Indigenous Place-Thought and Agency Amongst Humans and Non-Humans

Euro-Western thought has made many important efforts to understand and embrace all components of Indigenous histories. However, these attempts are often still processed through very Western beliefs which view Indigenous histories as stories rather than events, leading to continued colonized interpretations of place and thought.

McMaster Researcher


Watts, V. (2013). Indigenous Place-Thought and Agency Amongst Humans and Non Humans (First Woman and Sky Woman Go On a European World Tour!). Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society,2(1), 20-34. Retrieved from

What is this research about?

“Agency”, the ability to uniquely perceive the world and make independent choices, is often viewed as a gift or privilege only bestowed upon humans - beings who breathe, live, think, perceive, reason, and so on.
The researcher argues that the exclusivity of agency being only attributable to humans is an error which prevents the non-human from having agency and from being included as part of a society. Further, much Indigenous history includes the non-human as free-acting, independent agents.  Attributing agency only to humans serves to mythologize indigenous histories, ignoring crucial communications, treaties, and agreements once made with those of the non-human world.
Though Euro-Western thought has made movements to understand and embrace non-human contributions to the world, Indigenous histories are often still understood as stories rather than events, and agency as it is applied to humans is redefined before being applied to non-humans.

What did the researchers do?

Two frames of agency are explored by the researcher: Indigenous understanding of Place-Thought, and Euro-Western epistemological-ontological beliefs.

  • Place-Thought: this describes an Indigenous understanding of the world based on the belief that the land is as alive as humans, and that both humans and non-humans derive their agency from the land.
  • Euro-Western Thought: The division between “knowing” (epistemology) and “being” (ontology) is inherent in much of Euro-Western world views.  These theoretical frameworks guide many Western beliefs of creation and agency, viewing indigenous histories and worldviews as mythical stories, or as an “alternative” way to perceive and understand the world, rather than as real events that actually occurred.

The researcher provides a comparison between the Euro-Western epistemological-ontological divide, and an Indigenous understanding of Place-Thought. To do this, the researcher considers Indigenous histories - such as Sky Woman - and compares these to other origin stories, such as the Book of Genesis, for example. Such comparisons demonstrate the importance and implications of relationships between humans and non-humans. In the descriptions of both Sky Woman and Genesis there is a crucial point where a woman interacts with something non-human, laying the foundation of future understanding and interactions within and between societies.

What did the researchers find?

Colonisation, the domination of land and its surrounding components, led to the disruption of Indigenous understandings of the world, particularly concerning two main categories: the feminine, and land. This disruption has complicated how agency is understood and manifested within Indigenous societies.
The researcher maintains that, in order to facilitate the development of agency in Indigenous peoples, continued efforts are needed to fully comprehend Indigenous histories as they were intended to be understood - as real events and interactions.
Human connection and obligation to the non-human are emphasized. The researcher discusses how, if Indigenous peoples are extensions of the land, they must then be obligated to maintain their connection to it, to communicate with and care for the land. Disruptions to this relationship threatens Indigenous identities and societies.

How can you use this research?

This analysis will help spark discussions that can lead to the reaffirmation of the connection between place, non-human, and human.  It also situates Indigenous stories and cosmologies as both historical and material.  It will help to contextualize discussion about Indigenous territories and identities as locatable.  This work also challenges the traditional understanding of “agency” and will generate discussion on how agency is circulated and operationalized amongst humans and non-humans, in relation to material places.  Finally, this analysis re-frames notions of “ontology” and “epistemology” as a non-distinctive space.  This will lead to discussions about Indigenous cosmologies and how they are materially and immaterially situated.

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