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EXPERT AVAILABLE: MU Scholar Suggests ‘Place-Based Struggles,’ Including Ecological Fights Involving Tribal Groups, are Influencing Local Government and Politics

April 16, 2014

Story Contact(s):
Jeff Sossamon,, 573-882-3346

The views and opinions expressed in this “for expert comment” release are based on research and/or opinions of the researcher(s) and/or faculty member(s) and do not reflect the University’s official stance.

COLUMBIA, Mo. – “Place-based identity” is the idea that people form a sense of place and establish connections to a geographical area. Often, place-based struggles arise when that sense of home is threatened by development and perceived ecological threats. Soren Larsen, associate professor of geography in the MU College of Arts and Science, is studying a Midwest place-based struggle focusing on the Wakarusa wetlands that are affiliated with Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas. Using interviewing and participant observation, Larsen and his colleague are working to understand the sometimes antagonistic ways in which groups communicate—battles that also are transforming government, communities and politics within those groups.

“In Kansas, we’re focusing on the struggle of Indigenous people and their allies to preserve the Wakarusa wetlands just outside of Lawrence, against the construction of a highway bypass,” Larsen said. “Many native leaders and activists today are reengaging place-based politics as a way of strengthening their communities, restoring the land, and securing the capacity for self-governance; we’re studying how that is playing out close to home.”

The Kansas Department of Transportation, which is in charge of the highway project, says that drivers currently must travel through the streets of Lawrence in order to access Interstate 70 from Highway10. Currently, their plan to build a bypass connecting the two is underway. Opponents say this construction could harm the Wakarusa-Baker Wetlands, a diverse ecosystem of animals and plants that is also important to Indigenous peoples.

According to Larsen, place-based politics—including the competition over the bypass through the Wakarusa wetlands—use a wide array of tactics, such as activism, protest and social organizing, intended to promote the connections between a group of people and the communities and places that sustain and support them.

“Our research and observations of place-based struggles will allow us the opportunity to explore how these clashes are altering politics and relationships in communities, even if the movement fails to achieve its stated aims,” Larsen said. “At the end of the study, and in our upcoming book, we hope to provide better ways of thinking about local conflicts, especially where native and Indigenous peoples’ rights are concerned. We have the potential to identify strategies and best practices that would create more equitable social and ecological relationships at home and internationally—strategies that should help shape the way we co-exist around community issues.”

Larsen and fellow researcher, Jay T. Johnson, associate professor of geography at the University of Kansas, will focus on three cases that will culminate in a new book funded by a research fellowship through the American Council of Learned Societies. Those cases involve the Cheslatta Carrier Nation in northern British Columbia; the Waitangi Treaty Grounds in New Zealand; and the Wakarusa project. Together, they have directed their research collaboration toward building a bridge between Indigenous philosophies and politics of place, most recently culminating in a co-edited volume, A Deeper Sense of Place: Stories and Journeys of Collaborations in Indigenous Research.