How has tourism environmentally redefined, reshaped, and changed native lands in Williamsburg, Virginia?

By Bibiana Mirones (Spring, 2022)

Understanding Environmental Anthropology

This semester I took Dr. Mara Dicentas Environmental Anthropology Course at William and Mary. Before I take any class that discusses people, topics of decolonization, and themes of intersectionality, I am conscious and reflect on what I hope I will gain from as well as be critical of the things I am learning. As a Gender, Sexualities, and Women’s Studies and Environmental Policy double major, I feel conditioned to want to ask these questions, but as a first generation Latina student of color, I feel that I must ask these questions. In Dr. Dicenta’s class, a part of the course work, was a research project that would enable us to incorporate class content and act as anthropologists. I wanted to focus on something that I felt passionate about. Since a lot of my work on campus revolves around community work, I wanted to explore that in Williamsburg. I explored many topics initially ranging from the Latine community in Williamsburg to segregation in Williamsburg and finally I chose to focus on capitalism. I have a lot of opinions on capitalism so it seemed fitting to choose a topic I have much to say about. In order for my project to meet the criteria, it has to be connected to class context and the environment and I couldn’t think of anything more impactful on the environment than capitalism.

Capitalism & Environmental Anthropology

Growing up in an immigrant Latinx family, I found it really difficult to find a sense of community. It was something that many immigrant families didn’t have the opportunity to experience either because of colonialism, war, U.S. intervention, lack of opportunities, natural disasters, etc. It was only after attending college that I reflected on the role that capitalism played in erasing this sense of community. Capitalism is inherently exploitative, selfish, greedy, and individualistic. It is anti-community. Ideas of self interest, rational thinking, and profit are the same ideas that have wiped out whole communities of people. Adam Smith’s ideas that humans are self-serving by nature and that if every individual worked in their best interest that society would be better for it is the foundation of society today. I don’t agree with capitalism for many reasons, but I think that connecting it to environmental anthropology can help understand why it isn’t working and help find alternative political and economic systems that can function more effectively and efficiently. For my project, capitalism is defined as an economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production, profit, and commodification of ideas, resources, nature, people, and animals. It’s through environmental anthropology for example, that it’s evident how strong communal efforts have been as a working system for so many people and for many years. I can reflect on so many communities like my own in Bolivia that have lived through communal efforts and in solidarity with one another. Entire communities have lived off of the understanding that the basic necessities of humans must be met and that we must care for one another. For me, the relationship between capitalism and environmental anthropology was evident.

            For my research project, I chose to focus on this relationship and focus it in Williamsburg, Virginia. It’s evident the way that capitalism has altered the original environment and culture of Williamsburg. Because of the time crunch of the project, I had to choose a topic that I could quickly observe and find someone to interview. This is why for my project, my research question was: How has tourism environmentally redefined, reshaped, and changed native lands in Williamsburg, Virginia?

How has tourism environmentally redefined, reshaped, and changed native lands in Williamsburg, Virginia?

While my research question was broad, it was through my observations that I found underlying themes that created more focused research questions that guided my project. My smaller focused question became: How have fences and borders environmentally redefined, reshaped, and changed native lands in Williamsburg, Virginia? These are my findings and observations.

