A skeptic — apparently, and I have to say I’m skeptical about this — is someone who suspends judgment in order to continue their inquiry. 1 My inquiry centers on the question: How are colonial landscapes to be redesigned? I’m suspending judgment about the answer to this question, so I guess I’m a skeptic. But I can’t be a skeptic forever, otherwise I will have no basis for action. It’s hard to act on irresolution, as we are finding out on a global scale. So I’ll suspend judgment for the duration of writing this essay, and then try to come up with a resolution.
My skepticism begins with a problem about knowledges; specifically, scientific knowledge and traditional ecological knowledge. It’s my sense that landscape architecture does not need science in order to generate landscapes in nation-states founded within the colonial project. Science is part of the colonial project. But since colonized landscapes are my subject, I want to know how Indigenous epistemologies can reprogram a design discipline whose knowledge base was forged in the modern, scientific era. While I’m suspending judgment on the validity of this question, I do want to practice landscape architecture — even if I’m still skeptical about the foundations of that practice in knowledge of the natural world. And skeptical about what I’m trying to do: avoid the master’s tools.
As part of the colonial project, vast landscapes were re-ordered to fragment, disorient, and ultimately destroy the social ecologies of Indigenous peoples.
The colonial project is the ongoing strategic occupation and exploitation of Indigenous lands for the purposes of the colonizers. 2 Africa, Australia, the Americas, Southeast Asia, and New Zealand are the Indigenous lands to which I refer. As part of the imperial project, these continents and countries were respatialized. 3 Entire landscapes were re-ordered to fragment, disorient, and ultimately destroy the social ecologies of the peoples who inhabited them. Now the question is unignorable: How, in the umbra of decolonization, should these landscapes be redesigned? How can environmental designers participate in the struggle of peoples who have lived through a brazen confiscation of their precolonial spatialities in order to reimagine the way they live together, within the vast re-ordering of planet earth that is the Anthropocene? And is this not itself, after all, the hugest of all hyperobjects? The most ambitious and most thorough colonization of the globe by a hegemonic mentalité to date? Demanding nothing less than the co-option of all peoples to a planetary master narrative that is by its very nature out of control?
I’m hardly the only landscape architect currently mobilizing concepts from theories and practices of decolonization (or decol). 4 But since I’ve recently relocated to my homeland Aotearoa New Zealand, in this essay I’m using Aotearoa as my example. Therefore Māori, the Indigenous people of Aotearoa, are central to my inquiry. As a hybrid — part Anglo, part Māori — my use of personal pronouns such as I, we, they, their, etc., is unreliable at best. My experience as a “Pākehā with a whakapapa” has meant that I slip in and out of speech acts, and my western academic preferences for abstract nouns and distancing phraseology undermines what I’m trying to say. 5 Speaking as a full-time member of the colonizing settler society and a part-time member of a Māori community, I find I have issues.
On March 20, 2017, the Whanganui River officially became a person.
On March 20, 2017, the Whanganui, the third longest river in New Zealand, officially became a person. The Whanganui River Claims Settlement Bill was reported globally for its innovative act of conferring legal personhood — legal rights and responsibilities — on a natural watercourse. 6 The bill enabled the many Māori tribes that live along the river to re-establish the principle of reciprocity that had for centuries before European settlement governed relationships throughout the archipelago. The reciprocal nature of all interactions with other peoples and other beings is fundamental to the Māori worldview.
In the Māori language, the principle of reciprocity is known as utu. A handy translation is tit for tat. But the meaning is profoundly interpersonal. As New Zealand anthropologist Anne Salmond writes: “Utu … drives the exchanges between individuals and groups and all other life forms, past and present, working towards (an always fragile) equilibrium.” 7 Utu is the foundation for the valuation of lives; it accords all beings the same ontological status; it is open-ended. No wonder scientists like to translate contemporary ideas about ecological equilibrium into the network of concepts that utu courses through, including ideas about resilience and partnership.
Utu, the Māori principle of reciprocity, accords all beings the same ontological status. It is profoundly interpersonal.
To be sure, the principle of reciprocity has been around in Eurocultures for some time. We find it, for instance, in the old and new testaments of the Bible and in much western philosophy. 8 It resonates in concepts such as Mauss’s theory of the gift; in the concept of affect developed by Spinoza and popularized by Deleuze; in Kant’s categorical imperative; and in the influential actor-network theory espoused by Bruno Latour and his colleagues. The idea of reciprocity features prominently in a genealogy of discourses that has profoundly informed the study of non-European societies and the rise of anthropology as an academic discipline. Indeed, by the late 20th century, anthropology had become tainted as a “handmaiden of empire” for treating non-western peoples as “objects” of study. 9 But now, like so much else that has fallen, it is resurgent. Note that in order to resurge, it had to become decentered; again like so much else. Perhaps this is how you do it.
There is a particular thread in these discourses that I want to acknowledge, though, because it weaves through early 20th-century studies of premodern cosmologies that are not primarily anthropological but metaphysical. I discovered it in the 1970s and it made my blood rush. The fascinating wife and husband team Jettie and Hans Frankfort were archaeologists in the mid-20th century, working in Egypt, Iran, and Iraq. Their celebrated text, The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, published in 1946, advanced a theory of ancient Near East societies in which the phenomenal world was animate — a “thou,” not an “it.” The “thou,” whether an animal or a river, is a fellow-creature which, as the Frankforts argue, a person can understand in ways that are direct, emotional, and “inarticulate.” It is not intellectual understanding; it is more spiritual. To what the Frankforts call ancient man, “thou” is a live presence, 10 ontologically equivalent to “I” (yes, it’s deeply subject-object).
For landscape architects, there is an aspect of reciprocity that is, as it were, shovel-ready: the concept of ecological equilibrium.
