111. Vanessa Watts, “Indigenous Place-Thought & Agency Amongst Humans and Non-Humans (First Woman and Sky Woman Go On a European World Tour!)”

by breavman99

watts place-thought.jpg

I came across a reference to this article in Stephanie Springgay’s and Sarah E. Truman’s Walking Methodologies in a More-Than-Human World: WalkingLab, one of many texts they refer to that have resonance for my own work. Watts begins with two creation stories: the Haudenosaunee story of Sky Woman, and the Anishinaabe story about the Seven Fires of Creation. “Before continuing, I would like to emphasize that these two events took place,” Watts states. “They were not imagined or fantasized. This is not lore, myth or legend. . . . This is what happened” (21). I have to admit that I stumbled over those sentences, because although I agree that creation stories are significant, I don’t take them literally, as Watts does. For one thing, all creation stories can’t literally be true. And I’m not elevating the Christian story told in the Book of Genesis above Indigenous creation accounts by taking it literally, either, although that story, as Watts points out, has had serious consequences. The creation stories Watts relates have important consequences as well: they have enabled a cosmology of relationality that is very different from the separation between humans and the world that is constructed in Genesis.

Watts suggests that these two creation stories “focus on a common historical understanding of the origin of the human species—the spiritual and the feminine”; they “speak to the common intersections of the female, animals, the spirit world, and the mineral and plant world” (21). Both stories “describe a theoretical understanding of the world via a physical embodiment—Place-Thought” (21). This is the central term in Watts’s article. “Place-Thought is the non-distinctive space where place and thought were never separated because they never could or can be separated,” she writes. “Place-Thought is based upon the premise that land is alive and thinking and that humans and non-humans derive agency through the extensions of these thoughts” (21). Because of the centrality of Place-Thought within Indigenous world views, “Indigenous perceptions of whom and what contributes to a societal structure are quite different from traditional Euro-Western thought,” which is focused on the actions of human beings, and in which “we can see the emergence of non-humans being evaluated in terms of their contributions to the development and maintenance of society”—that is, human society (21). “This article will examine how agency circulates inside of two different frames: Place-Thought (Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabe cosmologies) and epistemological-ontological (Euro-Western frame,” Watts writes, noting that her intention is “both to emphasize a differentiated framing of Indigenous cosmologies as well as to examine our rich and intelligent theories found in these cosmologies” (21). Watts is particularly interested in “what the land’s intentions might be, and how she tries to speak through us,” and in resisting “the colonial frame” by imagining and striving for the “original instructions” given to Indigenous peoples, which are located in what Susan Hill calls “the ‘pre-colonial mind’” (22). These stories, then, are both cosmologies and resistance to colonization.

“Colonization is not solely an attack on peoples and lands,” Watts continues; “rather, this attack is accomplished in part through purposeful and ignorant misrepresentations of Indigenous cosmologies” (22). “Frameworks in a Euro-Western sense exist in the abstract,” she writes. “How they are articulated in action or behavior brings this abstractions into praxis; hence a division of epistemological/theoretical versus ontological/praxis” (22). In Haudenosaunee or Anishnaabe framework, however, “our cosmological frameworks are not an abstraction but rather a literal and animate extension of Sky Woman’s and First Woman’s thoughts; it is impossible to separate theory from praxis if we believe in the original historical events of Sky Woman and First Woman” (22). The complex theories of Indigenous people, then, “are not distinct from place” (22). Watts provides a visual representation of these two separate framings. The Haudenosaunee or Anishnaabe framing is circular: it moves from Spirit, to Place-Thought, which determines agency within creation; societies and systems become extensions of that agency, creating an obligation to communicate, which leads back to Spirit (22). In contrast, Euro-Western framing is linear. It begins with a divide between epistemology and ontology, between knowing and being; that separates constituents for the world from how the world is understood, limiting agency to humans, and creating an “[e]xclusionary relationship with nature” (22). This representation is “a depiction of the crucial differences between Indigenous and Euro-Western processes” (23). In the Haudenosaunee or Anishnaabe framing, land is animate. Being animate “goes beyond being alive or acting, it is to be full of thought, desire, contemplation and will,” she writes:

It is the literal embodiment of the feminine, of First Woman, by which many Indigenous origin stories find their inception. When Sky Woman falls from the sky and lies on the back of a turtle, she is not only able to create land but becomes territory herself. Therefore, Place-Thought is an extension of her circumstance, desire, and communication with the water and animals—her agency. Through this communication she is able to become the basis by which all future societies will be built upon—land. (23)

Sky Woman, Watts continues, “becomes the designer of how living beings will organize upon her,” a process that scientists call ecosystems or habitats (23). “However, if we accept the idea that all living things contain spirit, then this extends beyond complex structures within an ecosystem,” she writes. “It means that non-human beings choose how they reside, interact and develop relationships with other non-humans. So, all elements of nature possess agency, and this agency is not limited to innate action or causal relationships” (23). 

