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Processes of Spatialization in the Americas

Configurations and Narratives


Edited By Gabriele Pisarz-Ramirez and Hannes Warnecke-Berger

Where do the Americas begin, and where do they end? What is the relationship between the spatial constructions of «area» and «continent»? How were the Americas imagined by different actors in different historical periods, and how were these imaginations – as continent, nation, region – guided by changing agendas and priorities? This interdisciplinary volume addresses competing and conflicting configurations and narratives of spatialization in the context of globalization processes from the 19th century to the present.

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Storied Landscapes: Colonial and Transcultural Inscriptions of the Land

Gesa Mackenthun

Storied Landscapes: Colonial and Transcultural Inscriptions of the Land

Abstract: Globalization discourse tends to represent land as an abstract entity. But places are not just mathematically mapped and measured; they are also inscribed with human memories, which take the form of stories and are in this form passed on to future generations. This chapter will discuss such culturally inscribed places, located in the North American colonial contact zone of the Pacific Northwest. The chapter begins with a short discussion of Paul Lawrence Yuxweluptun’s paintings articulating ongoing conflicts between Indian and non-Indian societies over land stewardship. It then centers on the cultural negotiation of geological events related to the mountain range called Cascadia which forms part of the Rocky Mountains and stretches from Northern California to British Columbia. Discussing the transcultural topological discourse relating to some parts of this geologically active region, the chapter shows the differences between a Western-rationalist approach to land and an indigenous approach that derives from regarding the land as sacred. The epistemic competition about the geological rimland of Cascadia is concurrent with a struggle over ownership of the lands in areas of the Pacific Northwest, most conspicuously defined in the Delgamuukw decision of the Canadian Supreme Court in 1997. Using examples from the Klamath and Modoc oral tradition relating to a ‘prehistorical’ cataclysmic event at today’s Crater Lake, the chapter argues that indigenous oral traditions can indeed be very ancient and should be regarded as important sources for establishing tribal territorial rights, to be added to other existing sources of (historical) knowledge about the pre-colonial past in contemporary land-rights court cases.


Cascadia is a geologically active area. It is part of the global ring of fire, a volcanic circle surrounding the Pacific Ocean and extending from Java all the way to the southern tip of Chile (Fig. 1). The ring of fire includes Mt. St. Helens, which spectacularly erupted in 1981, as well as the volcanoes in Meso- and South America such as the recently erupted Volcán del Fuego in Guatemala or the currently inactive Chimborazo in Ecuador which had been the destination of the famous expeditions of Charles Marie de la Condamine and Pierre Bouguer in 1742 and Alexander von Humboldt, Aimé Bonpland, and Carlos Montúfar in 1802.←53 | 54→

Part of a geological chain connecting Asia with the western coast of the Americas, the Cascadian Range is a “rimland”—first, in a cultural sense: as an area where people from many cultures have met and interacted for millennia before the arrival of Europeans and then for a bit more than 200 years since the beginnings of colonization, involving many different nations and tribes; and, second, in a geological sense, as it lies above one of the world’s most active tectonic “rims” or fault lines, the Cascadia Subduction Zone (CSZ). This means that in this area people have for thousands of years been exposed to cataclysmic geological events such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions.

Such risks notwithstanding, Cascadia is also one of the first areas continuously settled by human beings coming across Beringia and Yukon before, ←54 | 55→during, and after the last glacial maximum.1 Some of their stories may have preserved glimpses of that deep past.2

In addition to these seismic challenges, Cascadia has also been subject to massive interventions into the natural environment—especially logging, the building of oil and gas pipelines, and a severe reduction of salmon due to overfishing. These intensive extractive activities continue to give rise to conflicts, particularly between industrial and environmental interests, with the indigenous population usually siding with the environmentalists. Three paintings by the Cowichan and Okanagan artist Paul Lawrence Yuxweluptun express these conflicts (Figs. 24).

The images show well—however ironically—the indigenous conviction that the land itself is part of a cosmic organism: the hills are covered with symbols ←55 | 56→typical of the expressive mode of Pacific Northwest culture. “Scorched Earth” (Fig. 2) shows the effects of clearcutting of the Pacific Coast cedar trees whose few remaining branches observe the sorrow inflicted on the landscape which is eroding and dissolving in tears. Even the sun is crying, while the image which the red figure holds in his hands might be seen as an indigenous remake of Munch’s “Der Schrei” (“The Scream”). “An Indian Game” (Fig. 3) shows one of Yuxweluptun’s typical ‘machine men’ dancing to the game of the white man juggling legal texts—among them Diane Engelstad and John Bird’s essay collection Nation to Nation: Aboriginal Sovereignty and the Future of Canada (1992) that discusses the effects of colonial law on the lives of First Nations people and the difficult negotiations of obtaining indigenous participation in land stewardship procedures. The dancing native onlooker may suggest a critique of the inaction or even occasional complicity with such policy on the part of official tribal representatives. The most conspicuous element is the ‘culturalization’ of the trees, hills, and even clouds themselves, all of which bear similar mask-like faces as the indigenous ‘machine man’ (see Fig. 4). The land is covered with cultural meaning; it is inscribed with significance. Unlike Western landscape ←56 | 57→←57 | 58→painting, which usually looks at the land from a distance, Yuxweluptun’s work makes us look closely at the land itself, forcing us to behold the violent effects of stolen (“unceded”) territories and modern resource extraction (Lippard 91). Yuxweluptun’s paintings, as Lucy Lippard notes, differ from the Euro-American style of landscape painting in that they emerge “in the deepest sense from the land, from the mountains, sky, rivers, forests, and seas of the Northwest.” They are “passionate but never sentimental.” Glimpses of the past beauty of the land are mixed with stark representations of destruction: “polluted rivers, denuded forests, trash-strewn fields” (91). The land is retching and vomiting in the presence of clearcutting, pipeline leaks, contaminated oceans, and the legal tricks of businessmen. Above all, however, Yuxweluptun’s countryside is a ‘storied’ and living countryside, while his human figures look like robots that have lost, or are about to lose, touch with the natural environment. The storied landscapes are part of a political and legal conflict about ownership and stewardship of the land.

