Tag Archives: colonialism

Summary of ‘Urbanizing Frontiers’ by Penelope Edmonds

Penelope Edmonds: Urbanizing Frontiers: Indigenous Peoples and Settlers in 19th Century Pacific Rim Cities

urbanizingfrontierspicThis is a summary of a new book by Penelope Edmonds, comparing two settler colonial cities—Victoria in Canada and Melbourne in Australia—to reveal the operations of British settler colonialism in the 19th century, and its implications for settler colonialism today. She focuses on the ways that both cities increasingly regulated bodies and spaces in attempts to create civilized, British subjects, and to dispossess and discipline indigenous people and control and police indigenous bodies.  I drew heavily on Edmonds’ work in a recent piece I wrote about the acknowledgement of territories by Victoria’s newly-elected mayor, Lisa Helps, her refusal to swear allegiance to the Queen, and the racist backlash that followed.  Edmonds wrote an article called “Unpacking Settler Colonialism’s Urban Strategies,” which unpacks a lot of the book, especially as it pertains to Victoria, specifically.  It’s available here.

Victoria vs. Melbourne

I live in Victoria, so in this summary I focus in particular on Edmonds’ work on this city, with less of a focus on Melbourne. Compared to Melbourne, the dispossession and violence perpetrated in Victoria against indigenous peoples was more subtle and less overt. In Melbourne, pastoralism meant that indigenous people were quickly targeted for removal and elimination, whereas in Victoria, the mercantilist economy of resource extraction (especially the fur trade) meant that indigenous people were necessary, and they were much more a part of the emerging colonial city:

During the fur trade, there was great violence, but land was largely under the control of Frist Nations, because mercantilism left Aboriginal peoples on their land. Settler colonialism, by contrast, sought to remove Indigenous peoples from their land and denied or extinguished Native title. In the Australian pastoral frontier, land, not labour, was the primary object. It was an object that was pursued with rapidity and violence. (33)

Colonial Frontiers

Edmonds suggests that the ‘colonial frontier’ has been conceptualized as “a distinctly non-urban geographical space that sits somewhere out in the country or borderlands” (5). She shows how frontiers exist within urban spaces (through the segregation and contestations around spaces) and in intimate/bodily relations (through attempts to maintain the racial purity of whiteness and concomitant attempts to police indigenous bodies). These frontiers are “mercurial, transactional, and, importantly, intimate and gendered” (6). This is a counterhistory of Empire, which challenges the amnesia of settler colonialism, which makes its own processes seem natural and normal (to settlers, at least). This historical amnesia is political, writing out the dispossession of indigenous people, and the political processes and struggles that attempted to make Victoria into a white, propertied, bourgeois space. In this context, Edmonds explains that she seeks to “indigenize historical understanding of the settler-colonial city by focusing on human stories and individual lives transformed in the context of British colonizing structures and urbanization in the Pacific Rim” (9).

Counter-history

Edmonds notes how dominant histories create a top-down view of power, privileging narratives of individual white males and military engagements in a supposedly linear process of colonialism (6). These condition the idea of Victoria as it’s marketed to tourists, as ‘more English than the English’ which erases the way that space in Victoria was transactional, heterogeneous, and contested. Furthermore, Edmonds argues that geography and urban planning has tended to understand colonialism in functionalistic ways, focusing on the circulation of products and goods, omitting “the important human and cultural aspects of empire’s urbanizing landscapes: the displacements and transformations of peoples and ideas” (50).

Crucial to this counter-history is a conception of space and race as a processes, and an attempt to reveal the lived realities of these cities. Whereas race and urban space tend to be understood as natural or given, Edmonds draws on Henri Lefebvre’s work to show how space “is a process of uneven power inscription that reproduces itself and creates oppressive spatial categories” (10). In this sense, spaces are always contested: “the unequal distribution of power in social space becomes naturalized and its operations forgotten. That is, spaces obscure the conditions of their own production” (10). To write counterhistory and reveal the production of spaces, then, requires tracking the “generative processes” that make spaces work in the ways they do (11). In the case of both settler-colonial cities, these crucial processes included the “regulation, partition, and sequestration of Aboriginal peoples and attempts to control so-called mixed-race relatiosnhips” (12). Indigenous peoples were systematically constructed as nuisances and prostitutes, and indigenous spaces in the city were represented as bedlam, chaos, disease and filth. Edmonds argues that these categories are key to understanding the production of space in Victoria, and to understanding the process of settler colonialism more broadly.

Victoria was constructed as a white (initially Anglo-Saxon) space. Edmonds suggests that whiteness needs to be understood not simply as a skin colour but “as a strategy of power or a set of political relations” which is associated with property and the segregation of bodies (17). She explains that “shoring up a white settler population became a priority in both sites, especially after the 1860s” (45). This involved engineered immigration schemes to encourage Anglo-Saxon migration and discourage Chinese immigration.

Dispossession

The supremacy of settler society and the backwardness of indigenous peoples was legitimated by stadial theory, in which four various modes of production (hunting, pastoralism, agriculture, and commerce) conceptualized as hierarchical and successive forms of human progress. Specific to stadial theory was not simply the concept of different modes of production, or their hierarchy, but the linear telos: “pastoralists were not merely superior to nomads; they were so because they had once been nomads but were no longer” (58). This meant that indigenous lands were conceptualized as ‘wastes’, waiting to be improved by European agriculture and industry, and “the precondition for the highest stage of progress and commerce was the absence of Indigenous peoples in the city” (61).

The Douglas treaties were modeled on the idea that Indigenoups people had “the right of occupancy but not property”—their claims “extended only to their cultivated fields and building sites or villages” (42). These cultivated fields had to be enclosed to be considered cultivated, so this did not extend to camas fields. Legally, indigenous people could ‘pre-empt’ land within the terms of colonial law, by clearing it, fencing it, and building a house. Edmonds doesn’t say this explicitly, but it’s striking that owning land requires clearing, fencing, and dwelling like settlers.

Edmonds only briefly discusses the cultivation of camas in and around Victoria (90-97) and notes that colonizers immediately saw camas meadows as future sites for agriculture (94). Edmonds traces early settler imaginings of land to show how they followed stadial accounts of “two modes of subsistence—the uncultivated inviting land and the land transformed by European agriculture” (96). The land that Douglas described as a ‘perfect Eden’ was most likely Meegan, or “Beacon Hill Park.” Settlers systematically appropriated these camas fields: wherever Europeans sought to settle on the islands of the Puget Sound, they looked for these open meadows… these fields that in fact had been cultivated by Coast Salish peoples” (96).

Edmonds suggests that the enclosure of these fields were closely linked to broader processes of dispossession and dominance:

the balance soon tipped in favour of the newcomers as the gradual encroachment of fields for cultivation, the grazing of livestock, and the allotment of lands pushed Lekwammen people off their lands and threatened the camas bulb fields on which they subsisted. A growing cadaster of European-style fields began to overcode Aboriginal land (98).

This encroachment was resisted by indigenous people, who “retaliated against the invasion by harvesting the settlers’ cattle” (98). When these tensions escalated, Lekwungen people threatened to attack the fort, and the HBC fired a cannon into the chief’s house (which was empty) as a demonstration of military strength. As Edmonds explains, this display of “sheer firepower” and outright violence “would be used repeatedly in Victoria and the surrounding area to elicit co-operation from local peoples” (98).

Settler-colonial cities

Edmonds points out that transnational colonialism made metropolitanism possible: the grand metropoles of Europe were produced through the exploitation of Europe’s colonies. The city was the epitome and consummation of colonialism as a complex assemblage, involving “specific styles of architectures, certain kinds of transport and communications, hygiene and the regulation of bodies” (61). This corresponded to the ideal subject of colonialism and universal history, Civis Britannicus: “Defined by and made through his global entitleemtns, civis Britannicus could make tranglobal journeys between British settler colonies, where he (not Indigenous peoples) would be configured as native” (64).

Abjection of indigenous spaces and bodies

A central focus of Edmonds work is the representations of indigenous peoples by colonial newspapers, authorities, and settler subjects. They were part of settler fears and anxieties about indigenous peoples. Crucially, they were connected to property values: indigenous peoples were represented as “nuisances” and their existence “render[s] property in their quarter useless” (191). The Native camps were inscribed with European medical ideas about racial hygiene, and posed “as the antithesis of the ordered, rational civil space of the gridded city” (197). This was part of a new set of regulations around contagious diseases in colonies, which “identified female prostitutes as the main source of contagion” (220). Indigenous womenThe medicalization and pathologization of indigenous people helped to erase the complicity of settlers in the theft of land and the policing of indigenous people, positioning settlers as virtuous, moral, and law-abiding (200). This went hand in hand with ongoing attempts to control space and increasing encroachments on the Lekwungen reserve, along with efforts to get control of it and remove indigenous people. Settlers fought about different strategies: missionaries and assimilation, expropriation, purchase, or ‘waiting until they became extinct’ were some of the options discussed. This finally happened in 1911, when a select number of families were paid ten thousand dollars each and forced to relocate (205).

The bridge between the reserve in Esquimalt and the fort in Victoria was a particularly prominent frontier, constructed as “a liminal space, a border between civilization and savagery” (202). Colonial authorities used surveillance and curfews in an attempt to enforce this partition, in an effort to keep indigenous peoples on the other side of the bridge: “they decreed that an Aboriginal person found on the wrong side of the bridge after 10pm could, at the discretion of the police, be searched and detained” (202). The reserve thus increasingly “became a space of confinement within the cityscape” (202). Edmonds also shows how vagrancy was largely a charge reserved for settlers who entered indigenous spaces: the partition was enforced on both sides, though settlers were always punished less severely (213).

This was part of a broad regime of surveillance and control in Victoria. Edmonds reveals the way that Douglas deployed the “civilizing power of the grid. The grid plan, with the help of police surveillance on every corner, he hoped, would both organize and discipline First Nations subjects and reshape their subjectivities (209). This was part of the shift to increasingly modern, disciplinary forms of power in settler colonial cities, relying less on overt and explicit violence, and more on policing and surveillance, including a formal pass system. At the same time, she notes that this disciplinary power was “backed by the exceptional violence of sovereign power” (209). If indigenous people didn’t conform to the grid and the regulated spaces of the city, there was always the possibility of execution, lashings, and other forms of violence.

In addition to its racialization, this violence was also gendered. Edmonds explains that “violence by European men against Aboriginal women was frequent and stunningly brutal” (215). In fact, her evidence is drawn primarily from police reports, which means she is documenting a high level of reported gendered violence, let alone that which was not reported, or ignored by police.

