Image: Adapted from Maria Thereza Alves: Seeds of Change edited by Carin Kuoni and Wilma Lukatsch. Used with permission of the publishers, Amherst College Press and the Vera List Center for Art and Politics.

The following text is excerpted from “A Botany of Decolonization: Countering the Settler Colonial Quest for Indigenous Elimination,” an essay by J. Kēhaulani Kauanui. “A Botany of Decolonization” was first published in Maria Thereza Alves: Seeds of Change (Amherst College Press and Vera List Center for Art and Politics, The New School, 2023), edited by Carin Kuoni and Wilma Lukatsch. The open access book is available to read online, and a print issue will be released in April 2023.

In the fall of 2015, a student at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, where I teach, came to my office to ask for guidance. At the time, he was working on a project for a studio arts class. He explained that he had zoned in on a construction site near the art complex and wanted to create an installation with a dig, as the water system in that area was being overhauled. Initially, he planned to delve into the meaning of the “unearthing” in relation to his own, as he put it, existential condition. That is, until he learned whose land the university stands on—the Wangunk people. Given the widespread settler colonial erasure of their history and contemporary existence, their very name was news to him. He had learned about it from a student who was enrolled in a new course I was teaching at the time, “Decolonizing Indigenous Middletown: Native Histories of the Wangunk People.” Once he learned whose land we were situated on, his art project no longer held together. The land that was being unearthed was no longer abstract in the way he first encountered it; rather, it was a part of a people’s homeland. This new awareness prompted a level of self-confrontation and raised a set of ethical questions, and he ultimately decided to scrap the installation altogether.

I open with this vignette for my discussion of the New York iteration of Maria Thereza Alves’s Seeds of Change project to illustrate the urgency of anti-normalization of ongoing settler colonization and the politics of Indigeneity. My focus draws on some of the themes brought into sharp relief in the exhibit—specifically the observation that ballast flora in Europe is not the same as ballast flora in North America. Here, it is evidence of the economic systems of enslavement in the context of settler colonization. The Dutch systematically enslaved African people, introducing slavery to the continent when they first settled the colony. Both the English and the Americans carried on this system of terror when they superseded the Dutch. For more than two centuries, New York was considered the capital of American slavery. As Alves points out in her essay accompanying the New York exhibition, “The transport of bodies in ships required ballast to offset their movement.” She explains how ships arrived from England with ballast material such as flint, iron, and soil, and from the Caribbean with coral, volcanic sand, bricks, stones, and rocks. Alves unearths historical ballast sites and ballast flora through her careful archival research, scientific investigation, and artistic representation of these complex and multilayered histories. Among many important elements in the New York iteration of the project, we learn that the settler colonists used ballast as landfill to flatten it out to marketable territory that could then be demarcated for commodification. And, as Alves explains in the same publication, “Upon arrival in port, the ballast was unloaded, carrying with it seeds native to the area where the ballast had been picked up. […] Colonization is built into the very soil of New York. A process of decolonization must begin on the ground.” This begs the question: What of the Indigenous peoples who are ontologically rooted in that soil?

This is what I would like to focus on: an examination of the politics of Indigeneity in relation to Maria Thereza Alves’s New York City project. The artist has explored ballast flora in other port cities, but about New York, she notes, “The earth of Manhattan is mostly not itself. It has had its millennium relationship between land, water, animals and not animals taken away or buried. To me that is what is very important on the New York iteration that along with the colonization of the people, the culture, the land—the very earth was colonized.” I aim to extend her focus, since New York City raises the question of Indigeneity, unlike the European cities she studied at least when it comes to people of the land (not only the land itself ): the Lenape and other Indigenous peoples, including the Canarsie, Shinnecock, Unkechaug, and Munsee Indians. I begin with a focus on distinctions between Indigenous flora and Indigenous peoples defined by their relationship to land. I then briefly examine the implications of the elision of Indigeneity in order to push for sustained engagement with the politics of decolonization, as Alves’s New York City exhibit provokes a rethinking of ballast flora in a way that compels the viewers to confront the ethics of relationality as they pertain to enduring settler colonialism vis-à-vis Indigenous people(s). The challenge, then, demands an exploration of what forms of decolonization are possible in this context.

Historian Patrick Wolfe’s theory of settler colonialism posits that this social and political model of domination operates by “the logic of elimination of the native.” This is because, unlike other forms of colonialism, land acquisition is its central feature. As Wolfe argued, “The colonizers come to stay—invasion is a structure not an event.” This is not to suggest that settler colonialism is permanent (as though it is necessarily a foregone conclusion), but rather that the aim of those upholding that form of domination strive for permanency. When people speak of “the legacy of colonialism,” they are casting colonialism in the past. But for Indigenous peoples subject to settler colonialism, the colonial project has yet to end. Understanding settler colonialism as a structure exposes the fact that it cannot be relegated to the past.

