May 22, 2024

On Enduring Borders And The Erasure Of Indigeneity, Part 3 (Roger Green)

The following is the third and final installment of Roger Green’s ongoing article.  The first installment can be found here. The second can be found here.

I have been posting regarding the concept of Indigeneity as a necessary category, stressing the conceptual nature of the term to emphasize the ethical implications for non-Indigenous thinkers like myself as part of an ongoing decolonizing process and a heightened awareness of rhetorical violence against Indigenous Peoples perpetuated historically by euro-christian impulses.

I draw on Tink Tinker (wazhazhe, Osage) for some of my terminology.  Tinker’s description of euro-christianity, lower-cased to remind us of the historical power, as a social movement rather than a religion.  I’ve been working with Dr. Tinker as part of the Native American Justice Council at the Iliff School of Theology to bring forward a discussion of a book of christian history bound in the flayed skin of a Native American man and eventually gifted to the theology school, where it was unabashedly displayed for about eighty years.

Tinker has written an article detailing the repatriation of the flayed skin to the American Indian Movement during the 1970s and the institutional efforts to silence that history, a position that the current president of Iliff, Rev. Dr. Thomas Wolfe has actively sought to undo.

My efforts in this series of posts are aimed at scholarly efforts by non-Indigenous thinkers not only to own-up to the legacy of euro-christian colonization but critically de-thread the narrative webs that inform ways of being derived from the habitus of that particular ethnocentricism.

In American Indian Liberation, Tinker writes, “It will be difficult to learn respect from the cultural other unless each of us gains a proper sense of one’s own community in order to avoid new age encroachment and misappropriation of what belongs to someone else, that is, to another community and its culture” (161). He then calls on White people to take on the task of identifying amer-european culture so that it can be dismantled.

In The Wages of Whiteness, David, Roediger writes:

The term white arose as a designation for European explorers, traders and settlers who came into contact with Africans and indigenous people of the Americas. As such it appeared even before permanent British settlement in North America.  Its early usages in America served as much to distinguish European settlers from Native Americans as to distinguish Africans from Europeans.  Thus, the prehistory of the white worker begins in the settlers’ images of Native Americans. (21)

The concept of Indigeneity that arises internationally as a result of global colonization is, like pan-Africanism, a reaction-formation to hostile worldly conditions based on shared experiences of that hostility.  In the abstract, such formations are easy enough to recognize but difficult for white people to feel, even when they are committed to anti-racism.  Part of the experiencing of whiteness, I would say is in ideological purification of markets, which Karl Polanyi long ago identified as the unnatural and historically contingent Great Transformation.

Economics in the abstract, even when employing terms such as “social capital,” are part of a historically whitely discourse that naturalizes itself in its own conceptions of the state of nature and friend-enemy relations across borders. The recent calls by both democrats and republicans evidence whitely and historically bourgeois concern for “the family” in calling out Donald Trump for separating families at American borders.

Native Americans are well aware that these same parties have had no problem separating Native children from their parents for a long time, and that such bipartisan approaches achieve their ends not because of sentimental humanism or, even less, antiracism, but because the narrative of “family” and the “order of the house,” as Foucault pointed out in his lectures on governmentality, is part of the matrix of euro-christian ideology and the “invisible hand” of white supremacy.

Tinker has written, “our White relatives must begin to learn from indigenous peoples worldwide the importance of respecting all their own relatives in the created world, including trees, rivers, animals and flying things” (161). It is extremely difficult for White people not to translate such a perspective into a kind of universalized euro-christian kingdom, which is what the new age community does constantly, as evangelical as ever.

Marisol De La Cadena’s work with runakuna in the Andes, as I’ve written about in a previous post, points out the places of equivocation, where the same words ring differently for Indigenous and non-Indigenous ears.  Here I put her work into discussion with other scholars of Indigenous Studies. One thematic characteristic of these studies has been to overthrow the uncritical use of the term ‘essentialism’ among what Barbara Alice Mann calls ‘yakademics’ and ‘yakadementia’ in Spirits of Blood, Spirits of Breath: The Twinned Cosmos of Indigenous America:

Now that no one’s being gunned down en masse, at least not on this continent, for talking back to the gatekeepers of Western culture, I expect that this trickle of Turtle Island voices will sweep into a tsunami.  Maybe it will even become obvious to the old guard of academe that in refusing, refuting, and otherwise disputing Christian hegemony, Indians are not “weakening” their arguments by “essentializing” Indigenous tradition but are decentering Euro-Christianity as the all-inclusive norm. (40)

Similarly, Aileen Moreton-Robinson (Goenpul, Quandamooka) addresses the essentialism question in The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereigntyby stressing the relationship of Indigenous Peoples to land and ancestors:

Because the ancestral spirits gave birth to humans, they share a common life force, which emphasizes the unity of humans with the earth rather than their separation.  The ontological relationship occurs through the intersubstantiation of ancestral beings, humans, and land; it is a form of embodiment. (12)

The problem with the anti-essentialist critique of discussions of Indigeneity is that it is “commendable, but it is [also] premised on a contradiction embedded within the Western construction of essentialism; it is applied as a universal despite its epistemological recognition of difference” (13).  This again speaks to some of my concerns expressed in part 1 regarding seductive tendencies toward universalizing approaches to theories of the migrant.