The inscription of the landscape with cultural presences is not just an aesthetic feature; it is also a way of claiming that land. As Edward Chamberlin titled his 2003 book, If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories?, stories express an affective and epistemic relationship to the land that is equivalent to owning that land. Chamberlin takes this sentence from a Gitskan (Tsimshian) elder of northwestern British Columbia who used this question in response to a government official offering to buy the tribe’s land (1). The anecdote suggests that the state of ‘owning’ a place involves more than a commercial transaction; that it crucially depends on collective and deep historical knowledge of that place.

In the remaining part of this chapter, I would like to offer a glimpse of the significance of topological stories in a colonial contact zone in North America—the geological and cultural faultline of the Pacific Northwest. In doing so, I hope to add to discussions central to this volume—about the various spatial constructions of America in a transcultural setting that inevitably produced competing and conflicting narratives of spatialization. In talking about geological and cultural fault zones and rimlands, then, the chapter also seeks to reflect on the theoretical and political implications of such constructions. My first example will deal with a cataclysmic event that is variously ‘storied’ by indigenous and Euro-American historical agents. I will then give a few examples of how oral tradition is being used as a guarantor of continuous habitation (uninterrupted residence) in legal cases about land. The special case I will use is the 1997 Canadian Supreme Court decision in the case Delgamuukw v. British Columbia which gives particular attention to the use of oral traditions in land litigation cases.←58 | 59→


Between 6,500 and 7,000 years ago, a gigantic volcanic eruption shook the Cascadian range and turned one of the highest mountains there—now called Mount Mazama—into a huge crater, today’s Crater Lake in Oregon. It is the deepest lake in the United States. There are various narrative versions of the outbreak, two of which deserve mention here: the first story was told by Klamath Indians in the nineteenth century. It was allegedly first collected in 1865 by a nineteen-year-old soldier, William M. Colvig, stationed at Fort Klamath, from the Klamath Chief Lalek, and later included in a collection of stories by the schoolteacher Ella Clark, published in 1953. Colvig did speak the languages of the local tribes and was familiar with their culture. He tries to find an explanation why the area around Crater Lake is tabooed among the Klamath. He then hears the story about a battle between two superhuman competitors for the favor of a human woman. These are Llao, the “Chief of the Below World” who inhabited the mountain now referred to as Mount Mazama, and Skell, the “Chief of the Above World” who, so the story goes, inhabited Mount Shasta to the south. Both gigantic figures are standing on their respective mountains engaged in throwing stones at one another. The battle culminates:

Mountains shook and crumbled. Red-hot rocks as large as the hills hurled through the skies. Burning ashes fell like rain. The Chief of the Below World spewed fire from his mouth. Like an ocean of flame it devoured the forests on the mountains and in the valleys. On and on the Curse of Fire swept until it reached the homes of the people. Fleeing in terror before it, the people found refuge in the waters of Klamath Lake. (Clark 54)

In this extreme crisis, two medicine men sacrifice themselves to rescue the people and walk into the mouth of the volcano, the “entrance of the Below World” (55). The “Chief of the Below World was driven into his home, and the top of the mountain fell upon him. When the morning sun rose, the high mountain was gone” (55). In this version, easily identifiable as the result of transculturation, we have a familiar way of rendering a cataclysmic event as a gendered competition between two supernatural powers, heaven and hell—a demonic ménage à trois. The story features the sacred leaders as heroes who sacrifice themselves to save their people. Its twofold function is to explain a geological event and to provide social authority to the caste of sacred men. Yet, as I will argue at length in a forthcoming publication, this version is a diluted rendering of a number of oral traditions collected from Klamath and Modoc storytellers by Albert Gatschet and Jeremiah Curtin earlier in the 1870s and 1880s and giving a less ‘westernized’ account of a catastrophic battle that happened at the same place. Because of these events, recorded for thousands of years, the place now called Crater Lake is demonstrably one of the most sacred places in the Pacific Northwest.←59 | 60→

