What Makes the Red Man Red?: Comments on Indianness, Racial-Being & Visual Schema

Before I begin I’d really like to thank everyone on Twitter, but especially Nicolas Juarez (@nijuarez) and William Richardson (@HoodAcademic), whose conversations yesterday on this subject got me thinking enough to awaken from my writing slumber. Especially as it relates directly to my chosen specialization in my PhD research in sociology (my dissertation’s working title being The Biopolitical Indian: Settler Colonialism, Resistance and the Construction of Indigeneity). I consider both of them to be very valuable and insightful young Red & Black scholars working at the intersections of settler colonial studies, afropessimism, indigenous critical theory and decolonial thought—even if we may disagree on things here and there. If you haven’t already check them out!

I also want to give a shout out and big thanks to Twitterer @_rootbear who took the time to go over this article post-first posting with me. Her insights as a decolonial Indigenous feminist philosopher have been really helpful and have allowed me to clarify my thoughts below. Check her out on Twitter as well!

Following the end of the period of frontier expansion, and with that the end of perhaps the most gratuitously violent manifestations of the eliminative logic of settler colonialism, the territorial engulfment of Indigenous Peoples by the twin english-speaking settler colonies of the northern bloc of settler colonialism was complete (Barker 2012). With this came the need to solidify the sovereignty of the settler nation-state, emergent as it was from the state of exception par excellence that was the frontier, and to quiet the alternative and, more importantly, prior, sovereignties and territorialities of Indigenous Nations, north amerikan settler colonialism set about in earnest to codify into law already existing discourses of savagery, discovery and imperial cartography that had already been at the centre of scientific rationalism, enlightenment liberalism and Western humanism (Byrd 2011; Williams, Jr 1990; Williams, Jr 2005).

Additionally, with the end of the frontier, “Indian relations” lost their previous externality, with Indian nations no longer beyond the formal borders of the settler empire, but enclosed fully within them. What were once international relations were formally transferred to the realm of domestic administration and ensconced within the imperial bureaucracy. At the heart of these post-frontier processes has been the production of racialized category of Indianness.

So what then is an Indian in the contemporary post-frontier era? What does it mean to be cognized as Indian within the context of the converging vectors of death that is the Indigenous experience within the northern bloc of settler colonialism (Churchill 1997)? To ask a more refined question: by what processes are distinct Indigenous Nations—Ka͞eyes-Mamāceqtawak, Anishinaabek, Meskwaki, Nēhilawē, Rotinonshón:ni, Dené, Wabanaki, Oceti Šakówiŋ, Niitsítapi, Kwakwaka’wakw and many others—continuously dissolved into the category of Indian within the racial, juridical and philosophical imaginings the northern bloc of settler colonialism (the united states and kanada)?

Recently on Twitter, in response to the resuscitation of the hashtag #NotYourNativeStereotype (itself in response to a flourishing of anti-Indianness following the controversy of “Chocolate Pocahontas) Tzotzil-Xicano Indigenous scholar Nicolas Juarez, in conversation with others, started a discussion regarding the role of the visual field with regards to the racialization of Indian subjects and the relationship between Indigeneity and Indian-as-Racial-Category. I will not reproduce the entire thread here, as it is quite long and now crosses several Twitter accounts, however I do encourage readers to check it out. A link to at least part of it can be found here.

(Indeed, please take your time to read it, or else the rest of this entry will make little sense).

I will start by saying that I think that much of what Juarez says is quite deserving of dissection and discussion. However I want to premise this by saying also that I think this subject is already complicated exactly because, sociologically and anthropologically speaking, Indigeneity can’t, nor should, be mapped 1:1 onto the status of the “racialized” Indian within the visual field. This is already pointed out in the linked Twitter thread.

I also want to preface this by saying that I am someone who often, but perhaps not always, codes as an Indian. I suspect this is regional—what precisely an Indian is supposed to look like in the eyes of non-Indians varying from place to place. Regardless, I have brown skin and long dark hair, who often walks around dressed like the stereotype of a modern urban Indian. As such, from my own lived experienced I know the anxiety of seeing a pack of shaved-head white folks coming down the sidewalk at me and as such often cross the road if I can. I know that that anxiety emerges from my appearance in the context of living in the city in kanada with one of, if not the, highest incident rates of hate crimes within the northern bloc.

