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Restoration and Indigeneity in the Everglades

Jessica Cattelino, Associate Professor of Anthropology at UCLA, discussed a work in progress titled “Beyond Which Human?: Feminism in these Anthropological Times” at the Sociocultural Anthropology colloquium on April 23. Cattelino is the author of High Stakes: Florida Seminole Gaming and Sovereignty (Duke University Press, 2008), which has won numerous prizes for its examination of the cultural, political, and economic stakes of tribal casinos for Florida Seminoles.

Cattelino sketched out some concepts from her latest project: an ethnography about the cultural value of water in the Florida Everglades, with a focus on the Seminole Big Cypress Reservation and the nearby agricultural town of Clewiston. She looks at nature and indigeneity in restoration efforts in the everglades.

Cattelino framed her presentation with a question posed to her recently: why is she discussing the everglades through the lens of the human? Why not from the perspective of the water?

Cattelino walked us through some of her thoughts, and discomforts, about this proposition, putting a move towards the “post-human” in contemporary anthropological scholarship in conversation with indigeneity and with the many exclusions that were central to the category of the human.

In the context of everglades restoration, the association of indigenous people with nature is ubiquitous and explicit. The pre-colonial everglades are often described as pristine, untouched, and “natural” when in fact there are no pre-human everglades. This ecosystem is only about 5,000 years old, meaning people where there before it was, and the everglades themselves are shaped by human inhabitation, with traces of ancient canals and man-made islands.

Everglades restoration efforts are in response to earlier colonial “reclamation” efforts, in which much swampland was drained to make way for human habitation. This caused problems with flooding and poor water quality, leading to calls to restore the ecosystem to its “original state.” This “original” or “natural” state is dated to the time of settlement- indigenous habitation before that point falls into the domain of “nature.” The whiteness of the environmental movement also tends to replicate this association of native and nature.

Anthropological studies of nonhumans are not entirely new, but calls to move beyond the human or to decenter the human have gained momentum in Anthropology in recent years. Cattelino described what seems to be an extension of inclusion, expanding from the inclusion of women and people of color, to nonhumans, to even nonliving things, as entities worthy of attention. It is this politics of extension which Cattelino finds troubling. It tends to leave the human this scholarship is moving beyond relatively homogeneous and unspecified.

Cattelino gave a brief outline of the history of “man” from the Enlightenment, drawing on the work of philosopher Sylvia Wynter, especially her article “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation: An Argument.” She takes up Wynter’s description of “genres” of the human to counter homogenization of “the human” which downplay the ways in which humanity was denied to groups of people, often using the same intellectual foundations which are so under-examined in moves “beyond the human.”

How can we read this call to “decenter the human” in comparison, say, with the page for Black Lives Matter which calls for an end to the dehumanization of black people? What about Leiden University’s decision to add animal studies to their department of African studies? What associations of people of color or women with nature are actually being reinforced in moves to decenter “the” human without specifying which genre?

Many anthropologists who want to find ways to better value nature extend a politics of inclusion to non-humans, borrowing a charge from anti-colonial projects. Just as women and people of color came to be included in the category of the human, so might non-humans like animals, plants, or ecosystems. Cattelino cited Eduardo Kohn, famous for his 2013 book How Forests Think: Towards an Anthropology Beyond the Human, saying that he typifies this tendency to borrow a political logic of inclusion from anti-sexist and anti-racism movements without thoroughly adopting the politics of the projects he borrows from. Jane Bennet, author of Vibrant Matter, faces a similar charge. How can extending inclusion harm the original aims of the social movements from which these calls for recognition emerged?

Scholarship decentering the human is, ironically, gaining prominence just as anthropogenic climate change is re-centering the human. This re-centering, however, is not of human as Man, but human as a moral character. The idea of one human in control has exploded in discussions of approaches to climate change. According to Bruno Latour, climate change meant man exiting the scene of natural history. The story of one natural category of the human begins to fall apart when the consequences of human choices shape the future of the planet we live on.

This page was last updated: July 26, 2018



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