I write in conversation with Sara Ahmed‘s “Feminist Killjoy,” Mimi Thi Nguyen‘s “On Losing ‘Andrea Smith,'” and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson‘s “Land as Pedagogy” and Dancing On Our Turtle’s Back.
“We begin with a table. Around this table, the family gathers, having polite conversations, where only certain things can be brought up. Someone says something you consider problematic. You are becoming tense; it is becoming tense. … The family gathers around the table; these are supposed to be happy occasions. How hard we work to keep the occasion happy, to keep the surface of the table polished so that it can reflect back a good image of the family. So much you are not supposed to say, to do, to be, in order to preserve that image. If you say, or do, or be anything that does not reflect the image of the happy family back to itself, the world becomes distorted. You become the cause of a distortion. You are the distortion you cause.” — Sara Ahmed, “Feminist Killjoys” (2010)
The Indian Happy Place
“Growing up in Oklahoma, we have come into contact with Native American culture institutionally our whole lives — something we are eternally grateful for… With age, we feel a deeper and deeper connection to the Native American culture that has surrounded us. Though it may not have been our own, this aesthetic has affected us emotionally in a very real and very meaningful way.” Christina Falin, daughter of Oklahoma Governor, defending her portrait (2014)
Imagine a world where everyone gets to be Indigenous. It’s a world of happy.
Everyone walks around–from music festivals to Anytown, U.S.A.–in headdresses or headbands, animal skins, moccasins, with braided hair and war paint, carrying spears or bows and arrows or tomahawks. When people aren’t in what they think of as costume, they wear “tribally-inspired” lingerie and shoes. Fringe and suede and turquoise and feathers are every where.
Music videos, fashion shows, and “pro-Indian” Hollywood movies–from No Doubt to Victoria’s Secret to Adam Sandler and beyond–include lots of Indian warwhoops and comedic puns about slutty squaws and drunken warriors and we all dance and laugh cause it’s fun(ny). We wear our sports mascots with pride, and tomahawk chop ourselves silly at half-time shows.
We enjoy free access to every public and tribal land area so we can celebrate and explore our inner, natural spirituality. Oftentimes while naked and intoxicated.
And anyone, everyone, is able to claim either Indian or a tribally-specific identity–as descent or ascent–because that’s how they feel. They have always felt themselves to be Indian or Cherokee or whatever and so they must be. And anyone who says otherwise is mean, violent, and/or racist.
And we are all happy about it.
Because in the Indian happy place there is no longer any U.S. empire, colonialism, racism, sexism, or homophobia. There are no class divisions between us. There is no history of imperial dispossession, slavery, genocide, or oppression. All of those things might have existed a long time ago–we barely even remember them–but they certainly do not exist any longer. We have evolved.
We believe in ourselves as being evolved, at peace with ourselves and with one another, and having a damn good time of it besides.
The Indigenous Feminist Killjoy
And then Indigenous people’s show up and spoil everyone’s happy.
Not all Indigenous people, of course, and not everyone’s happy. Because there is no monolithic Indigenous perspective or everyone affect.
So let’s say some Indigenous people show up and muck-up the happy affect for some others. And let’s be even more specific and say that it is some Indigenous women–many of whom identify as feminists–who have shown up and those whose joy they have killed include not only those who benefit from the social forces of white heteronormative capitalism that appropriate and misrepresent Indigeneity (the ones being called out to respond), but unexpectedly those who understand themselves to be aligned with, and have even worked alongside, Indigenous women against the exploitations and oppressions of white heteronormative capitalism.
And this is where it gets odd.
Because all of the seats at the table are full–family, friends, colleagues, allies, strangers, those with whom you do and do not share your politics and concerns. And some Indigenous women, some of whom identify as feminists, are perceived to have played a mean, violent, racist game of musical chairs to unseat others. Not only those who have committed years and years of cultural appropriation or misrepresentation, not only those implicated or benefiting from the appropriation and the misrepresentation, but other Indigenous scholars, activists, and artists and those who have seen themselves as naturally aligned with Indigenous women, perhaps especially those who identify themselves as feminist, against state (sanctioned) violence and oppression.
Indigenous feminists are represented as having done it all carelessly and callously, not so much with their talk of the role of cultural appropriation and identity fraud within the U.S. empire and its structural, systemic forms of colonialism, racism, sexism, and homophobia. That talk is dismissed as liberal, progressive, leftist gobbledegook by those who benefit from the empire. That talk is embraced by others disenfranchised.
