. Colonization is an unfolding spatiality as well as an historical event. It’s an ongoing, interactive encounter that people cannot opt out of, as Willard implies, or willfully construct their way through, as Davis implies. A global population of 220 to 350 million indigenous people 38 watch as their aesthetic, cultural, and spiritual forms are commodified by others. Largely lacking the financial and geopolitical capacity to evolve these forms themselves, critically or contextually, through the creation of contestable public space, they see their design cultures appropriated, legislated, and mandated to ensure that “all citizens, native, migrant, nomad, refugee, relate to civil society in the same way.” 39

Landscape architects are then, in everything they do, contributing to the political landscapes that all things dwell within. Their project should be to curate a public realm in which Donna Haraway’s “heterogeneous collective memory” replaces the monocular one. 40 This calls for the creation of seemingly disparate spaces (such as casinos, scratch corners, and ethnobotanic gardens) as responses to the challenge of articulating Native identities to mostly non-Native publics, at the same time as empowering the free use of those spaces by all. Avoiding the problem of authorial “American” self-curation is not easy, but there is a better chance when public space design is a collaborative endeavor involving Native strategies of curation that are absurdly, uncompromisingly, nakedly un-American.

  1. In June, the Landscape Architecture Foundation convened the “Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future,” at the University of Pennsylvania, to discuss drafting a New Landscape Declaration that makes the earth “our most important client.”
  2. World Health Organization, “Indigenous Populations.”
  3. Rod Barnett and Jacqueline Margetts, “Cross-cultural Place: Maori Influence in the Public Landscapes of Ted Smyth,”’ in Ed. Julia Gatley, Cultural Crossroads: proceedings of the 26th International SAHANZ conference, University of Auckland, New Zealand, July 2009; and Rod Barnett, “The Landscape of Simulation: Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve,” Kerb: Journal of Landscape Architecture (1999).
  4. People often imagine this as the crossing of a boundary, but the spatial metaphor introduces more problems that it resolves.
  5. Miya Tokumitsu, “The Politics of the Curation Craze,” The New Republic, August 24, 2015.
  6. Michel Foucault, “Truth and Power” (1977 interview), in Ed. Colin Gordon, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977 (Brighton: Harvester, 1980).
  7. See M. Elen Deming and Simon Swaffield, Landscape Architectural Research: Inquiry, Strategy, Design (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2011), 20.
  8. Tania Willard, interviewed by Jarrett Martineau, a Cree/Dene from Frog Lake First Nation, Alberta. See Martineau, “An interview with Tania Willard on Beat Nation, Indigenous curation and changing the world through art,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society 3(1).
  9. Geographer Frank Ginn argues that space is territorialized in a way that present indigenous cosmologies as imports from outside of civil society. See Ginn, “Extension, Subversion, Containment: Eco-Nationalism and (Post) Colonial Nature in Aotearoa New Zealand,” in Transactions of British Geographers 33(3): 335-353.
  10. William R. Iseminger, “Culture and Environment in the American Bottom,” in Ed. Andrew Hurley, Common Fields: An Environmental History of St Louis (St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 1997), 38-57.
  11. Chelsea Cole, “Landscape as a Palimpsest: Finding the Missing Traces,” unpublished research essay, Washington University in St. Louis, 2015.
  12. Walter Schroeder, “The Environmental Setting of the St. Louis Region,” in Hurley, op. cit., 26-27.
  13. George E. Marcus, “The Uses of Complicity in the Changing Mise-en-scène of Anthropological Fieldwork,” in Ed. Claire Dohert, Situation: Documents of Contemporary Art (London: MIT Press, 2009), 79-84.
  14. James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth Century Ethnography, Literature and Art (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988).
  15. Stephen Turner, “Sovereignty, or the Art of Being Native,” in Cultural Critique 51:74-100.
  16. Alternatively, Missouria is sometimes translated as “the peoples of the dugout canoes.”
  17. Among the species present to the Missourians in the 18th century were cottonwoods, elms, hackberries, sycamores, silver maples, pecans, woodpeckers, trumpeter swans, sandhill cranes, ruffed grouse, passenger pigeons, bald eagles Carolina parakeets, prairie chickens, bobwhite quail, beavers, otters, minks, muskrats, turtles, frogs, mussels, fish, bulrushes, horsetail, cattails, water lilies, bluestem prairie grass, turkeys, black bear, deer, elk, mountain lions, gray wolves, and bobcats. See Hurley, op cit.
  18. This is how the lands between the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers are described on Map of the British and French Dominions in North America, 1755, by John Mitchell of London.
  19. I am indebted to Michael Dickey’s research for much of what follows. See Dickey, The People of the River’s Mouth: In Search of the Missouria Indians (Columbia, MO: The University of Missouri Press, 2011).
  20. Some members of the Otoe-Missouria community in Red Rock, Oklahoma, continue to identify their lineage as Missouria.
  21. Alisa Blatter, “City I Arch I River: MVVA’s Redesign of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Grounds in St. Louis,” unpublished research essay, Washington University in St. Louis, 2015.
  22. Linda Zambito, “Landscape Infrastructure and the ‘New Urban National Park,’” unpublished research essay, Washington University in St. Louis, 2015.
  23. CityArchRiver Report to the Community, 2015. [Video]
  24. Project description on the MVVA website.
  25. Zambito, op. cit.
  26. At the time of writing, the contents of the museum have been removed to the Old Courthouse where they will be displayed until the new museum opens.
  27. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, “Framing a Modern Masterpiece,” 2010.
  28. Dickey, 129.
  29. Reverend William H. Goode, the Methodist missionary, quoted in Dickey, 131.
  30. Dickey, 135.
  31. Dickey, 139.
  32. Darren J. Ranco, “The Ecological Indian and the Politics of Representation,” in Eds. Michael E. Harkin and David Rich Lewis, Native Americans and the Environment: Perspectives on the Ecological Indian (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2007), 34.
  33. John Dixon Hunt’s recent book Historical Ground examines “the role of history in the making of, and response to, contemporary landscape architecture,” but it uses no Native American examples and Indian histories do not appear in the index in any way. See Hunt, Historical Ground: The Role of History in Contemporary Landscape Architecture (London and New York: Routledge, 2014).
  34. Brian Davis, “Wider Horizons of the American Landscape,” Landscape Journal 34(1):79-96.
  35. Italics mine; Mary Louise Pratt, “Arts of the Contact Zone,” Profession 91: 33-40.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Willard, op. cit.
  38. John H. Bodley, Victims of Progress, 5th Ed. (Plymouth, England: AltaMira Press, 2008).
  39. Ginn, op. cit.
  40. Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 387.
Rod Barnett, “Designing Indian Country,” Places Journal, October 2016. Accessed 01 Jun 2023.

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