Daniel Heath Justice, “‘Go Away Water!: Kinship Criticism and the Decolonization Imperative.”

Citation: Justice, Daniel Heath. “’Go Away, Water!’: Kinship Criticism and the Decolonization Imperative.” Reasoning Together: The Native Critics Collection. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008. 147-168.


Kinship is a context and an ethos for perception and action. It embodies a philosophy shareable across nations but is also adaptive to the particular needs of each nation. It sees individuals existing in “kinship obligations” (159) to one another – a stance that goes beyond racial conceptions of identity. Kinship is a doing rather than a being.

As context for literary analysis, “kinship criticism is far more responsive to the historicized context of Indian communities in all their complexity, whereas race-reading – rooted as it is in Eurowestern stereotypes and deficiency definitions – can only view Indians through a lens of eventual Indian erasure” (159).

I wonder if this can be applied to discussions of art / other, (seemingly) non-literary textual productions.

Scope/Organization/Main Points: 

Justice recommends considering “community and kinship – both in their broadly theoretical forms and in their context-specific manifestations” (149).  As with Lisa Brooks, the existence of this book is tied to its reading and the means by which it will persist into the future: “This book isn’t the allotted boundary of the conversation. The pages are brittle and crumble to dust or ash too easily; they don’t share anything on their own. We have to be the ones to feed them, to take them beyond white space and root them – and ourselves – in rich red earth and memory” (148). The book thus embodies the principles of community and kinship that Justice is writing about.

Nation and Time The concept of kinship carries possibilities for counter-hegemonic forms of nation-building. “[F]or indigenous peoples in North America and elsewhere, community is the constitutive measurement of selfhood. Indigenous nationhood should not, however, be conflated with the nationalism that has given birth to industrialized nation-states. Nation-state nationalism is often dependent upon the erasure of kinship bonds in favor of a code of assimilative patriotism that places, and emphasizes, the militant history of the nation above the specific geographic, genealogical, and spiritual histories of peoples” (151).

Identity and Presencing 

Justice’s essay is based on a story about ‘Christianized’ Indigenous peoples who reject the baptismal waters so that they might create alliances with the British; in Justice’s telling, the people are rejecting “the forced imposition of any outside definition” in favour of “self-definition” (149). By way of stating that “rejection for its own sake is ultimately impotent and self-defeating” (149), he asserts that Indigenous kinship represents something beyond a reactionary stance. Instead, what might be termed sovereignty means “opening room for the return of those models of self-determination that speak to the survival and presence of indigenous peoples, not simply the durability of individuals of indigenous ancestry” (150)

Literature and creativity emerges from, and then supports kinship: “At its best, peoplehood is shaped by relationships and lived purpose, fueled by a desire to create something that will last beyond the pains of oppression. Indigenous writing, in this context, is both an act of love for the People and the product of that love, whether it speaks of joy and possibility or pain and alienation” (152).

Justice looks at an editorial about identity by an Ogala Souix woman, Delphine Red Shirt, where she speaks out about the supposed un-authenticity of Pequot who do not ‘look Indian’ and benefit from casino income (156). He points out, importantly, that Indigenous peoples from different parts of the country have had different histories of colonialism, which inevitably impacts their kinship obligations; Lakota kinship relations are particular to their location, but they can also inform their relations with other nations. Conversely, Justice suggests that writing about authentic inclusion under the umbrella of Indigeneity runs counter to the ethical considerations that frame kinship relations (165). Red Shirt’s letter is evacuated of kinship: “There’s no intellectual engagement in this letter with the histories or contemporary realities of these communities” (156). So kinship is relevant for Ermine’s discussion of ethical space, while also troubling his theory because it suggests there is more than one “solitude” at play at one time.

Particularity versus Generality

Justice is concerned with how a term like kinship, which is broad, can be applied widely while having meaning for situated interactions, suggesting that “we can still talk about ideals as functioning principles without erasing the specific contexts in which those principles operates; though members of a group might differ in their understandings of that community’s composition, they nonetheless work to articulate the shifty, unstable, but ultimately embodied notion of purposeful collectivity” (153).

Is Complexity the Enemy of Empire?

Justice writes that “[s]implification is essential to the survival of imperialism, as complications breed uncertainty in the infallibility of authoritative truth claims.” He uses as an example the Spanish conquistadors’ destruction of Maya codices and the historiographical forgetting of the Pequot peoples, who survived despite centuries of attempted annihilation. Further on, he claims, “Empires can’t survive by acknowledging complexity, so whatever complications they can’t destroy or ignore are, if possible, commodified, co-opted, and turned back against themselves,” often by the imposed internalization of colonial ideals . This includes, as he explores with reference to op-ed pieces regarding the purity of some Native American bands, the proliferation of ideals based on the racination of Indigenous peoples – “in a country that prizes blood purity above kinship obligation” (158) – and the glossing over of tribal histories that celebrated intermarriage as an expression of cultural exchange.

Of course, the suggestion that complexity is inherently anti-colonial might not fully acknowledge neoliberal and multicultural (supposed) acceptance of difference, or at least how such modes of capture and marginalization might be currently straining to better intercept Indigenous complexity in the future.

Treaties and More-Than-Human Beings

Peoplehood is related to kinship ties: “The recognition of some sort of relationship between and among peoples – the ever-contextual contours of kinship – returns us to the physical realm of the participatory. At their best, these relationships extend beyond the human to encompass degrees of kinship with other peoples, from the plants and animals to the sun, moon, thunder, and other elemental forces. The central focus of indigenous nationhood, then is on peoplehood” (151).                      “While the language of treaties all too often erases relational understandings and replaces them with the Eurowestern language of land-as-object, the guiding purpose behind the defense of treaty rights is as much (or more) about ensuring the ongoing maintenance of the ceremonies and rituals that ensure good relationships with the rest of creation as it is the defense of limited natural resources” (163).  

Points of Importance/Interest:·

  • The broad applicability and situated relevance of kinship as practice rather than state of being. Kinship ethics holds relevance for privileging space over time, and is helpful for rerouting our desires to search for a ‘pure’ Indigenous identity (which has a temporalizing effect).
  • I’m curious about just how anti-hegemonic the turn to particularity and situatedness really is. How does the anti-chronological resistance of the ‘authentic Indian’ come up against processes of globalization and neoliberal, multicultural identity formation today? This is a big question that the field paper can propose, perhaps. Does multiculturalism (always / ever) demand a claimable identity? 



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