Reading and Walking

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Tag: No Surrender

102. Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native”

Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native first page

Patrick Wolfe’s name appears on almost every bibliography of every text I’ve read on settler colonialism. So it’s time to sit down and read his work, instead of relying on how other people talk about it. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native” begins with the word “genocide”: “The question of genocide is never far from discussions of settler colonialism. Land is life—or, at least, land is necessary for life. Thus contests for land can be—indeed, often are—contests for life” (387). That doesn’t mean, he continues, “that settler colonialism is simply a form of genocide,” or that genocide can’t take place without settler colonialism (387). However, he continues, in this essay, he “shall begin to explore, in comparative fashion, the relationship between genocide and the settler-colonial tendency that I term the logic of elimination” (387). His contention, he writes, is that settler colonialism should be distinguished from genocide; while it is “inherently eliminatory,” is is not “invariably genocidal” (387).

Wolfe begins exploring this claim by noting that “both genocide and settler colonialism have typically employed the organizing grammar of race,” and that even though race is a social construct, “different racial regimes encode and reproduce the unequal relationships in to which Europeans coerced the populations concerned” (387). Those relationships were different: in the United States, for instance, because Africans were enslaved, the offspring of an enslaved person and “any other parent” would be enslaved as well, a “taxonomy” that “became fully racialized in the ‘one-drop rule,’ whereby any amount of African ancestry, no matter how remote, and regardless of phenotypical appearance, makes a person Black” (387-88). For Indigenous people in the United States, in contrast, “non-Indian ancestry compromised their indigeneity, producing ‘half-breeds,’ a regime that persists in the form of blood quantum regulations” (388). Unlike enslaved Africans, “whose reproduction augmented their owners’ wealth, Indigenous people obstructed settlers’ access to land, so their increase was counterproductive. In this way, the restrictive racial classification of Indians straightforwardly furthered the logic of elimination” (388). All that Indigenous people have to do “to get in the way of settler colonization,” Wolfe writes, citing Deborah Bird Rose, “is stay at home” (388). The “primary motive for elimination” of Indigenous peoples, then, is simply “access to territory. Territoriality is settler colonialism’s specific, irreducible element” (388).

“The logic of elimination not only refers to the summary liquidation of Indigenous people, though it includes that,” Wolfe continues (388). He suggests that “settler colonialism has both negative and positive dimensions” (388). “Negatively, it strives for the dissolution of native societies,” he writes. “Positively, it erects a new colonial society on the expropriated land base—as I put it, settler colonizers come to stay: invasion is a structure not an event” (388). Elimination of Indigenous populations, then, “is an organizing principal of settler-colonial society rather than a one-off (and superseded) occurrence,” and that elimination can include activities familiar to Canadians: “child abduction, religious conversion, [and] resocialization in total institutions such as missions or boarding schools” (388). “Settler colonialism,” Wolfe states, “destroys to replace” (388)

Renaming is one form of symbolic elimination or erasure. However, Wolfe notes that in Australia, 

the erasure of indigeneity conflicts with the assertion of settler nationalism. On the one hand, settler society required the practical elimination of the natives in order to establish itself on their territory. On the symbolic level, however, settler society subsequently sought to recuperate indigeneity in order to express its difference—and, accordingly, its independence—from the mother country. (389)

For that reason, Australian official symbolism, sports teams, and corporations “are distinguished by the ostentatious borrowing of Aboriginal motifs” (389). That’s true in this country as well: think of the appropriation of the inukshuk for the Vancouver Winter Olympics, or of the way totem poles became a national symbol. (I just saw artist and academic David Garneau give a talk on this very subject.) “For nationalist purposes, it is hard to see an alternative to this contradictory reappropriation of a foundationally disavowed Aboriginality,” Wolfe continues (389).

“In its positive aspect, therefore, settler colonialism does not simply replace native society tout court,” Wolf writes. “Rather, the process of replacement maintains the refractory imprint of the native counter-claim” (389). “In short,” he concludes, 

elimination refers to more than the summary liquidation of Indigenous people, although it includes that. In its positive aspect, the logic of elimination marks a return whereby the native repressed continues to structure settler-colonial society. It is both as complex social formation and as continuity through time that I term settler colonization a structure rather than an event, and it is on this basis that I shall consider its relationship to genocide. (390)

That assertion of complexity clarifies a great deal about the relationship between Settlers and Indigenous peoples and about the way Settlers have tended to represent Indigenous peoples and celebrate their cultural artifacts while they are appropriating their land and abducting their children.

Wolfe now returns, in a new section of the essay, to the past, to “the European sovereigns who laid claim to the territories of non-Christian (or, in later secularized versions, uncivilized) inhabitants of the rest of the world” did so through multiple versions of “the doctrine of discovery” (390). The discourse around such claims, though, “was primarily addressed to relations between European sovereigns rather than to relations between Europeans and natives” in an attempt “to restrain the endless rounds of war-making over claims to colonial territory that European sovereigns were prone to indulge in” (390). In Australia, for instance, where “British dominion was effectively unchallenged by other European powers, Aborigines were accorded no rights to their territory, informal variants on the theme of terra nullius being taken for granted in settler culture” (390-91). In North America, on the other hand, “treaties between Indian and European nations were premised on a sovereignty that reflected Indians’ capacity to permute local alliance networks from among the rival Spanish, French, Dutch, Swedish and Russian presences” (391). However, even where Indigenous sovereignty was recognized, “ultimate dominion over the territory in question was held to inhere in the European sovereign in whose name it had been ‘discovered’” (391). There was, Wolfe continues, a “clear distinction between dominion, which inhered in European sovereigns alone, and natives’ right of occupancy, also expressed in terms of possession or usufruct, which entitled natives to pragmatic use (understood as hunting and gathering rather than agriculture) of a territory that Europeans had discovered” (391). For Wolfe, this distinction “between dominion and occupancy illuminates the settler-colonial project’s reliance on the elimination of native societies” (391).

Those who claimed to discover a particular territory thereby “acquired the right, on behalf of his sovereign and vis-à-vis other Europeans who came after him, to buy land from the natives,” a right known as pre-emption (391). This notion “would seem to pose little threat to people who did not wish to dispose of their land to anyone,” but in practice, Wolfe writes, quoting Harvey Rosenthal, “‘The American right to buy always superseded the Indian right not to sell’” (391). This sense of priority is crucial, Wolfe suggests:

Why should ostensibly sovereign nations, residing in a territory solemnly guaranteed to them by treaties, decide that they are willing, after all, to surrender their ancestral homelands? More often than not (and nearly always up to the wars with the Plains Indians, which did not take place until after the civil war), the agency which reduced Indian peoples to this abjection was not some state instrumentality but irregular, greed-crazed invaders who had no intention of allowing the formalities of federal law to impede their access to the riches available in, under, and on Indian soil. (391)

Canadians may shake their heads and mutter something about greedy Americans, but the behaviour of squatters in the Haldimand Tract in Ontario, which was deeded to the Haudenosaunee in 1784, was not much different, and, like Wolfe’s example of the removal of Indigenous peoples from the American South that made way for the development of “the slave-plantation economy” (391) the governments of Upper Canada and later Canada West supported the rights of those squatters over the rights of the Haudenosaunee to their own land. 

To Wolfe, the behaviour of the soldiers who drove the Cherokees from their homes illustrates “the structural complexity of settler colonialism” (392). Those soldiers, he notes, were “economic immigrants “ who

were generally drawn from the ranks of Europe’s landless. The cattle and other stock were not only being driven off Cherokee land; they were being driven into private ownership. Once evacuated, the Red man’s land would be mixed with Black labour to produce cotton, the white gold of the Deep South. To this end, the international slave trade and the highest echelons of the formal state apparatus converged across three continents with the disorderly pillaging of a nomadic horde who may or may not have been “lawless” but who were categorically White. (392)

“In this light,” Wolfe states, “we are in a position to understand the pragmatics of the doctrine of discovery more clearly”:

 Understood as an assertion of Indigenous entitlement, the distinction between dominion and occupancy dissolves into incoherence. Understood processually, however, as a stage in the formation of the settler-colonial state (specifically, the stage linking the theory and the realization of territorial acquisition), the distinction is only too consistent. (392)

What does Wolfe mean? He returns to the point that Indigenous people could only transfer “their right of occupancy to the discovering sovereign and no one else” (392). “They could not transfer dominion because it was not theirs to transfer; that inhered in the European sovereign and had done so from the moment of discovery,” he continues. “Dominion without conquest constitutes the theoretical (or ‘inchoate’) stage of territorial sovereignty” (392). “In other word,” Wolfe writes,

the right of occupancy was not an assertion of native rights. Rather, it was a pragmatic acknowledgment of the lethal interlude that would intervene between the conceit of discovery, when navigators proclaimed European over whole continents to trees or deserted beaches, and the practical realization of that conceit in the final securing of European settlement, formally consummated in the extinguishment of native title. (393)

That conceit might have been, as Eva Mackey suggests, a fantasy, but it had tangible consequences. And, remember, in this country, the goal of the federal government in negotiating treaties with First Nations was “the extinguishment of native title.” That’s the purpose of the clauses in the numbered treaties—which Sheldon Krasowski argues, convincingly, were never discussed during the negotiations of those treaties—which claimed that, by making treaty, First Nations were signing away their land. “In sum, then, settler colonialism is an inclusive, land-centred project that coordinates a comprehensive range of agencies, from the metropolitan centre to the frontier encampment, with a view to eliminating Indigenous societies,” Wolfe writes. “Its operations are not dependent on the presence or absence of formal state institutions or functionaries” (393). For that reason, “the occasions on or the extent to which settler colonialism conduces to genocide are not a matter of the presence or absence of the formal apparatus of the state” (393). That genocide can be conducted by priests and nuns and dormitory supervisors in residential schools, or by men who prey on Indigenous sex workers. Our discomfort with the use of the term “genocide” to describe the actions of those people—and I’m thinking of Canadian Conservative leader Andrew Scheer’s rejection of that term in the conclusions of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG)–has less to do with the reality of what is happening than our own squeamishness at calling something what it really is. Wolfe, however, would disagree, as the final sections of his essay indicate.

Here Wolfe begins third section of his essay, in which he points out that while “the pace, scale and intensity of certain forms of modern genocide requires the centralized technological, logistical and administrative capacities of the modern state,” settler colonialism is not pre-modern, and that “some of the core features of modernity were pioneered in the colonies” (citing W.E.B. Dubois, Hannah Arendt, and Aimé Césaire) (393). He notes that many of the Nazis’ victims were murdered “in deranged shooting sprees that were more reminiscent of sixteenth-century Spanish behaviour in the Americans than of Fordism, while millions of Slav civilians and Soviet soldiers were simply starved to death in circumstances that could well have struck a chord with late-eighteenth-century Bengalis or mid-nineteenth-century Irish people” (394). The point, he continues, is not that the Holocaust can be divided into “modern and atavistic elements”; rather, the point is that colonialism was modern (394). In fact, he continues, settler colonialism “was foundational to modernity” (394). “[A] global chain of command” linked “remote colonial frontiers to the metropolis,” he argues, and “[b]ehind it all lay the driving engine of international market forces, which linked Australian wool to Yorkshire mills and, complementarily, to cotton produced under different colonial conditions in India, Egypt, and the slave states of the Deep South” (394). He quotes Cole Harris on the dispossession of First Nations in Canada: “‘Combine capital’s interest in uncluttered access to land and settlers’ interest in land as livelihood, and the principal momentum of settler colonialism comes into focus’” (394). The Industrial Revolution “required colonial land and labour to produce its raw materials just as centrally as it required metropolitan factories and an industrial proletariat to process them, whereupon the colonies were again required as a market” (394). For that reason, “[t]he expropriated Aboriginal, enslaved African American, or indentured Asian is as thoroughly modern as the factory worker, bureaucrat, or flâneur of the metropolitan centre. The fact that the slave may be in chains does not make him or her medieval” (394).

“Of itself, however, modernity cannot explain the insatiable dynamic whereby settler colonialism always needs more land,” Wolfe writes at the outset of his essay’s fourth section (395). Agriculture is one reason, but so are other “primary sectors” that “can motivate the project,” including forestry, fishing, pastoralism, and mining (395). However, he argues, agriculture “not only supports the other sectors,” but is “inherently sedentary and, therefore, permanent” (395). “In contrast to extractive industries, which rely on what just happens to be there, agriculture is a rational means/end calculus that is geared to vouchsafing its own reproduction, generating capital that projects into a future where it repeats itself,” he writes (395). (Of course, one could argue that agriculture is extractive as well.) Agriculture also supports a larger population than other modes of production (395). “In settler-colonial terms, this enables a population to be expanded by continuing immigration at the expense of native lives and livelihoods,” he continues. “The inequities, contradictions and pogroms of metropolitan society ensure a recurrent supply of fresh immigrants—especially, as noted, from among the landless. In this way, individual motivations dovetail with the global market’s imperative for expansion” (395). Thus, agriculture “progressively eats into Indigenous territory, a primitive accumulation that turns native flora and fauna into a dwindling resource and curtails the reproduction of Indigenous modes of production,” rendering Indigenous people to a dependency “on the introduced economy” or reducing them “to the stock-raids that provide the classic pretext for colonial death-squads” (395). Wolfe could be talking about Saskatchewan.

Wolfe notes that whether Indigenous people practise agriculture or not, “natives are typically represented as unsettled, nomadic, rootless, etc., in settler-colonial discourse” (396). Agriculture thus becomes “a potent symbol of settler-colonial identity” because of its “life-sustaining connectedness to land” (396). “Accordingly,” he continues, “settler-colonial discourse is resolutely impervious to glaring inconsistencies such as sedentary natives or the fact that the settlers themselves have come from somewhere else” (396). Even if the Indigenous people are already farmers, however, their productivity cannot be simply incorporated into the colonial economy:

At this point, we begin to get closer to the question of just who it is (or, more to the point, who they are) that settler colonialism strives to eliminate—and, accordingly, closer to an understanding of the relationship between settler colonialism and genocide. To stay with the Cherokee removal: when it came to it, the factor that most antagonized the Georgia state government (with the at-least-tacit support of Andrew Jackson’s federal administration) was not actually the recalcitrant savagery of which Indians were routinely accused, but the Cherokee’s unmistakable aptitude for civilization. Indeed, they and their Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole neighbours, who were also targeted for removal, figured revealingly as the “Five Civilized Tribes” in Euroamerican parlance. (396)

The Cherokees, he notes, had become successful farmers “on the White model, with a number of them owning substantial holdings of Black slaves, and they had introduced a written national constitution that bore more than a passing resemblance to the US one” (396). Why would the Georgians “wish to rid themselves of such cultivated neighbours?” (396). Because “the Cherokee’s constitution and their agricultural prowess . . . all signified permanence” (396). The first thing the soldiers did was to burn the Cherokees’ houses (396).

Another reason for the removals was that tribal land was owned collectively. “Indians were the original communist menace,” Wolfe contends (397). The Choctaws who stayed in Mississippi “became individual proprietors . . . of separately allotted fragments of what had previously been the tribal estate, theirs to sell to White people if they chose to” (397). But without the tribe, Wolfe continues, those who remained were “for all practical purposes no longer Indians. . . . Here, in essence, is assimilation’s Faustian bargain—have our settler world, but lose your Indigenous soul. Beyond any doubt, this is a kind of death. Assimilationists recognized this very clearly” (397). That’s what links Richard Pratt, the founder of the Carlisle boarding school and leader of “the philanthropic ‘Friends of the Indian’ group” to General Phil Sheridan, “scourge of the Plains and author of the deathless maxim, ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian’”:

Given the training in individualism that Pratt provided at his school . . . the tribe could disappear while its members stayed behind. . . . In a paper for the 1892 Charities and Correction Conference held in Denver, Pratt explicitly endorsed Sheridan’s maxim, “but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him and save the man.” (397)

Remember, the Carlisle boarding school was one of the models for the Canadian residential school system, and Regina’s own Nicholas Flood Davin drew on his visit to that institution when he wrote his 1879 work, “Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds” (“The Davin Report”).

The death that is involved in assimilation is, Wolfe argues, a form of genocide: “Richard Pratt and Phillip Sheridan were both practitioners of genocide,” he writes (398). He rejects the term “cultural genocide” (often used in Canada) because “it confuses definition with degree,” and because of “the practical hazards that can ensue once an abstract concept like ‘cultural genocide’ falls into the wrong hands”—the “elementary category error” that claims genocide is either biological (“the real thing”) or cultural “and thus, it follows, not real” (398). “In practice, it should go without saying that the imposition on a people of the procedures and techniques that are generally glossed as ‘cultural genocide’ is certainly going to have a direct impact on that people’s capacity to stay alive,” he argues, noting that in the decades after the creation of Indian boarding schools in the US, “Indian numbers hit the lowest level they would ever register” (398-99). That situation is reflected in contemporary Aboriginal life expectancy and infant mortality rates in Australia. “Clearly, we are not talking about an isolated event here,” he writes. “Thus we can shift from settler colonialism’s structural complexity to its positivity as a structuring principle of settler-colonial society across time” (399).

Wolfe now begins a new section of his essay. He describes the westward expansion of the frontier in the United States in terms of the temporary nature of the removals of Indigenous peoples, “which kept time with the westward march of the nation” (399). When the frontier no longer existed, “when the crude technique of removal declined in favour of a range of strategies for assimilating Indian people now that they had been contained within Euroamerican society, we can more clearly see the logic of elimination’s positivity as a continuing feature of Euroamerican settler society” (399). In other words, “elimination turned inwards, seeking to penetrate through the tribal surface to the individual Indian below, who was to be co-opted out of the tribe, which would be depleted accordingly, and into White society” (399). In the last 30 years of the 19th century, assimilationist legislation and Supreme Court decisions “which notionally dismantled tribal sovereignty and provided for the abrogation of existing treaties . . . relentlessly sought the breakdown of the tribe and the absorption into White society of individual Indians and their tribal land, only separately” (399-400). This “‘New Colonialism’” was “a discursive formation based on reservations and boarding schools,” and it attacked “‘every aspect of Native American life—religion, speech, political freedoms, economic liberty, and cultural diversity,’” Wolfe writes, quoting John Wunder (400). “The centrepiece of this campaign was the allotment programme, first generalized as Indian policy in the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 and subsequently intensified and extended, whereby tribal land was to be broken down into individual allotments whose proprietors could eventually sell them to White people,” he continues, noting that in the 50 years after 1881, “the total acreage held by Indians in the United States fell by two thirds” (400). “Needless to say, the coincidence between the demographic statistics and the land-ownership rates was no coincidence,” he writes. “Throughout this process, reformers’ justifications for it (saving the Indian from the tribe, giving him the same opportunities as the White man, etc.) repeatedly included the express intention to destroy the tribe in whole” (400). The New Deal introduced blood quantum requirements, whereby “one’s Indianness progressively declines in accordance with a ‘biological’ calculus that is a construct of Euroamerican culture,” a procedure that Juaneño/Jaqi scholar Annette Jaimes has called “‘statistical extermination’” (400). “In sum, the containment of Indian groups within Euroamerican society that culminated in the end of the frontier produced a range of ongoing complementary strategies whose common intention was the destruction of heterodox forms of Indian grouphood,” Wolfe concludes (400).

In both the US and Australia, “the full radicalization of assimilation policies . . . coincided with the closure of the frontier, which forestalled spatial stop-gaps such as removal” (400). But, Wolfe writes, “assimilation should not be seen as an invariable concomitant of settler colonialism. Rather, assimilation is one of a range of strategies of elimination that become favoured in particular historical circumstances. Moreover, assimilation itself can take on a variety of forms” (401). These strategies might be “‘softer’ than the recourse to simple violence,” but they “are no necessarily less eliminatory” (401). He notes that the UN’s Convention on Genocide “includes among the acts that constitute genocide (assuming they are committed with intent to destroy a target group in whole or in part) the imposition of ‘measures intended to prevent births within the group’” (401). Practices of forced adoption such as, in Canada, the Sixties Scoop, a misnomer because Indigenous children continue to be taken from their parents at astonishing rates, which are intended to “bring about a situation in which second-generation offspring were born into a group that was different from the one from which the child/parent had originally been abducted,” would therefore be examples of genocide, according to the UN’s definition (401). “Though a child was physically abducted, the eventual outcome is as much a matter of a social classification as it is of a body count,” Wolfe writes. “Nonetheless, the intentional contribution to the demographic destruction of the ‘relinquishing’ group is unequivocal” (401).

Wolfe begins the next section of his essay with a question: why does he use the term “logic of elimination rather than genocide?” (401). Settler colonialism, he repeats, “is a specific social formation and it is desirable to retain that specificity. . . . an understanding of settler colonialism would not be particularly helpful for understanding the mass killings of, say, witches in medieval Europe, Tutsis in Rwanda, enemies of the people in Cambodia, or Jews in the Nazi fatherland (the Lebensraum is, of course, another matter)” (401). These examples of mass killings “would seem to have little to tell us about the long-run structural consistency of settler colonizers’ attempts to eliminate native societies” (402). Use of the term “genocide” would invite comparisons to the Holocaust, creating “hyphenated genocides” which would only “devalue Indigenous attrition” (402). However, 

[n]o such problem bedevils analysis of the logic of elimination, which, in its specificity to settler colonialism, is premised on the securing—the obtaining and the maintaining—of territory. This logic certainly requires the elimination of the owners of that territory, but not in any particular way. To this extent, it is a larger category than genocide. For instance, the style of romantic stereotyping that I have termed “repressive authenticity,” which is a feature of settler-colonial discourse in many countries, is not genocidal in itself, though it eliminates large numbers of empirical natives from official reckonings and, as such, is often concomitant with genocidal practice. Indeed, depending on the historical conjuncture, assimilation can be a more effective mode of elimination than conventional forms of killing, since it does not involve such a disruptive affront to the rule of law that is ideologically central to the cohesion of settler society. When invasion is recognized as a structure rather than an event, its history does not stop—or more to the point, become relatively trivial—when it moves on from the era of frontier homicide. Rather, narrating that history involves charting the continuities, discontinuities, adjustments, and departures whereby a logic that initially informed frontier killing transmutes into different modalities, discourses and institutional formations as it undergirds the historical development and complexification of settler society. (402)

“How, then, when elimination manifests as genocide, are we to retain the specificity of settler colonialism without downplaying its impact by resorting to a qualified genocide?” Wolfe asks (402-03). He offers the term “structural genocide,” suggesting that it would avoid “the questions of degree—and, therefore, of hierarchy among victims—that are entailed in qualified genocides, while retaining settler colonialism’s structural induration” (403). “Given a historical perspective on structural genocide,” he continues, “we can recognize its being in abeyance (as, mercifully, it seems to be in contemporary Australia) rather than being a thing of the past—which is to say, we should guard against the recurrence of what Dirk Moses terms ‘genocidal moments’ (social workers continue to take Aboriginal children in disproportionate numbers, for example)” (403). “Structural genocide” would also enable us to understand “some of the concrete empirical relationships between spatial removal, mass killings and biocultural assimilation” (403). For instance, “assimilation programmes can reflect the ideological requirements of settler-colonial societies, which characteristically cite native advancement to establish their egalitarian credentials to potentially fractious groups of immigrants” (403).

Wolfe begins the final section of his essay with another question: “How, then, might any of this help to predict and prevent genocide?” (403). For one thing, “it shows us that settler colonialism is an indicator. Unpalatable though it is (to speak as a member of a settler society), this conclusion has a positive aspect, which is a corollary to settler colonialism’s temporal dimension” (403). That is, “[s]ince settler colonialism persists over extended periods of time, structural genocide should be easier to interrupt than short-term genocides” (403). (There is no evidence anywhere to support that conclusion, I’m afraid.) In addition, he argues that “[s]ince settler colonialism is an indicator, it follows that we should monitor situations in which settler colonialism intensifies or in which societies that are not yet, or not fully, settler-colonial take on more of its characteristics” (403). He argues that “Israel’s progressive dispensing with its reliance on Palestinian labour would seem to present an ominous case in point” (403). Apartheid in South Africa was not a genocide because the country’s economy depended on African workers; “[t]he same can be said of African American slavery,” Wolfe writes (404)—a shockingly uninformed thing to say, given the mass death that happened before slavery was abolished. He suggests that because enslaved Africans were “valuable commodities, slaves had only been destroyed in extremis” (404), something that might appear true in theory but that I doubt accurately conveys the numbers of Africans who died during the Middle Passage or on the huge plantations of Mississippi. “Today in the US, the blatant racial zoning of large cities and the penal system suggests that, once colonized people outlive their utility, settler societies can fall back on the repertoire of strategies (in this case, spatial sequestration) whereby they have also dealt with the native surplus,” he writes (404). The West Bank barrier, he continues, is such an example of spatial sequestration, as was apartheid, and “as Palestinians become more and more dispensable, Gaza and the West Bank become less and less like Bantustans and more and more like reservations (or, for that matter, like the Warsaw Ghetto)” (404). What an astonishing thing to say.

I’m not sure Wolfe’s conclusion is of much value—there is, after all, nothing in this country that would suggest settler colonialism is easy to interrupt—and I’m honestly not convinced that avoiding the term genocide is actually useful in thinking about the way Indigenous people have experienced settler colonialism. By the UN’s definition of genocide, all of the institutions of settler colonialism–in this country, anyway–are genocidal. We might not want to admit this is true, but it is. Perhaps “attempted genocide” would be a better term, since Indigenous people, cultures, languages and ways of thinking about the world remain vital and relevant. Nevertheless, the rest of Wolfe’s essay is helpful to me in understanding the significance of the oft-repeated claim that settler colonialism is a structure rather than an event. It carries on in new forms, and those new forms are always rooted in the occupation of land by settlers. And the discussion of American boarding schools brings home how I’ve benefitted—or was intended to benefit—from residential schools in this country. Yesterday was Orange Shirt Day in Canada, a day when we wear orange T-shirts and remember the children who were incarcerated in this country’s Indian residential schools. Some 150,000 children were sent to those places, and about 5,000 died (the exact number may never be known). Those institutions, Wolfe would argue, were established in order to assimilate Indigenous children, a process of assimilation that was supposed to benefit settlers by eliminating competing Indigenous claims to the land—by destroying Indigenous languages, cultures, families, and communities. To think that those places were part of a system in which I am enmeshed—against my will, and for most of my life without my knowledge—is disturbing and painful. But it seems to be the truth. And the truth must come before reconciliation; at least, that’s what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada would argue. The truth of settler colonialism isn’t pretty, but it has to be faced before reconciliation, or decolonization, can happen. 

Works Cited

Krasowski, Sheldon. No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous, University of Regina Press, 2019.

Mackey, Eva. Unsettled Expectations: Uncertainty, Land and Settler Decolonization, Fernwood, 2016.

“The Davin Report, 1879.” Nishnawbe Aski Nation Indian Residential Schools in Ontario, 2005, http://rschools.nan.on.ca/article/the-davin-report-1879-1120.asp.

Wolfe, Patrick. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research, vol. 8, no. 4, 2006, pp. 387-409. DOI:10.1080/14623520601056240.

83. Alexander Morris,The Treaties of Canada with the Indians

alexander morris

Alexander Morris’s The Treaties of Canada with the Indians is important because it is a primary document about the negotiations of Treaties 1 through 7. What is most valuable about this book is the way it includes (however imperfectly) the voices of the Indigenous negotiators, but it is important as a record of what the Crown’s representatives were thinking as well. I think it’s best written in the context of contemporary reflections on the treaties, particularly those by Indigenous writers, because otherwise one might come away thinking that the texts Morris and his colleagues negotiated are the substance of the treaties, rather than the relationships that were supposed to be created through them.

Throughout the book, it’s clear that the Crown was interested in extinguishing Indigenous title in western Canada, because it was a barrier to white settlement. In the dedication to Lord Dufferin, for example, Morris writes of “obtaining the relinquishment of the natural title of the Indians to the lands of the Fertile Belt on fair and just terms” (no page). This statement is both a recognition of Indigenous title, and a statement of the Crown’s desire to extinguish that title. Whether the terms were “fair and just,” of course, is something that continues to be discussed today. Similar language is used in the accounts of the negotiations, from the Robinson Treaties in Ontario (“the Government of the late Province of Canada, deemed it desirable, to extinguish the Indian title” [16]) through to Treaty 5 (“it was essential that the Indian title to all the territory in the vicinity of the lake should be extinguished so that the settlers and traders might have undisturbed access to its waters, shores, islands, inlets and tributary streams” [qtd. 143-44]). Strangely, that language does not appear in the discussions of Treaty 6 or Treaty 7, perhaps because by that point it was redundant to explain that the government’s purpose was to extinguish Indigenous title, or perhaps because First Nations had realized what the Crown negotiators were up to. Instead, Treaty 6 is described as “a treaty of alliance with the Government” that was desired by the “Cree nation” (168), and Treaty 7 is noted as important because of the need to satisfy “the Blackfeet, Blood, and Sarcees or Piegan Indians,” who had “for years past been anxiously expecting to be treated with” (qtd. 245), and because of the concomitant need “to prevent the difficulties which might hereafter arise through the settlement of whites” (qtd. 246). 

