This Bridge Called the System: An Interview with Stephanie Morningstar
Interview conducted by Irvin J. Hunt on January 12, 2021 in Chapel Hill, NC.
When I talked this past January to Stephanie Morningstar, co-director of Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust (NEFOC), she left me with the thought that all radical politics are fundamentally encounters with radical loss.
Morningstar is unassuming and speaks softly with a stillness, a resolve, that comes from a deep sense of service and of history. Phoning me from her small farm in Canada where she now resides due to pandemic border closures, she told me when I asked how to pronounce NEFOC that “We made a conscious choice to pronounce it nee-foke.” They wanted to signal whom they’re working for, the folk, the Black and Brown people on whom this nation was built, and with the loss of the “l” how they’re reimagining what the folk, and their relation to this nation, can be. “We’re not turning back the clock trying to reverse time to go back to some imagined past. We’re trying to create something completely new.”
NEFOC began in 2019 as a collective to address unimaginable loss and the health disparities that accrue in its wake. By the dawn of the 20th century ex-slaves and their descendants owned 14 million acres of land; by the the dawn of the 21st, they lost 90 percent of it. For Indigenous people land loss was, of course, even greater, but just as swift. Between the founding of America in 1776 and the Dawes Act of 1887, through which the federal government forced Indigenous nations to sell their “surplus” land and put the rest in a trust controlled by the state, Indigenous people lost more than half the entire country, 1.5 billion acres. Morningstar has aptly named the fallout of this cumulative theft “eco-grief,” a loss of futures in ecological proportions. Yet unimaginable as it is, she and her collaborators, seven board directors and two other full-time staff, Çaca Yvaire and Dr. Gabriela Pereyra, are working to imagine how to suture the wound. They are working the law to reclaim the land.
There are two kinds of land trust, “title holding” and “conservation.” The first allows owners to anonymously maintain all rights over the property. The second requires them to relinquish some rights over land use and development for the protection of wildlife and cultural sites. Conservations trusts are therefore mostly used for statues and buildings. “We’re using both,” Morningstar explained, “doing everything from purchasing conservation easements to helping create 501c(2) title holding organizations,” corporations made with the sole intent of holding property titles and turning over all profits to a designated party. “What I like about the cultural respect easements is that there’s this understanding that reclaiming the land is about reclaiming our responsibilities to it”—not, in other words, laying claim on the land itself. Part of what distinguishes NEFOC from other trusts is their hybrid model, a two-pronged approach designed to provide “permanent and secure land tenure,” a trust and stewardship in perpetuity.
Working closely with other New York-based collectives—Soul Fire Farm, Black Farmer Fund, Corbin Hill Food Project, and Farm School NYC—NEFOC’s aim is to steward over 2,000 acres in the next five years through purchase, land return, donation, and rematriation. Inspired by such lodestars as Fannie Lou Hamer’s 680-acre Freedom Farm Cooperative in Mississippi and Shirley Sherrod’s 5,700-acre New Communities Land Trust in Georgia (both founded in the same year, 1969) NEFOC is also building “a flagship community with incubator farms, commons for production, child care, health care, and integrated ecosystem restoration.” As a member of the New York State Climate Action Council, Morningstar, in conjunction with NEFOC, advances environmental policies that demand the deep and meaningful inclusion of and consultation with Indigenous communities, centering land access for BIPOC. She hopes to soon see and support legislation that upholds the Rights of Nature, the complicated legal process of granting personhood to land. With these ambitions and achievements NEFOC joins a growing wave of land sovereignty and cooperative projects sweeping across the country from Cooperation Jackson and its Fannie Lou Hamer-inspired Freedom Farms to the Georgia Freedom Initiative building a new town in Wilkinson County, Black and Brown folk staking their lives to secure a life free from the bonds of ownership.