Edmonds sums up her argument about bodies and spaces:

As has been shown, in the early streeets of Victoria an dMelbourne, Indigenous peoples were routinely described as ‘inconvenient,’ ‘immoral,’ ‘nuisances,’ ‘vagrants,’ or ‘prostitutes,’ but to varying degrees. These categories, I propose, take us to the heart of the socio-spatial relations that are distinctive to settler colonialism and reveal how law and property served to racialize the streetscape. Racializations were not only amplified in these colonial contexts, they were also particular to the urbanizing settler landscape. In Malbourne and Victoria, Aboriginal peoples’s amps were not natural entities but spaces produced through colonial relations; likewise, colonized Indigenous bodies or subjects were materially produced as abject, unnautrual, and inconvenient entities. These productions, I argue, were directly related to the settlement phase, when the taking of First Nations land became a key objective (217).

Contact zones and resistance

Part of Edmonds’ counter-history entails revealing not just the dominant constructions of space, but also the ways that early settler colonial reality looked very different from the idealized, white, ordered spaces of the colonial imaginary. Edmonds seeks to “counter scholarship that posits colonialism as a unilnear projection from the metropole by denying the interactivity and subversions of the urbanizing frontier” (15). Settler colonial cities were (and are) “contact zones” which were contested and transactional. She also argues that indigenous women’s bodies were contact zones, and that “paying attention to indigenous womens’ bodies as particular sites of anxiety in the streetscape can tellus much about imagined colonial orders that were both imposed and defied” (16).

Indigenous people also resisted police authority. Among other incidents, in 1860, the newspaper reported that when police accused an indigenous man of stealing a watch and attempted to take him prisoner at an indigenous encampment, the police were “set upon by about one hundred men and women armed with pistols, knives, and clubs who demanded his release” (207).

Suburbia and the Creation of Anti-Indigenous Space

A short piece by Nathan Ince on the ways suburbs as a purification of settler space and the erasure of indigeneity: “This process of suburbanization could almost be viewed as a ritual of purification, as a potentially contested landscape is transformed into a sort of anti-Indigenous space, where not even memory of First Nations occupation is able to survive. While the process might not be conscious, it serves an undeniable purpose in Canadian society. Through a comprehensive transformation of the landscape, we are absolved of the sins of the past.

Similarly, many smoldering land claims burst into flames as soon the disputed land is slated for suburbanization. For the protesters at Oka and Caledonia, the development of their lands would have marked the point of no return, where their land would have been transformed beyond recognition or repair.”

White Pine History

The town of Waterdown is not often associated with history. Situated just north of Hamilton, the one-time village has seen an explosion of growth in recent years, with thousands of new houses being built in subdivisions on every side of the old core. While by no means the most striking example of suburbanization in Southern Ontario, I grew up only a few kilometers from Waterdown, and for me this development remains emblematic of what is perhaps the most radical transformation currently affecting the landscape of our region.

There is something fundamentally ahistoric about suburban growth. In the typical development of a subdivision, the landscape is bulldozed, the hills are flattened, the watercourses are channelized, and traditional land uses are replaced with a form of human settlement that has never before occupied the site. Non-native trees are planted along the lawns and driveways of residents who might imagine them to be…

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Sarah Hunt: Why are we hesitant to name white male violence as a root cause of #MMIW?

Short piece in Rabble by Sarah Hunt: “Why are we so hesitant to name white male violence as a root cause, yet so comfortable naming all the “risk factors” associated with the lives of Indigenous girls who have died? Why are we not looking more closely at the “risk factors” that lead to violence in the lives of the perpetrators? Isn’t that truly where the responsibility for this epidemic lies? When Pickton was convicted, why didn’t we see national coverage of the root causes of his actions and that of other white male serial killers?”

Kwetlal Against Colonialism: A Summary

This is Corey Snelgrove’s summary of his MA Thesis, drawing connections between environmentalism, colonization, and what he calls “settler stewardship”–settlers’ ways of knowing and relating to the land perpetuate and reify settler colonialism. All of this is grounded on Lekwungen Territory, in “Victoria” where he did his MA, and he also gestures towards productive alternatives where settlers are taking leadership from indigenous peoples and supporting indigenous relationships to land, worked through his participation in the Community Toolshed here:
“This orientation marks a difference between the Tool Shed and settler stewardship, and this difference is shared by many of those participating in the Tool Shed. For example, discussions with Community Tool Shed participants reveals a recognition of the entanglement between colonization and the environment. Participants also recognize the different role for non-Lekwungen peoples than Lekwungen peoples in engagements with the land, such as removal of invasive species versus the harvesting of camas. Additionally, participants do not seek to absolve themselves from colonization. Rather, they often trace their involvement to their implication in colonization.”

The following is a short summary of my Community Governance Project completed as partial fulfillment of an MA in Indigenous Governance at the University of Victoria under the supervision of Cheryl Bryce (Songhees) and Dr. Jeff Corntassel (Tsalagi)

I have never considered myself an environmentalist. And, to be clear, I still don’t.

Over the past two years though, I’ve found myself engaging in what are often referred to as environmental issues. Most specifically, I’ve been involved in the removal of invasive species from Garry oak ecosystems in Victoria, British Columbia. This work has mostly entailed the removal of scotch broom.

Introduced to these lands by the first independent settler on Vancouver Island, Broom is an invasive plant with deep, thick roots, and which produces up to 18,000 seeds that are in turn spread by human and non-human forces. Not only does removal require physical labour to uproot these plants, but it also requires…

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Against Pinkwashing: Filmmaker open letter to the Vancouver Queer Film Festival

From Mik Turje:

Mik Turje Statement on VQFF Pinkwashing

VQFF Statement from Executive Director

pinkwashing-ar-785x0

Dear fellow cultural producers and consumers, queers and allies,

Like many of you, I have watched the pinkwashing controversy at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival unfold over the past three years. This year I have found myself compelled as a filmmaker in the VQFF’s Changemakers program to make a public statement about the issue. I believe firmly that the the occupation of Palestine is a queer issue, and that as cultural producers we have a responsibility to use media for social justice. This means media that is unafraid to come out against apartheid, colonialism, and pinkwashing.
My statement (attached below) is in response to the VQFF’s statement released on July 28th (also below). It is with the intent of holding the VQFF to task around this issue as a community that I am making my statement public. If you feel compelled by any or all of this statement, I encourage you to email Drew Dennis, the Executive Director of Out On Screens with your thoughts on the matter.
Drew can be reached at drew@outonscreen.com.
I would also like to reach out to any fellow filmmakers in the VQFF’s program this year about the possibility of drafting a joint statement. Please email me at dandyshots@gmail.com if you are interested.
Please share this with your networks.
In solidarity,
– Mik Turje
Ps. Please see these other public statements on the VQFF’s pinkwashing:
* * *
Mik Turje
Co-Director: Hands in The Dirt
August 7, 2014
Dear Drew Dennis and the Out on Screen Board of Directors,
It has been a great honour to be accepted to show my film in the Changemakers program at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival. After speaking to you and reading your statement released on July 28th, I am encouraged to see a response from the festival to the public outcry around the issue that has been building since the initial screening of “Invisible Men” three years ago. I am also relieved that it was not the intent of the VQFF to send the message of solidarity with Israel that it did by printing the Yad B’Yad advert. Despite this, after much reflection I feel that that the response from the festival has been inadequate and am called to address it publicly.
Though the statement and our conversation has made it clear that the VQFF has no position on the issue, I believe that choosing neutrality in a situation of oppression is a form of complicity. I ask the festival to recall the famous ACT UP motto “Silence = Death.” Our queer history is marked by the principle that silence about oppression must be broken, and that this is a matter of life or death.
The siege on Gaza over the past three weeks has seen the death toll (majority civilian, disproportionately children) exceed eighteen hundred. Four-hundred and forty-thousand people have been displaced, nearly nine-thousand injured, and over forty percent of Gaza has been depopulated. The Israeli army has acted with impunity, targeting schools, hospitals, power plants and UN shelters, resulting in the total collapse of essential services such as sewage, electricity, and medical care. This is not a conflict between two equal parties; this is an occupation where the occupier consistently violates international law, and where civilian deaths on one side outnumber the other a thousand to one. At any time, but particularly in light of this I am lending my voice to others who are asking the Vancouver Queer Film Festival to use its voice as a well-respected organization to make a difference.
The ongoing occupation in Gaza is a queer issue for two very important reasons.
1) Whether we like it or not the project of pinkwashing has involved us. It dehumanizes Palestinians in our name, it frames Israel as a liberal democracy in our name, and it fuels islamophobia and racism in our name.
2) Queer is a political identity, and that to wear it, we make a commitment to act in solidarity with all other oppressed people. This includes those opposing occupation, displacement, and apartheid from Turtle Island to Palestine. Our queer liberation is tied to the liberation of all people.
Pinkwashing is not innocuous. It is intentional, and it causes harm. It is a tactic used by the Israeli government which uses queerness to represent Israel as a modern, liberal, democratic state concerned with human rights and to divert international attention away from the state’s violation of Palestinian human rights. The Yad B’Yad advertisement also was not innocuous. As with all pinkwashing, its function is to make people living in liberal democracies like Canada feel a sense of affinity with or investment in the Israeli state. The implication of this message is that Israel must practice apartheid, colonialism, and violence in order to preserve freedoms like gay rights.
As queers with a conscience, what is the way to move forward? The answer is simple. Palestinian civil society (including all Palestinian queer organizations) is united in their call for solidarity through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. This includes the boycott of Israeli cultural products such as film. I understand that the festival has struggled with the difficult questions of censorship, free speech, and the power of film and media to engage with the issues constructively.
Unfortunately, the Israeli government shares our belief in the power of media, which is why they have been targeting many cultural institutions including film festivals with increased support in recent years. It is no coincidence that the advertisement ended up in the VQFF program – it is part of a larger attempt at pinkwashing the atrocities on the ground in Palestine. In response to this, the VQFF is being called to adopt a policy of cultural boycott.
I was initially pleased and relieved to hear that the festival will be donating the proceeds of the Yad B’Yad advertisement to Just Vision, a Palestinian/Israeli media organization working to end the occupation. After doing research on Just Vision’s films, I have found that these films perpetuate the oft-repeated misrepresentation of the Israel/Palestine conflict as a conflict between two warring parties, equally responsible for a “cycle of violence”. The solution, according to Just Vision, rests on the facilitation of nonviolent dialogue. Though it is important work, this constitutes the erasure of the systemic disparity of human rights, the ongoing theft of Palestinian land and lives, and the denial of any sort of meaningful Palestinian recourse within a legal framework.
Stonewall was a riot: a riot instigated by young trans women of colour who were then further marginalized from the gay rights movement for being too violent (too femme, too trans, too Black and Latino). As queers we are called to learn a difficult lesson about how the rhetoric of nonviolence can silence the most marginalized voices – those disproportionately black and brown bodies for whom rebellion is a matter of life or death. To view our history of queer struggle as nonviolent is to sugarcoat and whitewash history. There is a parallel to be made between the rejection of the queer people of colour who started our movement with fists and bottles, and the erasure of Palestinian resistance which does not fit the comfortable image of peaceful dialogue and mutual understanding.
I am encouraged to hear that the festival will be engaging with an external facilitator in the fall. Regardless of the conflicting perspectives of members of the film festival, the social justice mandate of the VQFF obligates you to speak out against injustice. As this is revisited, I ask that this lead to concrete action, including:
1) That the festival come out against Israeli apartheid and make a statement which explicitly addresses the issues at hand including a condemnation of Israeli war crimes, and a statement opposing pinkwashing
2) That the money from the Yad B’Yad advert be donated towards humanitarian aid to the victims of the ongoing massacre in Gaza
3) That a specific policy be drafted about pinkwashing, and a boycott of Brand Israel cultural products in programming, advertising, and all other aspects of the festival be adopted.
I know the Vancouver Queer Film Festival to be a forward thinking and dedicated community organization, and I have decided not to pull my film as an act of good faith that this issue will be taken seriously when it is revisited in the fall. Though the mandate of the VQFF may end at celebrating queer lives through film, your moral obligation does not.
Sincerely and with the deepest respect,
Mik Turje
Co-director: Hands In the Dirt