The second story about the same place—Crater Lake in Oregon alias Mount Mazama—was written almost concurrently with the publication of the first story. It belongs to a very different rhetorical register. It is the first full-length geological account of the eruption and collapse of Mount Mazama and was provided by the Berkeley geologist Howel Williams. His study The Ancient Volcanoes of Oregon appeared in 1948 and continues the work of the first geological expedition ever made to Crater Lake under the leadership of Joseph Silas Diller in 1897. Williams mentions no oral tradition or archaeological finds but makes repeated reference to a human presence during the outbreak. He assumes that the “Indians who occupied Oregon for thousands of years before the arrival of the white man must have witnessed countless eruptions,” and he speaks of a “cataclysm seen from afar by the early Indians. They had long been familiar with the majestic ice-capped cone, for it rose to a height of 12,000 feet, a mile above its present ruins” (45). His scientific report makes use of a host of literary devices. This was not unusual at that time when narrative history was an accepted style in historiographical writing. Two of these stylistic elements are ekphrasis and metaphor: the animals, he writes, were “[a]larmed by the quakes” and fled while “the Indians, aware of the menace, withdrew to a safer distance”:

Finally, a plume of white vapor rose from the summit. Within a few hours, it changed to a towering column, becoming darker and more ominous as the content of ash increased. At first, the eruptions were mild, and the fragments falling from the cloud were no larger than particles of sand. But day after day, the intensity of the explosions mounted. Huge cauliflower clouds rose higher into the sky, to be drifted eastward by the wind. Night after night, the clouds were more brightly lit by incandescent ejecta describing fiery arcs in their flight. The roars from the crater grew louder, and frenzied streaks of lightning multiplied in number. Many of the fragments were not as large as a clenched fist, and showers of fine ash began to fall hundreds of miles away, on the plateau east and northeast of the volcano. In lands thousands of miles distant, men marvelled at the brilliant colors in the sky as the rays of the setting and rising sun shone through the dustladen air. (46; emphasis added)

The text continues in this vein. Williams recreates the event for his readers, for whom moving images of volcanic eruptions were still unknown but whose memories were probably ripe with images of the nuclear bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the contemporaneous nuclear tests in the Pacific with their famously featured “mushroom” clouds (initially referred to as “cauliflower clouds”3). There is an interesting dialogue between the visual coverage of the man-made ←60 | 61→nuclear disasters of the twentieth century and the reconstruction of the ancient natural cataclysm. What connects them is the language of the sublime and the shape of the clouds.4 Williams’s text is written in the style of an eyewitness account whose graphic detail differs only slightly from the details found in the Klamath-Colvig-Clark story. It is accompanied by—and produced in tandem with—two ‘illustrations’ of the outbreak that took place 6,600 years ago according to his reckoning (45). The images, unlike the drawings and photos included elsewhere in Williams’s study, are reproductions of two paintings by a contemporary artist, Paul Rockwood, producing the scene according to Williams’ instructions (63).5

Rendered in the exquisite style of American landscape painting, Rockwood’s paintings aesthetically integrate the ‘prehistoric’ event into the narrative of the American West as a wilderness ruled by primeval geological forces. It is a form of domesticating that event into the cultural archive of the United States. The ancient event is integrated into a spatial aesthetic familiar to the reader from the famous landscape paintings of Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, and Thomas Moran whose landscapes are usually devoid of human presence and thus available for the recipient’s full visual ‘possession’ and imaginative immersion. This aestheticizing gesture, however, contrasts with Williams’ verbal description of the outbreak and his conspicuous evocation of humans having observed the event. We know that this was indeed the case: remains of human occupation were discovered underneath the ashes of the Mazama eruption in nearby rock caves at Fort Rock, Oregon (Cressman). The abovementioned Klamath story recorded by Colvig and Clark thus confirms an archaeological knowledge that came into existence in the 1930s with Cressman’s excavations, with the important additional information that the event is still remembered by the descendants of the ancient inhabitants, meaning that there exists a cultural continuity between those who experienced the eruption and the collapse of the volcano and the present-day indigenous inhabitants.6 The story of Mount Mazama—called “Gi-was” by the Klamath and Modoc Indians—is and has been a central element of their oral ←61 | 62→tradition; the lake and the surrounding mountains, which have been a national park since 1902, are to them a “most sacred place” (Deur 51–88). If we apply Vine Deloria Jr.’s distinction between four kinds of sacred places—sites of memorable historical events; historically conspicuous sites since imbued with spiritual meaning; sites of mythical relevance and spiritual revelation; and sites of continued revelation (272–78)—Gi-was is a sacred place in the second and third sense, not only owing to human occupancy (in pre-colonial times it was actually exempted from normal human presence) but because various tribes have retained the knowledge of these terrifying events in their stories (274).

