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Unsettled Futures: Decolonization for a Just and Sustainable World

Robert Douglass | May 17, 2022

“Never Forget” by artist Nicholas Galanin, Palm Springs, CA. Photo by Kyle D. Brown.

Los Angeles County, California is the ancestral and present home to Gabrielino Tongva, Gabrieleño Kizh, Fernandeño Tataviam, Ventureño Chumash, and Serrano Bands of Mission Indians- most of whom never ceded their lands to colonial forces of Spanish, Mexican, or United States governments. To this day, there are no Federally recognized tribes in the County. They are not alone. Currently, 81 Indigenous groups, totaling more than 88,000 individuals, in California are still seeking Federal recognition (the largest group of unrecognized tribes and individuals in the United States). Federal recognition is vital to accessing financial resources and jurisdictional powers and without it, tribes and their members lack self-determination over their land, cultures, political, and economic systems.

In the absence of such recognition, many tribal members and organizations are taking their own actions to assert sovereignty, revitalize their culture, and stake their claim to an Indigenous future. They face barriers constructed by historic and present-day settler colonialism, a complex system of exploitation and subjugation, that extracts land, labor, knowledge and resources without proper restitution, attribution or compensation. The process of decolonization is about achieving cultural, psychological and economic freedom, so that Indigenous people may practice self-determination.

Given our global environmental and economic crises, books like Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass are reinforcing the importance of Traditional Ecological Knowledge to inform how we live within the limitations of earth’s finite resources. Yet in doing so, many can become complicit in the extraction of knowledge while continuing to erase the progenitors and keepers of that knowledge and the livelihoods of Indigenous people around the world.

As I enter the Landscape Architecture profession in the United States, I will be tasked with design decisions about stolen lands. In doing so, there is an opportunity to address historic harms as well as the risk of furthering those harms. Scholars and activists like Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Nick Estes, and Winona LaDuke, have influenced my resolve that decolonization is critical for a future that supports the wellbeing and livelihoods of all life on this planet. This requires all of us who live and work on stolen lands to make space and allocate resources for Indigenous policy, economics, culture, and lifeways to secure Indigenous peoples’ rightful home within their lands.

…decolonization is critical for a future that supports the wellbeing and livelihoods of all life on this planet. This requires all of us who live and work on stolen lands to make space and allocate resources for Indigenous policy, economics, culture, and lifeways to secure Indigenous peoples’ rightful home within their lands.

It Starts with Understanding Settler Colonialism

Decolonization requires a base understanding of settler colonialism and its impacts. In Decolonizing Planning, Carole O’Brien, calls on nonnatives to ally with Indigenous peoples, yet notes that our ability to do so is contingent on “understanding the oppressive nature of colonialism and neoliberalism; systems and discourses that fragment relationships while simultaneously invisibilizing and highlighting difference.”

Settler colonialism is not an event that happened in the past, but a complex and ongoing structure that permeates land, law, and relationships that continue to this day. Settlers did not arrive as immigrants, as Tuck and Yang state in their article Decolonization is not a metaphor, “immigrants are beholden to Indigenous laws and epistemologies of the land they migrate too. Settlers become the law, displacing Indigenous laws and epistemologies.” In a settler colonial system, settlers make their new home by pillaging the land for resources and the people for labor. “Indigenous people are made to disappear as they threaten the colonial stories. They are made to do so through law and policy, through narrative and design. Through incarceration and indentureship, through murder and genocide.” As was the case in California, first under the Spanish Mission system, and again under U.S. control with the 1850 Act for the Government and Protection of Indians passed by the California Legislature. This act enabled whites to legally enslave Native people found without proper employment. Today, major restrictions of traditional harvesting on public lands, costly endeavors to protect cultural resources, and continued lack of federal recognition, perpetuate the subjugation of Indigenous peoples.

The social and environmental injustice for Indigenous populations has been horrific, yet the neoliberal economic order, supported in the settler economy in the United States, dominates the urban and cultural landscapes. As Annette Koh argues, the settler colonial system dictates what the highest or best use of land is and who has a say in those decisions – often excluding the voices and opinions of people of color or lower economic status, especially Indigenous voices. Understanding the colonial past grants better understanding of the colonial present, and insight into the internalized prejudice that reinforce of colonial systems.

Within the settler colonial paradigm, we see spatialized patterns of oppression, including red lining, gentrification, urban renewal, oil pipelines, restricted land management practices, and elevation of aesthetics that celebrate or reflect a class and cultural hegemony. Colonial planning and design vernaculars get codified through municipal code and planning documents, erasing the peoples, cultures and places of Indigenous communities.

Token Decolonization Efforts

Design professionals may be inclined to approach “decolonization” by simply indigenizing design through adopting forms, patterns, names, arts, native plants, land acknowledgments, or plaques to pay homage to tribal organizations. While these acts are important to rewrite Indigenous people into the landscape, they aren’t sufficient. These acts simply acknowledge their existence without transforming the systems that uphold settler supremacy. As Annette Koh and Konia Freitas note, indigenizing spaces solely through aesthetics runs the risk of historicizing the peoples, placing them in some bygone time, removed from the present, or from relevance.

Criticism has been raised by Indigenous leaders concerning the appropriation of cultural practices by regenerative agriculture without the proper integration of worldviews which lie at the foundation of those practices. For example, perspectives of biomimicry where land management and design mimics natural forms, reinforcing the notion that nature is outside of humanity, is contrary to view of humans as nature, shared by many Indigenous peoples.

Tuck and Yang note that these symbolic acts of decolonization have the unintended effect of resettling the landscape, making individuals feel like they are now “innocent” of their contributions to settler colonialism without changing the underlying structure of oppression it perpetuates. These efforts are similar to the criticism some levy against buying carbon offsets or the Medieval practice of purchasing indulgences to forgive one’s sins. These criticism push us to deeply interrogate our complicit (sometimes unintentional) reinforcement of settler inclinations, and push for transformative interventions that uplift Indigenous People and their worldviews.