The issue of extinguishment of title, which is central to Sheldon Krasowski’s analysis of the numbered treaties, is key to understanding the written text of the numbered treaties, and I was somewhat surprised to note the absence of any record of an explanation in the record of negotiations of exactly what that would mean to Indigenous peoples. There is a mention in Morris’s report on Treaty 3 of James McKay, the Métis whose work made many of these treaties possible, explaining the written text “in Indian” to the Anishinabe chiefs in attendance (51), but exactly what McKay said regarding the meaning of extinguishment of title is unclear. This is important, since the Treaty Elders whose words are collected by Cardinal and Hildebrandt were emphatic that no chief would have agreed to extinguish their title to the land (58). So even though extinguishment of title was the Crown’s key objective, it remains unclear to what extent the Indigenous negotiators were aware of that fact. It would be surprising if the men who were so vehemently opposed to the HBC’s sale of Rupert’s Land to the Dominion of Canada were to extinguish their title to their land so easily. After all, Chief Pasqua stated that the chiefs wanted the £300,000 the HBC received for that territory (106). It would be surprising if they were to then settle for small annuities and reserves instead. Moreover, as the treaty elders interviewed by Cardinal and Hildebrandt stated, the issue of the transfer of Rupert’s Land is still unfinished business (65-66).

Instead of an explanation of what extinguishment of title meant, the treaty discussions focused on kinship metaphors—being children of the Queen, for instance, and the need to take her by the hand, through her representatives (93)—and assistance with the transition to an agricultural mode of life (with that assistance spelled out in great detail in some cases), including the payment of annuities. Take, for example, Morris’s words on the fourth day of the Treaty 4 negotiations:

The Queen knows that her red children often find it hard to live. She knows that her red children, their wives and children, are often hungry, and that the buffalo will not last for ever and she desires to do something for them. More than a hundred years ago, the Queen’s father said to the red men living in Quebec and Ontario, I will give you land and cattle and set apart Reserves for you, and will teach you. What has been the result? There the red men are happy; instead of getting fewer in number by sickness they are growing in number; their children have plenty. (95)

There was little in the way of explanation of what reserves would be in the Treaty 4 negotiations, compared to the Treaty 6 negotiations, for instance, where the purpose of reserves as a refuge from white settlement was explained, along with the size each family would receive (204-05). Of course, without an explanation of the meaning of extinguishment of title, the purpose of reserves might have remained unclear to the Indigenous negotiators, except as places that white settlers could not occupy.

It is also clear that there was some degree of duress employed by the Crown negotiators; during the difficult Treaty 4 negotiations, for instance, Morris repeatedly threatened to end the discussion if the Indigenous negotiators did not come to an agreement regarding the treaty and cease complaining about the transfer of Rupert’s Land from the Hudson Bay Company to the Dominion of Canada. At one point in the negotiations, Morris stated,

Must we go back and say we have had you here so many days, and that you had not the minds of men—that you were not able to understand each other? Must we go back and tell the Queen that we held out our hands for her, and her red children put them back again? If that be the message that your conduct to-day is going to make us carry back, I am sorry for you, and fear it will be a long day before you again see the Queen’s Councillors here to try to do you good. The Queen and her Councillors may think that you do not want to be friends, that you do not want your little ones to be taught, that you do not want when the food is getting scarce to have a hand in yours stronger than yours to help you. Surely you will think again before you turn your backs on the offers; you will not let so little a question as this about the Company, without whom you tell me you could not live, stop the good we mean to do. (113)

The record of the negotiations makes it plain that the question about the HBC was not a little question to the Cree and Saulteaux chiefs who were present, however, since most of the negotiations were taken up with that issue. No doubt that is why the explanation of reserves and assistance is so meagre in the record of the Treaty 4 negotiations.

Even the word “negotiations” might be the wrong term to use to describe what happened in September 1874 at Fort Qu’Appelle during the negotiations that led to Treaty 4. The Treaty 6 negotiations did result in amendments to the treaty text, and the outside promises made at the Treaty 1 negotiations did eventually find their way into a written document, but it seems that the Cree and Saulteaux chiefs who met Morris at Fort Qu’Appelle were given a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. The treaty text was prepared before the breakthrough of the last day’s negotiations, when “Ka-ku-ish-may,” or Loud Voice, stated, “Let us join together and make the Treaty; when both join together it is very good” (115). As Morris said later that day, “Since we went away we have had the treaty written out, and we are ready to have it signed” (122). Morris repeatedly warned his Indigenous counterparts that he was not a trader, suggesting the inflexibility of his negotiating position: “recollect this, the Queen’s High Councillor here from Ottawa, and I, her Governor, are not traders; we do not come here in the spirit of traders; we come here to tell you openly, without hiding anything, just what the Queen will do for you” (95). However, as Loud Voice’s words suggest, the purpose of the treaty for the Indigenous negotiators was to “join together,” to create a relationship, rather than to accept or reject a specific offer. With such different ideas about what the parties were engaged in, there’s no surprise that they went away with different understandings of what they had agreed to.

Morris’s book includes the written texts of the treaties in an appendix, and (assuming they are identical to the official documents published by the Queen’s Printer) they are an important resource. One of the things I noticed was that all of the treaty texts have some version of the “basket clause” that robbed the Chippewa and Mississauga peoples who signed on to the Williams Treaties First Nations of their rights to hunt and fish. For instance, the Treaty 4 document states, 

The Cree and Saulteaux tribes of Indians, and all other the Indians inhabiting the district hereinafter described and defined, do hereby cede, release, surrender and yield up to the Government of the Dominion of Canada for Her Majesty the Queen and her successors forever, all their rights, titles, and privileges whatsoever to the lands included within the following limits. . . . (331)

Again, I find myself wondering to what extent this clause was explained to the chiefs present at Fort Qu’Appelle, and why this language was not interpreted in the same way that the language in the Williams Treaties was interpreted. No doubt there is some legal nuance I don’t understand here, but “rights, titles, and privileges” could refer to hunting and fishing rights as easily as they could refer to title to the land itself. 

The language of the paragraph about hunting, fishing, and trapping “throughout the tract surrendered” (333) is also puzzling. It subjects Indigenous peoples to “such regulations as may from time to time be made by the Government of the country acting under the authority of Her Majesty” (333), which suggests that provincial hunting or fishing or trapping regulations would take precedence over the right to hunt, fish, and trap. Moreover, the clause about land “required or taken up from time to time for settlement, mining or other purposes under grant” (333) seems to take back the right to hunt, fish, and trap at the Crown’s pleasure. No wonder the Supreme Court of Canada found, in the Grassy Narrows decision, that the Anishinabe people of Treaty 3 had no recourse to the logging of their traditional territory outside of their reserves. I find myself wondering if this clause was clearly explained to the Cree and Saulteaux chiefs who signed Treaty 4 as well. It really seems to take back the rights that are recognized earlier in the paragraph.

My focus here has been on Treaty 4, because that’s my primary area of interest, but one could closely read Morris’s account of the other treaties as well, and no doubt one would come up with other questions and comments. For instance, it seems that the Treaty 6 chiefs were concerned about the smallpox epidemic that had ravaged their territory prior to the negotiations, a concern which explains their amenability to talk about the treaty (compared to the Treaty 4 chiefs) and their demand for the “medicine chest” clause (355) and assistance in case of “pestilence” or “general famine” (354). Indeed, one could continue to sift through Morris’s book—both his account of the negotiations and the treaty texts themselves—to uncover what the treaties meant to the government and to the Indigenous negotiators. Or one could turn to the volumes about treaty-making in Canada, some of which I have written about here; after all, if the written texts aren’t the entire substance of the numbered treaties, then we need to attend to other documents and the oral histories of the treaties as well. Morris’s book gives us part of the picture of the making of the numbered treaties, but it’s important to realize that there are other sources to consult as well.

Works Cited

Krasowski, Sheldon. No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous, University of Regina Press, 2019.

Morris, Alexander. The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West Territories, Including the Negotiations on Which They Were Based, and Other Information Relating Thereto, 1880, Coles, 1971.

79. Sylvia McAdam (Sayseewahum), Nationhood Interrupted: Revitalizing nêhiyaw Legal Systems

nationhood interrupted

Sylvia McAdam’s Nationhood Interrupted: Revitalizing nêhiyaw Legal Systems, both “opens up the complexities and beauty of the nêhiyaw law,” as Sa’ke’j Henderson writes in the “Forward” (8), and tells part of the story of the formation of Idle No More, of which McAdam was one of the four leaders. Initially I wasn’t going to include my reading of this book as part of this project, but after thinking about Aimée Craft’s emphasis on the importance of Anishinaabe law during the negotiations of Treaty 1, I decided that McAdam’s account of nêhiyaw (or Cree) law would be useful here. McAdam’s work also leads into the next book I want to write about, one I read while I was away and haven’t yet made proper notes on: Emma Battell Lowman’s and Adam J. Barker’s Settler: Identity and Colonialism in 21st Century Canada.

McAdam’s book begins with two warnings: one to refrain from undertaking any of the First Nations protocols and methodologies discussed in the book “without appropriate guidance from respected First Nations Elders and knowledge keepers,” and the other to pray and smudge before and while reading the book, because the knowledge McAdam shares “is of a spiritual nature” (16-17). As with Cardinal and Hildebrandt, this book reminds readers that the lines settlers draw between sacred and profane knowledge are not the same in Cree culture. In fact, I’m not entirely sure that in Cree culture such a distinction is even relevant: “We have laws as Indian people and those laws are not man-made, they were given to us by God,” McAdam states (47).

In the book’s first chapter, McAdam writes, 

The ancient echoes of nêhiyaw laws can still be heard in the languages, lands, and cultures of the Treaty 6 nêhiyawak. When the Europeans arrived in Canada, Indigenous nations lived in diverse, vibrant, and structured societies. It is likely that all the Indigenous nations had their own laws and legal systems which guided and directed the people in their daily interactions with families, communities, and other nations. Treaty 6 is created on the foundations of the nêhiyaw laws and legal systems from the understanding of the nêhiyaw people. (22-23)

Like Harold Johnson, whose work is cited in this book, McAdam sees Treaty 6 as based in Cree legal systems and understandings, rather than those of the Crown negotiators. “At the time of treaty making in Treaty 6 territory, these laws guided the process,” McAdam writes. “When treaties became binding, it became a ceremonial covenant of adoption between two families” (24). The process of negotiating the treaty was driven by Cree laws, many of which have not been recorded or understood, but which are “imperative in treaty understanding and negotiations” nonetheless (24). One sees Johnson’s influence in those words, I think, although I could be wrong about that.

But those laws go beyond that treaty. According to McAdam, everything in creation has laws: “The human laws are called nêhiyaw wiyasiwêwina. The Indigenous people are not a lawless people; the Creator’s laws are strict and inform every part of a person’s life” (23). Cree laws are clearly divinely inspired, rather than made by humans, and this is a central difference in the way settlers and nêhiyawak conceive of law. Cree laws are not written down; rather, they “are in the songs, the ceremonies, and in all the sacred sites” (23). That means the land is intertwined with the law “in a most profound manner” (23). Also interwoven with the Cree legal system is education and language and livelihood and nationhood, it seems, because McAdam discusses all of these together with the law. Again, my sense is that the divisions that settlers would make between these areas of activity do not apply in Cree, and even that the words “law” or “legal systems” may be awkward translations concepts that do not exist in English. “All the laws have a spiritual connection; each ceremony is a renewal and reaffirmation to follow them for all time,” McAdam writes. “Even when the human being corrects the laws through the remedies provided, they are reminded that the laws need to be corrected through their relationship with the Creator” (40). 

McAdam states that she will only discuss physical human laws in her book; the spiritual laws “cannot be discussed or revealed: these are the unwritten laws of the people” (39) and “must remain in the spiritual realm” (43). The first physical human laws she mentions are verbal laws, pâstâmowin and ohcinêmowin, which address the use of language against human beings and creation, respectively. Thus they govern such things as gossip, threats, and profanity (39). However, remaining silent or not taking action does not exempt one from these laws. “It’s considered a pâstâmowin to remain silent or to take no action while a harm is being done to another human being or to anything in creation,” McAdam writes (40). It seems that pâstâmowin is a subset of pâstâhowin, which means the breaking of laws against another human being (43), as is ohcinêmowin, the breaking of laws against anything that is not a human being (44). Examples of ohcinêmowin are torturing animals, polluting land, or over-harvesting resources (44). In addition, other human laws, or wiyasiwêwina, include things like murder, theft, disrespect, incest, sexual assault, or dishonouring your relatives (46-47). The seven pipe laws—health, happiness, generosity, generations, quietness, compassion, and respect (48)—seem to be the foundation of wiyasiwêwina, in that those offences are transgressions of the pipe laws.

One of the laws governing treaties is miyo-wîcêhtowin, which means “having or possessing good relations” (47). “It is this nêhiyaw law and others which are the foundation for Treaty 6,” McAdam states. “Each party applied its own laws to reach an accord” (47). Here McAdam cites John Borrows, whose work is important in this book and elsewhere. The word wâhkôtowin, or kinship, “is critical and necessary to the foundation of nationhood,” McAdam writes (59). “The emphasis on wâhkôtowin is the foundation for the farming reserves created for each family at the time of treaty making,” she continues (59). As well, there were strict wâhkôtowin laws applied to relationships within families (60-61). However, since the Cree believe they are in relationships with everything the Creator made, “[t]his adherence to wâhkôtowin is applied just as easily to the land and to creation” (61). 

According to McAdam, women—clan mothers or warrior women, known in Cree as okihcitâwiskwêwak—played a key role in making decisions in Cree law (54-55, 57-58). They also would have played a key role in the negotiation of treaties:

During and prior to treaty making, it would have been the okihcitâwiskwêwak who would have been consulted regarding the land, because authority and jurisdiction to speak about land resides with the women. The water ceremonies belong to the women. Very little is written or known about this, other than their connection is based on the understanding that the earth is female and the authority stems from this. (55)

It would seem impossible, if this is true, that the male chiefs could have surrendered land during the negotiations of treaties without consulting with the okihcitâwiskwêwak, and there is no record of such consultations or of women being present at the negotiations with the Crown.

McAdam notes that the treaty negotiations were in part about a shift from one way of living, or pimâcihowin, to another: from the buffalo to agriculture (66-67). “Throughout the Treaty texts,” she writes, “the nêyihaw and Saulteaux leadership of the day expressed their concern that the generations to come be provided for” (70). The land itself, however, was not to be sold, McAdam argues, and “First Nations treaty negotiators were not authorized to extinguish existing collective or family rights within territories established by First Nations jurisprudence” (70). She argues that according to oral history, reserves were to be surrounded by a 10-mile or 25-mile belt of land that would accommodate future generations—something the government disputes (70-71). 

From following McAdam on Facebook, I know that she’s angry about what she calls “termination tables” (74), and she explains what these are in this book. In 2014, despite the Tsilhquot’in decision, which recognized Aboriginal title, the federal government made changes to land claims policy that will, McAdam argues, “expedite the elimination of Aboriginal rights” (74). Now, “more than half of the Indian Act chiefs [are] sitting at ‘termination tables’ negotiating away Indigenous rights” (74). Women tend to be left out of the land claims negotiations, she continues, and the process relegates Indigenous nations to the status of municipalities (74-75). “That is a heavy price to pay in terms of the generations to come,” she concludes (75). The “termination tables” seem to be another way that Canada is trying to destroy its treaty relationships with First Nations.

For McAdam, all of the land in Treaty 6 

is under the jurisdiction and authority of the descendants.Compensation for lands taken up for settlement have yet to be dispersed by the Dominion of Canada or by the successor state of Canada. The belief that Indigenous peoples “ceded and surrendered” is still a disputed statement. Treaty peoples say they never ceded or surrendered their lands and resources. The treaties are unfinished business. (76)

The Crown’s claim to having “Radical or underlying title” (qtd. 74) is, she continues, based in the Doctrine of Discovery, which “no longer has legal standing in international discourse” even though Canada continues to apply it in court. That doctrine, she concludes, “was unacceptable at the time of treaty and is unacceptable now” (76).

McAdam is vehement that the treaties did not involve a surrender or cession of the land or its resources. I would agree; in my reading of Morris’s account of the negotiations, there didn’t appear to be any discussion of surrendering the land by the Crown negotiators–an argument that is supported by Sheldon Krasowski. In the Treaty 3 negotiations, there were discussions of what would happen if a mine were to be discovered in the territory covered by the treaty, and according to Morris, the Crown’s response was that other than on the reserves themselves, First Nations would receive no benefit from any mineral discoveries, unless the discovery were to be made by a First Nations person, in which case “[h]e can sell his information if he can find a purchaser” (70). That doesn’t sound to me as if the Crown understood that resources were excluded from the surrender, although it leaves open the question as to whether the First Nations negotiators agreed with the Crown’s position. In the oral history, as the Elders interviewed by the authors of Treaty Elders of Saskatchewan point out, First Nations only allowed settlers to use the land for agricultural purposes and retained the mineral rights. If that’s so, then Canada and the provinces are are in violation of the treaties.

It seems that, for McAdam, the claims made by the Crown about its possession of the land, and about the treaties, are lies, and this puts her argument alongside those of Harold Lerat and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. McAdam cites Taiaiake Alfred’s words: “Something was stolen, lies were told, and they have never been made right. That is the crux of the problem” (182). Then she moves into her last chapter, a discussion of Idle No More, which was (and is), arguably, a response to those thefts and lies.

Nationhood Interrupted is important as a beginning discussion of Cree law, and as a reinforcement of the oral history around the negotiation of the numbered treaties in the prairies. It also reinforces my sense that the consensus about the treaties among constitutional lawyers is not widespread, and that there is a lot of understandable and justified anger among Indigenous peoples about how the treaties have been implemented and interpreted by the Crown, including the Supreme Court of Canada. As settlers and descendants of settlers in this land, we need to do a lot better job of abiding by the treaties that enable us to be here.

Work Cited

McAdam, Sylvia (Sayseewahum). Nationhood Interrupted: Revitalizing nêhiyaw Legal Systems, Purich, 2015.

77. Arthur J. Ray, Jim Miller, and Frank Tough, Bounty and Benevolence: A History of Saskatchewan Treaties 

bounty and benevolence

Bounty and Benevolence, a collaboration between three historians, was originally commissioned as a research report for Saskatchewan’s Office of the Treaty Commissioner, along with Treaty Elders of Saskatchewan: Our Dream Is That Our Peoples Will One Day Be Clearly Recognized As Nations, by Harold Cardinal and Walter Hildebrandt, an oral history of the treaties that is intended to be complementary to Bounty and Benevolence’s focus on documentary history. Bounty and Benevolence is structurally similar to and covers much of the same territory as Miller’s later Compact, Contract, Covenant, although the focus is on Saskatchewan. That means the commercial compacts with the Hudson Bay Company are discussed first, followed by the Selkirk Treaty of 1817, treaties in eastern Canada that were precedents for the numbered treaties in Saskatchewan, and earlier numbered treaties in Manitoba and northwestern Ontario. After discussing the treaties that affect this province—numbers 4, 5, 6, 8, and 10—there is a chapter on the problems of treaty implementation, followed by a conclusion. Perhaps it’s unnecessary to read both Compact, Contract, Covenant and Bounty and Benevolence because of their similarities, although the focus on one province means that the discussion in Bounty and Benevolence is somewhat more detailed. I read Bounty and Benevolence last summer, as part of a course on the treaties, but I thought it would be useful to revisit the book for this project. After reviewing my notes, I think it’s worthwhile including Bounty and Benevolence here.

The chapter on commercial relationships between First Nations and the Hudson Bay Company notes the importance of protocol and ceremony in those relationships, and the continuity between trade relationships with the HBC and the later numbered treaties: “all the major components of pre-trade gift-exchanges—the calumet rite, the presentation of outfits of clothing to Aboriginal leaders, and the distribution of food—were carried over into the treaty-making process in the late nineteenth century” (9). Ceremony and protocol were also important in the negotiation of the Selkirk Treaty, which in some ways became a bridge between earlier commercial negotiations and the later numbered treaties (31). Moreover, like the later numbered treaties, the Selkirk Treaty was marked by confusion over what the two parties actually agreed to (30).

The discussion of other treaties in eastern Canada includes the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the Two-Row Wampum that records the negotiations concluded at the 1764 Niagara Conference. According to the authors, in the 1990s John Borrows “made a strong argument that the proclamation, when read together with the solemn agreement made shortly thereafter at Niagara, constituted a treaty between First Nations and the Crown that positively guarantees First Nations the right of self-government” (33). Borrows’s essay is important and I ought to re-read it. (Borrows is an essential writer on treaty issues and I have several of his books on my reading list.)

The more pertinent forerunners of the numbered treaties are the Robinson Treaties, which, like the later treaties, allowed First Nations economic rights on all ceded lands (outside of reserves) that were not developed by settlers. As the authors point out, “This right included the subsistence and commercial use of fish, fur, and game resources on the understanding that this justified offering the Aboriginal people much lower annuities than they had demanded in treaty negotiations” (44). The later numbered treaties made similar promises. However, it’s not clear to me whether the Crown negotiators in the 1870s understood that the agricultural use of land would make hunting and gathering difficult, if not impossible. That was the experience of First Nations in Nova Scotia (according to Daniel Paul) and in Ontario (according to Miller and Donald Smith): the impact of settlement on populations of game animals left First Nations in those territories starving early in the settlement process. It’s hard to know if the Crown negotiators were just ignorant or acting in bad faith.

Ray, Miller, and Tough make an interesting argument about the first three numbered treaties: the federal government “was soliciting information from locals and providing negotiators with ‘large powers,’” and this fact “indicates that the dominion government did not have an inviolable draft treaty.” Therefore, First Nations negotiators “had scope to influence the relationship created by treaty negotiations” (63). This situation is perhaps different from later numbered treaties, where the federal treaty commissioners had a clearer sense of the kind of agreement they wanted, and entered negotiations with drafts of treaties already prepared.

Nevertheless, the authors argue that the first three numbered treaties were forerunners for the later numbered treaties, and in this their arguments parallel Miller’s later book. Kinship metaphors, they suggest, were not just paternalistic but were symbolic language—an idea other writers will develop further (66). Specifics about reserves were not made explicit (67), and First Nations were assured that their traditional livelihood would continue after the treaty was negotiated (67). Moreover, they argue that “[t]reaty-making involved an unequal meeting of two property systems” (69). In 2000, when this book was published, this aspect of treaty-making had received little attention, they suggest, and the fact that “the terms describing ownership, land use, and occupancy are used in an imprecise way in the historical records,” as well as “conflicting scholarly theories about the nature of Aboriginal tenure systems,” has caused much confusion (69-70). Much of the research in the area since this book was published has set out to clarify these questions, and oral history has been, I would argue, invaluable in this work. Nevertheless, the documentary record does make clear “that Indian chiefs were well informed about land and resource issues, both in terms of their own needs and of the values Whites placed on them. Significantly, Indians wanted to establish treaty relations with the Crown to address their Aboriginal interest in the land” (69-70). According to the authors, the documentary record can also be used to establish, to a certain extent, the views of First Nations negotiators, at least as far as Treaties 1, 2, and 3 are concerned, using both government records and newspaper accounts (74). Moreover, “[d]ecades of fur trade bargaining gave Indians considerable experience in dealing with European commercial impulses and in seeking the satisfaction of their livelihood needs. Ultimately, Morris was forced to limit the scope of the negotiations by placing the treaties on the basis of some kind of trust: a belief in the Queen’s good intentions” (75). The way I read those sentences, it seems that in the first three numbered treaties, Crown negotiators found themselves being outmatched by their First Nations counterparts. As with other numbered treaties, there are controversies about the differences between oral and written versions of the agreements in Treaties 1, 2, and 3 (77, 81), and “the dominion government sought refuge in the written version of the treaties (81). First Nations used political pressure to get some of the so-called “outside promises” included later in the 1870s (83-84). The authors therefore acknowledge the importance of going beyond the written text of the treaties by examining the context in which they were negotiated in order to understand what the negotiators actually thought they were agreeing to (86).

Both the Crown and First Nations faced challenges when they negotiated Treaty 4. Epidemics of smallpox, buffalo scarcity, and difficult relationships between Métis and First Nations were causing political and military instability, and the federal government was informed of these problems by senior HBC officials and missionaries. For its part, Canada feared the military strength of the Cree and Saulteaux, and did not want to fight (104). Moreover, First Nations were still angry over the transfer of Rupert’s Land from the HBC to Canada without consultation. As a result, Treaty 4 negotiations happened without a pipe ceremony or other rituals (107-08). According to the authors, there is a sharp contrast between accounts of the negotiations provided by Morris and First Nations elders (111), and Morris’s language in speeches was vague compared to the precise language of the treaty document (112). These facts may lead one to assume that Morris was not being truthful in the negotiations, an argument that Michael Asch repudiates but that Sheldon Krasowski seems to support. Nevertheless, most of the terms of Treaty 4 ended up being identical to Treaty 3 (113). Reserves would be small, but hunting, trapping, and fishing rights off reserve were promised, with limitations for land taken up by settlement or other purposes (115). The relationship with the Queen promised First Nations protection and equal justice (117). The chiefs present at the negotiations asked for copies of the written treaty (118), a sign, perhaps, that they did not entirely trust the Crown to hold up its end of the bargain.

The Treaty 5 negotiations affected only three First Nations in northern Saskatchewan, and it left First Nations with reserves that were much smaller than in Treaties 3, 4, or 6. Treaty 6, however, covered a large area in Saskatchewan and Alberta. The First Nations chiefs won more emphasis on famine relief and medical assistance because their people were suffering from the continuing decline of the bison and the severe effects of the smallpox epidemic. The clauses they negotiated, according to Ray, Miller, and Tough, were compatible with the assistance First Nations had received from the Hudson Bay Company previously (130). Morris presented the treaty to First Nations as a gift from the Queen: “They would have the use of their lands ‘as before,’ but with the addition of presents, annuities, and other benefits” (130). Unlike the Treaty 4 negotiations, Treaty 6 talks began with a pipe ceremony, and it appears that the federal commissioners didn’t quite understand the significance of this (133). “Treaty 6 was the culmination of the treaty-making tradition in western Canada,” the authors state, perhaps because it is the treaty in which the most concessions were wrung from the federal negotiators (146-47). Later treaties reduced the commitments of the federal government, and as Asch notes, Morris lost his job for making concessions in the Treaty 6 negotiations.

Treaty 8, which covers part of northern Saskatchewan, was negotiated 20 years later, with a great deal of haste and carelessness. The Crown wanted to open up northern areas of the western provinces to prospectors, and that was its rationale for beginning the negotiations, which First Nations had been requesting for some time. There are no records of the discussions, just the final text. First Nations sought more explicit protection for hunting, fishing, and trapping rights, because they were aware of what was happening on the prairies south of the boreal forest (the pass system, for example). The government tried to assure the chiefs that First Nations people would not be restricted to their reserves. Treaty 8, the authors write, “allowed for the peaceful economic development of the region at a time when federal and provincial policing powers were stretched thin. . . . It is certain that the economic development of the Athabasca, Mackenzie, and Peace River districts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries could not have been accomplished peacefully without Treaty 8” (168). However, the oral histories of Treaty 8 people make it clear that the promises of guarantees of fishing, hunting and trapping rights were not kept (169). Like Treaty 8, Treaty 10 was negotiated because of pressure of economic development, and because the creation of the province of Saskatchewan resulted in pressure to bring northern First Nations into treaty (171-72). Treaty 8 served as a model (186), and the concerns raised by First Nations echoed those raised in previous negotiations (186). Again, First Nations were looking for the same kinds of benefits they had previously received from the HBC (186).

The chapter on treaty implementation tells a familiar and terrible story. There were problems about the way the treaties were implemented almost immediately, and in 1878 the First Nations that signed Treaty 4 threatened to refuse their annuities, thereby repudiating the treaty (187-88). Complaints were made by First Nations to Lord Lorne, the Governor General, in 1881 (188). The differences between the written text and oral promises were a large part of the problem. Meanwhile, Sir John A. Macdonald and Edgar Dewdney were cutting government spending on the Indian Department while diverting its budget to residential schools (190). There was little direct resistance, however; the authors cite the Yellow Calf incident of 1884 as one of the few examples of armed resistance to the failure of the government to live up to its treaty promises (190). It is clear, they write, from the lists of grievances written by First Nations chiefs that Treaty 4 included a guarantee of government assistance sufficient to enable First Nations to maintain themselves when settlers arrived and interfered with their ability to live by traditional methods (192)—guarantees that were ignored by the government. In Treaty 6 territory, similar issues arose: the government failed to provide farm implements and cattle (196), and First Nations demanded control over their own affairs (196). After 1885, the implementation of the pass system, along with the “peasant farming” and severalty policies later in the 1880s, made the situation worse in southern Saskatchewan (200-01). “All these retrograde policy developments help to explain both the serious problems with treaty implementation that southern First Nations experienced in the 1880s and 1890s and the heightened suspicions with which northern Nations approached treaty-making in the 1890s and first decade of the twentieth century,” Ray, Miller, and Tough write (201). In Treaty 10 territory, there were conflicts over the right to fish, hunt, trap, and gather (201). Part of the problem was the 1876 Indian Act, which led to policies of political control, enforced economic transition, and cultural subjugation and assimilation that bore no resemblance to the attitudes the treaty commissioners displayed in the 1870s (202-03). According to Ray, Miller, and Tough, “This study belongs to the unfolding process of reinterpreting the genesis, contents, and impact of the treaties that is still going on” (204).

