Settlers in the Land: Decolonising Permaculture

David Pritchett
Monday, 4th January 2016

David Pritchett explores how we can 'read' the cultural landscape and become more educated about the 'invisible structures' that exclude people from the land and from the wider permaculture movement.

“I am a settler in this land, too,” Randy says. We are sitting in a talking circle on the back porch of the farmhouse of Edith and Randy Woodley. This is the beginning of a day-long workshop on forest gardening at the Woodley’s 4-acre homestead. Before I taught about forest garden theory and practice, Randy insisted that we first talk about how we as people relate to the land. I’m glad he did. 

Randy is a legal descendent of the Keetoowah Cherokee, while Edith, his wife, is a member of the Eastern Shoshone tribe. They both take their heritage seriously, and with equal gravity they recognize that the land on which they live and make a living belongs to the Kalapuya. When they purchased the homestead in disrepair, the first thing they did was visit the elders of the Grande Ronde, a reservation that is now the living place of many tribes of the Pacific Northwest dispossessed of their homelands. They asked how they could honor the Kalapuya people: “Plant huckleberries,” the elder said. And they did. Since then, Edith and Randy have worked hard to restore the farm, using permaculture principles and techniques as they learned, as well as growing vegetables and medicinal herbs with the methods of their own people. 

Invisible structures

Understanding the complex ties between European colonization of non-European lands and the continued wealth and privilege associated with those of European descent requires investigation of what in permaculture are called the ‘invisible structures’ that organize the social and natural landscape. Indigenous scholar, Andrea Smith, has a helpful analysis in this regard which she calls the ‘three pillars’ that continue to shape white privilege today. In order to ‘read’ the social landscape, we must learn the tools to help us understand the contours and forms that invisible structures take. The three pillars that Smith describes uphold continued white supremacy that exists in the form of privilege and wealth, and are based upon a cultural foundation of heterosexism and patriarchy. The core ethics of permaculture represent alternatives to these pillars, as I will show below.

The first pillar is the logic of slaveability/capitalism. The logic of slavery anchors capitalism and at its worst renders black bodies as nothing more than property to be used in the cotton fields, or, after the 13th amendment, to be put to work via Jim Crow laws. Despite eventual abolishment of Jim Crow laws, mass incarceration of black persons today continue the logic of slavery by corporate prisons and prison work for low wages. The permaculture alternative to the logic of capitalism is the ethic of limits to consumption and sharing of surplus. Where the pillar of slaveability objectifies people for production, permaculture acknowledges that all forms of energy are limited. Sharing resources, rather than accumulating them, reflects the cooperative strategy seen by most organisms in nature. 

The second pillar of white supremacy, according to Smith, is the logic of genocide/colonialism. This logic holds that native people must constantly be disappearing. The myth of the Americas as open landscape for the taking necessitated the genocide of indigenous peoples who had lived in relationship to the land for thousands of years. Religious rhetoric fomented this genocide, calling the ‘New World’ a ‘New Israel’, which of course meant that the colonizers had the right to murder the indigenous inhabitants of the land. The logic of genocide perpetuated the forced displacement of native nations onto reservations, and continues today in the myth of the disappeared Indians. Native Americans are spoken of as the original inhabitants who are now vanished. This allows settlers to appropriate indigenous culture – a phenomenon all too common among permaculture practitioners. In reality, indigenous peoples could be honored most by working to restore their sovereignty over lands that belong to them rather than assimilating their culture or religion. 

Physical and cultural genocide are used to extract resources through colonialism, whereas permaculture teaches an ethic of care for the earth. The colonial grid framework divides land into parcels to be sold, unconcerned with appropriate use; permaculture pays close attention to context, from bioregion to watershed to microclimate, and tends the land accordingly. 

The third pillar of white supremacy is the logic of orientalism/war. This logic sees foreign people as perpetual threats to the superior civilizations of the West. While these exotic foreigners are not disappeared or owned, they loom on the horizon as a source of fear, and thus represent the reason for the creation of the military complex that takes over the national budget and perpetuates the control of the globe by Western nations. The ‘War on Terror’ that allows everything from drone strikes to water-boarding and indefinite detention on brown bodies continues due to this logic of Orientals as the foreign threat which justifies perpetual war. Care for people is the permaculture ethic that represents an antidote to the xenophobia exemplified in the logic of perpetual war. With crises like climate change threatening the existence of humans, a movement away from the logic of war toward peaceable cooperation in caring for all people is timely.