For Māori, the bestowing of personhood on the Whanganui River of New Zealand is, then, a re-enactment of a relationship they already had with the waterway. In this case it required two centuries of physical and legal struggle by the Whanganui tribes against colonial control of the river, culminating in their cri de coeur “I am the river, and the river is me.” 11 For landscape architects, there is an aspect of this reciprocal relationship that is, as it were, shovel-ready: the concept of ecological equilibrium. LAs know that equilibrium is not the default position of ecosystems; that these interactive webs of mineral and biotic conditions actually flourish best when they are far-from-equilibrium. Instability is the key to life. 12 This insight is critical because human ecologies are similarly energized by instability and contingency; this is a fact that architects and urban designers fail to recognize when they call for a social realm characterized by harmony and balance. Colonizer and colonized can never achieve such an equilibrious condition. At best, an agonistic relationship, ambivalent and provisional, can be negotiated. 13 Just as the Whanganui River inundates, withdraws, muddies up, and continually adjusts its course, those who live on its banks do much the same.
The idea of personhood is a necessary component of the idea of reciprocity. It illuminates the still radical but rapidly normalizing claim that humans and nonhuman environments live in a condition of substantial reciprocity. Among recent western philosophies, it is only the actor-network theory folk who, by calling all beings “actants” rather than “actors,” denote their ontological equivalence. All actants, including inanimate ones, are on the same footing, constructed through networks and alliances. The important difference between a bird and a brain surgeon, for actor-network theory, is not what they are but what they do — and who they do it with. To achieve this degree of social and ecological equity requires a community that shares common purposes. The Frankforts’ formulation places utu within a shared set of expectations based on a networked group who are always in dialogue with each other, and with the world of more-than-human beings, and with the ancestors.
The Whanganui River is a live ancestor of the Whanganui tribes. For Māori, whakapapa, or genealogy, defines an origin point but not a future termination. That is one way that utu is without bounds. All beings are embedded in landscapes that are constantly interacting with each other and highly susceptible to transformation, changing and evolving according to information continually being received from an environment that includes itself. Such a material being can never achieve any final condition. It is nonfinito, as I like to say, borrowing a term from the visual arts which refers to an unfinished sculpture. 14 Extending the nonfinito to all of art, Robert Morris in 1969 wrote: “The notion that a work is an irreversible process ending in a static icon-like object no longer has much relevance.” 15 It is my sense that the open-ended, propulsive nature of utu can operate only within a field in which there is no closure, no end to the negotiations between actants, in which feedback is critical, and in which there is a constant disequilibrium that provides the framework for a dynamic system of spatial justice.
Utu can operate only within a field in which there is a constant disequilibrium that provides the framework for a dynamic system of spatial justice.
While the concept of utu includes kind deeds as well as revenge, its core is perhaps the evolutionary momentum that compels a wrongdoing to be redeemed or redressed within an order in which redemption ultimately is not possible. Here is anthropologist Stephen Turner, getting to the heart of it: “With respect to Indigenous peoples there is no liberation, no ‘after colonialism.’” 16 The operation of environmental reciprocity requires all entities to be ontologically equivalent, to have personhood. Like you, no doubt, I harbor some skepticism about this requirement. In leading me to the possibility that personhood is the basis of reciprocity, however, my skeptical inquiry has convinced me that reciprocity is the basis of sustainable resource planning, management, and — of course — design. What I need to figure out now is how this might help me to develop an approach to the respatialization of settler-colonial landscapes.
Wherever we are in the world, Indigenous peoples experience social realms in which it is impossible to achieve the self-determination and relative autonomy that non-natives take for granted. Not only in the western and northern hemispheres, but in the east and south too, the social fields in which we operate are determined largely by commercial and political forces beyond the control of Indigenes. 17 And these fields include the landscapes with which we have co-evolved. Still, we are actors, or actants; and within the meshwork of political forces that in many places is becoming ever more loosely tangled, opportunities for action are emerging. Decolonial theorist Walter D. Mignolo locates Indigenous “thinking and understanding” in “the interstices of the entanglement” that happen at borders; in parentheses. But if it feels true that thinking can occur in parentheses, I’m less sure about action. 18 Inhabiting the borderland while trying to develop new epistemologies can, let’s face it, become hermetic and parochial. 19 But I am skeptical of this: it may be that my charge of hermeticism and parochialism is itself a gesture of continuing coloniality. It may be my Pākehā shame talking.
It’s probably undecidable. After all, to be in parentheses is to be both outside and inside the text, to be bracketed off as not quite acceptable in the main discussion, or transgressive, as Derrida would have it, a “parasite of context.” 20 I’m parasitizing myself, then. The textual metaphor whispers that spatial issues are social issues. Biopolitical issues are territorial issues. And all these issues are about what has come to be called “civic space,” a rule-bound realm where humans exercise their freedom of association, of expression, of assembly. Traditionally, nonhumans are not part of this formulation. But neither are Indigenes. To be Māori in Aotearoa is to exist in parenthesis. If we further define civic space as physical public space, which is where much of the action and inaction relating to Indigeneity occurs, we can begin to imagine how reciprocity can transform the creation of shared landscapes in 21st-century societies.
It is in these physical public spaces that Indigenous peoples are leading the way with the redescription of relationships between humans and natural resources. In India, as in Aotearoa New Zealand, rivers are public space. After the Whanganui law, the Ganges and the Yamuna were granted “all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a living person.” 21 Recently, in the United States, several towns and communities have granted rights to rivers and other natural systems. Ecuador, Bolivia, and Colombia have undertaken similar conversions of the subject-object tyranny of the world. In declaring the rights of the Atrato River, the Colombian court stated:
It is the human populations that are interdependent of the natural world — and not the opposite — and they must assume the consequences of their actions and omissions with nature. It is a question of understanding this new sociopolitical reality with the aim of achieving a respectful transformation with the natural world and its environment, as has happened before with civil and political rights. 22
Once this respectful transformation has occurred, a relationship of reciprocity ensues. When this happens between humans and more-than-human entities, a new “sociopolitical reality,” as the Colombian decision calls it, is upon us. Public space is reframed, and the distinction between natural systems and social systems is removed. For how could we distinguish between these conditions when all actants’ rights are at stake? Where does a natural system end and a non-natural system begin? Would the Mississippi River be a person in this new sociopolitical accord? Or only when it flows through a national park? Through state parks? Would the principle of reciprocity operate only in so-called natural areas, never in cities? Surely, since we are all urban now, it makes sense for utu to be an urban idea. What if Canfield Drive were a living entity in which humans and nonhumans had equal rights of personhood?