For this reason, “habitats and ecosystems are better understood as societies from an Indigenous point of view; meaning that they have ethical structures, inter-species treaties and agreements, and further their ability to interpret, understand and implement” (23). Non-humans are active members os that society, and “they also directly influence how humans organize themselves into that society” (23). “The structure of societies is demarcated by territory, which again, is an extension of Sky Woman’s original circumstance,” Watts writes. “She is present in the relationships between humans and humans, humans and non-humans, and non-humans and non-humans” (23). Thus, human thought and action are “derived from a literal expression of particular places and historical events in Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabe cosmologies,” and places possess agency that is similar to the agency that Euro-Western thinkers locate in human beings (23). Indigenous people are therefore “extensions of the very land we walk upon,” and they “have an obligation to maintain communication with it” (23). If Indigenous peoples do not care for the land, they run the risk of losing who they are as Indigenous peoples: 

When this warning is examined in terms of original Place-Thought, it is not only the threat of lost identity or physical displacement that is risked but our ability to think, act, and govern becomes compromised because this relationship is continuously corrupted with foreign impositions of how agency is organized. Colonization has disrupted our ability to communicate with place and has endangered agency amongst Indigenous peoples. The pre-colonial mind was confronted with a form of diminutive agency, and the process by which we ensured our own ability to act and converse with non-humans and other humans became compromised. (23-24)

The disruptions to this process caused by colonization go beyond “losing a form of Indigenous identity or worldview and how it is practiced”; rather, such disruptions “become a violation of Sky Woman’s intentionality” (24).

The epistemological-ontological divide characteristic of Euro-Western thought understands agency much differently. Epistemology, Watts writes, citing Descartes, is “one’s perception of the world as being distinct from what is in the world, or what constitutes it” (24). Only humans are capable of thinking and perceiving (24). Other things in the world may have an essence, Watts continues, citing Kant and Latour, or have some interconnection with humans, “but their ability to perceive is null or limited to instinctual reactions” (24). “The epistemological-ontological removes the how and why out of the what,” Watts contends. “The what is left empty, readied for inscription” (24). The only theoretical structure that can understand the world and its constituents, according to the division between epistemology and ontology, requires “a separation of not only human and non-human, but a hierarchy of beings in terms of how beings are able to think as well” (24). This distinction between “what and how/why is not an innocent one,” and its consequences can be disastrous, because of the way it elevates humans above or outside of the natural world (24). Whereas an Anishnaabe perspective would state that a river perceives or contemplates its action—the flowing of its water—a Euro-Western perspective would deny the river that ability to perceive or contemplate (24). Colonization and “the imposition of the epistemology-ontology frame” have interrupted, continuously, the capacity of Indigenous peoples to communicate with “other beings in creation,” as well as their obligations to those beings” (24).

In the Christian creation story, humans became outside of their surroundings by being expelled from the garden. This separation has two significant consequences: “Firstly, humans were positioned into a world in which they were able to reside over nature. Secondly, and interdependently, humans resolved that communication with nature held disastrous effects (Tree of Knowledge, the Serpent) and so inter-species communication became quite limited if not profane” (24-25). Agency became associated only with human actions, and humans were seen as dominant over nature (25).(In the first book of Genesis, before the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, God gives humans “dominion” over all other forms of life.) However, 

in many Indigenous origin stories the idea that humans were the last species to arrive on earth was central; it also meant that humans arrived in a state of dependence on an already-functioning society with particular values, ethics, etc. The inclusion of humans into this society meant that certain agreements, arrangements, etc. had to be made with the animal world, plant world, sky world, mineral world and other non-human species. Therefore, being associated with animals, whether it be through clan systems, ceremonies, or beings that acted as advisors, transpired from a place of reverence. (25)

“Both the story of Genesis and the story of Sky Woman tell of a world that existed before humans,” Watts writes, although the differences between the stories are crucial to understanding the different understandings of the world those stories represent. Whereas in the Sky Woman story “the relationship between animals and this female is regarded as sacred and ritualized over generations,” the “interaction of Eve and the Serpent results in shame and excommunication from nature,” creating a “point of conflict where thought, perception, and action are separated from the supposed inertia of nature” (25).

