Propelled by fantasies of a watery route to the riches of China, a 17th century colonial expedition fInd themselves lost in a swamp. They are rescued by people they call “docile savages,” who guide them to open waters across a vast expanse of inundated lands that would come to be known to future colonists as Mud Lake. The failed expedition later reports a “discovery” that is entirely speculative in nature: if a canal were to be excavated across this swamp, it could unlock the riches of the continent’s unconquered interior and secure a global watery trade route linking the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico. This speculation fueled violence over the following two-hundred years as the French, the British and the newly-formed United States would compete for military supremacy over Mud Lake. The swamp, drained and converted into dry parcels of settler-owned real estate traversed by a navigable canal, would become Chicago.


Today, Canal Origins Park in Chicago is host to elaborate displays that narrate this story in terms of preordination: “Geography is destiny,” the sign reads. A map graphically illustrates our location, high above the historic swamp and present-day canal. Behind us, a tiny “restored” prairie perches awkwardly on top of 30 feet of landfill. A viewing platform orients the park towards the financial district, glimmering in the distance across the waterway.


This park both narrates and obfuscates a powerful and pervasive settler origin story, at the heart of which lie the making of a swamp, its dismemberment and disavowal. It is the story of a settler order, summoned from mud by future fantasies of colonial explorers and financiers. It is the story of the making of land and the making — as well as making opaque — of settler property in land, so as to appear inevitable in retrospect. It is a constant storying project that takes discursive, aesthetic, affective, material and regulatory forms. It is told in physical excavations and extractions, in forms of law and dispossession and the organization of capital. It lives, zombie-like, everywhere and nowhere, animated in the “common sense” of settler daily life[1]


In the organization of its first territorial jurisdiction in 1787, the newly formed United States claimed from the British an interest in Mud Lake, anticipating a future canal and the territorial expansion of the US westward. In 1816 the United States formally extinguished Native title in the canal zone by forcing the Niswi-Mishkodewin (Council of Three Fires) into the Treaty of St Louis. In 1818, the United States produced its first map of the region, that contained two Indian Boundary Lines speculatively marking a future canal zone to be emptied of Native inhabitants. The future cities of Chicago and Ottawa were imagined in this zone and surveyed or “platted” in 1829 to create property in the form of future dry land. 300,000 acres were granted to a newly formed governing and territorial body named the Canal Commission to raise the capital for canal construction. Newly-created future property in future dry land (an illiquid asset) was to be converted into stocks to be traded on global financial markets in the present (tradeable securities), unleashing a speculative frenzy[2]. Dry land was born from mortgage-backed securities, traded on global financial markets by British magnates like Magniac-Jardine&Co and Barings Brothers. Defining, claiming and securitizing the swamp required forms of settler territorial jurisdiction (Canal Commission, a state, counties and municipalities) to issue and guarantee various Canal bonds, instruments underwriting the speculative economy.


Fuelled largely by over-speculation in securities markets, cycles of boom and bust both produced the state of Illinois and drove it bankrupt. From the time of the first US land grab to the completion of the canal, over half a century of military campaigns and coerced treaty-making sought to crush Native resistance to U.S. settlement and impose federal policies of Indian Removal. The investability of the state of Illinois depended on mitigating against the risk posed to settlement by Indigenous bodies, ontologies, lifeways, and legal orders. Securitizing the canal zone was predicated upon linking the legal apparatus of sovereignty with the making of property, capitalization and exclusionary violence.


The canal was not completed until 1848. That same year the Chicago Board of Trade opened the world’s first, and still the largest, agricultural futures market, erected by speculators who anticipated the flows of grain that would be brought in by the canal and pooled in grain storage facilities alongside it[3].


Draining is a key vehicle for asserting settler political authority over Indigenous peoples, places and polities. Settler territorial forms and regulatory bodies continue to be organized by draining: Canal Commissions, corporate drainage districts, municipalities, states, water reclamation districts, Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) regional districts, watershed boards. So too are enduring relations of debt and capitalization. Draining regulates the distinctions between agentic and inert, life and non-life, between human and nonhuman and subhuman — it is an ongoing process of geopolitical mattering, a dismemberment of and from Indigenous place. But the swamp must first be created in order to be drained. If draining is a mode of settlerness, the swamp is what Chickasaw theorist Jodi Byrd calls  “a cultural and political mode of Indianness regulated and produced by US settler imperialism”[4].


