investigation: 'Un-Natural Law'

This is an ongoing project that examines the European ideas used to justify the seizure and colonization of indigenous lands in what is now the Continental United States. In addition to exploring the philosophical, religious and economic ideas that were developing at the time, I illustrate how these lands, far from being ‘unexplored’, were highly managed landscapes. By extension, the study questions the American myth that continues to portray the ways of the settlers as a more advanced form of civilization than those of the diverse nations that already inhabited the land.

The project originated in January 2016 in response to the Malheur Wildlife Refuge Crisis, in which an armed group led by Ammon Bundy took over a federal property in desert lands near Burns, Oregon. Bundy stated that the lands should be ‘returned’ to the ranchers, who were its rightful owners because they were the first people to put the land to ‘beneficial use’. The racism, entitlement, and downright mendacity of this claim set me on a path to discover how Bundy and his gang came to this interpretation. Along the way I have encountered not just John Locke and the idea of Natural Law, but the Doctrine of Discovery, papal bulls, Calvinism and more. I am working to document the flow of these ideas and their consequences.

The geographic range of colonialism is global, but this study focuses on three areas in the U.S.: the Paiute lands in the Great Basin Desert of Oregon, the Tohono O’odham lands that straddle Arizona and Mexico, and the Monacan territory in the James River watershed of Virginia.

The result of my research will ultimately be an exhibit, website and book composed of maps, drawings, and essays. Until then, I’ll occasionally post here.

This study is made possible in part through a fellowship with the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, partially funded by the Bamaworks Fund.