Landmark Stories

by Gesa Mackenthun, 01/13/2019.

In the simplest sense, landmark stories are narratives that express the relationship between humans and the territory they inhabit. As geomyths (Vitaliano), these stories explain the origin of natural features and  they aesthetically work through geological catastrophes (like floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions); they explain the creation of conspicuous natural places and formations, such as mountains, waterfalls, and conspicuous geological formations. They remember the locations of places defined as sacred, such as burial mounds or places of tribal origin; and they contain important ecological knowledge about the behavior of animals and the habitats and uses of plants (link to places). Besides making sense of the natural world that surrounds human beings, landmark stories also establish an affective bond between human beings and the land by inscribing the land with human memories or accompanying man-made structures and monuments. All cultures have such stories, as geographer Yi-Fu Tuan explains. Especially before the introduction of print technology, knowledge of place was expressed in stories about the land, and historical knowledge about a society’s homeland was preserved in land-related narratives. While Western rationalism reduced land to a valuable resource to be possessed and studied, the Romantic movement continued to practice that older meaning of the land as a knowledge archive, countering the bleak realities caused by Industrialization with an aesthetic of nature inspired by the epistemologies of rural and non-Western cultures. This section is dedicated to presenting a few examples of landmark stories or so-called “landmark legends” – texts that, in the words of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, “provide historic information, relate to resource management and provide moral and spiritual guidance. These stories and legends witness our ancestral claim to the land […] and to the resources found here. These landmark legends define our home” (Ferguson 2007: 6). Land-related stories contain a ‘geontology’ of their own – with ‘geos’ not referring to ‘nonlife’ as in the rationalist tradition but to ‘earth life’ (Povinelli 2016: 5). Narrative “place-making” is a way of constructing history itself, as Keith Basso showed for the Apache (1996). While certain conspicuous landmarks came to be ‘storied’ first by Indigenous people and then by the non-Indian newcomers, they function as important mnemonic devices in the oral archive. Survival depended on knowing not only about the landscape and its geological features but also about the habits and habitats of even the smallest living creatures (Silko 1999). In addition, the inclusion of landmarks in stories had the function of mind maps (Rubin 1995: 46-49). Landmark stories invest the land itself with life and agency, integrating the environment into the social realm (Cruikshank). During migrations, stories relating to landscapes of origin were mentally connected to new landscape features (Schaafsma/Tsosie 2009: 26). Others, however, disappeared as a result of removal (Lankford 1996: 84).

For more information on the individual landmarks click on the map or take a look at our different sections in the menue to the left.

Sometimes, landmark stories can give evidence of the great antiquity of the story traditions and of the longevity of the story culture’s presence in a certain area. As Ella Clark argued in the 1950s and Vine Deloria Jr. in Red Earth, White Lies (1997), tribal traditions in the geologically active Pacific Northwest do remember cataclysmic events such as the eruption and collapse of Mt. Mazama, Oregon, and other catastrophic events along the Cascadian Subduction Zone, like floods and tsunamis, since the end of the Pleistocene (Echo-Hawk). Coll Thrush and Ruth Ludwin (2007) suggest to regard these disaster stories as evidence of deep historical affective responses to environmental disruptions that bear useful messages for understanding present and future responses to such events. Finally, the tribal peoples’ knowledge of the land also plays a role in court litigation about land property, ownership and stewardship. This legal dimension is summarized by a Gitksan elder from British Columbia who, confronted with government agents claiming ownership of the land, asked them: “If this is your land, where are your stories?” (Chamberlin 1).

This topological quality of Indigenous oral traditions was generally ignored by colonial collectors of stories. An explanation for this may quite simply be that a colonial society is not interested in documenting the topological knowledge of a society it is about to displace. The colonial disavowal of Indigenous knowledge of the land was coupled with the powerful myth of Native nomadism suggesting an absence of Indigenous topophilia. Colonial culture traditionally justifies its claims to the possession of land with reference to its own long history and a narrative of civilizational westward migration (translatio imperii). Yet, with only few exceptions, the territory at the heart of possessive desire was not narrativized proportionately to that desire (see Said 1993: 1-72).

For those who have read a larger number of essays on this website, it will come as no surprise that the real conflict behind competitions about historical firstness, antiquity and length of tenure is the question of land ownership. Colonial discourse is obsessed with constructing its own antiquity, but its antique places are usually located in territories far away from the nations making such claims. Stories tracing their origins to ancient Rome, Greece, Troy, and the Holy Land are the “landmark legends” of Western nations, invested with sacred symbolism, while innumerable monuments – lieux mémoires (Nora) – are to testify to important historical events, some of them on authentic sites. This section illustrates the making of landmark stories in North America since times immemorial, continued, and fractured, by transcultural story-making in the North American colonial contact zone.



Basso, Keith (1996) Wisdom Sits in Places. Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Chamberlin, Edward (2004) If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories? Finding Common Ground. Vintage.

Clark, Ella (1953) Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest. Berkeley: California University Press.

Cruikshank, Julie (1999) “The Social Life of texts: Editing on the page and in performance.” Talking on the Page. Editing Aboriginal Oral Texts. Ed. Laura L. Murray and Keren Rice. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 97-119.

Cruikshank, Julie (2005) Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Deloria, Jr., Vine (1997) Red Earth, White Lies. Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact. Golden, CO: Fulcrum.

Echo-Hawk, Roger C. (2000) “Ancient History in the New World: Integrating Oral Tradition.” American Antiquity 65(2): 267-90.

Ferguson, Jennifer K., comp. (2007) Book of Legends. Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Upper Columbia River. Nespelam WA.  Online. 11 March 2018.

Lankford, George E. (1996) “Oral Literature of the Southwest.” In Handbook of Native American Literature. Ed. Andrew Wiget. New York: Garland. 83-89.

Ludwin, Ruth S., and Coll Thrush (2007) “Finding Fault. Indigenous Seismology, Colonial Science, and the Rediscovery of Earthquakes and Tsunamis in Cascadia.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 31(4): 1-24.

Nora, Pierre (1996-98) Realms of Memory. Rethinking the French Past  New York: Columbia University Press. 3 vols. French original: Les Lieux de Mémoire. Paris: Gallimard, 1983-86.

Povinelli, Elizabeth A. (2016) Geontologies. A Requiem to late Liberalism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Rubin, David C. (1995) Memory in Oral Traditions. The Cognitive Psychology of Epic, Ballads, and Counting-Out Rhymes. Oxford University Press.

Said, Edward W (1993) Culture and Imperialism. London: Chatto&Windus.

Schaafsma, Polly, and Will Tsosie (2009) “Xeroxed on Stone: Times of Origin and the Navajo Holy People in Canyon Landscapes.” In Landscapes of Origin in the Americas. Ed. Jessica Joyce Christie. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. 15-31.

Silko, Leslie Marmon (1999) “Landscape, History, and the Pueblo Imagination.” At Home on the Earth. Becoming a Native to Our Place. Ed. David Landis Barnhill. Berkeley: UC California P. 30-44.

Tuan, Yi-Fu (1977) Space and Place. The Perspective of Experience. University of Minnesota Press.