Rather, it is the talk of Indigenous governance, territorial rights, belonging, and responsibility that is figured by feminists and anti-racist activists (not necessarily different people or organizations), both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, as careless, disingenuous, assimilationist, and statist. (Because decolonization means anyone can claim, or “good work” their way into, Indigeneity?)
The Indigenous Table
Individual affiliated with the Cayuga Nation
There is a table where Indigenous people’s sit. Heterosexuals, queers, trans, others. Wealthy, middle class, working, poor. Urban, rural, reservation. Democrat, Republican, Green, leftist, progressive. Traditionalists, Christians, atheists. Feminist, non feminists, anti-feminist. It is a table many of us have written about.
And yet, in this moment, in the not-new revelations concerning “Andrea Smith,” the Indigenous feminist scholar at the table is vilified for advancing colonialist, assimilationist tools of state violence and discrimination. For reifying racist tools of identity and identification. For attacking and bullying a woman. For personal jealousies and grudges.
The table is as intimate and familiar as the tribal. Where “feminism” bears the burdens of being anti-traditional (not culturally authentic) and anti-sovereignty. Where Indigenous women, queers, trans, and others are asked to shut up about, or set aside, their experiences and criticisms of tribal sexism and homophobia for the sake of “the tribe” and its ever fragile legal status under the empire’s rule.
The table is also where the trauma of identity fraud and the complex histories of brutal, violently enforced cultural assimilation programs run as deep as the interpersonal conflicts that can so often play out over a family meal. All of the anger, fear, and confusion over ongoing histories of dispossession, genocide, and erasure bear down on how we see and eat with one another. It is painful and raw. And it makes us feel vulnerable and exposed. It reminds us of our feelings of vulnerability and exposure. We are vulnerable and exposed.
And how dare the Indigenous feminist bring it all up. Speak it out loud. Make it here where otherwise it could be held at bay and turned into something else. A different kind of happy, to be sure, but a happy-as-comfortable place where the pain is not present or marked. Where we don’t talk about the frauds we eat with. Where we don’t talk about fraud at all. Where we sometimes feel like frauds ourselves.
The Feminist, Anti-Racist, Progressive Table
“As feminists we have our own tables. If we are unseated by the family table, it does not necessarily follow that we are seated together. … It is not just that feelings are “in tension,” but that the tension is located somewhere: in being felt by some bodies, it is attributed as caused by another body, who comes to be felt as apart from the group, as getting in the way of its enjoyment and solidarity. The body of color is attributed as the cause of becoming tense, which is also the loss of a shared atmosphere. As a feminist of color you do not even have to say anything to cause tension! The mere proximity of some bodies involves an affective conversion. We learn from this example how histories are condensed in the very intangibility of an atmosphere, or in the tangibility of the bodies that seem to get in the way. Atmospheres might become shared if there is agreement in where we locate the points of tension. … The woman of color must let go of her anger for the white woman to move on.” — Sara Ahmed, “Feminist Killjoys” (2010)
“So it might be that the disclosures about Smith produce a profound ambivalence among those who cite and even love her scholarship or activism, and who are now confronted with the anxious question of whether her scholarship or activism remains usable; and it might be that such ambivalence also encompasses what her defenders know about themselves as scholars and activists. One could also feel this as a loss of self, and such loss might account for the reactive idealization of Smith against challenges to it. It would be understandably difficult to admit to unknowing (or partial unknowing) participation in the duping of whole fields of scholars and activists, or to admit that oneself has been duped; such that one might willfully misread, for example, the years-long timeline during which Smith’s friends, colleagues, and others sought to resolve her false claims in private, to then describe the tempo of these last weeks as an ungenerous demand.” — Mimi Thi Nguyen, “On Losing ‘Andrea Smith” (2015)
Ahmed and Nguyen help me think about the act of being unseated, of unseating, and the act of recasting through an affective conversion of the Indigenous feminist into not merely the obstacle to happiness–the killer of joy–but the tool of the liberal state. They help me think about the kinds of political, intellectual, and emotional attachments and identifications with “Andrea Smith” and her work across and between critical ethnic, race, and Indigenous studies as well as gender, sexuality, and feminist studies that might inform various processes of social formation and the more specific acts of reconstituting the tables at which we sit together (or apart). They help me think about the way these various actions necessarily demand that Indigenous feminists be relocated on what Nguyen calls “a continuum with the colonial state,” as violent racists, pro-assimilationists, in order not merely to unseat them but to mute them and mutate them into agents of violence and racism. Otherwise comfortable, maybe easy, citational practices mark what Nguyen calls political and intellectual “due diligence” and otherwise absolve us of having to think about what decolonization might actually mean and demand.