Autonomous Politics and Liberal Thought-Magic

Anarchism is often dismissed as incoherent, naïve, and ineffective.  This is Nancy Fraser’s position in a recent essay called “Against Anarchism.”  It’s an excerpt of a longer essay, part of a book entitled Transnationalizing the Public Sphere: Nancy Fraser to Debates Critics (coming out in 2014).  For those who don’t know, Nancy Fraser is a famous political theorist (for academics, at least).  Imagine being famous enough that you need a whole new book to respond to people who disagree with you!

Fraser’s criticisms are worth engaging not because they’re particularly perceptive or unique, but because they’re exceedingly common: these are some of the reasons that people dismiss anarchism all the time.  I’m not out to mount a systematic defense of anarchism here (or ‘neo-anarchism,’ as Fraser calls it), in part because there’s no coherent, singular political tradition to defend.  Anarchism means many things to many people (which makes it pretty silly to proclaim you’re against ‘it’).  What is it about anarchism that’s so threatening to people like Nancy Fraser?  I think Fraser (and many others) are actually threatened by what I’ll call ‘autonomous politics,’ which is both narrower and broader than anarchism, encompassing currents of marxism, indigenism, queer politics, feminism, and anarchism.  Autonomous politics is also too complex to be a coherent whole, which is part of what makes it so threatening.  My suspicion is that Fraser hates autonomous politics not because it’s ineffective, but because it undermines her whole worldview and political project.  Autonomous politics threatens to destabilize liberalism and the tired old tricks of conventional politics, revealing their irrelevance for changing things here and now.

Fraser’s broad argument is that democratic politics works on ‘two tracks.’  On the first track, “publics in civil society generate public opinion,” and on the second track “political institutions make authorized and binding decisions to carry them out.”  Chief among these formal institutions is the State, and she explains that anarchists reject this second track, because they think “the administrative logics of the political system are bound to colonize the independent energies of society.”  Anarchism, she says, rejects this second track in favour of “a single-track understanding of democratic politics.”  This is the spectre of autonomous politics: practices that short-circuit the relationship between institutions and the publics they are supposed to represent.  Fraser’s charge is that this single track politics is fundamentally undemocratic: anarchist politics becomes isolated, unaccountable, and vanguardist.

So, anarchists, are you accountable (like a good liberal) or are you unaccountable (and therefore undemocratic)?  Will you be a good citizen, or a bad outsider?  This is liberal thought-magic: the strange spell that funnels everything back into ‘State’ and ‘public,’ making it difficult to imagine any other kind of politics. 

boschmagI think the current of anarchism that’s particularly threatening to Fraser is the one that dissipates the spell of liberal thought-magic.  Some currents of anarchism (and other radical political traditions) aren’t simply anti-State or anti-institutional: they point to the ways that institutions always pull us back into relation to these organizations, like black holes.  Autonomous politics short-circuits the relationship between formal institutions and publics, enabling new, open-ended relationships and practices to emerge that don’t fit into the liberal framework.  In the anarchist tradition, this autonomist current can be traced to folks like Gustav Landauer, who insisted that the State can’t be attacked or destroyed.  The state and other formal institutions are social relationships:

The state is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another.

For practitioners of liberal thought-magic, the prospect of ‘behaving differently toward one another’ is naive, if not dangerous.  There are always two tracks: formal institutions and publics who contest and transform them.  This is crux of liberal democratic thought-magic: two tracks of politics locked in communication and change.  There is no escape, no alternative.

This makes autonomous politics—practices and actions that don’t aim at reforming institutions or mobilizing publics—frustrating, confusing, and menacing to liberal thought-magicians.  Autonomous isn’t just ‘outside’ Fraser’s two tracks; it threatens to undermine the whole edifice and break the spell.  How?

First, the persistence of autonomous politics is a reminder that the modern conceptions of ‘State’ and ‘civil society’ are only a few centuries old.  Part of the thought-magic is to insist that life beyond the State is nasty, brutish and short, and it will continue to be, without the rigidities of the two liberal tracks.  Of course, there was incredible hierarchy, violence, and patriarchy before the rise of the modern State (in some places—particularly in Europe).  The State has transformed these brutal relationships, institutionalizing and industrializing some of them while subjugating others.  But before and beyond and after the State, there was (and is) an incredible diversity of ways that people organize themselves, resolve conflicts, engage with neighbours and more distant ties, and relate to land and their home places.  This infinite complexity is politics, and it will always be more complex than liberal thought-magic wants it to be.

Liberal thought-magic insists that because some of these non-State relationships were and are brutal, we must dismiss autonomous politics as a scary, violent, unthinkable way of living and relating.  It sneaks in the racist and Eurocentric view that indigenous peoples and other autonomous currents are primitive, naive, savage, unrealistic, or it simply erases their existence.  Fraser gestures briefly at “isolated indigenous communities struggling to subsist off the grid,” lumping them in with “relatively privileged but downwardly mobile youth.”  These are the main subscribers to autonomous politics, she thinks (the rest of us know better).  Of course, insisting on the necessity of the State probably doesn’t sound as good to undocumented workers, prisoners, indigenous land defenders, and others being crushed, criminalized or erased by the State and other modern institutions.  But it’s not just about being privileged (or not) by the State and its politics: it’s also about the effect on our political imagination; this is what makes liberal thought-magic so magical.

Second, autonomous politics threatens the role of the liberal political theorist: liberal magicians make recommendations for how things should be, in terms of the ‘proper’ relationship between formal institutions and publics.

Critical liberals like Fraser come up with ideas about how they could be much different, but not too different (the dual tracks of State and public needs to be preserved).  In her article, she mentions her contemplation of “hybrid strong publics,” which aims “not at collapsing the two tracks of the public sphere model, but at softening the border that separates them, making them more porous to each other, and enhancing the flow of communication between them.”  Fraser’s role is to talk about how this relationship could work better, and (as she demonstrates here) to police threats to this relationship, reasserting the necessity of the two tracks.

This liberal thought-magic is always augmented by admitting that formal institutions are not really all that democratic and responsive: that’s all the more reason to keep trying to make them better and nicer!  Ignoring them is irresponsible, tantamount to giving up.  A theorist’s role is to criticize this relationship, and present a normative argument for the way that things should be. 

The liberal theorist tends to speak from a mystical non-place, with little reference to the people and places to which they’re connected in everyday life, or to the concrete political practices they’re engaged in.  But once the spell starts to dissipate, the categories of ‘State’ and ‘public’ start to appear more and more as one kind of politics among others, and liberal political theorists start to sound shrill and particularistic, protecting a centuries-old political project that has been globalized through colonization and imperialism.  Indeed, from the perspective of folks trying to change things—even people trying to influence formal institutions—the role of the liberal political theorist isn’t much use.  It encourages us to see everything in terms of the two tracks: State and civil society, and encourages us to inhabit the mystical non-place where we get to fantasize about how things could or should be.  To experiment with other ways of seeing and being in the world tends to be perceived as ineffective and naïve, if not outright undemocratic and dangerous.

With this in mind, I should situate myself: I’ve spent lots of time reading about liberal politics, and I was once firmly under its spell; I read about how the State should be, and how institutions could be different.  I can’t say that’s all gone and I see everything clearly, but I’ve become critical of liberalism (obviously) and I’ve found other forms of thought-magic (including currents of anarchism) more useful in thinking through the ways I relate to people, and to the political projects I’m part of.  I’ve developed priorities and values that don’t make sense from the perspective of the dual tracks of State and public.  I don’t have a replacement for Fraser’s thought-magic because I’m trying to be open to a diversity of traditions and encounters.  Can we work together politically, will we be adversaries, or will we ignore each other?  For me, that’s a question I’ll try to figure out when I meet you.  Even if you’re committed to liberal thought-magic, we might be able to work together, depending on how we relate.  That doesn’t mean I don’t have my own commitments, baggage, and ideas; it means I’m trying to be open to the encounter, and meet you where you’re at.   

Third, autonomous politics threatens to proliferate the tracks of politics.  There aren’t one, or two, but many tracks, institutions, and actors.  It’s not about pretending that ‘the State’ and ‘the public’ don’t exist: they’re no less (or more) real than other social categories.  They’re not exactly irrelevant, either: they continue to exert a strong pull on most people (all the more reason to be critical of them and the kinds of politics they normalize).  Fraser accuses anarchists of assuming a single, autonomous track (and therefore they’re unaccountable to anyone outside this track).  But many of the most prominent and radical tendencies of anarchism, feminism, indigenism, and queer politics gesture at the infinity of political ‘tracks’.  Not all of these tracks are ‘publics’ or ‘formal institutions;’ these categories erase the complexity of allegiances, alliances, tensions, anxieties, adversaries, and enemies that criss-cross contemporary political actions and groups.

