What I was taught was that when you see that plant, to first see that it’s the one you offer thanksgiving to, that plant is still here with us, still performing its duty and that you wish it to continue. You walk past it and you look for the other one, and that one you can pick. For if you take the first one, who is to know, maybe that’s the last one that exists in the world.
– Jake Swamp, Chief of the Mohawk Nation (p . 721).
Plants are a trend right now. As a photographer who submerges herself deep into the world of Instagram, when I scroll through the app, countless photos of plants and people posed with plants come up, in fact, even my own account is filled with plant portraits. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but ever since I began exploring my own identity, I’ve started questioning my relationship to these plants and to this land upon which I live on. My story is one of a white settler, or so I thought, until my mother discovered our Cherokee ancestors. Before colonization, the soil of the New World was mixed with thousands of years of thousands of footprints of Indigenous people, and just as the soil continues to mix, so do the stories I’ve been told of where I come from, who I am, and what it means to be of mixed blood. I do not claim the oppression Indigenous people have faced as my own, but to deny the existence of my own blood and ancestors is to further assimilate the culture from which half of my family originates from. My skin may be fair, but my roots are deep, deep like the roots of the trees, towering giants that have soaked up years of soil, water and sun. Where do I fit in relation to the land that has been stolen by my people and from my people? Where do I belong?
I wanted to explore this stolen North American land, and understand how and where it fits into the Western world’s narrative. Just as Indigenous people have had to relocate, the very soil upon which they once lived upon has been relocated, a word which does not even exist in some Indigenous languages (Whitt, et al. p. 702). As Westerner’s, we like to think of ourselves as one with the land; however, without recognizing the violent removal of Indigenous people from their land, we cannot innocently connect to the land. To understand the land as Indigenous people have, one would understand the intimate connection humans, animals and the land have, and that to harm one is to cause the unbalance of the other two (p. 721). I am not referring to New Ageism, for that, too, is a Western understanding of nature, living things and spirituality. Colonialism has relocated Indigenous peoples and the Indigenous land into diasporic subjects, where it is impossible to return to life as it was before colonialism. Thankfully, Indigenous identities and land are constantly redefining themselves as hybrid subjects, capable of power and transformation rather than victimhood (Hall, p 438).
The subject of land, belongingness and Indigeneity is vast and complex, but here I am, exploring plant portraits as depicted thousands of times on Instagram. I am using my photo series to illustrate and explore a few things. First, as Westerner’s longing to connect to a land which was actually stolen from Indigenous people, how do we connect with the land, specifically, soil, when it is taken outside of a Western framework (literally, the connection to soil outside of a planter box)? Secondly, where does soil belong when in the Western home? Lastly, what type of discomfort is felt when seeing soil inside of the home, but outside of a planter box? These photos are part of me exploring my own understanding of having grown up in the Western world, with fair skin, and learning of my past with the Cherokee people. As a photographer, I am constantly curating–whether it be photographs, moments from life to be photographed, my own identity and how I want to be viewed and understood. My photo series is a personal challenge to myself on how messy I am willing to get when taking my Western narrative outside of its plant box, and understanding its relationship with the Cherokee people.
We are right now in the autumn of our history. We are, as a people, a perishing lot. Unlike for the flowers, spring has not rolled around for us for a long time. It seems the winter of our life will never end. It is very hard for us to see and love the colors of the flowers in spring.
– Lee Maracle, p 141
I hope–as a photographer and a writer, as a Canadian (whom should be understood as a European settler), as an American (whom before colonialism would have only been known as Cherokee), as a woman, as someone who creates, lives and breathes on stolen Indigenous land–I sincerely hope, my work and time here can help educate, redefine and empower. Perhaps then can soil be replenished enough to let Indigenous people once again blossom.
Hall, Stuart. "Cultural Identity and Diaspora." Ed. Bill Ashcroft. The Post-Colonial Studies Reader (2005): 435-38. Print.
Maracle, Lee. “Flowers.” I Am Woman: A Native Perspective on Sociology and Feminism. Richmond: Press Gang, 1996. 141-142. Print.
Whitt, Laurie Anne, et al. "Belonging to Land: Indigenous Knowledge Systems and the Natural World." Oklahoma City University Law Review 26.2 (2001): 701.