Settler sovereignty is more precisely a counter-sovereignty – politically and legally it is articulated against, and seeking to make illegible, pre-existing and ongoing Native political and legal orders. Counter-sovereignty is “a position of reaction to distinct Indigenous protocols governing life in the spaces the United States claims as its national interior.”[5]  The swamp is thus a colonial counter-territory, a response to Indigenous place and world ordering. The swamp is a territorial as well as an “epistemological counter-formation which takes shape in reaction to the lived relations and incommensurable knowledges it seeks to render impossible and inconceivable.”[6]




Powderhorn Marsh sits at the southern tip of Mawi’igan, re-engineered and hemmed-in as Wolf Lake. It is one of a patchwork of small wetlands surrounded by steel mills and an industrial harbor, bisected by railroads, petroleum pipelines, dumping sites for industrial or municipal waste and chemical processing plants. Most of these wetlands have been re-established over fill. But Powderhorn is one of only two residual wetlands in Chicago, where land remains swolen by waters. Residual, or remnant, is an official term used to designate areas “which have never been developed in recorded history”[7]. Powderhorn is also the only state-dedicated nature preserve within Chicago city limits. A sign at the entrance describes this wetland as “formally dedicated as a sanctuary for native plants and animals. It is maintained in its natural condition so that present and future generations can see the Illinois landscape as it appeared in the past.”


If swamp is encoded with the imperative to dredge, wetland is encoded with the political project of preservation. From the formation of the national parks system in the late 1800’s, to the Wilderness Act of 1964, Indigenous lands have been seized and reimagined as unpeopled nature or wilderness, as places “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.[8]” Although they emerged within distinct histories and contexts, both preservation and conservation produce scientific, aesthetic and regulatory practices that violently empty Indigenous lands of Indigenous peoples in order to create a nature to be preserved. As we move between swamp and wetland, between draining and preservation, settler capitalist inclusion of non-human beings produce distinct yet overlapping, and ongoing, modalities of Indigenous erasure.


The tiny wetland sanctuary at Powderhorn Marsh is owned and managed by the Cook Country Forest Preserve (CCFP), a new type of taxing, land management and governing entity first envisioned by powerful Chicago political and financial elites in the early 1900’s. Underwritten by the emerging political influence of philanthropy, CCFP would inaugurate a new form of settler commons: the “urban wilderness”. CCFP is the oldest and largest urban nature preserve district in the country, and continues to be an important site of articulation across distinct spheres and scales of settler governance: environmental regulation, urban planning, public health policy, transportation planning, real estate markets and increasingly climate change adaptation policy.


From its very inception, CCFP marks a reconfiguration of settler colonial domination in response to Indigenous peoples’ survival and resurgence in territories currently occupied by Cook County and Chicago. Despite genocidal campaigns of Indian removal, Chicago would always remain shaped by what Lower Brule Sioux historian Nick Estes calls “the Indigenous political practice of return, restoration, and reclamation of belonging and place.”[9] Beginning in the late 1890’s and early 1990s, Native organizations like Society of American Indians and the Indian Fellowship League emerged vehicles for tribal nations and urban Native communities to reconstitute Native political power – including articulating demands for full citizenship and organizing in response to systemic fraud and violations of treaties by the United States. Sioux Indian Fellowship League member Buffalo Bear summarized: “we did not realize how weak we were as individuals. If we could organize then we could have a voice and a country”[10]. Through sponsorship, material support and allyship, CCFP and the Chicago Historical Society gained decisive political influence over Native organizations like the Indian Fellowship League, detourning desires for self-determination into the production of an Indianness that would be useful to the conservation agenda: no longer “docile savage” or “savage savage”, but “noble savage”. Indian spectacles hosted, funded and framed by CCFP drew hundreds of thousands of white tourists to gawk at Indians as vestiges of a dying race harkening back to romantic imaginary past of pristine, untouched nature.


CCFP also enacted direct seizures of lands held in title by Potawatomie families, most infamously several large tracts of land known as the Calwdell and Robinson “Reserves”. These refer to Alexander Robinson and Billy Caldwell, two men who became Potawatomi chiefs not through existing Pottawatomie governmental apparatuses but chiefs by title bestowed and maintained by the US Government. In the Second Treaty of Prairie du Chien in 1829, the Council of Three Fires, under duress, agreed to transferring all remaining lands in Illinois and Wisconsin to the United States; in the same treaty, Robinson, Caldwell and several others were grated individual title to land in recognition of their services in negotiating the seizure. A few generations later, a portion of the Robinson land was in turn seized by the CCFP in 1955. The Robinson and Caldwell lands may still be contested in courts today.