What if Canfield Drive, in Ferguson, Missouri, were a living entity in which humans and nonhumans had equal rights of personhood?
Canfield Drive is the specific street in Ferguson, Missouri, where a specific eighteen-year-old, Michael Brown, was gunned down by a specific 28-year-old police officer, Darren Wilson. When I think of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, and all the bloody murders that have followed, I begin to understand the diverse ways in which public space is biopolitical space. Space where persons — bodies — interact and with which they co-evolve; space where identity is developed. Where, for instance, to be Black is to be considered bad. Personhood is developed through an intervolvement with the social and ecological environment in which persons are immersed. 23 In order to exercise the right to self-determination, it is necessary that the physical public realm be a shared condition — a space constructed collectively. But to call it “space” is to inhibit and delimit the condition, for it is not only spatially but also materially and socially productive, compulsive, and interactive. It affects bodies and bodies affect it. It is a kind of landschaft, a working landscape in which humans are engaged individually and socially in the development of their own empowerment. Thus comes the call for spaces that articulate native identities, as seen in initiatives ranging from Maya Lin’s recent collaborations with the Columbia River tribes of the American Northwest to the publication of Kia Whakanuia Te Whenua, To Celebrate the Land, produced by New Zealand’s Landscape Foundation. 24
Can we envision a world where uncolonial peoples are living in and with political ecologies that are the result of co-evolution, unpredictable, self-organizing, always open, never finished?
If the world in which Indigenes live is largely dominated by inimical political forces beyond their control, how should we approach the construction of sites where collective and personal empowerment may occur? In their struggle to gain environmental autonomy, Indigenes cannot be represented by others (such as I am doing now). Let’s instead envision a world where uncolonial peoples — Borinqueño, Oglala, Yupiit, Samoan, Mayan, for instance — are living in and with political ecologies that are the result of co-evolution, networked sites of power, self-organizing to a certain extent, unpredictable, always open, never finished. Economies, if you like, of tradition and custom, ritual and order, as well as of radical perturbability. These ecologies and economies are vulnerable to disruption, but also resilient and adaptive. In a word, reciprocal. Then how, as designers, do we establish the conditions in which an ever provisional and contingent public realm (speaking spatially now) can evolve to become — and here we bring in the challenge of difference — heterogenous, a political ecology of relatively autonomous traditions of co-construction, of human and nonhuman intervolvement, an expanded field of empowerment? What you could call a site of power for all.
How to establish the conditions? It’s the question Pierre Bélanger and his collaborators ask in their essay from 2020, “No Design on Stolen Land,” and answer with their concept of “unbuilding,” an “unmasking and unmaking of settler urbanism” through an operation of “de-presentation” that includes decoupage, démontage, and décollage. 25 The authors do not explain these terms in their fiery text, but de-presentation sounds right. It describes the rewriting of the settler-colonial code, a breaking of the old laws. Then some kind of communitarian space is necessary, where the individual’s responsibility to the community is enacted (rather than vice versa).
Many Indigenous societies already have collectively created terrains, incredibly diminished though they may be. Many are re-making them.
Many Indigenous societies already have collectively created terrains, incredibly diminished though they may be. Many are re-making them. I’m thinking of Puerto Rico where communidad especiales are developing eco-agricultural farms based on shared ecological wealth in the form of soils and crops outside commercial structures of control. I’m thinking of the people of Tonga, Solomon Islands, and Samoa, who have established extremely low-key eco-tourist ventures within their tiny tribal-based coastal villages (pre-Covid, sadly), and the Indigenous Gardens Network of southern Oregon, where “first foods” are cultivated by and for the Siletz and Grande Ronde Indians. The struggle to establish these smallish collective autonomous zones has already shown that they can’t stand alone. They must be articulated through a shared, large-scale geography with which they interact, a national network of self-determined Indigenous political ecologies. After all, they are redesigning the settler geography. It’s hard. Why would Indigenous people get involved in this political struggle if the politics is merely an ongoing invitation to renegotiate public space in favor of the colonizer? For Māori this is definitely not the goal. No, Indigenes will bring themselves to power through the process of making terrain Indigenous.
About a thousand years ago, humans moved to Aotearoa and evolved new assemblages, discovering along the way the advantages and disadvantages of being insular, of being bounded. Tribes and sub-tribes became associated with particular places, specific geographical locations and attendant conditions which they rigorously defended. The sub-tribes are extended families, independent and autonomous, yet also interdependent. 26 A system of material and social exchange developed across mountains and rivers, through forests and along coastlines. The family groups, known as hapū, developed intimate relationships with the organisms around them, and with their reciprocities. The system has continued to flourish, especially as Māori have become urban. Relationality remains the basis of Māori existence, with the world and with each other. To be Māori is to be a property of a pan-tribal complex system.
In precolonial Aotearoa, there were songs, sayings, objects and rituals of observance and seasonality; lives lived within a gradient field of useful productivity based on natural resources.
