Heather Shay


Heather Shay

Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin/ Kollegiatin
DFG-Graduiertenkolleg „Deutungsmacht“
Universität Rostock
Universitätsplatz 5
D - 18055 Rostock

Tel.: +49 (0) 381-498 8405
E-Mail: heather.shay@uni-rostock.de

Sacred Land, Indigenous Ecology, and Hermeneutic Conflict

Analysis of legal conflicts over land ownership and use in the Americas from the perspective of interpretive power theory

My doctoral research project, which I began in November 2021, is nestled between law, the social sciences and the humanities.  In the dissertation, legal and Indigenous descriptions and understandings of land, land ownership and use are held up alongside one another for scholarly analysis. Case studies of disputes in court provide the main focus for empirical investigation and legal texts form the bulk of primary material analysed. Through discourse analysis and ethnography, my research looks specifically at how the interpretive power of “sacred land” operates in indigenous land rights disputes in Canada, the US and Ecuador. Court cases provide fertile ground for analysis of interpretive power struggles at the transcultural node of differing belief systems as the adversarial nature of courts frames legal cases as a meeting point for parties of essentialised identities with conflicting views. This is so even when it is possible for legal principles from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous sources to be consistent and coexist without conflict, as has been shown masterfully by John Borrows, jurist, law professor and member of the Chippewas of the Nawaj First Nation.

I frame this research primarily in response to key concerns in Social Anthropology and American Studies. I thus respond to the former’s longstanding debates on cosmologies, notions of the sacred, personhood and human-environmental relations to further disciplinary understanding of Indigenous law, legal texts and cases, and political mobilizations. I also further the work of scholars within American Studies who have recently elaborated how Indigenous understandings of the land as sacred are in conflict with a Western-rationalist approach to the land, building, inter alia, on established scholarship regarding heritage.

Despite Indigenous people being forced to operate within the discursive limits of colonial society and the modernist trappings of judicial “apparatus” (as per Foucault), I argue that there is evidence of an important shift in what is sayable about land ownership rights as the interpretive success of “sacred land” has been seen in courts. This is crucially more closely aligned with Indigenous relational epistemologies and ontologies than the dominant legal concepts of private property or heritage protection asserted in many “courts of the conquerors” as they have been termed by Walter R. Echo-Hawk, Justice of the Supreme Court of the Pawnee Nation, professor of law and of counsel. While “heritage” has historically predated and been more prevalent than “sacred” in Indigenous land rights cases, there is an inherent tension in land protection legislation aimed at heritage conservation as defined in exclusively Western terms, ultimately concerned with protecting the past regardless of a site’s contemporary significance. By contrast, “sacred” has potential to link to contemporary significance, facilitating interpretive power through discourse more closely linked to the understandings of adherents of future-oriented Indigenous belief systems. “Heritage” eclipses the cultural function of heritage management - the present framing of the past implicating future planning - while “sacred” openly links to cultural (and biological) survival in the present and is future-oriented, demanding protection for future generations, allowing new places to be revealed as sacred and others to be continually remade as sacred.

Research interests

In a word: eclectic.

I have been enthralled by a plethora of writings from my varied academic studies in the humanities, arts and social sciences.

In terms of geographical scope, I have conducted anthropological fieldwork in both Venezuela and Spain (specifically Catalonia), where my research has been led, in part, by the phenomenon I have encountered during my stays. In Venezuela this was political and religious rhetoric during the presidential term of Hugo Chavez, Toros Coleados and flooding, while in Spain my focus is on rural life and land ownership since the medieval period as well as Catalan nationalism and the separatist project.

Main areas of interest:

  • Second language acquisition, ICT in languages, active learning/engagement, Assessment for Learning, SEN and inclusion, pedagogical grammar, content and language integrated learning
  • Discourse Analysis, Literary Theory, Culture Studies
  • Semiotics, Linguistics (Romance and Germanic Languages, particularly phonetics and phonology, collocations and idioms)
  • Anthrozoology, Kinship, Material Culture, Political and Economic Anthropology (particularly property and ownership, socio-economic transitions, ecological farming)
  • Ethics, Sociology of Religion


Education and degrees

2021 - present    
Doctoral Candidate in American Studies, Universität Rostock
Working thesis title: Sacred Land, Indigenous Ecology, and Hermeneutic Conflict: Analysis of legal conflicts over land ownership and use in the Americas from the perspective of interpretive power theory.

2019 - 2020       
Cambridge ESOL Diploma in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (DELTA Module 3)
Thesis title (including full development of a teaching syllabus with final written exam): Preparing learners for teaching English in the Primary School in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Germany

2015 - 2016        
The Institute of Education at University College London with the Sutton SCITT
PGCE (Spanish, German & French) and Qualified Teacher Status awarded

Cambridge ESOL Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (CELTA)                         
ETGS Scholarship from the British Council awarded

2011 – 2013        
The University of Oxford, St. Antony’s College

MPhil in Social Anthropology. Focuses: Europe, Lowland South America, Middle East, Power and the State               
Final thesis entitled: ‘Fuzzy property in rural Catalonia: A historical and anthropological study of agricultural land tenure and food production’

2010 – 2011        
The University of Wales, Trinity Saint David
PGCert in Nature, Dept. of Philosophy and Anthropology
Final thesis entitled: ‘The environment of a Catalonian home: periodicity, place and perceptions’

2006 - 2010         
The University of Chester, Chester
BA (Hons) Spanish with Drama and Theatre Studies
First Class Honours, Valedictorian in Spanish Studies
Final thesis entitled: ‘¿Hasta qué punto concuerdan el discurso y la ética del culto de María Lionza con los de la Iglesia Católica y los de la mayoría de los venezolanos?