In Chicago, forms of Native resurgence since the 1960s include land claims by tribal governments, legal challenges stemming from treaties as well as direct land occupations by members of the American Indian Movement. Preservations’ claims of turning back the clock to an unpeopled and “undeveloped” nature is continuously being contested by local Native land-based education initiatives that involve teaching prairies as a cultivated Indigenous landscape and re-activating millenia of portages, pathways and inhabitation encoded within the inundated lands. Native communities make active use of settler public lands for harvesting of medicinal plants, ceremony and other activities foreclosed upon by land management practices centering preservation. Contesting settler definitions of native ecologies as vacant of Native peoples, relations and political life, urban activist groups like Chi-Nations Youth Council have developed an ongoing practice of asserting sovereignty by “renewing relationships with nonhuman relatives[11]”: maple tapping on public lands, planting and harvesting swamp sage and tobacco that continue to grow through 30 feet of settler fill. With participation from Native activists, educators, community members and the American Indian Center, Coasati/Chamoru artist Santiago X has recently initiated an earthworks project that renews Indigenous place-making traditions. These are the first Indigenous mounds built since the formation of the United States, located on CCFP-owned and managed lands, not far from where historic mounds are still visited by community members who know from oral traditions where to find them. Oriented towards pasts and futures that refuse the finality and inevitability of settler occupation, the mounds “reinvigorate the [I]ndigenous landscape” in places where “Native people often go unimagined”[12].


These practices are not merely “cultural” expressions. Métis/Otipemisiw scholar Zoey Todd refers to Indigenous relationships with nonhuman beings as “concrete sites of political and legal exchange”. Drawing from Anishinaabe intellectual traditions and political thought, Potawatomi philosopher Kyle Powys Whyte suggests “collective continuance” as an expression of Anishinaabe sovereignties and legal orders emerging through systematized relationships of reciprocity between human, nonhuman and more-than-human systems. These reciprocities are both enduring and emergent, and constitute both a theory and practice of Indigenous polity, resiliency and transformation.


Currently, CCFP is a complex maze of public land holding, leases, intergovernmental agreements and private use lands that include preserves, public parklands, industrial holdings, contaminated areas, lands for infrastructure use and waste disposal. CCFP is thus entangled with myriad scales and modalities of settler governance. Under the mandate of ensuring “access to diverse populations of Cook County”, CCFP is actively mediating modes of inclusion of Native people as ethnic and racial, not political, categories. Indigenous mounds are subject to voting as one of many “diverse initiatives” in a current participatory budgeting process. This is a liberal modality of inclusion that “alternately casts Native peoples into a simulacrum of pastness, or represents ‘Indians’ within the framework of the multicultural nation state, while pushing Indigenous sovereignty to the vanishing point”.[13]



Just West of Chicago, swathes of willows and cattails rise through a flooded field, now frozen into a solid sheet of ice. In front of the pathway, an interpretive sign reads: “Did you know? More than half of all endangered species in the United States rely on wetlands”. Another asks : “Who lives at Otter Creek Bend Wetland?”. A drawing titled “The Wetland Web” features outline illustrations of the marsh wren, sandhill cranes, yellowheaded blackbirds, and a beaver. The final figure in the illustration is an outline of a man in a collared shirt and pants, wearing what looks like a hard hat. The “wetland web” invites contemplation of interrelationships between this man and these nonhuman beings. But what precisely are the relations configured in the making of Otter Creek Bend Wetland? 


