Landscapes of Beauty and Plunder

Systematic plunder – of land, natural resources, labor, bodies, and minds – is central to colonial and global capitalist regimes and has become increasingly important to understanding U. S. national history. In this research project, I examine how racialized plunder has been naturalized in California’s everyday landscapes and reverberates through family and institutional histories.

How does an analytical lens of plunder help us to understand the structures, conditions, and lasting effects of settler colonial states? How do these histories, systems, and relationships matter in the landscape today? And what might oppositional or counterhegemonic landscapes look like? To investigate these questions, I delve into two instances: 1) the case of Los Angeles County’s Descanso Gardens, whose world-renowned camellia collection was built off of the purchase of nursery stock from two Japanese family-owned nurseries on the eve of the families’ Internment during World War II; and 2) the Native American Collection at the Claremont Colleges, and the relationship between elite donors/collectors and the Native creators and communities (Southern California Cahuilla and numerous Arizona Indian nations and communities) from whom the artifacts and objects were either purchased or stolen.

Using extensive archival research, oral histories, and interviews with family members, descendants, and institutional representatives, I situate the camellias, woven baskets, and stone artifacts held by these public and liberal-identifying institutions as inevitably part of longstanding imperial and colonial logics about land, peoples, material objects, and knowledge itself. To the extent that they can be known, the “other” side of each of these stories – the accounts, worldviews, lives, and fates of the Japanese flower grower families and the Indigenous makers and their descendants – offers a necessary counterpoint to dominant institutional and historical narratives.

Related Content

Cheng, Wendy. “‘Landscapes of Beauty and Plunder: Japanese American Flower Growers and an Elite Public Garden in Suburban Los Angeles.” 2020. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 38:4, 699-717.

Cheng, Wendy (contributor). “Past Due: Report and Recommendations of the Los Angeles Major’s Office Civic Memory Working Group.” Los Angeles Mayor’s Office (April 15, 2021).

Bob DeCastro, “Descanso Gardens honors Japanese Americans during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.” Television interview. Fox 11 Los Angeles (May 6, 2021).