This should not remain a merely abstract discussion about the knot of ecocide and genocide. It needs to come to ground. And it will have to be personal, in contact with experience, social facts, emotion, and testimony. So let me try again to introduce myself. Like all people, and animals too, I learned protocols of greeting and introduction. Seeing others do it differently helps me to notice my own customs and conventions. Because I’m struggling with my own relation to the place I come from, I’ve been thinking about place, indigeneity, and Indigenous knowledge. Critical theory could not help me understand my own deepest feelings about the place I come from, but my encounters with Indigenous knowledge gradually showed me what the meanings of my feelings are. How is that possible?
Reading and listening to Indigenous scholars, I’ve been impressed not only by their powerful and generous messages, but also by the way they introduce themselves. Many offer their name, and tribal and clan affiliations. Almost all, I notice, say where they come from. This made me think. Although I’m not an Indigenous person and have no tribal or clan affiliations, why would I not also, in a similar context, mention where I come from? I would not feel a need or obligation to do that. Why is that? The presumption, in the protocols I learned, seems to be that where you are from is not very important. (Obviously, there are border regimes and rules in which your birthplace is the most important thing. I’m thinking of simpler situations: when strangers meet, or are introduced by mutual friends, or when speech is addressed to those we don’t know.) Other things are considered more important to help others situate you, relate to you, and be open to what you may say. Generally, you are expected to say what you do, how you earn your living. Possibly also, in some contexts, where you are working and living, now. But not where you come from. This is telling.
Is the devaluation of place (as distinct from nationality) in modernity part of the problem, part of the disconnection and indifference that makes it possible for places, landscapes, and ecosystems to be abused and destroyed before our eyes? If so, is the reconnection to place a necessary political step in defense of the biosphere? Can we non-Indigenous peoples learn from Indigenous knowledge more respectful and reciprocal ways of relating to and inhabiting our places? Without losing sight of differences in context, history, and position, can we find models here to reorient and rebalance our own practices? I would like to say that I am from a place, that I am rooted there, that I remain rooted. But modernity, with its training in restlessness, permanent hunger, and the shadows of terror, has uprooted me. Places, in modernity, are territories to be conquered, controlled, and plundered. Places are where moderns go to extract resources, to chase their addictions, to pursue so-called happiness. Indigeneity, that fierce bonding to the living land, the living air and waters of place, is an obstacle to modernist pursuits. Indigenous peoples, who have always been willing to defend the life of their places, are in the way. In order to be modern, no one is allowed to be Indigenous. In modernity Indigenous peoples are displaced, dispossessed, targeted for removal and elimination. Modernists call that progress.
I would like to say that I was rooted, once, at least. Everyone grows up somewhere. The place where I grew up is not the place I was born. It is not the place where my mother and ancestors are buried. It is not the place where I live now. Still, I find that I know that place like I will never know any other. My body remembers that place, the skies, the light, the storms, the smells. My body remembers the bird songs and cries, the trees and plants, the snakes and fish, the roar of surf crashing on coral sand.
Mockingbird, mourning dove, pileated woodpecker. Fire ant, paper wasp, green anole. Coontie, hawk moth, blue porterweed. Slash pine, saw palmetto, diamondback rattler. Pink muhly grass, purple lovegrass, shiny blueberry. Passionflower, sandspur, black-eyed Susan. Scrub jay, coral snake, gopher tortoise. Buttonwood, cocoplum, red and black mangrove. Great blue heron, osprey, roseate spoonbill. Cormorant, anhinga, white ibis. Alligator, mullet, snook. Coconut palm, royal palm, gumbo-limbo. Turkey vulture, bald eagle, swallow-tailed kite. Key lime, strangler fig, cabbage palmetto. Sea grape, sea oats, bay bean. Least tern, common tern, black skimmer. Lightning whelk, lettered olive, coffee bean trivia. Manatee, manta ray, bottlenose dolphin. Stone crab, tarpon, brown pelican. Sailfish, flying fish, hammerhead shark. Dolphinfish, wahoo, great barracuda. Thunderhead, tropical storm, hurricane. For no other place on earth could I invoke a litany like this. All these names are also, for me, place names. Each one calls back exact memories, real experiences in specific landscapes, in familiar yards or lots, pine savannahs or saw grass wetlands, on stretches of shore known intimately to my feet, or out at the edges of the Gulf Stream, on swells felt and remembered by my inner ears. Every name, and the life it names, places me in a region of memory where body and place are more real and vivid than my sense of passing time. These memories, these imprints, and the stories that circle them are, I find, incredibly important to me. They continue to connect me. I cannot imagine them ceasing to connect me. Memories are said to be fluid and evasive, slippery and shifty. And yet these feel durable, outside of time and change and the necessity of death. They are my memories. When I die, they will die, surely, as memories. But they will live, surely, as the echoing life of those places. This “surely” is not modern. I am unrooted, but I carry, I find, a deep, more-than-rational refusal of modernity. These names, memories, experiences are more than mine. They have their own force of life, call it energy, or spirit. So, the land, the air, the waters are, I find, alive as some have always said. They seethe and vibrate with life and energy and emotion. Through that place, where I am from, I retain something, some hint or hit or touch of its pulse, of a life that is more than me and more than any human.
