MU professor’s book looks into the role of place in indigenous activism

The book focuses on three areas: the Cheslatta Carrier Nation in British Columbia, the Wakarusa Wetlands near Lawrence, Kansas and the Waitangi Treaty Grounds in New Zealand.

"Being Together in Place" by Soren Larsen and Jay Johnson. Courtesy of University of Minnesota Press

Soren Larson, an associate professor of geography in the MU College of Arts and Science, published a book with the University of Minnesota Press that concentrates on the struggles of native peoples in areas threatened by construction.

Titled “Being Together in Place,” the book was written with his colleague and co-writer Jay Johnson, an associate professor of geography at the University of Kansas.

The book focuses on three areas: the Cheslatta Carrier Nation in British Columbia, the Wakarusa Wetlands near Lawrence, Kansas and the Waitangi Treaty Grounds in New Zealand.

In the Wakarusa Wetlands, activists fought against the Kansas Department of Transportation’s attempts to construct a highway, which would damage the wetlands. The activism in the Cheslatta Carrier Nation was against a corporation called Alcan’s plans for hydroelectric development in the Nechako River. New Zealand’s activism focuses on restoring the treaty on which New Zealand was founded, which would mean returning land and land management rights back to the native people, along with monetary settlements, Larsen said.

“The book is about place-based activism involving indigenous people in three landscapes,” Larsen said. “In each of these places there’s a long history of activism, and this activism has involved nonnative people as well.”

Through their research, the pair identified a concept they refer to as “agency of place,” which is a process of “listening to place” and discovering responsibility to others and the interconnected nature of people and the natural world. The process of “heeding the call of place,” defending and caring for these places led people to understand and take up their responsibilities to the other human and nonhuman communities who share that place.

The book, published on Nov. 6, was about two years in the making, Larsen said. The pair conducted approximately one year of field research and took another year to write, edit and review the work.

“[Writing the book] was fully collaborative,” Johnson said. “We came up with all of the ideas together … Each of us had our own longer-term research projects, [Larsen’s] in Canada and mine in New Zealand, so we diverged when we wrote on those topics … We read each other’s work and integrated it together.”

Larsen and Johnson were awarded a collaborative research fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, which enabled them to take a year off of teaching to conduct field research and prepare the book.

“A lot of the writing was done in the actual places, and that’s an important point because for us as well, as authors of this book. It involved developing an educational relationship with these three places,” Larsen said.

With the publishing of this book, Larsen and Johnson hope to open people’s eyes and minds to indigenous ways of life and thought processes.

“[The goal of this book is to] help people realize that there are different ways to think about the places we live in and the places we integrate to in our own work and personal and home lives, and that they are meaningful places,” Johnson said.

The locations written about in the book play important roles in each of the writers’ lives as well, Larsen said, as they have each spent a great deal of time at each place.

The two have plans to write more books about indigenous ways of life and the places these groups inhabit. The pair is currently planning for a follow up book to “Being Together in Place,” titled “Heeding the Call of Place,” about artists whose work encapsulates the ideas of “call of place.”

Edited by Olivia Garrett | ogarrett@themaneater.com

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