Unlike Asch, the authors don’t seem to like Morris very much, referring to the “complacent self-satisfaction” his book on the treaties reveals (204). They suggest that Harold Cardinal’s The Unjust Society (another important book, also on my reading list) played a key role in changing the attitudes of historians towards the treaties, and cite the work of Gerald Friesen, Jean Friesen, and John Tobias as central to creating a viewpoint that, by the late 1990s, “could legitimately be described as the new, more critical orthodoxy” (208). Although their book focuses on the documentary record, they write that these texts “cannot provide a complete and finished historical version of the meanings of a treaty relationship between First Nations and the Crown” (214). They argue that their study has uncovered important findings regarding the continuity of the relationship between First Nations and the HBC, and First Nations and Canada; the Crown’s consistent position during negotiations of various treaties; promises to ensure First Nations livelihood; and the problems of treaty implementation (214). “In the immediate treaty-signing era, problems arose that reflect on the different understandings of the treaties and/or the failure to implement the treaties in good faith,” they write (214). So much waffling is contained in that phrase “and/or”! I would have hoped for a much clearer conclusion regarding this crucial issue. Did the government implement the treaties in good faith? No. Did the two sides understand the treaties differently? Yes. But did the Crown negotiators act in good faith? That’s a central question that’s left open here. It might be the central question of the history of the numbered treaties.

Bounty and Benevolence is an important work, but it is now somewhat out-of-date, I think, especially given the importance of works by First Nations writers like Aimée Craft and Harold Johnson, as well as the Treaty Elders of Saskatchewan book. After all, if the documentary record is incomplete, and if oral history can fill in the gaps in that record, then it’s important to use that testimony as well. In fact, I tend to find the books that rely on oral history more useful than works like Bounty and Benevolence, although as Sheldon Krasowski’s No Surrender indicates, there are resources in documentary history that previous historians have ignored. In any case, despite its limitations, Bounty and Benevolence is a useful overview of treaties in Saskatchewan.

Work Cited

Ray, Arthur J. Jim Miller, and Frank Tough, Bounty and Benevolence: A History of Saskatchewan Treaties,McGill-Queen’s UP, 2000.

73. Harold Cardinal and Walter Hildebrandt, Treaty Elders of Saskatchewan: Our Dream Is That Our Peoples Will One Day Be Clearly Recognized As Nations

Treaty Elders of Saskatchewan: Our Dream Is That Our Peoples Will One Day Be Clearly Recognized As Nations (another that I read in the summer course I took last summer) is exceedingly important, because it explores the oral tradition surrounding the treaties in Saskatchewan through the words of contemporary Elders (contemporary 20 years ago, that is). That work is vital, given the differing interpretations of the treaties one sees in other writers. It was initially intended as a companion book to. Bounty and Benevolence: A History of Saskatchewan Treaties, by Arthur J. Ray, Jim Miller, and Frank Tough. The books are very different, though, and for some reason were published by two separate university presses—not that it matters. It’s clear while Treaty Elders of Saskatchewan was intended as an Indigenous perspective on the treaties, while Bounty and Benevolence was to be a standard documentary history. In my opinion, Treaty Elders of Saskatchewan has aged better; Bounty and Benevolence (is the title ironic?) has been superseded by Sheldon Krasowski’s No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous.

Treaty Elders of Saskatchewan: Our Dream Is That Our Peoples Will One Day Be Clearly Recognized As Nations begins with an account of First Nations spiritual laws and traditions, which makes sense because, as other writers on the treaties point out, the treaties were negotiated in accordance with First Nations laws, traditions, ceremonies and protocol. “The Elders make it clear that, in their view, those who seek to understand Indian treaties must become aware of the significance of First Nations spiritual traditions, beliefs, and ceremonies underlying the treaty-making process,” write Cardinal and Hildebrandt (1). First Nations believe they were put on this land by the Creator, and that it is theirs collectively (3-5). Those beliefs and principles and protocols informed the objectives of First Nations in negotiating the treaties. First, they sought recognition and affirmation of their right to maintain their relationships with the Creator through the laws they had been given by him (6-7). They understood that both parties in the treaty “would conduct their relationships with each other in accordance with the laws, values, and principles given to each of them by the Creator” (7). In addition, because the treaties were performed through ceremonies, the promises and agreements that were made are irrevocable and inviolable, and breaking them can bring about divine retribution with grave consequences (7). The invocation of the sun, river, and grass in the treaties, according to Elder Lawrence Tobacco, was an appeal to their spirits, and that demonstrates the seriousness of the promises being made (8). 

Because the land and everything on it—animals, water, trees, plants, rocks—are sacred gifts from the Creator, they could not be sold or given away. “For that reason,” Cardinal and Hildebrandt write, “the Elders say that the sacred Earth given to the First Nations by the Creator will always be theirs” (10). (That doesn’t sound like the so-called surrender clause would’ve been something the Chiefs negotiating with the representatives of the Crown would have agreed to.) The Creator provided other gifts, including laws, values, principles, and mores (10). According to Cardinal and Hildebrandt, “it is this very special and complete relationship with the Creator that is the source of the sovereignty that their peoples possess” (11). The negotiations were spiritual ceremonies, and that needs to be remembered.

One of the core values of the Cree nation is miyo-wîcêhtowin, the principle of good relations and expanding the circle of individual and collective relationships (14). The circle is an important symbol of this principle. The term wâhkôhtowin refers to the laws governing all relations, whereas miyo-wîcêhtowin are the laws concerning good relations (14). “For the Elders, the relationships created by the treaties were founded on the doctrines of wâhkôhtowin and miyo-wîcêhtowin for they constituted the essential elements of an enduring and lasting relationship between the First Nations, the Crown, and her subjects,” write Cardinal and Hildebrandt (15). Those relationships were to consist of mutual and ongoing caring and sharing arrangements between both sides, including a sharing of the duties and responsibilities for the land, which would be shared with the newcomers so that they could make a living (15). The laws of wâhkôhtowin are applied by analogy to the treaty relationship (19). In other words, as Harold Johnson and Michael Asch argue, the treaties created a kinship relationship between First Nations and the Crown, and therefore also between First Nations and settlers, who are also “children” of the Crown, metaphorically.

Because the treaties and their promises are sacred due to the ceremonies performed during the negotiations, they cannot be changed or altered (25). However, in the focus sessions Cardinal and Hildebrandt held with Elders, “it became very clear that their view and understanding of the treaties differed significantly from the written text of the treaties. Indeed, their focus was on the ‘nature and character of the treaty relationship’ as opposed to the contents of the written treaty texts created by the Crown” (25). Again, one is reminded of Harold Johnson’s words, that the treaties were about relationships and are therefore not simply finalized documents. I was also reminded of the notion of treaties as a covenant chain that periodically must be polished. This is a very different perspective on treaties than the Western one, which sees them as finalized once they’ve been negotiated. 

Cardinal and Hildebrandt list several principles or irrevocable undertakings—their language shifts for no apparent reason—that are affirmed by the treaties, according to the Elders. First, the treaties were a joint acknowledgement of the supremacy of the Creator and the joint fidelity of both sides in the negotiations to that divine sovereignty (31). This affirmation took place through the use of the pipe and sweetgrass (31). Second, the parties agreed to maintain a peaceful relationship—again, through the use of ceremony (32). Peace refers to the kind of relationship symbolized by the laws governing relationships between cousins. The third undertaking involves creating and maintaining a perpetual family relationship based on concepts defined by principles of wâhkôhtowin or good relationships (33). Cree Elder Simon Kytwayhat uses the term kiciwamanawak to refer to the settlers who, he says, were adopted by his nation through treaty (33). One sees the source of Johnson’s ideas here, and I wonder if Kytwayhat is the Treaty Elder Johnson consulted. The fourth irrevocable undertaking was that sharing land with the settlers would guarantee a continuing right of livelihood to First Nations (36). The land was not sold or transferred to the Crown, but a promise was made to share it—and natural resources were not included, according to Treaty Elder Peter Waskahat (36). “The fundamental principles identified by the Elders constitute aspects of the treaty relationship that, in their view, are not subject to change or alteration between the parties,” write Cardinal and Hildebrandt. “The understanding of these principles are interwoven with and derive their existence from the spiritual and ceremonial fabric of First Nations societies. They provide the contextual framework for the Indian understanding of the collective and individual relationships created by treaty” (38).

Another key term in the book is witaskêwin, or living together on the land, which in the context of the treaties means sharing territory with the newcomers. Elder Danny Musqua points out that First Nations had a history of sharing territory with each other for various purposes (39). Each First Nation has its own spiritual relationship with the Creator through ceremonies and their connectedness to the land (41). “The treaties, through the spiritual ceremonies conducted during the negotiations, expanded the First Nations sovereign circle, bringing in and embracing the Crown within their sovereign circle,” write Cardinal and Hildebrandt. “The treaties, in this view, were arrangements between nations intended to recognize, respect, and acknowledge in perpetuity the sovereign character of each of the treaty parties, within the context of right conferred by the Creator to Indian nations” (41-42). The treaties are therefore nation-to-nation agreements (42). 

Despite the fact that the treaties cannot be changed, some aspects of them are open-ended, requiring flexibility and adaptability as times change. One example of an issue requiring flexibility and negotiation is resource extraction (42). That leads to another key term, pimâcihowin, the ability to make a living from the land (43). This is a complex term, because the wealth of the land is both spiritual and material, and pimâcihowin incorporates both dimensions (43). In material terms, “the treaty guarantees the continuing right of First Nations livelihood, and the continuing right of First Nations to maintain a continuing relationship to the land, and its resources constitute one of the irrevocable and unchanging elements of the treaty relationship negotiated by First Nations and the Crown,” according to Cardinal and Hildebrandt (46). In a long quotation, they cite Danny Musqua’s argument that First Nations were promised that they would be as wealthy as settlers (47). That, of course, has not happened.

In the chapter entitled tâpwêwin, which means the obligation to speak with truth and accuracy, Cardinal and Hildebrandt note that there is no “formal existing agreement” between First Nations and the Crown about the meaning and content of the treaties, and this problem needs to be resolved “if the spirit and intent of the treaty relationship is to be properly understood” (48). They refer to the written texts of the treaties as “purporting to be the official copies” (48)—the word “purporting” suggesting they have their doubts. Nevertheless, Canada still takes the position that only the written treaty documents, read literally, can be used to determine whether or not there is an existing treaty right (49). That approach precludes the use of other sources, including the First Nations understanding of the treaties, the reports and dispatches written by Treaty Commissioners, eyewitness accounts, and other related documents and correspondence (49). The Treaty Elders, however, believe that it’s most important to examine oral evidence and history, before turning to other documents and, last of all, the “so-called articles of treaty” (50). The Supreme Court of Canada has given guidelines through several decisions that reinforce the Treaty Elders’ perspective, but Canada apparently still does not follow those guidelines when litigating treaty rights (50, 52). Those guidelines, as reproduced in the text, are an important source, since they are drawn from several judgements. “The Elders’ presentations dealing with wîtaskêwin (living together on the land) and pimâcihowin (making a living) directly contradict the written texts of the treaties in Saskatchewan and past case law predicated on those written texts,” Cardinal and Hildebrandt write (57). First, Canada continues to refuse to acknowledge that First Nations were sovereign when the treaties were negotiated, and it continues to claim that the Crown has underlying sovereign title, which contradicts the First Nations position that they have original sovereign title (57). Second, Canada claims that Indian title was extinguished by the treaties, but the Treaty Elders maintain that this is not the case. In a shocking passage, Cardinal and Hildebrandt write:

At the focus sessions, when the “extinguishment clauses” of the written treaty texts were read, translated, and explained, the Elders reacted with incredulity and disbelief. They found it hard to believe that anyone, much less the Crown, could seriously believe that First Nations would ever have agreed to “extinguish” their God-given rights. (58)

Third, the Crown asserts exclusive ownership of and jurisdiction over all lands, wildlife, and resources, but the Elders maintain that First Nations retained ownership and jurisdiction, except for those portions of land required for agriculture—and then only to the depth of a plough blade (58). The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996) made suggestions about resolving these issues, but Canada has not implemented them (58). These disagreements don’t mean that the treaties are invalid, however; the written texts and the oral history both indicate that substantive agreements were reached (58-59). “For the Elders,” Cardinal and Hildebrandt conclude, “what is at issue is not whether or not treaties exist, but whether a mutually acceptable record of them can now be agreed upon and implemented” (59).

Next, the authors discuss livelihood in more detail. They argue that the treaties state that First Nations livelihood was not to be affected, and that freedom, independence, and economic self-sufficiency were the goals the First Nations negotiators sought to achieve (61). The Treaty Elders interviewed in the book were very clear about what the treaties do not mean in this regard. They were not a blanket transfer of First Nations lands and resources to the Crown (62). They were land-sharing arrangements for agricultural purposes only (63). Natural resources were not to be shared, and neither were water resources, fish, wildlife, or waterfowl (64). In addition, as far as Treaty 4 is concerned, the transfer of Rupert’s Land to the Crown is an outstanding issue that was not resolved during the negotiations and needs to be addressed. The authors provide a long quotation from Danny Musqua on that land transfer, in which he rejects the Crown’s claim to sovereignty (65-66). “[T]he sharing arrangements, as envisioned by the Elders, were to be fair to each of the parties, intended to enable the parties to jointly share in the prosperity of the prosperity of the land—not drive the First Nations to destitution,” Cardinal and Hildebrandt write (66).

That chapter, the penultimate in the book, is also the strongest, where the evidence from the Treaty Elders matches the argument most successfully. In fact, the book gets better with each successive chapter, until the conclusion, which is surprisingly quite weak, merely repeating what has already been said. “It has not been possible to include all the conceptual issues raised by the Elders during this process,” the authors write, without explaining what those issues were or why they could not be included (71). Nevertheless, this is, as I said at the outset, an important book, despite its flaws, because it gives a sense of what the oral history of the Saskatchewan treaties looks like. I was surprised to learn of the insistence of the Treaty Elders that the land was to be shared only to the depth of a plough blade, and that no natural resources were to be included in the treaties. I am sure that our provincial government would strongly disagree with that perspective. I was also surprised to learn that water resources were not included, either. I wonder what this province would look like now if the treaties had been implemented the way they are understood by the Treaty Elders. It would be a very different place, no doubt, and the horrors of residential schools and deliberate starvation would not be on our consciences.

In addition, the current consensus is clear: the importance of oral history, the emphasis on sharing the land rather than transferring it outright, the lack of consensus on what the treaties actually mean. I wonder is Asch’s optimism is warranted, given the gulf that divides First Nations and Canada on what the treaties mean, and I wonder if Canada will ever begin to attempt to resolve that issue. I have no doubt, though, that Tom Flanagan’s take on the treaties (as reported by Asch) is very much an outlier, at least in the academic literature on the subject, although I think many settlers would agree with his complaints. I remember reading reviews of Flanagan’s First Nations, Second Thoughts when it came out, and I wonder why a book that ignores the historical record got so much attention. Perhaps because it told some Canadians the kinds of things they wanted to hear? Certainly Treaty Elders of Saskatchewan could not be accused of that.

Works Cited

Asch, Michael. On Being Here to Stay: Treaties and Aboriginal Rights in Canada, University of Toronto Press, 2014.

Cardinal, Harold and Walter Hildebrandt, Treaty Elders of Saskatchewan: Our Dream Is That Our Peoples Will One Day Be Clearly Recognized As Nations, University of Calgary Press, 2000.

Johnson, Harold. Two Families: Treaties and Government, Purich, 2007.

Krasowski, Sheldon. No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous, University of Regina Press, 2019.

Ray, Arthur J., Jim Miller, and Frank Tough. Bounty and Benevolence: A History of Saskatchewan Treaties. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000.

70. Harold Johnson, Two Families: Treaties and Government

This summary is another adaptation of one I wrote for Dr. James Daschuk in the course on treaties I took with him last summer. And it’s more than appropriate to post this on Canada Day, because Cree writer and former lawyer Harold Johnson calls what we mean by Canada into question in Two Families: Treaties and Government. It was one of the most radical books I read last summer, and I continue to return to it, perhaps for that reason.

Johnson begins his book by introducing himself and his relations: “I am of this land,” he writes, echoing the Anishinabe Chiefs Craft discusses. “I am of this earth” (11). “I do not say that I own this land; rather, the land owns me,” he continues (13). That land holds stories, including the stories of the relationship between First Nations and settlers (12-13). “They can help us to live here in a good way if we learn to listen,” Johnson states. That is the purpose of his book: to teach settlers what they need to know if they are to live in this place—in Johnson’s perspective, the Treaty 6 lands—in a good way: to explain Cree laws and history, to explain how they are different from what settlers might have been told, to explain how the Canadian Constitution fits into Cree supreme law, and to “suggest how we might live together as two families sharing the same territory” (14). He will never suggest that settlers should go home, Johnson continues, because we “have a treaty right to be here” (14). Immediately Johnson’s perspective becomes clear: the treaties subtend Canadian law because they give settlers the right to share this land.

The key term in Johnson’s discussion is a Cree word he was given by Elders: kiciwamanawak, or “our cousins.” That is the term they told him he should use when addressing or talking about settlers. The kinship term is important. “In Cree law,” Johnson writes, “the treaties were adoptions of one nation by another” (13). That’s the reason Canadian laws are subordinate—or should be subordinate—to Cree law, in Johnson’s perspective: settlers were adopted by the Cree, and not the other way around.

Before settlers arrived, Johnson argues, “[w]e lived according to the laws of the Creator, which incidentally look a lot like the laws of ecological order” (18). It is the Creator’s laws that are superior to settlers’ legal systems. Those systems are simple compared to the laws of the Creator; a student could spend a lifetime trying to understand the questions that the phrase “All My Relations” raises (18-19). In Cree society, people are equals, and that means that Cree people and whites are also equals. “We should be living as two families in the same territory,” he states (20). He continues, giving a glimpse of what the Cree might have expected when they were negotiating Treaty 6:

When your family arrived here, Kiciwamanawak, we expected that you would join the families already here, and, in time, learn to live like us. No one thought you would try to take everything for yourselves, and that we would have to beg for leftovers. We thought we would live as before, and that you would share your technology with us. We thought that maybe, if you watched how we lived, you might learn how to live in balance in this territory. The treaties that gave your family the right to occupy this territory were also an opportunity for you to learn how to live in this territory. (20-21).

It’s worth noting that one of the Cree words for reserve, iskonigan, also means “leftover” (Wolvengrey 39). More importantly, it’s clear that, according to Johnson, settlers were supposed to adapt to Cree ways of living and laws, rather than the other way around. That, of course, did not happen, and one of the central reasons (aside from the sheer number of settlers who arrived in the 1880s and 1890s) might have been the way settlers and their government(s) have (as Johnson would argue) misunderstood the treaties.

There is no coherent theory that explains the sovereignty of the Crown in this territory, Johnson argues, unless one relies on “the out-moded doctrine that you have a right to this territory because you are superior to my family”—a doctrine that rightfully belongs to the KKK or the Aryan Nations (23). “Discovery cannot be justification for your family’s occupation of this territory,” he continues. “Your family did not discover this place. It was never lost” (23). Nor were First Nations conquered in battle. Therefore, “the only right you have to occupy this territory must come from treaty. You have a treaty right to be here,” Johnson concludes. “The only coherent theory that provides for your sovereignty that is not based on supremacist ideology is that you obtained the right to be here through negotiation and agreement” (25). Notice that Johnson is shifting between the words “occupation” and “sovereignty,” words that are not synonyms. Otherwise, “[w]e are left to assume that the Crown stole sovereignty, and that certainly is not honourable” (25). 

One of the ceremonies given to the Cree by the Creator is adoption, and for Johnson that is what happened when the treaties were negotiated. “It was in accordance with the law of adoption that my family took your ancestors as relatives,” he writes. “We solemnized the adoption with a sacred pipe. The promises that my ancestors made are forever, because they were made under the Creator’s law. This adoption ceremony is what we refer to when we talk about treaty” (27). The Cree adopted the Queen, according to Johnson, rather than the reverse (29). Of course, the implementation of the treaties did not reflect this understanding, and Cree societal structures have been damaged as a result. That is because of the difference between the written text of the treaty and the oral histories about it (41-42). “I doubt the Treaty Commissioner explained the treaty in a way that conveyed the meaning the Crown assigned to the words, ‘cede, release, surrender and yield up . . . all rights titles and privileges,’ and the limits to be placed on hunting and fishing,” Johnson argues (42). Sheldon Krasowski would agree with Johnson on this point, and in No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous, he goes beyond Johnson’s conjecture. On the contrary, Johnson argues, Elders who are familiar with the oral histories “dispute the written record of the treaties. . . . When the written record is compared with the oral history, it is clear that much of what my family members said to the commissioner has been omitted, and that which has been recorded has been perverted” (43). The word “perverted” suggested an intentional decision to mislead or misrepresent, which is the opposite of the conclusion J.R. Miller reaches in Compact, Contract, Covenant, or that Michael Asch comes to in On Being Here to Stay: Treaties and Aboriginal Rights in Canada. The cultural arrogance of the recorder, the people who write things down, is the reason for this perversion, and it’s a problem that doesn’t exist in oral history, according to Johnson, because in oral history the historians are bound by the Creator to maintain an accurate record of what was said and done, or else they will suffer negative consequences (43-44). “The written text of the treaties has no more authority than the oral histories,” Johnson continues. “The authority assigned to the written text is a subversion of what really happened,” which was that settlers “came under our law when you came to this territory. That is simple. You abide by the laws, customs, and traditions of the people in whose territory you reside (45).

Abiding by Cree law would mean abolishing hierarchies and artificial entities like corporations (46, 47, 49). It would also mean understanding that good and evil are extremes best avoided. “Our way of being is our understanding of where we are in relation to our environment,” Johnson writes. “This understanding has many more possibilities than the extremes of good and evil” (51). It would also mean abandoning adversarial ways of thinking about the world (57), as well as the belief that settler society is superior to the Cree. “As long as you insist on your doctrine of superiority, you will be in breach of that law [the law of adoption], and you will not develop your understanding,” Johnson writes. “We want to talk to you but you will not listen” (53).

Other changes would be necessary if Johnson’s understanding of the treaty became widespread, including the abandonment of the concept of property, which is inconsistent with the treaty’s promise to share the land and its resources. “The concept of property is laid over the earth like a sheet of clear plastic: invisible, sterile, and devoid of human connection,” Johnson writes (64). It would also mean that Cree nations have sovereignty, rather than the Crown. “We did not give you control over the entire territory, nor did we abdicate our responsibility to the earth,” Johnson contends. “Under our law, we did not have the right to pass off our duty to your family, to surrender our choice, our authority” (67). Also, the responsibility for resources would have to lie with First Nations, not the province—that decision violates the treaties (68). 

Moreover, the Canadian Constitution would have to be understood as secondary to the treaties. “Your acknowledgement of the treaties as first documents will begin to put us back in balance,” Johnson writes. “When your family accepts that this country’s founding families are yours and mine, then we can begin to search for other truths” (84-85). The doctrine of sovereignty would be unneeded, because settlers “have a treaty right to occupy and use this territory,” granted through the ceremony of adoption. “Sovereignty is an old excuse to deny my family’s equality with yours. Your family has sovereignty and mine does not” (89). And the written text of the treaties? “Kiciwamanawak, my family did not adopt a piece of paper; they adopted you. The paper at tre aty was ancillary to ceremony. My ancestors recognized your paper as your ceremony and participated so as not to offend” (90). The Constitution therefore becomes secondary to the oral treaty record. “I cannot accept that your constitutional documents have any power,” Johnson writes. “I cannot talk to those papers and tell them of the plight of my family. I can only talk to you, Kiciwamanawak, and remind you that you have treaty rights” (90). In fact, the Constitution is a treaty right, according to Johnson (92). He disagrees strenuously with the Constitution’s language regarding existing Aboriginal rights. “The assumption that your family can determine the rights of my family is never clearly articulated in your constitutional documents,” he writes. “Neither have your courts ever articulated a legitimate theory. Authority is merely assumed. Kiciwamanawak, I can only suspect the reason that the theory of your domination is never clearly articulated is because your family does not have one. The old theories of discovery or conquest or emptiness no longer hold true” (103). In fact, the Constitution itself “is subservient to and dependent on the treaties for its legitimacy,” Johnson argues. “There is no other legitimate basis for your occupation and use of this territory. It is only by treaty that you have any rights here at all” (105). And so Johnson returns to his starting point: “If we return to the original intention of treaty and recognize that we are relatives, Kiciwamanawak, we should be able to walk into the future in a good way” (121).

Two Families is a powerful expression of an Indigenous perspective on the treaties. It turns the standard way of thinking about Canada upside-down. I think it is definitely is one of the sources Asch uses in his discussion of treaties. There is a logic to Johnson’s argument that is difficult to deny, if you accept his claim that the treaties were ceremonies of adoption. Aimée Craft doesn’t go that far, in her book on Treaty 1, although she would agree with Johnson that the treaty was about sharing territory rather than surrendering it. And, to be honest, I can’t help thinking that our history would be less shameful if Johnson’s ideas had been shared by Victorian Canadians. There would have been no Indian Act, no residential schools, no pass system. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine settlers and First Nations walking into the future “in a good way” (121), even if that’s what reconciliation actually means—although when I think about Johnson’s argument, I become ever more convinced that he’s right, and settlers are wrong.

Works Cited

Asch, Michael. On Being Here to Stay: Treaties and Aboriginal Rights in Canada, University  of Toronto Press, 2014. 

Craft, Aimée. Breathing Life Into the Stone Fort Treaty: An Anishinabe Understanding of Treaty One, Purich, 2013. 

Johnson, Harold. Two Families: Treaties and Government, Purich, 2007.

Krasowski, Sheldon. No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous, University of Regina Press, 2019.

Wolvengrey, Arok. nêhiyawêwin: itwêwina/Cree: words, vol. 1, Cree-English, University of Regina Press, 2001.

69. Michael Asch, On Being Here to Stay: Treaties and Aboriginal Rights in Canada

I’ve been thinking about Michael Asch’s On Being Here to Stay: Treaties and Aboriginal Rights in Canada for a few days now—and, more to the point, wondering if its possible to square Asch’s argument that the numbered treaties were legitimate against Sheldon Krasowski’s argument in No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous that, because the so-called surrender clause was not mentioned during the negotiations, those treaties are illegitimate—or at least problematic. And, before I fly off later this week, I’d like to get to 70 blog posts. So please allow me to revisit a summary of Asch’s book that I wrote as part of a course I took on treaty relationships with Dr. James Daschuk last summer. If nothing else, this post will be a test of how good these summaries are—whether they allow me to remember the gist of an argument without having to reread the source text. 

Asch’s book takes its title from a statement made by Chief Justice Antonio Lamer in the 1997 Delgamuukw decision: “Let us face it, we are all here to stay” (3). For Asch, an anthropologist, that statement poses a problem: “it is wrong legally as well as morally to move onto lands belonging to others without first obtaining their permission” (vii). But, as Asch continues, that problem leads to another:  “reconciling this principle with the fact that Canada is on lands that belong to Indigenous peoples” (vii). What might permission from those peoples entail? he asks (vii). Would those treaties allow Canada to act in compliance with the 1960 U.N. Declaration on De-Colonization, from which he derives his first principle, that it is wrong to occupy territory without asking permission first?

At first, Asch writes, he believed that the representatives of the Crown acted fraudulently in negotiating the treaties, because the government of Canada failed to implement the terms of those treaties. However, given the importance of R v. Badger and the Supreme Court’s finding in that case that the Crown, legally, must be regarded as truthful regardless of its original intent, Asch adopted that perspective (viii). He began looking at correspondences between what Indigenous authorities render as the treaty terms now, and what the treaty commissioners actually said. And, for Treaty 4, at least (his test case), Asch found that it seems that Morris meant what he said. That discovery led him to “recalibrate” his interpretation of the treaties (viii). “[T]here is at least a case to be made for the proposition that there were those who acted in good faith in the past, and thus the possibility that, while to act honourably now is to depart from how we have acted in the past, it is also to keep faith with it,” he writes (ix). Moreover, there is the problem of the purported nation-to-nation relationship between First Nations and Canada. “A relationship between equals . . . requires (at least as modernity describes it) that each party is a state with sovereignty and jurisdiction over a territory,” he writes. “Yet Indigenous authorities inform us that we did not acquire sovereignty and jurisdiction over any territory. Therefore,” he continues, “we cannot be equals, for a party that does not have sovereignty and jurisdiction in a territory cannot have the same standing as one that does” (x). Here we see the influence of Harold Johnson’s argument in Two Families: Treaties and Government that Canada did not acquire sovereignty as a result of the treaties. These are the questions Asch takes up in his book.

