06 Apr Episode 158: How Notions of ‘Blight’ and ‘Barrenness’ Were Manufactured to Erase Indigenous Peoples
Citations Needed | April 6, 2022 | Transcript
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded and run no commercials or ads of any kind.
Adam: As such, if you could help us on our Patreon, we’d be very grateful, you’ll get access to our newsletter AMAs, live interviews, other special little goodies we do for our patrons, and as always, if you do like the show, please go to Apple Podcast and rate and subscribe to it there, it really helps us out.
Nima: “It is safe to say that almost no city needs to tolerate slums,” wrote New York City official Robert Moses in 1945. “Our ancestors came across the ocean in sailing ships you wouldn’t go across a lake in. When they arrived, there was nothing here,” proclaimed Ross Perot in 1996. “We proved we can create a budding garden out of obstinate ground,” beamed Israeli President Shimon Peres in 2011.
Adam: These quotes capture a recurring theme within the lore of settler-colonial states: Before settlers arrived in the US, Israel, and other colonized places throughout the world, the land was barren, wild, blighted, the people backwards, untameable, and violent; nothing of societal importance existed. It was only when the monied industrialists and developers moved in, introducing their capital and their vision, that civilization began.
Nima: This, of course, is false. Indigenous people inhabited North America long before Europeans did. Poor, often Black and Latino people populate many neighborhoods targeted for gentrification. So how do these people — inhabitants of coveted places who prove inconvenient to capital — become erased from our collective memory? And what role do media like newspapers, brochures, travel dispatches, and adventure books play in this very erasure?
Adam: In Citations Needed Episode 155: How the American Settler-Colonial Project Shaped Popular Notions of ‘Conservation,’ we discussed the erasure of indigeneity, we explored the colonialist and racist foundations of conservationism in the US and elsewhere in the West. On today’s episode, as part of a follow up to that episode, we’ll explore how images and narratives of barrenness and blight are manufactured to justify the settler-colonial project, from 15th-century colonial subjects of Europe to urban neighborhoods of the present day.
Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be joined by scholar Stephanie Lumsden, an Enrolled Member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe and currently a PhD candidate in the Gender Studies Department at UCLA.
Stephanie Lumsden: The Marshall Trilogy is picked up and used in Australia, in New Zealand, in Canada, all over the world, anywhere where settler states are building, and they are using the United States’ argument saying that these Native people, they have the right of occupancy, but because they are these backward, primitive people, they have no right to property, and that’s all done through the letter of the law, that’s made into good policy, right? It naturalizes dispossession by saying, ‘Well, that’s a law.’
Adam: This is an actual sequel to 155 —
Nima: Not a spiritual one.
Adam: Not a spiritual sequel but an actual intended sequel, because there are features of the same face, very similar themes, but approached from totally different angles. So I’m really excited to get into it today. One caveat, as we sometimes do on this show, is that we are drawing thematic parallels between the genocidal conquest of North America with current or more modern representations of how media talks about blight and gentrification, we are not drawing a moral equation between the two. We don’t want to give anyone that impression. There are however, similar thematic and rhetorical devices used to erase people that live in existing spaces that we do think are worth highlighting. So before people think we’re equating the two, we are not morally equating the two. Obviously, one is more severe than the other but those who seek to remove inconvenient populations, through different means make similar arguments, and we think it’s useful to highlight those parallels.
Nima: The concept of blight and barrenness is hundreds, if not thousands of years old. So to get historically situated as we begin this episode, let’s start in the 15th century, as Europe was laying the groundwork for the Doctrine of Discovery, which was long used to justify the seizure of land that wasn’t already inhabited by Christians, and thus effectively deemed to be empty.
While some foundational texts for this Doctrine of Discovery date back to the 1100s, by many accounts, two 15th-century papal bulls were crucial to its development. One, titled “Romanus Pontifex” and issued by Pope Nicholas V in the 1450s, gave Portugal a monopoly on trade with Africa and authorized the enslavement of local non-Christian African people. These same precedents authorized Christopher Columbus, some four decades later, to begin an invasion of the Caribbean and quote, “take possession,” end quote, of any lands he “discovered” that were, quote, “not under the dominion of any Christian rulers.”
Now, when Columbus returned to Spain in 1493, the year following the quote-unquote “discovery” of the new world, the Spanish Pope Alexander VI issued the Papal Bull known as “Inter Caetera,” which extended Portugal’s powers to Spain, thus “granting” Spain the right to conquer the lands which Columbus had already invaded. The bull stated that any land not inhabited by Christians could be claimed and exploited by Christian rulers and it declared that, quote, “the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself,” end quote.
Adam: In the 18th and 19th century a similar principle, “terra nullius,” meaning empty land or land belonging to no one, was officially used by the British government starting in the late 18th century onward to justify colonization and full control of what we now know as Australia. In 1835, New South Wales Governor Richard Bourke issued a proclamation implementing the doctrine of terra nullius, reinforcing the notion that the land belonged to no one prior to the British government’s seizure of it. Indigenous people could not sell or assign the land, nor could an individual person acquire it, other than through distribution by the Crown.
The French Republic would use the Doctrine of Discovery for its 19th and 20th century settler colonialist projects as well. The newly independent United States also invoked the doctrine as it continued the British project of colonizing North America.
In 1792, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson claimed that the Doctrine of Discovery developed by European states was international law applicable to the newly established US government. And in 1823, the US Supreme Court issued a decision in Johnson v. McIntosh, ruling that, quote, “Discovery gave title to the government, by whose subjects, or by whose authority, it was made, against all other European governments, which title might be consummated by possession,” unquote. In other words, as historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has put it, “European and Euro-American ‘discoverers’ had gained real-property rights in the lands of Indigenous peoples by merely planting a flag.”
Nima: So let’s make this perfectly clear. For most of history, what is now known as the United States was inhabited and controlled by hundreds of tribes, discrete and rich with their own languages, culture, rituals, and interests. In the hundred years following the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution, European-Americans seized over 1.5 billion acres of Native land across the continent through land theft, dispossession and forced assimilation, all legalized through treaties and executive orders. As Professor Steven Salaita has noted, quote, “By 1870, Natives still occupied 140 million acres… Today, they tentatively control only 52 million acres in the contiguous United States,” end quote. In the lands north of the Rio Grande, studies show that more than 10 million Native people were slaughtered. Across the Americas, that number may be as high as 100 million.
Historian Jace Weaver, in his 1997 examination of Native American literature, That The People Might Live, wrote this, quote:
In the myths of conquest, Columbus and those who followed discovered a vast, virginal, primeval wilderness, sparsely inhabited by a few roaming savages with no fixed abode. Amer-European pioneers conquered this land, bending it to their plow and will, impressing form on what had previously been formless, taking what had been held in escrow for them from the foundation of the world, becoming in the process a peculiarly chosen people, “God’s American Israel,” in their battle with the new frontier. This myth prevaded the American psyche and was codified in Amer-European law.
Multiple scholars have written on the genocidal impact on and land theft of Indigenous people during the mid-19th century California Gold Rush. In the name of real-estate interests and resource extraction, California state militia companies, United States Army units, vigilante groups and individuals targeted and exterminated the state’s Indigenous population, killing as many as 16,000 people. Many others died on federal Indian reservations or while hiding, while still others were enslaved and worked to death.