From the perspectives of autonomous politics (and there are many), questions of accountability are diverse, determined not by abstract ideological arguments but often by one’s everyday lived relationships to people, communities, places, and ecosystems.  These kinds of people are dangerous to the State (and to liberal thought-magic) because their loyalties and commitments can never be easily fitted into the liberal tracks of ‘public’ and ‘State.’  More worrisome still, they often insist on relating to others horizontally and across difference, refusing to accept the authority of formal institutions.  Fraser would like to dismiss these currents as particularistic, vanguardist, or isolationist.  There are isolationist, vanguardist tendencies of anarchism, but there’s more to autonomous politics.  Autonomist politics is often perceived as isolationism by people like Fraser, who conflate isolationism with a refusal to engage with the State and other institutions on their own terms.  Police, bureaucrats, politicians, and other institutional representatives have no a priori legitimacy or authority here; it’s up in the air: they might be obeyed, attacked, engaged or ignored.  This is not because autonomous politics embraces an anything-goes nihilism: they often point to authorities and values that are erased by liberal thought-magic, such as family, community, indigenous nationhoodecosystems, and non-humans.  This is because autonomous politics enables new (and old) relationships, alliances, solidarities and connections.  

Autonomy doesn’t just mean separation.  The categories of liberal thought-magic (‘the State’ and ‘the public’ or ‘civil society’) are like powerful black holes, sucking everything in and erasing the complexity of political life.  By the same token, warding off these categories and necessities enables other values and practices to emerge: it becomes possible to think and act differently.  I’m sure Fraser would have no problem jamming these emergent values and solidarities back into the liberal paradigm: it’s some powerful magic.  But for many people, the spell is losing its power.

Who ensures that autonomous politics is accountable?  There’s no universal arbiter or judge.  You will have to find out for yourself what different forms of politics are like by engaging with the people who practice them.  For those who yearn for a universal arbiter of justice or accountability or democracy, it may be useful to remember that it has never existed: the universalist dream is a fantasy that has never succeeded in representing everyone, and it is one that has tried to erase and subjugate the political universe in order to live out this fantasy.  Autonomist politics appears more realistic here, rather than naive: we need to relate to each other, figure things out together, and struggle together, without guarantees.  

I think these are the reasons why Nancy Fraser hates anarchism and autonomous politics.  At a time when liberal thought-magic works on fewer and fewer people, the magicians are getting worried.  It’s increasingly obvious that States and other formal institutions are not only undemocratic; they’re increasingly designed to absorb, placate, divide, and destroy grassroots movements while defending the exploitative status quo.  As Fraser points out, it’s dangerous to pretend the State and other formal institutions don’t exist (it’s one of many tracks), but it’s at least as dangerous to pretend that there are only two tracks to politics, fervently conjuring liberal thought-magic.  Fraser has written a whole book ‘debating her critics,’ but many proponents of autonomous politics won’t be interested in debating her; they’ve dislodged themselves from the black hole of the State and the public, and these orbits appear strange and dangerous to liberal magicians.  But I think even the liberals like Fraser know that there’s a whole political universe beyond their myopic orbits; they’re just trying really hard to ignore or condemn the political aliens.

This post, I hope, is somewhere in between engagement and departure from liberal thought-magic: I’m hoping to help ruin the spell, and try out some other forms of thought-magic.  I don’t have a coherent alternative to Fraser, in part because autonomous politics refuses any singular alternative: there needs to be room for all kinds of different magic, and there are no guarantees to politics.

Dear Rex: Colonialism exists, and you’re it.

Dear Rex Murphy,

When you write that Canadians are offended at the term ‘settler’ and ‘genocide,’ you don’t speak for all of us.  I’m a Canadian citizen, my ancestors came to Canada from Europe a few centuries ago, and I understand myself as a settler.  It’s not disrespectful for indigenous peoples to remind us of Canada’s legacy of genocide.  It’s not rude for indigenous peoples to label as ‘colonial’ the connections between the industries of resource extraction, the RCMP, and the corporate media you write for.  What’s insulting is your attempt to paint Canada as benevolent, open, and respectful of indigenous peoples, and your contempt for any understanding of present-day colonialism and oppression in Canada.

rex-murphy-picI’m not an expert on colonialism, but clearly neither are you.  In reading your vitriolic editorial, it struck me that you clearly hate the term ‘settler’ and ‘colonialism’; however, your writing also indicates that you probably don’t actually understand what these terms mean.  So I’m writing to you, one white settler to another, to explain to you what settler colonialism means to me, and why I think it’s important for understanding (and living in) present-day Canada.  With that said, I’m not convinced you’re really ignorant of these terms; I think you have a sense of their meaning and the implications, and it terrifies you, but that terror turns to anger before you can really feel it.  I think you—and many other Canadians—know that something is deeply wrong, even if you can’t admit it to yourself.  It’s something in the air, something we feel in our gut: we’re caught up in something horrible, and we can’t go on this way.

I think that’s why the truths spoken by indigenous people provoke so much resentment in people like you: because you know they’re speaking the truth.  It’s plain for everyone to see: Elsipogtog and other instances of indigenous resistance aren’t political stunts by over-educated ‘radicals’ as you’d like to portray them; they are principled stands by everyday people—grandmothers, fathers, mothers, and their children—against rampant and unending extraction, exploitation, and destruction.  These communities are not motivated by abstract ideologies or university jargon, but by deep responsibilities and commitments to protect land and people.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson puts it clearly:

The story here, the real story, is virtually the same story in every Indigenous nation:  Over the past several centuries we have been violently dispossessed of most of our land to make room for settlement and resource development. The very active system of settler colonialism maintains that dispossession and erases us from the consciousness of settler Canadians except in ways that is deemed acceptable and non-threatening to the state. We start out dissenting and registering our dissent through state sanctioned mechanisms like environmental impact assessments. Our dissent is ignored. Some of us explore Canadian legal strategies, even though the courts are stacked against us. Slowly but surely we get backed into a corner where the only thing left to do is to put our bodies on the land. The response is always the same – intimidation, force, violence, media smear campaigns, criminalization, silence, talk, negotiation, “new relationships”, promises, placated resistance and then more broken promises. Then the cycle repeats itself.

This is the structure of settler colonialism.  One of the basic assumptions of your editorial—and virtually all other mainstream media coverage of Elsipogtog—is that colonialism happened sometime in the past, and since then Canada has done a lot to “right our historical wrongs.”  When do you imagine colonialism stopped happening in Canada?  When the last piece of land was mapped, surveyed, and appropriated for the Crown?  When government officials first broke their treaties with indigenous nations so that settlement and resource exploitation could continue?  When the last residential school was closed?  When Stephen Harper issued an official apology five years ago?  When he declared that Canada has no history of colonialism a year later?  Of course, Canada has changed, and so have settler attitudes.  But the structure of settler colonialism is still very much intact.

You will likely dismiss my words as part of the “academically-generated ‘narratives’ of colonialism.”  Indeed, I first learned about colonialism in university, and I’m a student of some of the “colonial theory” you denounce.  But I only learned about colonialism in university because my public school education taught me that indigenous peoples had been wiped out in Canada, victims of the inevitable and noble march of progress.  Why do you suppose our public school system hides the history of residential schools, forced removal of indigenous people, ecological devastation, racist policies, theft of land, and broken treaties?  Could it be that we’re trying to cover up the fact that Canadian colonialism never ended—that it’s an ongoing process?

More and more Canadians are beginning to see that an ever-expanding economy based on exploitation of land and people can’t go on forever, and the impacts are also hitting home in more communities.  More Canadians are recognizing that voting for someone every four years isn’t real enfranchisement, and that this system is designed to foreclose popular participation, not encourage it.  More of us are seeing the need to take a stand to protect our families, the places we love, non-human life, and future generations.  More Canadians are beginning to see that this is what indigenous people have been saying (and doing) all along: defending their lands and communities against an ongoing colonial process.  With these recognitions comes one of the least comfortable: that we are caught up in this process—deeply enmeshed and complicit in it—as settlers.

Just as we feel the wrongness of colonialism in our gut, we can feel the emptiness of settler ways of life.  This isn’t just about “mentalities,” as you suggest, although the way we think is certainly part of it.  It’s most concretely about how we relate to each other and the land that sustains us (whether we recognize it or not).  Settler colonialism has produced a world where our food is industrialized and grown with chemicals, our political system is rigidly bureaucratic and exclusive, our culture promotes objectification and normalizes rape, our economic system is premised on exploitation and unending growth, our divisions of labour are racist and patriarchal, almost all forests and ecosystems have been pillaged and degraded, and our everyday lives are increasingly mediated through bureaucracies and commodities.  This is not to say that indigenous people are somehow outside these ways of life; however, they have consistently resisted our attempts at assimilation and resource exploitation.  They have maintained and revitalized their own ways of life, and have refused to be incorporated into the fold of settler colonialism.  Elsipogtog is only the latest conflict in a centuries-long struggle.

Our ways of life are predicated upon the continued subjugation of indigenous peoples and the exploitation of their lands.  For settlers, this is a terrifying thing to recognize: if our whole lives are based on this system, how could we be otherwise?  For many Canadians—and I think you’re part of this group, Rex—this uncertainty is quickly converted into a glib certainty that the problem is them: they’ve failed to integrate, or failed to govern themselves, or failed to obey the (our) law.  The settler problem gets converted into the age-old Indian problem.  But I think we know, deep down, even when we’re in denial, that it’s us: that we need to take action and change ourselves through the process.

We are living in the midst of indigenous resurgence.  All over the lands claimed by Canada, indigenous peoples are revitalizing their traditions and languages, reclaiming their lands and responsibilities, and refusing the colonial status quo.  We’re also in the midst of a decline of faith in the ways of life we’ve created, even among those most privileged by this system: the middle-class dream is evaporating, we’re hurtling towards ecological collapse, and the alliances between corporations and politicians are increasingly obvious.  Settlers—some of us—are learning to listen to that feeling of wrongness in our gut, unsettling ourselves, building solidarity, and finding new (and old) ways of relating.  None of us have figured it out, but more of us are recognizing that things need to change, and the problem is as much ‘in here’ as ‘out there’.  There is no neutral territory here, because doing nothing carries us along with the flow of colonialism.

We can’t wait for everyone.  Indigenous peoples can never afford to wait for support from settler society, and struggles in the future will continue to involve contention and conflict.  Settlers are learning how to take leadership from indigenous communities, and real alliances and solidarities are being forged.  As we learn to listen to our gut and shake off our colonial baggage, indigenous people defending their lands seem increasingly reasonable and admirable, and the supporters of colonialism, like you, Rex, seem pitiful and dangerous.

