From a Dakota perspective, the term placemaking sounds more like placetaking, reflecting a hierarchical dominion over approach

Mona Smith
Photo courtesy Mona Smith.

The dominant worldview sees the world, the universe, as a resource, something for humans to have power over, with the resultant belief that places can be made. The popular term placemaking (coined here in Minnesota, by the way) seems quintessentially colonialist.

Native folks often react to the term with a shake of the head, eyes down, saying (or thinking), “Sounds a lot like place-taking to me.”

Definitions of placemaking from a non-Native viewpoint often talk about humans providing meaning to a location, thus “making” the “place.” In theory, placemaking seems to reflect this hierarchical point of view in which people take dominion over the earth—an assumption so deeply ingrained in Western thought that it often goes unexamined and unchallenged. In practice, placemaking requires human expertise, at the top of a supposed hierarchy of beings, to bestow this meaning, perhaps in consultation with some of the other humans who live there.

But universe-as-hierarchy is not an indigenous way of looking at things.

A central tenet of Dakota thinking is mitakuye owasin, often translated as “all my relations.” Mitakuye owasin goes beyond holding hands and feeling kindly toward other two-leggeds. We are related to the animals, to the trees, to the sky, to the hills, to the rivers and lakes, and to the energies and powers around us all. This sense of relatedness is not poetic; it is not a metaphor. We are taught that to be Dakota is to be not just connected, in some abstract sense, but literally related, as in a family, to all that exists. Choices that members of a family make have profound effects on other members of the family. We carry responsibilities to this family.

All of this helps explain why dominion over is not a Dakota concept, and why placemaking is a problem from our point of view. We are always in relationship to a place. Relationship, in Dakota ways, is centered on reciprocity and respect. Our respect feeds a place, as it feeds us. Disrespect brings damage to place and to people.

Dakota people recognize and honor the energies and history of a place as they exist in relationship with us, and as they existed long before us. Making a place seems like disrespect—in fact, it seems like the height of human arrogance.

Mona Smith, Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota Oyate, multimedia artist, and educator, is trying to figure out how to navigate in this new world. She stands with Standing Rock. She goes to too many meetings and is trying to get back to doing more art.

Featured in Public Art Review #57.