On the Present Past and the Struggle for Land Justice

by Kathleen Nay

On Wednesday, September 20th, Grassroots International hosted a reading and panel discussion with authors of a new book from Food First, entitled Land Justice: Re-imagining Land, Food, and the Commons at the Tufts Health Sciences Campus. The event was co-sponsored in part by the Tufts Urban and Environmental Planning and Policy (UEP) program, Friedman Justice League, and Friedman Student Council. Student Kathleen Nay reflects on what she learned. (A version of this article was also published at UEP’s Practical Visionaries blog.)

Land Justice Book Tour. Photo: Kathleen Nay

Land Justice Book Tour. Photo: Kathleen Nay

In undergrad, I had a history professor who liked to remind us that “the past is always present.” He opened each class period with a quirky anecdote tying the distant past to today. We learned things like the origin of the phrase “to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” and the ancient beginnings of practices we think of as quite modern: applying makeup or playing table games. He used the phrase as a mnemonic device to encourage students to remember the importance of history. While most of the historical snippets he shared escape me now, the idea that the roots of the past reach like tendrils into the present is something I still think about often.

But history is not always a quirky story about babies and bathwater. For many, historical oppression manifests as inherited present-day trauma. I’ve been reminded of this throughout my time in the Friedman and UEP programs, where I’m not only learning what it means to be an expert in my field (environmental and agricultural policy), but also where I’m learning to confront privilege in my life and practice, so as not to become a policy “expert” who ignores the lived experiences of others.

On the evening of September 20, around sixty people gathered to hear from the editor and coauthors of a new book from Food First, entitled Land Justice: Re-imagining Land, Food, and the Commons in the United States. Land justice is the idea that people and communities that have been historically oppressed have a right to land and territory. The book’s 20 contributors examine themes of privilege in property ownership; black agrarianism and liberation; women’s work on the land; indigenous leadership; migration and dispossession; the implications of transnational food regimes; land-based racism; and finally, opportunities for activism and healing. Notably, the volume includes a chapter on land access written by Caitlyn Hachmyer, a 2013 alum of Tufts University’s Urban and Environmental Planning and Policy program.

The evening began with a short mistica ceremony that grounded us, leading us to reflect on our relationship with the Earth and our place upon it. We honored those who have sacrificed (and are sacrificing) everything on the front lines of land justice; and reflected upon the ways in which we might continue learning and offering solidarity to those fighting for land justice. On the ground in front of us were seeds, soil, and signifiers of the struggle against capitalist interests and colonialist occupiers of contested land.

Mistica Ceremony. Photo: Kathleen Nay

Mistica ceremony. Photo: Kathleen Nay

Director of Food First and coeditor of the new book, Eric Holt-Gimenez opened with a reading from the volume’s introduction, which reflects on a mythos well-known to Americans and to New Englanders in particular, wherein Squanto [Tisquantum] shows the pilgrims how to plant herring alongside corn, to nourish the crop and ensure a plentiful harvest. What the mythic Thanksgiving story fails to capture, however, is that Tisquantum was a captive of European explorers. While held in Europe for 16 years, his tribes—the Massasoit and Wampanoag peoples of the “New World”—were decimated by disease introduced by the colonists who overtook their homeland.

The story of early America doesn’t offer much more hope for agrarianism. Over the next centuries, dispossessed British, Nordic, and European peasants led the transition from agrarianism to the Industrial Revolution, and over time agriculture became less about feeding people and more about feeding the capitalist machine that is corporate agriculture. Holt-Gimenez’s introduction to the book sets the historical stage by emphasizing that “racial injustice and the stark inequities in property and wealth in the US countryside aren’t just a quirk of history, but a structural feature of capitalist agriculture… In order to succeed in building an alternative agrarian future, today’s social movements will have to dismantle those structures.” When you begin to examine—really examine—the root causes of hunger in our country, he says, it all comes back to the land. The past is always present.

But there are seeds of resistance, and their stories are told in Land Justice.

The first author to speak at Wednesday’s panel was Kirtrina Baxter, whose contribution to the book centers on black women healing through innate agrarian artistry. In her talk, she introduced the concept of women as seed keepers. “Black women’s acts of creating are often relegated to carrying the seeds of the human population,” Baxter and her chapter coauthors write, but “through historical and contemporary narratives of Black women agrarians, activists, and organizers, we describe innate agrarian artistry as the creative, feminine use of land-based resistance to simultaneously preserve the people and soil.” Baxter et al. acknowledge women as creators—not simply as prolific wombs, but also as literal and spiritual seed keepers, carrying on the traditions of seed saving and telling “seed stories,” (the cultural missives that get passed down along with the seeds). Baxter’s chapter in Land Justice celebrates the historical resistance “of which Black women have woven quilts, sang spirituals, and foraged from the land for survival.”