What authorizes the presence of settlers in this territory, aside from our numbers and our power (3)? For Asch, this question needs to be answered; otherwise, Canada is in violation of the Declaration on De-Colonization. Moreover, the question of how the Crown gained sovereignty—since Canada has made it clear that although First Nations have rights that flow from the period prior to the Crown’s assertion of sovereignty, it will not accept that this situation “might call into question the final legislative authority of the Crown” (10-11)—needs to be answered. How did the Crown gain its sovereignty? How can that sovereignty be reconciled with the pre-existence of Indigenous societies, and not the other way around (11)?

Asch begins his exploration of these questions by looking into the history of Aboriginal rights in Canada, at least since the Calder decision. “[T]he courts to date have adhered to the same position as the government of Canada: Aboriginal rights, whatever their content, are subordinate to the sovereignty of Canada,” he writes. “And, to reiterate, this formulation begs the most fundamental question: If Indigenous peoples had legitimate sovereignty when Europeans first arrived, how did the Crown legitimately acquire it?” (32). Clearly, recent judicial decisions have not answered this question.

Next, Asch responds to Tom Flanagan’s 2000 book, First Nations, Second Thoughts. Flanagan argues that temporal priority—essentially, the principle of first come, first served—does not apply in Canada in terms of the Crown’s sovereignty, and Asch demonstrates that it does (38). Flanagan argues that sovereignty over Indigenous peoples has legitimated itself over time, but Asch shows that because First Nations have not accepted this sovereignty, it has not legitimated itself (38). Flanagan asserts that Europeans were more civilized than Indigenous peoples, and therefore deserved to exercise sovereignty; Asch compares this position to the Declaration on De-Colonization, and suggests that Flanagan is relying “on a discredited convention that is a holdover from the colonial era” (54). “The question, then, is not whether the principle of temporal priority applies,” Asch writes, “but what are the consequences of applying it?” (58).

Asch then turns to the question of whether Indigenous peoples have the right of self-determination. If not, then the Declaration on De-Colonization does not apply to Canada. He determines that yes, they do have the right of self-determination, despite the arguments of Flanagan and Alan Cairns. This fact, along with Crown sovereignty and the presence of settlers on Indigenous lands, presents Asch with a dilemma, one he believes can be solved through a focus on treaty rights.

But the treaties present another problem: there is an “extreme dissonance” (78) between the the understandings of the treaties of the two negotiating parties. For the authors of the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, that dissonance means that there was in fact a lack of consent to the treaties, due to the cultural differences of the negotiators. “The commission suggests that the proper approach to resolving the differences is to reach a shared agreement as to the treaties’ meaning based on the assumption that both interpretations carry equal weight” (79), and this will mean considering oral evidence. Asch is following Aimée Craft’s argument in Breathing Life Into the Stone Fort Treaty: An Anishinabe Understanding of Treaty One here (although he doesn’t cite her book, probably because he wasn’t able to consult it as he was writing On Being Here To Stay since it had not yet been published). “[I]t is my view that, despite cultural differences, there is every chance that these parties could have achieved a degree of shared understanding at the time of negotiations to conclude an agreement based on mutual consent,” Asch writes. “In other words, one cannot rule out the possibility that the position advanced by one of the parties today more closely conforms to what actually transpired at the time of treaty making than does the other” (80). 

Asch’s test case is, as I’ve already mentioned, Treaty 4. After carefully examining the transcript of the negotiations in Morris’s book on the treaties he negotiated, Asch concludes that 

there is virtually nothing in the transcript that supports an interpretation of the extinguishment clause as resulting in the political subordination of the Indigenous parties to the government of Canada. Rather, it is more consistent with the evidence to conclude that the shared understanding of Treaty 4 resulted in a direct political alliance with the Queen. (90) 

He presents a complicated—some might say tortured—reading of the surrender clause that concludes that “First Nations are entering into the same relationship with the queen as between her and the Dominion” (91)—that, in other words, the negotiating parties ended up on a nation-to-nation basis. Asch concludes:

I think the evidence clearly shows that, on the balance of probabilities, the interpretation of the terms of Treaty 4 offered by our Indigenous partners today more accurately reflects the agreement we reached than does the version transmitted to us through the written text. That is, to gain their permission to settle on lands we recognized as belonging to them, we asked only to share the land with them (not take it over as by purchasing it). In return, we promised to do our utmost to ensure that our presence on these lands would result in benefits to them, and certainly would cause them no harm. Furthermore, whether or not we believed we had sovereignty, we treated our partners as independent political actors with their own leaders and with a right to make the final decision on our request, and there is nothing in the evidence to substantiate the proposition that, either in our minds or in theirs, the treaty terms were such that they would change the nature of our relationship. . . . Put succinctly, but perhaps too mechanically, the agreement was this: they would share the land, and we would treat them like our own brothers and sisters. (97)

If we accept the possibility that the version of Treaty 4 offered by First Nations was the product of good-faith negotiations, then that treaty is a remarkable achievement—a shared understanding, despite cultural differences, and one that offers a path to move beyond colonial relations (97-98). If, on the other hand, we think Morris and the other Crown negotiators lied, then the treaties become worthless pieces of paper and our right to be here disappears. Therefore, it’s better to treat them as legitimate (99). But the expediency of acting as if Treaty 4 is legitimate doesn’t make sense if, as Krasowski argues, the fact that the surrender clause was not discussed, mentioned, or explained renders the Crown’s claim on the land to be, well, specious and unfounded.

The treaties’ legitimacy means that Canada and First Nations are in a nation-to-nation relationship, Asch argues. “Indigenous peoples have spoken to us with one voice: using our conceptual frame, they had sovereignty and jurisdiction in their territories when we first arrived and they have not voluntarily relinquished this through treaties,” he writes. Therefore, “if we want to move ahead in implementing the treaty relationship in good faith, it seems reasonable to start by accepting that, no matter where our partners reside . . . they live on land that remains under their sovereignty and jurisdiction” (111-12). That argument leads him to agree with Harold Johnson’s position: “the only path for us to take is to join Indigenous polities as immigrants” (112). The Two Row Wampum, and the Cree principle of witaskewin, or living together on the land, emphasize the necessity of sharing the land and not interfering in the way First Nations manage their affairs (114). The treaties, in other words, bind us together permanently, even though settlers do not have sovereignty: “Two nations live together as partners though there is but one sovereign” (119). 

The linking principle demonstrated by the Two Row Wampum and witaskewin is central to Asch’s argument here. “Saying that the linking principle has the power to bind us to this land is one thing,” he writes. “Believing it to be possible is another. And while, at the end of the day, I know it is incumbent on us to take our partners at their word, the idea that sovereignty over a territory takes precedence is so fundamental in our thinking that it would be useful to attempt to conceptualize how linking could have that power in its absence” (119). Asch then turns more explicitly to Johnson’s claim that the treaties meant we became relatives. He suggests that the linking principle is similar to marriage, in which, to survive, two families have to come together and yet remain distinct, and compares this to the Two Row Wampum example, in which both partners have autonomy and equality, but need the other to survive (127-31). Or, to use another metaphor, the treaty is the foundation of a house we are building together with First Nations, a house in which we both can live (132). 

Using Anthony E. Smith’s concept of “ethnie,” a group with a common myth of descent, distinctive culture, association with specific territory, sense of solidarity, and identity (135),  Asch then demonstrates that in the 1870s, when the numbered treaties were being negotiated, First Nations on the prairies were living in multi-ethnie communities without a common sovereign or ethnie to bind them together (138). “One can readily imagine that our partners anticipated that we would adhere to the same principles; that is, we would not try to incorporate our partners into an ‘institutional-cum-territorial’ container of our own making but would rather link arms with them to shape a container in which we could all live together comfortably” (139). After all, that is what First Nations were already used to. “Looked at in this light,” Asch writes, “the treaties express our mutual commitment to that understanding” (139). That, of course, is precisely what did not happen, and Asch describes the results of our failure to act with kindness toward our treaty partners (142-48). “Nonetheless,” he writes, “I believe that returning to the promises we made in the treaties gives us a purchase on where to begin now” (149). “We must also act in accord with the spirit and intent of the treaties as they were negotiated,” he writes (150). Therefore, he suggests that in the future this understanding must orient our interactions not only with First Nations with which we have negotiated treaties, but also with those with which we have not (151). “My thesis comes down to this: Treaties offer us the means to reconcile the fact that we are ‘here to stay’ with the fact that there were people already here when we first arrived,” he concludes (152).

But that’s not the end of Asch’s argument. By examining biographical evidence, he suggests that Morris and Lord Dufferin, the Governor-General in the 1870s, honestly believed that the commitments they made in return to settle on the prairies would be kept (157). Morris advocated for faithful implementation of the spirit of the treaties, and as a result his authority over treaty implementation was removed in 1877 (161). When he continued to protest the breaking of the treaties, he was pushed out as lieutenant governor and Edgar Dewdney became Commissioner of Indian Affairs for the North West Territory. Dewdney implemented policies of deliberate starvation of First Nations (161). 

Harold Cardinal once described the treaties as our Magna Carta, but Asch notes that settlers don’t think of them that way, despite their fundamental importance. Canada’s historiography shows that we pay little attention to the treaties, and therefore do not understand them. However, he writes,

[w]hen we include in our history the position on the importance of treaty making offered by Commissioner Morris and Lord Dufferin, a different picture emerges. What then becomes clear is that, at the time of Confederation, the view taken by those who controlled treaty implementation was contested by a prominent leader in building Confederation and by the queen’s official representative. They believed that in Canada to be “here to stay” would mean making treaties amenable to all before settling on new lands and adhering to them. In this rendering, treaties become like the Magna Carta for us, for they are the foundation that legitimizes our settlement on these lands. As Morris suggested, to dishonour our obligations would be to call into question that legitimacy. And I think it fair to say that, were Settlers by and large to come to that view, then governments would be encouraged to act on the understanding that our treaty obligations are solemn commitments and not policy options. But this cannot happen so long as this debate is written out of our history. What I suggest is that, at the very least, we incorporate the perspective of Dufferin and Morris on treaty relations into the story we tell of Confederation and the settling of the west. (164)

Asch’s take on Morris is markedly different from J.R. Miller’s, in his 2009 book Compact, Contract, Covenant: Aboriginal Treaty-Making in Canada, and I honestly don’t know who to believe. Perhaps that doesn’t matter. If we need to assume that the Crown behaved honourably in the treaty negotiations, then it doesn’t matter whether Morris actually did—although the historical precedent of honest dealing and shared understanding is encouraging. What we need to do is keep faith to the principles Asch finds in the treaty-making process: gaining consent from those who were here first, keeping our commitments to them, and rectifying any harm our actions have caused (165). That is what reconciliation would look like. And yet, I’m haunted by Krasowski’s claim that Morris, and the other Crown negotiators, did not behave honourably—that they lied by omission about the surrender clause.

When I first read Asch’s book, I believed his argument made sense, particularly regarding the purported source of Crown sovereignty. His argument could help us to imagine a different way of engaging with First Nations. Perhaps being allowed to imagine that a nation-to-nation relationship is logically possible (rather than simply a matter of power and numbers) would be yet another gift from Canada’s Indigenous partners. In any case, there is now no question in my mind that the treaties were intended to be about sharing the land—from the Indigenous perspective, and if Asch is right about Morris, from the Crown negotiators’ perspective as well. And yet, as I’ve suggested, Krasowski’s book throws my faith in Asch’s argument up in the air. I now find myself wondering if his complicated reading of the surrender clause in the Treaty 4 document isn’t too clever by half—that we need to acknowledge that, because that clause was never discussed or mentioned by the Crown negotiators, the treaty’s validity is in jeopardy. And if that’s the case, as Asch points out, then settlers are simply squatting on this land, and we have no right to be here. That’s a pretty big problem.

Oh, and to answer the question I asked myself at the beginning of this summary: yes, the summary is useful, although I will eventually have to revisit Asch’s interpretation of the Treaty 4 surrender clause, to parse through his reading of it again.

Works Cited

Asch, Michael. On Being Here to Stay: Treaties and Aboriginal Rights in Canada, University  of Toronto Press, 2014.

Craft, Aimée. Breathing Life Into the Stone Fort Treaty: An Anishinabe Understanding of Treaty One, Purich, 2013.

Harold Johnson, Two Families: Treaties and Government, Purich, 2007.

Krasowski, Sheldon. No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous, University of Regina Press, 2019.

Miller, J.R. Compact, Contract, Covenant: Aboriginal Treaty-Making in Canada, University of Toronto Press, 2009.

63. Luke Bennett, “Incongruous Steps toward a Legal Psychogeography”

walking inside out

When I wrote my summary of Nick Papadimitriou’s Scarp: In Search of London’s Outer Limits, I suggested I might turn to this essay by Luke Bennett, which I ran across while I was reading Tina Richardson’s anthology Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography. Back then, I skipped over Luke Bennett’s discussion of Scarp, because I generally prefer to read critical accounts of a text after I’ve read it at least once myself. But I’m glad I did turn to Bennett’s essay. He presents a close reading of two moments in Scarp that I skipped over, before suggesting that there are parallels between psychogeography and the law, and calling for something he describes as “legal psychogeography.” Bennett is a lawyer by training, a geographer by vocation, and a psychogeographer by avocation, and so his thinking on these issues is the product of his unique background and education. He’s also not a bad literary critic, if his readings of those two moments from Scarp are anything to go by.

Bennett begins by suggesting that Papadimitriou “conjures many dissonant ideas, images and registers” in Scarp, and that in this essay he intends to 

dissect two of his strange conjunctions and, in doing so, consider through them the prospects for extending contemporary British psychogeography’s embrace of the incongruous—the out-of-place, the absurd and the out-of-keeping—beyond psychogeography’s usually aesthetically inclined preoccupation with liminality and into the mundane sphere of the law’s everyday manifestations within the built environment. (59)

The first of those “strange conjunctions” is Papadimitriou’s description of fatal car crashes at the “Suicide Corner” on the A41 in the 1950s. According to Bennett, Papadimitriou “draws forth isolated incidents from the pages of long-forgotten local newspapers and memory, activating these incidental archives in order to show a reverberation of these events within the landscape itself” (59). That’s an interesting reading; I thought Papadimitriou was imagining these accidents, that the reference to a local newspaper was part of the fantasy, but perhaps I was wrong. In any case, at one point, Papadimitriou has an anonymous civil engineer think about the highway and how to extend the M1 highway over the high ground above. For Bennett, 

Papadimitriou captures in this passage how the task-orientated gaze of the engineer sees the topography as a set of logistical challenges, a puzzle to solve as he works through in his mind’s eye the most feasible path for his roadway. Papadimitriou’s description seeks to show how all other sensory inputs are blocked (or discarded) as irrelevant to this man’s purpose. He is standing there for a reason. He is harvesting the landscape for what he needs today. This applied gaze foregrounds certain features and backgrounds all else. (60)

At the same time, Papadimitriou “shows how even that focus is vulnerable to undermining the assault of the disregarded ‘background,’ as an irresistible reverie—or at least a momentary noticing of other things, takes hold,” when a bird chirps and he notices the woods and fields and ditches around him (60). “In showing the breaking of concentration caused by the bird’s proximate existence,” Bennett writes, “Papadimitriou keys into a number of trends (or ‘turns’) in contemporary sociocultural theory” (60). What Bennett wants to do in his essay is to map out those trends and show the affinity between contemporary British psychogeography and cultural geography, even though psychogeography “is currently regarded with considerable suspicion by academics” (60). 

First, Papadimitriou’s fictional engineer is embodied; he is “embedded in life and place: his lifeworld” (60). He is, Bennett continues, “engaged in a moment-by-moment cocreation of his sense of place,” partly through “the mental (and disciplinary) constructs he brings (his gaze),” and partly because the place where he finds himself makes him, 

through materially resisting certain options or actions, through presenting certain ‘givens’ (history, morphology, entropy) that he—this individual—cannot resist. He is entrained in a world, a traveller in time as well as space. This place, and ideas, memories and emotions that he or others associate with it, shapes his experience of it and experiences in it. (60-61)

This moment in Papadimitriou’s text is therefore aligned with Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and with Kathleen Stewart’s “influential advocacy of consideration of the preconscious swirl of ‘ordinary affects’ (emotions, bodily dispositions, habits) that shape the performance of everyday life” (61), which can be in her 2007 book, Ordinary Affects. (Reading one text always leads to other texts; the research process sprawls in infinite directions.) Stewart, according to Bennett, is interested in how we experience, react, and then make sense of “where the embodied flow of life has swept us”; she also foregrounds the importance of studying everyday life, a concern she shared with Henri Lefebvre, Walter Benjamin, and the Surrealists (61). This connects her to contemporary psychogeography, according to Bennett, which 

has an affinity with this scrutiny of the mundane in that it aspires to a restless multiplicity, to an epistemological promiscuity, to an open noticing of everything, to a renunciation of conventional filters that push certain elements centre stage and cause others to recede from view. All of these aims can be subsumed within the notion of psychogeography having an embrace of incongruity at the heart of its methodology, as it seeks out the complexity, colour, worth and drama of the seemingly ordinary through juxtaposition, playfulness, embodiment, allusion and heterodoxy. (61)

The engineer’s thoughts are also suggestive of Jane Bennett’s “vibrant materialism” theses: “she advocates giving greater attention to nonhuman actors and their potency within our human encounters with the world” in her 2010 book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (61).

Bennett sees a connection between psychogeography in general, and Papadimitriou’s text in particular, and “an ‘object-oriented’ pivot toward materialism” in a number of academic disciplines, from literary and cultural theory to archaeology and philosophy; he suggests that Scarp is linked to that materialist pivot, particularly for “those who foreground the coconstitutive role of human/matter entanglement” and “the mundane, event-forming ‘force of things,’” or “the cumulative effects of many tiny encounters with things, peole and rules that in aggregate make our daily experience and channel our actions” (61-62). Bennett also suggests that Papadimitriou’s engineer’s impression of that spot on the highway would not be the same as the impressions of other visitors: “This is a relational view of the construction of place,” he suggests, one that takes its cue from the work of Doreen Massey and others who apply the work of Gilles Deleuze to geography (62).“For such theorists,” he contends, “the sense of place is dynamic and constantly being re-created because it is only ever an unstable aggregate of the myriad orientations of users of that space” (62). However, “[w]hile the landscape poet can happily leave us with a romantic resurgence of ‘nature’ overwhelming an instrumentalist man, psychogeography’s embrace of incongruity can—and should—be taken further”: it ought to be able “to show how the workaday preoccupations of an instrumentalist science can invade a thought stream of more affective purpose, showing how the ‘straight’ world reasserts itself, barging itself back to the foreground—in short, how it recolonizes consciousness and gaze” (62). For that reason, Papadimitriou’s engineer’s reverie is brief, fleeting, “inevitably undermined by the ‘day job’ returning to his consciousness, the ‘real world’ bringing him back down to earth and back to the prosaic task in hand” (62).

For Bennett, psychogeography is all about juxtapositions of incongruent things, and he suggests that “[u]sing incongruence to tease out and vividly depict all aspects of the multiplicity of the experience of place could be psychogeography’s rich methodological contribution” (62). “Psychogeographers are not the only explorers (or researchers) who want to ‘weird’ the world,” Bennett suggests, referring to anthropologist James Clifford’s embrace of Surrealist practices of collage and assemblage in his 1981 essay “On Ethnographic Surrealism” (63). In addition, British psychogeography’s aspirations “to multipy the readings of any place,” is not dissimilar to Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space (64). 

Bennett suggests that psychogeography is focused on “the potentiality of place to avoid the closure (the narrowing down) inherent in instrumentalist meaning making” (64), and he argues that Papadimitriou demonstrates this in the second strange conjunction he wants to explore: an old woman’s death juxtaposed against the formula by which water utilities calculate sewerage charges (64). “Here Papadimitriou willfully brings together two entirely separate parts of the modern world and melds them simply in order to delight in their incongruence,” Bennett writes. “There is a playful surrealist strategem at work here—but also something unusual in psychogeography,” because that formula, known as the Mogden Formula, “is presented without explanation”; there is no reason to mention it, except that Papadimitriou finds it interesting, even occult, in the sense that it’s a part of daily life that remains hidden from most of us (64). (That’s a version of the occult that makes sense to me.) This passage is in the appendix of Papadimitriou’s book, which is the journal of Perry Kutland, one of Papadimitriou’s fictional characters. For Bennett, 

[t]he appendix is both the high point of Papadimitriou’s embrace of contemporary psychogeography’s incongruent intent and the point at which the integrity of his literary text—its manifest point—becomes most unstable. The irruption of the Mogden Formula is only held within a vague semblance of narrative progression by the baseline riff provided by the juxtaposed glimpses of the final events of the old lady’s life. There is something humanist in this, perhaps an implication that we must always strive to find and foreground the real, modest and anonymous lives that play out alongside such systemic abstractions as waste water management. But whatever Papadimitriou’s intent is here, we are certainly left with an embrace of incongruent multiplicity—a simultaneous, parallel reading of multiple, seemingly unrelated fragments of the place under scrutiny, juxtaposing them surrealist collage-like, to see what conjunctions occur. And—for one—it is a juxtaposition that does not quite lapse into a romantic reverie. While the juxtaposition is humanist (perhaps) in overall effect, the reader is left with a glimpse of the strange complexity of the technical bureaucracy by which the most universal of human emissions are ‘managed,’ and perhaps also a sense of Papadimitriou’s fascination with this infrastructural hydrological cycle. (64)

In fact, Bennett continues, by foregrounding the Mogden Formula, 

Papadimitriou gives us a glimpse of what a truly rebellious (and also academically valiant) psychogeography could be, a depictive writing that shows the irruption of technical realms into affective life, reversing the psychogeographer’s usual discovery of a quirky anecdote, a warm breeze, or a fragment of history to energize a mundane place. Through such bleeding back of technical, bureaucratic and regulatory fragments into psychogeography’s “literary” account forming (as a counter to the predominance of romantic reverie), those accounts would vividly reveal how the everyday world is made both of natural and (affective) human vibrancy and of matter, obstruction, systemic regularity, instrumentality and control. (65)

The kind of psychogeography Papadimitriou is engaged in, Bennett argues, would take psychogeography “back toward the original political reconnaissance envisaged by Guy Debord and the Situationist Internal to find in reconnaissance both the ways in which the built environment is experienced creatively by the individual and the strictures and structures by which the regularity and governability of the urban realm is routinely manifested” (65). There is scope in psychogeography “to start searching again for the built environment’s effects upon the emotions and behaviour of individuals and of the presence of specific laws and their related effects within the geographical environment,” the goals Debord advocated for the practice back in 1955 (65).

Here Bennett moves in an entirely new direction: towards something he calls “a legal psychogeography”(65). A legal psychogeography would be 

a hybrid fusing of aspects of environmental psychology, institutional ethnography, all of the sociocultural ‘turns’ (material, affective, relational, everyday), and legal geography to attain—through psychogeography’s embrace of incongruence—insight into the cocreation of place, society and law through localized practices an experiences. (65-66)

“The law does not alone create the world, nor does it have unfettered ability even to shape people, things and places,” Bennett continues, suggesting that “even in the most controlling society, law’s generality must yield to aspects of the specificity of individuals, their actions and their environments—all as imbrications of unique situations and places formed by them” (66). Legal geographers, like himself, therefore “look to study law’s manifestations in (and the curbing of its power by) the social and material world” (66). According to Bennett, the law is defined modestly in legal geography: “modest in the sense that the limit of its writ—its ability to achieve things in the world—is contingent on both the ‘macro’ factors of politics and economics and the specificities of place, power, practices and material qualities” of, in the case of law regarding highways, “any particular road” (66). According to Bennett, that modest definition indicates that “we can achieve something novel with Guy Debord’s definition of psychogeography’s project”: an attention to the material effects and sociopolitical origins of the legal framework that saturates “the built environment” (66-67). “Thus,” he continues,

psychogeography could have a role to play in showing how the law is translated into seemingly incongruent flows of matter, affect, practices and the resulting assemblages of ideas, materials and actions that form buildings, roads and the urban landscape and—in particular—provide ways to reveal the as-lived effects that those flows have upon individuals, moment by moment. (67)

“[E]verywhere has a story to tell,” Bennett writes, 

and . . . there is a concern for the everyday experiences of the everyday people caught up in the law’s spatial effects. And yet legal geography has struggled to find ways to write off the localized, affective and flux-like manifestations of the law and its moment-by-moment influence on the minds and orientations of those subject to it. Here—surely—is where psychogeography has something to offer. (67-68)

A legal psychogeography’s “special contribution” would be “its concern to understand the material-human corelationship, particularly as manifested in the emotional (i.e., affective) lives of individuals through their encounters with power and ordering as expressed in the arrangement of the built environment”—something legal geography is missing (68). Legal psychogeography would therefore be “an interpretive approach that would concern itself with enquiring into the role of sensation as a mediator between law and space—in short, how affect helps make the city, its strictures and its regularities and how they in turn make both the city and its individual citizens sentient,” which is, Bennett suggests, what Debord set as the mission of psychogeography in his 1955 definition (68).

The bringing together of law and psychogeography is not strange, Bennett contends. Both are practices that are drawn toward “fragments and the incongruous” (68). He notes that Papadimitriou’s text “displays a fondness for found, mundane artifacts and texts,” with “the promise that these might provide keys to countless otherwise lost stories” (68), and suggests that “[t]here is a parallel here to the meticulous concern of crime scene investigation, or indeed any attempt by law to understand an event that has occurred at a place, by searching for material traces and then piecing them together” (68). Both Papadimitriou and lawyers are concerned with “the close, forensic examination of fragments in order to explicate the codes, stories and events that lie beyond them,” Bennett argues (68), and like detectives, psychogeographers “pore over both the dusty archive and the dross—the fragments found in event spaces—and construct a narrative by stitching their disparate findings together in accordance with codes of assembly” (69). The only difference between them is their diametrically opposed purposes: a detective seeks to close the case, while the psychogeographer “seeks to open up the space and its things to am amplification—via an incongruent multiplication of meanings” (69). Nevertheless, Bennett argues that the law, like psychogeography, 

actually lives and breathes incongruent multiplicity—it is part of the partisan process, albeit that court judgements ultimately . . . require a judge to select which version of events or interpretation of legal principles he or she prefers. Still, in all areas but the final scene, law’s practice is to directly multiply meanings in partisan fashion within disputes and to do so indirectly by summoning anxious images of contingencies, as future risks to be ironed out within partial contract negotiations, in each case within the scope of given frameworks. As played out day to day in offices, courtrooms and elsewhere across the built environment, the law more than matches psychogeography in its dwelling on darkness, excess, ghosts and incongruent multiplicity. (70)

Even though the law asserts a myth of its self-image, an image “of applied reason stripped of fancy, self-contained and truth-focused,” legal geography “takes issue with this faith in law’s closure,” because it “rests on an assumption that the law is not self-contained in this way—that it is in fact a cocreation of matter, meaning and pragmatic action” (70). For that reason, legal geography “has a natural affinity with the anticlosure sentiment of contemporary psychogeography, and a psychogeographically inclined reckoning of law’s incongruous traces, flows, eruptions, artifacts, loose ends, mess and symbolism is long overdue” (70).

Bennett concludes, “[t]he affective relationship between the arrangement of things in space and the experience of place remains a central trope of psychogeographical account writing,” and psychogeographic research “can present rich reflexive description fo the story-stacking processes by which instances of place are encountered and the terms (and sense) of that encounter negotiated between the creative agency of humans and the resistances and affordances of matter and of normative systems like law” (70). In addition, “[p]sychogeography’s embrace of incongruence can make toward the opening up (explication and potential transformation) of other sense-making strategies at large in the built environment” (70). However, 

just as law’s closure is a myth, so is psychogeography’s aspiration to the propagation of boundless incongruent multiplicity, for it tends too often to multiply meaning only in the direction of an obsessive pleasure-pain poetic excitation. Psychogeography needs to challenge itself, to explicate all matter-text-affect intersections, not just those that lead to whimsy or romantic reverie. (70)

In any case, bringing psychogeography into “studies of law’s manifestations in the built environment” would be “a fruitful next step for both legal geography and psychogeography” (70-71).

