Nelson on Puglionesi, 'In Whose Ruins: Power, Possession, and the Landscapes of American Empire'

Alicia Puglionesi
Hayden L. Nelson

Alicia Puglionesi. In Whose Ruins: Power, Possession, and the Landscapes of American Empire. New York: Scribner, 2022. 368 pp. $28.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-982116-75-0

Reviewed by Hayden L. Nelson (University of Kansas) Published on H-Environment (October, 2022) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version:

Hayden Nelson on Alicia Puglionesi, In Whose Ruins: Power, Possession, and the Landscapes of American Empire

What is an empire? From the outset—the second sentence of the introduction, actually—Alicia Puglionesi, a historian of science, medicine, and technology, provides a succinct summation of what the American empire looks like and how it developed. As Puglionesi points out, “The United States has long been haunted by premonitions of decline, by memento mori of fallen empires real and imagined” (p. 1). The American empire, if anything, was born out of manifold weakness, not unrivaled strength. From the United States’ emergence into the Western Hemisphere’s imperial milieu following independence clear through the nineteenth century, the American empire, to the extent that there ever was one, was fueled by a sort of self-conscious obsession with the very tangible limitations of its own power. A key element of imperial strength, Puglionesi effectively illustrates, is not so much the actuality of might, but “the imperial imagination” both consumed by imperial inhabitants at home and projected abroad. As Puglionesi explains, “The desire for symbolic ownership was as real as the drive for material wealth” (p. 14), and, indeed, colonial quests for extractive wealth necessitated a similar control over land narratives. The United States crafted a nationalist mythology of its past to justify the twin regimes of colonial expansion and capitalist exploitation that served to project a heavily fabricated fiction of American empire into the future.

The book, totaling 295 pages of text, is broken into four parts. Part 1 focuses on Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, Bame-wa-wa-ge-zhik-a-quay/Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, and the Grave Creek Mound in present-day West Virginia. Puglionesi begins with Henry Rowe Schoolcraft because he was one of the earliest ethnologists, regarded in his time as an expert on Indigenous culture; Puglionesi lifts this veil to better tell the story of Jane, her incredible influence on Henry, and Henry’s fabrication of his wife’s culture to create a usable, nationalistic narrative. Despite this, however, Puglionesi highlights Jane’s resistance to her husband’s and white culture’s “vampiric core of anthropology” through her literary career, which reaffirmed her identity as an Anishinaabeg woman (p. 63). Puglionesi puts Henry’s repackaging of Anishinaabeg culture for white consumption into similar conversation with the Grave Creek stone hoax. The author illustrates how nineteenth-century white settlers appropriated the Grave Creek site, a sacred site for the area’s Indigenous inhabitants, into their sacred justification of colonization. Nineteenth-century white Americans rejected Indigenous land tenure by attributing sites such as the Grave Creek Mound to a mythological white tribe, who were themselves exterminated by Native Americans who supposedly came later. The fiction of a lost white race provided a convenient justification of the violence and dispossession against Native peoples, which served as both retribution for their mythological lost white kin while at the same time legitimating white Americans’ land claims.

Part 2 examines the American discovery of oil in mid-nineteenth-century Pennsylvania and its subsequent booms and busts through the rest of the century. Puglionesi successfully illustrates how Native Americans, particularly the Seneca, dug for oil centuries before the oil boom for ceremonial use, fuel, and trade. Similarly, by the late nineteenth century, the American discovery of oil transformed the liquid into black gold. Oil retained its spiritual properties and economic significance but was transformed to serve the new capitalist gods, leading to intense drilling efforts across the country. With their discovery of oil, white Americans discredited the centuries-old practice of Indigenous oil harvesting as simply fire worship while simultaneously crafting their self-fulfilling prophecy as God’s chosen people; in their reasoning, God put oil in the earth to be exploited by white Americans to fuel their industrialization. Importantly in this section, Puglionesi shows the similar meanings and significances that both Native peoples and white Americans attributed to oil. However, as Puglionesi illustrates, the transformation of oil into capitalist markets spread forth ideas of democratized natural wealth that “was part of a larger spiritualization of capitalism that justified the power of the rich, the misery of the poor, and the violence with which a godlike market scoured the land” (p. 137). Convincingly, the author shows how, as the nineteenth century wore on, being a capitalist became an integral part of being a good Christian. Puglionesi is correct in making these connections, but this section could have been strengthened by expanding on the sanctification of capitalism that began during the Second Great Awakening, which propagated beliefs in both religious and economic free agency.

