In Dialogue with John Koepke

In their inimitable survey The Fourth World: An Indian Reality, George Manuel and Michael Posluns contend that many colonial settlers cannot understand Indigenous political forms. They explain, “Our traditional forms of government were not overthrown because they were inadequate to the society for which they cared. Indian societies could very well have continued to govern themselves while other cultures grew up around them. So long as we could actively possess and use our land base, we were capable of survival and strength. Our traditional political and religious systems were attacked because they regulated and celebrated a certain kind of economic structure which European powers in Canada wanted to destroy.”1 While researching Niugtaq, Alaska, remotely, I was moving rather frequently between Québec and Massachusetts—and thus across a strictly demarcated settler colonial border—and I was struck by two contrary but critical elements of this settler colonial paradigm: the violence that constitutes the history of Alaska becoming a state within these United States, and the remarkable resistance that Manuel and Posluns attest to in The Fourth World.2 Because I did not visit Niugtaq, and because I cannot make any claim to represent this historical struggle against settler colonialism in Alaska, in this Evidence break instead of discussing fieldwork, I wanted to juxtapose two (severely opposed) positions that shaped my understanding of the site from afar. One voice is a record, a document, that resounds with a colonial violence that can still clearly be heard: the anti-Indigenous racism that characterizes the Treaty with which the United States purchased Alaska in 1867 from Russia for seven million dollars is a potent, unsettling reminder of how the greater United States were composed.3

However, to clearly emphasize that Indigenous lives are not (and have never been) reducible to such forms of state violence and settler dispossession, and that resistance struggles and survivance practices demonstrate an astonishing connection to land, kin, and community, I spoke wit my colleague John Koepke, a professor at the University of Minnesota, a practicing landscape architect of Anishinaabe heritage, and an enrolled member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. John’s spirit name—given to him later in his life by an Anishinaabe Elder, Pebaamibines—is Mitigonaabe, which means keeper of the spirit of the trees. As John was retiring, I asked him to reflect on his pursuit of landscape architecture and the ways he has negotiated tribal and institutional affiliations. What follows is an edited version of John’s remarks; his considered perspective, which serves so powerfully to remind us of our amendatory obligations to Indigenous people and to land, is shared here with a profound gratitude for his generosity.
  1.     George Manuel and Michael Posluns, The Fourth World: An Indian Reality [1974] (Minneapolis: University of Minnestoa Press, 2019), 55.

  2.     In addition to The Fourth World, my understanding was shaped signifcantly by Indiginous authors, including: Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014); Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 2017); and, Winona LaDuke, All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life [1999] (Chicago:
    Haymarket Books, 2015).

  3.     See Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire: A Short History of the Greater United States (London: Vintage, 2020).

John Koepke

I find that very few scholars or practitioners in landscape architecture talk about the genocide that created the United States in the first place. America will never be whole, will never move past where we are at, until we own up to our sins and make amends for how we’ve used and abused the continent and its original inhabitants.

Over the thirty-five years of my career, I’ve received different kinds of attention because I am Ojibwe. I have worked with various nations as a land- scape architect with Native heritage, so I must walk in both worlds: that of mainstream America and Indigenous America. On the one hand, I gain professional credit for having entered the dominant society, receiving a university education, and earning professional degrees; on the other hand, for being Ojibwe, which gives me a certain modicum of respect and trust among Indigenous communities. This respect is due not only to the fact that I am Native, but to the fact that I display cultural sensitivity about and an empathy toward a given situation. I have found that so long as you can demonstrate empathy, cultural understanding, and respect for the Earth, it doesn’t matter whether you are working within your tribe or with another tribe. As a designer, you demonstrate your commitment to the land when you display empathy in the way you treat and talk to other people, and through the things you say about the environment. In this regard, I have no doubt that anyone who displays sincerity can grow in overlapping and infinite ways despite the history of settler colonialism. This is a question of how you approach your work, not where you are from.

When I describe a land-based design approach, I mean design that reveres and respects the life of the soils, plants, animals, and their habitats, using an approach focused first on the enhancement of biological and ecological entities potentially degraded by industrial interventions. Authentic land-based design involves both a physical and spiritual understanding of the Earth (Aki) and the beings that inhabit her. If tribal communities knew more about our work in landscape studies, they would feel an affinity with what we aim to do. I ask myself if I should be out recruiting students who are going to become interested in the future of their home communities, when realistically I know that many will be unable to find work as landscape architects if they choose to go back to their own reservations. On the other hand, who am I to decide what that person wants to do? Perhaps, at the very least, I might expose young scholars to the value of learn-
ing how to manage land sustainably, especially if this learning is practiced as a spiritual activity as opposed to a commercialized profession that only operates in service of the corporate world by developing plastic landscapes.

We must not only recognize but make amends. Reconciliation is initiated in the academy when you have people who think deeply about what is right and what is wrong with the way we live in the world. I am ultimately optimistic that society will learn from some of the Indigenous ways of thought that include land-based knowledge, from thoughtful and sustainable foraging to oral traditions passed down from elders and change their behaviors accordingly. We have brought ourselves to the brink of losing the potential to enact such a positive transformation, and we have a choice either to embrace it now or risk further ecological devastation. There are some educators with genuine questions, who are thinking differently a bout how we should teach landscape architecture, how best to introduce people into design and understand its potential to enact positive ecological and social change.

