The Land… From Settler Colonial Property to LANDBACK: Introduction



A grey car passes by a “Welcome to Okern, Oklahoma” sign at the border between Kensas and Oklahoma. On both sides of the sign, there is graffiti that reads “Land Back” (with a “Fuckerzz” on the back).

— “What do you suppose that means?”
asks the male driver.
— “What, honey?” answers his wife.
— You see the graffiti on that sign back there?
— Oh, yeah, yeah.
I think it said “Land Back,” didn’t it?
— Well, what do you suppose it means?
— Well… I reckon the Indians did it.
— Well, sure they did. But I don’t understand.
— Hmm?
— They mean the whole damn thing?
They want the whole damn thing back?
— Well, I suppose so.
— That’s just not possible. I could see some of it back.
You reckon that’s what they mean?
Some of it back? Or all the damn thing?
— I mean, the whites did kill an awful lot of them,
and took the land. So, America ought to be ashamed of itself.
— Well, they got the casinos. I hear they get paid a
thousand dollars a month just to be an Indian.
— Will you quit being a shit-ass?!

Reservoir Dogs Funambulist
Stills from Season 1, Episode 3, “Uncle Brownie,” Reservation Dogs by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi (2021).

This simultaneously profound and hilarious dialogue reflects the tone of the amazing TV show Reservation Dogs (2021) created by Seminole and Māori filmmakers Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi. The Whole Damn Thing may have been a great alternative title for this issue dedicated to land. At a moment of time when “decolonizing” has been emptied of its meaning by many as a handy verb to signify anything that vaguely questions the racist dimension of objects as diverse as bandaids, costumes, and dishes, we have at the heart of this issue, an interest to resituate land as the primary object of the decolonizing struggle.

I’m writing these words on the day (January 26) we commemorate 50 years of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy’s existence on the lawn of the Australian settler colony’s parliament, on Ngunnawal and Ngambri land (Canberra). January 26 is also known as Invasion Day or Survival Day. It is a day of mourning, as it marks the beginning of colonization on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lands and waters. As Gumbainggir activist and one of the embassy’s initiators Gary Foley recounts, the six first months of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy’s occupation “changed the course of Australian history.” Constructed to demand Aboriginal land rights, but also operating in the spirit of global Black liberation, it resisted several police invasions through time, and has succeeded in maintaining its existence, by reclaiming land at the core of the settler colony.

At a moment of time when “decolonizing” has been emptied of its meaning by many as a handy verb to signify anything that vaguely questions the racist dimension of objects as diverse as bandaids, costumes, and dishes, we have at the heart of this issue, an interest to resituate land as the primary object of the decolonizing struggle.

But what exactly are we talking about when we talk about land? Certainly not the flat and plain surface of colonial maps! Land comprises various atmospheric, biological, cultural, and geological layers. This includes its subterranean condition, which is often the object of colonial extractivism. It is also the water that permeates the earth, whether in liquid form as discussed in Alyosha Goldstein and Julia Bernal’s piece, or in the form of ice as we talk about with Jen Rose Smith. However, the spatial complexity that the depths of land and its striations embody can also be used for stealth-resistive modes of existence to colonial survey and surveillance. The various maquis, tunnels, jungles, and glaciers are here to prove it in their role within the past and present of anti-colonial resistance.

One does not steal land the way one steals a car. In order for settler colonialism to enforce itself durably, there needs to be a legal system of property ownership, as we discuss with Brenna Bhandar, but also a materialization of this system, through the formation of a built environment. In his book Barbed Wire (2002), Olivier Razac shows how such a simple architectural technology has been instrumental in the colonization of Indigenous lands on Turtle Island. When thinking further about it, barbed wire is indeed the most elemental materialization of the lines traced on maps and plans to represent and enforce the settler colonial legal system. Its particularity simply consists in regularly featuring a hazardous knot, thus weaponizing the abstract line of the map. This simple technology finds an alternative or a complement in the formation of an almost equally elemental architectural object: the wall.

The Land Funambulist
Barbed wire fence in Utah. / Photo by R. Nial Bradshaw (2017).

Walls are almost always built in such a way so that the bodies they organize in space are not able to significantly affect them with sheer strength. In simpler words, walls are made sufficiently solid so that people have to comply with them. Walls however require a controllable degree of permeability: this is how doors (rotating/sliding walls) were invented, along with a lock-key apparatus that grants a degree of permeability to some, while refusing it to others. The most extreme political and violent use of such a discretionary modulation of the walls’ effect can be found in carceral settings, where people are kept captive by a spatial formation, where its key is kept by others. In the case of settler colonial property, walls are meant to consolidate the stronghold on stolen land. As such, in the transformation of colonial architecture from military invasion forts to settler civilian inhabitat, a degree of the original genocidal violence remain within the walls and with it, the materialization of the settlers’ continuous fear that the Natives will come back to take, deep down, what they know they have stolen.

However, LANDBACK does not match the vision settlers have of it. In this vision, settlers remain the protagonists of a vengeful narrative mirrored in their own original genocidal rage. LANDBACK, rather, is a vision in which settlers are fundamentally absent, whether because a part of them fled the unstoppable return of the stewards of the land or because their settler condition ceases at the same time as their domination on the land and its people. What we mean by stewards of the land vary depending on the context, as we discuss with Tshepo Madlingozi, who departs from a strict nativism in the specific situation of South Africa to favor instead a pan-African perspective. Tshepo also invites us to avoid an individualized and exclusive understanding of the notion of ownership when it comes to land. Further north on the east coast of the African continent, in Kenya, Rose Miyonga tells us how this ownership in the context of land redistribution was denied anyway to former Mau Mau fighters, who are nonetheless the forces to thank for the liberation of their land from British colonialism. Whether through state redistribution of land like in Evo Morales’s Bolivia, or via means of Pay the Rent campaign in Australia, where settlers voluntarily compensate the original owners of the land as a mechanism of restitution, these forms of LANDBACK are as various as incomplete. As Cruz Garcia and Nathalie Frankowski (Wai Architecture Think Tank) narrates through a letter to their newborn child at the end of this issue, Indigenous futurisms are surely what can provide a horizon for LANDBACK, towards which we can walk. With that said, I wish you an excellent read. ■