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Reflections on 2021 Symposia

Posted On August 09, 2021 | 16:14 pm | by lainw | Permalink
Bliss Symposium Award recipients reflect on virtual symposia in Byzantine, Pre-Columbian, and Garden and Landscape Studies

Faces of Rulership in the Maya Region” (Pre-Columbian Studies; March 25–27) 

Fernando Pesce, PhD candidate in history, State University of Campinas in Brazil

The conference speakers examined an immense variety of sites, artifacts, and documents to propose new understandings of the role of rulers and the multiple interpretations on kingship/queenship, thus observing how authority was constituted and materialized in a variety of ways. The presentations offered insights into new theoretical approaches regarding the organization of power, concerning different forms of rulership and ways of legitimizing authority. The symposium participants proposed case studies of Maya queens and kings on the expressions of rulership in monumental architecture; Maya political practices that involved feasts, costumes, and different kinds of relations with other polities in the Classic period; the importance of Maya queens to dynastic rule for political and cosmological reproduction; and the strategies Maya nobles used to receive recognition after the arrival of the Spaniards. Importantly, the symposium explored multiple ways rulership takes form, including contextual explanations on strategies, power relationships between rulers, and kingship/queenship practices.

Jacob Welch, PhD candidate in archaeology, Yale University

“Faces of Rulership in the Maya Region” explored the diverse ways authority emerged, transformed, and manifested in different parts of the Maya lowlands. Although rulership often operated using similar principles, rulers emphasized and combined these principles in distinct ways to assert their unique claim to authority. While common threads connected how Maya rulers governed, their techniques of rulership diverged across and space and time. Maya rulers—both men and women—fostered alliances with particular dynasties, traced their unique origins, venerated distinct patron gods, commissioned diverse sculptural programs, consumed special foods, donned exceptional wardrobes, and tapped into specific trade networks. Despite local and regional variation, these techniques of rulership show underlying commonalities between royal institutions throughout the Maya lowlands that allowed rulers to distinguish themselves from their subjects. The symposium demonstrated that pathways of Maya rulership cross as much as they split.


On Being Conquered in Byzantium” (Byzantine Studies; April 16–17)

Nicolette Levy, MA student in history of art, Tulane University

As an art historian, I have been taught to center the object, and to rely on written sources only as supplemental to what the material evidence suggests. By examining these literary sources as both sites of historical record and of personal identity, I realize just how useful these sources can be in recentering the voices of those long silenced by history.

Arie Neuhauser, MPhil candidate in Byzantine studies, Oxford University

Adam Goldwyn closed the symposium by acknowledging the difficulties of understanding historical experiences of being conquered or captured. We often consider aspects of life like Byzantine girls putting on makeup or a Byzantine archbishop writing a Homeric commentary, but seldom think about those same people losing their status, liberty, or lives. Yet those were possibilities they themselves imagined and dreaded; besides recovering the voices of the conquered, we should listen to those who feared conquest. 

Marissa Smit, PhD candidate in history, Harvard University

Day two of the symposium brought a welcome focus to the experiences of women, especially in Nadia Maria El Cheikh’s paper on the capture of Byzantine women during the Arab-Byzantine wars. Learning from her research that women were much less numerous in the official exchanges of captives reminded me of Alasdair Grant’s paper on captivity letters and ransom networks. In his corpus of sources, too, relatively few women were represented. I wondered what could be said by comparing the experiences of women in these two different periods and styles of captive-redemption. In the Ottoman histories of conquest I am familiar with, at least, it is also clear that women are not the only captives to be eroticized or sexually coerced by their captors.


Land Back: Indigenous Landscapes of Resurgence and Freedom” (Garden and Landscape Studies; April 29, May 13, May 27, and June 10) 

Aldo Barriente, BA candidate in linguistics and computer science, University of Virginia

The first session of the “Land Back” symposium, “Landscapes of Resistance,” introduced us to the past and present movements of Indigenous resistance in a settler-colonial system. Each of the presenters emphasized how land and the environment are central to Indigenous resistance. I was inspired by Deondre Smiles’s paper on “everyday” resistance, requiring private and state agencies to abide by Indigenous cultural and geographic knowledge in order to perform infrastructure construction and development on the land. It subverts the power dynamic between settler states and tribal communities by treating the settler state as a guest in the lands of the tribal community.