These are still relationships worth working on. The lesson for landscape architects working with Indigenous communities is that you must first go to them as a listener and as a learner. That may sound simplistic, but you must keep your “design ego” totally in check. If you don’t make a good faith effort to understand what their history, culture, ideas, and visions are, you are setting the relationship up for failure. You have to find guides within the community to help you understand what you don’t see, work within the parameters of its in- ternal politics, and understand its complexities so as to minimize the mistakes you undoubtedly will make along the way. I love a passage from Lily Walker, an Australian Aboriginal activist, that addresses this idea: “If you are here to help me, then you are wasting your time. But if you came because your liberation is bound up in mine, let us begin.” A non-Native person who is working with Indigenous communities must build a trusting relationship; it is not merely a business transaction. Ask yourself this: Why should Indigenous peoples trust a designer or planner from a society that wrought the kind of destruction that nearly wiped out their entire civilization? You get an initial pass when you have Native American ancestry, but then you too must prove that you are trustworthy and that you hold their best interests in mind. Land-based practice is about relationship-building; it requires time, mutual understanding, and shared interest to succeed.

Society really needs to pick up on the lessons of land-based practices, because we as a whole are headed in the opposite direction. Yet, I am noticing through my work that due to the pressures of a changing climate, the domi- nant society is coming back to Native communities after recognizing there is a lot to learn from them. I view it as a positive thing, that some people are starting to realize that Indigenous people who have lived here in our American landscapes for generations, for tens of thousands of years, are so in tune with their environment that they do indeed have lessons to offer about how the landscape is changing. If we continue to pave over the planet, if we continue to disturb landscapes not only on a small scale, but affecting the entire climate, then we accept that mainstream society has made the Earth uninhabitable for all humans. Native people tend to resent this, because after everything that has been taken away from them already, to have someone come in from the outside and appropriate traditions, to try to capture the spirit of how we live, would just be another form of extraction. On the other hand, I can see Indigenous people realizing that we are all in this together and I see them being very generous, thinking about how to share lessons for living in a more environmentally appropriate way. So, in this time and age, we can consider how a landscape-design education informed by Native perspectives might be furthered for non-Native students without taking more from Native communities. What all humans have in common is land- scape, both as a physical place and as the locus of or expression for a spiritual belief system. Robin Wall Kimmerer is also an Indigenous scholar working in the Western university system, and she talks about how she teaches scientific botany and traditional plant knowl- edge together by appreciating the role of other living beings. She is a botanist who can teach students that plants have spirit. We need to try to inculcate in our students this awareness of aliveness and interconnection, making non-academic or non-scientistic knowledge systems part of our curricular under- standing of landscape architecture. We can teach our next generations that the land is not just something to buy or manipulate, but is a living organism.

I believe land-based study—which places the student in relationship with the soil, the plants, and the animals—is an ideal way to get at teaching a more Indigenous outlook, by approaching knowledge through the relationships inherent to being in and working with landscape dynamics. I am talking about learning by doing, about applied systems where students can appreciate that while they are understanding landscapes and engaging with design ideas, they are establishing relationships with the natural world. The keyword is: relationships.

The confluence of challenges presented by climate change is precisely where the opportunity lies. The changes we are experiencing in global climate invite all of humankind to question and to amend the ways we think and teach, to confront the limitless desire of our species to obtain energy, food, water, and other resources at any cost. We’ll have to develop symbiotic relation- ships between humans and the earth and the other organisms on the planet. Humans are not the only thing that we must think about. The Earth is going to do what it wants now that we have unleashed something unnamed, creating instability in the planetary climate. This “something” shifts the bounds of what will be needed to survive in any particular ecological niche. We have to relearn the lesson that the forces of the Earth are more powerful than we are. In turn, in order to survive, humankind must accept its insignificance and our dependence on the other species.

I just came from a meeting with Native people who are doing burial recovery for the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe. One of their original burial grounds at Nagaajiwanaang, “the place where the current slows” in the St. Louis River valley south of Duluth, Minnesota, was desecrated during road construction. Burial recovery is a process of sorting through the disturbed soils to find artifacts and human remains in order to ceremonially rebury them after the site is restored. Robert, the man sitting next to me, held tobacco in his left hand while we were talking. You hold tobacco in your left hand as an offering—your left hand because it’s closer to your heart—and this relates to the idea that when you burn tobacco, the smoke becomes a manifestation of your thoughts being carried by the breath of Mother Earth to the Creator. When I first learned this lesson, I thought it was brilliant: you adapt a plant that is part of the landscape and you create a human ritual that is Earth- based and future-oriented.When you go to talk to an elder, you bring them a wad of tobacco the size of a muskrat’s paw wrapped in a red cloth. It is a sign of respect because you are asking for their wisdom, and they can use it for their own offerings. Before our conversation, I thought to myself: I must make sure that I am representing an Indigenous viewpoint and doing so in a way that is not offensive to Native people, but that also hopefully brings insight for whoever our audience is going to be. In other words, how can I offer a little tobacco? By holding this conversation with you and making it known to the readers, I am asking for the wisdom of the Creator to be guided by the spirit that helps us all to speak and act insightfully. How do we teach students to understand the power of that wisdom?

John Koepke is a landscape architect and professor with over thirty-five years of pro- fessional experience in both private practice and academia. Because of his Ojibwe heritage, John holds a significant interest in both Native American cultures and environmental science. This has led him to conduct landscape-based research on ancient Native American sites and work with tribal and other communities to pursue both teaching and design opportunities that focus on cultural interpretation, environmental education, ecological restoration, and reclamation.