Land and Leadership

As a counter to the Green New Deal, Indigenous activists makes the case in the Red New Deal that “Indigenous peoples should be empowered to develop and implement restorative practices according to their own customs and traditions…[and] take the reins of leadership.[Indigenous peoples’] liberation is bound to the liberation of all humans and the planet…. Premised on Indigenous values of interspecies responsibility and balance.” As a result, “decolonization is for, and benefits, everyone.” Unhindered control of land and resources is vital to cultural resurgence, reclaiming identities, narratives, and futures. As Tiffany Kaewen Dang notes in Decolonizing Landscape, “If colonialism is about the control of land, then conversely, decolonization requires the complete subversion of the power(s) controlling that land. Decolonization starts with land.” Indeed, decolonization must involve the repatriation of land.

The Landback movement has been going on in North America since the arrival of European settlers but has popularized as a movement over the last decade. Some states, nonprofits, and individuals are returning control to tribal governments or organizations to redress historic harms. The Yurok Tribe in Northern California recently acquired 2,500 acres of privately held forested land from New Forest Co. in partnership with the Trust for Public land. They have been on the forefront of reintroducing cultural burning to reduce understory plants, thin forests, and support healthy forest ecosystems. They have also made headway in integrating an animistic worldview by granting Environmental Personhood to the Klamath River, a critical habitat for salmon that has supported their tribe since time immemorial.

[Property or Person? Rights of Nature as a Pathway to a More Just World]

These efforts along with the opening of the first Yurok Cultural Center have brought pride, jobs, and developed leadership within the Yurok community. As Yurok Tribal Chair Joseph James stated “We’re getting back to balance and becoming whole and being able to tell our story here in Yurok Country in Chah-pekw village.” However, with exorbitant real estate prices, especially in California, acquiring land often isn’t immediately feasible. For many who aim to decolonize our landscapes, Indigenous Planning provides another way to put power back in Indigenous Peoples’ hands.

Indigenous Planning

It’s no surprise that within the settler colonial project, Indigenous People have been left out of formal planning efforts. Indigenous planning movements have sprung up around the globe intending to, as Hirini Matunga states, “provide intellectual and political space for Indigenous peoples to define themselves, to spatialize indigeneity and most importantly, mark out their future.” The key tenets are that planning should be “by” and with Indigenous peoples, not “for” or “about” them. At its core, Indigenous Planning concerns “making decisions about their place (built or natural env) using their knowledge (and other knowledge), values and principles to define and progress their present and future social, cultural, environmental and economic aspirations.” Asking the questions like, “what would flourishing as Indigenous peoples in this place …. Look like, feel like, and mean?” Then providing the space for native folks to answer that question for themselves and determine the outcomes of planning efforts.

An example of these efforts can be seen in the Canadian Reconciliation process which began with a public accounting of devastating experiences shared by first nation elders. As a result, in the City of Vancouver, every department was charged with addressing reconciliation. The City focused on three areas, cultural competency, strengthening relations, and effective decision making, bringing first nations’ perspective, desire, and interests into policy. This included expanding and shifting resources to meet the specific needs of urban first nation populations, recruiting native planners, and working with the population.

Another example comes from New Zealand/ Aotearoa where Maori Design and Resource management professionals developed the Te Aranga Design Principles to guide urban design within the city of Auckland. Through an iterative process, Māori synthesized cultural values into very specific parameters, processes, and outcomes for urban design. While this document addresses aesthetic considerations, it goes beyond the surface to incorporate relational dimensions, cultural norms, and philosophical worldview. Such documents, adopted by municipalities, can aid in aligning intention and outcomes for native and nonnative approaches towards the land.

The Los Angeles Possibility

In 2021, Los Angeles County released a Draft Indigenous Peoples’ Day Report that outlined efforts to work with native populations, give land back, partner in land management, limit barriers to accessing public space, and allow for harvesting and gathering on public lands. The document lays out a suite of options for returning control of land back to tribal entities, including the creation co-management agreements, special use permits, and direct transfer of ownership. This declaration is long overdue but is a step in the right direction, needs to be adopted by the County and put to action.

[What Can We Give Back? Bringing Reciprocity to Newhall’s Public Landscape]

Decolonization cannot just be the responsibility of the public sector alone. Most lands in Los Angeles are private, with decisions on who is represented being made by property owners, developers, designers, and those living and working on stolen lands. These parties must understand the history, contextualize settler colonialism, and work to include and benefit the native peoples. A simple way to pay respect is through AcknowledgeRent developed by the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians that support their efforts to acquire property and other operations.

There is so much unlearning and inevitable discomfort involved with unsettling colonial position over land and people. Yet this cannot be treated lightly, as our actions have the potential to perpetuate injustices rather than correct them. Until we intentionally take actions for Indigenous livelihoods, we cannot achieve the vision of a sustainable and just future, for which so many of us advocate.

As a non-Indigenous person born in Californian, my perspective is limited and flawed. Yet I am dedicated to continuous learning, and maintain my humility in fumbling these delicate topics. I am grateful for the many eyes who have read this and the ears who have listened to me ponder and stress over this article.

Robert Douglass was born and raised in the Inland Empire of Southern California. He comes to landscape architecture with a background in political economics, community organizing, landscape construction, and urban farming. As a student of landscape design and planning he is working to cultivate a practice of collaborative design that centers community’ voices in ways that inspire transformation and support community healing. Outside the studio you can find Robert trail running, playing the guitar, on the yoga mat, volunteering in the community, or cooking.