Audra Simpson and Andrea Smith, Theorizing Native Studies.

Citation: Simpson, Audra and Andrea Smith. Theorizing Native Studies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014.


It is necessary to trouble the distinction between what happens in Native communities and Native theory. This is related to the fact that Native studies is oriented towards the political and material needs of Native communities, and uniquely so.  It is seen as fundamentally different from other disciplines, but it should engage with other disciplines too – what Simpson and Smith call “intellectual promiscuity,” rather than isolationism.

Native theory might be seen as reactionary insofar as it resists and disrupts poststructuralist thought and its colonialist underpinnings, but it is also situated, creative, and adaptive.

Central to this collection is the concept of “theoretical promiscuity” (9) rather than intellectual isolationism. (Promiscuity can be thought of as standing in for a type of sovereignty.) 

Scope/Organization/Main Points: 

Introduction Simpson and Smith detail their suspicion with enshrining Indigenous theory in the academy: Indigenous theory resists and reveals “ethnographic entrapment and its relationship to settler colonialism as not only a material practice of dispossession but as a representational practice of social scientific discourse” (5). The definition of what counts as theory needs to be widened, and “this book does not promote theory in opposition to community but actually foregrounds the fact that important theorizing is happening in Native communities, and that different forms of theorization can produce forms of analysis that take up political issues in ways that have important consequences for communities of every sort” (7) – a notion of theory as situational and varying between communities concurs with Daniel Heath Justice’s principles of community and kinship. Like Coulthard’s discussion of direct action as “prefigurative politics,” activism in Indigenous communities is also a form of developing and applying theory: “Native communities are not just engaging in activism but are critically theorizing about what forms of activism are most effective” (7).

“Theoretical promiscuity” is an important concepts in that it rejects the compulsion for “intellectual isolationism” and allows Indigenous theory to remain as such while engaging with other theory (typically shorthand for continental philosophy, feminist theory, critical race studies, etc.) (9).  The problem with Indigenous studies in the academy is that Indigenous people are seen as objects of study rather than producers of knowledge – affectable objects rather than affecting subjects.

Indigenous studies also faces the problem of vying for inclusion into the academy, an insight that parallels the desire to be seen as a worthy discipline with the desire to be seen as a full and complex person. Rejecting recognition, Smith and Simpson argue, means that Indigenous studies “has less to fear if it engages in coalitional work because it will no longer pursue recognition claims that could be overshadowed by the claims of others. Instead, Native studies should focus on dismantling the system that requires Native peoples to disappear in the first place” (11). Intellectual promiscuity is a mode of survivance, to use Vizenor’s term, or a sort of presencing, with corresponding aspects of Leanne Simpson.

Chapter One – Dian Million, “There is a River in Me: Theory from Life.” (31-42) “While there are differences between the personal story and the collective stories we tell, I believe that it was and is necessary for Indigenous peoples in North America to make new ways of seeing ascendant, to move to shape the endless spin of the discourses in place, to act in a now to change the order” (Million 32).

Chapter Two – Teresia Teaiwa, “The Ancestors We Get to Choose.” (43-) This chapter is about the use of engaging “non-Indigenous” theory in Pacific studies, from the perspective of teaching in Aotearoa (New Zealand). A Banaban woman, Teaiwa uses adoption as a starting point to disentangle the concept of Indigeneity from blood purity. “What seals the deal in an adoption is the allocation of land to the adopted person. In our knowledge system, land is equivalent to blood. So when land is given to a newly adopted member of a family, it is for all intents and purposes a blood transfusion. The adopted family member now has the blood of the family” (44) – a somewhat problematic comment in that it doesn’t totally reject the normative connection between blood and identity.

Chapter Three – Glen Coulthard, “From Wards of the State to Subjects of Recognition?”: Marx, Indigenous Peoples, and the Politics of Disposession in Denendeh.” 

The chapter assesses the usefulness of Marxist theory for understanding the role of recognition politics in contemporary settler colonialism. Of particular concern is how “the process of primitive accumulation has been at least in part facilitated by the very mechanism of recognition that we hoped might shield the Dene land and communities from is: land claims” (57) – primitive accumulation referring to the initial change in the relationship between peoples and land that is meant to start the process of exploitation, capital accumulation, and normative developmentism inherent to Marx’s theory, or “the violent transformation of noncapitalist forms of life into capitalist ones” (58).