In precolonial Aotearoa there were songs, sayings, made objects and rituals of observance and seasonality; lives lived within a gradient field of more or less useful productivity based on natural resources, yielding rope, garden equipment, mats, netting, clothing, building materials, cooking utensils, water-carriers, birds, eels, fish, berries, crops, barks, tinctures, ornaments, ointments, delicacies, tradeable goods. The blending of these actants occurred vertically, horizontally, diagonally and whichever way, across landscapes and through biotic and abiotic zones, in and out of plant communities from subtropical forest to tussock grasslands, through thermal areas and vast cave networks and over rivers and harbors, across estuaries and mudflats with their succulent benthic species, their bivalves, crabs, sharks, whitebait, gulls, and terns. Still does. If there is a basic condition of landedness, this is it. The interweaving terrains of towns and villages, of gardens, sacred sites, hunting grounds — these imbricated features resemble those I learned about while trying to understand Creek Indian societies in Alabama when I lived and worked in the landscapes of that state. Like Māori, Creeks hunted and gardened and traded with other tribal groups in landscapes that provided so much more than “resources.”
Mahinga kai is the name Māori give to these landscapes that provide physical and spiritual sustenance. The root of mahinga kai is mahi. Mahi means to make, to do, to perform the practice of production. Most of all it means to work. 27 It folds into its meanings the basic role of human labor in the production of exchangeable goods and services for nonhumans and humans. It is the root system of the social ecology of Māori, of the tentacular web of tasks still carried out in cities (singing, gathering, planting, cooking, grieving, sewing, gutting, drying, carving, weaving), of the knowledge and custom that comprise what the anarchist-philosopher Peter Kropotkin called “mutual aid.” 28 The point of land-based reciprocity is not material increase; it is simple osmosis. Exchange. It’s developed in the company of others who are not others, dependent to a certain extent on non-others, as they are on other non-others. Persons. Interactions between plants, soil microbes, invertebrates, mollusks, fishes, and seabirds determined the diversity and productivity of harbor-based plant and animal communities in pre-contact Aotearoa. Hapū trenched, ditched, leveled, terraced, inundated, channeled and otherwise rearranged soils and water for agricultural production. They hunted and fished in the harbors and the rivers that fed them, whose cycles and rhythms enriched the landscapes on which they depended for life.
In his novel Tides of Kawhia, set in pre-contact Aotearoa, Tom O’Connor describes a Māori banquet: “A dozen waka [canoes] full of calabashes containing thousands of potted duck, pigeon, weka, pukeko and kaka, each lavishly decorated with feathers of the birds within, were drawn up on the beach ready to be launched.” 29 Imagine the mahi which produced that feast on the shore of Kāwhia Harbor. How deeply embedded it is in the harbor system with its towns and villages; with its customs based on the exercise of environmental guardianship, on concepts of tapu (sacred) and mana (honor) and utu, all connected within a social ecology that enabled self-determination through intimacy with natural systems. This was the autopoietic structure that was in place when Europeans arrived and their goods and values started flowing into the Māori geographies, expanding and in the process warping them.
The settlers enacted a takeover of the Māori production regime, a wholesale conversion of biodiverse landscapes into an economic resource. Based on money.
Starting in the mid-19th century, the first European settlers built their homes among established Māori dwellings. Māori believed they could co-exist with the Pākehā (literally: strangers) as they had done with other tribes for hundreds of years. But soon their means of production were replaced by new tools, new crops, new animals and technologies that called for different relationships with the familiar landscapes. The introduction of new technologies — from firearms to horses, from counting and census-taking to trading exchanges and currency — created massive shifts in Indigenous spatial networks. 30 The landscapes themselves were changed. The Māori resource base slid away. And even as Māori perceived mutual advantage in sharing and trading resources with the foreigners, the Pākehā were shaped by an altogether different mentality. They enacted a takeover of the Māori production regime, the national mahinga kai, by a wholesale conversion of the country’s biodiverse landscapes into an economic resource. Based on money. The Europeans who settled New Zealand were driven by a political economy that had developed over thousands of years of competition for prestige, status, morality, religion, labor, exchange value. The contact zone into which both parties were thrust by colonization was bound to be agonistic, but the Europeans with their subject-object world view and their property-based system of environmental management (the so-called primary industries) swept away all they encountered.
The Anglo-European conversion of Indigenous social ecologies devastated Aotearoa. Māori spatial networks were displaced by the settler and military invasion of communities. And as physically destructive as the military wars were, they were ultimately not as annihilating as was the absorption of what geographer Adam J. Barker calls the “intensely corporeal geographies” of Māori into the abstract structures of colonial nation-building. 31 Spaces of interaction and reciprocity were transformed into capitalist territory represented by the maps and plans pouring out of the Lands and Survey Office that was set up in 1852 to design towns and “rural allotments” (i.e. everything else) for the incoming settlers. Ancient spatial relations survived — in tatters — only by accommodation and commodification.
Indigenous value systems are altered not only because the colonizers break them deliberately but merely because they are there.
The appropriations went both ways, of course, and sometimes the victor was captured by the victims; but Indigenous value systems are altered not only because the colonizers break them deliberately but merely because they are there. Late-19th-century photographs of Māori settlements reveal that the arrangement of community space was already informed by Pākeha presence. To the Europeans, whose comments on Māori settlements have survived (e.g., “haphazard,” “random” 32), what was at work was a reciprocal system they simply could not comprehend. In 1901, a watercolor was presented to the New Zealand Government Surveyor-General Stephenson Percy Smith on the occasion of his retirement. 33 In the first scene, the surveyor, a “true pioneer,” is camped in the forest; in the second, road-making is labelled “the first attack”; and the third, labeled “Victory,” depicts the landscape thoroughly transformed from its original state. 34
Many environmental historians discern a strategic intentionality. 35 The goal of settler colonialism in the Americas, the Pacific, Africa, and Southeast Asia, they argue, was to detach native peoples from their spatial networks and place-based relationships specifically to establish colonial spatialities. As a hallmark of successful imperialism, this is, indeed, our/our problem. 36 But if a common trope at the turn of the 19th century was that Māori were “a dying race,” it was precisely from this Jim Crow-style relegation that a compelling vision of social, cultural, and political renaissance has emerged.