Adam: Obviously, none of this could have happened without the involvement of newspapers, books, and other media — and since we’re a media criticism podcast that’s going to be relevant to our interests here — often at the behest of businesses and real estate developers, media and newspapers, pulp kind of adventure books and other brochures and dispatches from the West, very often depicted land in North America as barren, effectively uninhabited, and readily exploitable and a place of adventure and where a man can sort of cut his teeth and become a real man.
As historian Brendan C. Lindsay wrote in his book Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide, 1846–1873, quote:
For communities financing genocide privately through subscriptions, newspapers such as the Red Bluff Beacon relayed messages from the company in the field. In this way the newspaper kept the citizenry updated so that they could ‘see if…[their] money [was] well invested.’ When state militia commanders were dispatched by the governor, officers sometimes advertised for volunteers in local newspapers. Calling for men ‘experienced with the use of a rifle,’ advertisers left little doubt about the genocidal nature of expeditions against Native Americans.
Not only did newspapers advertise for killers; they also advertised for thieves. Newspapers in California not only promoted Native American genocide directly by calling for the extermination of Native Americans; they also contributed to the main impetus behind genocide: the Euro-American desire to possess Native American land and resources.
Brendan Lindsay and historian Benjamin Madley have both authored books chronicling this genocide, including the nature of local newspapers’ involvement.
A particularly explicit call for genocide comes from the March 15, 1848 edition of The Californian, the first newspaper published in California, and thus a major newspaper at the time. The statement–part of a argument for why California should not become a “slave-holding Territory”–reads, quote:
We desire only a white population in California; even the Indians amongst us, as far as we have seen, are more of a nuisance than a benefit to the country; we would like to get rid of them.
Nima: The Gold Rush inspired a glut of adventurist books and articles chronicling settlers’ trips to California and offering guidance for aspiring travelers. Themes of backward Indigenous people and barren land recur throughout the books, conjuring imagery of land that was ripe for settling, resource extraction, and development; and of violent people who obviously needed to be, if not removed, eliminated.
Examples of these readings include, The Emigrant’s Guide to the Gold Mines: Three Weeks in the Gold Mines, Or Adventures with the Gold Diggers of California in August, 1848: Together with Advice to Emigrants, with Full Instructions Upon the Best Method of Getting There, Living Expenses, Etc., Etc., and a Complete Description of the Country, that was written by Henry I. Simpson.
Adam: They don’t name books like that anymore, they really should make the title a whole fucking paragraph.
Nima: It’s the whole book.
Nima: Here’s another one, the widely read 1851 book by British traveler William Kelly was entitled, An excursion to California over the prairie, Rocky mountains, and great Sierra Nevada. With a stroll through the diggings and ranches of that country, and here is an excerpt from Kelly’s writing, quote:
In natural conformation the Digger Indian is very few degrees removed from the orang-outang…Their territory covers a great, but, for the most part, barren expanse, extending over the Sierra Nevada into the northern extremity of Alta California. They are a terrible pest and nuisance to travelers and emigrants, for, without aspiring to the chivalry of robbers, they are content to fire their arrows at night amongst the animals, hoping to wound or cripple some, so that they will have to be left behind, when they become their prey. When going into their country, emigrants should make it a rule never to camp near shrubs or bushes, under cover of which they will be certain to crawl within range of the animals, and perhaps affect their purpose without being discovered, as no noise follows the discharge of their arrows, some of which may wound a man as well.
Here’s another one from 1853 by J.M. Letts of New York entitled, California Illustrated; including a description of the Panama and Nicaragua routes. It contains this excerpt, quote:
St. Lucas, like Santa Barbara, is hardly deserving the name of a town, containing but thirteen houses, which are constructed of adobes and cactus. The only peculiarity is that the natives speak the English Language. The surrounding country is extremely barren, producing but just enough to sustain the inhabitants; vessels touch here for water, which is superior, and beef, which is obtained back of the mountain.
The 1856 article, California: Its gold and its inhabitants, was written by Sir Henry Veel Huntley, a British naval officer and colonial administrator who was a San Francisco-based representative of a British gold quartz-mining company, and he wrote this, quote:
“On this side, the mountains are well-clothed with shrubs, oak, and pine, the soil red and gravelly; on the other, far as I could see, the face of the country is bare and sterile, the surface one forbidding mountainous expanse of a grey colour. The Indians on that side are said to be very untameable, and it has been very little searched; probably their uninviting reputation has repelled enterprise in this direction. From its appearance I am satisfied it would yield a good metallic remuneration.”
Adam: And so according to Benjamin Madley, between the years 1846 and 1873, the Indigenous population of California plummeted from approximately 150,000 to 30,000. Per official records, state and federal governments spent more than $1.7 in money at the time on campaigns against Indigenous people in California.
Notably, a data set published in 2021 spanning 300 years and including nearly 400 tribes found that Indigenous people across the contiguous United States have lost 98.9 percent of their historical lands, or 93.9 percent of the total geographic area they once occupied. And so one of the recurring themes, in case it isn’t fairly obvious now we’ve said it a thousand times, is that you had to sort of sell the idea that there was basically nothing here and it was very sparse, and to the extent there were Indigenous peoples they were basically zoological in nature, and they weren’t Christians, so don’t really worry about it. ‘Why don’t you come here and settle?’ Because obviously, people need to sell the settlements, you know, they’re building railroads, they’re building a lot of speculative real estate, and you need warm bodies, and one of the ways you provide that is by saying that these are not real people, and to the extent they are here, they’re very scattered. We now, of course, know that that was not true.
Nima: So the dehumanization is part of the marketing.
Adam: It’s part of the marketing and the media was central to that. The media that was published out east to sell settlers from Tennessee, Alabama, New York, Europe, European media was essential to selling this myth of an empty land. Which brings us to our next example, which is that this is obviously a very popular trope in Zionism as well.
Nima: The erasure of Palestinian people, and associated depictions of Palestine as an arid wasteland, were indispensable to what eventually was the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. But for nearly a century before that, these notions of barrenness pervaded writings about Palestine and in an effort to really advance this marketing of conquest of colonization. Around the same time as those articles about California were being published in the United States, the Rev. Dr. Alexander Keith, a Christian Zionist, used the phrase ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’ in his 1843 book, The Land of Israel According to the Covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. That phrase was later popularized by British politician Lord Shaftesbury, another Christian Zionist. Now, Shaftesbury used the phrase in the lead-up to the Crimean War, during which Western European powers sought to maintain power over “Greater Syria” — the region we know now as Syria, Palestine, Jordan, and Lebanon — in alliance with the Ottoman Empire. So that year, 1853, Shaftesbury wrote in a letter to the Earl of Aberdeen that “Greater Syria” was “a country without a nation” in need of “a nation without a country.”
Adam: In 1901, British author and playwright Israel Zangwill wrote an article for New Liberal Review further adapting the phrase and applying it to Palestine, quote, “Palestine is a country without a people; the Jews are a people without a country.” Just a year later, Theodor Herzl, founding father of Zionism, stated the following in his manifesto/novel Altneuland (Old New Land), quote, “If I wish to substitute a new building for an old one, I must demolish before I construct.” Herzl thereby summarized a fundamental principle of settler-colonialism; as the late scholar Patrick Wolfe put it in 2006, “Settler-colonialism destroys to replace.”
