[On October 25, 2019 of professors Kelly Wisecup (English, Northwestern), Hayley Negrin (History, UIC), Teresa Montoya (Anthropology and Filmmaking, U Chicago) presented talks on Indigenous Studies as part of the Modern and Critical Theory Lecture Series. Below is a response by Lettycia Terrones (Latina/o Studies and Information Science)]
In “Ethnographic Refusal, Anthropological Need” from her book Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States, Audra Simpson interrogates the “dissonance between the representations” constructed by western epistemologies of empire and their resultant forms of making and disciplining knowledge. Against these systems, Simpson asks what is shown about the recursive logics of settler colonialism when western forms of knowledge, exemplified for instance in the disciplinary field of anthropology, are held up against what Indigenous people have to “say about themselves” (98). Simpson’s project challenges the normalizing power of western “technologies of rule” and “techniques of knowing” —their categorizations, descriptions, definitions, comparisons, linguistic scripting, visuality and military force—by showing the methodological approaches of Indigenous knowledge forms and knowledge practices—what these “look like, or sound like, when [Indigenous] goals and aspirations … inform the methods and the shape of our theorizing and analysis” (98).
Indeed, Simpson’s theoretical and political move to contest, shake up and transform western disciplinary traditions and methods by working from Native American and Indigenous methodologies and knowledge formation is also the project of professors Kelly Wisecup (English, Northwestern), Hayley Negrin (History, UIC), Theresa Montoya (Anthropology and Filmmaking, U Chicago) who together delivered the Indigenous Studies lecture on October 25th for the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory’s Modern Criticism and Theory lecture series.
Emerging from the collaborative work and interdisciplinary conversations which Wisecup (early-Americanist literary scholar), Negrin (historian of Native American life, women and gender) and and Montoya (anthropologist and film-maker) engage with the Chicago-area Native Studies working group, their intersecting talks illuminated how centering Native American and Indigenous Studies modes of inquiry and knowledge-making exceed western disciplinary forms, thus presenting ways of looking and modes of inquiry that hold settler colonial structures accountable in shaping American society, and in turn global settler projects of empire. Moreover, Native American and Indigenous Studies, as the three scholars demonstrated theorize and practice ways of speculating how to study, how to struggle and how to live in ways that exceed the capture of the settler state. They showed us that while Native American and Indigenous Studies works toward futurities which value life and horizontal relationalities in co-existence, these modes of praxis are in effect and utilized in the present day in Indigenous-led struggles throughout states of empire.
Kelly Wisecup (English, Northwestern)
Building from Simpson, Kelly Wisecup began by asking how regimes of disciplinarity, their structures and forms, their categories and cartographies, become stabilized and produce concepts of culture that position Native people and Indigeneity as objects of study. She asked how Native American and Indigenous Studies methods interrupt disciplinarity’s capture of Native people by refusing the normalizing discursive and material categorizations of culture that seek to fix and make legible Native people within western epistemological structures. Wisecup asked: What happens to our understanding of Indigenous literary history, for instance, when we “privilege the study of and with Native people and not just the concept of Indigeneity?”
To set the stage for interrogating this question, Wisecup leveraged Simpson’s “scenes of apprehension,” an analytic which Simpson theorizes as material and symbolic “spaces of discernment,” where ideas of difference and apparatuses of containment are constructed and maintained. Here, the ideology of culture functions to differentiate, mark, categorize, taxonomize, delimit, territorialize, and dispossess Native peoples in settlers and colonial empire (Simpson 97, 102). Culture as an ideology of difference in this way functions to order and read Indigenous people within settler colonial structures of dispossession.
It is important to remember here that apprehension signifies colonial capture and also points to modes of comprehending, i.e., modes for accounting for the ways in which disciplinarity’s discursive stabilizing power produces knowledge. Illuminating the ways in which disciplinary fields order the world—constructing and representing the other and situating its dominance—makes available opportunities to interrupt, divert, disorder and refuse disciplinarity’s possession.
Wisecup’s research into the production and circulation of Native literatures and their entanglement with institutional nineteenth century archives (such as The Newberry Library, The New York Antiquarian Society, The Field Museum, The Smithsonian) demonstrates a challenged to western epistemes and their attempt to fix, catalog and read Native people as objects of study in categories that support settler colonial elimination.
Wisecup illustrated how – cartographies of Native American languages created in nineteenth century for the Bureau of American Ethnology enabled settler governance and its projects of elimination, ordering languages into ethnic classifications, fixing in this way Native languages to state boundaries and geographies to facilitate land dispossession. John Wesley Powell, the director of the Bureau of American Ethnology, as Wisecup quoted, communicated the purpose of these documents, stating: “Its purpose was the discovery of relations among the Native American tribes to the end that amicable groups might be gathered on reservations.” The containment and elimination of Native Nations and people through material documentation occurred widely throughout the everyday operational practices of nineteenth century archival processes.