Finally, it is important to note that these pillars – slaveability/capitalism, genocide/colonialism, and orientalism/war – are connected. Any movement to dismantle white supremacy must acknowledge the interconnectedness of racist ideologies, and address each of them. Their interrelatedness can be seen by looking at the history of one particular region, the historic land of the Creek Nation.

The Creek lived in an area in what is now the Southeastern United States in eastern Alabama and Western Georgia, but due to land pressure on white settlers, President Jackson forcibly displaced the Creek in 1832 to Oklahoma. Having ‘disappeared’ the indigenous population, settlers could now move in to the area and establish plantations, made wealthy by the slave work of black bodies. Even after slavery was abolished, Jim Crow laws continued to enslave black residents of the area. Now, the area is infamous for Fort Benning, where the fear of foreign threat perpetuates the School of the Americas. The School of the Americas, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, has trained many South American military leaders who have committed egregious human rights abuses.

Decolonizing Permaculture, Decolonizing Ourselves

For white non-indigenous people who live in North America like myself, it is important to recognize, just like the Woodleys have in Kalapuya territory, that we are settlers. One of the strengths of permaculture design is its attention to context, but too often the historical context within which designers work is forgotten. This historical context includes a legacy of colonialism to which we must pay attention if we are to truly design towards the three core ethics of care for people, care for the earth, and distributing surplus resources. 

So how can permaculturalists design their own practices to support indigenous and people of color led movements that fight the legacy of white supremacy fomented by the three pillars? I want to offer some practical suggestions.

• Share resources. Donate a percent of your income from teaching and permaculture design to indigenous or people of color led movements. 

• Care for the earth. The design process already helps permaculturalists see beyond the boundaries of the properties they plan, but this is just a beginning. Like the Woodleys, permaculturalists might also seek the wisdom of those who have a long history of caring for the lands on which we live how we might both tend the land as well as honor the people who have tended it for millennia. 

• Care for people. Show up for racial justice. There are many movements for social change that address current iterations of white supremacy, and people of color need support from those of us who have white privilege. 

Finally, we must always remember that while we have inherited a legacy of colonialism, ultimately we all live within that fundamental ecological unit of nature, the watershed. It is within the watershed that we work, play, and in which we are connected to all other living creatures within it through the flow of water. If the urban grid parcels land, flattens flora, and divides creatures, the watershed catches us all in its web of life. 

At the Woodley farm they have named Eloheh, a Cherokee word that means something like ‘harmony with all things’, there is a mixture of indigenous techniques and permaculture principles that inform how they interact with the land. Though they, too, have seen some of the worst of white supremacy – the Woodleys lost a 50-acre permaculture farm in Kentucky due to violent pressure from white supremacists in 2008 – the name Eloheh testifies to their belief that harmony is possible. That harmony must include a righting of both historic and contemporary injustices: as the Woodleys know from experience, displacement is not just a thing of the past. In the meantime, the huckleberries they’ve planted in their new home are becoming established, and a food forest is producing fruit.


Sium, Aman, Chandni Desai, and Eric Ritskes. “Towards the ‘tangible unknown’: Decolonization and the Indigenous Future.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society vol. 1, no. 1(2012):I-XIII. 

Smith, Andrea. “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy: Rethinking Women of Color Organizing,” in The Color of Violence: The INCITE! Anthology, edited by Incite! Women of Color Against Violence, 66-73. New York: South End Press, 2006.

David Pritchett grew up in the mountains of Kenya, where he saw firsthand the abundance of nature and the possibility of land-based subsistence. Now as an assistant medical director of a detox center and a permaculture designer in Portland, Oregon, he works toward the health and recovery of people and landscapes.

Further resources

Watch: The voices of Indigenous people at COP21

Permaculture and Indigenous cultures

What we do to nature, we do to ourselves


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M David Omondi |
January 4, 2016 - 6:32pm
First of all, love this article. How can I get in touch with David Pritchett? I'm a Kenyan-American, raised in Kenya and have lived in the States, mostly in intentional community serving the homeless in LA. I'm trying to start a permaculture project in the Rift Valley, but am still back and forth between CA and the US. It would be awesome to connect with David - any way this is possible?
M David Omondi |
January 4, 2016 - 6:35pm
my email address is peace

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