This language of Palestinian elimination would pervade the process of settlement. As scholar Ferras Hammami wrote this year, quote:
The Zionist militias systematically evacuated and / or demolished more than 600 Palestinian villages and neighbourhoods in order to shelter Jewish immigrants, as if they had always lived there. This engineered erasure of memory, ethnic cleansing, and de-signification of Palestine’s cultural landscape constituted the ongoing Palestinian Nakba (Catastrophe). Upon its violent establishment in 1948, the Israeli government issued several laws and military orders to enable its expansion. The Absentees Property Law (Israel Book of Laws 37/b March 1950) and the Land Acquisition Law (Validation of Acts and Compensation) were issued to anonymise the history of Palestinians and authorize the confiscation of their possessions. All Palestinians who had left their properties for any reason after 29 November 1947, even if they returned briefly after the war, were designated as absent (the Absentees Property Law 1950, section 1).
Nima: Now, this idea of land redemption and development was actually enshrined in Israel’s own unilateral Proclamation of Independence in May 1948 which declared, quote:
Pioneers… and defenders, they made deserts bloom, revived the Hebrew language, built villages and towns, and created a thriving community controlling its own economy and culture, loving peace but knowing how to defend itself, bringing the blessings of progress to all the country’s inhabitants, and aspiring towards independent nationhood.
Now, this trope runs rampant throughout the lore of modern-day Israel. To name just a couple of additional examples:
Israeli historian Meron Benvenisti recalled this, quote, “As a member of a pioneering youth movement, I myself ‘made the desert bloom’ by uprooting the ancient olive trees of al-Bassa to clear the ground for a banana grove, as required by the ‘planned farming’ principles of my kibbutz, Rosh Haniqra.” End quote. And in 2011, Israeli President Shimon Peres, stated, quote, “We proved we can create a budding garden out of obstinate ground.” Peres also said this, quote, “The country [Palestine] was mostly an empty desert, with only a few islands of Arab settlement; and Israel’s [cultivated] land today was indeed redeemed from swamp and wilderness.” End quote.
In his seminal 2001 book, Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land since 1948, Benvenisti explains the purpose and consequence of this very narrative, writing this, quote:
The Arab was ‘not only the son of the desert but also the father of the desert,’ in the famous words of Major C.S. Jarvis — the British governor of Sinai — which were adopted by the Zionists. And thus the fallahin [non-nomadic Palestinian farmers] — tillers of the soil for generation upon generation — could easily be transformed into ‘bloodthirsty desert savages,’ who not only sought to annihilate the Jewish community but also were guilty of turning Eretz Israel — flowing with milk and honey — into desolate desert. In the textbooks for course in Knowing the Land, the Arabs are portrayed as being responsible for the ecological ruin of the entire country: they destroyed the ancient farming terraces, thereby causing soil erosion and exposing bare mountain rock; because of them the streams were blocked and the coastal valley became a land of malarial swamps; their goats ravaged the ancient forests that had covered the Land; with their violent feuds and their murderous hostility toward all agents of progress, they turned the Land into a perpetual battlefield.
In this way the Zionists settlers did not rob the country’s native inhabitants of their land — no, no, no, what did they do, Adam? — they redeemed it from desolation, from poor use, from savagery, from destruction.
Adam: Now it goes without saying that of course this wasn’t true. In 1944, land cultivated by Palestinians in the Naqab/Negev desert alone was three times the area cultivated by the entire settler presence in Palestine, according to author David Watkins. Furthermore, the amount of cultivated land in the Naqab/Negev desert has dropped significantly since 1947–48. Despite the wealth of evidence of fertile, arable land in Palestine, the desert-bloom myth continues unabated in contemporary media.
Baltimore Sun, 1998, headline reads, quote, “The art of making a desert bloom Progress: From agriculture to archaeology, medicine to music, Israel has made distinguished contributions time and again since 1948.” And the article would say:
When Israel declared independence 50 years ago, the bulk of this land was a desolate expanse of desert, far from the cities of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. David Ben-Gurion, the patriarch of the modern Jewish state, urged his fellow Israelis to make the desert bloom.
New York Times, June 28, 2011 by Ethan Bronner, headline reads, quote, “A Bountiful Harvest, Rooted in a Former Settlement’s Soil.” The online headline read, “Gaza Establishes Food Independence in Former Israeli Settlements.”
Israel21c is a digital publication dedicated to kind of pro-Zionist puffery, has dozens of articles. “The top 12 ways Israel is feeding the world.” “Teaching the world how to make the desert bloom.” They love to talk about how the desert blooms, this idea of this tech bubble emerging out of the desert, it was a bunch of wasted land, is a romantic narrative that is very similar, and it is in many ways based on the North American narrative, right? America did it first, and much more violently than Israel did it, but the basic framework is the same, which is that there was this land that was wasted, these people were pissing it away, they’re a bunch of savages and we came in with our big brains and our modern technology we made the land work better, and therefore that gives us legitimacy over it because obviously, we were not there first by, you know, hundreds, if not thousands of years, in the case of North America, but now that we’re here, we’re going to exploit the land better and increase standards of living therefore justifying why we had to erase the peoples that existed before.
Adam: This takes us to a thematically similar, although obviously, as I mentioned in the introduction, a different moral context but a similar thread in how gentrification and how the expulsion of Black and brown neighborhoods in North America use similar language about blight and barrenness and destituteness to justify the purging of unwanted peoples from certain parts of the city.
Nima: So this more modern incarnation of settler manufactured barrenness surfaced in my hometown of New York City with the rise of urban planner, Robert Moses. Now Moses, whose work was a precursor to much of the urban gentrification we see today, became head of the state park system of New York in 1924, became park commissioner of New York City and chairman of the Triborough Bridge Authority ten years later in 1934, and continued to ascend the ranks of city government in years after.
Now, much of Moses’s work was predicated on the practice of what was termed “slum clearance.” Moses himself penned a 1945 piece for The Atlantic magazine headlined, “Slums and City Planning” at the request of The Atlantic’s own editors and in this piece, Moses addressed, quote, “that stubborn problem of slum clearance.” Arguing that demolishing the homes of people in low-income neighborhoods to build highways, parks, and other public works was a form of progress, a boon to everyone. Moses wrote this, again, from The Atlantic in 1945, quote:
It is safe to say that almost no city needs to tolerate slums. There are plenty of ways of getting rid of them…Slums cannot be cleaned out all at once except in campaign oratory and the familiar literature of social agencies. There has to be a time schedule as well as a program. There must be limited objectives. There must be compromise.
It is a curious fact that thus far, in most of the older cities, more slum clearance has been accomplished indirectly than directly — that is, through clearance not for public, semi-public, or private housing, but for parks, playgrounds, parkways expressways, boulevards, and other public improvements.
End quote. The piece goes on to say this, quote:
It took the greater part of twenty years to persuade reactionaries, mossbacks, rural-minded legislators, sharpshooters for taxpayers’ organizations, and legalistic comma-chasers that an arterial improvement, whether it be a parkway for restricted travel or an express route open to mixed traffic, is not simply a strip of pavement in a gasoline gully, but a genuine shoestring or ribbon improvement of the entire area through which it passes. It brings with it benefits not only to those who travel in cars, but to the thousands who live along it or do business or seek recreation there.
