Letters to My Friends: Indigenous Land as Monument

Mistusenni Rock being blown up, 1966, black and white photograph, 8 x 10 inches [courtesy of Saskatoon Public Library]

Our first water teaching comes from within our own mother. We literally live in water for nine months. Floating in that sacred water that gives us life. We can’t live in our mother’s womb without water. As a fetus, we need that sacred water for development. The sacred significance is that my mother comes from her mother’s water, my grandmother comes from her mother’s water, and my great great grandmother comes from her mother’s water. Flowing within us is original water, lifeblood of Mother Earth that sustains us, as we come from this land …

Autumn Peltier, September 28, 2019.

As I considered what to write you about, the variation of architecture and monuments across North and Central America (Turtle Island), and the diversity of experiences and histories, overwhelmed me. I considered how others might feel when they encounter certain monuments, and I have to say, either my empathy failed me, or monuments are not that interesting and awe-inspiring. Should I be excited about a man on a horse? Or various busts of men I have never met and never will? Do I walk through a memorial the way I walk through a forest, with the sounds of birds and wind calming my spirit and whispering their stories, sun dappling my eyes?

Being an academic, I am often more interested in ideas than in the visceral. The idea of what creates a visceral reaction, the how, the why, the what, and then what transpires, preoccupies my busy mind. My therapist prescribed returning to my body, in any way that I can. So, a monument really has to be something to grab my attention. As the child of a Cree (nehiyaw iskwew, ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐤ ᐃᐢᑫᐧᐤ) residential school survivor—and a descendant of strong women who survived the North American genocide—the monuments that celebrate the perpetrators of their would-be destruction also do not capture my imagination or stir glory in my bones.

Do these words of water protector Autumn Peltier (Anishinaabe, Wiikwemikoong) allow you to feel the water in your blood? Your birth water, the water through your skin, contacting the water in the air and in every being, human and non, beyond you? Do you feel that you are a part of an intricate, living, breathing, singular organism, moving energy in ways we rarely imagine? Can you connect this feeling of belonging to the inability to drink what was once pure water in territories and homes across Turtle Island? The transcendence of self and connection is not an ecstasy that I think most humans live, on a daily basis, within our consciousness. How could a word or a monument capture the human condition and create something greater beyond ourselves? Is that something-greater-beyond-ourselves a reverence for water—within us, between us, around us?

I don’t find that sitting in a lecture hall—in the concrete Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism at Carleton University, whether as student or teacher—helps me to connect. I do not become more human, more earth, more water. Despite our desire to sit together and learn from one another, institutional walls limit the distance our shared breath can transport not only us but also other learners, outside the walls, including our nonhuman relatives. I do know that I like teaching, performing, and connecting my heart to others through words, body language, and energy. I give as much as I possibly can to that collective growth.

But what has taught me—in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood—are the many (not as many as I would like) ceremonies that situate me within nehiyaw cosmology. Ceremonies, which I won’t describe in detail, create forms of ecstatic transcendence or, I prefer to think, create deep connection to all the beings I’ve referred to, while situationally existing within a world that is real and metaphorically in relation to all other beings. For example, specific trees are honored as they give their life for ceremony, and then placed exactly to create an understanding between the participants, including the tree. In every nehiyaw ceremony I can recall, in fact, the sacrifice and presence of a specific tree, with particular properties, holds a central and pre-determined role and space. The tree is, in fact, in direct relation—physically and energetically—with every other being in the ceremony. It is not just a conduit for creation, it is a part of the creation that we are together.

These experiences not only stir my bones but sink into them, taking their journey between my head and heart beyond my skin. The connection I maintain allows me to grasp the importance other Indigenous nations place upon their land and territories. Climate change and Indigenous knowledge scholars and activists Daniel Wildcat (Yuchi) and Denis Martinez describe the kinship of Indigenous peoples and our territories, and the required concomitant action, as “eco-cultural restoration.”1 For Wildcat, the “power of place yields unique personalities” of peoples, and thus, there is complete dependence of one upon the other. Without a life-sustaining, diverse environment, there are no people. And without people made of, and committed to, their land, there will be no commitment to a flourishing and productive environment.

But what is the process that creates this symbiosis, commensalism, or kinship? Academics, led by the Métis historical geographer Brenda Macdougall, continue to expand upon the nehiyaw word wahkotowin. Wahkotowin is, like many nehiyaw words, imbued with energy (the win syllable refers to energy and movement). Wahkotowin refers to relationship and kinship. In this instance, it brings together the viewer, viscera, idea, ceremony, and monument of the land itself. Those who care for their gardens, their plants, and their pets can relate to the process of being in relationship with the land. Others who have experimented with psychedelic drugs are often able to recognize how energy moves between, or in spite of, individualized bodies. Ceremony is my education—as it is for many nehiyawak and peoples around the globe. In addition to the land and its interlocutors (plants, animals, rocks, water, wind, soil, and other beings), my Elders help guide and interpret my ceremonial experience. However, as an academic, it is now my job to inspect, dissect, and explain everyday phenomena—ways of life that, for many, are as simple and profound as the water in their bodies.