Sincerely,

Nick Montgomery

Here’s a link to Rex Murphy’s original editorial

Hoping Against Hope: The Struggle Against Colonialism in Canada

Created by Praxis Media Productions & the Nova Scotia Public Interest Research Group, this audio documentary covers Canada’s genocidal (past and present) colonial project, and the continuing resistance of indigenous peoples.  This is a great resource for introducing the history of colonialism in Canada.  Among other things, contributors discuss “historicide:” erasure of colonialism from history and the ongoing denial of Canada’s colonial past and present.  Like many other settlers, I was taught in school that indigenous peoples (or “Indians”) were noble savages that eventually died out in the face of a superior European civilization.  This documentary dispells this myth, forcing settlers like me to grapple with the fact that we’re part of an ongoing occupation.  It’s narrated by Ardath Whynacht and includes interviews with Ward Churchill, Andrea Bear Nicholas, Roland Chrisjohn, Michael Parenti, Patricia Monture-Angus, Jeanette Armstrong, Tove Skutnabb Kangas, and Arnie Jack.

Part 1 – Colonization and the Killing of History
The first episode examines the origins of European colonialism, its growth in Canada, and the importance of treaties winding up with a look at why the absence of the truth about this history can best be described by a newly-coined word, historicide.

Part 2 – Racism, Assimilation and Genocide
The second installment looks at the issue of racism as a product of colonization, and within the context of the current era of neocolonialism in Canada, discuses assimilation and residential schooling as part of the ongoing genocide against Indigenous people.

Part 3 – Education, Language and Resistance
The third piece brings our attention to Indigenous languages, and education both as a tool of oppression and resistance. We wrap up the series with a brief exploration of resistance to colonialism in Canada.

In Case my links above don’t work, check it out at A-infos radio project or at the G7 Welcoming Committee Records

Monstrous Settlers: Zombies, Demons, and Angels

I am a monster (but I’m working on it).

With the birth and growth of Idle No More, now more than ever, lots of settlers are understanding colonialism as a problem, and trying to think through our relationships and obligations to Indigenous peoples, the history of colonization, and what all that means for us as settlers.  This shifts colonialism from an “Indian problem” to a “Settler problem.”  In spite of the mainstream media, many Canadian settlers are learning that they are implicated in an ongoing colonial relationship.  For me that’s encouraging, because I didn’t grow up in a context where colonialism is actually something discussed and debated, where settlers see colonialism as a problem that involves us.  I move through some spaces like this now, and they continue to challenge me.  This is about how settlers respond to these challenges.

I’m a white, male, educated, cis-gendered, able-bodied, hetero-sexual, middle-class settler, so I basically benefit from every major axis of oppression.  What follows is a reflection of my own experience with the politics of colonialism, decolonization, and settler solidarity efforts with Indigenous peoples, over the past few years.  I’m drawing on some feminist, queer, trans, and anti-racist writers and activists here too.  Even though dynamics are always different and complex, I think there are also some similarities in terms of the way privileged folks (like me) conduct ourselves across these struggles, especially when we’re trying to to prove that we’re good, in spite of our privilege.  When I use “we” and “us” I’m talking about other white settlers who benefit from ongoing white supremacy and settler colonialism in Canada.  I am glossing over lots of complexities and nuances of colonialism and decolonization.  I’m experimenting with monster metaphors in hopes of getting at some of these issues in a different way, but I recognize that this is serious shit.  And I want your feedback, critical or otherwise.

Upsettlers, Monarchists, and Manarchists are monsters that plague settlers in Canada, making it difficult for us to grapple with our colonial privilege, engage with other settlers, and effectively support Indigenous struggles.  I started out as a Monarchist, had stints as an Upsettler, became a Manarchist, and now I’m trying to avoid relapsing into all three monsters.

settlermonsters

Upsettler Zombies, Monarchist Demons, and Manarchist Angels

“Upsettler” is a recently coined term to designate settler attacks, disavowals, and denials provoked by Idle No More and Indigenous resurgence.  For example, from the Twitterverse:

#Upsettler walks into a bar. Literally acts like they own the place. Upset when informed they are not the original owners.

Most settler Canadians don’t like to be reminded of the legacy of genocide, theft, and enclosure upon which “Canada” was founded and settled.  And we especially don’t like to be reminded that this legacy never ended, and that Canada is an ongoing occupation of indigenous lands, working to assimilate indigenous peoples and destroy their communities, for the benefit of settler society.  These truths provoke the Upsettler zombies to rise up and shriek their fantasies: the Indians are lazy!  The Indians can’t manage their money!  The Indians are criminals!  Colonialism is in the past!  We’re all equals!  This issue has nothing to do with me!  Canada is a benevolent nation founded on peace and love and hockey and maple syrup!

Upsettlers have a strong immunity to understanding settler colonialism, and they subsist on a varied diet of rage, guilt, anxiety, denial, and racism.  Upsettler zombification is infectious, and corporate news media is a major vector for the spread of the Upsettler epidemic.  Upsettlers have denounced blockades as a form of “blackmail” that will “sabotage the national economy.”  Upsettler media pundits are calling for Idle No More protesters and blockaders to be arrested, demanding a return to settler colonial normalcy.  Others have lumped together Idle No More, the Arab Spring, and Occupy Wall Street as Lefty bullshit: “a great mass of conflicting emotions united only in their determination to have someone listen to them, dammit.”  When Canadian politicians become Upsettlers, police repression often follows.  Other Upsettlers subsist more on guilt and nationalist fantasies, and they are prone to deny their colonial privilege, insisting that “we’re all Canadian” or that “we’re not responsible for our ancestors.”

Not all settlers are Upsettled.  But those who haven’t caught the Upsettler zombie virus are usually possessed by demons.  Demons are a different kind of monster.  More “civilized” than zombies, they try to be measured, expressing benevolence and sympathy towards Idle No More and Indigenous peoples.  Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan insists that he had “been very much wanting to have a conversation with Chief Theresa Spence,” that he’d offered multiple times, and that he’s concerned about her health.  Before she chose to end it herself, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair called on Chief Spence to end her hunger strike: because “the government seems to be moving,” he thinks “the best thing would be to step back from that now.”  Father knows best.

This is the Monarchist response to colonialism: benevolence, paternalism, and sympathy.  Civilized political correctness.  Don’t call them Indians anymore; call them First Nations, aboriginals, or Indigenous peoples.  Feel sorry for Indigenous people, and maybe feel angry at Harper.  Police are often the ultimate Monarchists, framing themselves as impartial arbiters of peace, dispersing Indigenous people and Upsettlers alike, and restoring colonial public order.  Let’s all settle down.

Monarchists are settlers who want to “solve” the “Indian problem” so we can get back to our (settler colonial) lives.  They may advocate reform, as long as it preserves the colonial structure of Canada, and doesn’t actually affect settler privilege and occupation.  Monarchists and Upsettlers actually work together even when they seem to opposed each other: Upsettlers get upset and call for repression and reprisal; Monarchists call for reason and tolerance.  Mainstream news also helps disseminate Monarchist demons, and debates ensue about how much “we” should “tolerate” from Idle No More and Indigenous resistance.  Monarchist cops play the Upsettler zombies off against Indigenous peoples, so that the Monarchists can swoop in like impartial peacemakers when the time is right.

In radical circles, Monarchism is often rejected in favour of bright, shining, righteousness: proper anti-colonialism.  Denounce colonialism, express solidarity, and make sure everyone sees you doing it.  Condescend and correct people who aren’t aware.  This is the Manarchist response to colonialism: carve out a space of moral purity, command others to enter, bash those who don’t, instruct and condescend those who do.  The Manarchist loudly proclaims that he is against colonialism, he is an ally of Indigenous peoples, and he aggressively attacks Monarchists and Upsettlers, usually in an attempt to show Indigenous people that he’s a good guy.  Note: not all settlers expressing solidarity with Indigenous peoples are Manarchists.  Manarchists are the ones that have ascended to heaven through their self-righteousness, looking down on the rest.

The Upsettler, the Monarchist, and Manarchist aren’t people.  They’re positions that people take up, often unconsciously.  We become infected by colonial zombies, possessed by colonial demons and consumed by anti-colonial angels.  The Upsettler attacks Indigenous people head-on and denies colonialism, the Monarchist helps us brush past or “resolve” colonialism in a civilized way, and the Manarchist helps turn anti-colonialism into a badge of honour that raises us above ordinary settlers who don’t recognize the Truth.

As settlers, we all have some Upsettler and Monarchist in us, and the Manarchist is always waiting to take over and proclaim a revelation.  White, European-descended settlers are most prone to all these monsters.  The Manarchist possesses men more often than women.  I find myself possessed by each monster more times than I’d like to admit.

The Monarchist is the official demon of Canada, helping to ensure that we’re all respectful and civilized.  “Back then” we were uncivilized Upsettlers; we killed Indigenous people and put their children in residential schools… but now our Monarchist leader has apologized and we’re a multicultural nation; we just need to iron out a few kinks, the Monarchist assures us.

In contrast, the Manarchist proclaims that he’s been cured and exorcized: now he sees things clearly and he will force-feed you some Truth.  But if you’ve seen a Manarchist in action, you know he’s just as predictable as Monarchists and Upsettlers: a pious angel come to reveal our sins and show us The Way.  Usually a white man, always sure of himself.

These metaphors of angels, demons and zombies are a way of naming three, interconnected ways of relating to colonialism among settlers.  They seem opposed or antagonistic, but they actually reinforce each other.  They’ve become deeply ingrained habits, and they make it difficult to have meaningful and transformative conversations about colonialism, let alone take meaningful action.

Call-outs, Sledgehammers, and Toolkits

Monarchists and Upsettlers are pretty immune to Manarchists: they become ever-more convinced that colonialism is inevitable and people resisting it are ridiculous.  If the Upsettler thrives on the call for repression, and Monarchist thrives on the call for peace, then the Manarchist thrives on the “call-out.”  The call-out is: “a method for either revealing privileged, bigoted or problematic behaviors to others publicly or to attempt to reveal to an individual their own mistakes and hopefully trigger some accountability.”  It has roots in mass-movement-based, anti-racist, anti-oppressive contexts as a tactic to challenge Upsettlers and Monarchists who are being oppressive.  I am not saying that calling someone out makes you a Manarchist.  I’ve been called out, and it has been scary, unsettling, transformative, and effective.  But as Kinsey Hope explains:

Now, and let’s not forget this, calling out is a tool. Like any tool it can be abused. It can be overused. And it can become broken. And as the culture of activism becomes more and more dependent upon the call out, the anatomy of [the call out] has begun to evolve.