Which South Florida?
If I now say, in addition, that I am American, then you will guess: I am from South Florida. But this is still too fast, it does not yet say enough. There are many South Floridas. From which one do I actually hail? To which one, or ones, do I give allegiance, and how do I express that? These questions trouble me. They spur me to think more about what I feel; they compel me to write more. South Florida is a land deeply wounded by genocide and ecocide, past and ongoing. To begin with, I need to acknowledge this: the Indigenous people of South Florida were wiped out by waves of colonial invasion, slaving raids, and European diseases. The Calusa and Ais, the Jeaga, Jobe, Tequesta, and Matecumbe peoples were all culturally, if not biologically, extinct by the time the British took over the Spanish claim to Florida in 1763.
By 1818, when Andrew Jackson invaded Florida, the peninsula was inhabited by new peoples, the Seminole and Miccosukee, who broke away from the Creek Nation and migrated into depopulated areas of the Florida Panhandle in the eighteenth century. These groups were augmented by ex-slaves of African descent who had escaped from plantations in the southern states of the U.S. and by another influx of Creek refugees from the American invasion of the Mississippi Territory. The deeper origins of those wars go back to the slave trade in Indigenous peoples established by British colonists in the seventeenth century. In addition to the Seminole, Miccosukee, and African-descended peoples, there were also families of Cuban fisherfolk who intermarried with members of various tribal peoples and lived in small ranchos on the South Florida coasts and Keys. The United States took control of Florida in 1821 and promptly initiated the most racialized project of removal and elimination that land had yet seen. The Seminole, Miccosukee, and African-descended peoples resisted strongly. By 1858, when the Americans declared the so-called Seminole Wars over, most of the surviving Seminole and Miccosukee and some “Black Seminoles” had been removed to present-day Oklahoma. But small groups remained, unconquered, in the Everglades and Big Cypress. These are the Florida Seminole and Miccosukee tribes now living on the northern edges of Everglades National Park and in six reservations scattered across South Florida.
Ecologically, South Florida is fed by the warm sun and waters that fall from the skies nearly every afternoon from March to September. Historically, these waters used to flow across the land, down the southern peninsula to the sea, where they mixed with salt water in mangrove forests and tropical marine meadows protected by barrier islands. One of the main historic watersheds carried water from Lake Kissimmee south to Lake Okeechobee. As Okeechobee filled and overflowed in the summer rainy season, a sheet of shallow water would flow slowly south, through the sloughs of the Everglades, to Florida Bay. Hammocks of hardwood trees on small tear-shaped islands dot the saw grass wetlands. Between Shark River Slough and the Caloosahatchee River lies the Big Cypress Swamp, the most productive ecosystem on the peninsula. Pine Flatwoods forests and savannahs covered the coastal ridges and other dry areas.
This mix fostered a diversity of wildlife, the abundance of which can hardly be imagined today. Under U.S. control, speculation-led development, industrial monoculture, and attempted manipulations of the water flow have been ecologically disastrous. On the East Coast, U.S. Highway 1 is a nonstop strip mall from Homestead to Jupiter. Most of the mangroves have been eliminated and replaced with concrete sea walls, and toxic runoff from streets, golf courses, and the grass lawns of residences has killed off most of the tropical marine meadows. Dredging and canal projects have mutilated the beautiful historic rivers and diverted the flow of water away from the Everglades. The Big Sugar corporations that control the land to the south of Lake Okeechobee suck up much of the water that is left, and what gets past the sugar fields is loaded with agricultural chemicals. The Everglades have been slowly dying for half a century.
The bays and coastal seas, meanwhile, are vastly depleted. Like the Florida panther, the manatee hangs on by a thread, and now the coral reefs are dying as carbon dioxide emissions turn the oceans acidic. Two nuclear power plants sit on the shores of South Florida, waiting for their superstorm. The land is resilient but can only take so much abuse before the webs of relations that sustain life unravel. I never saw the precolonial abundance of the region, but growing up, the land, waters, and skies seemed astonishingly full of life. Yet even I can see the signs of loss and damage now, everywhere, on every visit.
Which of these South Floridas do I come from? Without question, I belong to the inflow of settlers that has ruined it. That is my culture, I have to admit, with shame and sadness. I grew up, was raised, as a modern. I cannot change that. But I can change, or try to, the way I live that background now.
