Reflections

4-3-11

UCLA School of Law: Critical Race Studies Program; Race & Sovereignty Symposium (March/April 2011): keywords: “settler colonialism,” indigenous and (or v.) state sovereignty, race politics

The symposium began this past Thursday with a panel discussion of the racial politics informing Native and African relations. Stacy Leeds addressed the history of Cherokee Nation law regarding the membership status of Freedmen with attention to the law’s particularly racialized exclusion of Africans from membership status and rights and its negation of the reality of “mixed-race” African-Native people within the Nation. Kendra Taira Field spoke to the history of Freedmen intermarriage within the Creek Nation following the Civil War with attention to the way the Freedmen followed the historical paths of colonists/U.S. citizens in dispossessing the Creek and other tribes of their lands in “Indian Territory.” Addie Rolnick reviewed the Supreme Court decision in Morton v. Mancari (1974) and its implications for the divorce of civil rights from understandings of the political status of Native-African people within tribes.

Following the panel, Angela Webb and Radmilla Cody screened and discussed “Hearing Radmilla” – a documentary on the experiences of Radmilla Cody as the first bi-racial Miss Navajo Nation, her several years of being physically and verbally abused in an inter-racial relationship with a drug dealer, and her arrest and incarceration for perjuring herself about her involvement in his drug trafficking.

Thursday’s panel, film, and discussion foregrounded the difficult politics of race within the analytics and relations of “settler colonialism,” indigenous sovereignties, and state sovereignty that percolated throughout the symposium.

I was struck within these representations and conversations by the lasting possibilities and difficulties of “settler colonialism,” which I was listening to closely because of my own unease with the term and some of the scholarship being offered under its rubric.

If I “got the story right” – at least as it was being told at the symposium – the analytics of “settler colonialism” go something like this:

Imperialism is the descriptor of the global structure of capitalist expansion and exploitation. Therein, diverse and specific kinds of “colonialisms” are enacted. “Settler colonialism” is, in other words, but one type of the way imperialism is carried out. (I am indebted to Alyosha Goldstein for this clarification during his presentation.)

More specifically, presenters and audience participants addressed “settler colonialism” as the social formation – particular to the geopolitics of the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand – in which the properties of African slaves and Native lands are linked to the production of the class privilege, entitlement, and exclusionary rights of “settlers.” Some argued that citizenship is not a pre-conditionof “settler” status. “Settler” status is, instead, the condition of territorial control, occupation, and use. Territorial expansion is enabled by the enslavement of Africans to the service of economic production and profit, and the genocidal elimination of Native peoples from desired territories and their natural resources. So that, the right to determine the labor of one’s body, and the right to life, is intimately denied to Africans and Natives by “settler” demands for territorial control.

In these stories, “settler societies” assume the fundamentally economic status of freedom (of being free) to determine the use and labor of one’s (collective) body, and of one’s (collective) possession of territorial property over which one’s (collective) labor is performed to produce product, capital, and further purchasing power.

At this point in the story, I deeply appreciated the presentations of Audra Simpson, Malinda Lowery, Maylei Blackwell, and Adjoa Alyetoro, all who recovered the realities of human exploitation, grief, pain, and violence at the heart of these processes for understanding European, North American, and Pacific histories of colonization and their legacies within the current conditions of economic disparity and inequality experienced by Africans and Natives. I especially appreciated their empowered demands for reparations.

At the same time, I feel a lasting disquiet from the symposium around the silences, negations, and distortions of “settler colonialism” for understanding state sovereignty today as an imperial power, and for not thinking more directly through strategies for a transformative, coalitional politics against the realities of state imperial, militarized violence and the economic machines that uphold and regenerate those realities in its service.

One of the things that struck me — and that Kehaulani Kauanui pointed out so powerfully during the Q&A after the first plenary panel — was the repeated location of “settler colonialism” in the past (some marking its beginnings in the 1770s, others in the 1840s, and still others in the 1890s) while marking its “end” in the 1920s or post-World War II era.

Clearly, imperialism has not gone away. The specificity of “settler colonialism” might be useful for marking and understanding some things about our shared histories of exploitation and dispossession but I continue to wonder how much it helps us in this historical moment address the imperial militarized violence and capitalism of the state sovereignties claimed by the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (in different but related ways) and to so recognize other histories of exploitation, expansionism, and dispossession and other claims of reparation.

But I’m still thinking….
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