Manarchists don’t have a toolkit for engaging with Upsettlers and Monarchists: they only have the call-out, and the call-out is a sledgehammer.  Sometimes it can be effective, but if it’s the only tool in the arsenal, pretty soon people will get tired of being bashed, and they’ll probably get Upsettled.  It’s like throwing rocks at zombies: it may feel good, but it just riles them up, and remember: the Upsettler zombie disease is extremely contagious.

I’m doing my best to ward off the Manarchism as I write this, so I don’t have any solutions to this problem.  But I’ve been inspired by a few folks I’ve met who seem to have found different ways of relating to colonialism, who seem to have escaped the monsters, expanded their anti-colonial toolkit, and I think there are some common traits:

Vulnerability and accountability: these folks have cultivated a way of having conversations about colonialism where they don’t set themselves up as the ones with the Truth.  It doesn’t mean that they don’t challenge colonial attitudes; it means they try to do it in a way that opens conversation and questions, rather than shutting them down.  They make it clear that they’re questioning, they’re doing their own learning, and they haven’t figured it out.  They’re also open to being challenged, by Indigenous people and settlers, and they learn more because folks feel like it’s safe to challenge them.  This also makes them more effective allies of Indigenous peoples.  Anti-racist activist Michelle O’Brien encapsulates this pretty brilliantly:

People have to change in a much deeper way — change in the soul, in the, unconscious, in the Real, there are many names for this piece, this piece that is just outside of whatever we say about it. We have to find ways of being genuinely respectful, open, and loving to people, to actually let go of the bullshit that keeps us from doing that…

Actually figuring out how people really change — not just model that change, not just talk about it or properly perform it — is really hard. In some ways, it calls on the simplest things in the world – just listening to people, being open to what people actually have to say, looking honestly at whatever is going on, acting from a space of compassion and respect. But how do you get there, if talking about it (or writing about it in an essay) isn’t enough?

I don’t know.

Individual and collective education: they’ve dedicated time to learning about colonialism by themselves and with others.  They’ve tried to understand the history of colonialism, how it works, and what that means for us today.  But they don’t hold this knowledge over other people, and they’ve found ways of sharing it that are humble and unsettling, making colonialism into a massive open-ended problem rather than an issue of guilt and sledgehammers.

Patience and courage: they actively seek out conversations about colonialism in unlikely places, with their families, friends, workplaces, and other spaces where those conversations don’t normally happen.  And they approach new conversations with compassion, even if they’ve heard the same colonial responses  (“we can’t go back” – “it’s not my fault” – “it’s human nature”) a hundred times before.  The burden of engaging with Upsettlers and Monarchists shouldn’t fall to Indigenous peoples.  This means it’s up to us as settlers to educate ourselves and engage with others wherever we are.  If people are unreceptive or dismissive, the most effective settlers tend not to reject them as colonizers, at least not at the outset; they see the intervention as part of a longer process, and try to leave space for future conversations.

Those aren’t instructions or answers; just behaviours in others that have inspired me because they confront colonialism while avoiding Manarchist tendencies.  Manarchists are not more “radical” than settlers who try to meet people where they’re at, rather than shove truth down their throats.  The Manarchist often drowns out other voices, because settler Righteousness and Truth are a lot louder than uncertainty and vulnerability.  I think that’s a major reason why many people fall back into Upsettlement and Monarchism: when they engage with other settlers trying to work on colonialism, they encounter the manarchist, and they don’t want to be his disciple or get hit with a sledgehammer over and over.

Manarchism is simpler than vulnerability.  Manarchists can often become their own little cliques, in their own pious corner.  It’s easier to have a radical anti-colonial circle-jerk than to engage with Monarchists and Upsettlers who might be angry or dismissive.  Demons and zombies can be scary, and angels often like hanging out with each other (and hitting each other with hammers).

Colonialism relies on these monsters to perpetuate itself.  Willing settlers are required to work, to keep consuming, to own property, and to keep Canada’s colonial-capitalist engine chugging.  But settlers can get in the way of colonial propaganda and repression, in solidarity with Idle No More and Indigenous resurgence.  We can play a role in unsettling the Upsettler and the Monarchist (and ourselves), but we’ll be unlikely to succeed as Manarchist angels.  I’m not urging oppressed people to be nice to folks like me.  Indigenous peoples have every right to be pissed off at us, and that’s not what I mean by Manarchism.  This is about the way settlers treat settlers when we talk about colonialism.  Take the words of Fleetwood/Majestic Luxery-Legay:

this world kicks the shit out of our hearts every day. when we turn around and do that to each other we are fucking each other over just as our respective states would like us to. one of the most revolutionary things we can do is cultivate new ways to connect, to be gentle and tender with one another in a world that is trying constantly to divide and conquer us. we can’t be tough without also being tender.

The Manarchist possesses us, and we attack others to show that we’re good, that we know.  We bash people with sledgehammers without considering plyers, or a flash light, or a nail file.  Upsettlers and Monarchists shriek in horror, and we mistake this noise for transformation.  But upsettlement is not unsettlement.

I’m not saying that all anti-colonial settlers need to be engaged with Upsettlers and Manarchists, all of the time, in an oh-so-compassionate way.  Certain projects and alliances require keeping these monsters at a distance.  It takes a lot of emotional energy to engage with them, and sometimes a good bashing is entirely necessary and effective.  This is not a call to shower colonizers with peace and love, rather than speaking hard truths or radical ideas.  When I have become a Manarchist angel, it means I can’t be challenged or reproached: I’m holy.  Now I’m trying to be more real with people, which includes anger, but hopefully not the holy kind.

Avoiding Manarchism can be compatible with radical visions of indigenous-settler relations and decolonized futures.  Vancouver-based activist Harsha Walia writes:

Decolonization is as much a process as a goal. It requires a profound re-centring of Indigenous worldviews in our movements for political liberation, social transformation, renewed cultural kinships, and the development of an economic system that serves rather than threatens our collective life on this planet. As stated by Toronto-based activist Syed HussanDecolonization is a dramatic re-imagining of relationships with land, people and the state. Much of this requires study, it requires conversation, it is a practice, it is an unlearning.”

Unsettlement and unlearning colonialism requires a diverse toolkit (including a sledgehammer), and it depends upon our capacity to deal with the monsters within us and others.  Clear opposition and intense conflict are always part of struggles against colonialism.  Unsettling colonialism and decolonization also entails vulnerability and conversation.  No one can tell what this “dramatic re-imagining of relationships with land, people, and the state” will actually look like; we’ll have to figure it out together, in a struggle against zombies, demons, and angels.

An older version of this piece was originally published in No Fun City! and on Many Politics, before the Idle No More movement began.  This version has been expanded, changed and updated.  It was also published through the Dominion Media Co-op here.

Spaces Between Us: Queer settler colonialism and indigenous decolonization

Morgensen, Scott Lauria. Spaces between us : queer settler colonialism and indigenous decolonization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

I skipped over a chapter in this summary and I found myself quoting Morgensen extensively as I tried to summarize, because so many of his claims were quite complicated and nuanced.  I’m still digesting this book; I might be able to say more about what I actually think about it later…

Morgensen’s book tracks what he calls “the biopolitics of settler colonialism” in queer movements.  He shows that the biopolitics of settler colonialism structures Native and non-Native queer movements, and their interrelationship.  Colonialism is always there; it structures desires and relationships, and it tends to remain naturalized in settler society: the targeting of indigenous communities for death seems natural, necessary, or already-accomplished.  In the intro, he advances three claims:

1)   “In the United States, modern queer cultures and politics have taken form as normatively white, multiracial, and non-Native projects compatible with a white settler society.

2)   Within broad transnational alliances (focused here in the United States), Native queer and Two-Spirit activists directly denaturalize settler colonialism and disrupt its conditioning of queer projects by asserting Native queer modernities.

3)   Settler colonialism and its conditioning of modern sexuality produce an intimate relationship between non-Native and Native queer modernities that I interpret as conversations (ix).

Thinking settler colonialism ‘biopolitically’ means “reading ‘modern sexuality’ as the array of discourses, procedures, and institutions that arose in metropolitan and colonial societies to distinguish and link primitive and civilized gender and sexuality, while defining racial, national, gendered, and sexual subjects and populations in biopolitical relationship.  The colonization of indigenous peoples was a “proviing ground for the biopolitics of settler colonialism,” which, he argues, “defines modern sexuality as ‘contact’ between queered indigeneity and its transcendence by settler sexuality” (23).  In short, settler colonial biopower affects all modern sexualities (32).  Heteropatriarchal settler colonialism sought “both the elimination of Indigenous sexuality and its incorporation into settler sexual modernity” (34).  He argues that the sovereign power of death and the relegation of indigenous people to a state of exception worked in tandem with “a modern and siciplinary education of desire that produced normative subjects of life” (34-5).  European sexualities fostered misogynist hierarchies and ‘queered’ indigenous peoples, interpreting transgressions of heteropatriarchy not only as abnormality in individuals, but as symptoms of a flawed society, requiring heteropatriarchal interventions and discipline (36-7).  This is part of a shift from the singling out of individuals (the regime of sovereignty) towards their subjection “with their communities to military attack, containment, or removal” (38).  Thus residential and reserve schools “used disciplinary education to try to break Native communities, languages, and cultural knowledges” without the need for “brute violence” (39).  This is part of the “deadly logic of regulation,” which never precluded overt and extreme violence, but nonetheless represents a distinct and pervasive aspect of colonialism (40-1)

So what are the implications of biopolitical settler colonialism for settlers?  Morgensen situates the subjugation of indigenous peoples as “proving ground” for the sexual regulation of settler societies and modern sexuality more generally.  Colonial settler subjectivity was still in formation, not yet naturalized: “far from reflecting the finality of conquest, this period was one of tense negotiations of active and contested settlement.  Any iteration of modern sexuality in this time that placed Native people in the past knew itself to be a contingent claim that remained open to challenge” (42).