Without attention to Indigenous governance and territorial rights, not only is decolonization impossible but any assertion of social justice and transformative politics is rendered anti-decolonial. Anti-Indigenous.
Here, in the very moment of the the call to responsibility to/at the Indigenous feminisms, the feminist, anti-racist, progressive table, the table is transported into the political forum over which Indigenous feminists demand Indigenous governance and territorial rights be respected. Demand their cultural protocols for relationship and responsibility be respected. Demand a legal, cultural space, a place, not under the juridical regime of the empire.
The unseating, the recasting, the conversion happens precisely in order to suppress not merely the Indigenous feminist at the table but the table itself–the place through and over which Indigenous feminists demand treaty rights, environmental justice, and respect for Indigenous cultural reckonings of relationship, in ways that challenge the “heart and soul” of both radical politics and the promises of a liberal multicultural state of inclusion. It is the table where Indigenous feminists reject the state’s promises of inclusion and claims of political solidarity and futurity that are not based on genuine forms of decolonization.
Image credit: Ange Sterritt (Gitxsan)
In “Land as Pedagogy,” Nishnaabeg writer and activist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson argues that,
“A resurgence of Indigenous political cultures, governances and nation-building requires generations of Indigenous peoples to grow up intimately and strongly connected to our homelands, immersed in our languages and spiritualities, and embodying our traditions of agency, leadership, decision-making and diplomacy. This requires a radical break from state education systems – systems that are primarily designed to produce communities of individuals willing to uphold settler colonialism. This paper uses Nishnaabeg stories to advocate for a reclamation of land as pedagogy, both as process and context for Nishnaabeg intelligence, in order to nurture a generation of Indigenous peoples that have the skills, knowledge and values to rebuild our nation according to the word views and values of Nishnaabeg culture.” (2014)
Indigenous knowledges and ways of being in the world, and their inherent “reclamation of land” as the ground upon which Indigenous governance, rights, and cultures are built, must be the starting point for any genuinely radical or progressive political strategy or action that wants to claim itself as decolonial or in alliance with Indigenous struggles. Land as pedagogy is not merely for the classroom, it is for any political movement that envisions itself as calling for genuine social transformative justice. There is nothing “transformative” about a non-decolonial political agenda or an alliance with Indigenous struggles that does not actively engage the question of Indigenous governance and territorial rights.
In Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-creation, Resurgence and a New Emergence, Simpson explains that the work of social revolution begins with the need for Indigenous peoples to engage their unique cultural teachings in how they theorize and work against state oppression and for Indigenous empowerment.
“[W]e need to engage in Indigenous processes, since according to our traditions, the processes of engagement highly influence the outcome of the engagement itself. We need to do this on our own terms, without the sanction, permission or engagement of the state, western theory or the opinions of Canadians. In essence, we need to not just figure out who we are, we need to re-establish the processes by which we live who we are within the current context we find ourselves.” (2011)
Simpson argues that these traditions are not static, biblical dictates from the past— “rigidity and fundamentalism” understood to belong to colonial ways of thinking. Rather, they are living and lived and so ever-changing understandings of how to honor the unbroken importance of elders, languages, lands, and communities in Indigenous flourishment, transformation, and resurgence. By engaging these teachings within processes of opposition to state oppression, Simpson maintains that ethical values of land-based relationships and responsibilities ground practices of “self-actualization, the suspension of judgment, fluidity, emergence, careful deliberation and an embodied respect for diversity.”
Mindful of the state’s claims to offering democratic inclusion through a liberal multiculturalism, and its commensurate call for resolution by inclusion and reconciliation, Simpson’s work points to the relevance of Indigenous epistemologies and histories for reordering Indigenous governance, territories, and social relations. That reordering calls us back to the table with one another, to all our (non)human relations and kin, to an ethics of relationship and territorial-based responsibility.