Adam: Robert Moses eventually helmed the Mayor’s Committee on Slum Clearance, which had the authority to declare an area a slum and use eminent domain to demolish and replace large swaths of neighborhoods. Now, to be clear, we’re not saying that slums in a generic sense didn’t exist, but of course, the solution for “slums,” quote-unquote, is not to improve conditions, it is to simply erase them and build more expensive real estate.
Starting in 1956, in perhaps his best-known project of Moses, the Lincoln Square Renewal Project, Moses took advantage of Title I of the 1949 Federal Housing Act to acquire a piece of land for the development of Lincoln Center, a performing arts hub including the Metropolitan Opera House, among other renowned institutions. The Act provided federal funds to seize land in low-income neighborhoods and contract with private developers to quote-unquote “redevelop” them. To secure private sponsorship and generate public support for the project, Moses set to work depicting the targeted neighborhood, San Juan Hill, as slum-like.
Since the Housing Act of 1949 did not define “slum” or “blight,” Moses borrowed the definition in the Housing Act of 1937, which stated, quote:
…the term ‘slum’ means any area where dwellings predominate which, by reason of dilapidation, overcrowding, faulty arrangement or design, lack of ventilation, light or sanitation facilities, or any combination of these factors, are detrimental to safety, health or morals.
According to author Themis Chronopoulos, Moses distributed 26 site-specific brochures to demonstrate the blighted conditions in the area he planned to quote “redevelop.” The brochures featured maps, statistics, illustrations, and photographs to demonstrate “inefficient” land use and other perceived shortcomings of the areas designated as slums. Photographs depicted, for example, children playing in empty lots and mixed-use brownstones to demonstrate “disorderly” neighborhood design.
Moses also spoke in 1958 of how “thankless” the task of destroying neighborhoods was, insinuating that residents were simply too dense to know what was good for them.
Robert Moses: Oh, well, the average citizen will have a grasp of complex, aggravating and thankless our task has been. Few comprehend the differences between the various types of low, middle, and high income slum clearance housing. Their interrelation, the place of each, the logical balance of business and industry. The difficulty of attracting sponsors, moving people, gradual demolition and piecemeal building, and how easy it is for sidewalk superintendents to bend down and sling mud and rocks lifted from the excavations.
Nima: Now, of course, the Lincoln Square Renewal Project is the location where the original 1957 Broadway production of West Side Story, it takes place in that neighborhood and then the 1961 film West Side Story was shot as Moses’ slum clearance was being carried out in that very neighborhood where the play and movie take place. So if you watch that 1961 film, you will actually see the very neighborhood in its state of being demolished, as the story is told, and then in last year’s remake, by Steven Spielberg, the 2021 West Side Story, there is a more explicit use, framework of the renewal project that sets the background for the story, including in certain scenes you see local members of the Puerto Rican community protesting against the slum clearance.
Now this project, in reality, displaced more than 7,000 families. By the estimate of Robert Caro, the author of the 1974 Moses biography The Power Broker, Moses’s policies displaced “some 170,000 persons, disproportionately Black and Puerto Rican, in the seven years following WWII — a number that Caro deemed conservative in its estimate. Caro also reported that Moses made few arrangements to rehouse these thousands of people.
Instead, of course, Moses’ project, meant to bring “culture” to the area, while also ignoring explicitly the already existent culture of San Juan Hill, that neighborhood. Prior to the Lincoln Center project, San Juan Hill was home to numerous jazz bars where famous artists like Thelonious Monk worked, played, and thrived.
Adam: Similar logic was used in the construction of Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles in the 1950s. Under the premise of eminent domain and also using funding from the 1949 Federal Housing Act, the city of Los Angeles seized the area of Chavez Ravine, this had some more public attention of late because the Dodgers keep making the World Series and people will keep writing about this, the area of Chavez Ravine, what was at least in what was at least temporarily called the “Rose Hill Slum Clearance Project.” Most of the residents of Chavez Ravine were Mexican American families whom redlining had prevented from moving elsewhere. Yet the city insisted that, quote, “the majority of the property was blighted and slum-ridden.”
Richard Neutra, one of the architects commissioned for the housing project, stated that, quote, “the trees of the lovely mountain park have grown high around the strangest ‘blightlocked’ area that can be found in any city of America” and described the area as having the “charm of rural backwardness.”
A 1951 Los Angeles Times article published multiple quotes from Chavez Ravine residents contesting the city’s classification of their neighborhood as a “slum,” quote:
If these are slums, why did they not come to us 10 years ago and tell us they were slums. Then we might have been able to do something about them.
Another Chavez Ravine resident said, quote:
We did not know we lived in slums. We thought slums as narrow, crowded, airless places with houses jammed one atop another, with people packed in like sardines in a can. Here we had room for our children to play and there has always been light and air and space.
The article would go on to state, of the City Housing Authority, quote:
The authority realizes the problem is a difficult one. Yet it was testified that surveys showed 87% of the structures in Chavez Ravine to have one or more basic deficiencies, to lack sanitary conditions and to be largely substandard. In other words, they were designated slums.
The City Housing Authority took photos of Chavez Ravine community “in an effort to document slum conditions,” according to the Los Angeles Public Library. Photos include captions like “View of children playing in a fenced yard of a very dilapidated house” and “An older woman carrying a bucket crosses an unpaved road with a small child and a dog. Buildings in the background are quite run-down. Chavez Ravine is towards the left of photo.”
The city forcefully evicted 300 families living in Chavez Ravine, with little to no compensation, to clear hundreds of acres for a low-income housing project. After years of opposition from residents and a McCarthyist fight in which the housing project was condemned as socialistic, the housing project was abandoned and eventually replaced with a plan to construct — you guessed it — Dodger Stadium.
So again, there’s this idea that there’s this inconvenient people we need to get rid of for development projects, we need to rationalize this, so we’re going to emphasize and basically reverse engineer a definition of slum to get rid of them, and they’re not really provided with any alternative housing, much less help them develop their current neighborhood in a way that respects their place in the in the city for decades, sometimes even longer, and then allows them to thrive, no, that’s not an option, we’ve got to clear it out and then fucking get rid of them. And of course, none of this is possible without this kind of ho hum slum language, this idea that it’s blight, it’s not being used, it’s a parallel to the same idea, which is you basically remove people from a land by saying that they’re not using the land properly, and — guess what? — a bunch of real estate developers who funded my campaign will use it properly, conveniently enough.
Nima: Right. Exactly. The people living in these places are aware of what’s going on at the time. They’re aware that this is real estate marketing, they’re aware that this is land and property seizure, they’re aware that they are being pushed out and being seen as inconvenient and the residents, the longtime residents, whether they’re Indigenous people on land that’s being settled and colonized or long time residents of largely Black and brown communities in urban areas are clear about what these so-called authorities are doing to them, and so this idea that you’re not using it right, ‘Oh, sorry, not sorry, but your house or your apartment building is dilapidated, is rundown, is unsanitary, and unsafe for your kids.’ They’re aware that the solutions never include making these structures more stable, or more sanitary or safer, it’s to get these families out because that is actually the entire purpose of the project to begin with.