What is valuable in Bennett’s essay is his close reading of Scarp—or at least two moments in that text—and the way he demonstrates psychogeography’s interest in “boundless incongruent multiplicity” (70). Perhaps I’ve been short-changing psychogeography’s possibilities, focusing on the wrong things: its play with occult or esoteric knowledge and its incorporation of myth and fiction into its representations of spaces and journeys. At the same time, I need to remember that I walk in an environment where there are boundaries and limits, where the history of colonialism is fraught and tangible. I’m thinking about the treaties, for instance, and the surrender clauses that, as Sheldon Krasowski suggests, were never mentioned during the negotiation of those treaties. Is there a way to bring together the “boundless incongruent multiplicity” that Bennett sees in the most successful versions of psychogeography and the grid roads and surrender clauses of Saskatchewan? I really don’t know. My sense of this is that I’m right to be cautious. But I need to keep thinking about these questions–and about the connection between psychogeography and the kind of walking I do here.

Works Cited

Bennett, Luke. “Incongruous Steps toward a Legal Psychogeography,” Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography, edited by Tina Richardson, Rowman & Littlefield, 2015, pp. 59-72.

Krasowski, Sheldon. No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous, University of Regina Press, 2019.

Papadimitriou, Nick. Scarp: In Search of London’s Outer Limits, Sceptre, 2013.

57. Raja Shehadeh, Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape

shehadeh palestinian walks

After so many books on the theory of walking, here’s one about actual walking. Raja Shehadeh’s Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape is essential reading for any descendant of settlers contemplating walking in colonized space. Shehadeh is a Palestinian lawyer, human rights activist, and writer, and a comparison between his experience, walking in the occupied West Bank between 1978 and 2006 is uncomfortably close to what it might be like for Indigenous people to walk here, in Canada. Certainly there are parallels between the occupation of the West Bank and Canada’s ongoing history. I’ve been asked whether I have the right to walk in Saskatchewan, because it is a colonized space (the numbered treaties, according to Sheldon Krasowski, were cruel tricks in which any discussion of the land surrender clause was omitted from discussion, not completely unlike the legal chicanery used to acquire land for Israeli settlements in the West Bank), and that is a question to which I feel I must respond. Shehadeh’s book is another spur that makes such a response more urgent.

Much of Shehadah’s concern is with the immense changes that have taken place in the Central Highlands of the West Bank, near Ramallah, since the 1970s, due to the construction of Israeli settlements and roads. “When I began hill walking in Palestine a quarter of a century ago, I was not aware that I was traveling through a vanishing landscape,” he states at the beginning of the book’s introduction (xiii). When he was growing up in Ramallah, he thought the hills of the Central Highlands of Palestine were “one of the natural treasures of the world,” and all his life he has lived in houses that overlook those hills: “I have related to them like my own private backyard, whether for walks, picnics or flower-picking expeditions. I have watched their changing colors during the day and over the seasons, as well as during an unending sequence of wars” (xiii). Shehadeh has always loved hill walking, and he started taking long walks in Palestine in the 1970s: “This was before many of the irreversible changes that blighted the land began to take place” (xiii). The hills then were “like one large nature reserve with all the unspoiled beauty and freedom unique so such areas” (xiii-xiv). All of that has changed. The book describes six walks, in the hills around Ramallah, the wadis in the Jerusalem wilderness, and ravines by the Dead Sea, made over 26 years. “Although each walk takes its own unique course, they are also travels through time and space,” a journey beginning in 1978 and ending in 2006, and he writes about the changes in his life and surroundings during that time (xiv). 

There have been many past visitors to Palestine—pilgrims, travellers, and invaders—but their accounts of their journeys describe a land unfamiliar to Shehadeh, one from their own imaginations (xiv). “Palestine has been constantly reinvented, with devastating consequences to its original inhabitants,” he writes (xiv). When cartographers made maps or travellers described the landscape, “what mattered was not the land and its inhabitants as they actually were, but the confirmation of the viewer’s or reader’s religious or political beliefs. I can only hope that this book does not fall within this tradition” (xiv). Examples of travelers who, for Shehadeh, have misunderstood the landscape include Thackeray and Twain (xiv-xv). “I hope to persuade the reader how glorious the land of Palestine is, despite all the destruction that has been wrought over the past quarter of a century,” he writes (xvi).

That destruction includes the building of Israeli settlements on hilltops, “strategically dominating the valleys in which most Palestinian villages are located” (xvi). These settlements are part of an ongoing effort to erase the Palestinian presence in the West Bank: “It is not unusual to find the names of Arab villages on road signs deleted with black paint by overactive settlers” (xvi). For Shehadeh, the settlements represent a paradox: the supposedly Biblical aspects of the landscape—the olive orchards, stone buildings, and terraces—have been produced by Palestinians, who are excluded from the Israeli imagination, and whose history is obliterated, denied, distorted, twisted (xvi-xvii). “Such an attitude fits perfectly into the long tradition of Western travelers and colonizers who simply would not see the land’s Palestinian population,” he contends (xvii). Shehadeh does not hold back when he describes the effect the settlements have had on the land, and on himself:

Ever since I learned of the plans to transform our hills being prepared by successive Israeli governments, which supported the policy of establishing settlements in the Occupied Territories, I have felt like one who is told that he has contracted a terminal disease. Now when I walk in the hills I cannot but be conscious that the time when I will be able to do so is running out. Perhaps the malignancy that has afflicted the hills has heightened my experience of walking in them and discouraged me from ever taking them for granted. (xviii)

It is now impossible to imagine recreating the 1925 walk of historian Darweesh Mikdadi, who took his students on a walking trip through Palestine, all the way to Syria and Lebanon, inspecting battle sites and staying with villagers. It is even impossible to follow in the footsteps of Palestinian geographer Kamal Abdul Fattah, who took his university students on trips throughout historic Palestine. Since 1991, travel restrictions have made that journey impossible (xviii-xix). Along with the settlements and the roads constructed to serve them, Shehadeh condemns the Separation Wall that circles the “settlement blocs” and annexes them to Israel, “in the process penetrating the lands of the Palestinians like daggers” (xix). (Note the violence of that simile.) “As a consequence of all these developments,” he writes,

even shorter school trips have not become restricted, so students can only repeat forlorn visits to the sites within their own checkpoint zone. The Palestinian enclaves are becoming more and more like ghettos. Many villagers can only pick the olives from their own trees with the protection of sympathetic Israelis and international solidarity groups. (xix)

Meanwhile, he continues, “[a]s our Palestinian world shrinks, that of the Israelis expands, with more settlements being built, destroying forever the wadis and cliffs, flattening hills and transforming the precious land that many Palestinians will never know” (xix-xx). Half a million Israeli settlers now live in the West Bank: 

The damage caused to the land by the infrastructural work necessary to sustain the life of such a large population, with enormous amounts of concrete poured to build entire cities in hills that had remained untouched for centuries, is not difficult to appreciate. . . . Beautiful wadis, springs, cliffs and ancient ruins were destroyed by those who claim a superior love of the land. By trying to record how the land felt and looked before this calamity, I hope to preserve, at least in words, what has been lost for ever. (xx)

Every wadi, spring, hill, and cliff has a name—some names Arabic, others Canaanite or Aramaic, indicating their antiquity—but Shehadeh didn’t know these names until Fattah and his students interviewed old men and women who still remembered them (xx).

For the most part, settlers are omitted from the stories Shehadeh tells. They are the “main villains” of those stories, and despite their omission, they are a constant presence:

I despise the aggressiveness of their intentions and behaviour toward my land and its inhabitants but I rarely confront them directly. They are simplified and lumped together, just as the nineteenth-century travelers generalized about the local “Arabs” as they tried to obliterate them from the land they wished to portray. At various points the settlers are viewed from a distance. I fear what they might do. I wonder what they must be thinking. I ask whether I and my people are at all visible to them. (xxi)

Only on his last journey does he meet and have a length conversation with a settler:

I knew that a large part of his world is based on lies. He must have been brought up on the fundamental untruth that his home was built on land that belonged exclusively to his people, even though it lay in the vicinity of Ramallah. He would not have been told that it was expropriated from those Palestinians living a couple miles away. Yet despite the myths that make up his worldview, how could I claim that my love of these hills cancels out his? And what would this recognition mean to both our future and that of our respective countries? (xxi-xxii)

That meeting, he writes, led to the book’s “troubled conclusion” (xxii). This is not a happy book—given the context, how could it be?—but its descriptions of the land’s beauty are powerful, and Shehadeh’s anger at its destruction is palpable.

Shehadeh’s first journey, “The Pale God of the Hills, Ramallah to Harrasha,” took place in 1978, and he begins with a description of the changes has seen taking place in Palestine: 

Cities were being erected in its midst, as were industrial and theme parks, and wide, many-laned highways more suited to the plains of the Midwest of American than the undulating hills of Palestine. In two and a half decades one of the world’s treasures, this biblical landscape that would have seemed familiar to a contemporary of Christ, was being changed, in some parts beyond recognition” (1) 

Shehadeh’s pain at the failure to save the land “would in time be shared by Arabs, Jews, and lovers of nature anywhere in the world. All would grieve, as I have, at the continuing destruction of an exquisitely beautiful place” (1). 

Then he introduces a key term in the book, the Arabic word sarha: 

To go on a sarha was to roam freely, at will, without restraint. The verb form of the word means to let the cattle out to pasture early in the morning, leaving them to wander and graze at liberty. The commonly used noun sarha is a colloquial corruption of the classical word. A man going on a sarha wanders aimlessly, not restricted by time and place, going where his spirit takes him to nourish his soul and rejuvenate himself. (2)

This book is a series of six sarhat, sometimes alone, sometimes with others: “Each sarha is in the form of a walk I invite the reader to take with me. I hope, by describing what can be seen, heard and smelled in the hills, to allow the reader to enjoy the unique experience of a sarha in Palestine” (2).

Shehadeh notes that the land he knows changed before he began walking on it. “There was a time, I’m told, when the hills around Ramallah were one large cultivated garden with a house by every spring,” but in the 1970s, when he returned from studying law in London, “[t]hey had become an extensive nature reserve, with springs and little ponds where frogs hopped undisturbed and deer leaped up and down terrace walls, where it was possible to walk unimpeded” (3). When he was growing up, his family did not own an olive grove, and so their experience of the hills was limited to picnicking in spring. “Otherwise the hills, so close to the house where we lived, were remote and foreign,” he recalls, “little more than a derided buffer that separated us from the horizon where usurped Jaffa lay and at which we looked longingly in the evenings, when the faraway Mediterranean coast blazed with light” (3-4). He only came to know the hills after his return from London. But even then, the hills he would come to love were under threat. The occupation of the West Bank was in its eleventh year and “[i]nsidious but significant changes in the law provided strong indications of Israel’s long-term policies toward the Occupied Territories, my home” (5). He was worried, and “[t]he hills began to be my refuge against the practices of the occupation, both manifest and surreptitious, and the restrictions traditional Palestinian society imposed on our life. I walked in them for escape and rejuvenation” (5). Much of the long first chapter is a meditation on the experiences of his grandfather’s cousin, Abu Ameen, who would often go on sarhat when he was a young man; Abu Ameen also walked in the hills “for escape and rejuvenation.” “To go on a sarha, which was expansive, open-ended and uncontrolled, allowing the soul to roam freely, must have been liberating for the inhabitants of Ramallah, confined as they were within the raggedy hills that offered no view of open territory or wide fertile fields,” Shehadeh writes (4). 

When Shehadeh began walking in the hills, it took time for him to learn how to spot the ancient tracks that crossed the terrace walls and the newer ones made by sheep and goats looking for food and water: 

Some of these were marked on Ordnance maps, others not. I found myself to be a good pathfinder even though I easily got lost in cities. As time passed I began to venture farther and farther into these hills and discovered new terrain, hills with different rock formations, where flowers bloomed earlier because the ground was lower and closer to the sea. (5)

One spring day in 1978, he stumbled on “the legendary Harrasha of Abu Ameen, deep in the hills of Palestine” (7). He found the path he wanted to walk just outside of Ramallah, and “a certain peace and tranquility descended on me. Now I could go on with no need to worry, just walk and enjoy the beauty of the nature around me” (7). Because it was spring, the earth was carpeted by wildflowers: miniature blue irises, low pink flax, Maltese Cross, pyramid orchids (7). He stopped at a wadi where there was a spring. The brown cliff across the wadi were “studded with cyclamens that grew out of every nook and cranny” (8). Then he discovered “a well-preserved qasr,” a round stone structure where farmers kept their produce and slept on the open roof (8):

Before visiting the qasr, I took a moment to look around. It was as though the earth was exploding with beauty and color and had thrown from its bosom wonderful gifts without any human intervention. I wanted to cry out in celebration of this splendor. As I shouted ’S-A-R-H-A!’ I felt I was breaking the silence of the past, a silence that had enveloped this place for a long time. (9)

He sat beside the qasr and surveyed the scene. The ponds along the wadi filled with frogs and spearmint (11). A rock rosebush was growing along the terrace wall, “green against the gray as if someone had carefully chosen it to decorate this ancient wall,” with more cyclamens between the stones of the wall (9). He stepped from one terrace to the next, and beside them, he saw “a yellow broom with its spiky green leaves,” its “sweet scent” filling the air, and lower down, “some tall asphodels and lower still bunches of blue sage,” and grasses (9). On the next terrace, there was another beautiful garden, with an olive tree many centuries old, and above that garden, two more olive trees in another terrace, “surrounded by a carpet of color that spread all the way to the wall that led to yet another garden above, one garden hanging on top of another and another, going up as far as the eye could see. I felt I could sit all day next to this qasr and feast my eyes on this wonderful creation” (10).

Shehadeh begins climbing the hill to the north, thinking about what it would have taken to terrace these hills (11). He hears a rustle, but instead of wild dogs, he sees six grey gazelles running up the hill (11-12). An owl flies directly at him, as he climbed, thinking and “smelling the sharp brittle scent of thyme,” and he falls (12). He espies another qasr, surrounded by pines and oregano, nearby: 

On this walk I had passed at least a dozen abandoned qasrs. Those who had once inhabited them were gone, that way of life was no more. Their owners had moved on to other places. At a certain point the land ceased to be capable of sustaining those cultivating it and other more lucrative opportunities for making a living opened up in the petroleum-rich Gulf and the New World. (12-13)

That exodus has caused a problem, because under Israeli law, if a Palestinian leaves his property, it “‘reverts back’ to those whom the Israeli system considers the original, rightful owners of ‘Judea and Samaria,’ the Jewish people, wherever they might be. Abandonment, which began as an economic imperative in some instances and a choice in others, had acquired legal and political implications with terrifying consequences” (13). The land can end up being expropriated as “public land” and used to build settlements.

Inside that qasr, Shehadeh looks out of the window at the fields: 

The ground was carefully terraced in an almost perfect crescent; the olive trees were evenly spaced and the field between them was cleared fo stones. The surrounding area was wild and chaotic, the terracing was half completed and many of the fields were covered with wild shrubs and thickets. I wondered who the owner of this qasr was and marveled at his industry. (14)

He imagines the lives of those who had lived in that qasr: “It was as though in this qasr time was petrified into an eternal present, making it possible for me to reconnect with my dead ancestor through this architectural wonder. Would this turn into the sarha I had long yearned to take?” (15). Then he discovers a dirt-covered rock that turns out to be a high carved seat (16-17). That seat was an a’rsh, a throne: “I remembered hearing as a child that Abu Ameen, my grandfather’s cousin, had in Harrasha an a’rsh next to his qasr. Could this be it? Could this be the Harrasha where Abu Ameen and my grandfather Saleem used to go for their sarha?” (17). Shehadeh listens to the sound of the wind in the pines and remembers Abu Ameen (17). He worked as a stonemason, saved money to build a qasr, and wanted to get married and have children (19). Abu Ameen’s desires were much different than Shehadeh’s grandfather’s ambitions; he became a lawyer and ended up working for the English occupiers during the Mandate. In fact, Abu Ameen became the the only one of his family who stayed in Ramallah; the others (like Shehadeh’s grandfather) pursued education in the United States, and did not return to the hills (21). “They deserted Ramallah as if it were not their town, their home, the place where they should strike roots, get married and bring up children as their fathers and forefathers had done,” Shehadeh writes (21). He recalls the story he heard as a child about Abu Ameen building his qasr with his wife on their honeymoon (23):

I suspect that the description of the occasion as a honeymoon came later. When the couple was married I don’t believe this concept existed. Couples had no leisure time at all. They were hard-nosed people who had little to survive on. What I marvel at is that in the midst of all this drudgery, Abu Ameen found the time to indulge himself and, using the skills he had learned, carve out of stone his own a’rsh, a monument that has survived for some seventy-five years. (24)

After 1948, Abu Ameen had worked building houses in Ramallah for refugees from coastal towns, but in 1955, a stroke left him lame, unable to farm (25-26). Meanwhile, the other landowners were absent, working in the Gulf or the United States (26). Without them, neglect, the land seemed abandoned; the terrace walls fell, erosion became a problem, the paths were obliterated and the springs clogged (26). The hills became covered in thistles and weeds: 

But in spring they were once again transformed with swaths of purple flax that could be glimpsed from afar, crisscrossed by different patterns of blue from the bugloss, clover and miniature iris like wafts of color painted with a wide brush. In the early morning, as the droplets of dew clung to the delicate petals of the wildflowers catching the sunlight, the valleys seemed to glitter in a kaleidoscope of color. (27)

None of Abu Ameen’s children took up farming—they didn’t even want to visit Harrasha (27). No wonder: life in the qasr was hard; the house was crowded and fuggy from the fumes of charcoal brazier they used to try to keep warm (27). But Abu Ameen preferred it to living in Ramallah. He lived for the spring, when he could leave to live at his qasr (28). 

Abu Ameen “could not have been aware how fortunate he was to have had the security and comfort of seeing the same unaltered view of the hills,” Shehadeh writes. “I was born among hills that looked more or less as they did during the last years of Abu Ameen’s life. But throughout my adult life I had the misfortune of witnessing their constant transformation” (32)—a transformation caused by the constant influx of settlers. “The hills that had provided the setting for tranquil walks where I felt more freedom than I did anywhere else in the world would eventually become confining, endangered areas and a source of constant anxiety” (32): 

One hilltop after another was claimed as more and more Jewish settlements were established. Then the settlements were joined with one another to form ‘settlement blocs.’ Roads were built between these clusters and ever-expanding areas of land around them were reserved for their future growth, depriving more villages of the agricultural land they depended on for their livelihood. (32-33)

When Shehadeh looked at the hills at night, he saw “a continuous stretch of settlements and roads that were creating a noose around Ramallah” (33). Then came the Separation Wall, which “would further divide Ramallah from the villages surrounding it, complicating our life immeasurably and causing yet greater damage to our beautiful landscape” (33). “How I envy Abu Ameen his confidence and security in the hills where he was born and died, which he believed would remain unchanged forever,” Shehadeh writes: 

Could Abu Ameen have ever dreamed that one day the open hills to which he escaped the confinement of life in the village would be out of reach for his descendants? How unaware many trekkers around the world are of what a luxury it is to be able to walk in the land they love without anger, fear or insecurity, just to be able to walk without political arguments running obsessively through their heads, without the fear of losing what they’ve come to love, without the anxiety that they will be deprived of the right to enjoy it. Simply to walk and savor what nature has to offer, as I was once able to do. (33)

It would be easy to dismiss Shehadeh as a romantic, a term he accepts (64), and to critique his nostalgia, but his love of the land is sincere, as is his grief at its transformation.

In 2003, Shehadeh took his nephew Aziz to show him his ancestor’s qasr and have him sit on the a’rsh (36). This was during the expansion of Ramallah after Second Intifada begins—growth caused, in part, because life in other West Bank cities was becoming unbearable because of Israeli policies—and “[t]he wild and beautiful hills surrounding it began to be invaded, not only by the Jewish settlements, which were being established all around its wide periphery, but also by the insatiable appetite of the city’s inhabitants for expansion and growth” (37). When Shehadeh and Aziz got to the qasr, it was intact, but a stone thief had damaged the a’rsh, knocking it over on its side (37-38). Then, on their return walk, they visited a Palestinian police station destroyed by an Israeli airstrike, where his nephew picked up a long thick metal tube, asking “What is this?” Shehadeh froze: it was part of an unexploded missile. He took the bomb from the boy and told him to run, then set it down on the ground, whispering a quiet prayer (38-39). “I have often wondered about Abu Ameen as I stand in the early morning looking over the countryside,” Shehadeh concludes. “What would he have said had he seen the state it now was in? Would his spirit be brimming with anger at all of us for allowing it to be destroyed or usurped, or would he just be enjoying one extended sarha as his spirit roamed freely over the land, without borders as it had once been?” (39-40).

Shehadeh’s second journey, “The Albina Case, Ramallah to A’yn Qenya,” takes place a year later. It shifts back and forth between the walk and Shehadeh’s preoccupations at the time of the walk. “For the first two decades of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank I was still able to walk in the hills unhampered,” he writes, despite the creation of a large number of settlements. “We still believed that it was possible for the occupation to end one day and for peace to be established on the basis of a Palestinian state in the West Bank alongside Israel”—but changes to the laws regarding land were a concern (41). Since 1979, for example, Palestinians have been denied access to land ownership records (41-42). The day he was first refused access, Shehadeh returned home and realized he had locked himself out of his house. He decided to walk “to the enormous pine tree midway down the hill and read” (42-44). Instead of reading, though, he looked at the hills, the mixture of pines and olive trees; the pines were evidence of the abandonment of the land, since farmers would prefer the olive trees (45). The sight of the hills and the blooming wildflowers made him decide to walk down into the valley (46).

The Orndnance Maps Shehadeh sometimes relies on trace their roots to the 1880s, when the Palestine Exploration Fund mapped and surveyed these hills, a process he describes as prerequisite for conquest (47). Europe, and later Zionism, was searching for its cultural roots in the Holy Land, and in the process they have “silenced Palestinian history and relegated it to prehistory, paving the way for the modern state of Israel to take control not only of the land but also of Palestinian time and space” (47). It is lucky Ramallah not mentioned in the Bible, otherwise it would be experiencing “the terror of fanatic fundamentalists squatting inside our town claiming that it belongs to their ancestors on biblical grounds” (47-48). Those first maps became the basis for land registration, which began during the British Mandate, but the 1967 war interrupted the process of registering land deeds and it was not completed. In the Albina case, Shehadeh was representing a Palestinian landowner who was caught up in this situation, a landowner with no Certificate of Registration: “This formality was the loophole the settlers used to question my client’s ownership of his land” (48).

The grasses, shrubs, flowers, were all damp from the rain: 

There were blue hyacinth squills between the rocks. When I slid down and stood again on the path I noticed the crocuses that had sprung out after the rain, filling the little patch around the rock I was sitting on like a pink haze. I didn’t want to crush their delicate petals so close to the ground but this was unavoidable for they were everywhere. (49)

The growth suggests freedom for Shehadeh. “Living as I did in a stifling community, these hills were my only escape, as they had been to Abu Ameen,” he writes (49):

The other day I had to plead with a soldier to be allowed to return home. I was getting back from our winter house in Jericho, where I had spent a relaxing day. I had to implore the Israeli soldier. I told him that I really did not know a curfew had been imposed on Ramallah. I was away all day and hadn’t listened to the news. . . . Oh, the humiliation of pleading with a stranger for something so basic. (50)

Nevertheless, leaving the West Bank was not an option for Shehadeh—then the land would be taken (50). So, as he walked, he pretended there were no settlements nearby, and that he had the hills to himself (50). It was hard to keep up the pretence, though. The hills were covered in natsh, a common thistle; its presence in a field was used by Israeli courts to argue that the land was abandoned and could be taken by Israeli settlers (52-53). Those settlements, Shehadeh argues, were destructive: “By creating new human settlements where none existed, connecting them with roads and isolating existing ones, it would not only strangle our communities but also destroy this beautiful land, and in a matter of a few years change what had been preserved for centuries” (55-56).

At this point, somewhat confusingly, Shehadeh jumps ahead to another walk taken in 1981 with his friend and colleague Jonathan Kuttab, during which they discussed their intention to challenge the Israeli settlement plans in court (55-60). The Israeli argument was that non-registered land was public land, the Palestinians living there were squatters, and the Jews were the only rightful owners: “Legally this position was not sustainable. And yet it was not being challenged. Most Palestinians boycotted Israeli courts, where these challenges could be presented. The settlers could comfort themselves that they were not taking anyone’s private land to establish their settlements” (57). During the walk they came up with a plan, and eventually they found a Palestinian farmer willing to fight the government in court, Sabri Gharib. Despite threats and harassment—the nearby settlers shooting at him, threatening to demolish his house, and repeated night arrests by the military—Gharib stood his ground until his death in 2012: “The resilience of Sabri, whose name itself means patience, was legendary,” Shehadeh writes, noting that his client’s motivation was not nationalism but the land: “Not to fight in every way possible to hold on to his land was a sacrilege” (58-59). Shehadeh and Kuttab were confident when they came up with their plan; 25 years later, Shehadeh mourns their inability to achieve results: “How complicated and dismal the future has turned out, with the land now settled by close to half a million Israeli Jews, living in hundreds of settlements scattered throughout our hills and connected by wide roads crossing through the wadis,” and more recently surrounded by the Separation Wall, a process which has destroyed “the beauty of our hills, separating our villages and towns from one another and annexing yet more of our land to Israel, demolishing the prospect for a viable peace” (60).

Shehadeh reached the village of A’yn Qenya, which he had first visited as a Boy Scout in 1969. He and his friends tried to walk there from their campsite at night: “We were eight young and uncertain men in the dark and for the first time I understood how it was possible to feel comfort in numbers” (62-63). They get lost, sleep on some rocks, wake up in the morning to the sounds of the village (63). When he got to the village, he encountered gazelles again, and they give him the idea of running up the hill to see the sun setting over the Mediterranean (65): “The air was dry and fresh. Lower hills spread below me like a crumpled sheet of blue velvet with the hamlets huddled in its folds. . . . The farther away the hills the smaller they looked. The most distant was a dark blue, like a little pond” (65). However, he continues, “I was unaware that this would be the last time I would be able to stand here on an empty hill. Shortly afterward the Israeli authorities expropriated the land and used it to build the settlement of Dolev” (66). Compared to 2006, when he was writing this book, the 1980s were a time when Shehadeh could walk without restraint: 

I feel gratified to have used that freedom and taken all those walks and got to know the hills. There was one walk that I had always planned which to my great regret I never got around to taking. It would start from the west of Ramallah, passing through Beitunia to Wadi El Mahkwm, passing north of Beit ’Ur. (66)

“I had planned this walk so carefully,” he continues. “Now with the settlements and the Separation Wall it was impossible” (66).

Here Shehadeh begins thinking about the Albina case, one of the first land cases he had handled (66). Settlers were claiming Albina’s land, suggesting he was an absentee, but he was living in East Jerusalem; their second argument was that if he wasn’t an absentee, then his land must be public, although it was registered (69). If those arguments were unsuccessful, they had one more: Albina’s land had been expropriated by the Jordanian government, despite lack of evidence (69-70). Shehadeh describes this case as a “swindle” (70), and notes that by the time he got involved, construction of the settlement had already begun (71). No injunction to stop work was granted, because that would involve a financial loss to the agency promoting the settlement; instead, the work continued as the court heard the case (72). The president of the court tried to get him to convince his client to sell the land (73)—because it was already lost (73). Shehadeh made a visit to Albina’s land. He expected the settlers to be “devils incarnate, fanatic, crazy people, starry-eyed and religiously inspired, who were forcing us to a confrontation and to many years of bloodshed,” and he worried about his safety (76). That turned out not to be the case: 

We were met by earnest-looking men, with no women. They served us tea in Styrofoam cups. We sat around a long table. I felt myself a witness to what it must have been like for the old Zionist settlers. I expect their latterday counterparts were living out an old dream. They were in their thirties and were wearing jeans. Many were bearded. They seemed amiable. They were not starry-eyed, they were hardheaded men who were fully committed to what they were doing and had no conception of how Albina, the victim of their actions, would see them. Nor did they seem to care. (76)

“Their enthusiasm was contagious,” Shehadeh continues. “They were literally camping on the land, pushing out their enemies and expanding the area of their state, perhaps carried away by a sarha of their own. What were a few legal objections against the elevated nobility of their purpose?” (76-77). But they were also, Shehadeh contends, “efficient and calculating businessmen who wanted to get over this legal hurdle” (77). They were without any sense of guilt; they didn’t care about the residents of the nearby village of Beit ’Ur, “[n]or did they have any qualms, as I discovered later, about using any sort of trickery or deceit to get their way. To them the end seemed to justify the use of any means. This was how those who believed they were serving a higher purpose behaved” (77).

When Shehadeh and Kuttab made their plans, they didn’t realize that the legal aspects of the issue “were only one small, ultimately insignificant, component,” or that the building of settlements in the Occupied Territories was a state project that “was not going to be hampered by questions of law. . . . Higher national objectives overrode legal niceties” (77-78). During the hearing on the Albina case, a masked witness (there was no reason for the mask, but court allowed it) baldly lied about the Jordanian army’s use of the land, and Shehadeh wondered whether it was worth continuing “with this farce”: “Was it good for Palestine for us to continue to the end or were we only lending legitimacy to an illegal court?” (79). In the end, he went through “the charade” (80), and while the court found that Albina was the owner of the land, it also decreed that the lease for settlement was legal and binding (81)—a contradictory ruling that made no sense. The court also found that Albina deserved no compensation (82).