Part 3 examines the early twentieth-century rise of hydroelectricity, focusing on the Conowingo Dam in Maryland, the construction of which destroyed a number of Indigenous petroglyphs. Puglionesi does well to highlight the commodification of vital landmarks into portable commodities and the dislocation and fragmentation of the petroglyph remnants. As Puglionesi deftly explains, “Despite weighing hundreds of pounds each, the petroglyphs were caught up in an economy of dislocation” (p. 166). Much like they attempted to fragment and dispossess Native people, white Americans fragmented and dispossessed the petroglyphs; however, Puglionesi highlights the fact that, despite their destruction and dispossession, Indigenous peoples’ connection to the petroglyphs and the specific places they stood remains. Puglionesi is correct in asserting that white Americans’ destruction of the Conowingo petroglyphs and other sacred sites “did not sever the Indigenous past and future. Landmarks are constantly made and remade” (pp. 166-167), signifying the continued struggle for the decolonization of colonial spaces and histories. This section could have been strengthened by placing the petroglyphs within the broader early twentieth-century phenomenon of settler monuments and memorialization that worked toward similar processes of settler-descendant ethnogenesis and Indigenous erasure, as well as the continued efforts to decolonize these sites and their complex pasts.

Part 4 focuses on the pre-World War II emergence of uranium mining in the American Southwest. Puglionesi shows that while the nuclear physicists in Los Alamos sought to harness nuclear power to fuel a new age of warfare, they also collected Pueblo pottery. This chapter perhaps most clearly illustrates the book’s overall thread of timelessness in white American claims to the past in the present to build a future. The forward-focused logic of capitalist societies and their incessant need for destructive growth is checked in this chapter by the scientists’ interest in the past. A new economy emerged predicated upon authentic Indigenous artifacts, which was undeniably related to the blood quantum laws that the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 required for tribal citizenship. In this discussion of authenticity, Puglionesi could have strengthened the argument by more directly engaging with the simultaneous creation of “authentic Indians” by the US government through its blood quantum laws, which marked a drastic shift in how Native societies traditionally conceptualized belonging and citizenship. The American consumption of Southwest authentic Indigeneity coincided with the development of nuclear power and the desolation of the region, especially tribal lands; as Puglionesi points out, the United States detonated a hundred nuclear bombs in the Southwest between 1945 and 1962, the fallout from which left “a million-year radioactive legacy that contaminates homes, water, livestock, and sacred sites” (p. 221), altering the past, present, and future of Indigenous people. While some detonations directly altered the landscape, such as one detonation in 1953 that ranchers blamed for the deaths of 4,390 livestock, the legacies of this conquest are what will be felt more acutely (p. 264). In the Southwest, much like the other places Puglionesi takes readers throughout the book, Indigenous people remain tasked with envisioning their futures out of the destructive rubble of American capitalism.

Puglionesi, whose first book examined spiritualism in the United States, carries much of that expertise into this book, where white Americans use spiritualist methods to discover or explain their claims over different natural resources. Published by a trade press, the book is largely narrative-driven and completely lacking in historiographical discussion. Due to the lack of historiography, it is somewhat difficult to immediately discern the works and fields with which this book is in conversation. Including a historiography would have been useful not only to better understand how the author is positioning her work, but would likely have provided a more easily discernable throughline through the book’s four parts. At the same time, since Puglionesi is not an environmental historian, it would have been useful to see how she positions herself within that historiography and upon which works she has drawn.

Where Puglionesi shines in this book is in her discussion of the extractive nature of capitalism and how capitalist extraction has defiled nature, altered or altogether crafted new narratives of place, and exploited nonwhite people. Puglionesi is also adept at moving the narrative between past, present, and future, which forces the immediate relevance upon the reader and is something toward which all good historians should strive. As Puglionesi so cogently explains, “Controlling the past and the story of origins is essential to controlling the future” (p. 3). Decolonizing historical narratives, then, is crucial to reconstructing the present toward an anticolonial, anticapitalist future.

At its core, this book could best be described as a history of American capitalism. The pseudo-religion of capitalism in the United States has taken such hold that into the present day, as the political theorist Frederic Jameson remarked, “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism” (p. 88). In our current moment edging closer to potential nuclear war, this seems all too true. Puglionesi is mostly interested in the history of what she regards as “spiritualized capitalism” in the United States, the power of which she defines as “more than raw materials, and more than a logic game—it emerges from relations that shape our beliefs about why we act, what we seek, and who we are” (p. 290). The stories we tell about the spaces we inhabit form an integral part of the human experience. Capitalism, much like empire, is nothing more than an idea put into action to extract and exploit, and Alicia Puglionesi’s book illustrates how the United States’ capitalist empire has risen through both the physical and spiritual ownership of space. Indeed, Puglionesi shows that the United States is an empire possessed with possessing.

Overall, this is a book about how white Americans have reconfigured and reconceptualized landscapes to rewrite historical narratives of space and belonging through the extractive logic of capitalism. This is a well-argued book written in a beautiful, flowing prose. Puglionesi also moonlights as a poet and science fiction author; that should interest many scholars interested in American capitalism and empire, particularly concerning how the United States projected its power on a global stage through narratives of land possession. In Whose Ruins is ambitious in its scope, and, while it sometimes seems to lose sight of its central focus, it is a worthwhile contribution to the fields of capitalism, historical memory, and American empire. While some may struggle to classify this as an outright environmental history, environmental historians could also benefit from its strong discussion on how people create narratives of belonging over specific spaces and places.

Citation: Hayden L. Nelson. Review of Puglionesi, Alicia, In Whose Ruins: Power, Possession, and the Landscapes of American Empire. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. October, 2022. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.