Suyapa Gonzalez was the next panelist to speak. Though not a contributing author, Gonzalez is an organizer with GreenRoots, a community-based organization in Chelsea, Massachusetts committed to achieving environmental justice through collective action, unity, education, and youth leadership. Through a translator, she gave a rousing appeal for land justice in Chelsea, where much of the soil is contaminated from years of chemical dumping, and where 72% of households are renter-occupied. “After God, it is to la madre Tierra that we owe our lives. If [our Mother Earth] dies, we will also die,” she opened, and ended with a call for everyone to demand better protections for the land that gives life.

Panel speakers from left: Eric Holt-Gimenez, Kirtrina Baxter, Hartman Deetz, Suyapa Gonzalez (and Friedman AFE student, Nayla Bezares, translating). Photo: Kathleen Nay

Panel speakers from left: Eric Holt-Gimenez, Kirtrina Baxter, Hartman Deetz, and Suyapa Gonzalez (with Friedman AFE student, Nayla Bezares, translating). Photo: Kathleen Nay

The final coauthor to speak was Hartman Deetz, a member of the Mashpee-Wampanoag tribe and an activist for land justice and indigenous rights. Deetz owns two acres of Mashpee land in Cape Cod—two acres of land, he emphasized, which has perpetually been under Mashpee ownership and never owned by white men. He pointed out that North America is entirely stolen land, evidenced by the many places across the continent bearing now-familiar American and Canadian names, but rooted in indigenous words: Nantucket Island, Massachusetts; Narragansett, Rhode Island; Nashua, New Hampshire; the Dakotas; Ottawa, Ontario; Winnipeg, Manitoba; even Massachusetts itself. It’s a long list.

But the taking of indigenous land is not simply a footnote in the distant past. Here too, the past is present. Today the Mashpee-Wampanoag tribe is fighting the government for federal recognition of their tribal status and rights to retain ownership over 11,000 acres of ancestral land. Unfortunately, it’s a situation not unique to the Mashpee; in his Land Justice chapter, Deetz recounts his experience standing alongside the Standing Rock Sioux in protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline. People are still losing lives and livelihoods in the struggle for land justice.

Small group discussions. Photo: Kathleen Nay

Small group discussions. Photo: Kathleen Nay

The evening closed with a chance for attendees to break into small groups for discussion and reflection. My group took the opportunity to consider just how present the past really is. We reflected on how the histories of indigenous peoples and people of color, so deeply tied to land ownership (or lack thereof), are all but erased in our culture. I left with a deeper resolve to seek out those hidden histories, to use my profession and practice to amplify efforts for democratic community control of land, and to lend my support to organizations that do the same.

Kathleen Nay is a third year AFE/UEP dual degree student. This summer she discovered Native-Land.ca, a resource to help North Americans learn more about the indigenous histories and languages of the region where they live. If you have a zip or postal code, you too can learn more about your home on native land.

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Book Review – You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice

by Danièle Todorov

We pick from a dozen entrée options, a couple hundred Netflix movies, or thousands of grocery store products by referencing our intuitive tastes. Or so we think. Tom Vanderbilt delves into the near-irrationality of our preferences in You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice.

For each of the experts featured in Tom Vanderbilt’s You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice, the most baffling phrase in common language is “it’s an acquired taste.” Countless questions spring from that one little word “acquired.” The driving forces behind taste are chaotic and seemingly lawless, continuously evolving with age and context. When did my revulsion for olives and anchovies morph into a pseudo-sophisticated appreciation? Where did the change begin, in the reward center of the brain or in the nervous network of the gut? Was the desire to eat those abhorred foods social, visceral, or pretentious? All of us working in nutrition hold some ideas about the origin and evolution of taste and may subscribe to a single explanation. So brace yourselves. You May Also Like is packed with evidence for a dozen conflicting theories. Ironically, Vanderbilt states “what is taste, really, but a kind of cognitive mechanism for managing sensory overload?”

As a freelance journalist in design, science, and technology, Tom Vanderbilt draws expertise from a similarly diverse cast of researchers in You May Also Like, from the flavor chemists at McCormick pimping our snacks, to the mathematicians at Netflix keeping us hooked. Vanderbilt’s research is extensive and holistic. Interestingly, the same set of human behaviors are at play in almost every field. I found his discussions of Facebook likes and music preference to be equally as informative for nutrition as the chapter on food choice. While this diversity keeps the book engaging and fresh (a nod to our constant novelty seeking), space constraints often keep Vanderbilt from providing satisfying explanations. You May Also Like serves better as an introduction for readers interested in interdisciplinary behavioral research than an in-depth resource.

You May Also Like offers a condensed snapshot of our current understanding of taste and leaves readers questioning and obsessed with its core ideas. After reading this book, I am certain about only two things. First, I will never use the phrases “acquired taste” or “I’ll have what she’s having” without hearing the gears turn in my subconscious. Second, ask any of the book’s featured experts—honestly—why we like what we like, and you’ll receive an answer with a slightly embarrassed shrug.

Danièle Todorov is a first-year Nutritional Epidemiology student who should not be trusted with matters of taste, given how much she enjoyed The Museum of Bad Art in Somerville.