“Plains and Pampa: Decolonizing ‘America,’” by Ana María León Crespo—Excerpt from Harvard Design Magazine

Green pick-up track with

An abandoned truck reading “#NODAPL” in protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline, Sacred Stone Camp, Cannon Ball, North Dakota, 2017. Image courtesy REUTERS/Stephen Yang

It is a common trope for scholars from South America, Central America, and the Caribbean to argue that America is the continent, and not the country. It is less common to consider what the idea of America as a territorial unit might imply. Thinking about the region as a whole prompts us to notice similar processes and shared politics, particularly in reference to decolonization and decolonial discourses.[1]

Indigenous scholars in settler colonial countries such as Australia, Canada, and the United States have advanced theories of decolonization as the rematriation of Indigenous land and life. [2] In contrast, Latin American decolonial theorists—known as the Modernity/Coloniality group—have focused their critique on the role of colonialism in the construction of modernity.[3] Both terms stem from the discourse on resistance and struggle by Martinique intellectuals Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon, whose argument cuts across these groups and highlights the role of Black studies within both—a complicated intersection that I’m unable to address in this piece. [4]

Given the increased use of these terms, it is important to understand the slippage between decolonization and decoloniality, which have in many cases been conflated. More urgently, both concepts have often been reduced to apolitical notions of increased geographical coverage, eloquently summarized by Anni Ankitha Pullagura as the notion of “making empire more inclusive.”[5] Rather than cede ground to this depoliticized inclusion, the challenge in thinking through the idea of decolonizing “America”—or any territory for that matter—is that of centering the voices excluded by empire. Land and its inhabitation, occupation, or possession plays a key role in this conversation. The way we situate ourselves within it has the potential to redefine the history of architecture as well as architecture itself.

Decolonization points to the impact of settler colonialism—a type of colonialism in which the Indigenous population is replaced by an invasive settler society. Meanwhile, decoloniality is less geographically determined, and seeks to critique colonialism as an epistemic framework whose violence is present in all locations, even in colonizer regions. In doing so, decolonial theory can sometimes place too much emphasis on Eurocentrism, eliding the internal conflicts highlighted by what decolonization theory describes as the “entangled triad structure of settler-native-slave.” [6]

Thinking through this structure, decolonization points to the multiple ways in which the development of settler colonialism—in countries such as the United States but also, I argue, Argentina—is enmeshed in processes of capital extraction that have racialized populations and depleted the land. Complementing this discourse, decoloniality reveals the ways in which these processes are constitutive of modernity itself, understanding the European arrival to America as a component of the acceleration of global commerce that links modernization, capitalism, and empire.

A brief example highlights how comparing these different histories through these combined theoretical frameworks can reveal some blind spots. The independence movements in both the US and Argentina were led by European descendants eager for political independence from Europe and more economic power. While in other countries Indigeneity was strategically appropriated in the formation of national identity (particularly in countries with monumental Indigenous architecture, such as Mexico and Peru), in settler colonial societies Indigenous peoples were seen as a threat to the construction of the nation.[7] Thus upon gaining independence, both the US and Argentina targeted the Indigenous populations that inhabited what they conceived as their land, resulting in a series of extermination campaigns with the specific objective of appropriating Indigenous territory.

Human and non-human agents have inhabited the continent for millennia, benefitting from mutually sustaining relationships. The aggressive hunting of the bison in the US, and the introduction of non-Indigenous species such as cattle and swine in both countries, radically transformed this landscape.[8] The replacement of local staples with more profitable, non-Indigenous crops echoes the aggressive replacement of Indigenous people including Anishinaabe groups in the north and Mapuche, Aymara, and other groups in the south. Taken together, these are the processes of settler capitalism, the primary goal of which is the transformation of land into a site of extraction. The role of the US Plains and the Argentinian pampas in the construction of these countries’ national identities highlights how the mythification of the land is a component of its commodification. These and subsequent histories of land dispossession, occupation, extraction, and capital constitute our American modernity.

Decolonization points to the status of America as occupied land, and decoloniality reveals the role of this occupation in the production of modernity. Understanding the intersection between the two allows us to turn toward new relationships with the land—relationships that might dismantle settler frameworks and center previously silenced voices. While decolonization and decoloniality have different, overlapping definitions, it is their shared politics that suggest a different approach to land and its history. Nick Estes, historian and citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, titled his groundbreaking book on Indigenous resistance with the beautiful words Our History Is the Future. [9] Indeed, the histories we learn, research, and teach open up other futures. By studying the environments that peel away settler narratives of buildings and landscapes, we can open the way toward decolonized and decolonial futures.

Ana María León Crespo is an architect and a historian of objects, buildings, and landscapes. Her work traces how spatial politics shape the modernity and coloniality of the Americas. León teaches at the Harvard GSD and is cofounder of several collaborations laboring to broaden the reach of architectural history.

[1] The Decolonizing Pedagogies Workshop (2018—) and the Settler Colonial City Project (2019—), both co-founded with Andrew Herscher, have been key in understanding these topics. The students of “Histories of Architecture Against” (Fall 2019) at the University of Michigan helped me think through these categories. A longer, earlier version of this text was originally presented in Mexico City at the CIHU congress in Fernando Luiz Lara and Reina Loredo’s panel “Rompiendo Fronteras Coloniales.” I am thankful to their call to think about these histories.

[2] See Eve Tuck (Aleut) and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is not a metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1:1 (2012): 3.

[3] The Modernity/Coloniality group includes the work of Walter Mignolo, Aníbal Quijano, Ramón Grosfoguel, Arturo Escobar, Fernando Coronil, Javier Sanjinés, Enrique Dussel, and others. The project starts roughly in 1998 and includes both collective and individual books.

[4] Aimé Césaire, Discours sur le colonialisme (Paris: Éditions Reclame, 1950) and Frantz Fanon, Les damnés de la terre (France: Éditions Maspero, 1961). For more on the intersection between Black and Native studies see Tiffany Lethabo King, The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019).

[5] Anni Ankitha Pullagura in the introduction of her recent CAA panel with Anuradha Vikram, “A Third Museum is Possible: Towards a Decolonial Curatorial Practice.” Collegiate Art Association Annual Conference, 14 February 2020, Chicago, IL. In working through these ideas I’m also indebted to Ananda Cohen-Aponte’s beautiful response to “Working with Decolonial Theory in the Early Modern Period,” CAA 13 February 2020, Chicago IL.

[6] Tuck and Yang, “Decolonization is not a metaphor,” 1. Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui has made an eloquent critique of the Modernity/Coloniality group from an Indigenous perspective. Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, “Ch’ixinakax utxiwa: A Reflection on the Practices and Discourses of Decolonization,” South Atlantic Quarterly (2011), 111(1): 95-109. For a conversation across these differences, see “Thinking and Engaging with the Decolonial: A Conversation Between Walter D. Mignolo and Wanda Nanibush,” in Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry, no. 45 (Spring/Summer 2018): 24-29.

[7] This is not to say that Indigenous peoples have not been under attack in societies that do not strictly fit settler colonial frameworks.

[8] For an environmental history after settler occupation in New England, see William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983).

[9] Nick Estes, Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (London: Verso, 2019).

This piece was originally written for, and printed in, Harvard Design Magazine #48: “America,” 2021