Moreton-Robinson stresses that Indigenous People have “a different experience of migrancy to that of the postcolonial subject.  It is not a hybridity derived from a third space, a kind of menagerie of fluid diasporic subjects. Instead there is an incommensurate doubleness superimposed by marginality and centering.”  This leads her to further stress that the legal fictions by which colonizing legal apparatuses continue to exist remain actively present for people today.

She claims that what “requires further theorizing is how the white and nonwhite post-colonial subject is positioned in relation to the original owners not through migrancy but by possession in countries such as Australia” (17).  This statement echoes the concerns that Glenn Sean Coulthard (Yellowknives Dene) has brought up in Red Skin White Masks: Rejecting the Politics of Recognition.

Coulthard argues that “the politics of recognition in its contemporary liberal form promises to reproduce the very configurations of colonialist, racist, patriarchal state power that Indigenous peoples’ demands for recognition have historically sought to transcend” (3).  In his rejection of liberal multiculturalism, Coulthard advocates a rehabilitated notion of Marx’s theory of Primitive Accumulation whereby accumulation is not relegated to a particular period but rather a “persistent role that unconcealed, violent dispossession continues to play” (9).

Along with this re-conception of Primitive Accumulation, Coulthard stresses focusing on Marx’s own overcoming of a “typically nineteenth-century view of historical progress”  by “contextually shifting our investigation from capital relation to the colonial relation,” which the subject of colonial dispassion rather than the “waged male proletariat” (10-11).  The lack of this focus has been to the detriment of traditional critical theory, according to Coulthard.

So, the project of thinking Indigeneity is neither one of essentializing nor or the politics of recognition maintained by liberal and neoliberal assertions of multiculturalism.  What both Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers in Anthropology and Indigenous Studies emphasize is incommensurability.

Along with this we might consider Ghassan Hage’s concept of ‘alter-politics’ against ‘anti-politics,’ and in particular his articulation of the “globalization of late settler colonialism” in Alter-Politics: Critical Anthropology and the Radical Imagination.  Hage opens his book describing the phenomenon of the global spread of overt white supremacy and white nationalism, something he saw early forms of in his research on “warring Christians” in twentieth-century Lebanon.

Indeed, as is increasingly the case, the dominant forms of imagining ‘the West’ today portray it as if it is one big global, late colonial settler formation, on the defensive despite its expansionary mode of existence; under duress despite its overwhelming power and dominance; confronted, as it imagines itself to be, with an equally global sea of uncivilised others made out of terrorists and asylum seekers. (Loc. 313-316)

Alter-politics in Hage’s use is summed up as “we can be other than what we are,” yet in the context of Indigenous incommensurability this phrase strikes a particular resonance with respect to a critique of liberal utopianism and what I have criticized elsewhere as Romantic archaic revivalism in the liberal global imaginary.

To “be other than what we are” rings within a westernized liberal ear in a tradition of behavioral modification that calls forth Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s notion of equivocation, where two or more parties hear and understand the same words in different ways, just the same as when some eyes head here about the importance of Indigeneity, it will likely be in the context of identity politics when there is really something different going on.

Despite the fact that Indigenous identity is partly a product of the global expansion of euro-christianity, which includes capitalism and work such as the U.N. Working Group on Indignenous Peoples resistance to defining “Indigenous Peoples,” Indigenous critical theorists such as Jodi Byrd have pointed out the necessity for a definition.  In The Transit of Empire, Byrd cites Jeff Corntassel (Cherokee) and Taiaiake Alfred (Kahnawake Mowhawk):

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 centers of empire.  It is the 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 in the world. (in Byrd xxix)

Byrd also argues that “U.S. cultural and political preoccupations with indigeneity and the reproduction of Indianness serve to facilitate, justify, and maintain Anglo-American hegemonic mastery over the significations of justice, democracy, law, and terror” (xx) at least partly because the root of such hegemonic claims to power relies on the dispossession of Indigenous Peoples’ lands.

Aileen Moreton-Robinson turns to Foucault’s discussion of race as biopower in the Society Must Be Defended lectures, where “he defines ‘race’ as a linguistic and religious marker that precedes the modern nation state,” surfacing “as a biological construct in the late eighteenth century because disciplinary knowledges came into being and regulatory mechanisms were developed to control the population” (156). As theories of globalization abound and frustrations with the instrumentalized neoliberal uses of identity categories to exploit resentiment and “moral outrage,” Indigenous critical theorists are correctly suspicious of the tendencies to remove race from the picture.