Generally, understanding the capitalization of land in terms of colonialism is a necessary shift in perspective for understanding how settler colonialism works in Canada. He contends that various philosophies about place, and the viewpoints that place enables, “can guide forms of resistance against other rationalizations of the world that threaten to erase our senses of place” (70). Place-based ethics are crucial components in orienting towards sovereign ways of being (72).

Chapter Four – Robert Nichols, “Contract and Usurpation: Enfranchisement and Racial Governance in Settler-Colonial Contexts” 

Theorists concerned with imperialism as “an important object of study” have often failed to acknowledge “their own implication in the colonial occupation of unceded Indigenous territories” (97). This chapter examines how critiques of the social contract such as the “sexual contract” and “the racial contract” not only fail to recognize the workings of settler colonialism, but actually work as mechanisms of imperialism.

They do so by naturalizing and confirming universal, humanist ideals of inclusion. Nichols calls this sort of tacit implementation of colonial ideals as the “settler contract” (101).

Nichols’s chapter describes the signing of Treaty 6, between 1876 and 1879 in present-day Alberta and Saskatchewan, which included Michel First Nation, a community of Cree, Mohawk, and Metis ancestry in northwestern Alberta (103-4). The treaty restricted the community to a reserve; in later years the Nation encountered “considerable pressure to part with most of its remaining reserve lands” with little compensation. Today, the Nation isn’t recognized as a corporate entity (Indian Band) by the State, and has no legal position from which to reclaim land or rights (104). In 1958, moreover, all members of the band were subject to compulsory enfranchisement, meaning that they attained “formal legal equality as individuals before the law, but no membership in the corporate entity previously recognized as the Michel Band (104).

Chapter Five: Christopher Bracken, “’In This Separation’”

This is a really interesting chapter. Bracken offers different ways of reading Samson Occom and his stepson Joseph Johnson – Indigenous writers whom critics have often identified as, essentially, no ‘really’ Native due to their Christianity and the subjects of their writing. He notes that scholars often oscillate between trying to see things from their perspective, or pointing to their writing as evidence of Christianity’s effects on Indigenous peoples.

By contrast, he reads their works as evincing complex processes of identification and disidentification.  Even / especially those critics that propose to read Occom and Johnson for signs of agency “lift a prejudice from the present and transport it into the past” (130).

The chapter revolves around questions of identity, self-representation, and the influence of others. He mixes analyses of Occom and Johnson’s 18th century writings with psychoanalytic discussions of sadomasochism – a practice seen as an “effort to ‘become nothing’” (139).

Chapter Six – Mark Rifkin, “Making Peoples into Populations: The Racial Limits of Tribal Sovereignty”

This chapter advances a conception of biopolitics through the lens of Indigenous theory. It focuses on two US cases which sought to determine membership in Indigenous bands, as well as deciding who could be properly identified as Indigenous (Santa Clara Pueblo and Cherokee nation). Rifkin expands on the notion of biopolitics as a control of populations – whereby the “positions various groups of people occupy within the political and economic configuration(s) that sustain the norm, then, are validated as merely expressive of their collective bodily dispositions, qualities that make them – as population – less able to participate in the promise of augmented life represented by the norm” (150) – to reframe the control of populations (Indigenous and otherwise) as a form of “geopolitics” (150). The courts are happy to recognize a “tribal profile” as an “apolitical Indianness” (175).

Like Byrd’s Transit of Empire, “Indianness serves as the biopolitical trace of an ongoing displacement of Indigenous peoplehood. […] Indianness functions less as a code for racial inferiority than as an ideological placeholder for the ultimately non(geo)political character of tribes that supposedly explains their political status” (177).  The terms by which a population becomes recognized as such are also important. For example, “the notion of race as a quality that inheres at birth in individual bodies” (165) comes to bear on who cannot and cannot ‘be Indian’ as well as installing heteronormativity as the only way by which proper identity proliferates.