Powell, John Wesley. Map of linguistic stocks of American Indians. [S.l, 1890] Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/item/2001620496/
Against these “settler technologies of rule” (Simpson), Wisecup contrasted Joseph Laurent’s 1884 book New Familiar Abenakis and English Dialogues. A leader of the Odanak Nation, Laurent’s dynamic text listed vocabulary of the Abenaki language alongside complementing participatory dialogs. This juxtaposition put in relief the dynamic, co-constitutive, livingness of language.
Wisecup describe the text’s dynamism across time and geographies, thus tracing its ability to “evade archival control.” She noted how Laurent not only took his book to the very center of settler archives, sending a copy to the Bureau of American Ethnology. Laurent’s circulation of the Dialogues also took him across Abenaki lands, across the U.S. Northeast and Canada. As Wisecup noted, Laurent’s book continues to circulate today, “invit[ing] interaction and further uses.”
Laurent, Joseph. New Familiar Abenakis And English Dialogues: The First Ever Published On the Grammatical System. Quebec: Printed by L. Brousseau, 1884. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/hvd.32044013553805
Hayley Negrin (History, UIC)
Hayley Negrin’s discussion of Sequoyah and the Cherokee Syllabary likewise posed questions of disciplinary scripting, gendered representation and the entanglement of setter ordering. Building from Native feminist theories, Negrin considered what a history of the Cherokee Syllabary would illuminate if Sally Benge, Sequoyah’s wife, were to tell it. Negrin confronted this provocation, this anticipation of unruly accounts, this diversion from normalizing and fixing scripts during a research visit to Cherokee North Carolina in the Smokey Mountains. There, as Negrin tells it, her friend and college—a Native woman and historian of gender and women in the Native South— pointed out: “His wife Sally burned his manuscript you know.”
Here, Negrin centered Maile Arvin, Eve Tuck and Angie Morrill’s (2013) reminder that the U.S., like many other countries, is a settler colonial nation state where structures of Native elimination are necessarily gendered. Moreover, “[b]ecause the United States is balanced upon notions of white supremacy and heteropatriarchy, everyone living in the country is not only racialized and gendered, but also has a relationship to settler colonialism” (9). What does this analytic enable for Sally and for us? Negrin asked: “Did Sally not agree with the syllabary project? Was writing a colonial imposition in her eyes—a way of distorting Cherokee life and culture? Or was she angry over something else unrelated in their marriage?” And why is Sally’s incineration a story that Native women tell? Negrin asked how these questions would inform critiques about the representation of masculinity in the iconography of Sequoyah, a masculinity which predominates how the dominant culture reads, locates and misrecognizes Cherokee people.
Unfolding historiography and cultural critique from Native feminist positions in turn offers new ways of understanding how works such as Sequoyah’s syllabary made possible connections and sustained relationships across separated Cherokee bands. Negrin emphasized how Cherokee print culture, including the drafting of the Cherokee Constitution, the Chreokee Phoneix, a bilingual newspaper of the Cherokee Nation, challenged settler attempts to render Cherokee people as savage. This production made legible to settlers Cherokee legal and intellectual sovereignty. What does the circuit and adoption of Cherokee print culture look like from the angle of Native women’s leadership in its circulation?
Negrin considered what research into the histories of cultural production and circulation of Native texts might yield in our understanding of and refusal against setter logics if we do not allow the erasure of Native women’s stories, location and experiences. Negrin emphasized how Native Feminist Theory “change[s] the terms of analysis,” by attending to the ways heteropatriarchy supports the logics and structures of elimination, including its non-engagement and erasure of Native women’s stories and experiences. Rather than seeking inclusion into colonial recognitions, Negrin urged us to see how the imperative of Native Feminist modes of analysis demands an understanding of our relationships to settler colonialism and an understanding of how Native struggle for sovereignty and Native jurisdiction are necessarily connected to women’s bodies and land. Indeed, Native Feminisms show the entanglements of colonial violences across peoples and how these understandings allow us spaces to forge alliances across struggles for justice.
Teresa Montoya (Anthropology, U Chicago)
Teresa Montoya’s talk on Diné mobilizations against uranium contamination and chronic toxic exposure in checkerboard communities—communities such as Sanders, Arizona, which lie outside Navajo jurisdiction, yet whose residents are primarily citizens of the Navajo Nation—illuminated how alliances across struggles for justice also demand skillful navigation and leveraging of multiple discourses in ways that exceeds colonial entrapment.