The two narrative traditions of the ancient eruption are not treated coevally in the historical archive, due to the fact that one of them is a scientific narrative and the other ‘only’ a set of stories by some old Native Americans. Yet the precise place to which the story relates—into which it is inscribed, to which it is associatively attached—may serve to verify the antiquity of the collective memory. Although the versions of the myth related by Colvig and Clark have been influenced by the cultural encounter,7 there is abundant evidence of a mythical memory of a cataclysmic event related to that particular place—Gi-was—collected in the first few years of colonial encounter and before any geological account of the eruption and collapse of Mount Mazama came into circulation. As scholars of oral traditions have found (Jan Vansina and others), it is extremely rare that a story tradition can continue to carry specific historical content over such a long period of time. Over the passage of several thousand years the historical kernel will be successively rearticulated and translated into a metaphorical and mythical language—as we know it from the long-term narrativization of Biblical and classical historical events.8 As Vansina contends, the longevity of an oral tradition is in part determined by the intensity of the event (175). The eruption that took place at Gi-was in c. 6,600 BCE must have cost the lives of many people and significantly changed the landscape, causing harvest failures and starvation. Its impact can be compared to that of the main disasters of Mediterranean antiquity, from the subduction of Atlantis and Sodom and Gomorrah (whose date and ←62 | 63→place are uncertain) all the way to the eruption of Vesuvius destroying Pompeii and Herculaneum as recently as 79 AD.

While stories from various tribes outside of the Pacific Northwest may contain vague memories of Pleistocene migrations (as Roger Echo-Hawk suggests), tribal legends in the Pacific Northwest often contain very precise spatial references. Only in correlating the mythical stories with the geological reconstruction of the events can the antiquity of the stories be ascertained. Conversely, the contents of the story may contain information about the emotional intensity of the cataclysm that no scientific account is able to record.

In the Pacific Northwest such a correlation is indeed possible. There are various reasons for this. First, some of the tribes who have kept these traditions, especially the Klamath, have been less exposed to massive dispossession and forced dislocation than other tribes; though the Modoc were indeed deported to the Indian Territory after the Modoc War, the translator Jeremiah Curtin was able to obtain extremely rich mythical-topological information from them. Albert Gatschet, another early linguist recording the Klamath stories, in fact writes that they were “autochtonous” to that place and had no memories of historical migrations (Gatschet xli). It is interesting in this context that the Klamath were among those tribes subjected to a brutal termination policy in the twentieth century: one of the most vicious attempts to destroy their cultural and social existence. They are still struggling to regain their former political, cultural, and territorial independence.

Second, the stories are tied to the same spatial features which are still visible; this activates the human faculty of tying cultural understandings to specific places. Émile Durkheim, Georg Simmel, and more recent theorists of cultural topologies have theorized this affective aspect of human place-making (see Shields 81–88). Displaced tribes like the Cherokee may still remember the old stories of the Smoky Mountains in their former homeland; they may even attach those stories to new spatial features that remind them of the old land (see Oakley).9 But generally the retention of the tie between physical landmarks and the stories originally inspired by them seems to be a guarantee of longevity (and of precision).

Finally, the European collectors of the stories relating to the Pacific Northwest, featuring such linguistically sensitive experts as Franz Boas, Albert Gatschet, Jeremiah Curtin, and the schoolteacher Ella Clark, were particularly well ←63 | 64→equipped to produce high quality records—perhaps more so than folklorists in other regions of North America.


In the past twenty years, various scholars have argued in favor of adding indigenous oral traditions to the other existing sources of knowledge about the pre-colonial past. Unsurprisingly, they reject the term ‘prehistory’ to refer to that period (Schmidt and Mrozowski). After having deconstructed the absolute truth claims of historiographical master narratives and after having seen the cracks in the fissures of many texts laying claim to scientific objectivity (see Williams’s metaphorical overkill above), this may be the time to take indigenous oral traditions more seriously as historical evidence answering to the specific rules of the oral medium. The sociologist Julie Cruikshank, for example, has convincingly shown how the spatial memories of the indigenous inhabitants of the Yukon Territory cohere with scientific reconstructions of glacier movements, landslides and the like. Cruikshank treats all reports about geological events, whether written down or passed on orally, whether cultural or scientific, as collective memory narratives. Similarly, Ruth Ludwin and Coll Thrush triangulate the science of geology and indigenous oral traditions, rejecting the notion that ‘science’ and ‘stories’ form two separate and mutually exclusive archives but rather viewing them as two different ways of coming to terms with a very mobile landscape:

As the peoples of Cascadia struggled over millennia to come to terms with the geological realities of their homelands, they developed interpretations of seismic events that simultaneously reflected and shaped their lived experiences of place. Earthquakes and tsunamis were central components or relations between human beings and the other, nonhuman beings who inhabited the coastal regions. […] earthquakes and tsunamis were understood to be moral events reflective of relationships between and among human people and the other residents of Cascadia. (6)

Following Ludwin and Thrush we can contend that all stories, whether scientific or not, are hybrid products of specific cultural constellations. They are hybrid, first, in themselves (their semantic reference is always to the real world and to a community’s symbolic repertoire), and second, they are hybridized by the colonial epistemic encounter, being the result of cross-cultural exchange and transculturation. Oral traditions, then, require to be seriously investigated as a valuable cultural archive, not as alternatives or supplements to scientific accounts but as different narrativizations of an ever-changing earth. Though not technically equivalent to scientific reports because they are subject to different generic and mimetic rules and mnemonic processes, orally transmitted ←64 | 65→indigenous traditions offer us another geo-epistemological access to the world of the past and the present.