Chapter Seven – Scott Lauria Morgensen, “Indigenous Transnationalism and the AIDS Pandemic: Challenging Settler Colonialism within Global Health Governance.” 

This chapter turns to Indigenous AIDS organizers who might “begin to diagnose” the biopolitics of settler colonialism “when they creatively engage state and international health projects in which Indigenous peoples are managed or from which they have been erased” (188).

Morgensen points out that “while settler colonialism may appear to be contained within settler states, its actions are inherently transnational: settler states and societies define and lead the economics and laws that articulate a globalized world with ongoing naturalized colonization” (189). Of particular interest is international AIDS activists gathering around the 2006 Toronto International AIDS Conference (201).

Chapter Eight – Andrea Smith, “Native Studies at the Horizon of Death.”  

Smith writes that problems arise from excluded and marginalized groups vying to be recognized as fully human, including the fact that “the humanity to which we aspire still depends on the continued oppression of other affectable others. Thus, a liberation struggle that does not question the terms by which humanity is constituted becomes a liberation struggle that depends on the oppression of others” (209).

Smith’s central concern is that Indigenous studies is constrained by the terms upon which it has become intelligible to the academy. Scholars are compelled to perform their authenticity to gain acceptance (212). She adopts Audra Simpson’s concept of “ethnographic refusal” to propose that Indigenous scholars withhold ethnographic fulfillment, thus disrupting “ethnographic entrapment” (213).

The notion of the ethnographic subject works in tandem with the white scholar who would acknowledge their own privilege, thus selecting “individual confession at the expense of collective action” (217), which ignores the fact that we do not need to acknowledge privilege so much as we need to “change the structures within which we live so that we become different people in the process” (217).

Her major concern is that, in the process of proving their “worthiness,” Indigenous peoples (especially in academia) “put ourselves in the position of ethnographic objects who have no value other than to enable self-determining settler subjects to constitute themselves” (220). The supposed transparency of Indigenous peoples is related to colonial perceptions of their political capacities – specifically, the assumption that ‘factionalism’ (or what Rick Monture called simply democracy in The Winter We Danced) is a sort of inauthenticity: “Because Native peoples are supposed to be singular in their infinitely knowable aspirations, and hence devoid of political complexity and contradiction, the assumptions behind their political positions require no further engagement” (230).

Chapter Nine: Mishuana Goeman, “Disrupting a Grammar of Place.”

Goeman argues that visual representations of Indigenous bodies disrupt what she terms a “settler grammar” (237) – a semiotics that constitutes settler space as previously and currently unoccupied. Despite the emphasis on space here, Goeman’s interest does not stray from the interest in making the human present, with little regard for land and non-human subjects. This is one of the weaker chapters in the book, largely because it insists on promoting various liberal ideals of inclusion, as if art’s power lies in its ability to offer better representations of what people ‘really’ are.

Chapter Ten: Vera B. Palmer, “The Devil in the Details: Controverting an American Indian Conversion Narrative.” This is a fascinating chapter about Kateri Tekekwitha, a Mohawk woman who was canonized in 2012.

Points of Importance/Interest: 

Field Paper (Colonialism, Multiculturalism, and What Gets Left Out with Recognition) Liberal inclusion / Multiculturalism and the Naturalization of the Human 

FIELD – The “heteronormative settler state […] not only colonizes Native peoples but also structures the world of possibility for all peoples” (Simpson and Smith 17).

FIELD – Robert Nichols argues that scholarship that scrutinizes racial and gender inequality does the work of settler colonialism by presupposing that the assignment of full citizenship rights is the ultimate goal for social justice. This is why the federal government is happy to acknowledge that it once failed to “completely and equally integrate Indigenous peoples into citizenship through the uneven distribution of rights that flowed from the policy of compulsory enfranchisement” (107). The elision of difference is something that Indigenous people have long been attentive to, such as the 1969 White Paper (108). Of course, the opposite of denying difference is no less desirable, as Audrea Simpson notes in her discussion of how “culture” gets used to denote racination. Ultimately, what Nichols shows is that “systems of governance may channel or structure the terms of their own contestation” (116), suggesting that reacting to colonial hegemony is actually part of that hegemony, which is one of the main problems of strategies that are fundamentally reactionary.