“If we begin from the premise that land is female and further, that she thinks—then she is alive,” Watts continues. However, if “the most elemental female is conceived of as being responsible for pain, shame and excommunication,” as in the Christian origin story, “then doing destruction upon her does not seem that bad,” and might even seem deserved (25). “It is no surprise then, that amidst a Euro-Christian construct, land and its designations are silenced,” she writes. “Many Indigenous peoples wonder at how much destruction has persisted throughout the decades by the colonizer without any significant attempt at stopping it. If you belong to a structure where land and the feminine are not only less-than, but knowingly irresponsible, violations against her would seem warranted” (25-26). 

Where is agency in Place-Thought located? Watts asks. “I find it in animals, in humans, in plants, in rocks, etc.,” she responds. “How did I come to think that these different entities and beings had agency in the first place? From stories/histories” (26). In those stories, listeners (or readers) learn of “historical events that took place in a particular location, at a particular time, where consciousness, thought, desire, and the imagination of all individuals is in action” (26). These stories, Watts argues, such as the story of how the Three Sisters (Corn, Beans, and Squash) came to live together, must be understood literally:

In an epistemological-ontological frame, Indigenous cosmologies would be examples of a symbolic interconnectedness—an abstraction of a moral code. It would be a way in which to view the world—the basis for an epistemological stance. From a Haudenosaunee worldview, this is what happened. Further, Haudenosaunee systems, peoples, territories, etc. are affected by this relationship between the Three Sisters. It is more than a lesson, a teaching, or even an historical account. Their conscious and knowing agreement directly extends to our philosophies, thoughts and actions as Haudenosaunee peoples. (26)

Such “historical Indigenous events,” Watts continues, “are increasingly becoming not only accepted by Western frameworks of understanding, but sought after in terms of non-oppressive and provocative or interesting interfaces of accessing the real. This traces Indigenous peoples not only as epistemologically distinct but also as a gateway for non-Indigenous thinkers to re-imagine their world” (26). That’s very true; I am convinced that the climate emergency would not be taking place if non-Indigenous people possessed a way of thinking about the world that was like the Indigenous one Watts is describing. However, Watts argues that Indigenous stories “are often distilled to simply that—words, principles, morals to imagine the world and imagine ourselves in the world. In reading stories that way, non-Indigenous peoples also keep control over what agency is and how it is dispersed in the hands of humans” (26). In other words, she seems to be suggesting, those stories must be understood as literal events.

“Over time and through processes of colonization, the corporeal and theoretical borders of the epistemological-ontological divide contribute to colonial interpretations of nature/creation that act to centre the human and peripherate nature into an exclusionary relationship,” Watts writes. “Land becomes scaled and modified in terms of progress and advancement. The measure of colonial interaction with land has historically been one of violence and bordered individuations where land is to be accessed, not learned from or part of” (26). Land is something that can be owned, bought and sold, and exploited or extracted from, rather than something we are part of or belong to (26-27). “Our truth, not only Anishnaabe and Haudenosaunee people but in a majority of Indigenous societies, conceives that we (humans) are made from the land; our flesh is literally an extension of the soil,” Watts continues. “The land is understood to be female: First Woman designates the beginning of the animal world, the plant world and human beings. It is the femininity of earth itself that institutes all beings as literal embodiments of localized meanings” (27). “Could Place-Thought be the network in which humans and non-humans relate, translate and articulate their agency?” she asks. “If I, as a human, am made of the stuff of soil and spirit, do I not extend to the non-human world beyond causal interactions? And what of the non-human—non-human relationships that demarcate various roles and responsibilities of human beings?” (27). Her answer is straightforward: “If we begin from the premise that we are in fact made of soil, then our principles of governance are reflected in nature” (27). “The female earth or the feminine is intrinsically tied to the notion of sovereignty and how humans interact with non-human creatures in the formation of governance,” she continues (27). Humans are responsible and obligated “to original instructions from the earth,” and because the earth is female, this suggests “that the feminine is not only to be respected but is looked upon as a source of power and knowledge” (27-28). What happens, then, “when the all-powerful centre”—and I think she is referring to “Western categorizations of hierarchy” here—“attempts to create a de-subjugated space via non-human reactions” (28)?