The political and cultural terms “Indigenous” and “Indigeneity” emerge in relation to these same social forces. Thus, Indigeneity is the counterpart analytic to settler colonialism. Some people dismiss assertions of Indigenous identity as essentialist, assuming that being Indigenous is grounded in a belief in an underlying and unchanging “essence.” But for Indigenous peoples, the question of Indigeneity is rooted in a distinct relationship to land, which has consequences for sovereignty. In addressing “Indigenous” as a category of political subjectivity, one necessarily must wrestle with particular histories of domination rather than fall back to an all too-common default position of “everyone is Indigenous to somewhere, so we’re all Indigenous.” Alves’s work is focused on actual flora and fauna, enabling careful distinctions. The category of “Indigenous” regarding peoples is always already a socially constructed relational category since we are not flora and fauna but are part of (not apart from) the natural world. For some who insist that “everyone is Indigenous to somewhere,” they might cite the definition of the adjective from the dictionary to justify their claim. “Indigenous” comes from Late Latin: indigen-us, meaning born in a country, native (<indigen-a, a native), as in “born or produced naturally in a land or region; native or belonging naturally to (the soil, region, etc.).” But, without attention to the history and present forms of social domination, it can be reductive to use the term to refer to anyone born in a particular place, taking the geography of any given country for granted (while also naturalizing nation-state borders).

This emphasis on nativity or birth too often ends up rendering the concept of “Indigenous”—when it comes to humans meaningless by erasing the political history of specific Indigenous struggles over land claims. In Firsting and Lasting, historian Jean M. O’Brien (White Earth Ojibwe) traces the genealogy of the myth of the “vanishing Indian” to white settler assertions that Indigenous peoples had “vanished” despite their known continued presence. She documents that well into the twentieth century, white Anglo-Saxon nativists dismissed the continued existence of a wide range of Indigenous peoples by claiming themselves to be “native-born.” This is a classic example of the “logic of elimination of the native.”

The general definition of “Indigenous” as “born or produced naturally in a land or region” is far too simple and cannot account for the diversity of the more than three hundred and seventy million Indigenous peoples who are spread across seventy countries world-wide. The 1986/7 definition proposed by United Nations Special Rapporteur José Martínez Cobo remains the most influential today: Indigenous peoples are “those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that have developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing in those territories, or parts of them.”

Returning to Wolfe’s definition of settler colonialism as a land-centered project that relies on the “logic of elimination of the native,” let us consider the question of territory for the Lenape in Mannahatta. Educators at the National Museum of the American Indian have referred to the 1626 “sale of Manhattan” as America’s first “urban myth” since there is no known deed of land transfer or bill of sale. Soon thereafter, Dutch Governor William Kieft tried to impose a tax on the Lenape, who refused to pay to live on their own territory. He vowed to force them into submission, resulting in a genocidal massacre during Kieft’s War between 1643 and 1645. This history coincides with the construction of a wall by the Dutch that later lent its name to “Wall Street.” By 1644, they had erected a wooden palisade to block the Lenape Indians from protecting their own territory from settlement; by 1653, they built a sturdier wall to prevent further encroachment by the English colonists.

The English took over “New Amsterdam” in the 1660s, and by the early 1700s, the Lenape were forced to move from Mannahatta. Through a series of negotiations and treaties, the Lenape were subject to several removals. They were caught between the Dutch and the British, then the French and the British (in the French-Indian War), and later the English who wanted independence and claimed American identity. As sociologist Brice Obermeyer explains, “The tumultuous years surrounding the American Revolution led to a Delaware diaspora that would further define the nucleus of the Delaware Tribe and create the boundaries between the many Delaware-descended groups that exist today. By the eve of the American Revolution, most Delaware groups were living along the Ohio and Allegheny rivers.” Lenape polities are now self-governing in Oklahoma and Wisconsin, as well as Ontario, Canada, while other clans of the Lenape remain in their expansive traditional territory: in other parts of present-day New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.

So here we see the violent features of settler colonization—land expropriation and its accompanying “elimination of the native”—through both spatial removal and genocide, constituting what would today be called ethnic cleansing. This history and present demonstrate Wolfe’s assertion that within settler-colonial contexts, “invasion is a structure, not an event.” And even though the Dutch, British, and Americans pushed out the Lenape and other Indigenous peoples to create New York City for themselves, numerous sites throughout Manhattan reveal an enduring Lenape presence. Given this legacy, we must also critically face the nativism inherent in terms like “Native New Yorker” that contribute to Lenape invisibility and erase the ongoing settler-colonial dispossession of them.

Alves has documented how the introduction of ballast transformed the land of New York City. She notes, “River silt, Native American relics, household and industrial waste, ecological wreckage, hills torn down with earth removed for tunnels, and ballast was used to level New York, and that began quite early in colonial history–1646.” As an example, Alves included in her exhibition at The New School an archival sketch, “View of 2nd Ave Looking Up from 42nd set 1861.”

As Alves points out, “Topographical particularities, specificities, and relationships were literally crushed … a hill became a street or material to be used to fill in a swamp. The river was defined as a set of potential real estate plots, and pieces were sold to be filled in: converting water to land to property.” Notably, the artist found that ballast was continuously imported to New York up until the 1950s. Of course, it is necessary to caution against romanticizing some unsullied precolonial site. As the artist puts it, “However, this is not a question of reconstruction of a lost landscape or purity but of acknowledgement of the present we all find ourselves in.” So, that begs the question as to what forms of decolonization are possible in settler-colonial contexts.

To read more of “A Botany of Decolonization: Countering the Settler Colonial Quest for Indigenous Elimination” by J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, please see Maria Thereza Alves: Seeds of Change (Amherst College Press and Vera List Center for Art and Politics, The New School, 2023), available online now and in print April 2023.

J. Kēhaulani Kauanui is Professor of American Studies and an affiliate faculty member in Anthropology at Wesleyan University. She teaches courses related to Indigenous sovereignty, settler colonial studies, anarchist history and activism, and critical race and ethnic studies.