If Native American and Indigenous Studies theorizes futurities that imagine and enable life beyond and in alternative to colonial structures, these modes of knowledge-making further require a combined imaginary and direct action. In the words of Indigenous resurgence scholar Leanne Simpson, these modes urge us to “not just ‘dream alternative realities’ but to create them, on the ground in the physical world, in spite of being occupied (Simpson qtd in Flowers 35).
Montoya’s project amplifies how Diné researchers and community activists engage Native knowledge forms, bringing together Diné-centered science research, political action, and aesthetic engagement in the shared responsibility to protect fellow citizens of the Navajo Nation who live in the unincorporated city of Sanders from uranium contamination of their drinking water. Montoya pointed out that while Sanders’s community response started in 2015 when they received notice of? uranium water contamination, the environmental disaster itself stems from the July 16, 1979 United Nuclear Corporation’s uranium mill spill. This spill, Montoya explained, released over 94 million gallons of “acidic radioactive fluid into the Puerco River.” These contaminated waters flowed into the community Sanders, eventually reaching Sanders’s ground water and promoted the community’s urgent call to action. Montoya contextualized this decades long environmental disaster as part of the “slow violence” of decades long environmental toxic pollution—compounded all the more by the “legal ambiguity” impeding juridical redress available to checkerboard communities. Montoya argued that shared community action in Sanders requires skillful leveraging of disparate and often conflicting discourses, utilizing “different strategies and approaches than their neighboring Diné communities” because of their unincorporated location outside of non-Navajo jurisdiction.
Montoya theorizes this “political arrangement in a longer trajectory of settler colonial land dispossession,” noting how Navajo people and their lands have historically been vulnerable to environmental violence manifest in settler colonial projects. This includes the toxic pollution of extractive capitalism to the war-making experiments that have occurred with impunity on Navajo lands. Checkerboard communities continue to bear the material and juridical consequences of settler statecraft. Montoya emphasized how the dexterity of approaches necessitated in Sanders’s call to action against uranium contamination “highlight the ways in which Navajo citizens strategically and necessarily move between multiple jurisdictions, leveraging discourses of human rights, tribal sovereignty, Diné ontologies of kinship, and even private property ownership in overlapping and sometimes competing ways.” The stakes here, as Montoya provocatively urged, point to new modes that imagine and act upon a Diné politic that emerges from “everyday practices of sovereignty and self-determination,”—modes different from those available through geopolitical discourses of tribal sovereignty.
Montoya described what this Diné politics looks like in action, noting the work of Diné and Indigenous scientists whose research refutes water contamination rates affirmed by state regulatory agents, such as the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and Arizona Department of Health, whose track record evidences the masking of toxic contamination through a manipulation of water sampling data. This manipulation normalizes toxicity “to accommodate industry,” as Montoya noted. Community caretakers, through grassroots efforts, have amplified and circulated Diné and Indigenous scientists’ and the Navajo Environmental Protection findings of water contamination, and have done the difficult work of making legible what state regulated “science” seeks to obscure through data manipulation.
Photograph by Teresa Montoya. Taken near Dennehotso, AZ on the Navajo Nation in March 2016.
Montoya’s photograph of a water well near Dennehotso, Arizona on the Navajo Nation illustrates what the intersection of Diné research on environmental pollution and direct citizen action looks like. The protective warning spread across this water well amplifies the authority of the Navajo Environmental Protection Agency, while further centering Navajo Nation policy for acceptable water consumption. The political/aesthetic force inherent in graffiti—its defiant, bold letters—illustrate Montoya’s intervention: the graffiti calls for everyday sovereignty practices and acts of self-determination against the extractive violence of settler colonial projects. Likewise, Montoya’s photograph manifests Leanne Simpson’s reminder that imagining new worlds insurgent and in rebellion to the permanence of settler colonialism requires on the ground action.
To this end, Montoya reminded us to challenge the false binaries pitting traditional knowledges against western science, and to instead adjust our questions to interrogate which knowledge systems and epistemologies yield discourses of power, and in this way support our vigilant refusal against the normalization of settler colonialism as the permanent social order.
*I would like to express my gratitude to Professor Jodi Byrd, whose expert feedback helped me write with clarity during a time of worry.
Arvin, Maile, Eve Tuck, and Angie Morrill. “Decolonizing feminism: Challenging Connection between Settler Colonialism and Heteropatriarchy.” Feminist Formations vol. 25, no. 1, 2013, pp. 8-34.
Flowers, Rachel. “Refusal to Forgive: Indigenous Women’s Love and Rage.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society vol. 4, no. 2, 2015, pp. 32-49.
Simpson, Audra. Mohawk Interruptus: Political life across the Borders of Settler States. Duke University Press, 2014.
Unit Fellows. “2019 10 29 Indigenous Studies.” YouTube, 14 November 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DYVyPVYMR4Y&t=3770s