Here Watts turns to the way that land “is traced in terms of agency by non-Indigenous thinkers” (28). She cites Donna Haraway’s essay “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective” as an attempt “to implode the centre where knowledge production (epistemology) is generally grounded in heteropatriarchy” (28). “However, Haraway resists essentialist notions of the earth as mother or matter and chooses instead to utilize products of localized knowledges (i.e. Coyote or the Trickster) as a process of boundary implosion” (28)—as a metaphor, as “‘coyote discourse’” (qtd. 28). “This is a level of abstracted engagement once again,” Watts argues. “While it may serve to change the imperialistic tendencies in Euro-Western knowledge production, Indigenous histories are still regarded as story and process—an abstracted tool of the West” (28). “It is not my contention that Euro-Western thinkers are inherently colonial,” she continues. “Rather, the epistemological-ontological distinction is oftentimes the assumptive basis by which Euro-Western arguments are presented upon. It is this assumption that, I argue, creates spaces for colonial practices to occur” (28). As long as agency is reserved for humans, “this epistemological-ontological divide” remains intact (28).

Watts then quotes Stacy Alaimo, who argues that “dirt acts” (28). But the agency Alaimo assigns to dirt is hierarchical, because in her argument it neither thinks, wants, nor desires, although “it is constantly fulfilling its intention” (28). In other words, Watts, writes, the agency Alaimo accords to dirt “is dependent on the belief that humans are different based on our ability of will and purpose. Dirt is acknowledged as an actant at best, no longer an afterthought but still limited with regard to ability” (28-29). Vicky Kirby’s understanding of dirt and agency goes further than Alaimo’s, because she argues that nature preexists intellectual abstraction, that flesh precedes thought (29). However, Kirby also argues “that intellect or what constitutes culture is beyond the body and is therefore distinctly apart form the primordial:

This taken-for-granted conceptualization of nature and culture is a problematic that has been re-coded in discourse time and time again—that humans are uniquely distinct from nature in their capacities. Interconnectivity is permitted, but only insofar as distinction from the thinking human and the acting natural world. True, the borders of flesh and soil rub up against each other but this does not mean one is guided by the other. The border where human-as-the-centre begins still exists and continues to determine the bounds for capacity and action. (29)

“Kirby’s claim of the special-ness of humans apart from natural determinations disregards Indigenous conceptions of human and nature,” Watts continues, “while at the same time implying that natural cause and determinism are random and therefore unintentional” (30). Other scholars—Bruno Latour, Linda Nash, and Stewart Lockie—“have begun to redefine agency to solve the problem of the man/nature dichotomy,” Watts writes, but even though they locate agency “in an interconnected web of cause and effect, where the plane of action is equalized amongst all elements,” they still contend that agency “acts outside, within, and in between this web through carefully re-designed definitions where humans possess something more or special” (30). 

“These levels of agency are a product of the epistemology-ontology paradigm,” Watts writes, which carries within it “the idea of human ownership over non-human things, beings, etc. The inclusion of the non-human, in this case dirt/soil, has been causal or instinctual in nature,” and so “although the dirt/soil has been granted entrance into the human web of action, it is still relegated to a mere unwitting player in the game of human understandings” (30). “However, if we think of agency as being tied to spirit, and spirit exists in all things, then all things possess agency,” she continues—and that sacred agency is “contained within all elements of nature,” and therefore as humans we “know our actions are intrinsically and inseparably tied to land’s intentionality—quite a counter position from notions of diluted formulations of agency” (30).