In 1840 Māori outnumbered European settlers, 80,000 to 2,000. This figure reversed in the next two decades. As Māori lost control over their mahinga kai (but held fast to their cosmography), the settler economy correspondingly strengthened in a story familiar from other non-European social ecologies. Māori did not willingly give up their homes and lands. They resisted, politically, physically, culturally. 37 Many individuals and groups challenged colonial power; peaceful resistance groups formed as well. But these groups eventually (actually quite swiftly) were brutalized: killed, imprisoned, pauperized, separated from their families and lands. With no viable economy, limited political power, a foreign education system, poor health care, and discriminatory law and justice, the consequent degradation of Māori language and customs was inevitable. 38
Destined to survive in an alien society as an unwelcome, disadvantaged minority, Māori received the final kick in the guts with the Land Wars of 1863–64. An early “dirty little war,” these were a series of military engagements whose sole aim was to separate tribes and sub-tribes from their land. More than four million acres were confiscated by the Crown from the tangata whenua, people of the land, and redistributed to settlers through various techniques of land alienation. Māori ownership of land was extinguished through Crown purchases such as Kemp’s Deed, through the Native Land Court, and through the New Zealand Settlements Act of 1863. Instruments, institutions, and policy were used to confiscate land from any North Island tribe “rebelling” against the Crown. A further eight million acres passed to European ownership between 1865 and 1890. 39 Successive legislation such as the Town and Country Planning Act of 1953 and the Māori Affairs Amendment Act of 1967 enabled the colonial government to convert “uneconomic” Māori land into general land to enable non-Māori to gain ownership.
Māori culture was retained by the settler society only for its myths and legends, war dance entertainment and museum relics.
By the 1970s, the flourishing multi-dimensional Māori society that settlers encountered when they arrived existed only as hollowed-out, impoverished remnants in rural pockets. In the cities, where the majority now lived, they struggled to maintain connections with their tribal way of life. 40 Tribal leader Te Maire Tau recently said: “You can talk about people selling land, you can talk about urbanization, but fundamentally the reason why this village was destroyed was because Māori weren’t allowed to live here.” 41 (Echoes of Native Americans being forcibly evicted from reservations, but in Autearoa “we don’t see it because it happened slowly, over decades.”) The legendary Māori immersion in nature and the concomitant belief system became a façade. Māori culture was retained (by settler society) only for its myths and legends, war dance entertainment and museum relics. 42 Yet from that 20th-century banishment, Māori society has returned.
The narrative of exile and return is a powerful trope of western humanism and of settler colonialism. A crucial element in this narrative is that the recovery be performed against all odds, which means, in the case of Indigenous peoples, against the wishes of the dominant society but within the power structure of that dominance. Another element of the narrative is the conviction that not all those who are exiled should return, and that those who do return are animated by an inner belief, inner strength, inner purpose. The story of the Israelites and the Promised Land is now a cliché in this regard. It has informed Rastafarian theology, inspired Black civil resistance, and moved through the arts and literature of many subaltern formations.
It is the basis, for instance, of a sculpture by New Zealand artist Michael Parekowhai. The Indefinite Article consists of the letters I.A.M.H.E., constructed of white-painted plywood. The Māori word he means a or some in English. The five letters form an anagram of Parekowhai’s Christian name, but leave out the two letters C and L which are not found in the Māori alphabet, as if he has dropped the Anglo aspect of his name. This is an especially resonant reference. Moses beseeched God: When they ask what is your name, what shall I tell them? He said: I AM THAT I AM. This is my name forever. When Māori returned to consciousness in Aotearoa, it was not as native Pākehā, but as who they are. The myth of Māori return is important to Pākehā, as it marks a generous reconfiguration of the unwritten laws regarding who can speak. But Māori never went away. They just became mute, invisible.
Since the 1980s, Māori are not only visible; we are everywhere.
And then not. The Māori population increased twelve-fold in the 20th century, and Māori are now about 15 percent of the population (over-represented, alas, in all the statistics of incarceration, poor health, and impoverishment). Starting in the late 1960s, a series of extraordinary events — including resistance activism, often led by charismatic women (Titewhai Harawira, Te Puea Hērangi, Whina Cooper, Pania Newton); the formation and persistence of Māori-centric government parties; the recovery of the Māori language through education legislation; and the establishment of a tribunal to settle tribal land claims — all contributed to the development of a new framework for Māori-Pākehā relations. After the turbulent protests of the 1970s, New Zealand made a steadily stronger commitment to biculturalism through policy changes in government departments, and through increasing and sympathetic media coverage. Since the 1980s, Māori are not only visible; we are everywhere. Two political victories in particular have produced the resurgence: the right to speak, teach, and learn te reo Māori, the language, everywhere; and the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal as a vehicle for the transfer of alienated land back into Māori ownership.
The settler community continues to regard its political ecologies as the standard against which Indigenous rights should be measured. But there is no standard.
There are still huge challenges. Neoliberal discourse tends to think “the job is done” when Indigenous peoples have been afforded the same social and political rights (in theory) as the settler community. And western ways of being human remain the standard, the norm. This is not simply a historical condition. It informs the contemporary social, economic, and political infrastructure within which the empowerment of Māori is happening. The colonial invasion of native communities is not “over.” We are not — anywhere — decolonized. Now, however, after a prolonged treaty settlement process, Māori tribes have been able to finance muscular corporations that — yes, we too — can exploit the landscape. Let’s call it mahinga kai. Tainui Group Holdings, for instance, has assets of $1.2 billion, and in 2020 made a net profit of $83.3 million. 43 Investments in land, energy, and transportation logistics have catapulted this tribal enterprise, which formed in 1998, right into the middle of the climate crisis. The renaissance of the Indigenous is central to the redesign of the Anthropocene. But the settler community of New Zealand continues to regard its political ecologies as the standard against which Indigenous rights and welfare should be measured. There is no standard, however. Māori forget this sometimes too. And so we come to the heart of my inquiry.
