Nine Widening Widdershins Circumambulations for Decolonization (How to Get to Know This Land)
On Thursday, August 3rd, 2017, I perform a 26.6 mile walk, which I have mapped out here, circumambulating nine times counter-clockwise around the beautiful Mission Church in the present-day Mission Hill neighborhood of the traditional homeland of the Massachusett people (greater Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.). I currently live in the neighborhood, as a resident artist at Emmanuel College, a private Catholic liberal arts school. My idea is to map the sphere of influence of the church bells, which ring out over the neighborhood every 15 minutes. I got the idea because the bells would wake me up in the morning through my bedroom window, which was a pleasant enough alarm clock, if a little invasive. For this performance, I intend to widen my course with each loop around the church, never recrossing my path, until I have circled it nine times, or until I can no longer hear the bells, whichever feels right. A summary of my research informing this project follows.
In English folklore, it was believed that to go around a church anti-clockwise or “widdershins,” as I am doing, was unlucky. For example, take the fairy tale of “Childe Rowland, where the protagonist and his sister are transported to Elfland after his sister runs widdershins round a church.” This superstition was bound up in the long history of the spread of a Christian worldview to people of other belief systems, including so-called pagan and animistic spiritualities. These terms come from the nowadays discredited social evolutionist discourse of early anthropology, which takes monotheism and science as the culmination of social evolution in so-called civilized societies, in contrast to the beliefs of so-called primitive societies. Our contemporary pop-culture notions of elves and fairies are remnants of belief systems that existed in Europe before conversion to Christianity happened, and remain important to some people. In Ireland’s traditional spirituality, for example, fairies are known as the aos sí or the Tuath(a) Dé Danann. Non-Abrahamic (Judeo/Christian/Muslim) belief systems are still vital for many indigenous peoples around the world, who have successfully survived centuries of genocidal and assimilationist policies, and maintain their commitment to practicing traditional cultural and spiritual beliefs.
Christendom’s specific role in the colonization of the Americas and the ongoing genocide of the indigenous inhabitants is indisputable, and tragic. The various Catholic Popes of the 1400s and 1500s issued numerous papal bulls (declarations) in support of colonial land claims by European royal powers, including the Spanish and Portuguese imperial projects, laying the foundation for the colonization, Christianization, enslavement, and genocide of the “new world,” as well as Africa. These papal bulls make up what is known in the U.S. judicial system as the Doctrine of Discovery, which has been cited in decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court as recently as 2005. The important precedent case of Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823) forms the basis of all Federal Indian law and settler property claims. This landmark case has been cited in numerous land disputes regarding treaty claims by Native American Nations ever since. These matters are thoroughly elaborated in the works of indigenous legal scholars Steven Newcomb and Robert J. Miller.
Additionally, the ongoing genocide of colonized native peoples has been carried out by individual settlers, by policies of settler governments, and by the assimilative drive of Christian churches, particularly in the history of residential boarding schools and missions work. Many progressive Christian groups have joined indigenous groups in calling for the repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery in recent years. For instance, in 2014, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (which represents about 80% of Catholic nuns in the U.S.) passed a resolution stating, “We humbly and respectfully ask Pope Francis to lead us in formally repudiating the period of Christian history that used religion to justify political and personal violence against indigenous nations and peoples and their cultural, religious, and territorial identities.” However, in 2015 Pope Francis canonized the controversial Spanish Missionary Junipero Serra, to the dismay of many indigenous people of California, who view him as the architect of their peoples’ genocide, and the destruction of their languages and cultures; a far cry from saintly behavior indeed.
Despite the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which the U.S. was one of only four countries to vote against, and much progress in the growing transnational indigenous rights movement, indigenous people remain among the most marginalized and ignored groups in many settler societies, including the U.S. and Canada. Indigenous cultures, ways of life, and sovereignty remain under constant threat from the culturally hegemonic neoliberal white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy, managed by the elites that rule our world. Additionally, the facts of the genocide of indigenous peoples remain painfully under-recognized by citizens and governments of settler societies. The decolonization of indigenous lands and peoples is an ongoing project of indigenous rights activists and allies around the world. These indigenous leaders dispute the claim that we live in a “post-colonial” era, following the deconstruction of European colonies in Asia and Africa in the mid-20th century. The fact is, colonialism is alive and well in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Russia, to name just a few of the biggest offenders, as evidenced in current dealings with indigenous peoples inside their borders.
My small action of walking against the direction of the clock is in solidarity with the Bolivian government’s 2014 adoption of a “decolonization clock” running counter-clockwise, as a sign of their commitment to the indigenous population of the nation, as well as upending Eurocentric northern-hemispheric domination. As Bolivia’s foreign minister, David Choquehuanca remarked, “Who said clocks always have to run the same way? Why do we always have to be obedient? Why can’t we be creative?”
I take this action in denial of normative hegemonic notions of property ownership, reflected in the legal structures of Federal, State, and local governments. I trespass frequently and with great enthusiasm on my walk.
Ultimately, I take this action with the deeply-felt intention of reversing the colonization of my mind, body, and spirit; as well as holding intention for decolonization of the land I walk, and of the people I meet along the way.
I imagine organizing and performing future group “Walks for Decolonization,” in the tradition of the Situationist dérive and in solidarity with Indigenous Walking Tours taking place today in Canada, embodying a commitment to unravelling the mess we’re in, through an active practice of looking, listening, and engaging in social discourse on these pressing matters.
With any luck, or rather unluck (in this uncivilizing process I embark upon, feeling it to be my uncivic duty as an uncitizen), I might even get to visit Elfland sometime soon :) …or at least, to begin to really know this land that I call home.