As you may already tell, this is tricky work, using a form of property holding to disrupt property’s hold. But Morningstar bears no illusions. Recalling Audre Lorde’s groundbreaking essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” from the 1981 groundbreaking volume This Bridge Called My Back, which very much like NEFOC gathered an ongoing dialogue on radical feminism between Black and Indigenous women, Morningstar told me, “Nobody is saying that you’re going to dismantle the system with these Colonial tools. They are meant to only be used to a certain extent, but we’re trying to use them as much as we can to bend the system on its back.” What they’re bending is ownership toward the goal of stewardship.
“Seeing land go back to First Nations is one big goal of ours, right? So we’re not looking to be somebody who owns all or holds title to all of these pieces of land across the Northeast. That’s not our goal. That would be like hoarding wealth. We’re not about hoarding wealth or resources. We’re ensuring that we have a proper channel.” This means being careful about everything clear down to the words she uses, about everything from the proper law to the proper verb. For instance, she never says she or anyone of her affiliates seeks to own land, but seeks to understand “how land is to come into our care.” Even the word “give” she uses with caution. Instead of “given,” she said, “when this land is put in front of us, the first thing we do is check in with the respective nation to say we have this land, it’s potentially going to be donated. What would you like us to do with it? Would you like us to pass this on to you? Would you like this? Would you like us to facilitate this in any way?” It is clear from talking to Morningstar, with her carefully honed words in a carefully honed calm, that any use of language is thoroughly tethered to any disuse of property.
Another piece of their novelty is the very way in which they’re bringing people together to displace a language that in every way keeps people apart. Theirs is a solidarity based not on the unity of similar cultures, but on the adjacencies of cultural difference, not on assumed agreement but on ongoing conversation. This conversation, she told me, “includes Black folks. It includes Brown folks. It includes migrant folks—it includes all these different people who are now here. They have these different covenants that come from other lands and their ancestors come from other lands, but all our values align. And that’s what connects us as a board and as our staff. We all have these varied expressions and varied facets of a relationship with the land, and with each other, and we’re living into this vision together.”
“The Place You Will Not Come Out Of”
I asked Morningstar to share with me where her own vision comes from, what brought her to this work. She shared a genealogy that exemplifies a common bind for minoritized lives: between having to resist in order to survive in one way and having to assimilate in order to survive at all, between the preservation of one’s spirit and preservation of one’s self. In the broadest strokes, her work at NEFOC is to refuse this sour choice, to choose a different premise on which to live on.
“I have an interesting intersection of ancestry that put me into this interesting frame of mind around land and land-based wealth, redistribution and justice and healing.” Then with a slightly heavier breath, she quickened her pace, clipping the ends of her words, as though encountering her story again for the first time. “My grandfather is/was a residential school survivor, and my grandmother and he moved to Buffalo, New York, in the late forties to sort of evade the ramping up of the Sixties Scoop, which was the morphing of the adaptive mechanism of racism from the residential school system into another way to abduct Indigenous children and assimilate them out… Whether it was just the assimilation that taught him, my grandfather, that his ways and his languages and his customs were backward, or if there was a more imminent physical threat, which there often was—whatever happened when he left that place, he never spoke of it, and he never participated in Longhouse again, and he really didn’t allow us to do that either. My grandmother kept a connection to the reserve, and that was sort of my soul.”
Her grandparents had Haudenosaunee citizenship, also known as Six Nations, which through the Jay Treaty allowed them to move freely between Buffalo and Canada. “My way of connecting was through my grandmother, but we didn’t have the same linkages that we would have had had we lived on the reserve, or if we had gone back and forth more and traveled like many other folks in Buffalo….” “My father,” she continued, “is of Western European descent mostly, and my mom is Mohawk and Oneida. I think they especially wanted to make what they considered a better life for their kids, so they moved to the suburbs of western New York.” How is making a life, I wondered, different from making it better? To go off Morningstar’s example, perhaps the question is moot, the difference nonexistent, perhaps to make a life is itself to make it better.