Despite the evolution of an active environmental movement in New Zealand since at least the 1950s (but starting earlier), a recent report on the country’s environment “painted a bleak picture” of catastrophic biodiversity loss, polluted waterways, destructive primary production, and urban sprawl. 44 The culprits are widely regarded to be extraction resource industries: farming, forestry, and mining, all of which are abetted, of course, by rapid urbanization and tourism. Dairy products, red meat, and forestry are the top three “export earners,” and all contribute to the degradation of New Zealand’s natural systems.
In late 2019, as a response to the climate emergency, the Labour Government passed multi-partisan legislation that set a target of net zero CO2 emissions by 2050 and established an independent expert body, the Climate Change Commission, to chart a path to get there. In June of this year, the commission released its report, which warned that without “strong and decisive action now,” the country will miss its emissions targets. Climate science, carbon reduction technologies, new transport energies, regenerative farming supply lines, carbon sequestration techniques — all will have to be intensified. Most of these initiatives will affect environmental systems, and many will require the planning and design of new ones. So far so good. Let’s just do it.
Landscape settler-colonialism complicates the project of responding to the climate crisis.
But landscape settler-colonialism complicates the project. For sure, environmental designers will be collaborating with scientists. Yet there are too few Māori scientists — less than five percent of faculty in university science departments 45 — and these too few scientists are incredibly busy. Everybody wants one. Not only that, however; they are also perhaps just a bit kūpapa. This is the term for Māori who during the colonial period sided with Pākehā imperialists or the colonial government. For instance, after the British won the wars, when the New Zealand Armed Constabulary was established to mop up lingering Māori resistance, many individual Māori enlisted and fought against “rebellious” tribes. Described on Land War monuments as “friendly Māori,” a term despised by contemporary actants, kūpapa has overtones of treachery, of Māori fighting Māori. And complicity is hardly limited to military adventures. The very term “research,” as Linda Tuhiwai Smith argues in her classic Decolonizing Methodologies, “is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism. The word itself … is probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world’s vocabulary.” 46 Tough for young Māori scientists.
The 21st century has seen the rapid development of mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) 47 in social knowledge construction, knowledge application, and professional practices. New collaborative projects combine mātauranga and Pākehā planning protocols. As a result, some big things come together. The pandemic, the climate emergency, decol. And, not least, the infiltration of somehow unproblematic research into Māori epistemologies, and into what has become known as “traditional ecological knowledge,” or TEK. It would seem that part of decol is to do this work. Mātauranga Māori now has enormous social capital in Aotearoa. But how and where should this capital be invested? By whom and for whom? At university, Māori are being trained in western science and in TEK. Māori law professor Jacinta Ruru envisages a welcoming future where young Māori academics are encouraged to dream and to enrich universities with their indigenous knowledge systems. “We can have both,” she says. “We can have learning of Western knowledge alongside our indigenous knowledge.” 48
The much-lauded convergence of western science and Indigenous science does not really, when you look at it, seem a convergence at all.
Sounds good? I’m skeptical. As a landscape architect, I wonder if this entanglement is either possible or desirable. Part of the metaphysical, environmental, and social value of indigenous knowledge to western systems is its incompatibility with those systems. Its incompossibility, if you like. Incommensurability. The much-lauded convergence of western science and Indigenous science does not really, when you look at it, seem a convergence at all. Moreover, convergence is a western science narrative. Professor Ruru, interviewed in a daily news journal, was probably simply being nice. For any rapprochement should involve an investigation into the doing of western science itself, by Māori tohunga, shamans — not Anglo-European scientists, not settler scientists. Not even scientists. Because western science — its associations and allies, its funding chains and social purposes — is inimical to mātauranga Māori. Deep down Pākehā scientists know this, which is partly why, contra convergence, Māori knowledge is not much welcome in the academy. And why Māori academics are lonely, isolated, and struggling to be heard, and why many find their way back to Māori Studies departments. Which means that other disciplines lack mātauranga Māori. 49
And more: it’s not just that Indigenous knowledges are disregarded but that they are actually undermined by the ongoing effects of colonialism in the business of doing science. As the Māori design academic Rebecca Kiddle writes, “Its effects are bad for all.” She cites a senior Pākehā academic who said he “would always send good masters students overseas for doctoral study.” When challenged that Māori students may wish to develop Māori knowledge in their graduate projects and that overseas study may not support this, his response was telling: “No, but I’m talking about students doing science” — the implication being, Kiddle says, “that Māori knowledge was not real science.” 50 Western science is, then, another form of assimilation. Māori do not need to do science to understand how the world works. Nor do they need scientists to tell them. But scientists want to conscript Māori knowledge into the scholarly-professional system of western science. For the purposes of legitimation and expediency, of course, but also because it’s clear that Indigenous peoples have known something important for a long time that western science simply cannot know.
Māori do not need to do science to understand how the world works. Nor do they need scientists to tell them.