Shehadeh jumps ahead in time again, to November 2006, when he went to visit writer Adel Samara in Beit ’Ur. It was a long drive because of the Separation Wall. The new highway’s exit to Beit ’Ur was blocked with a concrete barrier (83-84). The settlement that was built on Albina’s land was separated from the village with a wall, as if the settlers 

belonged to another world, that of a modern consumer society which subsidizes luxury homes built on land that came to it free of charge, with breathtaking views and clean air, connected to the center of the country by a fast four-lane highway built on their neighbors’ land and to which their neighbors had no access. No part of the settlers’ dwellings, not even the roofs of their villas, could be seen from the village, only the high streetlights that were lit all day and night to provide further protection in case one of the village youths decided to put a ladder up and climb the wall and attack the settlement. (85)

Shehadeh considered asking about relations between the settlement and the village, but the wall showed there was no point in asking (85). “Standing before the wall I could see in concrete terms the consequence of the policy of building Jewish settlements pursued by successive Israeli governments over the past thirty-nine years,” he writes: 

For an occupier to take through legal chicanery the lands of the occupied, and in stark violation of international law settle its own people in the midst of the towns and villages of the hostile occupied population can only lead to violence and bloodshed. There is no way that such usurpation of land could be accepted. A bloody struggle was inevitable. (85)

He looked at the wadi to the north and asked whether there were good walking tracks. Yes, ge was told, there were. “I realized this was the wadi I had long wanted to take to fulfill my ambition of walking from the Ramallah hills to the coastal plain and the sea,” he states. “Now it was too late” (87). The Separation Wall, and the settlements, block the way: “This is one walk I will never be able to take” (87).

But there are other hazards involved in walking in the country. Shehadeh jumps in time again, to 1999, and a walk he and his wife, Penny, made in the hills near Ramallah. It was a period of hope that the settlement question would be answered in Palestinians’ favour, because of the negotiation of the Oslo Accords; it was also a time of investment and construction in Ramallah, expansion (88). Shehadeh and Penny were walking to Abu Ameen’s qasr when they heard shots. Someone was shooting at them: “I held her hand and we ran to take shelter against a rock that formed the wall of one of the terraces down the side of the hill. The shots were coming from behind us, from above. We hoped that by flattening our bodies against the rock no part of us would be exposed to the fire” (89). The shooting intensified—but who was shooting? Shehadeh shouted in Arabic, asking them to stop, thinking it’s the Palestinian police, mistaking them for settlers (89). “The shooting continued mercilessly, giving us no respite, no time to take a breath, to think calmly of our next step, to manage, somehow, to escape,” he continues. “A hail of bullets whizzed overhead, struck the rock right in front of where we took shelter, sending splinters up in the air. It seemed likely that some of the bullets would ricochet and hit us” (90). There was a lull in the firing and he stood up and saw two young Palestinian men with guns; he thought they would stop, but they didn’t—they kept firing (90). After 20 minutes, it was over; Shehadeh and Penny walked to a checkpoint on the road to report what had happened, but the police there wouldn’t take a report (90-91). Later, Shehadeh was told later that the valley was dangerous; the young men engaged in target practice there, and there was nothing the government or police could do (92-93).

Six years later—another shift in time—Shehadeh went to the same valley with poet Ramsey Nasr. They saw new buildings and roads. The paths were covered with rubble dumped from higher terraces, but eventually they found a path and begin following it (93). They heard a pack of wild, possibly rabid, dogs barking (94). On the hill above them, soldiers were pointing their guns at them. They didn’t shoot; they asked for identification, because they suspected the poet, a foreigner, was being kidnapped (95-96). Shehadeh was told that one of the soldiers had been there in 1999, shooting at him and his wife (96). Another soldier said, “The hills are dangerous, we have found many corpses here” (97). “I never thought I’d ever meet one of the men who shot at Penny and me and almost killed us,” Shehadeh concludes. “He didn’t seem particularly sorry, and certainly did not apologize, though I was not expecting him to after all those years. Still I was grateful to be reminded that to every story there is an ending” (97). “An ending”—not a happy ending; that is too much to expect in Palestine, it seems.

Shehadeh’s third journey is entitled “Illusory Portals: Qomran, the Dead Sea and Wadi El Daraj.” He writes that he continued fighting against acquisitions of Palestinian land for Israeli settlements, even though outright victories were impossible (98). He was also concerned about land use planning, which seemed to be solely for the benefit of Israelis, and aimed to “designate most empty land for their future use, isolate Palestinian population centers and fragment their territorial continuity by encircling the with settlements” (99). Such planning was intended to confine Palestinian urban development, but the plans for Jewish settlements were prepared with the opposite objective; they had lots of room to expand, “a highly discriminatory, segregated town-planning reality” (99). These developments made him rethink his strategies; it was clear that legal challenges ineffective at curbing or even slowing the settlements (99-100). When the Palestinian Authority was created by the Oslo Accords, it had no power to change village or town zoning or repudiate Israeli claims to land acquired for settlements (100). As a result, Shehadeh rejected the Oslo Accords (101). 

Because of the Accords, some Palestinian cadres were allowed to return, and he and Penny took one of them, Selma Hasan, for a walk near the Dead Sea (101). On the drive to the Dead Sea, Shehadeh felt obligated to tell Selma about the various changes he had seen, but at the same time resented being a guide and would rather have pursued his own thoughts (103). The building of settlements and roads had completely changed Jerusalem and the land to the east (105-09), evidence of the planning regime he criticized:

For twenty-five years I had studied the development of the Israeli sovereign legal language in the West Bank. I monitored how the Israeli state was being extended into the Occupied Territories through the acquisition of land and its registration in the Israeli Land Authority. How large areas were being defined as Israeli Regional Councils and included within Israel. How the planning schemes were changed, how one area after another became for all intents and purposes annexed to Israel, and our towns and villages were left as islands within those Israeli extensions. . . . It was all done ostensibly through “legal” maneuvers, using the law in force in the West Bank because formally speaking the West Bank was not annexed to Israel. To understand and fight this was my war. (109-10)

They were stopped by a checkpoint, which surprised Hasan, who didn’t know that under the Oslo Agreement Israel had jurisdiction over roads (110). She also had no idea what the settlements were like. In that, she was like the PLO negotiators in Oslo (111)—they didn’t listen to legal advice about the settlements,“[a]nd so the Accords the PLO signed saddled us with the Israeli legal and administrative arrangements that envisioned an unequal division of the land between Arab and Jew,” Shehadeh writes (111).

During the journey, there was friction between Shehadeh and Hasan: she thought the Oslo Accords meant new times, while he thought the PLO sold out the Palestinians on the issues of land usage and the settlements (112):

Vast areas of my beloved country were being fenced to become off-limits to us. I felt the gravity of what was happening and I was willing to give everything for the struggle to stop it. My weapon was the law. All my time was taken up with it. Nothing was more important. I had no doubt that if we tried hard we would win and justice would prevail. For that glorious day of liberation there was no limit to what I was willing to sacrifice. 

Now after Oslo was signed and the struggle as I saw it was betrayed, I was back to real time. (114)

In addition, the agreements had made his work redundant, and he was “unable to make any practical use of my legal knowledge and expertise to stop Israeli violations of the law” (118). After 1967, his father had become despondent, and now he was becoming despondent as well (118-19). He was realizing that his work “was nothing but a grand delusion” (123). 

During a brief walk in a wadi, Hasan received a phone call from her husband; he had been given a permit to return to the West Bank, and she took a taxi home to get ready for his arrival. Shehadeh and Penny continued south along the Dead Sea to walk in Wadi El Daraj (124). On the trail, there was a rock that has to be climbed using a rope, and an Israeli soldier guarding a group of students helped him make the ascent: “I couldn’t but be grateful. Without him we would not have been able to proceed with our walk. In the course of this brief encounter the two of us did not exchange a single word. I wondered who he took me to be. Surely not a Palestinian” (126). He experienced vertigo on the trail where it ran between a rock and the cliff edge. He wondered why, and quickly came up with reasons (128):

The emotions were not too difficult to work out. The first was the old and persistent one of wanting a father, or an older brother, to protect me. . . . The second I interpreted as resulting from being at a point when my hold on life was being shaken. In the past I had lived with a strong sense of mission. What had framed my existence and given it a heightened sense of purpose was my resistance to the occupation, my work for justice. I felt called upon to save something, to speak out the truth, warn, resist and win. Now my struggle had been brought to an end. Consequently I lost the confidence that I wouldn’t let myself all to my death. The failures and disappointments I had been going through these past few years had loosened my grip on life and made me almost suicidal. (128-29)

The vertigo was a symptom of his despair. The chapter ends with the Israeli soldier who helped him climb up the cliff firmly closing the door of the bus the students had taken to the trail, clearly symbolizing an ending (129).

Shehadeh’s fourth journey is also near the Dead Sea: “Monasteries in the Desert: Wadi Qelt to Jericho.” It begins ominously:

By the end of the Nineties the future seemed to be moving to only bloodier times. This had been heralded by the increased rate of Israeli settlement and road building, the closing off of parts of the West Bank to Palestinians, settlers’ attacks on Palestinian civilians and the brutal killings of civilians by Palestianian human bombers inside Israel. (130)

However, there was brief respite after the Oslo Accords, and Shehadeh wanted to take advantage of that fragile peace: “It was essential not to hesitate but to venture out and take walks where it was still possible. And though most of upper Wadi Qelt, including the Faraa spring, was already closed to Palestinians, lower Wadi Qelt was still accessible” (130). So, with Penny and a group of friends, he planned to walk part way to Jericho through the hills, although need to get through checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem first (131). At the checkpoint, a soldier wouldn’t let them through, although another did: Shehadeh was angry at himself for not standing up for them, for not doing anything: 

Had this taken place before the Oslo Agreement I would have screamed at the soldier, demanded to see his superior, made it clear that he was exceeding his orders and made sure I put an end to my friend’s ordeal. Instead we all stood by meekly, without so much as a whimper of protest, and ended up feeling grateful just to have been allowed to pass. Perhaps it was time for me to leave. (133)

When they reached the hills where they were going to walk, the group was euphoric because of the contrast with Ramallah, a city surrounded by checkpoints: “the experience of open space, with no walls, no barriers and a wide open sky, made us giddy with joy” (137). They found a carob tree, where they sat to have a picnic (139). “Then we heard noises,” Shehadeh writes:

We looked up and, below the escarpment at the opposite end of the stream, saw a number of settlers approaching. . . . They must have seen us as trespassers, potentially dangerous but perhaps, by the way we looked sitting there drinking coffee and eating our salads, not quite on a military mission. One of the girls from the group approached Rema and asked her: “Where are you from?” Rema’s answer was both straightforward and correct. She simply said: “From here.” (139)

They continue walking and meet some Bedouins, living in brick houses by a canal, who treat them generously (142-44). The Bedouins have been evicted from their land, which is going to be turned into a nature reserve (145). 

Shehadeh used to support the creation of parks, but the damage to the environment, and to his father, caused by the construction of settlements had made him change his mind: 

They were acting like a sovereign, reshaping the countryside, exploiting empty land for the benefit of their own people and designating other areas as reserves for their future benefit. After 1967, when Israel occupied and then annexed East Jerusalem, my father lost many valuable plots of land when the Israeli municipality designated them green areas. I began to think Israel was going to turn East Jerusalem into a paradise of green parks, only to realize that a few years after the land had been acquired from its Arab ownership through expropriation, its designation was changed. The noble aim of keeping East Jerusalem Green was dropped in favor of using the land to construct neighborhoods for the exclusive benefit of Jewish residents, making the city more cluttered and depressing, and my father more despondent, than ever. (145)

Shehadeh’s friend Saba was upset by the news of the Bedouin’s impending eviction: “I have always known it,” he said. “The Israeli plan is to confine all of us in reservations in preparation for our eventual expulsion. Just as they did in 1948” (146). Shehadeh notices the differences between the area now, and what he remembered from past walks there:

During earlier walks all that I could see was the empty wilderness. Now the area looked like a construction site as the new roads to the settlements of Maaleh Mikhmas, Kfar Adumim, Mishor Adumim and Mitzpe Jericho were dug into the hills and land was leveled in preparation for building yet more houses there. Once these settlements are complete a wedge will divide the West Bank into a northern and a southern enclave and put an end to the dream of a Palestinian state. (149)

Everything he had seen that day made him angry—and more and more that was his default emotion.

The group visited the church at the Monastery of St. George of Koziba. It was a place of tranquility, and Shehadah decided he should draw inspiration from it: 

I cannot continue in this state of anger, otherwise it will consume all my energy and I shall waste my life in grumbling and regret. A time comes when one has to accept reality, difficult as that might be, and find ways to live through it without losing one’s self-esteem and principles. Was this not what these hermits and monks had been doing over the centuries, keeping their distance from the world, holding on to what was theirs as they waited for the tide to turn, while around them all they held sacred was violated? (153-54)

“The time had come for me to dedicate myself to a different project, one I could make work, which no one could take from me,” he continues—and that project would be writing (154). “I knew I would be able to find ways of dealing with the trauma of defeat,” he concludes. “Somehow despite the problems and fears I would continue to walk and to write. At my age my father had successfully survived two catastrophic defeats. I was more fortunate. So far, I have had to deal with only one.” (155)

At the beginning of Shehadeh’s fifth journey, “And How Did You Get Over It? Janiya, Ras Karkar and Deir Ammar,” he writes that he knew enough about the Oslo Accords to realize they would lead to chaos, so he protected himself: he built a house within Ramallah, safe from Israeli expropriation, and wrote a memoir (156). “I was digging my heels in, taking refuge in a stone house and waiting for the tide to change, an honorable tradition in the Holy Land,” he writes (156). During this period he went for a walk with his friend Mustafa Barghouti, a doctor and the founder of the Medical Relief Organization. They wanted to talk about the changes they were seeing in the West Bank, after the Oslo Accords (157-58). They intend to begin their walk in A’yn Qenya and finish in Deir Ammar: 

I was aware before we began that the route Mustafa and I were planning to take was prohibited to us. We did not have permission from the military governor to walk there and if we came upon soldiers we could be arrested. A Jewish settler also has the power to make a citizen’s arrest. We had to be careful of both. I was certain that Mustafa, like most Palestinians, was unaware of this prohibition. Before we started our walk I considered telling him but in the end decided against it. One anxious person on this lovely walk was enough. (161)

Shehadeh and Barghouti found their path, crossed the wadi, and walked through an overgrown field of olive trees, where “The unplowed earth . . . had an abundance of wildflowers mottled with the shadows of the clouds” (162-63). They discovered wet ground and realized that they had walked into the open sewers of the Talmon settlement, which disposed of its waste down the valley into land owned by Palestinian farmers (163). Two boys showed them the way out of the bog and told them walking near the paved road was too dangerous—the settlers would try to run Palestinians down deliberately, and the military would shoot at them (163-64). Settlers had practical immunity from prosecution, Shehadeh notes, and could threaten or shoot at Palestinian neighbours without penalty (165).

Although Shehadeh suggests that the land was owned by farmers, he notes that no one was working it: 

Traditionally these were agricultural villages. Within a few decades the inhabitants have been intimidated, their life made unsafe and many of their fields expropriated, and they have been turned into construction workers building the settlements that stood on land that once belonged to them. These were the beginnings of new times, a new relationship to the land and the destruction of the hills as I knew them. (165-66)

Such thoughts threatened his enjoyment of the day, as well as his peace of mind:

For a long time my enjoyment of these hills has been impaired by a preoccupation with the changes in land law relating to them. But such man-made constructs can be diminished if looked at in a particular way. Viewed from the perspective of the land they hardly count. A road makes a scar in the hills but over time that scar heals and becomes absorbed and incorporated. Stones are gathered to build houses but then they crumble and return to the land however large and formidable they might once have been. . . . As these thoughts crossed my mind, I could not help but wonder whether this long-term perspective was simply another justification for having curtailed my activism, or a reasonable defense against Israel’s positing of these changes as permanent and incapable of ever being altered. I realized that the stronger the attempt at impressing me with their permanence, the more my mind sought confirmation of their transience. (167)

As they walked, Barghouti asked how Shehadeh had gotten over his anger. He responds, “By accepting the fact of our surrender and moving on,” but he realized also the way that writing was liberating for him (168-69). The chapter ends, as do the others, with a sense of foreboding: 

As Mustafa and I witnessed during out walk in the hills, our land was being transformed before our eyes, and a new map was being drawn. We were not supposed to look, only to blindly believe in the hollow language of peace proclaimed by Israeli leaders, a peace that amounted to mere words, rhetoric that meant nothing. (177)

That make-believe peace could not last for ever, he concludes; another violent intifada was predictable (177).

Shehadeh’s final journey is“An Imagined Sarha: Wadi Dalb.” “Much has happened since the walk described in the last chapter,” he begins. “My hope that I would find refuge in my stone house was dispelled in the spring of 2002, when the Israeli army invaded Ramallah, entered my home and broke the sense of sanctuary I had ascribed to it” (178). The stated reason for the invasion was self-defence; but Shehadeh argues that for Israel, defending settlements on illegally acquired land had become the same as defending the rest of the country (178). The invasion followed by drastic security measures that closed the entrances of all cities and hundreds of villages (180). There were more checkpoints and obstacles on roads (180). Travel was difficult and Palestinians were subjected to constant harassment (180). There was a feeling that Palestinians would be victims of a mass expulsion, and a ghetto life was imposed on West Bank cities (180). The most destructive development, though, was the Separation Wall (181). “Still,” Shehadah writes,

I was determined that none of this was going to prevent me from taking more walks in the hills. Not the military orders closing most of the West Bank, not the checkpoints and roadblocks and not the Jewish settlements. Weather-wise that spring of 2006 was one of the best for many years. The rain had been plentiful but also well distributed. It continued to rain through April, giving vital sustenance to the wildflowers that by the end of the month usually begin to shrivel and die. I could not let this season pass without a walk. (181-82)

However, Shehadah had gotten lost driving in new settlements and industrial zones a few months earlier and didn’t want to repeat the experience (182). Besides, the changes wrought upon the land meant that he would have to choose a route carefully:

I surveyed my prospects. I could not go to A’yn Qenya through the Abu Ameen track because much of it had been destroyed by new buildings in the course of Ramallah’s expansion to the northwest. Added to this was the fact that the Jewish settlers from Dolev and Beit Eil had raised money to build a bypass road through our hills and valleys, going over private Palestinian lands to connect their two settlements. This badly designed private road caused much damage to the hills and obstructed the passage of water through the wadi. It also destroyed a number of the springs and many unique rock formations, among them a beautiful cliff studded with cyclamens that I often stopped to admire. (183-84)

In addition, the valley to the south was now used for target practice by members of the Palestinian security forces, and access to A’yn Qenya was blocked by an army post (184). Shehadeh decided to look at a map—not something he liked to do, “for it implied submission to others, the makers of the maps, with their ideological biases. I would much rather have exercised the freedom of going by the map inside my head, signposted by historical memories and references” (184). Nevertheless, he continues, “I had no choice. To find a track I could take that without settlers or practices shooters or army posts or settler bypass roads had become a real challenge” (184).

Shehadeh worked out a path, one that avoided army posts, bypasses and settlements (184). He began walking in land that might once have resembled Abu Ameen’s. There was a pine tree, a spring, and a cultivated orchard: “My spirits revived. I felt empowered by the memory of Abu Ameen and his much different times. I did not care what happened to me, I was going to enjoy my walk in the hills” (185). He walked until he found a gully where the track was 

made gorgeous by the view it offered of the valley below with its wide swath of green and the water flowing in its midst shimmering in the mid-morning light. I could not get over how unusual it was to see a green valley with a brook in these dry hills. My heart leaped. I almost ran down the path but thought better of it and, out of kindness to my knees, I slowed down, (185)

When he got to the water he realized there was someone there—an armed settler, smoking “hashish mixed with another more potent substance” in a water pipe, a nergila (186). He tried to cross the stream, but he dropped his hat in the water, and the settler retrieved it for him (186-87). 

Then begins a conversation—or confrontation—between the two men. Shehadeh told the settler that it was a beautiful day and his gun didn’t belong to it—the settler agrees, but said, “I have to” (187). Shehadeh asked the settler if he was afraid of being there alone. “Why should I be?” he answered. “I’ve done no evil to anyone” (188). Shehadeh thought,“Done no evil . . . after all the land he and his people have stolen, after destroying our life for so long” (188). The settler tells him that Dolev, his settlement, is built on public land, and that “All of Eretz Israel is ours” (189). Palestinians could go and live in another Arab states, the settler continues—there are 21 of them (190). “This young man had internalized the official propaganda and was just parroting it.,” Shehadeh writes. “Why should I spoil my walk by listening to such annoying nonsense?” (190). The settler stated that the land is a nature reserve, preserved by the Israelis; Shehadeh’s response was to ask about the settlements, the bulldozers digging highways, and the damage they have done. He described what the land was like before: “You could not see any new buildings, you did not hear any traffic. All you saw were deer leaping up the terraced hills, wild rabbits, foxes, jackals and carpets of flowers. Then it was a park. Preserved in more or less the same state it had been in for hundreds of years” (190). “Progress is inevitable,” the settler responded. He told Shehadeh that the Arab villagers, without running water, have a difficult life, and that they dump their garbage everywhere: “You lack the know-how and the discipline. Leave planning and law enforcement to us. We have built many towns and cities out of wild empty areas. Tel Aviv was built on sand dunes and look how vibrant it is today. The same will happen here” (191).

Then the settler said something that surprised Shehadeh: “I love these hills no less than you. I was raised here. The sights and smells of this land are a sacred part of me. I am not happy anywhere else. Every time I leave I cannot wait to get back. This is my home” (191). The conversation changed to the land they both love, and Shehadeh asked what the settlers called this wadi and this spring, and the men agreed that they both loved walking. However, this shared passion did not calm Shehadeh: “I held my breath. I wanted to blurt out all the curses I had ever learned: You . . . you . . . who’ve taken my land and now walk it as master, leaving me to walk as a criminal on a few restricted paths. But this time I held my tongue” (191-92).

The settler recalled a childhood memory of passing through Ramallah in a car, having stones thrown at them (192).“[I]t destroyed something inside me, perhaps forever,” he said. “I was so afraid. . . . because I could not understand why the Arabs hate us so much. When we got to school I asked the teacher why” (192). Her answer was, “Because they are bad people . . . and they hate Jews. This is why we have to be strong to defend ourselves” (193). Shehadeh responded that by taking the land and refusing to recognize the fact, the presence of settlers means “perpetual war” (193). The settler was not concerned. Shehadeh asked about international law; the settler said that’s “for the weak” (193). “I went to the army for three years,” he continued. “I will defend everything my family fought for. There was a war and we won. Our presence here is a fact that you will have to live with. My grandfather died fighting in the war of independence”—that is, the war for independence from the British (193). Shehadeh was surprised: “But they came to take our country from us and give it to you.” (193). The settler told him that there could be no compensation for properties taken in 1948 unless Palestinians compensated for Jewish losses in Cairo, Baghdad and Yemen. “What have we to do with Egypt, with Iraq, with Yemen?” Shehadeh replied. “Ask them. They are different countries. As far as I’m concerned all people who lost property should be compensated. But you should not link the two cases” (194). The settler’s response was simple: they’re Arabs (194). He saw no difference between the Palestinians and other Arabs, and argued that Palestinians are not a nation: “You never had your own government. . . . you don’t have, you never had, a national presence in Eretz Israel,” but the Jews did, in Judea, three thousand years before (195). “So with the exception of small communities in Jerusalem and Hebron there were no Jews living in the West Bank since that time. The land has been continuously populated predominantly by Arabs. Does this not count in your eyes?” Shehadeh asked.  The settler answered, “It took the Jews three thousand years to return to their land. It’s the only country we’ve got. And you want us to give it up?” (195).

Shehadeh states that taking all the land without sharing is discriminatory, but the settler disagreed: “You want to walk? We have designated areas as natural parks which we forbid anyone, Arab or Jew, from building on. You and us can enjoy these areas” (195). “I have not been able to enjoy these hills since your people came,” Shehadeh replied. “I walk in fear of being shot at or arrested. There was a time when this place was like a paradise, a cultivated garden with a house by every spring. A small, unobtrusive house, built without concrete” (195). The settler scoffed: 

And then the Jews came like the serpent and ruined everything in the idyllic garden. You blame us for everything, don’t you? But it doesn’t matter. We’ve learned our lesson from our long, tortured history. Here in our own land our existence is not premised on your acceptance. We’ve long since found out that we have to be strong if we are to survive here. (196)

Then Shehadeh retrieved his wet hat and turned to walk away. However, the settler asks if he wants to smoke with him, and he does: “I knew from experience that often the first impulse is the best one to follow and my intuition on this occasion was not to refuse” (196). 

“As the strong stuff began to take effect,” Shehadeh recalls, he began to think about another sarha in the same hills, walking with a friend, sitting on rocks near the cyclamen rock, resting at the midway point of their walk. It was sunset and the colours of the hills were changing. A man walked by with long, deliberate strides, as though he was taking measurements: 

In the clarity of the moment I suspected the worst, tidings of a terrible future for our beautiful hills. A short time after this, work began on the settler road connecting Dolev to Beit Eil, which passed along the exact path this man had traversed. He must have been working for the Arab contractor who executed the work on behalf of the settlers. The hills where never the same after that. (197)

That memory made him feel guilty about sharing the hills with the settler, but then he thought, “these are my hills despite how things are turning out. If I postpone my enjoyment of them I might never achieve the sarha that I have sought for so long” (197). “With every draw of the nergila, I was slipping back into myself, into a vision of the land before it became so tortured and distorted, every hill, watercourse and rock, and we the inhabitants along with it,” he continues.  “I was fully aware of the looming tragedy and war that lay ahead for both of us, Palestinian Arab and Israeli Jew. But for now, he and I could sit together for a respite, for a smoke, joined temporarily by our mutual love of the land” (198). The pair began to hear shots in the background but they didn’t know who is firing. “We agreed to disregard them for now and for a while the only sound that we could hear was the comforting gurgle of the nergila and the soft murmur of the precious water trickling between the rocks,” Shehadeh concludes (198). It is a rather ominous conclusion, a brief moment of wary peace with gunfire in the background.

Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape left me thinking about the parallels between the West Bank and Saskatchewan. There are many differences, of course, but in both places, settlers have done everything possible to displace the original inhabitants of the land, and in both places the settlers—or at least most of them—are blind (wilfully, perhaps, or through ignorance) to that face. I can imagine the conversation Shehadeh has with the settler taking place between a Cree or Saulteaux man out for a walk and a môniyâw hiker or hunter. More importantly, Shehadeh’s final chapter suggests that a love of the land, or even a sense of its sacredness, cannot make up for a history of colonization and displacement, that it cannot generate a sense of shared purpose or understanding. How could it? In addition, the changes Shehadeh has seen in the hills and wadis he loves since the 1970s are not unlike the ones settlers brought to this land by destroying the grassland ecosystem. Unlike the roads Shehadeh imagines becoming part of the landscape, that destruction is permanent, and ongoing, so that less than 14 percent remains. And all of this reinforces my sense that settlers and their descendants do need to justify their walking in this land, because it does belong to others. The shape such a justification would take eludes me right now, but it’s something I’m going to have to think about—and discuss with Elders.

Work Cited

Shehadeh, Raja. Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape, Scribner, 2007.

47. Doreen Massey, For Space

for space

I’ve meant to read Doreen Massey’s 2005 book For Space for quite some time now. My friend Rachelle Viader Knowles, who teaches at Coventry University, has told me that For Space was very influential on her PhD work. Also, while I’m very interested in the distinction Yi-Fu Tuan makes between space and place, I’m also aware that any such binary opposition is begging to be deconstructed, and from the title of Massey’s book, I thought that might be part of her project. If I’m going to think about space and place, I thought, I’m going to need to be aware of critiques of that opposition, and if that’s what Massey’s up to, then I would have to read her book.

Massey isn’t primarily interested in distinctions between space and place, but that doesn’t mean that her book isn’t important for my research. (Also, I had better point out at the very beginning that For Space is a complex book, and because I’m trying to follow the turns of Massey’s argument in detail, this post is going to be rather long.) Massey begins by saying that she’s been thinking about space for a long time, but in an indirect way, “through some other kind of engagement,” including “the politics of space” and “[t]he battles over globalisation,” “the engagements with ‘nature’ as I walk the hills,” and “the complexities of cities” (1)—all themes she returns to later in For Space. “It is through these persistent ruminations—that sometimes don’t seem to go anywhere and then sometimes do—that I have become convinced both that the implicit assumptions we make about space are important and that, maybe, it could be productive to think about space differen[t]ly” (1). That is precisely what For Space does: it takes on our “implicit assumptions” about space and thinks about space in a different way.