“What happens when soil is removed from territory? What happens when flesh is taken from the body? More importantly, what happens to the territory after its resources are excavated?” Watts asks (30). The “literal excavation of thoughts are forcibly transformed into objects of the colonial imperative” (30). Once the voices of creation—“the feminine and the land”—are “silenced and then corrupted, the acquisition and destruction of land becomes all the more realized” (31). Moreover, “[f]rom a theoretical standpoint, the material (body/land) becomes abstracted into epistemological spaces as a resource for non-Indigenous scholars to implode their hegemonic borders,” and the teachings, ontologies, and actions of First Woman “are interpreted as sexy lore and points of theoretical jump-offs to dismantle and dissect that which oppresses” (31). Those teachings and actions become extracted, excavated, in other words: they are used the way that trees are used to make paper. And the violence enacted against the (feminine) land is the same violence that is enacted against Indigenous women.

“Euro-Western discourses have often attempted to remedy historical mistakes of biological essentialisms (i.e. scientific racism) by rejecting what are considered to be essentialist arguments,” Watts continues. “However, essentializing categories of Indigenous cosmologies should not be measured against the products of Euro-Western mistakes. Nor should Indigenous peoples be the inheritors of those mistakes” (31-32). Instead, “to decolonize or access the pre-colonial mind, our histories (not our lore) should be understood as if they were intended in order for us to be truly agent beings. To disengage with essentialism means we run the risk of disengaging from the land” (32). 

“As Indigenous peoples, it is not only an obligation to communicate with Place-Thought (ceremonies with land, territory, the four directions, etc.), but it ensures our continued ability to act and think according to our cosmologies,” Watts contends. “To prevent these practices”—as the Indian Act tried to do for almost a century—“deafens us. It is not that the non-human world no longer speaks but that we begin to understand less and less” (32). Despite the corruption of the agency of Indigenous peoples within the colonial frame, the continued existence of Indigenous cosmologies is the reason why, after 500 years of colonization, Indigenous peoples continue to resist (32). If Indigenous peoples operationalize the distinction between Indigenous cosmology and Euro-Western epistemology-ontology—if they operationalize the distinction “between place and thought”—then, Watts writes, “Indigenous peoples risk standing in disbelief of ourselves” (32):

Even amongst ourselves it can be easy to forget that our ability to speak to the land is not just an echo of a mythic tale or part of a moral code, but a reality. Whether this forgetting has been forced upon us, or our ears have become dull to the sounds of the land speaking up through our feet, it is now incumbent upon us to remember. This is not a question of “going backwards,” for this implies there is a static place to return to. However, given that the concept of time for us was never linear, we possess the ability to access the pre-colonial mind through the ability to travel in dreams, to shapeshift, to understand what might happen tomorrow, etc. Our teachings tell us that we travel through, under, above. So it is not a question of accessing something, which has already come and gone, but simply to listen. To act. (32)

Obligation and responsibility “denote a commitment to the land,” she continues, “not just because it is a part of me (or you) but also because it continues to be removed, cemented, or ignored” (32). Listening to what the land tells us “is not only about a philosophical understanding of life and the social realm,” but “it is about a tangible and tacit violence being done to her—and therefore to us” (32). “I hope that this discussion will lead to conversations about bodies in action and how gritty flesh is elementally moved to protect and reclaim territories,” she states (32). “Only if the land decides to stop speaking to us will we enter the world of dislocation where agency is lost and our histories become provocative Indian lore in an ongoing settler mistake. Luckily for us, First Woman has shown herself to be much more intelligent than this by writing herself into our flesh,” she concludes (33).

Watts’s essay is challenging, not least because it demands both a literal understanding of Indigenous creation stories and an essentialized notion of the land as female. Both are very difficult for someone, like me, educated in a Western (and colonizing) academic context. And her  argument also suggests how difficult it would be for a Settler to come to a different understanding of the land, as I would hope to do by walking. Difficult? Perhaps impossible. I don’t think that the idea of Place-Thought advanced in this essay can be adopted simply or easily, on a short walk or a long one, and the idea that it could be would represent a complete misunderstanding of Watts’s argument and the challenge it presents. As Settlers, we need to tread very carefully (pun intended) when we consider thinking about the world through Indigenous cosmologies, because we might, as Watts argues, end up engaging in just another form of extraction.

Works Cited

Springgay, Stephanie, and Sarah E. Truman. Walking Methodologies in a More-than-Human World: WalkingLab, Routledge, 2018.

Watts, Vanessa. “Indigenous Place-Thought & Agency Amongst Humans and Non-Humans (First Woman and Sky Woman Go On a European World Tour!).” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, vol. 2, no. 1, 2013, pp. 20-34.