And so we get to the problem of partnership. (I’m talking about how we care for the environment now.) We get to the co-option of Indigenous researchers into environmental projects that are fabricated, legitimized, funded, evaluated, and transferred through western market systems of knowledge supply and demand. New Zealand’s own Green New Deal, we are told, is being addressed through “restoration partnerships” between tribes and funding organizations, tribes and local government agencies, and tribes and central government agencies, 51 as well as through the application of Māori environmental values in projects that include resource management protocols, such as highway building, housing developments, and oyster farms. It’s a problematic, retrograde process, because ultimately it supports the kind of development that works against mahinga kai. The whole exercise is generated by research partnerships between Māori and university scientists. It requires young Māori with PhDs in geology, biology, ecology, geomorphology, the earth sciences in general, to move into academic (and corporate) departments that profess these disciplines; into universities that promote and fund research that “explores, engages and exemplifies” Māori environmental epistemologies. The University of Victoria, in Wellington, for instance, has developed a strategic initiative to develop capacity in mātauranga Māori research, and to strengthen research-based relationships with Māori communities (research, research, research…). 52 Māori concepts are employed throughout these projects and, where possible, Māori communities are involved. Scientific articles include glossaries which “explain” these concepts. For instance,
manaakitanga: reciprocity of actions to the environment
kaitiakitanga: sustainable resource management
whakatipu rawa: retention and growth of Māori-owned resources 53
It reminds me of philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine’s concept of translation indeterminacy. He described a field linguist standing on the African veldt with a “native informer.” A rabbit runs past. “Gavigai,” says the native. On his clipboard, the anthropologist writes “gavigai = rabbit.” Māori seem to be giving their knowledge systems to western science in the 21st century much as they ceded their land to the settler economy in the 19th century. The thing is: Māori seem to want this too. The whole project of scientific assimilation is presented to government agencies as a useful resource management and design framework where western science is a conduit for Māori “cultural values” to be extended across “the whole ecosystems services framework” to achieve “multidimensional aspirational goals and desired Indigenous outcomes.” 54 Luckily, as the gavigai example shows, western science cannot actually assimilate Indigenous knowledge-creation. The two systems of knowledge are based on radically different perspectives about how humans are in the world.
Māori seem to be giving their knowledge systems to western science in the 21st century much as they ceded their land to the settler economy in the 19th century.
Recently, for instance, a Working Group on Constitutional Transformation recognized in its report the need to place Papatūānuku at the center of all political and personal relationships in a revised Aotearoa Constitution. Papatūānuku is the earth mother. This is a bid by Māori, for Māori, for constitutional change in Aotearoa New Zealand’s fundamental social and political structure, actually based on Māori values, customs, traditions, and knowledges. The report argues that the Westminster constitutional model set in place by the imperial system should not assimilate the treaty rights of Māori but instead be based upon them. 55 To do this is to accept concepts that are alien to Anglo-European epistemologies. To accept, for instance, that a taniwha (monster) lives in the bend of the Whanganui River and influences the river’s actions in ways that are for humans both problematic and beneficial: the river swells, floods, drains away, land is lost and then regained, and lost again. It’s difficult to escape the conclusion — even after the outing of anthropology — that western sciences still parse this as an Indigenous articulation of natural forces that Māori cannot know; and that the true path to useful knowledge of the natural world is to be found along the corridors of the physics department. But how do scientists know what monsters do and why? Will they give up their power and privilege to find out?
Conversely, what if the rise of mātauranga Māori in academic narratives of knowledge production, knowledge application, and professional practice is actually a devilish form of utu? What if it is a means of translating western science doctrine into Māori language-concepts, which Māori then gift back as a token of our absorption into settler society narratives of social progress? What if Māori environmental practices were being determined by the dominant discourse rather than the other way round? What if the development of TEK planning protocols neatly arranges Indigenous concepts into the service of settler society environmental goals? Tit for tat?
As Anne Salmond has argued, Māori/European does not work. Tradition, she says, is articulated according to the context in which the articulation is occurring. Māori often strategically interweave propositions from different “worlds” to make their case, for instance, to the Waitangi Tribunal. “This idea of weaving an argument from diverse strands echoes the way in which ancestral Māori and modernist ideas entangle in debates about fresh water in New Zealand. They do not exist in immutable, binary boxes — far from it.” 56 Can we move landscape architecture beyond either/or, science/indigenous, beyond even objects, beyond strategic thingification, beyond the discourses of modernity that render relations between the human and more-than-human political and ideological always? In landscape architecture, this means practicing beyond landscape.
This moment is generating such skepticism about western knowledge systems, even within those systems themselves, that the longing for an alternative is becoming painful.
But how do we do this? I personally find it impossible to step outside the design language into which I was trained from birth. Sometimes I catch glimpses of other ways, but my cognitive framework and my emotions and passions, my selective perspectives, my formal and graphic preferences and prejudices — all these and so much else mitigate against the possibility of an alternative environmental reality for me and my collective. Yet this moment which has arrived, borne on critiques of modernity, on the long, slow advance of climate change, the sudden idea of the Anthropocene, and the revelation of Indigeneity, this moment that cross-fertilizes political ecology, decolonial critique, and the new materialism — this moment is generating such skepticism about western knowledge systems even within those systems themselves, that the longing for an alternative is becoming painful. Working in the ambivalent, open, intertidal zone, in the interstices of the entanglement, in parentheses, requires an engagement with procedures that are outside the typical territories of environmental research and with design research outside the territories of design. 57
Some things to consider. Nothing can be explained in terms of something else. Nature cannot be explained by scientists. The continuing strangeness of the world cannot be penetrated by the coded language of the west. Māori cannot be explained by Europeans. Practices of making based solely upon observation and measurement are inadequate to the work of respatializing Aotearoa New Zealand. Whether you are preparing fish for guests or attending a town hall meeting, planting a forest or cultivating a professional culture — such as landscape architecture — you are going beyond measurement. Practices of making operate in the realm of the sensible and the sensitive, and they work together to generate an order; but it’s a squishy, frangible order, an unreliable order full of imprecise, barely discernible things.
We’re up against it: land itself has been internalized by the dominant society.