Lars Rhodin and Sun Jiuxia of Sun Yat Sen University in Zhuhai, China, discuss “land as monument” extensively in their 2020 article of the same name.2 They elaborate upon the interaction between people and their land in a way that is depoliticized from other disciplines, including archaeology, philosophy, and sociology. For them, a monument is a process:

a social reality that involves interactions between the physical world (landscape) and humans as creators of society that inhabits that landscape …. When landscape is seen as space that essentially exists and gains meaning through the ways that it is lived in, it becomes a part of the societies, part of the psyche, the memories, the actions, the changes that occur, it becomes a living, breathing space through those who live and breathe within it and through the thoughts, beliefs and aspirations of those who inhabit its space, it exists across both the metaphysical and physical realms of living …. The important dimension of landscape is not one that sees it as having a meaningful essence in and of itself but, rather, through its significance that has been created through its relationship with people.3

As a nehiyaw iskwew, I do not need other academics to legitimate this experience of landscape as monument. It is already a part of my worldview and being. I see this relationship—as it lives and breathes, and changes, and is created through ceremony—as productive in and of itself. Aileen Moreton-Robinson writes in The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty that the politics of these opposing perspectives on land’s value underlies the illegitimacy of settler-colonial ownership, laws, and “justice.”4 This willful ignorance and, dare I say, greed, results in the destruction, or iconoclasm, of Indigenous land as monument. Other, more recognizable Indigenous monuments continue to be desecrated and destroyed, in addition to the overwhelming transformation of the land as it is covered in concrete, steel, and bronze, displacing its other kin, most notably animals and insects.5 I have not visited all these sites—different spaces held sacred by nations, all with their own meaning and place in those worldviews. Some will always remain secret, to the extent possible, to divert hostility and allow for their perseverance.6

omeasoo wāhpāsiw is a nehiyaw iskwew from the Treaty 6 territory located in kisiskâciwan (Saskatchewan) with the Saddle Lake Cree Nation. She is an assistant professor in the Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism and is cross-appointed with Carleton University’s School of Indigenous & Canadian Studies and the Department of History. wāhpāsiw’s work highlights how her research with other Indigenous Nations contrasts and resonates with her own nehiyaw upbringing in regard to Indigenous ideas of place and space. omeasoo belongs to a cosmology of plains Indigenous and urban worlds. wāhpāsiw is preoccupied with how each Indigenous person maintains their worldview through art, land, and relationships with “more than” human kin. 


1 Daniel Wildcat, “Seven Things We Must Do to Advance the Rights of Mother Earth.” Bioneers: Indigenous Knowledge, May 1, 2016, YouTube, https://youtu.be/Fz25Velw6cE
2 Lars Rhodin and Sun Jiuxia, “Landscape as Monument: Sámiland and Its Contested Patrimony,” Trames (Tallinn) 24, no. 4 (2020): 487–504.
3 Aileen Moreton-Robinson, The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).
4 Settler-colonialism is defined by Barker and Lowman thus: First, settler colonizers “come to stay,” unlike such colonial agents as traders, soldiers, or governors. Settler collectives intend to permanently occupy and assert sovereignty over Indigenous lands. Second, settler colonial invasion is a structure, not an event. Settler colonialism persists in the ongoing elimination of Indigenous populations, and the assertion of state sovereignty and juridical control over their lands. Despite notions of post-coloniality, settler colonial societies do not stop being colonial when political allegiance to the founding metropole is severed. Third, settler colonialism seeks its own end. Unlike other types of colonialism, in which the goal is to maintain colonial structures and imbalances in power between colonizer and colonized, settler colonization trends toward the ending of colonial difference in the form of a supreme and unchallenged settler state and people. However, this drive is not to decolonize but rather attempts to eliminate the challenges posed to settler sovereignty by Indigenous peoples’ claims to land by eliminating Indigenous peoples themselves and asserting false narratives and structures of settler belonging. See Adam and Lowman Barker, Emma Battell, “Settler colonialism.” GlobalSocialTheory.org, online.
5 Ivan Semeniuk, “Study finds humans are voracious global predators—and that’s a big problem,” Globe and Mail, July 1, 2023, A19.
6 George Nicholas, “Threats to Bear Ears and other Indigenous sacred sites are a violation of human rights,” The Conversation, December 16, 2017, online.