Adam: And this idea of blight as something that needs to be kind of revamped, developed, made anew is still something we see in real estate coverage. So The New York Times published a travel piece in 2009 headlined, “Highland Park: A New Culture District in Los Angeles.” As it so often does with its coverage of LA, The New York Times glosses over or outright ignores the presence of families and communities who have been there for generations — of course often Latino — and credits new business owners for infusing life into the neighborhood. Here’s an excerpt, quote:
What was once a sleepy strip of garish 99-cent stores and auto parts shops is turning into a thriving neighborhood of cool restaurants and boutiques that draw young trendsetters in skinny jeans, flannel shirts and Converse high tops.
The turnaround started a few years ago, when real estate prices in nearby Silver Lake and Echo Park increased significantly. Priced-out artists, actors and writers were drawn to Highland Park’s walkable streets and its glut of handsome old homes. Not only was it aesthetically appealing, but the area also had parks, hills and a hushed, small-town feel.
It’s also worth noting the persistence of Robert Moses-style urban policy, particularly with the recurring metaphor of blight as a “cancer.” Moses spoke of blight this way and bemoaned the, quote, “economically sick parts of the city,” unquote, that were an obstacle to profit generation. Blight is thus characterized as something that simply metastasizes, out of anyone’s control. It’s not the result of policy choices — redlining, real-estate speculation, racism, legal frameworks favoring landlords — but a disease that only private capital can cure.
Nima: So for example, there’s this New York Times story from May 28, 2014, headlined, “Detroit Urged to Tear Down 40,000 Buildings,” which discusses a report conducted by an Obama Task Force on — what else? — blight. Here’s an excerpt:
‘Blight is a cancer,’ Dan Gilbert, a business executive and leader of the blight task force, said on Tuesday, laying out highlights of the report, more than 300 pages and months in the making. ‘Blight sucks the soul out of anyone who gets near it.’
Using state law as a starting point, the authors defined blighted lots in a number of ways, including properties that are no longer structurally sound, have been damaged by fires, or become neighborhood dumping grounds. Hundreds of workers spent months driving around the streets here, observing and photographing the city’s approximately 377,000 parcels and feeding that detailed information into what is now, in essence, a complete computerized census of its buildings and lots.
‘Detroit needs to act aggressively to eradicate the blight in as fast a time as possible,’ the report concluded, noting that the city needed to move faster than any other city contending with a high level of decay to keep matters from growing even worse.
Adam: Another New York Times piece in 2016, “Art Scene Heats Up in Downtown Los Angeles,” reads almost like parody. It depicts Boyle Heights, a historically working-class Latino neighborhood that for years has been home to a robust tenants’ rights and anti-gentrification movement, as a wasteland. One excerpt reads, quote:
The rough-and-tumble streetscape of the Arts District and nearby Boyle Heights seems to dictate the social timbre. Warehouses, abandoned factories, scrap-metal yards and a few strip clubs line the wide streets with a steady shake of trucks roaring past. At night, the sidewalks are still largely devoid of life, except for an occasional cluster gathered outside an art gallery.
But signs of development — the moneyed, artisanal variety — are everywhere. A dozen new luxury condos with names like Molino Street Lofts have opened along South Santa Fe Avenue and South Alameda Street, with two-bedroom apartments in the converted brick warehouse selling for $1.175 million. Buzz-making restaurants like Bestia, with its homey industrial décor and locavore Italian menu, draw well-dressed diners.
So again, this idea that there’s this place that’s dead and it’s barren and it’s not being used, and — guess what? — we’re going to get the itch and the scratch, we’re going to create the itch by talking about blighted everything is and then we’re going to provide you the scratch, which is real estate developers and other forms of profit extraction from the land, and we’re going to push out the existing people, sometimes maybe they’ll make some money on selling a home, but usually we’re just going to get rid of them basically, they need to get out of the picture because they’re not exploiting it properly. What you see is 99 cent stores and strip clubs, it’s all kind of gross, there’s abandoned warehouses, so instead of having the city come in and use the state to develop places where people already live, we’re going to use the forces of real estate development and market capital to drive them out by pricing them out by making it a more aggressive profit center for a select few, and so you see this sort of pattern over and over and over again, and to do that the media is a necessary component to setting the table for this kind of dehumanization by constantly talking about poverty as if it’s a law of nature rather than a policy choice and existing land usage, whatever it may be, as being not exploitative enough, not developed enough, right? Even the term “development” is very patronizing, and — guess what? — we’re going to come in and quote-unquote “fix it” or “turn it around,” but “turn it around” for whom?
Nima: Think about what you just read, Adam, where it’s like, at night the sidewalks are still largely devoid of life. It’s like, would the same writers go to suburban neighborhoods at 10, 11, 12 at night, and say, you know, ‘The sidewalks are devoid of life,’ maybe they’re families in their homes, maybe they’re children sleeping in their beds and tired mothers and fathers sitting watching TV together or asleep, because they have to go to work in the morning. If it’s a city, it’s always blight and underused, but if it’s a white suburb, you’re not going to have that same kind of thing. ‘Oh, why aren’t the streets bustling at night?’ You know?
Nima: And so it just favors a certain kind of renter or a certain kind of homeowner, a certain kind of real estate development if there aren’t thriving bars in a place that are populated by Converse wearing artists well, then, you know, clearly this is prime real estate for bulldozing so that we can create more Whole Foods and, you know, artisanal candle shops.
Adam: Yeah, it’s this great way of establishing the premises of removing a people who are inconvenient because on its face, we would say, oh, you know, if someone said, ‘I’m going to remove 3,000 Mexicans from the neighborhood and build Dodger Stadium,’ that would be considered crass.
Nima: You’d be like, that kind of sounds gross. Right.
Adam: Right. But if I say, ‘Oh, actually, we’re going to do an anti-poverty measure, and we’re going to get rid of the slums,’ and it sort of sounds nice, it sounds good
Nima: And we’re going to build something of great public benefit and import a, you know, beautiful park or a beach or a baseball stadium.
Adam: Right, and so the idea of barrenness and blight is essential to that dehumanization process.
Nima: To talk about this more we’re now going to be joined by scholar Stephanie Lumsden, an Enrolled Member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe and currently a PhD candidate in the Gender Studies Department at UCLA. Stephanie is going to join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Stephanie Lumsden. Stephanie, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Stephanie Lumsden: Thanks so much for having me.
Adam: So, I’m going to begin by talking about this popular fiction, which your work documents, that was both alive 100, 200 years ago, but also very much today, which is the land of North America was largely barren and empty and quote-unquote “under-exploited” prior to European settlements. The myth is very much a media story in terms of how the quote-unquote “West” was sold to potential settlers, something we’ve spent the greater part of 45 minutes talking about, through newspapers, popular fiction, obviously, the sort of invention of the Western genre and serials and early films, I want to sort of begin by talking about the idea of emptiness, and the attendant wilderness and kind of untamed land trope. You specifically talked about the legal fiction of Terra Nullius, as a sort of selling point to entice violent settlement as both a kind of marketing device, but also a sort of moral justification for genocide effectively, especially in California.
