[On January 24, 2019, the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory hosted a lecture by Audra Simpson (Columbia University) entitled “Savage States: Settler Governance in an Age of Sorrow.” Below is a response to the lecture by Cyanne Topaum (English).]
The Other Structures: Indigenous Scripts of Refusal in an Age of Reconciliation
Written by Cyanne Topaum (English)
Professor Audra Simpson (Mohawk) presented her lecture, “Savage States: Settler Governance in an Age of Sorrow,” on January 24, 2019. She began by asking the question: “Is this business as usual?” The political state of affairs in the United States and Canada, the former characterized by a reactionary politics of race and xenophobia and the latter by policies of “reconciliation,” seems to indicate that we live in exceptional times on both sides of the International Boundary. In the American case, the Trump administration appears to represent an exceptionally harrowing intensification of ugly currents that have been active in American political life since the very beginning. Meanwhile in Canada, the young, photogenic prime minister Justin Trudeau has made numerous apologies, including to First Nations communities, and seems to embody the spirit of a kinder, gentler Canadian state.
Both leaders, in other words, seem exceptional for different reasons. Simpson, however, demurred from this assessment in her lecture by describing indigenous “conceptual frameworks” that make a seemingly anomalous figure like Trump comprehensible. For the Haudenosaunee, the Office of the President represents a “position of structural and historical violence.” While Trump might be personally and politically “distasteful,” he inhabits a position that is inextricably connected to “theft of land and theft of labour” irrespective of the personal distastefulness of its occupant. Simpson proceeded to delineate how the Haudenosaunee have described each president since George Washington as “Town Destroyer” or “Town Eater.” She noted that this appellation was seemingly earned by Washington when he ordered the Sullivan Expedition that led to the destruction of forty Haudenosaunee villages in 1779 before going on to clarify that the name actually goes back to Washington’s great-grandfather, John Washington, who massacred leaders of the Susquehannah and Piscataway. Simpson later described a similar familial connection in the case of Justin Trudeau, whose father, Pierre Trudeau, the 15th prime minister of Canada, proposed the White Paper in 1969 , an effort to eliminate Indian status and abolish the reserve system.
When examining the current Canadian prime minister, Simpson made frequent reference to a Rolling Stone profile from 2017 that describes him in “smitten” terms and seems to rhetorically construct him as “Town Lover” as opposed to Trump the “Town Destroyer.” Simpson was quick to note that Trudeau’s congeniality is belied by his defense of pipelines and his use of a politics of emotion that is, according to Simpson, straight from the “conservative American playbook.” Trudeau’s “production of good feelings” is part of an ongoing move in Canada toward reconciliation and a moving away from the “colonial past.” A significant moment in the history of this process was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) established in 2008, which documented the history of Indian residential schools in Canada. Simpson spoke critically of the TRC, drawing upon interviews she conducted with First Nations peoples as part of the research for her current book project. According to one interviewee, the ultimate goal of reconciliation is to “get us to accept our own colonization.” This same woman was also quoted by Simpson as describing the First Nations peoples who participated in the TRC as being motivated by the desire to be accepted by white Canadians. She went on to say that any kind of “acceptance of ourselves” would have to come from within and not from the non-Indigenous community. The interviewee then referred to her mother’s belief that what “governs me is what I believe.” Simpson noted that this woman went on to tell her that, “I believe colonialism is bad, period.”
According to Simpson, this statement is a refusal of the myth of a “balanced ledger” and the illusion of parity promised by policies of reconciliation, but it is also something more. The interviewed woman’s statement on colonialism is an “unwavering belief in place, an internal structure of certainty.” It is a structure that, much like the “Town Destroyer” concept, enables the woman to look outward at national politics and critique the acts of contrition that obfuscate more than they efface the past wrongs of colonialism. Throughout the entirety of her lecture, Simpson frequently made reference to these Indigenous structures, structures that “persist alongside of and in antagonism” with the structure of settler colonialism. While making use of Patrick Wolfe’s well-known definition of settler colonialism as a “structure, not an event,” Simpson placed special emphasis on the persistence of these “other structures,” noting that they act as “internal scripts of refusal” in the face of colonialism. They are structures that, as Simpson noted in her 2016 essay “The State is a Man”, act not merely as a refusal, but also a reminder to settler governments that they are “not the only historical or political show in town.”
It is this function to remind that makes these structures so challenging for the politics of reconciliation. Directly quoting from the work of Yellowknives Dene scholar Glen Coulthard, Simpson referred to policies of reconciliation as an attempt to allocate “abuses of settler colonization to the dustbin of history” and to separate the process of reconciliation from larger issues pertaining to settler colonialism. In the case of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada, the historical wrong in need of reconciliation was specifically intended to be Indian residential schools. While these schools were sites of horror and abuse, they were, nonetheless, one facet of a much larger issue. Simpson described how the TRC was supposed to provide a means to move on from a “sad chapter”–specifically that of residential schools. This gesture of reconciliation makes no reference, however, to the acts of violence that are still being perpetuated against First Nations peoples, particularly women, in Canada to this day. Drawing on Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark’s 2016 paper “Criminal Empire”, Simpson connected “spectacular forms of violence” perpetuated against Indigenous peoples to the “masking of a criminal state.” In a similar sense, the reconciliation process, what Simpson called “theatres of contrition,” acts as a means to mask the working of the settler colonial state and the violence it continues to perpetuate against Indigenous peoples today by taking the “pain of another” and ingesting it, transforming it into an exchangeable commodity that can be used to make settlers “feel good” and to help them move on and forget abuses that are conveniently localized entirely in the past.
Simpson concluded her talk by returning to the Rolling Stone profile of Justin Trudeau as representing a “kind but muscular Canada,” noting that the kindness under discussion is a “killing kind of kindness.” It masks the construction of pipelines and the disappearance of First Nations women with the spectacle of public apology. It is ultimately up to Indigenous forms of self-governance and ways of knowing, the “other structures” that persist and resist, to act as a source of critique against the settler colonial state, a state which, as Simpson emphasized, remains a killing state, regardless of whether it is led by a Donald Trump or a Justin Trudeau.