I also know that if I go to Wisconsin, to the white settlement nearest to my reservation, it is much the same, if not worse given the location’s status as a “border town.” However I have also always been acutely aware that many of my white/settler looking relatives (most of whom are from my grandmother’s side) have to be just as careful when navigating that space. That is because there are other things that can give away your Indian racial status beyond being identified as such within the visual field. Names are a prime example. We know from quite a bit of quantitative research that having a “Black name” is enough to generate antiblack discrimination absent visual confirmation of an individual as racially Black. It’s no different with Indian names. With my community for example many families were able to retain their traditional Menominee names, and I not even meaning to refer to names that come in the form of ones that are translated into English. And not even family names; increasingly Indians, Menominee and others, are reclaiming traditional “First names” against centuries of imposed euro-christian ones.

These relatives, some of whom are quite white-appearing, walk often into this border town and put down a piece of I.D., a credit card or something else that reads Keshena, Waukechon, Awanohopay, Muqsahkwat, Nahwahquaw, O’Kimosh, Pyatskowit, Waukau, Waupoose, Besaw etc. or even names like Corn or Deer that are, to put it somewhat crudely, coded as Indian. At that instant, whether it is with the cops, the clerk at the Country Mart, the bar tender, the gas station attendant etc., they are immediately identified as an Indian, and even more so as a Menominee. And as I said, those relatives of mine know they have to watch their backs in those spaces. They face just as much as I the possibility of violence in such a setting, and I think to fail grasp this, or to attempt obfuscate it, intentionally or not,  is foolish.

Additionally there are also other factors other than having skin the tone of a terracotta pot or buffalo leather that can quickly identify one as an Indian within the visual field. These factors are quite important in areas where Indians, even prior to contact event, didn’t meet the stereotype in the popular settler imaginary of an Indian who looks like Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake, Goyaałé, Tupaq Amaru, Tecumseh or K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, or where there is a long history of hybridity (forced and unforced). These include things like the stereotypical facial features of epicanthic eye-folds and high cheek bones. I have cousins, aunts and uncles for example who are much fairer skinned than I but who look far more like Indians in terms of these features. They are just as much as I am—based on my skin colour, hair length/colour and mode of dress—instantly coded and identified as Native by these phenotypic features.

However I want to move beyond this discussion because I also think that we have to detach somewhat the individual quotidian experience of being visually identified as a member of the “Red Race” within the micro-physics of power and the violence that that of course absolutely brings from the macro-level structural power that defines one as legally being an “Indian” within a myriad of zones of constestation, and the violence that that likewise brings. These are particular experiences that only those who are juridically coded as Indian by the occupational state of the northern bloc have to endure, and not our Xicano, Boricua and other southern relatives who may be resident north of the Tooh Baʼáadii/Kótsoi.

Indeed, it is precisely because of this detachment between the micro- and macro-physics of power that while I would argue that hypersoluble and inherently unstable nature of Indian racial-being functions as a biogenic extension of frontier homicide within the racial, juridical and philosophical imaginings of settler power I wouldn’t go so far as Juarez as to say that with regards to White Indians (to use a term derived from Juarez’s discussions) the technologies of genocide see the project as complete. This is because, via blood quantum in the united states, and the tiered status system of the Indian Act in kanada, the state is still producing juridically-coded Indians (and therefore racially-coded as such within the structures of settler sovereign power), even if they do not have to bare the experience of visual interpellation as an Indian due to phenotype. Given these people’s ability to continue to produce Indian children within the legal field the juridical technologies of genocide will continue to be arrayed against them.

And here there is an additional point to be made: if we follow the theorist of afropessimism Frank B. Wilderson, III that the ultimate idiom of power is violence (2010)—which is a statement I do not dispute—then we have to ask who or what is the ultimate arbiter of violence within the northern bloc of settler colonialism? Put quite simply, the ultimate arbiter of violence is the sovereign power of the settler colonial state. And thus it becomes even more important to recognize and be clear that those people who possess Indian Status, regardless of their phenotypic expression, are, in the eyes of the colonial state of the northern bloc, absolutely coded as part of the Indian race.

