Opinion

Indigenous peoples, immigrants and reflections on Harlem NYC as the pointy end of the Anthropocene

The people of the Holocene, are the key to living in the natural world, to sustaining, rebuilding and repairing the natural world for future generations.

Image: Taken by Vicki at the African American Museum Exhibition

While resident in Harlem for research purposes I have become interested in the nature of the human society within this place, and placing it within the analytical frame of the Anthropocene. My interest stems from my thinking about the importance of  Land Dialogues for finding a way to live within the Anthropocene. As one of the keynote speakers at the Land Dialogues conference, I spoke of the need to connect with the knowledges of Indigenous peoples to find a way to meet the demands of the future.  I understand that the key to living with nature, to support the natural world, is to value and support those knowledges that developed within the Holocene and became glossed as redundant as the world moved inexorably into the Anthropocene. That is the knowledges of Indigenous peoples, the people of the Holocene, are the key to living in the natural world, to sustaining, rebuilding and repairing the natural world for future generations.

I understand the argument that the Indigenous people of the Earth are sentinels for the Anthropocene and they have borne the brunt of the onset of this, the age of humans, that is now increasingly upon the living earth and the whole of humanity. Across the world, Indigenous peoples are now defending their lands from the increased pressure and aggressive incursions of miners, resource “developers” and indeed radioactive waste dumpers. The Indigenous peoples of what is now New York state and city were largely displaced during the huge migrations of peoples from the United Kingdom and Europe that led to the development of the city, bearing the full brunt of the Anthropogenic impact on their lands. The reconnection of these peoples to their lands, their wisdom, stewardship and strategic thinking is now crucial for the future of the people of this city.

However, what also makes Harlem interesting and important is that it is one place (among many) that is now overwhelmingly comprised of displaced Indigenous peoples, for example, the approx. 81,600 people descended from those who came to this continent from their native Africa as captives destined for slavery.[i] Their descendants are now “free” and pursuing a life in the country of their birth, but not in their country.  That is, they do not have the opportunity to relate to country that knows them, and that can shape them in the way that we Aboriginal people understand to be so important for the wellbeing of our people. This also applies to the more than 17,000 Hispanic peoples who reside in Harlem,[ii] many of whom are from strong Indigenous contexts in Mexico and Central America and who have arrived in Harlem in the hope of escaping grinding poverty.  I think that we as Indigenous peoples need to be actively seeking allies, supporting and sustaining Indigenous knowledges developments within cities and sites such as Harlem, as a way to ameliorate the impact of the future on this living Earth.

It happens that Indigenous peoples are uniquely fitted to become defenders of the natural world because of a close cultural and intimate personal connection that has their very identity tied to “country.” In this connection, I draw on the work of Wanta Janpijimpa Patrick and Dr Joseph Gumbula amongst other Aboriginal cultural theorists who understand that “country” shapes us, grows us and ensures wellbeing. Moreover, Indigenous precepts such as that of the Wiradjuri people of NSW – yindyamarra “respect, go slowly, take responsibility” – “the capacity to live well in a world worth living in” – that embody the responsibility of peoples to shape their environment to make it habitable, productive of wellbeing and sustainable – have potential for wide application.

However, what if the displaced forced “immigrants” from Africa were once sentinels for the Anthropocene? What if their removal from their homelands was as a result of the onset of the Anthropocene? I have come to understand the huge movement and displacement of peoples around the globe, what we understand as modern history – the wars, the displacement of peoples, the growth of camps and refugee populations – as characteristic of the Anthropocene.

If it is true that Indigenous peoples are now sentinels for the Anthropocene, what is true of those Indigenous peoples who were torn from their homelands, family and kin to travel thousands of miles from their country in the past? I believe these people, now displaced in multiple, complex ways and now located within cities, in places such as Harlem, are living at the “pointy end of the Anthropocene.”  Since 3.2 billion of the world’s 9 billion people now live in cities and by 2050 two-thirds of the projected population of 10 billion will live in cities.[iii] We need to know more about what the overwhelming mass of people, the poor and dispossessed, will face in their lives, in the cities of the world. In truth, they are living in ways that many more people will experience as this century progresses and the greater proportion of people live in cities.

It follows that our understanding of the lives of these people can inform us of what we can expect more of in the future. And, we need to understand the relationship between the culture of the city and the natural world. To this end, I am informally interviewing six “informants” who live in Harlem to begin to ascertain their experience of nature in the culture of cities and the impact of this on their wellbeing. That is the next step in my understanding of how nature figures in the culture of cities, including understanding of whether the growth of cities is in itself a “natural” development, are cities in fact a part of nature?[iv]

For a map showing the original inhabitants of the area that is now New York state including the city of New York, click here.

[i] For details on Harlem’s Race-and-Ethnicity statistics, click here.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ackerman, D. (2014) The Human Age: the World Shaped by Us, W. W. Norton and Co., NY, p.10.

[iv] For a discussion of this idea, click here.

Victoria provides further discussion of the Anthropocene in the audio clip below. The audio is from 2016 the Land Dialogues Conference at Charles Sturt University.


Dr Victoria Grieves, ARC Indigenous Research Fellow at the University of Sydney, is Warraimaay from the midnorth coast of NSW and a historian. The first Aboriginal graduate with BA Honours and with a double major in history, her book Aboriginal Spirituality: Aboriginal Philosophy and the Social and Emotional Wellbeing of Aboriginal people is widely accessed and much cited. Vicki works to progress Indigenous knowledge within Australia and globally through Aboriginal family history and approaches to dealing with the Anthropocene; her approach to research is interdisciplinary and deliberately from a Warraimaay epistemology.

This blog is a summarised version of a paper written and presented by Victoria Grieves, for The Re-(E)mergence of Nature in Culture Workshop, hosted by SEI.