For my participant observation, I visited two major locations that are central to colonial tourism in Williamsburg, Virginia. I visited Colonial Williamsburg (CW) and Jamestown settlement on March 10, 2022 from 9:30am-1:30pm. Given that these two locations are on Native lands and carry deep and rich Native American history that was met with violent settler colonial forces, Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown are ideal locations for my participant observation and project. Additionally, I believe these two locations and the ways in which they are currently presented and displayed are pivotal in my understanding of how tourism has refined, reshaped, and changed native lands in Williamsburg, Virginia. It’s in these two locations that I noticed and felt uncomfortable about the ways that history is being taught on tours today, the ways that history is being “preserved”, and the ways that tourism has commodified and utilized Native history and native lands.
Colonial Williamsburg Observations
The first location I went to was Colonial Williamsburg at 9:30am. I immediately made note of the use of fences and the well landscaped natural environment. It reminded me of the in class activity that we did where we walked around William and Mary and made note of ruderal ecologies. Ruderal ecologies are examples of spontaneous communities that grow and exist in disturbed communities (Bettina Stoeztzer).  It’s the continued existence and resilience of nature, animals, and people. Having this immediate connection with class content only further encouraged me to notice small seemingly unnoticeable things like the use of fences and the neatly cut bushes. The looming presence of the fences and trimmed bushes is a ghostly reminder of the continued colonial occupation of Williamsburg. It’s not just Williamsburg where this is seen, borders and fences have become a tool for the U.S. to deny access to and from people. For many like myself, borders and fences cannot be invisible as they have kept families and whole communities apart.
The process of settler colonialism is still occurring today. When doing my participant observation, I was reminded about how pervasive colonialism is. Rather than thinking about colonialism as a singular event in time, it’s a structure that remains upheld by the current economic and political system (Patrick Wolfe). Fences and landscapes today are current examples of ways that colonialism maintains and upholds itself through subtle ways. In CW, I see that tourism has allowed for a “groomed” and “kept” version of history to be on display through colonial performance and the use of domesticated horses for rides. This was very similar to what I saw in Jamestown.
Jamestown Observation
I arrived at Jamestown at 11:45pm. I saw the field trip buses unloading young children to visit the settlement and reflected on my experience as an elementary school kid and having to also visit Jamestown. The little kids were met with performers dressed in Colonial wear that greeted them with smiles. The little kids smiled back and appeared excited as I know I was when I visited Jamestown as a little kid. It was here that I disturbed by the type of history the young kids were being taught. Tourism has allowed for a kid-friendly version of what colonialism is. While it’s important for kids to be taught colonial history, tourism has been teaching the wrong version of this history. It has refined colonialism and its relationship to Native people through the performance of colonists on sites such as this one and reimagining colonists as nice friendly people to Natives. Additionally, through the commodification of Pocahontas and John Snow figurines, quills, colonial coins, and colonial United States flags, history is being reproduced. Capitalism in this sense has allowed for the reproduction of an inaccurate version of history. This reminded me of ideas of biopower. I reflected on how biopower and the shift in perception of the body as a machine instilled in society the ideas of productivity (Michel Foucault). This was the rise of capitalism and this never ending process of production that continues today. Additionally, it was capitalism, in conjunction with patriarchy and white supremacy, that allowed for the formation of power to subjugate Native bodies on these sites. It’s this same violent and traumatic history of Native Americans that tourism has managed to commodify and profit off of today.

I feel that my observations might have come off as harsh given that I don’t have the best perception of capitalism and “Americanism”. Seeing the flag made me feel sour and it made me uncomfortable to see people celebrating a country that has a very violent history with people of color. I also think that being the daughter of immigrants, I am extra critical of what is being celebrated and by whom America is being celebrated at these sites. My positionality enabled me to recognize things that privileged others could not. This very much supports Sandra Harding’s standpoint theory. Harding argues that people from subalternized/marginalized positions have a privileged view to see how power structures function. I think this was very much at play when I was doing my observation. My parents and so many marginalized groups go through a lot at the hands of the U.S. and so it made me feel weird to be at the origin of it all.
Foucault, Michel. The history of sexuality. “The Right of Death Power Over Life”, 1st American ed. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.
Harding Sandra (1992) “RETHINKING STANDPOINT EPISTEMOLOGY: WHAT IS ‘STRONG OBJECTIVITY?’” The Centennial review 36.3: 437–470. Print.
Patrick Wolfe (2006) Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native, Journal of Genocide Research, 8:4, 387-409,
Stoetzer, Bettina. 2018. “Ruderal Ecologies: Rethinking Nature, Migration, and the Urban Landscape in Berlin.” Cultural Anthropology 33, no. 2: 295–323.

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