Wetland discourse emerged in the late 1950s to describe a range of environments and, in the United States, to “replace the imprecise and value-laden swamp.”[14] This discursive shift was accompanied by a re-valuation of wetlands as wildlife habitat, coastal storm buffer, flood control, groundwater aquifer recharge, filtration of contaminants from urban storm water and agricultural runoff. The re-valuation of wetlands in informed by an increasing tendency in ecosystems theory to conflate the biological, financial and social spheres, exemplified in C S Holling’s theorizing of the dynamics of ecosystems and social systems as linked through the concept of capital, and Friedrich Hayek’s theorizing of markets as complex ecological systems. In the United States, the increased rhetorical valuing of wetlands was accompanied by an increased and widespread drainage.[15]


But what exactly is a wetland? A number of technoscientific and regulatory discourses have emerged across different spheres and geopolitical scales for the delineation, classification, preservation, rehabilitation and production of wetlands. In the United States, wetland is defined in relation to physical, biological and chemical processes; it is also defined in relation to jurisdiction over bodies of water (in the shifting legal definition of Waters of the United States) and land holding regimes. The 1977 Clean Water Act introduced regulation requiring all development involving dredging or dumping in shallowly or “seasonally inundated land” to undergo a permitting process overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE), Environmental Protection Agencies and other entities. The ACOE review can decide to grant, deny or proceed conditionally by requiring the developer to conduct mitigation – to build or augment parcels of wetlands that can make up for the destruction at the development site. By the 1980’s offsite mitigation was the preferred approach of the ACOE. Wetland processes and effects in very different locations became quantified, rendered commensurable and therefore substitutable, allowing for destructive impacts in one location to be offset against environmental investments in another. Mitigation is thus a series of net-zero accounting processes.


A mitigation bank is an entrepreneurial scheme. It involves building a wetland in order to generate mitigation credits. A number of “ecological processes” at the site of the newly created wetland (the bank site) are evaluated and turned into certifications of the economic value of wetland credits that can be sold to mitigate for destruction at the development site (or site of impact). The value of the banked wetland credit is derived from  “an increment of change in a bundle of ecosystems services at the bank site, as the bank site is restored to a pre-settlement wetland condition by the banker[16]”. Purchase of this credit enables developers to claim they have offset or compensated for a debit or quantified destruction at the site of impact.


Otter Creek Bend is the first entrepreneurial wetland mitigation bank in the United States. It was assembled between 1991-1994 by a network of Chicago-area actors brought together largely through the buddy system: regulators, wetland scientists, contractors, real estate developers and financiers. They drafted the first mitigation banking instrument to define how something called a ‘‘wetland credit’’ can be generated, certified and traded as a commodity. This initial agreement became the playbook for a series of district-wide and then federal guidelines on wetland credit markets. Otter Creek wetland was born of Chicago’s unique web of relationships between regulatory, technoscientific and financial elites. Illinois, one of the most extensively drained states, is now the second highest concentration of mitigation banks in the US. Drained land, and the forms of capital accumulation organized though drainage, become reconfigured towards new modes of accumulation. As  investors pour liquidity into mitigation banks, Chicago also becomes a hub for private investment firms focused on environmental offset markets.


Mitigation banking is based on the framework of natural capital and ecosystems services, whereby nature is seen as an asset class providing services which can be priced and traded on financial markets. Wetlands thus become redefined as a series of biogeochemical processes enabled by particular distributions of nonhuman beings — including larger entities such as water tables — to produce billable services or values such as flood protection, carbon sequestration, water filtration, aquifer recharge, biodiversity etc.  But how does “nature work” become billable, what is its value and “who, via enforceable property or ownership rights, can either capture payments for this billable work right away, or profit by speculations on its future value?”[17]. Configuring ecosystemic relations for capital accumulation involves problems of definition/delineation (what is a wetland, what are its boundaries, in whose interests are these definitions produced); measurement or quantification (identifying processes that can be measured, producing ecosystem data objects for quantification, methods for pricing);  commensurability (exchangeability requires the production of geographies of commensurability and regulation of exchange markets)  and governance/exclusion (the creation of property regimes that are amenable to this form of capital accumulation). 


Carbon and biodiversity offset markets have involved the forced displacement of millions of Indigenous peoples in order to impose land management and property regimes amenable to the production and exchange of offsets. Wetland banking is another stage in an ongoing campaign of disrupting and reconfiguring Indigenous polities and relations. It articulates across a cacophony of institutions, scales and ordered realms. Wetland banking is how this cacophony coalesces despite of — or perhaps precisely because of — apparent contradictions and antagonisms.


