Mishuana Goeman: "Electric Lights, Tourist Sights: Gendering Dispossession and Colonial Infrastructure at the Niagara Falls Border" - Response by Ethan Madarieta

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

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[On October 18, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture "Electric Lights, Tourist Sights: Gendering Dispossession and Colonial Infrastructure at the Niagara Falls Border" as part of the Fall 2016 Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series. The speaker was Mishuana Goeman, Vice Chair and Associate Professor of Gender Studies at UCLA. Below is a response to the lecture from Ethan Madarieta, Comparative Literature.]

"Making Haunting Matter"
Written by Ethan Madarieta (Comparative Literature)

At the Niagara Falls border, the colonial infrastructure (the dam, tourist buildings, etc.) is a haunting, a reminder of the violent and gendered dispossession of Native lands and waters. Through colonial geography, environmental impact, and narrative, the settler-states (U.S. and Canada) continue to actively and passively dispossess and exploit Indigenous peoples, as manifest in both myth and matter. As the opening slide of “Before Dispossession, Or Surviving It” by Angie Morrill, Eve Tuck, and Super Haunts Qollective states: “The opposite, the endgame of opposing our dispossession is not possession—not haunting, though I’ll do it if I have to; it is mattering.”

When visiting Niagara Falls, the New York State Office of Parks and Recreation claims, “the only way to experience one of the world’s most amazing natural wonders right here in the U.S.A.” is on the Maid of the Mist boat tour (emphasis in original). This settler colonial myth of the Indian maid of the mist erases Native peoples, lands, and waters, while marketing tourism through a mock-Native story. There are many popular stories of Niagara’s “Maid of the Mist,” but one in particular, perhaps, dominates the settler colonial imaginary. This myth—a racist narrative of the settler-state—is that a male Elder yearly threw an anonymous, virgin Indian woman over Niagara Falls as a sacrifice to angry gods. This settler colonial narrative of the Native American woman in Niagara Falls speaks to the hetero-normative and patriarchal discourse of the “savage Indian,” and matches the polyvalent Niagara hydroelectric project physically, as symbolically manifest in the phallic Electric Building in Buffalo, NY.


This settler colonial discourse affectively maps (Jonathan Flatley) the nation-state and its technology with a gendered violence, and turns Native Americans into objects of an American imagination. In colonial nostalgia, the white colonizer must always remain essentially different, necessitating the pure fantasy of the savage other. Goeman draws our attention to how these narratives demonstrate a “masculinist rhetoric of capitalist endeavors” and turn Niagara Falls into “a sacrificing monument of death”—the death of a Seneca woman (Maid of the Mist). Such narratives de-property Indigenous relationships to the land and water by reconstituting them with the settler colonial myth of the savage other, and by commodifying and incorporating Indigenous bodies for the financing and reifying of the spatial power of the State.

An example of such an incorporation of Native bodies—peoples, waters, and lands—into the settler colonial logic of nationhood was the “accumulation of Indians and their labor into a tourist economy.” The regulation of, and eventual requirement of licensing for Indians selling arts such as the famed Tuscarora beadwork, was a way of regulating space through regulating sales. This, coupled with the exploitative economy of hucksters “performing Indian” in order to capitalize on the appeal of the “authentic” Indian in curiosity shops and hotels erased the unsettled historical context through which this economy emerged. This myth also extends into popular imagery where the whitening of the “Maid” over time serves as an allegory of the settler colonial whitening of Native lands and waters.