It must also be likewise noted that this is separate from, though not entirely unrelated to, belonging to this or that specific First Nations community. Indeed this is the second-half of my dissertation research, but for the sake of brevity here that will be a discussion for another place and time.

At the core of this issue is how discussions such as these occlude the question of the existence of people who, despite being phenotypically identified as Indians within the visual field (due to skin tone, hair colour/length/style, facial features etc.) are not juridically coded as Indians by the governance technologies of the colonial state in the northern bloc. These are people and lived experiences that are far more common than one may initially think, and which happen precisely because the technologies of genocide function along the lines of a hypersoluble and unstable Indian racial-being.

Before moving on I would also like to set aside the question of these people’s Indigeneity. As a basic scholarly, social, political, familial and personal stance I accept their Indigeneity, without question, as a fait accompli. This is something which for me extends beyond not just non-Status and unenrolled Indians to include our relatives who are citizens of Nations that possess only state-level recognition and those who lack recognition because they never surrendered, as well as to our Xicano, Boricua, Michif, Genízaro, southern & Caribbean Native, Afroindigenous, Freedmen and decolonizing Mesitzo/Mestiço family. In this regard I am perhaps a hopeless and romantic pan-Indigenist, but this is a political point I feel necessary to make in order to ensure that I am understood fully.

Returning to the question at hand, I would like to take up the question of non-Status Indians in kanada: there are many reasons that these people are in the situations they face, all of which ultimately trace back to colonial-state arbitration of Indianness. For example, for my non-kanadian readers, prior to Bill C-31 in 1985, a Status Indian woman who married a non-Status Indian (this is important) lost her Indian status. While C-31 did end this (and also ended the giving of Indian Status to white women who married Status Indian men), the effects of the pre-C-31 era, and other, still existing legal constructs (such as the so-called “Double Grandmother Rule”) continue to function to move people out of the racial category of Indian and merge them into the settler mainstream.

Today in kanada this primarily happens through the still existing procedures of the Indian Act, which, like blood quantum in the u.s., functions via constructs of a hypersoluble and unstable Indian racial-being. In a, perhaps simplistic, breakdown, in kanada there are two types of formal Indian Status: 6-1 and 6-2. Both of them are fully Indian in terms of state cognition, but the difference lies in their ability to continue producing Indian offspring. A 6-1 Indian is the child of two Status Indians, while a 6-2 is the child of a Status Indian and a non-Status individual. However, in child-producing pairings a 6-1 will always produce another Indian, while a 6-2 in the right circumstances will produce a non-Indian. A simple breakdown looks something like this:

6-1 + 6-1 = 6-1

6-1 + non-Status = 6-2

6-1 + 6-2 = 6-1

6-2 + 6-2 = 6-1

6-2 + non-Status = non-Indian

As I said, there are also other ways that’s Indians can produce non-Indians (such as the aforementioned “Double Grandmother Rule”) but this is the principle way.

The trickiness comes from the facts that a pairing of a 6-2 with a non-Status person creates a non-Indian child, with the key being that it is not just non-Indians in the way many folks may think of the category who are non-Status persons. For example a 6-2 and a Michif would produce a non-Indian child. Likewise a 6-2 and a non-status person who may not have status because of the Double Grandmother Rule produces a non-Status child. Here is another hypothetical drawn from my own life: I am Menominee, a Nation from the so-called united states. While the u.s. recognizes the Jay Treaty, meaning that Status Indians from kanada (theoretically) can cross the border easily, seek work, obtain citizenship and can even go through the motions to be recognized by the u.s. state as an Indian, kanada’s supreme court has ruled that this country does not inherit britain’s obligations stemming from the treaty. Consequently, I do not have, and can never have, recognition as an Indian in kanada. Thus, as brown as my skin may be, and long and dark as my hair is, if I were to have a child with an Indian of 6-2 status our child would be juridically coded as non-Indian, no matter their phenotypic expression.