As Ludwin and Thrush also remind us, geology itself is in part the product of colonial settings, having “crystallized,” as they write,

as a discipline in tandem with Europe’s domination of large swaths of the world, it was shaped by those encounters; […] European “discoveries” around the world led intellectuals, including mineralogists and other natural historians, to understand their own homelands in new ways, which in turn shaped how explorers, colonists, and others saw the “new” worlds. (8)

As a science of space invented during the period of European expansion, geology was “central to the process in that it offered a methodology to fuel the planet’s industrial and economic transformation, but it also transformed historical narratives about the earth and its peoples” (8). They suggest that the geological surveying of colonized territories was not only concurrent with the territorial dispossession of native tribes but also, as other sciences, complicit with the “denigration, dismissal, and dismantling” of indigenous “systems of knowledge” (8). Needless to say, most of these conflicts centered on the ownership of the land—which is why displays of indigenous knowledge of land use and resource management form an important part of establishing tribal territorial rights in colonial courts today. And which is why indigenous oral traditions have been belittled as mere fairy tales for much too long. A colonial society has no interest in preserving the topological knowledge of the people it dispossesses.


Collective topological memories, besides revealing information about how indigenous people experienced and reacted to cataclysmic events, have at times served as evidence of continuous residence and “cultural affiliation” in land rights cases (according to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act/NAGPRA of 1990). Here a great difference opens up between the way the US Supreme Court has treated conflicts over land ownership and stewardship and the more recent policy of the Canadian Supreme Court. In both cases, the rulings reflect discursive conflicts about the meaning of land, ownership, and narrative knowledge. In the 1980s, in a case known as Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association (US Supreme Court), the US Supreme Court foiled an attempt of two California courts to protect a wilderness environment sacred to the Yurok, Karok, and Tolowa tribes from destruction by a logging company. The tribes had invoked the free exercise (of religion) clause of the First Amendment as well as the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in their attempt to save ←65 | 66→the High Country in the Siskiyou Mountains in Northern California (Six Rivers National Forest) from serious deforestation. The claimants asserted that their ancestors had inhabited that area for millennia. They were joined by various environmentalist groups as well as two agencies of the state of California (W. Echo-Hawk 339).10 The lawsuit was filed against the US Forest Service which was planning to build a logging road through the mountains and to exploit the area for its timber. What’s remarkable about the Lyng case is that two California courts ruled in favor of the plaintiffs—prohibiting the building of the road and the cutting down of the forest. The case was only overturned by the US Supreme Court. The records of the first trial, at the California federal district court, document impressive scenes of transcultural communication, as Walter Echo-Hawk shows (325–56). Judge Stanley Weigel, though not known as an environmentalist or lover of Indians, treated the elders who testified in court with utmost respect and allowed himself to come under the impact of the elders’ stories about the spiritual significance of the Siskiyou Wilderness. Apparently he had a special rapport with an old medicine woman, Lowana Brantner (W. Echo-Hawk 341). Weigel handed down the landmark decision that regardless of its “unorthodox character,” the tribal religious beliefs of the Yurok, Karok, Hoopa, and Tolowa were to be regarded as being under full protection by the Constitution (342). His ruling testifies to his (temporary) affective immersion into the spiritual universe of the Native Americans, as it had been explained to him in court.

The ruling in favor of the preservation of the sacred area was affirmed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1986. However, in 1988 the US Supreme Court turned down the motion with a majority of 5:3, on spurious grounds. It allowed the construction of the road11 through the ancestral sacred territory and denied applicability of the First Amendment to sacred sites. It simply refused to accept the cultural specificity of Native American religious practice. It likewise ignored any coevalness between the High Country and sacred sites existing and protected in Judeo-Christian religious cultures. Part of the Supreme Court’s rejection of the priority of native spiritual rights over commercial interests is based on an analogy between the spiritual rights of the California tribes and another case involving the religious rights of a Native American: that of a two-year-old girl whose parents refused the issuing of a social security number for her (US Supreme Court).12 The Supreme Court majority argues that “[the] ←66 | 67→building of a road or the harvesting of timber on publicly owned land cannot meaningfully be distinguished from the use of a Social Security number” in the way it impinges on the exercise of religious rights.

The comparison fails on various accounts—e.g. by equating individual religious rights with the collective religious rights of whole tribes,13 and by ignoring the topographical component of the tribes’ religious exercise. The analogy is also reminiscent of the legal and cultural discourse of infantilizing Indians. The tribes’ complaint—that the logging scheme would virtually destroy their religion—is defined away with the help of legal fiction and hair-splitting sophistry. The majority also offered a severely limited interpretation of the free religious exercise clause of the US Constitution. It argues that unless the government punishes a person for exercising his/her religion or forces him/her to violate his/her religion, one cannot speak of an infringement upon religious rights. Walter Echo-Hawk, echoing the comment of the dissenting Judge Brennan, concludes: “Under this restrictive vision of religious liberty, government can destroy an entire religion with constitutional impunity” (347).

