May 14, 2019
All communities are teeming with energy, spirit, and knowledge. In the new book Spiral to the Stars, geographer Laura Harjo taps into and activates this dynamism to discuss Indigenous community planning from a Mvskoke perspective. The book poses questions about what community is, how to reclaim community, and how to embark on the process of envisioning what and where the community can be. Today we’re excited to share Harjo’s thoughts on conceiving a map to build genuine community relationships, knowledge, and power:
We watched television every day at my grandfather’s house, before cable, when there were only four channels: ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS. We watched The Price is Right and Wheel of Fortune. Hosts Bob Barker and Pat Sajak crooned at us while we sat in Grandpa’s HUD home, situated in a Creek housing subdivision, with a gravel-dirt road leading in and out. Their voices droned from his console TV, which looked like a piece of wooden furniture; I only knew a handful of people who had a “fancy” TV like that. With game shows humming in the background and the smell of sliced USDA luncheon meat, commodity Spam, frying in the skillet in the kitchen, Grandpa would tell me medicine stories. Some seemed unfathomable—but I believed them and believe them still. He would start by telling me I needed to be able to take care of myself, before going on to teach me medicine songs and instructing me on contemporary uses of Mvskoke medicine. As times change, our needs change, and I learned from my grandfather that the songs and medicine shift to meet our current needs. One song he taught me was meant to be sung in a pawn shop when you want the proprietor to negotiate in your favor! The song’s purpose wasn’t to unfairly sway interactions but rather to make you heard and understood. Thus Creek values and ways morph into new manifestations and applications. Our ways are not bound to “traditional” use, and I think our relatives would think it was ridiculous if we refused to benefit from our knowledge and lifeways in the current day. The purpose of this story about my grandpa is to demonstrate a renegotiation of knowledge and its use as a tool. Our medicine does not stand still either, and its use is not frozen in time. In this book, I share other Mvskoke stories with a commitment to prioritizing the theories that come from the lived and felt experiences of Mvskoke communities, and practices born out of necessity and love.
The primary argument is that Mvskoke communities have what they need at their disposal; everyday community practices are deep, rich, and meaningful, and have sustained Mvskoke people through many moments and in many places. Community practices are articulated through Mvskoke relationships, knowledge, power, and spatialities. Despite the eliminatory work of the settler state, these Mvskoke practices, like those of other Indigenous and marginalized groups who are targeted by settler colonialism, have managed to fly under the radar undetected. Mvskoke communities have sustained the spaces to dream, imagine, speculate, and activate the wishes of our ancestors, contemporary kin, and future relatives—all in a present temporality, which is Indigenous futurity. Mvskoke futurity carries out a form of Indigenous futurity while honoring the lived experiences and knowledge of the Mvskoke community. Mvskoke experiences, practices, and theories generate four concepts fundamental to Mvskoke futurity: este-cate sovereignty (Indigenous kinship sovereignty); community (and body) knowledge; collective power; and the imagining, constructing, and accessing of Mvskoke spatialities.
Examining Mvskoke community through the lens of futurity enables us to step out of clashes over grievance claims for a moment and speculate about the future that our ancestors desired and that we desire, and about how to create something that our future relatives will want and need. The notion of futurity challenges a conventional reckoning of time and the future, and pushes us to create right now—in the present moment—that which our ancestors, we, and future relatives desire. As community builders, we often ask tactical sets of questions to develop a concrete plan, and then tell people that they are going to have to sit and wait, knowing that conditions will not improve in their time: their dreams will be for someone else. In other words, we tell them “not yet.” We cannot say “not yet.” I am not eschewing a long view of community; I am merely saying that futurity does not have to be limited to a future temporality, in which we have to wait to create and get to the place where we want to be. Indeed, there are a range of ways in which we are already enacting Mvskoke futurity to shift community conditions.
Shifting conditions and community contexts require us to renegotiate Mvskoke lifeways and practices. Sharing the story of my grandpa’s pawn shop song illustrates the ease with which renegotiation of Mvskoke knowledge and practices can occur. Spiral to the Stars recognizes Mvskoke ways of knowing as a legitimate source of power and recognizes that Mvskoke people embody, enact, and share power and knowledge in multiple spatialities. My operating definition of futurity is the enactment of theories and practices that activate our ancestors’ unrealized possibilities, the act of living out the futures we wish for in a contemporary moment, and the creation of the conditions for these futures. This is futurity: it operates in service to our ancestors, contemporary relatives, and future relatives. I employ futurity as an analytical tool throughout the book.
Mvskoke poet, musician, and playwright Joy Harjo’s poem “A Map to the Next World” urges us to think about Mvskoke futurities—the other possible worlds to live in that refuse elimination at the hands of settler colonialism. In her poem, Harjo takes the reader through the prevailing world conditions and wonders about a map to the next world, offering suggestions of looking inward—the map is written into us. As a Mvskoke person, I consider Harjo’s poem a call to action, a call to conceive of a map to the next world. This is a significant endeavor that requires renegotiating Mvskoke knowledge—something we have always done. This book is just one idea for constructing a map, using futurity as an analytical tool. As an Indigenous mapper and cartographer, I develop way-finding tools that I will unpack in each chapter. I put into action my community knowledge and academic training to imagine tools that communities can use to operationalize their knowledge without requiring so-called experts to identify their areas of genius.
Laura Harjo is a Mvskoke scholar, geographer, planner, and Indigenous methodologist. She is an assistant professor of community and regional planning at the University of New Mexico.
Cover art: Chain of Being by Daniel McCoy Jr.