Who Am I?
My name is Joseph Whitson and I am an non-Native PhD student at the University of Minnesota. My work and perspectives come out of my identity as a white person grappling with what it means to live on, travel on, and benefit from stolen indigenous land as well as acknowledging my own complicity in these issues. I may not be building pipelines through reservations, but as a hiker, a photographer, a brand ambassador for outdoor companies, I was supporting a certain land ethic that contributed to injustices toward Native people. I wanted to create something that would speak to my fellow white outdoors people, to rethink how we represent, interact with, and live on indigenous land. Indigenous Geotags is my way of contributing to that conversation.
I believe that Native voices need to be centered, so while I want to use my experience and this platform in any way I can as an ally, my hope is that in the long run, I can step back. I often see good intentioned white allies hijacking conversations on social media and I want to make sure I’m finding the right balance between using my privilege to push for change but not taking space or opportunities that should be filled by Native people.
Why am I doing this?
This project came out of my dissertation research on the outdoor retail industry. Looking at how the digital marketing campaigns of companies like Patagonia and The North Face, I came to realize that, despite being incredibly important advocated for the environmental and conservations movements, this industry is also complicit in the colonial project of the United States. The aura of public land is so deeply embedded in the outdoor recreation culture that we don't even realize how it erases Native history, ignores overlapping land and resource jurisdictions, and continues to create barriers for indigenous people to exercise their treaty rights and resource sovereignty. So, I decided to create a platform to share these histories and, hopefully, allow people to share their own stories and connections to the land.
What’s the deal with the brand?
There have been some valid critiques of the brand of Indigenous Geotags. Why does something like making geotags need to be branded? Why do I draw on the aesthetic of the outdoor community? Is this about serving communities or is it self promotion?
Branding is problematic and I am deeply ambivalent about the way I portray Indigenous Geotags. However, this project is about intervening into a conversation largely driven by white environmentalists who ignore the centrality of colonialism in their debates. In this context, branding is a way of legitimatizing these ideas in the eyes of the outdoor community, drawing people in with something familiar and then flipping the narrative. This is not a business, I am not selling anything, but these conversations are happening over social media, an environment defined by brands and branding.
Like names themselves, brands anchor ideas and this brand is designed to challenge non-Native outdoors people, like myself, without alienating them, wrapping the need to radically realign our relationship to the natural world in something familiar. I know this approach will be and has been unilaterally rejected by some activists both Native and non-Native, and I totally get that. Branding oversimplifies and is deeply embedded in capitalism and the same processes I want to challenge - but social media, broken systems as it is, is also a powerful tool that I and others have chosen to use and branding, for better or worse, is unavoidable within that system.
If people have questions or comments about any of this, please email me!