Method and ‘conversations’

Morgensen combines metatheory, textual exegesis, ethnography, document analysis, and history to analyze non-Native and Native queer movements.  He interprets these movements as “conversations.”  These conversations aren’t (usually) literal; the term orients us to power-laden relationships produced in and through settler colonialism, so they aren’t necessarily unsettling or anticolonial; they can involve appropriations and other interactions that reproduce or naturalize settler colonialism.  This idea of conversation conditions the way Morgensen interprets narratives, “interpreting U.S. queer politics across the national differences of Native peoples and sovereignties” as a way to displace settler colonialism (xi).  He follows Andrea Smith in reading (Native) activists as theorists who challenge settler colonialism.  These conversations can also be about disruption or contestation, “where interlocutors’ competing claims tell more in their differences with one another than any single narrative can tell alone” (xi).  “This book explains non-Native queer modernities as forming within the friction of conversations with discrepant Native queer modernities denaturalizing settler colonialism.  Neither chosen nor denied, these conversations are not utopian; but they nevertheless form creative zones of contact and transformation whose outcomes are not preordained.  Interreferential moments in conversation show that the meaning of non-native or Native queer subjectivity appeared by engaging relational claims” (28).  In the end, more than a study of conversation, this book is a kind of conversation, as well as an effort to transform those in which it arose and that it examines” (28).

He aligns his work with settler colonial studies, which he positions alongside recent currents in Native studies that have focused on indigenous decolonization (2).  He explains that he interprets “non-Native and Native queer modernities as forming within the intimate relationships of conversation, in which their friction produced a multiplicity of narratives for textual and ethnographic interpretation, while mapping genealogies wherein their differences became interreferential amid the persistent and transforming power of settler colonialism.  M positions his book and his ethnographic method in relation to these conversations, by “shifting my ethnography of queer spaces where I lived to studying their formation in relation to the spaces they elided: those formed by Native queer and Two-Spirit activists” (13).  In the 1990s he encountered different, Native spaces “only by moving outside normatively white queer politics to attend to Native queer activists space, including women of colour feminist spaces where Native queer women were providing leadership” (14).  He is keen to point out that he is not framing Native activism and theory as a “discovery:” “Instead, I cite Native queer activist texts as a distinctive body of critical theory to which queer non-Natives already were intellectually and politically accountable, and to which my now-comparative and historical study of non-Native queer politics offered a response” (14).

Morgensen also engages with literary and theoretical texts to work through multiple interpretations, teasing out the political implications of competing interpretations, raising questions about how to read the intended audience of a piece and putting writing in historical context.  At several points in the book, this close attention to texts seemed tedious to me, as if Morgensen has spent a long time parsing these texts and so feels a need to write about them.  However, upon reviewing the book, I can see how he situates their importance in the book.  He explains that the book “explains narrative relationships among queer subjects by situating them within ethnographic and historical accounts of U.S. queer politics” (12).  So these close readings of narratives and identity are required, so that they can then be situated in the context of movements.  In his discussion of the Radical Faeries, for example, his reading of Native writing and activism allows him to show that the indigenous people begin answers in other places and arrive at different conclusions than dominant settler discourses (155), they tend to avoid generalizations or universalizations of their indigeneity, and when they do articulate transnational spiritualities, Morgensen insists that it is “neither primordial nor authenticating, but historicizing” (156).  This emphasis of history over and against autheniticity/primordiality is an important theme in Moregensen’s text; it could be read as a methodological (and ethical) axiom in this context.

In this way, he explains that his work is not really an ethnography of Native or non-Native peope, but rather “on the genealogies of settler colonialism that produce non-Native and Native queer modernities in relationship.  I examine non-Native tales of Native truth—anthropological or popular, romantic or objectivist, colonial or anticolonial—as claims conditioned by the persistent power of settler colonialism.  I comparate them to Native narratives that address non-Natives without beginning or ending in non-Native logics (16).

Settler colonialism

Morgensen’s analysis is based on the insight that settler colonialism is ongoing, and that it conditions and produces relations between settlers and indigenous peoples, even and especially when those relations seem absent: “Settler societies engender a normative relationality between the designations “Native” and “settler” that imbues histories of intermingling, interdependence, or the attempted erasure of indigeneity as a marker of national difference.  The distinction between “Native” and “settler” informs all power in settler societies and their relations with societies worldwide” (1).

Because settler colonialism is a ‘structure’ rather than an ‘event,’ it’s ongoing and it calls for “a sustained denaturalizing critique” (2).  He extends this to queer subjectivity, explaining that “queer will refer to statuses produced by the heteropatriarchal power of what supremacist settler colonialism” (2).  This isn’t a claim that all queer identities are equivalent (or equally conditioned by whiteness and colonialism) but he is arguing that “queer politics produces a settler homonationalism that will persist unless settler colonialism is challenged directly as a condition of queer modernity” (so settler colonialism is a condition—however differential and uneven—of all queer modernities).  Settler colonialism produces “non-Native queer modernities,” in which “modern queers appear definitively not Native—separated from, yet in perpetual (negative) relationship to, the original peoples of the lands where they live (3).  Settler colonialism “is naturalized whenever conquest or displacement of Native peoples is ignored or appears necessary or complete, and whenever subjects are defined by settler desires to possess Native land, history, or culture.  Settler colonialism thus must be denaturalized not only in social and political spaces but also in definitions and experiences of subjectivity” (16).  “Settler colonialism is present precisely when it appears not to be, given that its normative function is to appear inevitable and final.  Its naturalization follows both the seeming material finality of settler soecity and discourses that fram settlers as “those who come after” rather than as living in relationship to Native peoples in a colonial situation” (42).  This is why Morgensen is so focused on desire and narratives of settler subjects: because these give him some clues about the intentions and motivations of settlers, and he locates these spaces as important sites of intervention.  He says settler colonialism is naturalized in two ways here: (1) in the seeming disappearance of indigenous peoples from a settled landscape and (2) through the incorporation of indigeneity into and as settler subjectivity (18).

Non-white settlers?

Morgensen argues that settler colonialism produces non-white people “are located distinctly from the settler status inherited by the representatives of Anglo whiteness—even if they might accede to that status if the interpretation of their racialization changes” (18-9).  He cites Bonita Lawrence’s critique of antiracism as a call on non-Native people of colour in white settler societies “to ask themselves how their histories of racial subjugation and antiracist resistance might be compatible with settler colonial elimination of Native peoples and their sovereignty” (19).  He suggests that the differential positions of people of colour within settler colonialism can also be understood as an effect of settler colonialism: “the control of non-Native peoples of colour reproduced their collective subjection for economic and social roles within a normativiely non-Native multiracial and transnational settler society (43).  But people of colour and their struggles can also naturalize colonialism if “the experience of subjection or the struggle for liberation among non-Native people of colour naturalizes the erasure of Native people as inevitable, necessary, or complete or has Native people’s subjection as its effect” (43).

He points back to white settlers and the normalization of whiteness even in anti-colonial solidarity movements: “white radicals often fail to note the racial specificity of their settler colonial inheritance.  If they project their experience into theorizing the responsibility of non-Natives to demonstrate Indigenous solidarity, they may reproduce white supremacy by not considering how people of colour negotiate settler colonialism—perhaps within Indigenous solidarity that white people will not share (20).

He articulates a shift away from asking “who is a settler?” and instead asks “how subjects are produced by social processes: ‘who under what conditions, inherits the power to represent or enact settler colonialism?’” (20)… “the teleological binary Native/settler is perpetually complicated by the nonbinary relations of diverse non-Natives and Native peoples across commonalities and differences” (22).

Beyond identity politics and including diverse voices

Although he wants to challenge and unsettle queer theory and its whiteness and settler colonial heritage, he insists that “the problem is not that white, class-privileged, national inheritors of settler colonialism have been central to queer accounts.  The problem is that all conclusions drawn from such accounts fail to explain not only all who are excluded from them but also all who are included: because the only possible explanation of queerness under white-supremacist settler colonialism is one that also interrogates that condition.  Queer studies must examine settler colonialism as a condition of its own work” (25-6).

Primitivity and (queer) appropriations

A major argument in the book is that non-Native subjects [in this case, queer folks] appropriate indigeneity and reinforce settler colonialism: “white settlers adapt indigeneity’s putative opposition to civilization through “Indian impersonation,” which performs opposition to settler rule as well as the authority to claim it for themselves as settler subjects.  In both accounts, settlers supplant and incorporate indigeneity to attain settler subjectivity” (17).  He argues that the colonial demand on settlers to replace indigenous peoples “incites white settler desires to be intimate with the Native authenticity that their modernity presumably replaces.  Indigenity’s civilizational replacement thus is complementary to the settler pursuit of primitivism” (17).  “Settler citizens in the United States are at once civilizationists and primitivists” (27).  “Modern sexuality comes into existence when the heteropatriarchal advancement of white settlers appears to vanquish sexual primitivity, which white settlers nevertheless adopt as their own history” (1).  By this he means that white settler sexuality emerged in colonial relationship with indigenous sexualities, as more civilized and coming after.  Indigenous sexuality is something in the past and it is universalized as the past of ‘all of us;’ this is what he means by settlers adopting primitivism as their own history.  He points to “a settler colonial logic that disappears indigeneity so that it can be recalled by modern non-Natives as a relationship to Native culture and land that might reconcile them to inheriting conquest.  Thus ‘non-Native’ signifies not a racial or ethnic identity but a location within settler colonialism” (3).

In particular, Morgensen focuses on the way in which Native people are produced within settler discourses through the anthropological concept of ‘berdache,’ which anthropologists used to describe indigenous people who would now be understood as Two-Spirit.  By linking their own identities with berdache as a transhistorical form of sexuality, settlers position their identities as part of an eternal and sacred form of sexuality, and reconcile their position as settlers, Morgensen argues.  In the intro, he focuses on the writings of Judy Grahn, a lesbian feminist writer who was among the first to make this move.  He argues that “positing an indigenous embrace for queer exiles from a white settler society lets her imagine switching allegiances to play “Indians” against her own people… white Americans associate marginality and resistance with the Indian as an internal antagonist to settler society, which then lets them impersonate indigeneity when they launch social critiques that reconcile them to settler society.  He generalizes this through his ethnography: “I recurrently heard participants tell that Native American societies historically honored people like themselves with social esteem and spiritual gifts” (12).  Even though Grahn and other settlers readily admit that indigenous societies are still functioning and resisting settler colonialism, “her story displaces that intimacy with occupation by investing in emptied Native land as a past and present home” (6).  He is pointing to a pattern whereby settlers narrate their exile from white settler society and then take comfort in imagining their own “indigenized emplacement” (6).  Morgensen also points to distance as an important part of this relationship: settlers don’t have much actual interaction with indigenous peoples, but they often desire this interaction/appropriation/indigenization as a path towards cathartic healing and reconciliation.