Stephanie Lumsden: Yeah, I started a little bit here thinking with these research questions, which is how do we end up in the place where we’re at now? I think a lot of Native and Indigenous studies scholars really think about like, ‘Well, how did we get here?’ You know, like, how do we understand the violence of settlement, and kind of start working backwards? Not just so we can understand what happened, but so that we can plan for a future without these violences, and I guess I really want to emphasize that throughout our conversation was it’s not just about being a student of history or some pithy statement like ‘so we’re not doomed to repeat it’ or something like that, but more so that we can envision a better future and start building those things, because Native people are many things, but I think mostly what we are is world builders, we built the world the way we thought it should be, and so we think about that a lot now. But yeah, this idea of, this legal fiction of Terra Nullius, which I want to say, is a very important founding myth of settler colonial states like the US, like Canada, like Mexico and throughout South and Central America, that it’s really important for the legitimacy of the people here and for the state itself to be this arbiter of justice and whatever, that it claims, that it really needs this founding myth that this was a great empty place, that it was rich like an Eden, but that it was underdeveloped, that imagine what it could be look at all these natural riches, imagine if civilized man put their hands to this land what it could be. So they really need that myth that this place was untamed, untouched, pure, etcetera, all those things that really start to get to creepy patriarchy language, white supremacist language, that really free it up for invasion, and so I think it works on a couple levels.
One is like you say, to entice violent settlement, meaning, ‘There’s no one here, the land’s open, so you won’t have any trouble at all carving a life for yourself out of this place.’ So it’s kind of like a false promise to settlers. But also, ‘If you get here and there are people, they aren’t really people, they’re the children of humanity, they’re stuck in time in, in evolution, and, of course, we can commit genocide, and it’s not exactly genocide, because these poor people were doomed to die anyway, because they’re not fit with modern life, not compatible, let’s say, with modern life, or we can enact upon them the genocidal project of improvement and civilizing them,’ which, you know, we’ve never seen the end of that project. So I want to point out, I guess that Terra Nullius, it doesn’t just mean free, like free of people, free open land, it means free of Christians, right? You couldn’t walk anywhere in this continent, in this hemisphere, even the places we think are inhospitable to life, like I’m thinking of deserts or the Arctic Circle, like to me from Northern California, that feels impossible that people live there, but it’s absolutely true that everywhere, everywhere on this place was made to support life for Native people here. So there was no wilderness, there were people everywhere, it’s demonstrably false that there was any untouched land. So what is this thing really doing? What does it really justify? And I think it’s the beginning of a relationship of property, a relationship that creates masculinity, creates whiteness, you know, it does, property is a many splendored thing. So it does a lot in the name of property, many terrible, genocidal violences have been accomplished and continued to be accomplished, of course, at the behest of the settler state, which has a monopoly on violence.
Nima: So actually, to stay on this idea of the, you know, settler legal frameworks that obviously provide this foundation of mythology, but I’d love to dig in a little bit into the actual laws that actually justify this, that encourage settler colonialism, and these are not just 18th century, 19th century laws, right? There’s the Organic Act of 1916, the Wilderness Act of 1964. Can you just talk to us a little bit about how these legal frameworks are set in place, these policies are established to provide this legal justification, this legal veneer to the extraction and exploitation, the conquering and colonization of the land and its people.
Stephanie Lumsden: Yeah, yeah, I think, so the law is really important to the United States, and it’s perpetuity, like that’s very important that the United States really needs to own the law in a moral sense. It needs to build and gain its legitimacy, its sovereignty, and the law is one way it does that. And importantly, the law in the United States really leans into, you could look at the papal bulls and looking at what the crown is saying, like the Catholic Church is saying about who can own land, really early on in the settlement of the world or the dispossession of Native land the world over, nascent settler states are really looking for a legal justification for this, and they land on Terra Nullius, and the right of conquest and the Doctrine of Discovery, all of which have been written about by Native lawyers, Walter Echo-Hawk, probably most famously, a Pawnee lawyer. But they’re saying that this law that comes from these religious doctrines say that unless you are a Christian, unless you have a Christian relationship with God, then you can’t own land. So Native people in this continent don’t have a relationship with God, according to these people, right? They’re pagans, they’re children, and so they have a right of occupancy, not a right of ownership, and that in the Doctrine of Discovery is very important, and it works its way into some of the most important Supreme Court cases in federal Indian policy like the M’Intosh v. Johnson, Worcester v. Georgia and Cherokee Nation v. Georgia. These are in 1823, 1831, and 1832. So all around the same time, where the United States is fighting very hard to say that, ‘We can push Native people off of their land legally, because they don’t have a relationship with God, they don’t have a right to property, they have a right of occupancy. We are the sovereigns, the legitimate sovereigns of this place because we’re property owning, white Christian men, we are their stewards.’ That’s why when they talk to Native people, they’re like, ‘The great white father says that you should go over here,’ because Native people are children in settler law. This goes on the books in the 1820s and 1830s. It gets completely entrenched. It’s the basis of all federal Indian policy in the United States to this day, and those, the Marshall Trilogy, is picked up and used in Australia, in New Zealand and Canada, all over the world anywhere where settler states are building, and they are using the United States argument saying that these Native people, they have the right of occupancy, but because they are these backward, primitive people they have no right to property, and that’s all done through the letter of the law that’s made into good policy, right? It naturalizes dispossession by saying, ‘Well, that’s the law.’
Nima: And just launders it as well through some sort of legal means.
Stephanie Lumsden: Mm hmm. Yeah, it comes out clean, right? Like we all just accept, we’re like, yeah, sure.
Nima: ‘Hey, it’s the law.’
Adam: It’s the law. What can you say?
Stephanie Lumsden: Nothing can be done about that, human beings don’t author that.
Adam: Where there’s horrible immoral acts that’s needed by those in power there will always be 100 lawyers and marketing majors to give you a bunch of bullshit reasons why it is justified and turns out clergy as well. So to this point, the sort of wide scale forceful removal of entire peoples from their ancestral land, I think it’s fair to say requires a kind of elaborate web of logical, moral, and, as you note, legal sophistry, and the concept of wilderness and barrenness is kind of essential to this. This is obviously in opposition to so-called “civilization” development. That becomes the criteria for not only a culture, but sort of basic humanity, as you note, in the absence of systemic capitalist accumulation or exploitation of the land the existing people are effectively seen as subhuman or animals or children, like you say, they’re kind of sometimes even given kind of a zoological category. Can we talk about the sort of constant pressure to quote-unquote “develop,” which drives ecological disaster? I think I can say that without it being a little too hippie-ish because I think it’s objectively true, right? If your basic humanity is tied to this concept of constantly expanding GDP and exploiting resources and developing that, obviously, you’re going to reach some terminal limit as all species do, but it’s also a way to kind of say that if you’re not sufficiently capitalist, entrepreneurial, exploitative, that you’re not sort of worthy of humanity. I want to talk about those kinds of pressures, and how when you kind of bake exploitation of land into the cake of citizenship, and as you mentioned, private property ownership, it seems like you’re sort of setting yourself up for a very particular mode of production. So to what extent does tethering the humanity of Indigenous people to a supposed lack of quote-unquote “development,” set it up from the beginning that they were basically not going to be respected as people or subject to genocide?