The reason I am getting at all of this is that because, in essence, within the racial, juridical and philosophical imaginings of the northern bloc of settler colonialism (the u.s. and kanada) the technologies of genocide actually consider the project more complete with regards to those Individuals more easily visually identifiable as a stereotypical Indian but who lack Indian status, than it does with regards to people who may not quite fit the experience of easy visual interpellation as an Indian but who continue to possess Indian status. This is important. And this is why I say it is essential not only to consider the micro-physics of racial power and how they may or may not be deployed, but also the overarching structural power of settler sovereign power that covers the entirety of the state and civil society.

To look at a particular instance of how this plays out in peoples everyday lived experiences, and continuing with the kanadian context (though much of this can be mapped to the u.s.) today more Indian children are taken away from their families than were at the height of the residential school system. This time operating through the foster care and adoption system, the removal of Indian children from their homes, and the subsequent breaking of familial bonds, is one of the principle technologies of anti-Indian genocide in contemporary kanada. The kanadian state deliberately targets for removal from their families the children of Status Indians. Coding as a non-Indian within the visual field does nothing to shield one from the statistically high probability of this happening. This is precisely because as far as the kanadian state is concerned, these Native parents and families are Indians and thus the must continue to be subjected to the technologies of genocide.

(I’m sure a Deleuzean surveillance scholar would have something to say about this indicating the coding of the algorithms of control causing a breakdown in traditional biopolitical (and even necropolitical) categories of governance and disciplinary power. I’m not a Deleuzean or a surveillance scholar though, so that is not my argument to make).

I bring all this up because ultimately, at some point, we have to get down to what is at stake in terms of a fundamental materialist analysis. This is something that I think is lost in approaches to these issues that increasingly base themselves in a turn to the ontological, as these arguments and analysis can often begin to drift into the territory of transcendental idealism in which the goal posts can be continuously moved in order to fit whatever socio-political and philosophical paradigm is being elaborated. It is not to devalue the role and the insights of political ontology in these matters though. I find Nicolas Juarez’s work on Redness Studies (2014) to be extremely insightful and valuable for instance, and I think everybody should be reading his work, as well as other Indigenous scholars deeply rooted in the ontological turn, such as Jodi Byrd (2011). However I think at times the foundational place of material relationships between peoples and the structures of power that mediate them is occluded in these kinds of approaches.

From this point I believe we have to ask what the ultimate raison d’être for the deployment of the technologies of settler colonial genocide within the northern bloc is? In answering this question I think we have to understand the technologies of genocide to be fundamentally technologies of Indian removal. Here it is impossible to escape the insights of the late Patrick Wolfe (2016), as well as Indigenous scholars such as Glen Coulthard (2014), Audra Simpson (2015), J. Kēhaulani Kauanui (2008) (whose work deals with the discursively cognate case of the colonization and racialization of the indigenous Polynesian people of Hawaiʻi) and many others with regards to the central eliminative logic of settler colonialism. Indians are removed to make the land ripe for settlement, which under settler colonial rubrics is the ultimate goal of the colonial programme. In essence, we can say that Indians are removed because the settler wants the land.

However, there are two reasons why the eliminative logic continues to drive the settler colonial project following the closure of the frontier period and the final territorial engulfement of Indigenous Nations. Firstly, and most obviously, there remains Indian land that the settler wants access to, whether it be for mining and the fracking of resources that lay directly underneath Indian Country, or to build pipelines that cross traditional Indian land. The reasons are myriad. While some scholars, such as Ward Churchill (2003) point to the fact that the continuing rump Indian land holdings do allow for, in some ways, even greater exploitation given how the juridical constructs of Indian land allow for resource extraction projects to be carried out, and their leftovers and results to be ignored, in ways that would be legally inconceivable on non-Indian held land, I would argue that this only delays the eliminative logic of removal, rather than permanently forestalls it. This is especially so in the case where Indian self-determination runs counter to these projects in a particularly sharp manner. This was the reason that the Menominee of Wisconsin and the Klamath of Oregon were targeted to be the proverbial guinea pigs for the u.s. government policy of termination in the 1950s through to the 70s.

The second is perhaps less obvious. In this regard the technologies of elimination continue to be driven forward because the settler colonial projects requires the quieting of the alternative and, more importantly, prior, sovereignties and territorialities of Indigenous Nations. This is because the continued existence of Indians and Indian Nations produces a constant existential crisis of the legitimacy of settler colonial sovereign power. Therefor removal continues apace not only because settler colonialism requires Indian land as the material basis of its existence, but also because it needs Indian removal as part of an ongoing project of substantiating its own legitimacy, even within its own juridical and philosophical imaginary.