The court’s fear was that the granting of religious freedom in this land-related case might open the floodgates to future land claims by Indian tribes—that Indian entrepreneurs might acquire “de facto beneficial ownership of some rather spacious tracts of public property,” that it might indeed eventually “divest the Government of its right to use what is, after all, its land” (O’Connor, after W. Echo-Hawk 348).

The question is precisely whose land it is. This is the question underlying many of the discussions about the antiquity of the indigenous presence in America and their ancestral rights derived from it: the unvoiced knowledge that the process of territorial dispossession was, and continues to be, disturbingly incompatible with Western moral standards.

In his passionate dissenting opinion, Justice William Brennan readily identifies the real motivation for turning down the case: “In the final analysis, the Court’s refusal to recognize the constitutional dimension of respondents’ injuries stems from its concern that acceptance of respondents’ claim could potentially strip the Government of its ability to manage and use vast tracts of federal property” (US Supreme Court). In response to this fear, he points out the diligence with which earlier courts had made sure to ascertain the spiritual centrality of the Siskiyou wilderness for the involved tribes, praising their good ethnographic work in the California courts.14 The case, according to Brennan, “represents yet another ←67 | 68→stress point in the longstanding conflict between two disparate cultures—the dominant Western culture, which views land in terms of ownership and use, and that of Native Americans, in which concepts of private property are not only alien, but contrary to a belief system that holds land sacred.” He sarcastically concludes, faintly echoing a famous phrase of Red Cloud, that with the Court’s decision to value the construction of a marginally important logging road on a higher level than the preservation of the Native Americans’ spiritual rights, those rights will amount to “nothing more than the right to believe that their religion will be destroyed” (US Supreme Court).15

Nine years later, in 1997, the Canadian Supreme Court formulated a radically different attitude toward indigenous traditional land rights in the so-called Delgamuukw case (Delgamuukw is the indigenous name of one of the claimants, Earl Muldon). In 1984, while the Lyng case was still pending, more than 100 Gitxsan (Gitskan or Tsimshian) and Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs in the province of British Columbia had filed a complaint against the Province of British Columbia in reaction to clear-cut logging on their traditional land. They claimed unextinguished Aboriginal title to the land (there had been no treaties) and asserted that their claims constituted a burden upon the land title of the Crown. In 1991, Judge McEachern at the B.C. Supreme Court decided in favor of the B.C. government. He rejected the oral traditions given as court testimony by the elders in order to establish their tribes’ ancestral relation to the land and he resorted to the worst kind of savagist ideology when referring to the First Nations’ way of life as, quoting Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish and short” (Supreme Court of Canada). McEachern announced that Aboriginal title, the legal term for Aboriginal ownership over land, had been extinguished by the Crown in 1858. The Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en appealed, eventually taking their case all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. The court’s text explaining the reasons for accepting the appeal and delegating the case back to the lower courts has acquired landmark status for defining post-Constitution Canada’s ←68 | 69→criteria for accepting Indian land rights in the absence of any treaty. Chief Justice Antonio Lamer ruled, first, that Aboriginal title constituted an ancestral right protected by the Canadian Constitution; second, that Aboriginal title is a right relating to land sui generis, held communally and distinct from other ancestral rights. Aboriginal title is, therefore, in substance, a right to territory and encompasses exclusive use and occupation; third, that the evidence necessary for obtaining this status includes that the claimants have occupied the territory in question before the declaration of Canadian sovereignty and until the present; fourth, that proof of continuous occupation is sufficient if it includes the demonstration of a substantial maintenance of the bond between the people concerned and the territory; fifth, that oral evidence could be admitted as proof; and sixth, that Aboriginal lands could not be used in a manner that was inconsistent with Aboriginal title: if indigenous people wished to use the land in ways that Aboriginal title did not permit, then the land must be surrendered to the Crown (Supreme Court of Canada).

The Canadian Supreme Court’s liberal attitude toward admitting oral tradition as decisive testimony in a case about logging and land rights must be seen as the result of western civil societies’ serious attempts in recent decades to arrive at a more equitable understanding of the legal relation between settler colonies and their indigenous populations, both inside and outside the academy. While in the United States such progressive notions were drowned in 1988, a Canadian Supreme Court pointed toward a fairer way of regulating territorial conflicts ten years later. Clearly the Supreme Court’s statement did not return any land to the tribes or grant them exclusive rights to the land. But it demanded that indigenous traditions, reaching much further back than the European presence, ought to be included in any legislation relating to ancestral lands. Delgamuukw is a landmark decision honoring landmark legends. Yet it also defined strict criteria for laying claim to indigenous rights, among them evidence of continuous occupation and of ‘indigenous’ use of the land: both of which imply a certain nostalgia for an indigenous culture exempt from historical change.