Stephanie Lumsden: Yeah, this language of productivity is, I mean, well, it’s the ruin of us all, isn’t it? I think about my life now and just productivity is the ruin of my happiness.
Stephanie Lumsden: But this is a interpersonal thing, individual thing rather than a structural one in that instance, but yeah, I think when we think about the formation of a human being, the social formation of a human being, that’s kind of what I’m getting at with property, and taking a wilderness or natural resource kind of binary, and being like, both of these are representative of a relation of property, which is to say, not spirited, or cosmological or affectionate, I don’t even know, basic relationship to place and non human beings, but instead one of domination, ownership, exploitation, development, of course, we’re a capitalist society so it’s always about growth, unencumbered growth, we’re supposed to want those things. That’s how we measure, you know, the goodness of a person, the value of a person. This also starts to get into my analysis of carceral logics and dispossession, like who is a good person, oh, a person who keeps their relationship with property. So when you think about if you’re not productive, if you don’t develop here in California, they said this was an Eden, this was the biodiversity like they had never seen, this is the place, obviously God made this place, you know, untouched by human hand, and what they were refusing to see was that Native people through a non domination model of relationship to land and non human beings and each other, managed to develop life that was sustaining and livable for everyone. They didn’t see any of that. They saw the loss of men’s power, I think, when they look at Indigenous relations to place and each other, they were like, ‘You’re not making the land productive, we don’t see any fences anywhere, women are empowered politically, you have all of these fisheries and you haven’t caught 99 percent of the fish, you’re failing, you’re failing at this work,’ and so it’s kind of our white man’s burden, right, to civilize you and show you how to make productive this place, and so that kind of development and civilization rhetoric is so useful. Talk about being productive, it’s hugely productive for whiteness. It’s hugely productive for the state, which becomes this assemblage of racial formation, gender violence and Indigenous dispossession all in this moment. So it’s really, I think, when you’re looking at a metric of, do they suck every last little iota of value out of the land they live on? And if not, then they aren’t human beings, they aren’t civilized.
Now, that’s a very specific reading of how human beings should be in relation to other living things, and so it becomes, they really get away with the “they” I guess the kind of mainstream narrative around Indigenous people not making use of the land, therefore, they can be genocided or pushed onto, you know, reserves where we don’t have to think about them anymore. That that all really looks away from what is productive about that conversation, which is making white settler citizen subjects who are always patriarchs who were always this men who always are looking to expand growth, and then move on, that that really works hand in hand with the kind of civilizing impetus of manifest destiny and westward expansion. That property is so useful, because it helps us make white people, makes men, it makes the right of exclusion, it gives us a ready made kind of template for racial hierarchy, and gender subordination. It does lots of work. So this conversation about productivity and development is so productive for the state. It reproduces the state, and really normalizes Native dispossession.
Adam: Yeah, because we did a whole episode on the way in which meat is portrayed as this kind of proxy for manhood. I think sometimes when people talk about the obsession with kind of manliness and the obsession with patriarchy, the obsession with ownership of land as an extension of that, and whiteness as a concept, people may hear that and think, ‘Well, you know, these things are kind of universal in some sense.’ But of course, if you go back and you look at the actual writings, at the time, they constantly talked about whiteness, and manliness, it was 80 percent of the shit that their media pumped out. So it’s like it was central to their formation of how they viewed, again, this is something imported from Europe, or at least conceptually imported from Europe, that this was central to how they viewed the kind of tears of humanity. And so I, you know, I just wanted to sort of note that this is kind of the logic they present itself, especially if you go back and look at the media outlets in California around the turn of century, rather, I guess, 1880s, 1890s, they’re constantly feminizing Indigenous people as being weak and as not being manly. It’s quite interesting. We talked about this in the episode about meat and masculinity, that their diets were said to be overly reliant on vegetables and kind of feminine food, it was sort of an obsession, almost, with how they kind of oriented themselves to the land.
Stephanie Lumsden: I mean, I think, to talk specifically about California — that’s my area, my focus on my dissertation work, and I’m California Indian, so you know, it’s close — but yeah, thinking about diet, how we keep a home, whether or not you have a wife, and how you treat her, what children you have, and how you own them, and all things intimate and domestic, including the food you eat, and the clothes you wear, those sorts of things, those are an obsession of settlers to this day. They’re obsessed with Native people and what we eat and what we do. I don’t know if you’ve ever met an anthropologist, but they’re really like they’ve got a whole thing, yeah, about Native peoples still, but that the reason why the state sends in, you know, Indian matrons, Indian boarding schools, Indian agents, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, like all these different people, superintendents, to check on the domestic of Native life, what we’re eating and what we’re doing, and then telling us to eat red delicious apples and eat steak or whatever, because that’s what men do, or that’s what civilized people do. I see that as very much connected with removing Native people from our relationship to land, because Hupa people, our word for an Indian, like a generic term for a Native person is a k’iwinya’n-ya:n, it means an acorn eater, because we’re in California, and the tan oaks proliferated, and up here, and that’s what we ate, and we’re also salmon people, river people. So when they came in, they were like, ‘No, no, no, you need to eat beef, and you need to, you know, keep your home this way, and you need to wear these things and not these others.’ All of those things were really also very useful for removing us from our daily relationship with non-human beings and the land, and so I think those things, like it makes perfect sense to me why you would talk about masculinity, beef and Indigenous dispossession, especially in Northern California, what they did here with cattle to get rid of all of our elk and stuff. I mean, it’s still, it’s a daily problem we face.
Nima: Yeah, I mean, you know, you talk about erasure, and I want to stay on that for a bit and also get back to something that you mentioned earlier, which informed so much of your work, which is this, you know, yes, removing Native people from the land prepares that land for capitalist production for exploitation, but also you’ve discussed the relationship between capitalism and the carceral system between dispossession and incarceration. Can you talk to us a bit about your work relating all these things together, how the dispossession of Native people relates directly, not only, like I said, to capitalist exploitation, but also to the building up of a massive carceral system?
Stephanie Lumsden: Well, that’s my dissertation.
Adam: Spoiler alert.
Stephanie Lumsden: Yes, that question kind of that I hinted at in the beginning of our chat was, you know, we have these research questions, which is like, how did we end up where we’re at? And one of the questions I had, which is, why does every California Indian I talk to, why have we all been arrested? Or why have we all been in jail? Or we have someone in our immediate family who is doing time? What is that? And that’s kind of the question that started and in the middle of making sense of what I would say is the ongoing carceral experience of living on my occupied land, I started trying to piece that together and talk to other people about what sense they made of it. So that was kind of the beginning of the project.
