What’s Under the City? Constructing and Contesting the Natural in Settler Colonial New York

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Laura Barraclough
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In this paper, I suggest that the settler colonization of New York and the articulation of natural history as a field of study were mutually constitutive processes, and trace the shifting relationship between settler colonialism and discourses of land across time. I argue that, during the seventeenth-century English colonization of New York, the study of the environment through the lens of natural history worked to encourage settlement of the colony and legitimize logics of Indigenous displacement. I trace these discourses through the nineteenth-century rise of elite settler institutions dedicated to the production and dissemination of knowledge about nature, focusing on the American Museum of Natural History in New York. I then turn to the present, describing the work of Indigenous and Black activists to contest the settler constructions of the natural world put forward by the AMNH. In describing the activism of Decolonize This Place, I illustrate shifts in how “environment” and “decolonization” are each conceptualized—and explore what these shifts mean for coalitional resistance to ongoing structures of settler colonialism. I argue that the enduring expression of Native relations to land opens possibilities for the rehearsal of decolonial futures, despite and against settler colonialism.