But this is not the end of both stories. The road into the Californian Siskiyou wilderness was not built after all. The construction was prevented by a wilderness protection act passed in 1990, result of the growing power of environmentalist groups. In British Columbia, on the other hand, negotiations about how to manage the land question amicably were initiated in 1998 but received a blow in 2016 when it transpired that some of the chiefs who had taken the province to court in the 1990s had now signed away the tribal rights for passage of a gas pipeline (TransCanada’s proposed Prince Rupert Gas Transmission Project (PRGT). The 900-kilometer pipeline will carry liquid natural gas (LNG) from ←69 | 70→northeastern British Columbia to the Pacific North West LNG export terminal proposed for Lelu Island on British Columbia’s north coast, crossing the territories of ten Gitxsan wilp groups along the way (Jang). The signers of this leaked contract include Chief Earl Muldon alias Delgamuukw, the name patron of the landmark case. Delgamuukw says that he and the other nine chiefs who accepted the money were acting out of honorable motivations—he says they wanted to invest the money into an urgently needed decent school building and a home for the elderly of the tribe (Jang).

The spatial and legal formations in colonial and postcolonial rimlands are messy and at times bordering on the absurd. Obviously, indigenous people do not always go to court to prevent the land from being destroyed (by logging, by the construction of pipelines). They do not always insist on their special rights of stewardship for merely spiritual reasons. Some of them also join the game of the globalized transnational economy, seeking to improve the situation of their communities by taking bribes from the extraction industry ($5.3 million CAD in this case). The case critically questions the functioning of the communities’ political systems (and created a major crisis because the chiefs had not asked their tribal members for their consent but acted as old school patriarchs). But it also requires us to critically reflect our own expectations of how native tribes should contribute to the conservation of the environment and survive economically. The acceptance of the money by the chiefs clearly violates one of the conditions phrased by Supreme Court Justice Lamers in 1997—that Aboriginal lands be used in a manner that was consistent with Aboriginal title, i.e. consistent with a special “bond” between humans and the land, with traditional ways of land use. But isn’t this qualification forcing tribes into an essentialist straightjacket by expecting of them that they act ecologically even in the face of poverty, economic hardship, and massive pressure from powerful economic players? To take this one provocative step further: Would the tribes who have recently opposed the north-south tar sands oil pipelines (Keystone XL and North Dakota Access Pipelines) likewise cease their opposition if they were among the beneficiaries of the oil and gas industry, by accepting bribes or by becoming shareholders? Anyone who has seen the sheer poverty on many reservations and indigenous communities should understand how difficult it is to resist the lure. We once again have to realize that the fault line runs not between ‘nations,’ or between Indians and non-Indians, but right through each community regardless of political and ethnic affiliations. While the respect attributed by the Canadian Supreme Court to indigenous land-related stories and traditions is in constant danger of giving way to more cynical assumptions about Indian non-ecological behavior and savagery (which continue to exist even in the minds of judges, as we have seen), the Gitxsan elders ←70 | 71→have risked much more than their own social peace: their action resonates far and wide and across national borders into the realm of cultural mythology about Native Americans, one of whose items is the belief that they are protectors of the earth, not its destroyers. As in many cases of myth-making, both versions—the ecological Indian and the unecological savage—form part of the same cultural misunderstanding. Whether judges are attacking or defending their rights on the basis of that mythology, they are oblivious to sociological realities and to the fact that Native Americans, too, are subject to historical change. Indigenous people, as everyone else, never stop developing new means of coping in a political and social environment that is not very conducive to their cultural survival. In the last analysis both Canadian rulings deny cultural and legal coevalness to the indigenous claimants—one by regarding them as Hobbesian primitives, the other by forcing them into the straightjacket of romantic primitivism.

Thus the scorched earth and the poisoned ocean of Paul Lawrence Yuxweluptun’s paintings are not the work of white people alone but of a whole extraction economy and mentality from which none of us is truly exempt.


In concluding, let me sketch a few aspects to be considered when talking about contested spaces (e.g. colonial contact zones, rimlands and ‘subduction zones’):

1.Geopolitical considerations of the macrostructures and macropolitics of settler colonies will have to be combined with analyses of the microlevel (the fuzziness of various anthropological strata): how agents of transculturation, like elders, translators, traveler-scientists, teachers, contribute to ‘making’ those contested spaces; economic aspects have to be considered in conjunction with cultural aspects (as in Richard White’s book on the Columbia River as an “organic machine”). Spatial orders are complex because of this human dimension, because of the continuous conflicts between residual, dominant, and emergent social forces in transnational and transcultural settings.

2.When talking about contested spaces, juridical and epistemic-cognitive dimensions cannot be excluded. Land and spatial control are not just ‘grabbed’ back and forth but these processes are accompanied by a legal discourse that deeply reflects, and enacts, cultural conceptions that are historically grown and contingent. Land transactions reflect and perform the power structures of a society and the power asymmetries of colonial contact zones.

3.The coloniality of such conflicts about land is reflected in legal, political and scientific discourses but those discourses interact with a deeper stratum of collective imaginations—the ideological DNA of a colonial society. Coloniality ←71 | 72→is not just a political and economic reality but an epistemic deep structure, as Walter Mignolo and others have shown. That deep structure does not only consist of identitarian elements like race- and gender-related ideologemes. The coloniality of knowledge also allows and disallows ways of knowing about space, place, and land. My examples are the concurrent archives of modern science (geology) and traditional indigenous stories—two archives whose conjunctions deserve more transcultural analysis: first, for getting a better understanding of how the earth actually moves and behaves; second, for understanding how people relate emotionally and intellectually to this seismic condition—how they continue to make a home in this land, owning it, claiming it, inhabiting it.