FIELD – Mark Rifkin similarly notes that “racialization crucially supplements the geopolitics of U.S. sovereignty by marking the limits of […] political recognition” (160): excluding governance and economy while paying homage to ‘cultural difference’. Like Byrd’s analysis of the discursive effects of the Indian, “characterizing being Indian as belonging to a ace serves less as a way of erasing the existence of tribes as polities than differentiating ‘tribes’ from ‘independent nations’” (161).

FIELD – Coulthard writes about an assumption that inheres in both colonial and Marxist thinking that Indigenous peoples once experienced a moment of separation from land, and are now on a path of modernization. This normative transition includes the disintegration of tribal life and the implementation of individualism. Coulthard shows that the process of capitalization persists into the present: given the ongoing urbanization of Indigenous peoples, coupled with the fact that valuable resources tend to invite extraction from beneath Indigenous lands, “it is reasonable to conclude that disciplining Indigenous life to the cold rationality of market principles will remain on the federal government’s agenda for some time” (Coulthard 62).

FIELD – Whereas land claim agreements separate Indigenous identity from land by asserting that the surrender of land rights does not cancel out “aboriginal identity,” “Indigenous struggles against capitalist imperialism are best understood as struggles oriented around the question and meaning of land” (Coulthard 69). Defining land outside of liberal recognitionist frameworks is crucially anti-colonial. Coulthard recalls a speech by Dene man Philip Blake, in which land encapsulates multiple meanings: “land as resource, central to our material survival; land as identity, as constitutive of who we are as a people; and land as relationship” (Coulthard 71). By contrast, “for the state, recognizing and accommodating ‘the cultural’ through the negotiation of land claims would not involve the recognition of alternative Indigenous economies and forms of political authority, as the concepts of mode of production and mode of life suggest; instead, the state insisted that an institutionalized accommodation of Indigenous cultural differences be reconcilable with one political formation – namely, colonial sovereignty – and one more of production – namely, capitalism” (Coulthard 75).

FIELD – The inclusion inherent to biopolitics includes spatial and political implications. As Mark Rifkin writes, “Coding Indigenous polities as an ‘Indian’ population, aggregated into ‘tribes,’ displaces not just specific Indigenous modes of governance and land tenure but the authority of Indigenous peoples to decide for themselves how they should be governed” (Rifkin 151).

FIELD – The concept of ethnographic refusal sounds reactionary, but Andrea Smith envisions it as working as a prefigurative politics (Coulthard). Smith identifies helpful meeting points between identity and land, through her discussion of ethnographic entrapment and refusal: “if we understand ourselves to be transparent, self-determining subjects, defining ourselves in opposition to who we are not, then the nations that will emerge from this sense of self will be exclusivist and insular. However, if we understand ourselves as being fundamentally constituted through our relations with other beings and the land, then the nations that emerge will also be inclusive and interconnected with each other” (222).  Beyond Recognition 

FIELD – Dian Million reminds us that Indigenous perspectives are not ‘tarnished’ because of the various sites of disturbance and conflict from which they arise: “Most important, indigenes have always had theories about their worlds and their lives and their communities, regardless of the disruption people suffered in confronting unprecedented change. These narratives may bear the marks of their production in chaos, but they cannot be ignored, since they too represent discursive strategy. These Indigenous concepts of how the world works, and how it came to be, can never be summarily dismissed” (Million 35). In terms of Indigenous theory in relation to recognition and reactivism, Million goes on to write, “Indigenism seeks relations with other friendly states and nongovernmental entities to reduce the ineluctable force of any dichotomous relationship to any colonizer’s nationalism. But, most important, Indigenism must be understood as a lateral and internal strategy to rebuild Indigenous social relations across hemispheres that are not merely reactive to any nation-state’s embrace” (38).

FIELD – If liberalism requires fixed states of identity to mete out recognition, as well as a normative conception of what “traditional” and “modern” mean, then Coulthard positions Indigeneity outside the bounds of liberal identity politics: “although our movement was firmly rooted in and motivated by political values and concepts informed by a relational conception of land, it also actively incorporated new social and political discourses to enrich these older traditions” (73).

