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The Politics of Land: Colony, Property, Ecology

September 30, 2016

Scene of protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota.

Scene of protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota.
Scene of protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota.

Professors Robert Nichols and Nancy Luxon (political science) and Jean O’Brien (history and American Indian studies) have received funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for a transdisciplinary Sawyer Seminar called The Politics of Land: Colony, Property, Ecology.  

In the seminar proposal, Nichols and Luxon state, “Land is one of the most emotionally charged objects of contestation and concern.” A large number of critical global struggles today are linked to the relationship between humans and land. Many of these conflicts are related to questions of land management, food and fuel production, property rights, extractive industries, Indigenous title and treaty rights, and agricultural development.

To resolve these conflicts, it is important to first understand the complexity of people’s relationship to land, and to think about how people’s understanding of land is informed by history, culture, politics, etc. In other words, to work toward finding practical solutions, conceptual and theoretical questions should be addressed first. The seminar will ask: How did certain conceptions of land, property, and ecology make other relations to land unintelligible?

Land can have different meanings to different people because they view land from diverse and competing cultural perspectives. For example, while for some people land is seen as property and financial investment, to others, it is sacred and defined by relationships other than those of ownership.

The seminar will be held throughout the 2017–18 academic year. The framing theme of fall semester is colony, where the distinct genealogies of colonialism will be traced. The goal, as Nichols and Luxon put it, is to answer the question; how has the history of colonization in the Anglo-American world left its mark on key concepts of legal and political thought, such as sovereignty, territory, jurisdiction, and land?

Spring semester will focus on themes of property and ecology. In part one of the semester, the concepts of ‘property’ and ‘land’ will be disentangled from each other to “open up new considerations of justice.” The main question, according to Nichols and Luxon will be: “How must prevailing theories of property be rethought to consider the specific economic and political struggles associated with land and displacement?” In the second part of spring semester, the seminar will examine human relations to land in “non-colonial and non-proprietary terms for the sake of all the people living on and in relation to this land.”

The seminar’s goal is not just to investigate these themes, but to come up with ways in which this investigation can be continued within and beyond the University. In other words, after understanding the fundamental problems associated with politics of land, it will be time to consider ways of responding to and taking up these challenges. The seminar is therefore a step toward advancing that conversation rather than resolving problems.

It is a unique collaboration between people from different cultural, intellectual, and racial backgrounds. In addition to bringing together scholars from anthropology, geography, law, history, philosophy, political science, and sociology, the seminar will also draw on the intellectual and political work of indigenous thinkers. Itself a land grant institution–and thus funded by the Morill Act of 1862, which permitted the use and sale of land taken from Native Americans by the federal government–the U is an unusually poignant site for this investigation.