One of Massey’s primary concerns is the way we imagine space, the way we think about it. She begins with the story of the encounter between Hernán Cortés and Moctezuma, when the Spanish met the Aztecs at their capital, Tenochtitlán, a story that stands in, metonymically, for the history of European exploration and colonization of the globe, a story that depended on a particular conception of space as a surface, “continuous and given,” a way of thinking about space that “differentiates”: “Hernán, active, a maker of history, journeys across this surface and finds Tenochtitlán upon it” (4). This “unthought cosmology,” Massey writes, “carries with it social and political effects” (4):

So easily this way of imagining space can lead us to conceive of other places, peoples, cultures simply as phenomena “on” this surface. It is not an innocent manoeuvre, for by this means they are deprived of histories. Immobilised, they await Cortés’ (or our, or global capital’s) arrival. They lie there, on space, without their own trajectories. Such a space makes it more difficult to see in our mind’s eye the histories the Aztecs too have been living and producing. What might it mean to reorientate this imagination, to question that habit of thinking of space as a surface? If, instead, we conceive of a meeting-up of histories, what happens to our implicit imaginations of time and space? (4)

A related phenomenon is “the story of the inevitability of globalisation,” by which its proponents mean “the inevitability of that particular form of neoliberal capitalist globalisation that we are experiencing at the moment—that duplicitous combination of the glorification of the (unequally) free movement of capital on the one hand with the firm control over the movement of labour on the other,” which leads to the claim that other countries are “behind” wealthy nations and will eventually follow on the same path (4-5). This “proposition,” Massey argues, “turns geography into history, space into time,” a shift that, again, has political and social effects: other countries are imagined as if they do not have “their own trajectories, their own particular histories, and the potential for their own, perhaps different, futures. They are not recognised as coeval others. They are merely at an earlier stage in the one and only narrative it is possible to tell” (5). That “cosmology of ‘only one narrative,’” Massey writes, “obliterates the multiplicities, the contemporaneous heterogeneities of space. It reduces simultaneous existence to place in the historical queue” (5). “What if,” she asks, “we refuse to convene space into time? What if we open up the imagination of the single narrative to give space (literally) for a multiplicity of trajectories? What kinds of conceptualisation of time and space, and of their relation, might that give on to?” (5)

Then Massey turns to place. “In the context of a world which is, indeed, increasingly interconnected the notion of place (usually evoked as ‘local place’) has come to have totemic resonances,” she writes:

Its symbolic value is endlessly mobilised in political argument. For some it is the sphere of the everyday, of real and valued practices, the geographical source of meaning, vital to hold on to as “the global” spins its ever more powerful and alienating webs. For others, a “retreat to place” represents a protective pulling-up of drawbridges and a building of walls against the new invasions. Place, on this reading, is the locus of denial, of attempted withdrawal from invasion/difference. It is a politically conservative haven, an essentialising (and in the end unviable) basis for a response; one that fails to address the real forces at work. (5-6)

Place is, or at least it can be, about “nationalisms and territorial parochialisms characterised by claims to local specificity and by a hostility to at least some designated others” (6). Place, in contemporary terms, is the motivating force for Brexit, or for Trump’s desired border wall. And yet, is it always “a politically conservative haven”? “[W]hat of the defence of place by working-class communities in the teeth of globalisation,” she asks, “or by aboriginal groups clinging to a last bit of land?” (6). Place is ambiguous: “Horror at local exclusivities sits uneasily against support for the vulnerable struggling to defend their patch” (6). Nevertheless, there are “often shared undergirding assumptions” of place:

as closed, coherent, integrated as authentic, as “home,” a secure retreat; of space as somehow originarily regionalised, as always-already divided up. And more than that again, they institute, implicitly but held within the very discourses that they mobilise, a counterposition, sometimes even a hostility, certainly an implicit imagination of different theoretical “levels” (of the abstract versus the everyday, and so forth) between space on the one hand and place on the other. (6)

Again, Massey offers a number of questions in response to these distinctions between space and place:

What if we refuse this imagination? What then not only of the nationalisms and parochialisms which we might gladly see thereby undermined, but also of the notion of local struggles or of the defence of place more generally? And what if we refuse that distinction, all too appealing it seems, between place (as meaningful, lived and everyday) and space (as what? the outside? the abstract? the meaningless)? (6)

What, indeed, would happen if we abandoned the distinction between place as meaningful and space as abstract? That is Tuan’s distinction: how else could one assert the difference between locations one knows and that have meaning, and locations one does not know or understand? 

“The imagination of space as a surface on which we are placed, the turning of space into time, the sharp separation of local place from the space out there; these are all ways of taming the challenge that the inherent spatiality of the world presents,” Massey writes (7). But, she continues, these ways of thinking about space are typically unthought or implicit (7). “One of the recurring motifs in what follows is just how little, actually, space is thought about explicitly,” she suggests (7). Nevertheless, “these implicit engagements of space feed back into and sustain wider understandings of the world”:

The trajectories of others can be immobilised while we proceed with our own; the real challenge of the contemporaneity of others can be deflected by their relegation to a past (backward, old-fashioned, archaic); the defensive enclosures of an essentialised place seem to enable a wider disengagement, and to provide a secure foundation. (8)

All of these, for Massey, are examples of failures, intentional or otherwise, of “spatial imagination” (8). They are “inadequate to the challenges of space,” incapable of understanding “its coeval multiplicities,” accepting “its radical contemporaneity,” or dealing with “its constitutive complexity” (8). This statement leads to Massey’s big question, which ends her introduction: “What happens if we try to let go of those, by now almost intuitive, understandings?” (8)

Massey’s next chapter lists three propositions regarding space, all of which follow from the questions she asks in her introduction. First, she suggests “that we recognise space as the product of interrelations: as constituted through interactions, from the immensity of the global to the intimately tiny” (9). Second, we need to understand space 

as the sphere of the possibility of the existence of multiplicity in the sense of contemporaneous plurality; as the sphere in which distinct trajectories coexist; as the sphere therefore of coexisting heterogeneity. Without space, no multiplicity; without multiplicity, no space. If space is indeed the product of interrelations, then it must be predicated upon the existence of plurality. (9)

Third, she suggests “that we recognise space as always under construction”:

Precisely because space on this reading is a product of relations-between, relations which are necessarily embedded material practices which have to be carried out, it is always in the process of being made. It is never finished; never closed. Perhaps we could imagine space as a simultaneity of stories-so-far. (9)

For Massey, these propositions regarding space are important: 

thinking the spatial in a particular way can shake up the manner in which certain political questions are formulated, can contribute to political arguments already under way and—most deeply—can be an essential element in the imaginative structure which enables in the first place an opening up to the very sphere of the political. (9)

The “imagination of the spatial and the imagination of the political” are therefore directly connected (9-10). 

Politics, Massey writes, is “the (ever-contested) question of our being-together” (142). The claim that the spatial and the political are interrelated is an important part of Massey’s argument, and it is therefore worth unpacking. First, she argues that “understanding space as a product of interrelations chimes well with the emergence over recent years of a politics which attempts a commitment to anti-essentialism,” a politics which “takes the constitution of identities themselves and the relations through which they are constructed to be one of the central stakes of the political” (10). “Rather than accepting and working with already-constituted entities/identities,” Massey continues,

this politics lays its stress upon the relational constructedness of things (including things called political subjectivities and political constituencies). It is wary therefore about claims to authenticity based on notions of unchanging identity. Instead, it proposes a relational understanding of the world, and a politics which responds to that. (10)

Such a “politics of interrelations” mirrors Massey’s first proposition, the claim that space “is a product of interrelations”: “Space does not exist prior to identities/entities and their relations”—in fact, “identities/entities, the relations ‘between’ them, and the spatiality which is part of them, are all co-constitutive” (10). There is no simple cause and effect; all three of these things helps to create the others. However, for Massey space is the privileged term: “spatiality may also be from the beginning integral to the constitution of those identities themselves, including political subjectivities,” she contends, and “specifically spatial identities (places, nations) can equally be reconceptualised in relational terms” (10). Questions of these relations, and the ways they are negotiated, are returned to throughout For Space.

Second, Massey argues that “imagining space as the sphere of the possibility of the existence of multiplicity resonates with the greater emphasis which has over recent years in political discourses of the left been laid on ‘difference’ and heterogeneity” (10). This point is related to her second proposition about space: “the very possibility of any serious recognition of multiplicity and heterogeneity itself depends on a recognition of spatiality,” she suggests. “The political corollary is that a genuine, thorough, spatialisation of social theory and political thinking can force into the imagination a fuller recognition of the simultaneous coexistence of others with their own trajectories and their own stories to tell” (11). As with her first argument, this one recurs throughout For Space as well, and it is one of her primary concerns.

Third, Massey contends that “imagining space as always in process, as never a closed system, resonates with an increasingly vocal insistence within political discourses on the genuine openness of the future. It is an insistence founded in an attempt to escape the inexorability which so frequently characterises the grand narratives related by modernity” (11). Indeed, for Massey the existence of future possibilities is the basis of political activity: “only if we conceive of the future as open can we seriously accept or engage in any genuine notion of politics. Only if the future is open is there any ground for a politics which can make a difference” (11). Once again, she sees a parallel between this point and the way she conceives of space: “Not only history but also space is open” (11). Space, she writes, “is neither a container for always-already constituted identities nor a completed closure of holism. This is a space of loose ends and missing links. For the future to be open, space must be open too” (12).

Massey then pauses to register a concern about the connotations of her words; she in effect stops to define her particular use of vocabulary in the book. Her use of the terms “trajectory” and “story,” for instance, is intended to emphasize the process of change—both temporal and spatial—in a phenomenon (12). The terms “difference,” “heterogeneity,” “multiplicity,” and “plurality” are all meant to suggest “the contemporaneous existence of a plurality of trajectories; a simultaneity of stories-so-far” (12). The fact of such heterogeneities is “intrinsic to space,” Massey argues. “Romances of coherent nationhood . . . may operate on precisely such principles of constituting identity/difference,” and “such attempts at the purification of space. . . . are precisely one way of coping with its heterogeneities—its actual complexity and openness” (12). But Massey is interested in positive heterogeneity rather than negative difference, in heterogeneity as a positive alternative to essentialist arguments. That positive heterogeneity will enable one to grasp the “liveliness, the complexity and openness of the configurational itself, the positive multiplicity, which is important for an appreciation of the spatial” (12-13).

“What I’m interested in,” Massey writes, “is how we might imagine spaces for these times; how we might pursue an alternative imagination”:

What is needed, I think, is to uproot “space” from that constellation of concepts in which it has so unquestioningly so often been embedded (stasis; closure; representation) and to settle it among another set of ideas (heterogeneity; relationality; coevalness . . . liveliness indeed) where it released a more challenging political landscape. (13)

“This is a book about ordinary space,” she continues:

the space and places through which, in the negotiation of relations within multiplicities, the social is constructed. It is in that sense a modest proposal, and yet the very persistence, the apparent obviousness, of other mobilisations of “space,” point to its continuing necessity. (13)

Space, she writes, is just as lively and challenging as time, which has tended to occupy the imaginations of philosophers; space is neither dead nor fixed, and “the very enormity of its challenges has meant that the strategies for taming it have been many, varied and persistent” (14). Note Massey’s inclusion of place in this statement of her interests; she wants to consider “the real problems of thinking about, and still more of appreciating, place” (14).

The next section of For Space engages with the way our definition of space is derived from philosophy; in particular, the work of Henri Bergson; the structuralists; and the deconstructionists (primarily Jacques Derrida). Throughout this section, Massey argues that “time and space must be thought together”: “the imagination of one will have repercussions (not always followed through) for the imagination of the other,” and since “space and time are implicated in each other,” thinking them together “opens up some problems which have heretofore seemed (logically, intractably) insoluble” (18). Thinking space and time together also “has reverberations for thinking about politics and the spatial” (18). Although time and space are typically considered in opposition to each other, Massey continues, “[t]he counterpositional labelling of phenomena as temporal or spatial, and entailing all the baggage of the reduction of space to the a-political sphere of causal closure or the reactionary redoubts of established power, continues to this day” (18). Thinking about space will have effects on the way other things are thought about in philosophy:

the excavation of these problematical conceptualisations of space (as static, closed, immobile, as the opposite of time) brings to light other sets of connections, to science, writing and representation, to issues of subjectivity and its conception, in all of which implicit imaginations of space have played an important role. And these entwinings are in turn related to the fact that space has so often been excluded from, or inadequately conceptualised in relation to, and has thereby debilitated our conceptions of, politics and the political. (18-19)

Her goal, she writes, is “to liberate ‘space’ from some chains of meaning (which embed it with closure and stasis, or with science, writing and representation) and which have all but choked it to death, in order to set it into other chains (in this chapter alongside openness, and heterogeneity, and liveliness) where it can have a new and more productive life” (19).

Massey then turns to the idea that there is an association, in philosophy, between “the spatial and the fixation of meaning,” or between spatiality and representation” (20). She is interested in philosophers who imply “another understanding of what space might be,” although “none of them pause very long either explicitly to develop this alternative or to explore the curious fact that this other (and more mobile, flexible, open, lively) view of space stands in such flat opposition to their equally certain association of representation with space” (20). One of those philosophers is Henri Bergson, whose concern was with temporality and duration, the experience of time and ways to resist “the evisceration of its internal continuity, flow and movement” (20). Bergson makes a distinction—as does Gilles Deleuze—“between discrete difference/multiplicity (which refers to extended magnitudes and distinct entities, the realm of diversity) and continuous difference/multiplicity (which refers to intensities, and to evolution rather than succession” (21). These terms are important, because they inform much of Massey’s argument, and she returns to them again and again. Discrete difference/multiplicity, she continues, “is divided up, a dimension of separation,” whereas continuous difference/multiplicity “is a continuum, a multiplicity of fusion” (21). Bergson and Deleuze, she writes, are trying “to instate the significance, indeed the philosophical primacy, of the second (continuous) form of difference over the first (the discrete) form” (21). At stake is “the genuine openness of history, of the future,” which is also central to Massey’s argument.

However, Bergson was interested in time rather than space; in fact, he devalued and subordinated space, in part by associating it with representation, which deprived space of dynamism and counterposed it radically to time (21). In his argument, space comes to be associated negatively against time, as a lack of movement and duration (22). But Massey asks why space must lack duration: “A dynamic simultaneity would be a conception quite different from a frozen instant” (23). Eventually, she continues, Bergson came to recognize “duration in external things,” and “thus the interpenetration, though not the equivalence, of space and time” (24). That notion is, she writes, “what I am calling space as the dimension of multiple trajectories, a simultaneity of stories-so-far. Space is the dimension of a multiplicity of durations” (24). The problem, however, is that “the old chain of meaning—space-representation-stasis—continues to wield its power” (24). Ernesto Laclau and Michel de Certeau both see space in this way, as representation and therefore stasis and ideological closure (24-25). “It is a remarkably pervasive and unquestioned assumption, and it does indeed have an intuitive obviousness,” Massey writes. “But as already indicated perhaps this equation of representation and spatialisation is not something which should be taken for granted” (26). Indeed, her purpose in this book is “to build an argument which will come to a very different conclusion” (26).

There are two propositions in this claim about space, Massey suggests: “first, the argument that representation necessarily fixes, and therefore deadens and detracts from, the flow of life; and second, that the product of this process of deadening is space” (26). She doesn’t entirely disagree with the first proposition, but believes that the equivalence the second makes between space and representation is baseless” (26-27). Representation, she argues, does fix and stabilize, but what it fixes and stabilizes is both history and geography, or “space-time” (27). “It would be better to recognise that ‘society’ is both temporal and spatial, and to drop entirely that definition of representation as space,” she writes, because representation is both spatial and temporal (27). Moreover, while “it is easy to see how representation can be understood as a form of spatialisation”—her example is a map—that map, as a representation of space, is not the territory itself, because “a territory is integrally spatio-temporal” (27-28). Here I found myself recalling Jorge Luis Borges’s story, “On Exactitude in Science,” about an empire whose cartographers made a life-sized map of the empire’s territory, which was, of course, useless: its “Tattered Ruins” are now “inhabited by Animals and Beggars,” and “in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography” (Borges).

The argument that space is representation has two consequences, according to Massey. First, there is a crisis of representation, since representation is constitutive rather than mimetic; and second, “that space itself, the space of the world, far from being equivalent to representation, must be unrepresentable in that latter, mimetic sense” (28). She notes that in the work of Deleuze and Felix Guattari, there is no “tripartite division between reality, representation and subjectivity”:

Here what we might have called representation is no longer a process of fixing, but an element in a continuous production; a part of it all, and itself constantly becoming. This is a position which rejects a strict separation between world and text and which understands scientific activity as being just that—an activity, a practice, an embedded engagement in the world of which it is a part. Not representation but experimentation. (28)

“As the text has been destabilised in literary theory so space might be destabilised in geography (and indeed in wider social theory),” Massey suggests (28-29). However, the issue is complex:

if scientific/intellectual activity is indeed to be understood as an active and productive engagement in/of the world it is none the less a particular kind of practice, a specific form of engagement/production in which it is hard to deny (to absolve ourselves from the responsibility for?) any element of representation . . . even if it is, quite certainly, productive and experimental rather than simply mimetic, and an embodied knowledge rather than a mediation. It does not, however, have to be conceived of as producing a space, nor its characteristics carried over to inflect our implicit imaginations of space. For to do so is to rob space of those characteristics of freedom (Bergson), dislocation (Laclau), and surprise (de Certeau) which are essential to open it up to the political.” (29)

The problem is that space is in general perceived as “somehow a lesser dimension than time: one with less gravitas and magnificence, it is the material/phenomenal rather than the abstract; it is being rather than becoming and so forth; and it is feminine rather than masculine” (29). Space, in other words, is the “subordinated category,” defined by its lack of temporality and therefore of secondary importance (29).

That is the binary opposition that Massey’s critique of philosophy sets out to deconstruct: space versus time. She points out that space is often seen as conquering time:

the supposedly weaker term of a dualism obliterates the positive characteristics of the stronger one, the privileged signifier. And it does this through the conflation of the spatial with representation. Space conquers time by being set up as the representation of history/life/the real world. On this reading space is an order imposed upon the inherent life of the real. (Spatial) order obliterates (temporal) dislocation. Spatial immobility quietens temporal becoming. (30)

The result, Massey writes, is “the most dismal of pyrrhic victories. For in the very moment of its conquering triumph ‘space’ is reduced to stasis. The very life, and certainly the politics, are taken out of it (30). Her ambition is to return the life and the politics to the concept of space.

Next, Massey takes a look at the way the structuralists imagined space. “Through many twentieth-century debates in philosophy and social theory runs the idea that spatial framing is a way of containing the temporal,” she writes. “For a moment, you hold the world still. And in this moment you can analyse the structure” (36):

You hold the world still in order to look at it in cross-section. It seems a small, and perhaps even an intuitively obvious, gesture, yet it has a multitude of resonances and implications. It connects with ideas of structure and system, of distance and the all-seeing eye, of totality and completeness, of the relation between synchrony and space. And . . . the assumptions which may lie within it and the logics to which it can give rise run off in a whole range of problematical directions. (36)

Structuralism, which aimed to analyze structures, seemed to focus on space, rather than time, because it was in a struggle against historical narratives; it was “in part an attempt to escape precisely that convening of geography and history” (36). To effect that escape, structuralism “turned to the concepts of structure, space and synchrony. Instead of narrative, structure; instead of diachrony, synchrony; instead of time, space” (37). Nevertheless, structuralism “left a legacy of . . . taken-for-granted assumptions” about space, Massey contends, “which have continued to this day to bedevil debate” (37).

Once again, concepts were mistranslated into notions of time and space, according to Massey. The structuralists equated their atemporal assumptions with space; if those structures weren’t temporal, they had to be spatial. Structure and process were thus understood as space and time, and space became the “absolute negation” of time (37). Chains of meaning were thereby established “between narrative/temporality/diachrony on the one hand and structure/spatiality/synchrony on the other” (37). But, Massey asks, are synchronic structures actually spatial?

The argument in some ways parallels that about representation. The “synchronic structures” of the structuralists were analytical schema devised for understanding a society, myth, or language. Structuralism goes further, then, than simply “holding the world still.” . . . Moreover, the (implicit) reason that these analytical structures were dubbed spatial is precisely that they are established as a-temporal, as the opposite of temporality, and therefore without time, and therefore without space. It is, primarily, a negative definition. In the logic of this reasoning space is assumed to be both the opposite of time and without temporality. Once again . . . space is rendered as the sphere of stasis and fixity. It is a conceptualisation of space which, once again, is really a residualisation and derives from an assumption: that space is opposed to time and lacking in temporality. Thought of like this, “space” really would be the realm of closure and that in turn would render it the realm of the impossibility of the new and therefore of the political. (37-38)

Space becomes synonymous with “synchronic closure,” Massey continues, and “such structures rob the objects to which they refer of their inherent dynamism,” eliminating the possibility of real change (38). In addition,

the conceptual synchronies of structuralism are relations imagined in a highly particular way. Above all, they are characterised by relations between their constituent elements such that they for a completely interlocked system. They are closed systems. It is this aspect of the conceptualisation—in combination with a-temporality—which does the most damage. For the stasis of closed systems robs “relational construction” of the anti-essentialism to which it is often claimed to lead. And the closure itself robs “the spatial” . . . of one of its potentially disruptive characteristics: precisely its juxtaposition, its happenstance arrangement-in-relation-to-each-other, of previously unconnected narratives/temporalities; its openness and its condition of always being made. It is this crucial characteristic of “the spatial” which constitutes it as one of the vital moments in the production of those dislocations which are necessary to the existence of the political (and indeed the temporal). (39)

Many of structuralism’s “framing conceptualisations” continue to influence intellectual arguments today, Massey notes, although poststructuralism, she contends, has the potential to imbue those structures with temporality and crack them open “to reveal the existence of other voices” (42). Her examples are the writings of Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, and de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life. However, the work of these philosophers does not fully grasp the potential of a temporalized spatiality: “The broad conceptual thrust is to open up the structures of our imagination to temporality. . . . Yet in the midst of this invigorating concern with time neither author engages in any fundamental critique of the associated terminologies, and concepts, of space” (47). 

Nevertheless, the writing of Laclau and Mouffe, and de Certeau, does point towards “the interconnectedness of conceptualisations of space and conceptualisations of time,” Massey writes. “Imagining one in a particular way should, at least ‘logically,’ imply a particular way of thinking about the other,” because although they are not identical, “they are integral to each other” (47). “At a minimum,” Massey continues, “for time to be open, space must be in some sense open too. The non-recognition of the simultaneity of openended multiplicities that is the spatial can vitiate the project of opening up temporality” (48). “Levering space out of this immobilising chain of connotations both potentially contributes to the dislocations necessary for the existence of the political,” Massey concludes, “and opens space itself to more adequate political address” (48).

Not all poststructuralist writing suggests that the spatial is also the immobilized, but much of it does suggest that time is more valuable, rich, and dialectical than space (49). Nevertheless, Massey argues, space is temporalized in deconstruction, in theory if not always in practice, and poststructuralism “could very easily be spatial” (49-50). Nevertheless, there is “a residual but persistent ‘horizontality’” about deconstruction “which makes it difficult for it to handle . . . a spatiality which is fully integral within space-time” (50). That “emphasis on horizontality can be interpreted as . . . a turn towards spatiality and a spatiality, what’s more, which is open and differentiated” (50-51). However, Massey sees in deconstruction “too much emphasis on the purely horizontal and too little recognition of the multiple trajectories of which that ‘horizontality’ is the momentary, passing, result” (51). In addition, Derrida’s way of conceiving heterogeneity suggests “internal disruption and incoherence rather than . . . positive multiplicity,” which is both politically disabling and a problem for a rethinking of the spatial” (51). For Massey, deconstruction “is not enough to achieve that necessary transcribing of space from the chain stasis/representation/closure into an association with openness/unrepresentability/external multiplicity” (54). 

The purpose of this review of various philosophical definitions of space, Massey writes, is “to point to the problematic repercussions of some associations and to emphasise the potential of alternative views. The hope is to contribute to a process of liberating space from its old chain of meaning and to associate it with a different one in which it might have, in particular, more political potential” (55). I haven’t read Bergson, and its been years since I tackled either the structuralists or Derrida, so I can’t speak to the accuracy of Massey’s discussions of their work. I find myself having to take her response to these philosophers on faith. When she moves to her own arguments about space, however, I find myself on somewhat firmer ground; at least, I can follow her argument without wondering if I should stop and go and read Bergson or Derrida instead. According to Massey, her argument is that space is “an open ongoing production”:

As well as injecting temporality into the spatial this also reinvigorates its aspect of discrete multiplicity; for while the closed system is the foundation for the singular universal, opening that up makes room for a genuine multiplicity of trajectories, and thus potentially of voices. It also posits a positive discrete multiplicity against an imagination of space as the product of negative spacing, through the abjection of the other. (55)

“[N]either time nor space is reducible to the other; they are distinct,” she continues. “They are, however, co-implicated. On the side of space, there is the integral temporality of a dynamic simultaneity. On the side of time, there is the necessary production of change through practices of interrelation” (55). This co-implication is no doubt the reason she sometimes refers to “space-time.” “Conceptualising space as open, multiple and relational, unfinished and always becoming, is a prerequisite for history to be open and thus a prerequisite, too, for the possibility of politics,” she contends. (Yes, her argument, at least they way I am presenting it, is repetitive; but I would argue that it becomes more clear through repetition, or at least that was my experience of it.) “If time unfolds as change then space unfolds as interaction,” Massey argues. For that reason, she describes space as “the social dimension,” as well as “the sphere of the continuous production and reconfiguration of heterogeneity in all its forms—diversity, subordination, conflicting interests” (61). Massey’s goal, she continues, is to develop “a relational politics for a relational space” (61).

Next, Massey turns to the current interest in “the spatialisation of social theory,” using “the postcolonial concern to rework the sociological debates over the nature of modernity and its relation to globalisation” as an example (62). “The implications of spatialising/globalising the story of modernity are profound,” she writes. “The most obvious effect, which has been the main intent, is to rework modernity away from being the unfolding, internal story of Europe alone. The aim has been precisely to decentre Europe” (62-63). Along with the decentring of Europe’s trajectory, it needs to be recognized as only one of the histories being made at that time (63):

Once understood as more than the history of Europe’s own adventures, it is possible to appreciate how the previous way of telling the story (with Europe at its centre) was powered by the way in which the process was experienced within Europe; told through the experience of exploration outward from Europe; told from the point of view of Europe as the protagonist. Spatialising that story enables an understanding of its positionality, its geographical embeddedness; an understanding of the spatiality of the production of knowledge itself. (63)

Indeed, “retelling the story of modernity through spatialisation/globalisation exposed modernity’s preconditions in and effects of violence, racism and oppression” (63). Modernity established “a particular power/knowledge relation which was mirrored in a geography that was also a geography of power,” Massey continues. Postcolonial critique has exposed that geography and therefore has undermined that power/knowledge relation (64). Spatializing the story of modernity has not left its story the same (64). 

One of the outcomes of modernity was “a particular hegemonic understanding of the nature of space itself, and of the relation between space and society,” Massey writes. One characteristic of that understanding was a particular conception of place, in which cultures and nations and local communities were “all imagined as having an integral relation to bounded spaces, internally coherent and differentiated from each other by separation” (64). Those bounded spaces became identified as places, and place came to be defined as bounded space, with its own “internally generated authenticities” which were “defined by their difference form other places which lay outside, beyond their borders” (64). “It was,” Massey continues,

a way of imagining space—a geographical imagination—integral to what was to become a project for organising global space. It was through that imagination of space as (necessarily, by its very nature) divided/regionalised that the . . . project of the generalisation across the globe of the nation-state form could be legitimated as progress, as “natural.” And it continues to reverberate today. (64-65)

Today, this sense of place operates as an imaginary past, a nostalgia for something that never existed, and as a response to globalization “which consists of retreating into its supposed opposite: nationalisms and parochialisms and localisms of all sorts” (65).

The story about space that is told by this particular notion of place is “a way of taming the spatial,” Massey suggests, “a representation of space, a particular form of ordering and organising space which refused (refuses) to acknowledge its multiplicities, its fractures and its dynamism” (65). “It is a stabilisation of the inherent instabilities and creativities of space; a way of coming to terms with the great ‘out there.’ It is this concept of space which provides the basis for the supposed coherence, stability and authenticity to which there is such frequent appeal in discourses of parochialism and nationalism” (65). It is also the starting point for the conceptualization of space in the social sciences: “an imagination of space as already divided-up, of places which are already separated and bounded” (65). And that, Massey contends, is a big problem:

The modern, territorial, conceptualisation of space understands geographical difference as being constituted primarily through isolation and separation. Geographical variation is preconstituted. First the differences between places exist, and then those different places come into contact. (68)

This essentialist version of space

runs clearly against the injunction that space be thought of as an emergent product of relations, including those relations which establish boundaries, and where “place” in consequence is necessarily meeting place, where the “difference” of a place must be conceptualised more in the ineffable sense of the constant emergence of uniqueness out of (and within) the specific constellations of interrelations within which that place is set . . . and of what is made of that constellation. (68)

That latter version of place “as process, as the constant production of the new,” as “neither an essentialised emergence from an origin nor the product of a spacing in the sense of expulsion or attempted purifiation,” “indicates the dubiousness of that duality—so popular and so persistent—between space and place” (68). Here we see one aspect of Massey’s critique of the distinction between space and place; although I’m not sure that it is completely accurate, I am going to have to take it into account when I write about place.

