Plains and Pampa: Decolonizing “America”
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 is an architect and a historian of objects, buildings, and landscapes. She studies how spatial politics shape the modernity of the Americas. León teaches at the University of Michigan and is cofounder of several collaborations working to broaden the reach of architectural history, including the Decolonizing Pedagogies Workshop, Nuestro Norte es el Sur, and the Settler Colonial City Project.