The fourth session, “Movement/Thinking Across Borders,” sought to challenge the notion of borders and categorization to recognize how place-based knowledge moves across imposed borders. In particular, place-based knowledge emphasizes how communities who have endured colonial violence and land separation are able to practice the caretaking of the land they are on now, and how Indigeneity and Indigenous knowledge are dynamic both across colonial borders and in thought. Indeed, this session challenged the usual concept of “land back” as a rich collection of Indigenous activists and communities and instead considered it as a slogan, pushing for a deconstruction of the borders that would be reformed in a Western treatment of giving land back.

Sarai Carter, MLA candidate, University of Virginia

In the first symposium session, the speakers presented a theme that would run through the whole: the relation of reciprocity between human and nonhuman as necessary for mutual survival, and the variety of tactics used to resist the corruption of that reciprocity wrought by equally diverse forms of colonialism. “Land Back” is more expansive than Euro-American academic and popular understanding recognizes. Because of our fixation with commodification and ownership, we have conceptualized “Land Back” quite narrowly as the legal act of repatriating property to federally recognized Indigenous bodies. The reality is so much more encompassing.

Throughout the symposium, discussion repeatedly touched on the question of whether “Land Back” should pay credence to the settler-colonial legal system, playing into its reductionist and often unjust and violent system. It is this very same reductive impulse that has allowed for the exploitation of land and people for centuries, which in turn has led to the suite of crises we find ourselves barely capable of addressing today. It is important to note that “Land Back” is not a question of a single approach, nor of a single scale of action. For Olivia Arigho-Stiles and Ruth H. Matamoros-Mercado, speaking to Bolivian and Miskitu people respectively, “Land Back” is politically and culturally encompassing, an active struggle. In contrast, Deondre Smiles brought to light the value of the quotidian, relatively small-scale actions that also define “Land Back.” The ways sacred, legally protected burial grounds on tribal lands and the ancestors interred there continue to provide protection to their living, breathing descendants (both human and more-than-human relations) is a deeply touching example of the diversity of “Land Back” thought and action.

This symposium offered so many extraordinary moments of learning and questioning and epiphany; I’ll be carrying all this forward in my practice as a restoration ecologist and landscape architect. I’m so deeply grateful for this thoughtfully curated and generously gifted experience. 

Alyssa Gill, MLA candidate, Louisiana State University

During the 2021 “Land Back” symposium, prevailing themes of memory, felt knowledge, relationships, and time resonated with me as key learnings to integrate into my own understanding of landscape. By examining resistance in varying forms, the sessions exemplified the ways Indigenous language, the sharing of knowledge, memory, and practices expose the limitations of colonial understanding.

Deondre Smiles’s discussion of spectacular and quotidian resistance challenged any conception that resistance holds a singular form. His work with the Tribal Heritage Sites Program, Tribal Historic Preservation Offices, and specifically with Indigenous team members exposed a key model for how landscape architects should conduct their own partnerships in matters of assessing land. By marrying “Western” forms of scientific knowledge with Indigenous knowledge, landscape architecture practices can be pushed beyond colonial systems of thought.

The second session further explored human and more-than-human relationships as practices of care and memory. Lisa Myers’s work on Mike MacDonald’s medicine and butterfly gardens confronts colonial uses of language, and Natasha Myhal’s observation that “dwelling on stories of loss doesn’t tell the full story” helped to contextualize the call for “Land Back” itself. Land acknowledgments, while helpful in identifying legacies of harm, necessitate further discussion and action. It is key to also share stories of resilience and Indigenous futures. To continue the conversation means moving beyond a theoretical discussion.

In the fourth session, “Movement/Thinking Across Borders,” Amrah Saloman asked about the relationship between the presentations and ideas of control in landscape architecture. The symposium challenged the landscape architect’s perspective: how do we question our traditional notions of controlling land, or imposing our own agenda onto a landscape? How can we move beyond perpetuating harmful colonial practices in our profession with a newfound knowledge and respect for Indigenous relationships, memory, felt knowledge, and practices in the landscape?