One way to rethink the issue is evidenced in Alexander G. Weheliye’s Habeas Viscus.  Weheliye takes both Foucault and Agamben to task on the issue of race: “Put simply, Foucault never interrogates the bare existence of racial difference and those hierarchies fabricated upon this primodial notion and, as a result, reinscribes racial difference as natural” (62).  Contra Agamben’s distinction between bare and qualified life, Weheliye writes with respect to Agamben’s descriptions of the Muselmann in the camp:

the pure organic form of essence borne of the biopolitics of racism is a form of racial classification and most definitely not its supersession.  There can be no absolute biological substance, because in the history of modernity this field always already appears in the form of racializing assemblages” (65).

Weheliye’s larger argument asks us to account for an “enfleshment” that is not accounted for in the rights tradition of habeas corpusand Western “Man.”  He calls this habeas viscus:

Habeas viscus points to the terrain of humanity as a relational assemblage exterior to the jurisdiction of law given that law can bequeath or rescind ownership of the body so that it becomes the property of proper persons but does not possess the authority to nullify the politics and poetics of the flesh found in the traditions of the oppressed. As a way of conceptualizing politics, then, habeas viscus diverges from the discourses and institutions that yoke the flesh to political violence in the modus of deviance. Instead, it translates the hieroglyphics of the flesh into a potentiality in any and all things, an originating leap in the imagining of future anterior freedoms and new genres of humanity. (136-7)

Certainly these “new genres of humanity” are not “post-human,” nor are they “human potential” in its new age sense, but rather a call to account for forms of humanity that legal acts legitimated on possessive whiteness have traditionally deemed non-human.  This is exactly the concern of Indigenous scholars like Moreton-Robinson when she writes that “citizenship rights are a means by which subjugation operates as a weapon of race war that can be used strategically to circumscribe and enable the biopower of patriarchal white sovereignty” (157).

For the particularly Christian roots of this sovereignty Weheliye points to Paul Kahn (178), an observation that resonates with Willie James Jenning’s The Christian Imagination.  These very different thinkers’ observations also resonate with Tink Tinker and Steven Newcomb’s descriptions of euro-christian metaphorical frames.

Again, Weheliye writes: “The conjoining of flesh and habeas corpus in the compound habeas viscusbrings into view an articulated assemblage of the human (viscus/flesh) borne of political violence, while at the same time not losing sight of the different ways law pugnaciously adjudicates who is deserving of personhood and who is not (habeas)” (11).

Weheliye employs Hortense Spillers’ concepts of “hieroglyphics of the flesh” to account for transgenerational trauma and “pornotroping” to capture the “sheer physical powerlessness” that gets replayed onto mediatized representations of non-white bodies.  Such pornotroping is similar to Sayak Valencia’s descriptions in Gore Capitalism.

Gore capitalism and the “endriago subject” that comes to exist seeking the “possibility of belonging and ascending within society” (26). Focusing her analysis on epistemes of violence borne out of border states of exception such as Tijuana.  For her, the gore capitalism makes the Third World the site for the capitalism of drug cartels who have outgrown nation-states to feed the market of drug consumption in the U.S.: “Gore capitalism tells us that nothing is untouchable and that all taboos of economics and respect for life have been shattered. There is no longer any space for restrictions or for salvation: all of us will be affected” (71).

If we put Valencia’s critique into my characterization of the whiteliness of the fictional “pure market” and Coulthard’s account of primitive accumulation that persists over-time, one can hopefully see the concept of Indigeneity is essential to persistent white supremacist interests in so called “free markets.”  It is also the concept by which the construction of whiteness can be seen as attempting to naturalize its supremacy without ever identifying itself.  Critically thinking of Indigeneity is necessary to undo the construction of Western ‘Man’ as “fully human,” a personhood whose autonomy is an onanistic nightmare.

Writers like Tinker must be put into discussion with writers like Weheliye who point to notions such as habeas viscus that account for what Western legal thought has left out.  From Indigenous perspectives as Tinker and others have articulated, the “all-our-relations” view must be considered for rethinking accounts of what personhood is.  Until such tasks can be performed, the growing global precariat ought not be conflated with “becoming Indigenous,” an incommensurability persists.


Roger Green is general editor of The New Polis and a Lecturer in the English Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver.  His work brings political theology into conversation with psychedelics and aesthetics.  He is the author of “Aldous Huxley the Political Theologian” in Aldous Huxley Annual (vol. 14, 2014 / 2015), and “Force in Religious Thought: Carl Raschke and Victoria Kahn in Dialogue” in The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory.  His doctoral dissertation, Beware of Mad John (2013) explores connections between political theology and psychedelic literature.  He is currently working on a second PhD in Religious Studies and Theology at University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *