Leiden Law Blog

Indigenous injustice and the power of the land

Indigenous injustice and the power of the land

Recently I have been reading a very interesting book by theoretical physicist David Peat, entitled Blackfoot Physics, in which he compares the Western worldview with the worldview that he had come across among the Native American tribes that are still in existence. According to him, due to this profound difference, the confrontation between the two cultures has been a clash between different paradigms from the very beginning. At the heart of this difference lies the place assigned to the landscape.

Different conceptions of justice

Peat argues that indigenous ideas about law and justice differ profoundly from the Western approach and reveal the different conceptions of how the universe works. In the Western approach ‘a court can reconstruct [that] a certain sequence of events in the past is based upon assumptions about linear time, causality, objective reality and the power of language to capture the world.’ Traditional Native American justice, on the other hand, ‘is rooted in the notions of relationship and dialogue rather than adversarial justice; harmony and balance rather than proof and guilt; and renewal rather than punishment.’ Although Peat does not state this, Native Americans appear to have already practised a kind of restorative justice.

Different claims to land ownership

In the court cases about land ownership we can see how these different paradigms have clashed, to the disadvantage of Native Americans. When they went to court, they were usually confronted with arguments from governments or companies, whose claim would be supported by expert witnesses: scientists whose conclusions were based on an impartial, scientific examination of historical evidence. When they wanted to bring in their own expert witnesses, the Elders and tribal historians who wanted to present ‘the stories they have preserved for untold generations’, the courts often refused to hear them, because in their view they were not experts and everything they said was based on mere hearsay. So according to the courts the Native Americans really had no way of proving that they actually owned the land using legal documents. We know the outcome.

The indigenous conception of the land

Peat shows that at the basis of this lies a completely different conception of the land. For Native Americans, and actually for many other indigenous peoples all over the world, the land was inextricably connected to their identity, to their sense of meaning. Not only did they experience the land as a living being when they walked on it, they also carried the memory of this landscape, with its trees, rocks, animals and plants – all imbued with energies, powers and spirits – with them. 
It is true that the ancestors of the Western world did once have similar ways of experiencing the landscape – like the Celtic concept of the Goddess of the land or the Roman concept of the genius loci, the spirit of the place. Peat doesn’t refer to these concepts, but they do fit in with his argument that from our modern Western perspective, shaped by objective science, we have lost this intimate connection to the landscape. Sadly, this objective scientific approach has also served to justify the European conquest. Before the Native Americans could be conquered they first had to be objectified, and this was backed up by the history of Western science; one of exploitation and the objectification of nature.

The power of the landscape

Interestingly, Peat points out that the power of the landscape has not really disappeared and even today exerts an enormous power over people. In relation to this he refers to a book by René Dubois, The God Within. This author argues that the landscape ‘can be so powerful that it molds, shapes, influences, and ultimately transforms the people who come to occupy it’. He believes that when new people enter a particular landscape, in time they gradually become similar to the people already living there. This is very good news when we think about all the migrants and children born from migrants who in our current society are considered a problem from an integration perspective. If Dubois is right, in the end the migrant problem will solve itself!

Reconnecting to the landscape

Importantly, Peat believes ‘that this deep connection to the landscape and its origin is present within us all’ and that we can all do a simple exercise to actually feel what this deep, indigenous connection to the landscape feels like. It is worth quoting him in his own words: ‘Close your eyes and remember the bedroom you had as a small child. In your mind move around the room, go to the door, and walk about the house. Now go out of the house and look around you. Think of the school you went to, or a nearby friend or relative. Leave your house and take a journey to that other location, remembering when to turn left or right, when to cross the street. As you will go you will remember familiar sights, a corner store, a park, a neighbor’s dog.’
When you practise this for a few hours (yes!), according to Peat, you will be amazed how very much alive the landscape of your early youth is still within you. He argues further that if you can imagine that this inner landscape has been the same for many generations, you will get an idea what the connection to the landscape must have been like for indigenous peoples.

The end of injustice?

The fact that for a long time Western people have not been able to understand the indigenous way of experiencing the land, either religiously or scientifically, has not only done injustice to indigenous peoples, but also to the whole of humanity. After all, if we had not objectified the land, turning it into a collection of many separate properties, we would probably have prevented the current environmental crisis! So if we want to really solve this crisis (see my previous blog on the topic), it is important to leave our objective distance to the land behind us and acknowledge that the indigenous peoples were right after all.

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The photo on top: ethnomusicologist Frances Densmore recording Blackfoot chief Mountain Chief (1916)

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