The Land Studies of the Conquerer: Terra Nullius and the "Just Transition"

Published in 1981 by the Land Ownership Task Force, the first regional survey of land ownership patterns marked a watershed in Appalachian scholarship and activism, and has served as a model for the 2013 study "Who Owns West Virginia in the 21st Century?" and the contemporary Appalachian Land Study Working Group. Studies of this sort and scope utilized to negotiate intra-settler capitalist disputations over land ownership, along with their grassroots participatory research models, are a striking form of settler land politics without a clear analog in other identitarian settler projects. From the frameworks of critical Indigenous and settler colonial studies, this paper takes up a critical examination of these land study projects, their analytical categories (such as "absentee ownership"), and their political aims (including the recent activist discourse of a "just transition"), which have served to erase histories of original and ongoing Native dispossession while calcifying the settler colonial project. In response, this paper concludes with a discussion of how Native theorizations of decolonization point toward political solidarities and research projects that can escape the pitfalls of cohered identitarian mythologies of the white "Appalachian" indigène, regional conservative multiculturalism, and racialized national-populism.