The natural capital and ecosystems services frameworks foreclose upon the longterm struggles of social movements from the Global South, Indigenous peoples and small Island States to force colonial nation states to implement legal frameworks for reciprocity between human and nonhuman systems that are not purely extractive or violent. Between the emergence of the Rights of Nature framework in the early 1970s and the Peoples Agreement of Cochabamba in 2010, transnational cooperation among Indigenous peoples has produced a series of powerful, coherent political alternatives. In response, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature  (IUCN) – formed of the world’s wealthiest conservation NGO’s including the World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy and Conservation International — have been active participants in building the architecture for implementing the financializaiton of nature in transnational governance, while refusing to operationalize the Rights of Nature and other Indigenous demands. The IUCN worked to elaborate the United Nations System of Environmental-Economic Accounting – Experimental Ecosystem Accounting, and cooperates with the Natural Capital coalition, newly-merged with the Social Capital Coalition. Envisioning the financialization of the biosphere and the social, these powerful players are influential in the political framing of “climate emergency”, which relies on offset markets and “net zero” frameworks to unlock trillions of dollars in “merged” public/private investments in so-called “negative-emission technologies”. Just as mitigation banking does not undo ecological violence, “a ‘negative emissions technology’ is not a technology as such, but rather it is a collection of processes that upon the application of certain accounting can be said to have produced zero emissions”. [18]


In the sign at Otter Creek, the images of marsh wren, sandhill crane, yellowheaded blackbird and beaver are used as mascots for a “wetland web” that conceals a double destruction — both at the site of development and at the site of mitigation. Otter Creek draws us into web of extractive colonial relations that are both organized and effaced as an ecosystem.


[1] Mark Rifkin. Beyond Settler Time. Temporal Sovereignty and Indigenous Self-Determination. (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2017)


[2] Other lands adjacent to the future canal were made available for sale in the present and purchased by east coast speculators, who bought and sold parcels many times over.


[3] For a more detailed interpretation of financialization and the canal in the settlement of Chicago, see Rozalinda Borcilă, Creation Stories, So-called Chicago, in IDEA Arts+Society, #53 Cluj, 2019 also online http://borcila.com/writing/creation-stories-so-called-chicago/



[4] Jodi A. Byrd. The Transit of Empire. Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), xv


[5] Manu Karuka, Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019), xii.


[6] Manu Vimalassery, Juliana Hu Pegues, and Alyosha Goldstein, ”Colonial Unknowing and Relations of Study,” Theory & Event 20, no. 4 (2017), 1042

[7] Cook County Forest Preserve. “Natural and Cultural Resources Master Plan”, 2015


[8] The Wilderness Act, US Congress (Pub. L. 88-577) 1965 . “An Act to establish a National Wilderness Preservation System for the permanent good of the whole people, and for other purposes”. Available online https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/88/s4/text


[9] Nick Estes, Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (New York: Verso Book, 2019), 248. Estes is Kul Wicasa, a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe of the Oceti Sakowin Oyate (the Great Sioux Nation or the Nation of the Seven Council Fires).


[10] Cited in Rosalyn R. Lapier and David R M Beck. City Indian. Native American Activism in Chicago. (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2015), 98


[11] Chi-Nations Youth Council workshop, 2016


[12] Andrea Carlson. “The Earth is our Mothership” in Live Long and Prosper: Science Fiction in Contemporary Native Art. Exhibition catalogue, Institute for American Indian Arts, 2020


[13] Rozalinda Borcilă, Nicholas Brown with Lance Foster. Meskonsing-Kansan. 2019. available at https://www.academia.edu/40579768/Meskonsing-Kansan  see also https://medium.com/anthropocenedrift



[14] Ann Vileisis, Discovering the Unknown Landscape: A History Of America’s Wetlands. (Island Press, Washington, D.C. and Covelo, CA, 1997), 7

[15] Hugh Prince. Wetlands of the American Midwest. A Historical geography of Changing Attitudes. (University of Chicago Press, 1997), 290


[16] Morgan M Robinson. “The neoliberalization of ecosystem services: wetland mitigation banking and problems in environmental governance”. Geoforum Volume 35, Issue 3, May 2004. 361-373


[17] Sean Sullivan. “Banking Nature? The Spectacular Financialisation of Environmental Conservation”. Antipode, Volume 45, Issue 1. January 2013


[18] a series of articles published by the research blog Wrong Kind of Green traces the role of conservation NGOs in developing the architecture for the financialization of nature and the systematic sabotage of Indigenous and anti-colonial political struggles. See http://www.wrongkindofgreen.org/2019/02/03/the-manufacturing-of-greta-thunberg-for-consent-the-house-is-on-fire-the-90-trillion-dollar-rescue/