Vanessa Watts – Indigenous Place-Thought

Citation: Watts, Vanessa. “Indigenous Place-Thought and Agency Amongst Humans and Non-humans (First Woman and Sky Woman Go on a European World Tour!).” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 2.1 (2013):20-34.

_________________________________________________________________Argument:                    European worldviews make a distinction between epistemology and ontology, which deprives non-human actors of their agency and privileges the individual viewpoint of the Western human subject. Indigenous worldviews incorporate various types of spirit and agency – an important perspective for subverting colonial ideals and disrupting the supposed divide between culture and nature. As Watts’s term “place-thought” suggests, thinking is indistinguishable from being, and being in a specific place, with its own agency, thought, and will.   

Scope/Organization/Main Points: Watts contends that the frameworks with which we view the world have serious consequences – particularly Western worldviews, which often conceive of their own perspective as an abstraction, not derived from anything essentially or inherently ‘real’: “They are the basis for how humans organize politically, philosophically, etc. Frameworks in a Euro-Western sense exist in the abstract. How they are articulated in action or behavior brings this abstraction into praxis; hence a division of epistemological/theoretical versus ontological/praxis.”

By contrast, Haudenosaunee or Anishnaabe worldviews are not based on abstractions but are a “literal and animal extension of Sky Woman’s and First Woman’s thoughts,” meaning that thought and being are indistinguishable. By extension, the “complex theories” of Indigenous worldview “are not distinct from place” (22).

The ‘pre-Colonial Mind’ and Rethinking Agency At first I was disturbed by Vanessa Watts’s turn to the pre-colonial mind, because the term seems to suggest that we need to wind back the tape of time and somehow reinstate lost traditions that are rooted in the past. After a few readings, though, I think the term is useful for valorizing fluid and living place over an idea of fixed and stable forms of time that marches forward inevitably, neither suggesting that Indigenous peoples are stuck in the past, nor saying that they need to develop into modern subjects. She confirms this later in the chapter, by hailing a sort of radical fluidity: “This is not a question of ‘going backwards’, for this implies there is a static place to return to. However, given that the concept of time for us was never linear, we possess the ability to access the pre-colonial mind through the ability to travel in dreams, to shapeshift, to understand what might happen tomorrow, etc.” (32).

Moreover, Place-thought provides an idea of sovereignty as “not just a contested idea (located within an epistemology); rather, it is an essential obligation in the continuation of our selves” (28).   Returning to an ecological and inter-subjective perspective is crucial for Indigenous identity: “A familiar warning is echoed through many communities, that if we do not care for the land we run the risk of losing who we are as Indigenous peoples. When this warning is examined in terms of original Place-Thought, it is not only the threat of a lost identity or physical displacement that is risked but our ability to think, act, and govern becomes compromised because this relationship is continuously corrupted with foreign impositions of how agency is organized” (23).

Western human’s alienation from nature is associated with the possibility of thought that is not linked to place, as well as the notion that nature is somehow fixed and unchanging: man’s alienation is a “point of conflict where thought, perception, and action are separated from the supposed inertia of nature” (25).

Agency / Cause & Effect = Rethinking Time over Space Of course, human dominance over non-human subjects has been central to colonization: “Those crops became their crops, that tree because their trees and so on and so on” (30). Human dominance has not only legitimized the act of dominating land; it has also naturalized the timeline across which colonization has unfolded. The risk is that scholarship that ignores the agency of non-human beings perpetuates settler colonial perspectives.

Watts refers to Stacy Alaimo’s discussion of dirt: “Dirt is acknowledged as an actant at best, no longer an afterthought but still limited with regard to ability. How does dirt affect me? How do I affect dirt? These are the questions that underscore the agency which is limited to a human-centric quandary” (29). Anthropocentrism, then, is associated with the directionality of effect, and affectability. Audra Simpson and Andrea Smith include similar work in Theorizing Native Studies.

Thinking of the human as related to certain directions of causality and action might help me think through the temporalization of the human subject, or at least the human as teleological (ie. action moving in a predictable and limited direction, and time moving along the axis of human action).     

Points of Importance/Interest:·    The human as change-making force and vector of time



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s