“I went to an all white school and was brought up in this very white way: to just sort of blend in. Don’t tell people you’re natives, just be safe and pass. And that’s really, I think in the back of my mind, what I was attempting. But by being visibly Indigenous, I didn’t fool anybody. So there was taunting, ostracization—all those things when I was young. It wasn’t until I was in my late teens, early twenties, that I started really going back to my culture and I went back to Six Nations for the first time on my own. That’s where we started doing a lot of genealogy.” There, she made a discovery that foreshadowed her pre-NEFOC work as a photojournalist and then as an archivist at the Deyohahá:ge (Two Roads) repository of Six Nations Polytechnic—“We found all these photos of our great-great-grandfather. We’re not really sure who he was or where he came from, but what we could see was that he was visibly Black-identifying.” Yet “my aunties,” she said, even in the teeth of all the evidence, “actually denied that he was Black. It didn’t make sense to me, that they could be native, full blood Mohawk women, and anti-Black….Racialized trauma is complex, manifests in so many ways.”
One of those manifestations was especially hard to hear, but for Morningstar it was germinal. Regarding how she came to rethink the work of healthcare, she talked about her mother, and brought home the meaning, as well as the urgency, of rematriation. “My mother was deeply afraid to go to the hospital or the doctor’s and had something called ‘white coat syndrome.’ I remember fighting with her to get her to go get health care. She said she would disown us, me and my sisters, if we pushed her any further. We were watching her deteriorate with health issues we couldn’t pinpoint. We’d sneak her to the doctor’s, but every time she would go, she would end up in the emergency room. Her blood pressure would skyrocket because of the anxiety.”
“Adding injury to injury,” I sighed.
“Yeah, it was let’s-make-sure-you-don’t-have-a-stroke versus let’s-get-your-pap-done. She could never do basic preventative care, could never get past an acute situation.” Prevention holds no meaning when a crisis persists.
“I remember hearing somebody in my family say, if you go to the hospital, you’re only coming out in a pine box. That was the general consensus, the family narrative. It wasn’t until I was helping set up the Indigenous Archive at Six Nations, that—.” There she cut off the rest of her sentence as though suddenly stumbling on a trapdoor. When she returned, she said the meaning and the weight of what her mother carried, “where it all came together for me,” came down to a single word. She was translating family and historical documents, a whole collection from the Smithsonian, and she realized there wasn’t a word for “hospital” in any of the languages of the Six Nations. “The closest was a word that meant, and it really hit me hard, ‘you will never come out of that . The translation for hospital is ‘the place you will not come out of alive,’ or ‘the place you go to die.’”
“My mom ended up getting really sick with what she thought was pneumonia. It turned out to be stage four ovarian cancer. And she was gone within a week. It was this moment of my mom needlessly dying because of intergenerational trauma that informed not just her life, but all of our lives, that catalyzed me to want to make a change.” From then on, she said, “I wanted to figure out how do I help, how do I honor all of those things in me?” Morningstar convinced me that those things in her, in us, in “our lives,” are a knot between two pulls: grief and possibility, dispossession and chance. And she navigates this knot with grace and gratitude.
The Trust of the Trust
Morningstar’s heritage of love and loss has taught her the importance of cultivating trust, a term in NEFOC’s name that signifies another way they’re bending the law on its back. The term is at the end of their name for a reason: it is the end toward which all their actions bend. And there, at the end, is where they begin (a saying that Morningstar has adopted from her comrade Çaca Yvaire). “Being a land trust, what we’re working on right now isn’t so much the land but the trust.”
They have started an Indigenous Consultation and Partnerships Program, through which they create new forms of solidarity, of alongsidedness, with Indigenous nations. But the name of the program, as Morningstar suggested, is a bit of a misnomer. “We need to have achieved not just consultation with Indigenous people, but actual partnerships and relationships, deep, deep relationships and reciprocal agreements with the Indigenous nations of these territories.” Her co-directors are key in this endeavor. Çaca Yvaire, director of the Community Conservation Program, conducts a “BIPOC land access convergence,” a space for community to gather and collaboratively look at their legal tools, learning how to “manipulate” for everyone’s specific needs. Gabriela Pereyra is the Land Network Weaver. She facilitates lease and purchase agreements, supplies resources to education and financing, and generally ensures everyone has the tools they need to thrive on the land. Together they are facilitating up to fifty leases for farmers of color over the next five years, as well as providing fellowships for farmers to join them. For the past two years “what we’ve doing is just setting up the organization and the governance of the organization.” They’ve been working with Harvard Law, as well as Suffolk Law’s Human Rights and Indigenous People’s Clinic, because governance and organization “are the most important parts to understanding how this multicultural, intergenerational collective will work together.”