One of these things is the increasing concern that Māoridom has been bought and sold. That democratic fundamentalism has streamlined its appropriation of Indigenous cultural materials to the point that even the Māori language has been sucked in. Thousands of Pākehā are now learning the language of the colonized. To do this, no matter how well-intentioned, is to stake a claim to it and co-opt it. 58 There is no escape from this process. And it gets worse: cultural space has been territorialized to the point where the elemental Māori cosmology is presented as an import from without. 59 We’re up against it: land itself has been internalized by the dominant society. The Department of Conservation, Crown Research Institutes, the Ministries for Culture and Heritage, Primary Industries, the Environment, local, regional and central government authorities — all institutions which design and manage the land — are legislating, mandating, and funding the development of this colonial landscape. They all have Māori names, and mandates to comply with Treaty of Waitangi obligations. Extremely determined, long-haul political machinators have honed the instruments of landscape transformation. Stockbrokers, farmers, tourism agencies, corporations, digger operators, ecology professors, medical consultants — all contribute to this ongoing transformation. The political ecology outcome is pretty clear: if you are to be a citizen in Aotearoa, it is imperative that you relate to civil society in the same way as everybody else. 60
Māori must rescript the social ecology of Aotearoa themselves. Transgression is critical. An eruption is necessary.
In Aotearoa, there is only one way to escape the impasse of kūpapa science-led, one-way environmental design: Māori must rescript the social ecology of Aotearoa themselves. Transgression is critical. An eruption is necessary. Pākehā have nothing to offer Māori except what they cannot give them; an environment designed and made by Māori. An Indigenous intervention in contemporary public space that articulates reciprocity — that opens up the Indigenous environmental cosmology — would amount to a rent or tear in the space-time colonial-terrain continuum. It would be unrecognizable to the settler community whose lifeways it has disrupted. If it were recognizable, it would not be real. The norms and protocols of western planning and design could not shape such a project or determine what it does. For this would immediately render the project non-Indigenous. So as you can see, there is a double bind. Co-production is not possible. Complete submission is necessary. The very thing that the landscape architect can never do is what must be done. Landscape transformation must be determined by the oppressed themselves. Here’s where my skepticism kicks in, again. Can Māori (western-educated, aspirational, angry, committed) still do it?
All right, then what spaces can be constituted within the multimodal theater of decolonization? What alternative socio-spatial arrangements — free from domination and open to collective self-determination — can become the stage for people-empowerment? In western landscape architecture, I find it difficult to think of any (what you might call) dissensus landscapes. If we could point to an example, it would not be what we are talking about. Therefore there are no western examples. But when we go looking for an example in the realm of Māori, we can actually come up with a template. Let’s agree we’re seeking an approach to the design of civic open space in which people may gather with their freedoms, with their fellow humans, with the critters for whom they speak. Not so much a structure but a simple expanse, with no visible boundaries, because ultimately there are no boundaries. We’re looking for a terrain that enables the undulations of use through assembly and ceremony, and through receiving and entertaining those who come from elsewhere, a terrain that is engendered by community conversation. It should be the realization of a communal collective, a space of shared social engagement, a co-authoring, participatory social body: an engine of reciprocity.
This would be a marae.
Marae are the collective hearth of Māori society, a nexus of reciprocity.
Today there are 773 marae in Aotearoa New Zealand. They are the collective hearth of Māori society. Every sub-tribe has one (if it has the land to make it on). A typical marae is a stretch of open space with a meeting house on one side and an entrance on the other, through which all must come. Marae are autonomous zones that fibrillate along the margins of the dominant political framework imposed by central government. They are loci of political agency; as such it is from these spaces that a redescription of New Zealand can evolve. The marae is a nexus of reciprocity. It is truly Māori space: spiritual, mental, social, emotional. It is where the flat ontology of Māori socialism is visibly performed. And it is constructed within the practice of utu.
Being endogenous to Māori and collectively self-willed, it operates outside Anglo-European practices of spacemaking and placemaking (in fact it critiques ideas of space and place) and colonial geographic processes. It is all these good things: experimental, contingent, adaptive; and it enhances all forms of life, especially those that live according to critter logic. It goes beyond landscape. We can see that making something that looks like something else is not going beyond landscape. A sculpture that looks like a native canoe, paving that reproduces the pattern on a tunic, mounded landforms — all such things miss the point. Even “a tapestry of blak art woven through city streets” misses the point. 61 The template is spatial, and it necessarily includes the warmth of the collective for whom it is their place to stand.
I did not know at the beginning of my inquiry that I would end up suggesting the marae as a fluid diagram of respatialization. But I did suspect that I would put the design of the national landscape in the hands of the colonized people. In 2018, together with colleagues, I entered a competition for the redesign of New York’s Central Park. Our project envisaged the return of Central Park to its original inhabitants, the Lenape people of Mannahatta, with the Deed of Gift from the Governor of New York State stating:
At the recommendation of the Mannahatta Tribunal, this Bill approves and ratifies an agreement between the Governor of the State of New York and the Delaware peoples and their affiliated tribes. The agreement extinguishes the claim made by the Delaware tribes for compensation from the State of New York for the confiscation of territories now known as Manhattan by returning to them unconditionally and without prejudice the land legally identified as Central Park. Since the Bill approves an unconditional settlement of ownership upon the Delaware tribes, there are no legal, environmental, or ethical criteria that must be met by that confederation in execution of their rights as owners of the land, apart from those constitutional obligations that must be met by all landowners.
I realize now that the logistics — the arguments, if you like — lead to these inevitable conclusions. Personhood is the basis of reciprocity; reciprocity is the basis of environmental stewardship. Indigeneity is the basis of stewardship. Being true to who you are is not about assimilation to the colonizing power. It finds auto-empowerment through the design of its own collective environment. Design based on science cannot do this. Indigenous design is thus the key to the future of settler nation landscapes in the Anthropocene. The answer to my question How are colonial landscapes to be redesigned? is: not by the colonists. Of this, I have to say, I am not skeptical. But about that second question: Can Indigenous epistemologies reprogram a design discipline whose knowledge base was forged in the modern era? Of this I am very skeptical. The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. 62