Mishuana Goeman, Tonawanda Band of Seneca, began her talk “Electric Lights, Tourist Sights: Gendering Dispossession and Colonial Infrastructure at the Niagara Falls Border,” by invoking the names of indigenous leaders from Central and North America engaged in struggles for water rights who have recently passed. She also drew our attention to current struggles over land use and water rights such as Native protests (e.g. Standing Rock Sioux) against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Goeman also thanked the peoples whose lands we, and the University, are on. This is a particularly salient invocation in a Federal Land-Grant University such as the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign which encourages cultures of racism through the “performing Indian” of the (ex) mascot Chief Illiniwek, and the Hollywood “Indian” music at half-time, which makes space for “performing Indian” through the singing and bodily gestures of the fans. This institution-sanctioned racism includes, but is certainly not limited to, the recent Illinois Athletics billboard campaign, which displays a racist pseudo-American Indian language. By evoking the presence of the Illinois and Miami people at the beginning of her lecture, Goeman reminds us of the colonized spaces we occupy in our daily lives. Goeman (re)maps settler colonial geographies through making matter this Native haunting (most Illinois and Miami were displaced to Oklahoma), by making these peoples present.

Continuously throughout her talk Goeman makes matter the haunting of the “Maid of the Mist” by evoking particular geographic and narrative spaces such as the Haudenosaunee Territory and the Long House story of Niagara Falls (told best, Goeman says, by Turtle Clan Faithkeeper Oren Lyons or OSWEGO professor Dr. Kevin White), thus rethinking and intervening in settler colonial power and disrupting the very idea of this haunting. Drawing on Avery Gordon’s “Some Thoughts on the Utopian,” Goeman thinks through haunting as “quintessentially an animated state in which a repressed or unresolved social violence is making itself known […]” (2004/2016). With this in mind Goeman asks: if this haunting ghost of the “Maid of the Mist” is a social figure, what social life is the death of this Indian woman making? Goeman suggests that the social life created through this death—a necropolitical project—is the consumption of hetero-patriarchal sociality, one that reinforces an epistemic violence that naturalizes male Native violence and sells Niagara Falls as a tourist destination and the “ultimate symbol of hetero-normative coupling.”

For such a social violence as that inflicted by the settler colonial powers of the U. S. and Canada, there can be no reconciliation, no possession for the dispossessed. The environmental, geographic, and molecular scars remain as a testament to the violent reality that the settler-state intends occupation to be a never-ending condition, which necessitates the kinds of refusals expounded by Audrey Simpson in Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States, that is, the refusal to be incorporated into—to be ‘recognized’—by the U.S. The damming and diversion of the Niagara River was an environmental violence perpetrated at the same time as the U.S.-Canada treaty, which regulated the border (lands) and the distribution of hydroelectric power that has polluted and left colonial infrastructure still in place. Goeman says that this toxicity, too, has its own afterlife (haunting).

Rosy Simas “We Wait in Darkness”
Ending on a note of performative futurity in which the traumatic scars that have been carved on the DNA of generations of American Indians can be healed, Goeman gestures toward artist Rosy Simas’s performance and installation “We Wait in Darkness”. Goeman also brings to the present the continuing contestations by Native feminists of the flooding of Native lands through dam construction—capitalist endeavors which continue to displace Native peoples and affect their daily lives. Such demonstrations and practices draw connections between the violences perpetrated against women and the land, particularly the rivers, by settler-state powers that enforce the precarity of Native lands and peoples. The labor of making haunting matter, of bringing Native dispossession into the present, does not depict reality but brings into being—makes matter—Native voices, bodies, and places which destabilize and denaturalize settler colonial discourses. This labor presents the unsettled histories by which these discourses became real. It makes matter the Indian haunting in the American imaginary by disallowing the relegation of Native peoples and lands to the past, but evoking them as present.

In “We Wait in Darkness” Simas comments on the idea that historical trauma is written on the DNA and causes a molecular scarring passed on generationally. Simas writes, “If time travels in both directions, we can heal the scars on our grandparent’s DNA.” Perhaps this is done by making this haunting matter.

Works Cited:

Flatley, Jonathan. Affective Mapping: Melancholia and the Politics of Modernism. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2008.

Gordon, Avery F., and Leon Golub. Keeping Good Time: Reflections on Knowledge, Power and People. Boulder, CO: Routledge, 2004.

Rosy Simas. “We Wait in Darkness” http://vimio.com/113249630

Simpson, Audra. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2014.


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