There is, however, a version of place that Massey finds useful, one that recognizes spatiality’s inherent multiplicity and heterogeneity and coevalness:

“Recognising spatiality” involves (could involve) recognising coevalness, the existence of trajectories which have at least some degree of autonomy from each other (which are not simply alignable into one linear story). . . . On this reading, the spatial, crucially, is the realm of the configuration of potentially dissonant (or concordant) narratives. Places, rather than being locations of coherence, become the foci of the meeting and the nonmeeting of the previously unrelated and thus integral to the generation of novelty. The spatial in its role of bringing distinct temporalities into new configurations sets off new social processes. And in turn, this emphasises the nature of narratives, of time itself, as being not about the folding of some internalised story (some already-established identities)—the self-producing story of Europe—but about interaction and the process of the constitution of identities—the reformulated notion of (the multiplicities of) colonisation. (71)

There is a place for place in Massey’s theory, then: it could function as a meeting point for “previously unrelated” trajectories and narratives. 

However, Massey isn’t just disagreeing with human geographers who privilege place over space; she is also disagreeing with those who claim that we live in a world “which is purely spatial,” “a depthless horizontality of immediate connections” (76). That depthlessness is atemporal, which means that, in this way of thinking, history is unthinkable (76). “Just as time cannot adequately be conceptualised without a recognition of the (spatial) multiplicities through which it is generated,” Massey writes,

so space cannot adequately be imagined as the stasis of a depthless, totally interconnected, instantaneity. Any assumption of a closed instantaneity not only denies space this essential character of itself constantly becoming, it also denies time its own possibility of complexity/multiplicity. (76-77)

That assumption would also leave no opening for politics, because it posits a closed system composed, ironically, of apparently open connections (77). 

That idea of “depthless horizontality” is, for Massey, related to the notion of globalization as “a world of flows” (81)—at least, I think it is the theoretical enabling of globalization’s more concrete activities. Like modernity’s notion of progress, globalization presents itself as inevitable, another “grand narrative” with enormous implications, including the idea that everyone will eventually become the same (82). This “aspatial view of globalisation” occludes the potential differences in the trajectories of different spaces” (82). It tells “a tale with a single trajectory,” and the “openness of the future which is in part a consequence of the multiplicities of the spatial is reined in,” so that different spaces have no space in which to tell different stories or to follow another path (82). “The convening of contemporaneous geographical differences into temporal sequence, this turning it into a story of ‘catching up,’” Massey argues, “occludes present-day relations and practices and their relentless production, within current rounds of capitalist globalisation, of increasing inequality” (82). These tales of inevitability, she continues,

require dynamics which are beyond intervention. They need an external agent, a deus ex machina. The unquestioned motors of “globalisation’s” historicising of the world’s geographical inequalities are, in various mixtures, the economy and technology. By this means, a further political result is achieved: the removal of the economic and the technological from political consideration. The only political questions become ones concerning our subsequent adaptation to their inevitability. (82-83)

Neoliberal, capitalist globalization, led by transnational corporations, is taken to be the only possible form of globalization:

Objections to this particular globalisation are persistently met with the derisive riposte that “the world will inevitably become more interconnected.” Capitalist globalisation is equated with globalisation tout court, a discursive manoeuvre which at a stroke obscures the possibility of seeing alternative forms. (83)

This particular form of globalization is taken as inevitable—but Massey’s argument suggests that other forms are possible, if we were only free to imagine them (83).

This way of thinking enables the imposition of structural adjustment programs on the global South and the enforcement of export orientations on countries over local consumption; in the global North, it “becomes the basis for decisions precisely to implement it” because it is “represented as ineluctable—a force in the face of which we must adapt or be cast into oblivion” (83-84). Meanwhile, however, “some of the most powerful agencies in the world are utterly intent on its production” (84). “This vision of global space,” Massey writes,

is not so much a description of how the world is, as an image in which the world is being made. Just as in the case of modernity, here we have a powerful imaginative geography. It is a very different imagination: instead of space divided-up and bounded here is a vision of space as barrier-less and open. But both of them function as images in which the world is made. Both of them are imaginative geographies which legitimise their own production. (84)

“[T]he very fact that some are striving so hard” to make the world globalized “is evidence of the project’s incompletion,” Massey continues (84). But more than that:

There are multiple trajectories/temporalities here. Once again, as in the case of modernity, this is a geographical imagination which ignores the structured divides, the necessary ruptures and inequalities, the exclusions, on which the successful prosecution of the project itself depends A further effect of the temporal convening of spatial difference here again becomes evident. So long as inequality is read in terms of stages of advance and backwardness not only are alternative stories disallowed but also the fact of the production of poverty and polarisation within and through “globalisation” itself can be erased from view. (84)

Once again, Massey suggests, we see “a geographical imagination which ignores its own real spatiality” (84).

With its emphasis on free trade of goods and the mobility of capital, on the one hand, and on strict controls on immigration, on the other, globalization offers us “two apparently self-evident truths, a geography of borderlessness and mobility, and a geography of border discipline,” Massey suggests (86):

No matter that they contradict each other; because it works. And it “works” for a whole set of reasons. First, because each self-evident truth is presented separately. But second, because while neither imagination in its pure form is possible (neither a space hermetically closed into territories nor a space composed solely of flows) what is really needed politically is for this tension to be negotiated explicitly and in each specific situation. . . . Each “pure” imagination on its own tames the spatial. It is their negotiation which brings the question (rights of movement/rights of containment) into politics. The appeal to an imagination of pure boundedness or pure flow as self-evident foundation is neither possible in principle nor open to political debate. (86)

It is, she continues, a “double imaginary, in the very fact of its doubleness, of the freedom of space on the one hand and the ‘right to one’s own place’ on the other,” and it “works in favour of the already-powerful,” who can move anywhere they please while protecting their own homes, while “the poor and the unskilled from the so-called margins of this world are both instructed to open up their borders and welcome the West’s invasion in whatever form it comes, and told to stay where they are” (86-87).

None of this is news, of course. Nor is the argument, which is borne out in news stories about populism every day, that

the discourse of globalisation as free movement is fuelling the “archaic” (but not) sentiments of parochialism, nationalism and the exclusion of those who are different. 

Today’s hegemonic story of globalisation, then, relates a globalisation of a very particular form. And integral to its achievement is the mobilisation of powerful (inconsistent, falsely self-evident, never universalisable—but powerful) imaginations of space. (87)

What is new, however, is the suggestion that “powerful . . . imaginations of space” are behind globalization’s ideological hegemony. Globalization, Massey argues, “convenes spatial difference into temporal sequence, and thereby denies the possibility of multiple trajectories; the future is not held open” (87). Instead of openness,

[i]t installs an understanding of space, the “space of flows,” which, just like the space of places in modernity, is deployed (when needed) as a legitimation for its own production and which pretends to a universality which anyway in practice it systematically denies. For, in fact, in the context of and as part of this “globalisation” new enclosures are right now being erected. (87)

[T]his imagination of globalisation is resolutely unaware of its own speaking position: neoliberal to be sure, but also more generally Western in its locatedness” (87-88). It is also not spatialized (88):

really “spatialising globalisation” means recognising crucial characteristics of the spatial: its multiplicity, its openness, the fact that it is not reducible to “a surface,” its integral relation with temporality. The a-spatial view of globalisation, like the old story of modernity, obliterates the spatial into the temporal and in that very move also impoverishes the temporal (there is only one story to tell). The multiplicity of the spatial is a precondition for the temporal: and the multiplicities of the two together can be a condition for the openness of the future. (88-89)

“If space is genuinely the sphere of multiplicity, if it is the realm of multiple trajectories,” Massey continues,

then there will be multiplicities too of imaginations, theorisations, understandings, meanings. Any “simultaneity” of stories-so-far will be a distinct simultaneity from a particular vantage point. If the repression of the spatial under modernity was bound up with the establishment of foundational universals, so the recognition of the multiplicities of the spatial both challenges that and understands universals as spatio-temporally specific positions. An adequate recognition of coevalness demands acceptance that one is being observed/theorised/evaluated in return and potentially in different terms. . . . Recognition of radical contemporaneity has to include recognition of the existence of those limits too. (89)

Globalization, in its neoliberal form, then, represses the spatial, because it refuses multiplicity and heterogeneity. It is singular and it recognizes no limits—certainly not those demanded by an “adequate recognition of coevalness.” 

“The confusions that exist within current imaginations of the time-spaces of globalisation,” Massey writes, “are, perhaps, at their most acute (and, ironically, least noticed) in the easy coexistence of the view that this is the age of the spatial with the contradictory, but equally accepted, notion that this is the age in which space will finally . . . be annihilated by time” (90). These propositions are obviously at odds with one another, but nonetheless they are related:

On the one hand, more and more “spatial” connections, and over longer distances, are involved in the construction and understanding and impact of any place or economy or culture and of everyday life and actions. There is more “space” in our lives, and it takes less time. On the other hand, this very speed with which “we” can now cross space (by air, on screen, though cultural flows) would seem to imply that space doesn’t matter any more; that speed-up has conquered distance. Precisely the same phenomenon seems to be leading to the conclusion both that space has now won out to the detriment of any ability to appreciate temporality (the complaint of depthlessness) and that time has annihilated space. Neither view is tenable as it stands. (90)

Massey suggests that rather than annihilating space, the increase in speed is simply reducing time, and that, more importantly, “space is not anyway reducible to distance” (90-91). Time and space are mutually implicated, she argues, so how could one annihilate the other? In any case, “[a]s long as there is multiplicity there will be space,” because space “is the sphere of openended configurations within multiplicities” (91). “Given that,” she continues,

the really serious question which is raised by speed-up, by “the communications revolution” and by cyberspace, is not whether space will be annihilated but what kinds of multiplicities (patternings of uniqueness) and relations will be co-constructed with these new kinds of spatial configurations. (91)

Moreover, cyberspace will never take over from physical space. For one thing, mobility and fixity, she writes, “presuppose each other” (95). For another, “[t]he impetus to motion and mobility, for a space of flows, can only be achieved through the construction of (temporary, provisional) stabilisations” that are the result of negotiations “between conflicting tendencies” (95). Besides, cyberspace has material necessities which root it in physical space (96-97).

Next, Massey turns to potential theoretical underpinnings for the struggle against globalization. Valuing the local over the global is not going to work, in her view:

Different places occupy distinct positions within the wider power-geometries of the global. In consequence, both the possibilities of intervention (the degree of purchase upon), and the nature of the potential political relationship to (including the degree and nature of responsibility for) will also vary. It is no accident that much of the literature concerning the defence of place has come from, or been about, either the South or, for instance, deindustrialising places in the North. From such a perspective, capitalist globalisation does indeed seem to arrive as a threatening external force. But in other places it may well be that a particular construction of place is not politically defensible as part of a politics against neoliberal globalisation—and this is not because of the impracticality of such a strategy but because the construction of that place, the webs of power-relations through which it is constructed, and the way its resources are mobilised, are precisely what must be challenged. (102)

What is needed is “a local politics that took seriously the relational construction of space and place,” which would “be highly differentiated through the vastly unequal articulation of those relations,” she writes. “The local relation to the global will vary and in consequence so will the coordinates of any local politics of challenging globalisation” (102).

Massey then returns to maps as representations of space. Maps suggest, she writes, that space is a surface, “the sphere of a completed horizontality” (106-07), which is impossible, since space is “the sphere of a dynamic simultaneity, constantly disconnected by new arrivals, constantly waiting to be determined (and therefore always undetermined) by the construction of new relations” (107). “Loose ends and ongoing stories are real challenges to cartography,” she writes (107). However, there are attempts at representing space that seek to rupture the map’s contention that space is a completed whole, a surface. “Situationist cartographies, while still attempting to picture the universe, map that universe as one which is not a single order,” she notes (109). Such cartographies set out “to disorient, to defamiliarise, to provoke a view from an unaccustomed angle” (109). Other art projects have tried to puncture the apparently smooth surface of space, such as Clive van den Berg’s art events, which “aim to disrupt the complacent surface of white South Africa with reminders of the history on which it is based”; Iain Sinclair’s “dérives through eastern London,” which “evoke, through the surface, pasts (and presents) not usually noticed; and Anne McClintock’s “provocative notion of ‘anachronistic space’—a permanently anterior time within the space of the modern” (117). I know Sinclair’s work, but not van den Berg’s or McClintock’s; I am going to have to learn more about them.

Travel, Massey suggests, is another way of altering space. When you take the train somewhere, “[y]ou are part of the constant process of the making and breaking of links which is an element in the constitution of you yourself,” as well as the locations where your journey begins and ends: “You are not just travelling through space or across it, you are altering it a little. Space and place emerge through active material practices” (118). Massey acknowledges that it is impossible to recognize all of the stories existing at the same time as your journey, but she suggests that recognizing the possibility of simultaneous stories, “the imaginative opening up of space,” can enable one “to retain at least some sense of contemporaneous multiple becomings” (120). 

Such a recognition would be useful in a recognition of the fatuousness and futility of nostalgia or any desire to return to a point of origin:

the truth is that you can never simply “go back,” to home or to anywhere else. When you get “there” the place will have moved on just as you yourself have changed. And this of course is the point. For to open up “space” to this kind of imagination means thinking time and space as mutually imbricated and thinking both of them as the product of interrelations. You can’t go back in space-time. To think that you can is to deprive others of their ongoing independent stories. . . . You can’t hold places still. What you can do is meet up with others, catch up with where another’s history has got to “now,” but where that “now” . . . is itself constituted by nothing more than—precisely—that meeting-up (again). (124-25)

The one-way directionality of space-time is the reason Massey likes to use the word “trajectory,” with its connotations of movement in one direction only. More importantly, we see here Massey’s insistence that spaces are in motion even as we are in motion. I find myself wondering about how this discussion of travel might illuminate my ideas about walking, even my ideas about place itself.

In the next chapter, Massey returns to her discussion of place, and the way that abandoning a notion of space as a surface will affect one’s view of place as well:

If space is rather a simultaneity of stories-so-far, then places are collections of those stories, articulations within the wider power-geometries of space. Their character will be a product of these intersections within that wider setting, and of what is made of them. And, too, of the non-meetings-up, the disconnection and the relations not established, the exclusions. All this contributes to the specificity of place. (130)

Places are not points or areas on maps; rather, they are “integrations of space and time” (130). They are, in other words, “spatio-temporal events” (130). “This is an understanding of space—as open (‘a global sense of place’), as woven together out of ongoing stories, as a moment within power-geometries, as a particular constellation within the wider topographies of space, as in process, as unfinished business” (131). Massey’s example of place as a spatio-temporal event is Skiddaw, a mountain in the Lakes District of northern England. Because of continental drift, the mountain’s geological history,

the rocks of Skiddaw are immigrant rocks, just passing through here, like my sister and me only rather more slowly, and changing all the while. Places as heterogenous associations. If we can’t go “back” home, in the sense that it will have moved on from where we left it, then more more, and in the same sense, can we, on a weekend in the country, go back to nature. It too is moving on. (137)

Geological time is of a different scale than human time, of course, but Massey insists, “quite passionately,” on the idea that

what is special about place is not some romance of a pre-given collective identity or of the eternity of the hills. Rather, what is special about place is precisely that throwntogetherness, the unavoidable challenge of negotiating a here-and-now (itself drawing on a history and a geography of thens and theres); and a negotiation which must take place within and between both human and nonhuman. This in no way denies a sense of wonder: what could be more stirring than walking the high fells in the knowledge of the history and the geography that has made them here today. 

This is the event of place. (140)

Place is constantly changing (140-41): it is an event, it is “the simple sense of the coming together of the previously unrelated, a constellation of processes rather than a thing. This is place as open and as internally multiple. Not capturable as a slice through time in the sense of an essential action. Not intrinsically coherent” (141). In fact, she continues, place “is simply a coming together of trajectories”:

But it is a uniqueness, and a locus of the generation of new trajectories and new configurations. Attempts to write about the uniqueness of place have sometimes been castigated for depoliticisation. Uniqueness meant that one could not reach for the eternal rules. But “politics” in part precisely lies in not being able to reach for that kind of rule; a world which demands the ethics and the responsibility of facing up to the event; where the situation is unprecedented and the future is open. Place is an event in that sense too. (141)

For Massey, reconceptualizing place in this way generates “a different set of political questions”:

There can be no assumption of pre-given coherence, or of community or collective identity. Rather, the throwntogetherness of place demands negotiation. In sharp contrast to the view of place as settled and pre-given, with a coherence only to be disturbed by “external” forces, places as presented here in a sense necessitate invention; they pose a challenge. They implicate us, perforce, in the lives of human others, and in our relations with nonhumans they ask how we shall respond to our temporary meeting-up with these particular rocks and stones and trees. They require that, in one way or another, we confront the challenge of the negotiation of multiplicity. The sheer fact of having to get on together; the fact that you cannot (even should you want to, and this itself should in no way be presumed) “purify” spaces/places. In this throwntogetherness what are at issue are the terms of engagement of those trajectories (both “social” and “natural”), those stories-so-far, within (and not only within) that conjuncturality. (142)

I could be completely wrong, but I’m not convinced that Massey’s version of place can’t be reconciled with Tuan’s. After all, there is a sense of process in his notion of place, a sense that one comes to understand place over time. I am going to have to think about this question very carefully over the coming days.

Massey’s notion of place is not dissimilar to her notion of politics; both are about the negotiation of relations. She wants to argue, she writes, 

for a politics, perhaps better an angle of vision on politics, which can open itself up in this way to an appreciation of the spatial and the engagements it challenges us to. That is to say, less a politics dominated by a framing imagination of linear progression (and certainly not singular linear progression), and more a politics of the negotiation of relations, configurations; one which lays an emphasis on . . . practices of relationality, a recognition of implication, and a modesty of judgement in the fact of the inevitability of specificity. (147)

What is at issue in politics, she continues,

is the constant and conflictual process of the constitution of the social, both human and nonhuman. Such a view does not eliminate an impetus to forward movement, but it does enrich it with a recognition that movement be itself produced through attention to configurations; it is out of them that new heterogeneities, and new configurations, will be conjured. This is a temporality which is not linear, nor singular, nor pregiven; but it is integral to the spatial. It is a politics which pays attention to the fact that entities and identities (be they places, or political constituencies, or mountains) are collectively produced through practices which form relations; and it is on those practices and relations that politics must be focused. But this also means insisting on space as the sphere of relations, of contemporaneous multiplicity, and as always under construction. It means not falling back into those strategies of evasion which fail to face up full on to the challenge of space. (147-48)

She tells a story about a large glacial erratic found in the Elbe River in Hamburg, Germany, and the way that this rock became an icon of openness to the world outside the city, because it was, itself, from somewhere else (149-51). The point of this story is, as with the story about Skiddaw, that even the rocks are moving; no place, no space, is stable or fixed if the rocks and the ground beneath our feet are mobile.

Like the meaning of the Hamburg erratic, the meanings of places, and spaces, must be negotiated. Public spaces are one example: “The very fact that they are necessarily negotiated, sometimes riven with antagonism, always contoured through the playing out of unequal social relations, is what renders them genuinely public” (153). More ordinary places, “temporary constellations of trajectories,” or “events which are places,” also “require negotiation” (153):

The daily negotiation and contestation of a place does not require . . . the conscious collective contestation of its identity (however temporarily established) nor are there the mechanisms for it. But insofar as they “work” at all places are still not-inconsiderable collective achievements. They are formed through a myriad of practices of quotidian negotiation and contestations; practices, moreover, through which the constituent “identities” are also themselves moulded. Place, in other words does—as many argue—change us, not through some visceral belonging (some barely changing rootedness, as so many would have it) but through the practising of place, the negotiation of intersecting trajectories; place as an arena where negotiation is forced upon us. (154)

This is true of both urban and rural places; the countryside is just as prone to change and disturbance as the city, although “reimagining countryside/Nature is more challenging still than responding to the changing spatiality (customarily figured as predominantly human) of the urban” (160). She notes the “biotic impact” of colonization—something that is inscribed on the land here in Saskatchewan, where an ecosystem has been almost entirely destroyed since the 1880s—a destruction that is ongoing—in order to establish a modern economy based on agriculture, at first, and then resource extraction (mining and oil production). But “negotiation” might be the wrong word to use to describe the effect of colonization on Indigenous peoples here; although treaties were negotiated, essential aspects of those treaties were, Sheldon Krasowski argues, kept hidden by the government negotiators. The land remains Indigenous, Krasowski contends, and so “contestation,” rather than negotiation, might be a more appropriate term to use in this part of the world. (Several months ago, I blogged about Krasowski’s book on treaties in western Canada here.)

“A relational politics of place,” Massey writes, “involves both the inevitable negotiations presented by throwntogetherness” (181). At the same time, “a global sense of places evokes another geography of politics too: that which looks outwards to address the wider spatialities of the relations of their construction. It raises the question of a politics of connectivity” (181). The local is in a relation to the global, and therefore “each local struggle is already a relational achievement, drawing from both within and beyond ‘the local,’ and is internally multiple” (182). The potential is “for the movement beyond the local to be rather one of extension and meeting along lines of constructed equivalence with elements of the internal multiplicities of other local struggles,” Massey continues:

The building of such equivalences is itself a process, a negotiation, an engagement of political practices and imaginations in which ground is sought through which the local struggles can construct common cause against a (now differently constructed) antagonist. And the ground will itself be new; politics will change in the process. Moreover, within that process—precisely through the negotiation of a connection and the constitution of a common antagonist—the identities of the constituent local struggles are themselves subject to further change. (182)

“[R]ather than providing a template of answers,” Massey argues, this notion of local struggles “forces the posing of questions about each specific situation” (182). The politics that would result from this sense of the relation between local and global struggles would be integrally and significantly spatial:

The differential placing of local struggles within the complex power-geometry of spatial relations is a key element in the formation of their political identities and politics. In turn, political activity reshapes both identities and spatial relations. Space, as relational and as the sphere of multiplicity, is both an essential part of the character of, and perpetually reconfigured through, political engagement. And the way in which that spatiality is imagined by the participants is also crucial. The closure of identity in a territorialised space of bounded places provides little in the way of avenues for a developing radical politics. (183)

Nevertheless, the “prevailing attitude towards place” works against that kind of political engagement, Massey claims:

Spatial imaginaries both in hegemonic and counter-hegemonic political discourses, and in academic writing, hold it back. Of prime importance here is the persistent counterposition of space and place, and it is bound up with a parallel counterposition between global and local. . . . Over and over again, the counterposition of local and global resonates with an equation of the local with realness, with local place as earthly and meaningful, standing in opposition to a presumed abstraction of global space. It is a political imaginary which, in a range of formulations, has a powerful counterpart in reams of academic literature. (183)

Included among the “reams of academic literature” is Tuan, whose claim that space is more abstract than space, and that place is more meaningful than space, is held up by Massey as an example of the wrong way to approach definitions of these terms (183). Such a division, she writes, “rests upon a problematical geographical imagination”:

To begin with, it is to confound categories. The couplets local/global and place/space do not map on to that of concrete/abstract. The global is just as concrete as is the local place. If space is really to be thought relationally then it is no more than the sum of our relations and interconnections, and the lack of them; it too is utterly “concrete.” (184)

Such a division is also bound up with “that dualism between Emotion (place/local) and Reason (space/global)” (184). For Massey,

[a]n understanding of the world in terms of relationality, a world in which the local and the global really are “mutually constituted,” renders untenable these kinds of separation. The “lived reality of our daily lives” is utterly dispersed, unlocalised, in its sources and in its repercussions. The degree of dispersion, the stretching, may vary dramatically between social groups, but the point is that the geography will not be simply territorial. . . . In such approaches words such as “real,” “everyday,” “lived,” “grounded” are constantly deployed and bound together; they intend to invoke security, and implicitly—as a structural necessity of the discourse—they counterpose themselves to a wider “space” which must be abstract, ungrounded, universal, even threatening. Once again the similarity between the conception of information as disembodied and of globalisation as some kind of other realm, always somewhere else, is potent. . . . It is a dangerous basis for a politics. One cannot seriously posit space as the outside of place as lived, or simply equate “the everyday” with the local. If we really think space relationally, then it is the sum of all our connections, and in that sense utterly grounded, and those connections may go round the world. (184-85)

“My argument is not that place is not concrete, grounded, real, lived, etc.,” Massey writes. “It is that space is too” (185). So Massey would vehemently disagree with my sense that her argument and Tuan’s are not so far apart. However, I wonder if a careful reading of Tuan’s book on space and place might not find points of connection. It might be worth at least attempting to see if there is any possible rapprochement between these two versions of space and place—and if there isn’t, then I will have to take note of Massey’s arguments here.

One related concern Massey has is our tendency to connect our ethical imaginations to the local rather than the global. Does ethical concern have to be connected to place? she asks. “Does it have to be territorial at all? Perhaps it is not ‘place’ that is missing, but grounded, practised, connectedness” (187). “A full recognition of the characteristics of space also entails the positive interconnectivity, the nature of the constitutive relationality, of this approach,” she argues:

this is a relational ontology which avoids the pitfalls both of classical individualism and of communitarian organicism; just so a full recognition of space involves the rejection both of any notion of authentic self-constituting territories/places and of the closed connectivities of structuralism as spatial (and thus evokes space as always relational and always open, being made) and implies the same structure of the possibility of politics. (189)

Such an approach to understanding the social, the individual, and the political, Massey continues,

itself implies and requires both a strong dimension of spatiality and the conceptualisation of that spatiality in a particular way. At one level this is to rehearse again the fact that any notion of sociability, in its sparest form simply multiplicity, is to imply a dimension of spatiality. This is obvious, but since it usually remains implicit (if even that), its implications are rarely drawn out. The very acknowledgement of our constitutive interrelatedness implies a spatiality; and that in turn implies that the nature of that spatiality should be a crucial avenue of enquiry and political engagement. Further, this kind of interconnectedness which stresses the imaginative awareness of others, evokes the outwardlookingness of a spatial imagination. . . . In other words, to push the point further, the full recognition of contemporaneity implies a spatiality which is a multiplicity of stories-so-far. Space as coeval becomings. Or again, an understanding of the social and the political which avoids both classical individualism and communitarian organicism absolutely requires its constitution through a spatio-temporality which is open, through an open-ended temporality which itself necessarily requires a spatiality that is both multiple and not closed, one which is always in the process of construction. Any politics which acknowledges the openness of the future (otherwise there could be no realm of the political) entails a radically open time-space, a space which is always being made. (189)

To be honest, I’m not sure this version of an ethics of connection is likely to outweigh the draw of the local and parochial. Maybe it should, but it seems too abstract, as compared to the call of communities close to home, however imagined those communities might be.

Massey’s concluding paragraph brings together space, place, and time in a way that relates all three to her argument about ethics and connection:

Space is as much a challenge as is time. Neither space nor place can provide a haven from the world. If time presents us with the opportunities of change and (as some would see it) the terror of death, then space presents us with the social in the widest sense: the challenge of our constitutive interrelatedness—and thus our collective implication in the outcomes of that interrelatedness; the radical contemporaneity of an ongoing multiplicity of others, human and nonhuman; and the ongoing and ever-specific project of the practices through which that sociability is to be configured. (195)

This argument describes what ought to be, but it does not describe what is: we might be interrelated with a “radical contemporaneity of an ongoing multiplicity of others, human and nonhuman,” but it seems that selfishness and selfcentredness and parochialisms of all kinds have the upper hand at the moment, and I see nothing in Massey’s argument that would help us to turn that situation around. It is simply too abstract to appeal to most people, I am afraid.

Nevertheless, For Space is an important book, and I am happy to have another definition of place, aside from Tuan’s, to draw upon. If nothing else, I know one of the main arguments against Tuan’s conceptions of space and place, and knowing those arguments, I can build a defence of my use of Tuan—because, despite Massey’s objections, I do think there is something useful in his argument. I like Massey’s definition of politics, and her commitment to openendedness and her abhorrence of closure, and I like the way she brings the spatial and the temporal together. Her discussion of postcolonialism and multiple narratives is also important for my work. I have to say, though, that because For Space is a challenging book, I will probably have to reread it to truly understand Massey’s arguments. That’s fine; reading is (always) rereading. This (lengthy) summary is only my first attempt at understanding her ideas; at some point in the not-too-distant future, I’m going to have to try again.

Works Cited

Borges, Jorge Luis. “On Exactitude in Science.” Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley. https://kwarc.info/teaching/TDM/Borges.pdf.

Krasowski, Sheldon. No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous. U of Regina P, 2019.

Massey, Doreen. For Space. Sage, 2005.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. U of Minnesota P, 1977.