"Everything in US history is about the land… who invaded and stole it; how it became a commodity…" - Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.
"The objective for Native people is to heal. The objective for non-Native people is to come out of denial" - Faith Spotted Eagle (Dakota)
When my wife and I unexpectedly became the owners of 38 acres next to our house in rural Tompkins County NY, it was a springboard for insights and action. What are the meanings of owning land when the title to it originates in settler-colonial genocide? What are the threats to and stresses on the land? What are my responsibilities? I Own This Stolen Land is a social justice project based in photography and video, using text-sculptures, portrait-interviews, and social practice. The work aims to help with Indigenous/settler understandings, and to be exemplary in land stewardship.
The project is in four interlocking phases:
- acknowledgment of the past theft and present occupation of the land;
- a deep examination of the site’s natural systems, economic pressures, ecological stresses, and future management;
- involvement and support of Gayogohó:nǫˀ people;
- development of models for Indigenous peoples to manage and have cooperative access to land in their ancestral territories.
Half of the site is mixed forest with some fine mature trees, the remainder is a hayfield with a nice view. Since the purchase, we have been reflecting on the history of this quiet land - and on our responsibilities to it. After 1492 the Gayogohó:nǫˀ and other Hodinǫhsǫ́:nih (Iroquois) peoples were resilient, but the murderous 1779 Sullivan Expedition and subsequent fraudulent treaties drove them into exile. When settlers arrived, they laboriously hand-cleared the forests almost entirely. In my upland neighborhood the resulting land was not highly productive and many farms failed in the 1930’s. Our land carries the detritus of settler-colonial agriculture - rusting machinery and fence wires grown into tree trunks. Even so it is a site of global capitalism, yielding hay for industrial milk production and, prior to our purchase, slated for logging to supply the international lumber market. My wife’s ancestors were settlers not far away; she feels keenly that her privileges originate in Gayogohó:nǫˀ dispossession. These histories fuel my work, which is aimed at breaking this cycle of misuse, dispossession, and trauma.
In the first phase I have been creating text-sculptures at the site to explore my relationship to its history and condition. Some are evanescent, some more durable. The texts spell out “I OWN THIS STOLEN”, or parts of or variations on that phrase. The word “LAND” is not spelled out; it is the entirety of the setting. The texts are formed from reclaimed lumber, grass, fencing materials scavenged from the land, and letters trodden into snow or carved into rock. Future texts will use native plantings, woven twigs, and carving into dead trees. I photograph the pieces repeatedly as weather and seasons change them. Many of the photographs are digital collages created from several frames; I often let the joins show faintly, in sympathy with the layered history of the site. I plan to work with Native American artists on ways to frame and/or present them. I also record the creation of some of the pieces as performance videos.
The second phase will include a series of portrait-interviews. Foresters, loggers, farmers, developers, academics, local officials, Native Americans, settler families, naturalists, botanists, ornithologists, entomologists, and others will help me understand what is here and in what ways it can be used, abused, or conserved. This quiet land is under pressure; gentrification, habitat fragmentation, climate change, deer overgrazing, pesticides, invasive plants, and forest pests brought in by global trade test the resilience of its natural systems.
Understanding and acknowledgement are empty without action. For the third phase I am actively seeking and engaging Native American input, making land available to Gayogohó:nǫˀ people, and working towards creative and non-confrontational forms of land rematriation.
The more I learn about this land and about Native American concepts, societies, and challenges, the more the scope and potential of the project reveals itself.
If you would like to be part of this conversation about finding ways for Indigenous peoples in North America - Turtle Island - to regain access to their lands, please feel to email me.
I Own This Stolen Land is funded in part by a Project Support Grant from The Center for Photographic Art, Carmel, CA. The work is also made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature. It is a fiscally sponsored project by the New York Foundation for the Arts.