4.Including an anthropological—actor-oriented—perspective on space enables us to better confront neoliberalism’s seductive offers to abstraction—of looking at land merely in the abstract, Lockean way (in terms of numbers, tables, empty space in identical squares of real estate to be cut up, sold, dug up, converted into concrete structures). There’s a danger and a violence in this kind of abstraction, as the ‘humanist’ perspective reminds us. Because space is never empty but filled with life, human and non-human, with emotional attachment, and cultural knowledge. In short: space is always ‘storied’. If we ignore the ‘storied’ quality of space, we unwittingly allow the world to be divided up between avaricious powers filling their stores with earthly wealth while swamping us with stories full of violence and denial.


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1Recent finds date a human presence in Yukon to 22,000 BCE. Archaeological examination of the Bluefish Caves in Yukon suggests that the Beringia Standstill Hypothesis (which holds that migration into America proper was stopped for c. 10,000 years during the last glacial maximum) is no longer feasible. Before these recent finds, the discoveries made by the team of Thomas Dillehay in the 1980s had long established that humans lived in Monte Verde in Chile at least 18,500 years ago, having migrated there from north via Beringia and/or across the Pacific Ocean (see Hogenboom).

2A 2000 issue of American Antiquity features an interesting querelle about the usefulness of oral traditions as an additional archive to that of archaeology. Roger Echo-Hawk speculates that North American indigenous oral traditions about underground worlds and dark regions may contain, if in a “distorted” way, earliest memories of a “Pleistocene worldscape” that those ancestors crossed on their way to America. Narratives of “a land of lingering darkness as a place of origin became preserved as an underworld” (276–77). Other scholars, most notably Ronald Mason, express massive doubts about the mnemonic capacity of oral traditions to reach that far back. Unfortunately, Mason’s approach is tainted by a weak understanding of the complexity of mythological texts (whose absence of chronology was proof of an absence of evidence for an earlier scholarship, to which Mason still seems to be attached). Increasingly drifting into a polemic style, Mason spells out the real intention for examining, and denying, the potential of native oral traditions when he writes that “[o]n any grounds amenable to logical argument and empirical testing, Native Americans are descendants of ancient immigrants and did not originate in the New World, however much their traditional histories attest the opposite …” (262; emphasis added). Grammatically, the claim is wrong, as present-day Native Americans do indeed originate in the Americas, as did their ancestors who first welcomed European colonizers on their beaches and in their homes. It’s the “ancient immigrants” who, being immigrants, did not “originate in the Americas.” Neither did the less ancient European immigrants to the Americas or indeed the ancient immigrants to Europe (from Africa, the cradle of humanity). This logical slip indicates that the discussion about the ancient peopling of the Americas is an ideologically loaded issue that should be subjected to analysis sensible to the mechanisms of the coloniality of knowledge (Mignolo; Quijano).

3The metaphor was used as part of the official terminology for the Operation Crossroads (Baker) Test of 1946 (see and Weisgall 222).

4… a “Plinian” one in the case of the reconstructed Mazama event.

5The spectacular paintings of Paul Rockwood, especially “Mt. Mazama Just before the Destruction of Its Summit” and “Mt. Mazama Just after the Destruction of Its Summit,” both from 1940, can be seen on this website: (last accessed 5 September, 2017). The little word “just” signals an immediacy of observation and a scientific exactitude completely out of sync with the fact that even in the Old World, no human record exists that documents such an ancient event.

6For a contemporary version, see the narrative by Barbara Alatorre.

7Colvig wrote down the story about sixty years after he had allegedly first heard it. Both his original version of 1921 and Clark’s abbreviated version of it in Indian Legends are influenced by their knowledge of the geological reconstructions of the collapse of the mountain that began to appear since 1897.

8These multi-layered texts are extremely difficult to unravel. I have tried to do so with the Klamath and Modoc traditions in a chapter of my upcoming book on the constructions of American antiquity.

9European migrants and immigrants do the same, naming new villages after their old homes both regionally and transcontinentally.

10Thomas Pynchon obliquely includes the conflict in his novel Vineland (1990; see the original cover).

11(Gasquet and Orleans = G-O Road)

12The analogous case used is Bowen v. Roy (1986).

13But the Constitution guarantees individual rights, not collective ones.

14Such work is actually demanded by the AIRFA.

15Brennan also refers to the conflict between land access and Native American religious freedom and how to deal with this: “Indeed, in the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA), 42 U.S.C. § 1996 Congress expressly recognized the adverse impact land use decisions and other governmental actions frequently have on the site-specific religious practices of Native Americans, and the Act accordingly directs agencies to consult with Native American religious leaders before taking actions that might impair those practices” (US Supreme Court). Red Cloud’s phrase runs somewhat like this: “The whites made us many promises but they never kept but one: they promised to take our land and they took it.”←74 | 75→