Founding Crimes of Settler-Colonialism
The first, founding crimes of my overproud nation were the invasion, occupation, and settlement of this continent, through deliberate acts of genocide and ecocide. Lawyers can argue about the legal definitions of these terms, but I believe we know well enough what they mean: genocide is the destruction and elimination of human communities; ecocide is the destruction and elimination of ecological communities. The means and processes vary, but this is what they do. They are crimes against life, whether or not national or international law recognizes them as such. Human law and justice are not the last word here. That said, the law is one field where the struggle to defend the biosphere is being waged. The remarkable legal inscription of the rights of Mother Earth or Pachamama, in Ecuador and Bolivia, and the global campaigns for Earth law and ecocide law are inspiring and important. But the point here is that the foundations of the United States of America were and remain illegitimate; by the unconditional principle of law that grounds all actual laws, the U.S. occupation of stolen lands is emphatically illegal. Two hundred and forty years of “facts on the ground” cannot change this or absolve a nation from its history: the destruction of Indigenous communities through massacre, atrocity, enslavement, forced displacement, and dispossession by theft, fraud, and legal machination; the criminalization of Indigenous languages and culture, and child abduction; and economic coercion and corruption, goon squads, and a whole devil’s tool kit of terror, impoverishment, and demoralization. This has been said many times before, but it cannot be said enough.
Even worse, these processes continue in North America and throughout the world. They can be described in terms of so-called original accumulation and the “New Enclosures.” We could speak of imperialism, colonization and neo-colonization, of globalization and neoliberalism. We would have to speak, today, of the international financial system, of “troikas” and national banks, of the global debtorsʼ prison run by the U.S.-dominated World Bank, IMF, and WTO. And then we might speak of the resistance to these institutions and processes: the Zapatistas, the alter-globalization movement, the World Social Forum, the Landless Workers Movement (MST), Occupy, los indignados, La Via Campesina, and Idle No More.
Sandy Grande calls for shifting the frame away from abstract liberal notions of social justice and democracy, in order to activate a more interventionist project of decolonization. She makes a case for the term “settler-colonialism” to describe these processes. Settler-colonists come to stay, and the removal and elimination of Indigenous peoples is a necessary part of their project. I accept Grande’s case as well as the implication: growing up in Florida as a member of the dominant “whitestream” culture, I am a settler-colonist who has benefited in many ways from the forced removal—and in the case of Florida, actual extinction—of Indigenous people. I am further implicated by the fact that, in the time that I have been alive, the impoverishment, dispossession, and cultural genocide of Indigenous tribes across the United States has continued and still continues, officially, in my name, as a U.S. citizen. I have been shown the cutting edge of this in Hawai‘i, on the occupied island of Oʻahu, where U.S. military bases cover 23 percent of the landmass.
As I consider where and what I am from, I begin to understand that land cannot be owned in the modernist way, not without crime and atrocity, not without a war on life. It is not impossible to return stolen lands to the Indigenous peoples who held them in common before our ancestors arrived to remove them. For various public projects far less worthy, the government has often invoked eminent domain to take over land held by private owners, in return for compensation. Even within the regime of private property, then, there is a mechanism. If it’s beyond imagination it is because our national imagination is impoverished and infantilized, not because it is impossible. Certainly much larger parts of native lands could and should be returned. Reparations, which are easier to perform, are also in order. A vigorous national debate about both, as well as about the restoration of full native self-determination, would be a start. I say this as a U.S. citizen who still has the right and duty to criticize my government; it is for Indigenous peoples themselves to say what they want and need, and what they expect from non-Indigenous supporters like me. What is clear is that modernity depends on bringing and keeping land under private property relations. But this is not the only way to inhabit places or grow food. The private holding of land is only a necessity so long as the logic of accumulation continues to dominate. Outside the headlock of modernity, the abundance of alternatives, many of them traditional, comes more vividly into view.
From which South Florida, then, do I claim to come? From the one I remember and the one I cannot. From the one critical theory can indict, and the one it cannot fathom. From the one my settler-colonial, modern culture repeatedly violated and continues to abuse: the one dominated by sugar barons, real-estate speculators, bankers, offshore leaseholders, and all the other progeny of Andrew Jackson. From the one insulted by high-rises, trophy homes, gated communities, and spring breakers. From the one haunted by the absence of Calusa, Ais, Jeaga, Jobe, Tequesta, and Matecumbe peoples, those who twice repelled Ponce de León and gave him the wound he died of. From the one that remains outraged by the past killing and removal of so many Seminole and Miccosukee by my government. From the one that is yet enriched today by the presence of those descended from the Seminole, Miccosukee, and Black Seminole bands who were never conquered and never left. From the South Florida enriched by the descendants of enslaved Africans from all over the Caribbean. From the one swept by rains, storms, and hurricanes, and the one waiting and watching for the coming climate chaos. From the one in which the cultural and biological diversity of life stubbornly persists, despite all damage, loss, and diminishment. From the sacred ruins, then, where the land, air, and waters surge and thrum with the life of the living and the life of the undead.
Athens, May 2016