FIELD – Mark Rifkin suggests that thinking through “peoplehood” – and its concomitant nod to place and governance – versus the notion of population offers ways “of leveraging the unexamined geopolitical assumptions at play in existing ways of analyzing biopolitics, while also helping highlight the role that biopolitical forms of power play within the geopolitical project of legitimizing and exercising settler-state authority over Indigenous space and polities” (151-1).   Topic Paper (Resisting History in Favour of Space; Limits of Sovereigntist Theory in a Globalized World; and the Potential of Art / Thinking Differently)

FIELD / TOPIC For Morgensen, in “Indigenous Transnationalism and AIDS,” engaging and resisting the globalized biopolitics of settler colonialism means destabilizing the necropolitics associated with Indigeneity, whereby Indigenous peoples are characterized by their “supposed vulnerability to change by ‘contact’ to suggest an inevitable march to extinction that even modern health interventions cannot stop” (191). He defines this form of resurgence as “health sovereignty” (193). The biopolitics of settler colonialism has a temporal effect: it “predicts [Indigenous peoples’] elimination and ensures their regulation” (198). How do museums play into this? Is housing art a perpetuation of life, or at least part of it?

TOPIC – (Presencing, beyond reactivism) – Million writes that “Indigenism is a position that is actively visioning of a present belief, valenced and mobilized as life exceeding life, not to be contained by or within capitalism’s voracious appetites. It is an Indigenous politic that imagines humans in relation with life’s potential rather than as masters. It is the imaginary that Indigenous peoples hold to when they attach to a future beyond a present that is increasingly ensconced within a medicalized therapeutic diagnosis of our colonial wounding” (39).  Intellectual Promiscuity 

TOPIC – The anticolonial work of mixing genres / “Intellectual Promiscuity.” It’s interesting how academia and theory encapsulates certain assumptions about identity, space, and place. Intellectual promiscuity pushes back against the same forces that would have “urban Indians” construed as inauthentic, or trapped in a binary between urban and reserve space (Simpson and Smith 12) – a characterization that I suspect naturalizes the occupation of urban land while identifying Indigenous peoples are unreal / unpresent / disappeared. “A critical ethnic studies is not a melting pot for diverse racialized identity-based groups; it is a coalitional intellectual project that seeks to assess the intersecting logics of white supremacy, settler colonialism, and capitalism” (13). Teaiwa’s chapter describes multiple instances of intellectual promiscuity, such as Haunani-Kay Trask’s decolonization seminar, which included writings by Fanon and Malcolm X. The scope of the seminar was global while the impact was local, presumably (Teaiwa 46). Promiscuity is a rejection of abstraction, a way of ‘getting real’. It is in this way that academia acknowledges and honors its responsibility to the local (47). Theories also transform through engagement. “Gramsci helps us to see how other theories with white origins might be shaping or manipulating us into consent” (52).

TOPIC –  Goeman’s chapter suggest that Indigenous art acts as a type of transmotion (maybe?) insofar as it disrupts the “settler grammar” of space (237): “Representations of Indian bodies are stagnant, as is the nature of space in a majority of colonial discourses. Documenting and simultaneously uprooting the discursive construction of Native bodies and settler places upends the state-determined fixity of geopolitical space that we now sit within, a space that remains unfinished and unconquered” (237). Representational work is important because it reconstitutes the spatial implications of Indigenous embodiment: “spatial restructuring of bodies coincides with the spatial construction of the nation state” (240).

TOPIC – Rejecting the colonial politics of abstracted chronologies and place-less identities

“While there are differences between the personal story and the collective stories we tell, I believe that it was and is necessary for Indigenous peoples in North America to make new ways of seeing ascendant, to move to shape the endless spin of the discourses in place, to act in a now to change the order” (Million 32). History comes to bear in the now through an analysis that includes “find[ing] interpretation for what happened in terms that have relations with those whose history it is. From that we make propositions, and from that we attach our hopes, fears, and beliefs to dreaming and actualizing futures” (36).  The concept of “vision” is interesting for expanding on Visenor’s concepts (Coulthard 73) – vision as the product of intellectual promiscuity.        



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