How the West Was Not One

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

posted under , by Unit for Criticism
Written by Jodi Byrd, American Indian Studies, English

After thirty years of existing within the academy, American Indian Studies is still not quite yet at critical mass, but headed in that direction. Often, the field is perceived by those within and without its purview as a project of recovery, culture, identity, polemic—let's be honest—and as a kind of anti-intellectual, essentialist project of victimry. American Indian Studies, however, has been steadily establishing methodological and theoretical tools with which to engage the multi-directionality of a discipline that

1) intervenes within the colonial institutions and disciplines of academia;

2) bears accountability to indigenous communities and indigenous philosophical traditions, and;

3) spans transoceanically and transhemispherically to address the international diplomacies of "indigenous peoples" in the wake of globalization.

Such epistemological tools, developed by scholars such as Vine Deloria, Jr., Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Taiaiake Alfred, Noenoe Silva, Robert Warrior, Craig Womack, and Dale Turner to name just a few, offer the radical notion that what we might term "indigenous critical theory" provides valid critiques of imperialism and colonialism at the same time that such work might, finally, move us toward restorative justice.

In thinking about this post for Kritik and offering up indigenous critical theory for a dialogue with those scholars committed to critical theory but perhaps unfamiliar with "indigeneity" as a category of critical analysis, I wanted to provide at least a couple of provisional thoughts as well as foundations. "Indigenous," like "aboriginal," "Indian," "native," "First Nations," "Native American," and any other monolithic namings within colonial languages is highly contested and contestable. Jeff Corntassel and Taiaiake Alfred provide a preliminary definition in their essay, "Being Indigenous," (which can be found here) that is a useful starting point:

Indigenousness is an identity constructed, shaped, and lived in the politicized context of contemporary colonialism. The communities, clans, nations and tribes we call Indigenous peoples are just that: Indigenous to the lands they inhabit, in contrast to and in contention with the colonial societies and states that have spread out from Europe and other centres of empire. It is this oppositional, place-based existence, along with the consciousness of being in struggle against the dispossessing and demeaning fact of colonization by foreign peoples, that fundamentally distinguishes Indigenous peoples from other peoples of the world.


Indigenous critical theory, then, emerges as a contentious, oppositional discourse that confronts imperialism and colonialism. It also necessitates certain Manichean allegories of foreign/native and colonizer/colonized within reclamations of "place-based existence." As it has emerged thus far, indigenous critical theory centers itself within indigenous epistemologies and the specificities of the communities and cultures from which it emerges and then looks outward to engage European philosophical, legal, and cultural traditions. Steeped in anticolonial consciousness that deconstructs and confronts the colonial logics of settler states carved out of and on top of ancestral lands, indigenous critical theory seeks to offer a transformative accountability dependent upon radical alterity and recognition.

In other words and among other things, indigenous critical theory provides a diagnostic way of reading and interpreting the colonial logics that underpin cultural, intellectual, and political discourses. And it asks that settler, native, and arrivant each acknowledge their own position within empire and then reconceptualize space and history to make visible that which settler colonialism has sought to obscure. Within in the continental United States, it means imagining an entirely different map and understanding of territory and space constituted by over 500 different native nations, each with their own borders and boundaries, that transgress what has been naturalized as 48 states and contiguous territory. Of course, indigenous critical theory is more than this, but it's a starting point to draw attention to entire histories, peoples, and philosophical traditions that inhabit and inform how land, space, and narratives are perceived.

From there, indigenous critical theory offers alternative questions and concerns. For instance, here we might return to Michael's posts "Against the West" and "All About the West" and the discussions that emerged around the geologeme, "the West," and its prevalence within American "mainstream" journalism, politics, and critical theories. This continued use of "the West" and "western," at least in the U.S. context, could additionally be read as something of a trace, a différance that is tied to the frontier narratives and consolidations of U.S. imperialism in relation to American Indians. Evocations of "the West" speak to colonial discourses that consolidate through repetitions and provide an imperial subjectivity steeped in "cowboys" and "Indians" and as the work of Richard Slotkin, Patricia Limerick, Richard Drinnon, and even Susan Faludi have shown, frontier narratives and cowboy diplomacies continue to undergird a United States that seeks to turn all those against it into "Indians." All this speaks to an interesting discursive turn and gestures towards deeper problematics inherent within debates that orient the world either through West/East or North/South logics. What happens to indigenous peoples in these paradigms if they exist somewhere in the third-space solidus between and among?

And this, perhaps, is enough for a preliminary post on "indigenous critical theory” and how it has begun to emerge out of American Indian and Indigenous Studies. Here at Illinois, the American Indian Studies Program has been hosting a lecture series over the course of the 2007-2008 academic year entitled, "Indigeneity as a Category of Critical Analysis" and those lectures are archived and viewable online for those interested in more. The series culminates May 1-2, 2008 when American Indian Studies and the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory will be hosting "Decolonizations: Subaltern Studies and Indigenous Critical Theory" to open up further dialogue around the intersections between postcolonial studies and indigenous studies.

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mar webber said...

As a relatively recent American "arrivant" to South Africa (specifically the KwaZulu-Natal province), I appreciate this post - especially in the parallel it constructed for me between the relationships and interactions between theories, spaces, and inhabitants when questions of indigeneity arise. I found some really interesting affinities between your post and Achille Mbembe's article "At the Edge of the World" (in Appadurai's collection Globalization). Particularly in both of your considerations of the multiple ways that spaces are divided.

I'll try not to be an obnoxious commentator that says, "wow - your interests remind me of my research so let me proceed to bore you with it", but I have been fascinated how this obsession with the tropes of the "West" - specifically the Western frontier ideologies of the United States that you reference - have been appropriated and persist here in South Africa.

For example, there is a chain of restaurants here called "Spur," where each location has a sub-name to identify it. So far I have seen a Kansas, Mustang, and Carson City Spur in Durban. Their website is, to put it bluntly, horrible. The theme song blares, "Take me to the canyon / Where the secret tribe plays/ I'm hungry for adventure / I've got a taste for life today" as pictures of Blacks, Coloureds (a racial identity here), and Whites wearing headdresses flash over the upper screen. If you select the link on my name, it will take you to a post that includes pictures of two exteriors to these restaurants and their "chief" logo. As if I hadn't seen enough "chiefs" in Urbana before departing...

While initially I thought it was easy to dismiss these restaurants as another manifestation of a facile or simplistic engagement with popular American "history" - the influence of the US frontier ideologies runs much deeper than that here. In short, the Afrikaaners turned to it (and continue to turn to Country & Western music as a source of cultural cohesion), as a way to spatially and theoretically separate themselves from indigenous Africans and Europeans. They, after all, positioned themselves against both the British and the indigenous Africans in order to construct a "God-divined" "new" Africanness for themselves to justify the institutionalized racism and hatred they came to call apartheid.

The parallels continue - specifically in my research I have identified that the Apartheid government borrowed models and policies for "Bantu" education and the development of craft industries directly from US Bureau of Indian Affairs policies. I suppose these examples suggest - as your post itself suggests - that indigenous theory "speaks" to and is relevant to considerations of globalization and the global exchange of information and ideology.

I'm looking forward to returning to Urbana in time for the conference :)

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