It became clearer to me as she spoke that what makes creating trust particularly hard work is as much pragmatic as it is existential. Given their structural relationship to coloniality, it is an issue not only of demonstrating good faith but of finding ways to make good on it. “The bodies and the labor and the land of our peoples undergird the system—they haven’t created it but they have given it the strength it needs.” As they work to undermine extractive and transactional relationships among themselves, they must all do the same in their relationship to ongoing colonial terror. Reminiscent of Joy James’s “Captive Maternal,” a figure for whom the work of survival unavoidably sustains the system she survives, NEFOC’s question is the following: how do we exercise our strength without strengthening the system under which we labor? Keenly aware of the conceptual, on-the-ground difficulty of this conundrum, Morningstar avoids definitive solutions to it. She partakes in the much harder work of “holding” it, “holding all that,” while “knowing we will have to create the mechanisms as we go.” The magic of holding, Morningstar seemed to say, is that the more one holds the less it holds you.
Morningstar’s mother bore the last name of “Schuler,” and she dreamt of a village she called Schulerville. “She lived in a house that was really dilapidated and honestly unsafe for anybody to live in. And she had this fantasy of buying a big piece of land that she could put a house on, that I could put a house on, and my aunties and our friends and everyone could have a place to live… drumming and singing and dancing and celebrating culture, multiple cultures.” For Morningstar, NEFOC’s flagship community, though not yet established, has already begun as her mother’s Schulerville, a place where the trust meets the trust, where all the dimensions of their vision gains ground, “a place to live.”
“Living into the Present”
The expression you’re most likely to hear in discussions on time for lives in peril is “living into the future.” Living into the future is usually expressed as what’s at stake. Morningstar proposes a “living into…the present.” She was stating the imperative of “not just picking up our ancestors’ ways of being doing and knowing from the past, but really living into them in the present.” In truth, I couldn’t make sense of the phrase at first, “living into the present.” All I knew is that it struck me as something more than “not linear,” which is how she described the way she sees the world. It is altogether different from “living into the future.” The second suggests succession and continuity, a horizon we approach but never quite touch; the first, surplus and simultaneity, a horizon we touch because it’s always touching us. If one is anticipation, the other is surprise.
When she hung up the phone, I thought, how do you live “into” something you can’t live without? How do you live into what’s always right here? Unless, of course, it’s not. Then I thought about the word “into,” that it also means “in to,” as in toward something else. So what fascinates me now about the idea—really, the practice—is that in it the present is constantly becoming new, when we usually give that boast to the future. What fascinates me, too, is that the idea suggests a gap between the time we’re living in and the time we’re living into. How else can we think of “living into the present,” how can we even picture it without a certain gap between the living and the present that the living ever fills and perhaps, by degrees, even overflows? The living, the present—each unfolds like a dream, internally differentiated to infinite regress. I think of a school of birds pooling and pooling into the sky.
It seems, doesn’t it, like there’s more openness to difference with a living into the present (cultural difference, personal difference, a whole proliferation of difference) than there is with the common call to live another day, to keep on keeping on. If living into the future assumes an essentially enduring self, a self identical to itself on which the living is carried, then living into the present, assumes an endlessly ending self. This, I thought with a touch of glee, is what radical selflessness is; this, the expanse I felt talking to Morningstar: a self that proliferates with oceanic complexity in order to meet a present just as large. To live into the present is to forget about progress, the hero’s quest for brighter days, and to think instead of excavating what’s here, on this land, in this place, now, losing ground, yes, but gaining it back, too.