If his critiques of particular groups or writings seem harsh, it’s because they can easily be read as a simple attack or critique of their complicity with colonialism.  But he repeatedly explains that he’s actually more intent on showing how all of these appropriations are more like symptoms of a broader problem: “if white sexual minorities traversed their primitivity in order to claim national whiteness, they followed a normative path to citizenship for white settler subjects” (45).  He links this to the Boy Scouts, the YMCA, and other forms “when modern sexuality discourses taught white men to tap and control their inheritance of primitivity” (45).  It’s this ‘normative path’ that he wants to trace, and his ethnographies function more like examples of the way in which people get caught up in these paths, as ways to reconcile/erase their relation to colonialism (45).  In terms of settler appropriations of berdache in particular, M argues that it “allowed white subjects in a settler society, led by white men, to answer their settler colonial inheritance by accepting Native roots as theirs to possess and replace” (48).

The Radical Faeries

Morgensen has a full chapter on his ethnographic work on the Radical Faeries, and they’re woven into other chapters, as well.  This chapter was of particular interest to me because he’s focusing not only on the appropriation of berdache and indigenous ritual in white queer sexuality, but also on settler desires to possess and live on settled land.  He explains his longstanding links with them through queer networks, and his eventual acceptance of an invitation to engage with them as an ethnographer: “my ethical responsibility to experience and understand the situated practices in which I participated on their own terms complicated the relative simplicity of distanced criticism and generated, in its place, the critically reflexive account I provide here” (128).

He summarizes his ethnographic account:

“My ethnographic account portrays the way Radical Faeries produce queer subjects by creatively deploying rurality and mobility in the context of settlement.  Notably, this resolves racialized exclusions of white queers from sexual modernity by claiming roots in Native authenticity that appear to resolve contradictions in their non-Native inheritance of settlement” (129).

He locates the Radical Faeries within a broader genealogy of settlers who have sought to “enact self-exile from privilege” as part of a revolutionary opposition to racism, capitalism, and imperialism.  This rejection is materialized by “relocating to homes based in democratic socialism, anarchism, or counterculturalism” (131).  So what?  “Belief that removing U.S. gay men or lesbians to spaces coded as communal, antiauthoritarian, or premodern would interrupt their power was the very means by which such practices fostered modernist sexual politics animated by colonial discourses” (131).  Again, the problem here is not anarchism or antiauthoritarianism as such, but the way in which these ideas and practices are deployed to naturalize settler colonialism, in a way that is assumed to nullify privilege and/or oppose dominant systems (131).  They imagined themselves as “allies to people of colour and colonized people worldwide, but their desire to also emulate or even embody the oppressed whom they knew they were not translated into their ruralist, naturist, and primitivist projects” (132).  The Faeries’ founder emphasized “gay shamanism” and although Morgensen acknowledges critiques of normative whiteness, anti-intellectualism, and appropriation, he suggests that these were rare and failed to shift RF practice (133).  In particular, Morgensen is interested in the ways in which RF practices shape desires through enactment of their practices, creating a “performative map” that Radical Faeries can then take with them (134).

He’s not only critical of the appropriation of indigenous spirituality, but also of the reclamation of paganism and European spiritualities, a move that is often seen within anticolonial settler movements as a viable way to avoid colonial appropriation.  Again, this is because his prime concern isn’t with the unethical practice of appropriation as such, but with the way it function in the broader colonial context of settler colonialism: “neo-paganism itself is reinvented by them to gain a relationship to Native land and culture that does not feel like the conquest that they know they inherit” (136).  He locates the most thorough naturalization of Native culture in the practice of ‘heart circle,’ which foregrounds “emotional speech, deep listening, and collective conversation” as something central to Radical Faerie subjectivity (136).  These and other practices, such as memorialization of people who had died of aids, “created radical faerie community in an indigenized relation to settled land that simultaneously healed the trauma of epidemic and the inheritance of conquest for non-Native gay men” (139).  Unlike straight back-to-the-landers, Radical Faeries suggested that the land they acquired and their ties to indigeniety “were a birthright of being gay” (139).  He’s critical of the multicultural aspirations of the RFs, where they express desire to live in a multiracial space “while deflecting responsibility for forming a white space that produces the absence they regret” (147).

Reading indigenous people against settler narratives

Morgensen doesn’t just criticize settler narratives as colonial from his own position as a settler, he also narrates their unsettlement by interpreting indigenous writing and activism.  I think this is what he means by ‘conversations’ between Native and non-Native politics.  Whereas Judy Grahn looks to Native traditions to incorporate into her own identity, he points to narratives about indigenous queer subjectivity by Gay American Indians (GAI) as an alternative.  These narratives “do not divulge information about historical gender roles in Native societies, and non-Natives are not invited to identify with Native histories” (8).  Moreover, “No contributor argued that Native gays and lesbians represent the original nature of all sexual minorities” (8).

Morgensen argues that Radical Faerie encounters with Native Two-Spirit activists transformed some of their practices and ways of thinking.  First of all, he suggests that RFs initially had an appropriative mentality about this relationship: RFs tend to ask or assume that Native or Two Spirit people will “interact precisely as a difference that Radical Faeries desire” (152).  Instead, Native people invoked friendship as a way to affirm “how non-Nativeas have supported them while still holding them [non-Natives] accountable to work for indigenous decolonization” (153).  This interaction “brough Radical Faeries to admit their non-Native locations in a settler society and to hold themselves responsible to Native people as critics of colonialism” (153).  However, he’s careful to emphasize that these encounters did not fundamentally transform Radical Faerie culture.  Instead, these encounters “appear to be signs of a potential epistemic shift, in relation to which present and future accounts may ask to what extent a responsibility to Native work for decolonization leads to troubling colonial desires for queerness, modernity, or indigeneity or to denaturalizing the relationship of Radical Faeries to settlement” (159).  They are interpreted as “moments in larger conversations articulating non-Native and Native queer subjects within the power relations of ongoing settler colonialism” (159).

Transformation

Morgensen is also intent to show how the power of relations produced by settler colonialism can be and have been destabilized and unsettled, or ‘displaced.’  He follows Foucault and Butler in suggesting that “power is the very condition of agentive action—a transformative context for its repetition and potential destabilization” (3).  Analytically, the task of critique then requires “close reading to ascertain which forms of creativity might produce decolonizing ends” (3).

In terms of useful responses, he insists that “even antiracist and anticolonial work by queers of colour may become compatible with settler projects,” and suggests that “displacing any such effects can start by locating U.S. queer modernities in the biopolitics of settler colonialism that still impose non-Native, normatively white, and settler relationships on Native peoples, and by efforts of Native queer and Two-Spirit people to denaturalize settler colonialism” (49).

He thus locates the primary (perhaps the only) agency in unsettling colonialism in organizing efforts among indigenous people.  In terms of queer politics, he points to the recalling of “subjugated knwoeldges of embodiment, desire, kingship, and peoplehood in modes of language, memory, and reliatnality that were discrepant from colonial modern definitions of sexuality and gender” (51).  He insists here that indigenous activism is not simply reactive to or derivative from settler colonialism; on the contrary, “settler colonialism is a relationship between something that may attempt totalization and all that it attempts (forever incompletely) to suppress” (51).

Morgensen suggests that “non-Native queers can evaluate their work by the degree to which it troubles settler colonialism while being held accountable to Native queer and Two-Spirit activists and allied critics” (226).  Here he implicitly positions himself as someone to whom non-Native queers might be accountable, since he repeatedly positions his work as an non-Native allied work in conversation with Native decolonization.  But is the reverse true?  Is Morgensen accountable to non-Native queer activists, who are trying to figure out their own relation to colonialism, or how to challenge it?  Has he interrogated the (often invisible) power relations accorded to him as an academic critic, and what it might mean to write in a way that’s relevant and accessible to non-academics?  I’m not invoking this as an imperative or an obligation, but as a question that seems to arise logically from his standpoint.  He says that he wants to challenge and unsettle non-Native queer activism, but it’s unclear whether the people he criticizes (like the Radical Faeries) are actually his audience in this book.  Instead, the book puts him more into conversation with other academics who are steeped in at least some of the literature related to queer theory, postcolonialism, Native studies, ethnography and post-structuralism.

In his conclusion, Morgensen briefly offers the notion of groundlessness as a way to unsettle settler desires for indigenous land: “critically engaging histories of colonial, national, and racist violence and their survival has engendered mobile and transformative modes of decolonization for queers of colour in diaspora.  Such work links to Indigenous queer decolonization of Indigenous nations by acting from within mobile alliances.  I invoke groundlessness to invite new theory to displace settler imaginaries among queer non-Natives.  By detaching from their colonial desires to belong to stolen land, the settler state, or their projections into global possibilities, queer non-Natives can release imaginaries of indigeneity that formed to resolve the contradictions of settlers possessing stolen land and Native peoples’ pasts and futures.” (227).  He returns here to the idea of “conversations as the spaces between non-Naïve and Native queer people that shift when made accountable to Native queer and Two-Spirit people’s pursuit of decolonization for their nations (227).  He locates the problem in the distance produced by settler colonialism: “Queer non-Natives in the late-twentieth-century United States regularly found everyday speech, activist agendas, and historical and anthropological writing that invited them to form a relationship with indigeneity at a sustained distance” (229).  “Native history was easy to consume, prepackaged in settler narratives; yet no degree of consumption placed non_Natives in greater relationship with queer Native people, or indeed any Native people, across the distances of geography, community, and politics that already divided them (228).

He concludes by explaining that even though this book focuses on denaturalizing settler colonialism, that’s not an end in itself: “it would be all too easy for non-Natives to merely unthink their relationship to settler colonialism rather than act in relationship to others in struggle” (230).  At the same time, he worries that solidarity efforts will be conditioned by the colonial desires he names.  These are “desires of non-Native queers to find theselves in Native religion, to form multiracial, global movements that incorporate Native people, or to define Native truth: they desire to be even closer to Native people than adopting Native culture as their own history satisfies.  I fear that their desires will perform the coloniality that initiated them if they include, or join, Native people after being motivated to adopt Native culture as queer history” (229).

It follows that “all normative modes through which non-Native and Native queer people appear to be in onversation must be disrupted for dialogue to occur from the decolonizing stakes fo Native queer and Two-Pspirit activists.  My experience has taught me that if this disruption occurs, it might follow non-Native queers first critiquing settler colonialism in the power-laden conversations that already constrain them.  Their critical work will mark them as accountable to Native queer and Two-Spirit activism, and they may be drawn into collaborations with Native people who work with them in the fraught spaces of a settler colonial society.  Such ollaborations must be sufficient for non-Native queers who wish to act as allies to Native decolonization struggles.  NO greater proximity to Native cultural space is necessary, nor necessarily helpful for them to desire” (229).