Thus, for both of these reasons, the technologies of genocide will continue to be implemented until such a time that there are no more Indians being produced by the juridical machinary of the settler colonial state. It is precisely because of this structural factor that hypersolubility and instability are the very heart of the nature of Indian racial-being, and the decreasing juridical Indianness that it brings through the generations and increasing levels of hybridity.

I’ll close by returning briefly to the question of the identification of one as racially Native within the visual field. In the context of what Robert Davis and Mark Zannis aptly labelled “the genocide machine” (1973) those who, even as they may be visually coded as Indian, lack Indian status in the northern bloc of settler colonialism are individuals who are already removed. They are already cleared. They, more than individuals who may appear less readily identifiable as Native within visual racial schema yet possess Indian Status, have already been subjected to, and come out the other side of, the genocide machine. Thus, as far as the structural logics of the settler colonial state are concerned, the biogenic extensions of frontier homicide have already run their course. The person is a non-Indian, and subsequently not subjected to the same converging vectors of death as someone in possession of Indian Status is on a day-to-day structural level.

To be clear, speaking as someone who visually presents as Native racially in many instances, but who lacks Status in kanada (for already discussed reasons) I am in no way dismissing the quotidian experiences of violence that come with racial identification as an Indian within the visual field. These violences are very real. At the same time, exclusion and alienation from our home communities that often comes with a lack of Status are also very real, and very violent experiences (this is also an aspect of the Urban-Rez divide that is a very real problem in Indian Country, but that is a discussion for another time). However, as a non-Status Indian I have a much lower chance of my children being snatched away in order to give them to a white family. I don’t, can’t even, live on a reservation or reserve where the water is undrinkable, toxins fill the air, birth ratios are skewed due to environmental poisons seeping into the very DNA of the community, homes are literally physically unstable, essential services are lacking in the extreme, and children as young as 9 years old are taking their own lives because to be born Indian is to be born into a life quite often defined by misery, alienation and hopelessness (Belcourt 2017).

For those who do possess Indian status, which means they are racialized as Indian within the juridical machine of the colonial state, these are daily existential fears. “Will I die today?” “Will the air be breathable today?” “Will my children be taken from me today?” “Will the water not be flammable today?” “Will someone I love take their own life today?” These violence are real, they are crushing, and they are genocidal in their ultimate action and direction. They are what transform Red Life into bare life, and make the Indian incapable of being grieved. They afflict everyone, whether they are, or are not, #YourNativeStereotype.

Works Cited

Barker, Adam J. 2012. “(Re-)Ordering the New World: Settler Colonialism, Space, and Identity.” Ph.D dissertation, Department of Geography, University of Leicester.

Belcourt, Billy-Ray. 2017. “Meditations on Reserve Life, Biosociality, and the Taste of Non-Sovereignty.” Settler Colonial Studies: 1-15.

Byrd, Jodi A. 2011. The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota.

Churchill, Ward. 2003. Perversions of Justice: Indigenous Peoples and Angloamerican Law. San Francisco               CA: City Lights Books.

—. 1997. A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas, 1492 to the Present. San       Francisco CA: City Lights Books.

Coulthard, Glen Sean. 2014. Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Davis, Robert & Mark Zannis. 1973. The Genocide Machine in Canada: The Pacification of the North. Montreal, QC: Black Rose Books.

Juárez, Nicolás. 2014. “To Kill an Indian to Save a (Hu)Man: Native Life through the Lens of Genocide.” Wreck Park 1 (1).

Kauanui, J. Kēhaulani. 2008. Hawaiian Blood: Colonialism and the Politics of Sovereignty and Indigeneity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Simpson, Audra. 2014. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Wilderson III, Frank B. 2010. Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Williams, Jr., Robert A. 2005. Like a Loaded Weapon: The Rehnquist Court, Indian Rights, and the Legal History of Racism in America. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

—. 1990. The American Indian in Western Legal Thought: The Discourses of Conquest. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Wolfe, Patrick. 2016. Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race. London, UK: Verso.