“The Forethought of Grief”
At the end of the interview, I asked her how she deals with the pessimism growing around radical political projects today. I asked her if she thinks about the prospect of failure, the historical precedent of boobytraps and supremacist backlash. She did not answer the question directly, so for days I thought I botched it. But reflecting on her practice of what might be called presencing, not to be confused with the complacency of presentism, I realized that my question makes no sense in her sense of time. I realized that, maybe, the power of living with and on remains is just that: they remain.
Perhaps it is the fact that every thing we do remains, that we the underprivileged are doomed to fly, perhaps it is the fact that the hereafter is here so if we are the heres we are also the afters—perhaps it is this that brought Morningstar to joy. Beginning almost in mid-sentence, as though it had been spinning in the back of her mind the entire time we spoke, she said (as I’ll quote again), “but then there’s also just watching the joyful, celebratory brilliance of global Indigenous knowledge and resituating that stewardship, in these territories in ways that are not just picking up our ancestral ways of being doing and knowing from the past, but really living into them in the present.” A loss that remains is also not a loss. It is a loss and yet it is not, a fact with staggering effects on one’s relation to time.
“The biggest hurdle,” she expounded, on living this kind of time, is a superficial impatience. She names this impatience “white supremacy culture,” which hides, she said, in temporalities of accumulation. Recalling sociologist Avery Gordon’s idea of “urgent impatience,” of having no time to waste but having to take our time, Morningstar asked, “How do we constantly keep this need for production in check, this pace setting, this urgency?…‘Where’s the land? Where’s the money? Where is all this, and why hasn’t it happened yet?’ My attitude is to say let’s pump the brakes for a minute. It took hundreds of years to get to this place. It’s not going take us two to get it back. And we’re not turning back the dial either.” To boot, she said, “we’re trying to create something completely new.”
In case I’d misinterpret this newness as an endlessness, an old and uncomplicated immortality, Morningstar told me of another register in which this timeliness operates: planned obsolescence, with and against its capitalist frame. “I remember writing a grant a while ago, when we first started, and wrote that the goal for the land trust is to basically work itself into obsolescence, not to exist anymore, because we’ve changed the landscape so much. The person who was giving the feedback on the grant said, ‘But land trusts are supposed to be forever.’ And while I agree with that, its current form, in this current day and age, in this current political environment, in this system we have right now, the goal is to become obsolete because we have catalyzed together, with other collective forces, so much change that this current system no longer exists.” I was struck by how a definitive embeddedness (notice how many times she used the word “in,” notice her preference for “with”) forms the way to initiate a definitive end. Trust and trust, remains and remains, grief and possibility—ends, extremes, literally meet in NEFOC, whose greatest message may be, why not live into them? Living into the present is where liberation lies.
We ended the interview where we began, which made a lucky contrast to her practice of beginning where we end. I had heard her recite a poem from environmentalist, Wendell Berry, “The Peace of Wild Things,” in a keynote she gave in 2019 at the North American Biodynamic Conference. The poem is about how we grieve what hasn’t even happened yet. I read her these lines and asked her what she thought:
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with the forethought
“Forethought of grief,” I said, “it’s a beautiful phrase, right?” “Yes,” she said, “but sometimes that forethought can mire us in the past.” It was then that I heard something click, click into sense. My question about possible failure, about possibly avoiding it, made no sense in Morningstar’s sense of time because to anticipate what hasn’t happened yet can only be to anticipate exactly what has, the reinstitution of a narrowly defined past under the guise of an even narrower future. Then she said something else. She thinks of grief as something not to avoid but to be grateful for. “If we’re going to have the grief, what is it there to fuel?” So she starts each day “from a place of gratitude,” grateful for the chance “to use our grief so that others don’t have to.”
** NEFOC is raising $4,000,000 over the next 3 years for land acquisition and endowments. Please consider donating to their necessary work at https://nefoclandtrust.org/reciprocity.