But my dissertation looks at California Indian dispossession, particularly in northwestern California, where I’m at now in Humboldt County, but it’s my territory, my ancestral territory, and I’m looking at this area and wondering why they focus so much on changing our relationship to this place. They could have just done what they were doing, right, I guess this out and out genocidal violence, although that loses favor, it’s hard to keep legitimacy when you just pay militias to eradicate a people, right? So settlers stopped it themselves, they were like, ‘We can’t be the kind of society that does that,’ and they opted instead for what you might call a slower burning genocide that’s animated by the carceral logics of surveillance, captivity, containment and genocide is an argument I make, and so they are really interested in policing Native people, meaning just following them around, limiting their mobility, through the establishment of forts and then later boarding schools through kidnapping their children, and in Southern California it’s the mission system and all through the southwest and into Texas, of course, the mission system, but that they were really what I argue is that they were criminalizing Native people for having a non settler relationship to land, for having their relationships to place, and the reason why that had to be criminalized, and then thwarted with either settler police militia, and violence, or later through teachers, and then eventually through police, and now tribal cops, and all kinds of things, which is a whole, a whole mess to talk about, but that they really relied on those technologies to remove Native people from their land, but this time through, and keeping legitimacy and building the state, because if you say whatever the cops do is right, then you’ve not only diminished the sovereignty of Native people, but you’ve also built or bolstered the sovereignty of the United States. So policing does really great work to minimize the existing and legitimate sovereignty of Hupa people who have been here since time began, in this area, keeping life livable in this area for all people and beings, and then you have the United States that comes in, and is like, ‘Well, how do we undermine this legitimate sovereignty, and also show people that we are the only game in town, we’re the only party? So we’ll say all these Indians are wild, we’ll say that they’ll kill you. They’re violent, they’re dangerous, and then when you stop believing that will say that they’re criminal, we will say that it is not their fault, they’re pathologically alcoholic.’ There’s so much drug abuse on the reservation, there’s so much poverty, there’s like a culture of poverty. Meanwhile, do you know how rich these people got by taking all the wealth we built? You know, I think of just how bitter it is to look at and even now looking at the cannabis industry up here, and they have the nerve to talk about drug use on the reservation, well, we point to that, and that’s why the juvenile centers are filled with Native kids up here, and not, I think, that we’re criminalized because we offer an alternative sovereignty that could build life not just for Native people, but for everyone here who’s sick of the persecution of the United States, which last I checked was a shit show for everybody who lives in the United States. So even the people who are doing the best, they’re just able to numb themselves to other misery, you know, like it’s being the last person to starve to death is hardly a privilege, I would think. That’s another conversation I’m sure.
But thinking about one way that we can really minimize the prior existing sovereignty of Native people and get at their land, which is always what a settler colonial state wants, you know, land is its irreducible element, or its irreducible goal, is we can say that they’re criminal. They’re not only not civilized, but they’re a criminal element, and we can lock them away and build the state and free up land, free up land for settlement and exploitation extraction. They have been doing it up here since the gold rush.
Adam: Yeah. Which is why when people always say the kind of surplus population arguments, I think a very compelling one is something about, ‘Well, you know, it costs ten times more to lock someone up than it is to prevent them from committing a crime in the first place,’ and I’m just like, you’re not wrong but also that’s not the point. It’s not a money issue.
Nima: Right. Even if it were cheaper, it would still not be okay.
Stephanie Lumsden: Mm-hmm.
Adam: Well, yeah, because, you know, you draw these parallels between, you know, slavery to neo slavery to Jim Crow to a prison system. This is something I think is more popularly known, but a similar kind of continuity of subjugation exists with Native people as well. So it’s a similar current, where it’s like, ‘We need to put these people somewhere because we took again, we took, dispossessed, took the land, so they seek economic opportunities elsewhere, and then let’s heavily criminalize that, oh, and then let’s legalize it, and then give it to a bunch of yuppies,’ which is what they did with cannabis. So before we go, I don’t know if you have anything you want to tell us you’re working on, any organization or anything people can check out?
Nima: Yeah, where can folks find you? What do they do to get involved?
Stephanie Lumsden: Yeah, a few things. I do some work with Native orgs up here, and I’m a member of our humble, but illustrious nonprofit that does cultural workshops and activities and support for Native youth. It’s our stab at making right these kinds of relationships and supporting the most marginal among us. So the Nativewomenscollective.org, is a place you can go and you can find them all on socials, and we are actually currently raising monies for missing and murdered Indigenous persons that one of our nieces is actually trying to organize through Arcata High School here in Humboldt County. Because of the cannabis industry, it has created a very serious situation up here not dissimilar to oil field man camps so the rates of violence and disappearance of Native women up here is really escalating in the last couple of years, and so we’re trying to get our young people involved with talking about those things, and anyhow, so it’s a great org to support.
Nima: Well, I think that’s perfect, everyone should definitely check out the Native Women’s Collective. We have been speaking with Stephanie Lumsden, an enrolled member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, a scholar, a teacher, and currently a PhD candidate in the Gender Studies Department at UCLA. Stephanie, thank you so much, again, for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Stephanie Lumsden: Yeah, of course. Thanks, again. It was fun.
Adam: Yeah, I think this sort of historical idea of tethering humanity and community to an ability to extract profit from land is a fascinating one because it sort of puts this immense pressure, both ideologically and financially, on populations to be seen as being adequately capitalist and extractivist, and if they’re not , they’re in the fucking way of progress, and they need to leave.
Nima: Because subsistence is not enough, right?
Nima: Like there needs to be over extraction, and therefore, commerce and export.
Adam: Which strikes me as, in the long run, as ecologically unsound, I don’t want to be too hippie-ish about it, but it would follow from that framework that you basically have a degenerative process of production and reproduction, that is not necessarily keeping within ecological bounds.
Nima: Because your relationship with the land is not restorative. There’s no symbiotic relationship, it is purely exploitative, and purely extractive, and that is what is called “developed,” that is called “well used,” that is the “desert blooming.”
Adam: I think technological progress can be a good thing. I mean, I’m not opposed to it as such but I do think the idea of embedding within the DNA of humanity, this need to constantly be extracting every square inch of everything, I do think — I think it’s probably not a shock for people who listen the show and all the Jason Hickel episodes we’ve had — that that is, in the long run, is problematic, and obviously people’s humanity ought not be based on their capitalist production capacity, because that’s a very kind of racist and bleak view of humanity.
Nima: Well, right. But then at the same time, there’s this, you know, relating to what we talked about just a few episodes on, you know, Episode 155 on conservationism, there’s this hand in hand relationship with extraction on one side and then the love of the land, the preservation of certain land that that will be the playground of our people to escape the city and reconnect with nature but obviously doing that demands either ignoring or deliberately erasing the inhabitants of that land to make it into the kind of fantasy-like wilderness that is deemed different, right? Deemed, the kind of must-be-saved polar opposite of our industrialized cities, or even our rural farmland that is being cultivated and used, extracted, developed for our constant commerce, constant economic growth upward and outward. So you have this kind of settler ideology of, ‘We need to claim this land that was bequeathed to us by God anyway, is just that the stupid savages who were there already didn’t know that, so we just have to claim it for ourselves, and then when we’re ready to, we’re going to hold on to certain parcels of that land, and really protect it,’ and so it’s just very creepy, two sides of this colonialists coin.
Adam: It’s all very patronizing, in every sense of the word.
Nima: Yeah, I mean, it reminds me of the Frantz Fanon line from Wretched of the Earth where he says, quote:
Colonialism is not satisfied merely with hiding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures and destroys it.
And so I think it’s this idea of, yes, you were here, but you weren’t really here until we said that you were here, but we need you not to be here, and so therefore you have ruined the lab and it is empty of you until we come and claim it. But that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you everyone for listening. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. And as always, an extra special shout out goes to our critic level supporters on Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again for listening, everyone, we’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, April 6, 2022.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.